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For Insects, Spiders & Their Kin
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Moths Butterflies Flies Caterpillars Flies Dragonflies Flies Mantids Cockroaches Bees and Wasps Walkingsticks Earwigs Ants Termites Hoppers and Kin Hoppers and Kin Beetles True Bugs Fleas Grasshoppers and Kin Ticks Spiders Scorpions Centipedes Millipedes

Upcoming Events

Discussion of 2018 gathering

Photos of insects and people from the 2015 gathering in Wisconsin, July 10-12

Photos of insects and people from the 2014 gathering in Virginia, June 4-7.

Photos of insects and people from the 2013 gathering in Arizona, July 25-28

Photos of insects and people from the 2012 gathering in Alabama

Photos of insects and people from the 2011 gathering in Iowa

Photos from the 2010 Workshop in Grinnell, Iowa

Photos from the 2009 gathering in Washington

For Review Introduction to Gardening for Insects

I changed this to an introduction to gardening because the subject is huge.


Introduction to Gardening for Insects

Have you ever walked through the woods or a field and noticed that none of the plants are seriously damaged by insects? Have you ever wondered why? It’s because there is a natural balance in the ecosystem. Nature is set up to naturally control infestations and a similar result can be achieved in our yards.

A popular form of garden is one planted specifically to encourage butterflies to visit our yards. Butterflies are beautiful creatures that inspire us and bring us pleasure. Most gardeners are happy to find butterflies in their yards. Many gardeners are not so happy to find other insects; beetles, flies, bees and their relatives in their yards. When such insects are spotted the first reaction is often ‘what can I do to get rid of them’. In actuality, we should be encouraging these insects as much or more than we encourage the butterflies. Most people know of the decline of the honeybee, but most people don’t know that much more pollination is done by moths, small flies and other bees than by honeybees. Many true bugs feed on other, harmful insects. Many insects spend their lives cleaning up organic matter. In nature they all have their place and their role and it all works together. We should be striving to achieve this in our own yards.

Certainly some insects will adversely affect our gardens by damaging our plants but if there is a balance of insects in our yards the damage is rarely fatal to the plants. A balanced ecosystem in your yard will include beneficial insects that will help control those insects that would adversely affect your perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs. How do you develop this balance?

Plant native plants

Decrease or eliminate use of pesticides

Keep a slightly less tidy yard

Provide hibernating, nesting, hiding and hunting areas

Any or all of these steps will help to increase the insect populations in your yard and thus help develop an ecological balance.

Plant Native Plants

Planting natives makes good gardening sense. Native plants, if planted in a site consistent with their natural growing conditions, are easy to care for and require little attention. Since they are also part of the local ecosystem they are capable of coexisting with the local animals, including the insects. In many cases they have a natural resistance to harmful insects. In others they may serve as the host plants for insect larvae or food sources for adults. Butterflies are a well known example; the various species of larvae are host specific and can only feed on certain plants. Some insects also have symbiotic relationships with native plants in which the plant and the insect rely on each other. Native plants are becoming readily available from nurseries and online. An internet search of ‘native plants of your state’ will yield numerous sources of both plants and seeds. Native plants should only be collected from the wild when they are going to be destroyed by development and then only with the landowner’s permission. They should never be collected from sensitive areas, in many places such removal is illegal.

Decrease or eliminate the use of pesticides

Pesticides are of course meant for killing insects. If you want to encourage insects in your yard then you need to cut down or eliminate their use, especially those listed as ‘broad spectrum’. Broad spectrum pesticides have a long list of insects that they will get rid of and they will kill every bug they come in contact with including those that would normally feed on and thus control those that would damage your plants. They will even kill insects you may be trying to encourage! Broadcasting some insecticides, such as Sevin, will not only kill your target insect but it is highly toxic to bees. If you absolutely must use pesticides you should use targeted pesticides, follow directions exactly and be as sparing with it as you absolutely can.

Even target specific pesticides can upset the balance of your yard. One such example is Bt, Bacillus thuringensis which is marketed to kill caterpillars and mosquitoes, and used as directed in standing water sources for mosquito control it is unlikely to impact other insects. However in its use against caterpillars it will impact butterflies and moths which spend their larval stage as caterpillars. Targeted pesticide use may upset the balance you are trying to achieve just as broad-spectrum use will.

Keep a slightly less tidy yard

Most people want their grass short, their flower gardens weed free and everything in its place. For the most part this is not conducive to insects. Insects need hiding and hunting places. They need places to build their nests or lay their young. Tall grass, weedy verges, shrubby, overgrown areas are all good habitat for insects. A few ways to achieve this:

Let an area in your yard (behind the shed, at the back of a flowerbed, behind screening shrubs) grow tall with grass and weeds. If you have a butterfly garden this can easily be done at the back of the bed.

