Gardening with bugs

by Bridget Tisthammer

LadybugWould you like to attract more beneficial insects to your gardens? Butterflies and bees are wonderful additions to your outdoor home, and so are wasps and beetles. Not every insect that visits your garden is a pest. Many, such as tiny parasitic wasps and lady beetles (otherwise known as ladybugs) eat thousands of aphids, scales and caterpillars each season. Spiders, too, are great hunters, capturing hundreds of destructive pests in their webs that would otherwise be eating your plants. Other good insects to have around are dragonflies and lacewings, both voracious eaters that gobble up aphids, thrips, spider mites and caterpillars.

In addition to their appetites, bugs are fun to watch. Almost everyone enjoys the graceful beauty of a butterfly or the bright colors reflected in a hovering dragonfly’s wing. I feel pretty lucky when a ladybug decides I’m safe to land on for awhile. And anyone who has a bee hive knows the pleasure of watching the bustling activity at the entrance to the hive.

You can purchase a few of these helpful creatures, but keeping them around to work for their dinner requires the right cultural conditions.

The first step to creating an attractive habitat is to limit your use of pesticides to a “last ditch effort” status, when everything else has failed. Pesticides don’t play favorites—many of them kill every bug they touch whether it’s a cute ladybug or a disgusting slug. Research some of the more primitive or “homemade” methods, such as taking the bugs off the plant and squashing them, or placing a newspaper in the garden in the evening to attract slugs, then pick up the paper full of sleepy slugs the following morning and throw it in the trash. A shallow dish of beer will also kill quite a few slugs. There are more ants in the world than all other living creatures combined, so give up on getting rid of ants. Ants are not your enemy. They may be annoying, but they don’t harm plants.

The next step to attract “good” bugs is to provide water. Male butterflies tend to congregate around puddles or in low, muddy spots. It’s believed that they are getting nutrients dissolved in the water, so try to keep a slightly salty puddle or muddy spot somewhere in your garden. You can also place a shallow birdbath or other shallow container containing gravel and water in a spot that’s protected from wind and easy to refill.

Next, provide areas that are protected from wind and rain. Dense shrubs, large bushy perennials such as salvia, sunflowers or Russian sage and large grasses are great bug shelters. If these block the prevailing winds from your butterfly garden, even better.

Now comes the fun part—incorporate plants that bugs like into your existing gardens. It’s easy to figure out the bees’ favorite plants when you work in a nursery. When I have to shoosh bees away to pick up the plants, they’re a great candidate for the happy bee garden. The two plant types that stand out in my mind are the salvias and the spireas. In general, bees prefer native plants that flower and fruit throughout the growing season. Many garden favorites are hybrids of the native species, and many of these hybrids don’t produce a pollen or nectar that bees can use to make honey. There are some, however, such as lavender, lupine, asters, rudbeckia, Joe Pye weed, coneflower and penstemon that bees can use.

Adult butterflies consume sweet liquids, usually nectar, from a large variety of plants. Butterfly favorites are asters, bee balm, butterfly bush, butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa), potentilla, cosmos, blanket flower, lilac, marigolds, thistles, rabbitbrush, sunflowers, sweet pea, verbena and zinnias.

Adult butterflies love these plants, and that’s a great start. But the key to keeping butterflies is to provide the necessities for all stages of their lives, from egg to larva (caterpillar), to pupa (the chrysalis) to adult.

While male butterflies are lounging around the water cooler, the female butterflies are looking for a specific host plant on which to lay their eggs. For example, monarch butterflies will only lay eggs on milkweed, and black swallowtails lay their eggs on parsley, dill or other related plants. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars will survive on that plant alone and no other. CSU Extension has a great list of food sources for the larvae and adults of several butterfly species, which you can find on their website. Read Fact Sheet no. 5.504, Attracting Butterflies to the Garden.

No matter which plants you choose, it’s important that there is a nectar source available from early spring through fall, so vary your plants by their bloom time. Have a fun time planning this fall, and enjoy your bugs—they’re working for you!

Originally published on August 1st, 2013. Updated on March 3rd, 2023.