For a list of plants that attract beneficial insects and creatures, click here.
Many of us are able to see a butterfly or a ladybug and recognize that it is beneficial to the garden, but most of us run across organisms from time to time that leave us scratching our heads and wondering if it is good or bad for the garden. There are some animals that get a bad reaction simply by the way they look or move, and we don’t really consider what part they play in the food chain that is happening all around us. Although we are striving to live a lower impact, more Earth friendly lifestyle, we need to know a little more about those strange neighbors in or near your garden as they will help you in unexpected ways.
To knock out one that many people have trouble with, let’s talk snakes. I know that snakes may conjure images of giant pythons or deadly cobras from action movies, but snakes are extremely diverse and widespread. Many healthy, established yards and gardens will have a resident snake or two, though you may never see them. While it still holds true that you should take no chances with your region’s venomous snakes, such as the rattlesnake, many other species are peaceful cohabitants that can help keep the real pests out. Non-venomous snakes, such as garden snakes, sometimes called garter snakes or gardener snakes, are found pretty much everywhere and come in a huge array of colors and patterns.
These small and harmless snakes have big appetites and are known to consume most everything they can overpower. This includes slugs, leeches, ants, crickets, and rodents, all of which are damaging to crops or human health and safety. These types of snakes generally do not grow very large, and spend most of their days on the ground, making the impact on songbird populations negligible or nonexistent. Some species will pursue eggs when available. Anybody who can get past their aversion to snakes and give them and chance will find them to be a valuable asset in maintaining a low pest population.
The cousins to the aforementioned snakes, and another useful predator in the garden, are lizards. Many folk find lizards to be easier to handle than snakes and they still offer serious bug munching power. Lizards fill a niche separate yet overlapping of snakes. The lizards in your region may consume different insect species, and very few garden sized lizards would even dream to bother a song bird. While snakes prefer to remain unseen, lizards are much bolder. You may see your lizards sunning themselves, running around, and performing mating displays. Not only do these little guys pack a punch to pests, but they add a bit of entertainment as well!
Another creature that gathers a very visceral reaction is the Jerusalem Cricket, sometimes referred to as Child of the Earth or Skull Insect. They are very widespread in the western half of the states and down in to Mexico, as well as Germany. While their strong jaws do put out quite a bite, they are not poisonous or venomous in any way. This category of insects is on the fence between good and bad. While they prefer to eat decaying materials, and will be very happy campers in your compost pile, they have been known to sample tubers, such as potatoes, when desperate. These freaky looking bugs are nocturnal, and while they may be a bit clumsy when hunting, they are known to munch slugs and other slow moving insects. They also help aerate the soil with their burrowing and spread nutrients in the process. So, if you see these big headed bugs in your compost pile, or under a log, cut them a break. Chances are, they are doing good for your garden. If you do not have a compost pile or any leaf litter or anything for them to eat, and you are finding them nibbling your root veggies, consider relocating them to greener pastures.
Bees and Wasps
The next category is pretty big, being bees and wasps. Everyone knows to leave a honey bee alone and that they are helpful. But with the huge arrangement of menacing looking bee cousins, it can be hard to tell who is friend and foe. Yellow jackets, sometimes mistakenly called meat bees, hold a special place of fear in my heart. Step on a nest once, and you will understand why yellow jackets are best loved at arm’s length. While yellow jackets are important parts of the web of life, and do consume staggering numbers of pest insects, they are not very safe for children or pets or really anyone with skin. Yellow jackets are not suitable garden companions. If you find a yellow jacket nest, and it is far enough away to not concern you, consider marking it with a brightly colored flag to be sure nobody steps on it.
The fear inspired by the yellow jacket leaves many people gun-shy about anything remotely wasp like. Polistine paper wasps, however, are known to be very docile and only attack if directly threatened. Paper wasps build much smaller, grey, papery nest usually in a place they feel protected. For an insect, they are highly intelligent, and have even been shown to recognize faces. These wasps are often omnivores, feeding both on pest insects and on nectar, making them an often overlooked native pollinator.
If the Polistine paper wasp has set up her nest too close for comfort, you may be able to move it. Though rarely successful, if the nest is located attached to a branch or other moveable structure, you can try moving the branch a few feet away each day until you feel more comfortable. If the nest is attached to a structure that cannot be moved, and the nest has to be broken off, feel free to try to relocate it, but know it will most likely be abandoned.
Carpenter bees and Great Black wasps are the last guests on my list. Their large, shining black bodies make them intimidating to look at, but they are even more harmless than paper wasps. The two are often confused. Carpenter bees have an almost circular shape to them, looking like giant black bumble bees. Great black wasps look like super-sized black versions of yellow jackets. Carpenter bees live in small groups, and are good pollinators for open faced flowers. They are extremely docile and often only sting if held in the hand. In fact, males do not even have stingers! Great black wasps live alone, and so are not at all aggressive about a nest. They are not so much about pollination, but are of the family of wasps that tirelessly hunt tomato horn worms, and other fleshy pest insects, like grasshoppers.
As always, no matter the creature you find visiting your garden, be sure to respect the animals and take action in a way that suites your conscience. You may find that what was once creepy and crawly to you is on your side, and cuts down on the amount of chemicals and work you have to put into your garden. If you are feeling curious, you can always rummage around your plants and take pictures of any mysteries wiggly thing you find, and try to look them up! You may learn something new! Stay tuned!