Plant a corner as a thicket. Plant native shrubs, flowering and non-flowering, and vines and let them grow thick and wild. Let the vines scramble up, over and through the shrubs.

Plant a meadow. Tall grass and native wildflowers will provide wonderful habitat for insects.

Use leaves as mulch. Many insects live, breed and hibernate under fallen leaves. Instead of raking them up and putting them to the curb in fall place them around your trees and shrubs as mulch. They will also work well in flowerbeds.

Provide hibernating, nesting, hiding and hunting areas
Insects require areas to lay their eggs, hunt their food, hide from predators and in some cases hibernate during the winter. Providing such places for them will increase the diversity of insects and thus the balance in your yard. Dry stack rock walls, rock piles, log piles and brush piles will all provide nooks and crannies for these activities. Dry stack walls can become part of the design of your yard. Rock piles can be planted as a rock garden. Log and brush piles can be put in the backs of shrub beds or behind structures in the yard. Leaving a dead tree standing in your yard is another way to provide habitat for a wide variety of creatures. If you feel it would be a danger you can cut it down to a 20’ height and let it stand. Leaving stumps from cut trees will provide even more homes and can be used as focal points in flower beds or as plant stands.

Insects do much more for us than we’ll ever know. Their interactions with each other and their environment are varied and not totally understood. What is understood is that having a balanced ecosystem in your yard, including the insects, makes for a healthier, less labor intensive and infinitely more interesting place to live.

This is just a basic introduction to gardening for insects. If you are interested in more information there are many sources for more in depth information. An internet search for ‘Gardening for Insects’, ‘Native plants of my state’, etc. is a good way to obtain the information you are looking for. Some others are:

The Pollinator Conservation Handbook

Insects and Gardens

NWF Backyard Habitat Program

Enature Native Plant Lists

And for review

Gardening for pollinators
This is an excellent topic, I am glad that you thought of it.
I was going to mention Grissell’s book but Patrick beat me to it. He also created an excellent page for the book with a superb review, so I am glad that he did it.

A few additional comments:

Pollinators are a very important part of the insect fauna of your garden so we should cater to their needs. A variety of flowers that bloom through the seasons is helpful, so they don’t lack food at any time, but this doesn’t need much mention since it is the goal of every gardener to have flowers for as long as the climate permits it. But the choice of plants is very important; many of the cultivated plants are useless to pollinators, the double varieties in particular, because they don’t supply any food to pollinators. So, use native flowering plants as much as possible.
It is also important to supply homes for them. Many solitary bees nest in bare ground, so some un-mulched, bare spots would be helpful. Other bees nest in hollow twigs, where the next generation remains all winter, so it is helpful to leave your ornamental grasses and some annuals through the winter. Some of them can be quite handsome and add visual interest to the garden through the bleakest part of the year, while providing homes for our little friends. Finally, not just fallen logs, as Patrick mentions but standing dead trees or at least stumps would provide homes for many others. Most people would object to dead trees in their gardens (and also there is the matter of safety) but you can consider them as abstract sculptures; the look of weathered wood and the tracery of naked branches can be quite elegant.
It is also possible to build bee houses of various types and there are places that sell kits or give instructions on how to build them. I will supply some links later.

Thanks to both of you
I didn't know whether to include bee 'houses', I've got several types out and they use a couple of my birdhouses too. I'll add a paragraph at least on native plants and maybe some links to plant lists too. The link to the book you mentioned, and also the 'Pollinator Handbook' at the end. Any other good books?

I'm planning to add some pictures too.

Any other suggestions?

A reference, comments
I just added a link to Insects and Gardens. (1) That has some tips on attracting various things. Great idea for an article. It is a vast subject. My best luck attracting insects has been through:
  • Rearing native plants. All sorts of interesting, and unexpected, insects seem to appear when the proper host plant is present. Plant rescues can be a good source of plants. I've also collected seeds and propagated a few things, though this takes patience.
  • Leave some areas in natural mulch. I use pine straw shed from the pine trees in my yard. Weeds are always a problem for those areas you want to be plant-free. I use Round-up (Glyphosphate) sparingly. It does a good job, though repeated application may be needed to kill woody plants, and it is virtually non-toxic to animal life, including insects. It does not persist in the soil, so you can plant later in treated areas.
  • I leave some rotting logs in areas in my back yard. These have lots of beetle larvae, and I sometimes get the adults at lights.
  • I'm still working on good aesthetics along with diversity. Right now, I'm good on diversity, but low on aesthetics. Most native plants in the east are perennials, and it takes years to get many perennials established.
Patrick Coin Durham, North Carolina

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