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Saturdays in the Garden: Tiny Insect Inhabitants & Organic Care for the Ecosystem

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Venture inside the organic garden gate and you’ll find a bustling world of tiny inhabitants.  These insects create an ecologically diverse community, giving to and receiving from various plants what each needs for survival.  Sure, an imbalance of pests can threaten a crop. That’s why integrated pest management is the ideal aim of organic gardeners.  Concern for our own health as well as a healthy environment means we’re always looking for the least toxic way to rid the garden of certain insects who’ve overstayed their welcome.

cabbage white butterfly atop summer squash plant

Cabbage White Butterfly

Two main reasons why organic gardeners embrace insects:

Pollinators are necessary or helpful for many favorite garden foods from summer squash to beans to tomatoes and more.  Even crops that could be pollinated by hand or will grow without a pollinator one season might need help if you want them to produce seed for next year.  Pesticides often kill not just one pest, but even those insects that might be considered beneficial.

Most commercial pesticides are toxic  — to the insects themselves, to the ecosystem and to humans, as well.  Here is detail from the Environmental Protection Agency explaining that most pesticides work on the central nervous system of insects.  Scientists and health advocates have long suspected a link between neurotoxic pesticides and diseases from Parkinson’s to cancer and more.  Unborn babies and young children are especially at risk, even it effects might not be seen for decades.

Flying Ant sipping nectar from Flowering Kale

Flying Ant Sipping Nectar from Flowering Kale

Examples of insects that benefit the organic garden by visiting flower after flower to gather nectar and spread pollen are bees, butterflies, wasps, flies and even flying ants.

garden spider on web suspended above kale plants

Garden Spider Suspended on Web above Kale Plants

Examples of insects that benefit the organic garden by feasting on other potential pests are spiders (they’re technically arachnids and not insects, but we’ll include them here as part of the community), beetles (ladybugs are a favorite), wasps, dragonflies, and aphid midges (a type of fly).

ladybug on leaf of potato plant

Ladybug on Potato Plant Leaf

Relationships between various garden insects can be complicated.  While ladybugs are the most celebrated of the beetles that feed on sap-sucking aphids, those aphids have a bodyguard in armies of ants.  The ants are known to foster aphids in order to get their honeydew.  Although ants are potentially minor pollinators, too many in the garden can cause an imbalance if they wipe out too many beetles. There are many approaches to reducing ants in the garden that do not have to involve toxic chemicals.

Southern wood ants transporting egg along wooden fence

Southern Wood Ants transporting an Egg

One garden visitor that doesn’t eat anything is the European crane fly, often mistaken for a giant mosquito.  It will NOT bite you.  Only its larval stage eats, feeding on roots of grass.  Predators of their larvae are nematodes, hornets, beetles and birds.  While it doesn’t help with pollination, it doesn’t do any harm in the garden, either.

European crane fly on leaf of potato plant

European Crane Fly

Butterflies and moths are terrific helps in pollinating garden plants.  They especially love the bright yellow flowers they find on our squash and tomato plants.  Their benefit is a comfy home environment for their young, which can become pesky caterpillars that want to munch on leaves.  Handpicking them and moving them to another part of the yard is ideal, as is planting more herbs like lavender, mint and sage or using a non-toxic soapy spray to discourage them.  If they become a real threat to the crop, neem oil would be a less-toxic choice that could potentially kill both the caterpillars and other garden life.


Skipper Butterfly

Everyone’s favorite pollinator is, of course, the bee!  Honeybees are ideal, bumblebees are great, and even ornery carpenter bees can still do their part to assist with cross-pollination.  Protecting the bees is in everyone’s best interest, whether you’re gardening this season or not.

carpenter bee atop ornamental flowering bush

Carpenter Bee

Another significant study by a Harvard researcher has shown that a class of pesticides heavily used in commercial agriculture called neonicotinoids is the likely reason for colony collapse disorder.  The chemical industry and the US government are dismissive of this research, while the European Union has banned three of these suspect pesticides out of precaution.  In the meantime, you can help protect the bees and yourself by supporting organic growing methods, either at home or at the grocery store.

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