Buying bugs - beneficial or bogus?
May 3, 2007 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Should I purchase some "beneficial insects" for my yard?

Being a homeowner (well, land-owner, and therefore plant-owner), I have considered purchasing some beneficial insects (ladybugs, praying matises, etc.). But are they worth it? Earthworms, I could see, maybe. But my gut tells me that buying 1000 ladybugs would be more beneficial to my neighborhood (or town, or county) than my particular yard.

My rationale for considering them? I've seen evidence of some bugs eating my rhododendron, Montauk daisies, and hostas. And I'd rather have "good insects" than "bad chemicals". And before you ask; I plan to figure out what type of creature(s) is doing the eating, before making any purchase.

My yard/garden? No veggies, but I've got a small front lawn (with beds and a few dozen shrubs, flowers, and other assorted plants), and soon-to-be-new back and side lawn (with only a handful of plants, but more will be following shortly). Trees include sycamore (or maybe London planetree?), oak, Japanese maple, sassafras, pine, yew and others.

If you think I'm crazy, tell me why. If not, clue me in to good places to buy bugs, tell me your experiences, etc. Thanks!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From experience I've found buying ladybirds to be beneficial (to keep the aphids off my beans) and they're normally pretty cheap even if they do all fly off into the neighbours gardens. Just make sure you pick insects native to your area and so as not to introduce invasives.
You could also build a "bug bank" area in your garden to encourage them to stay and breed.
posted by tnai at 2:23 PM on May 3, 2007

I've never bought bugs from them but I've always had a good experience with other purchases from clyde robin and i know they sell live "good" bugs. I've thought about getting the good bugs before too, so I'm interested to see what people have to say about it.
posted by teishu at 2:23 PM on May 3, 2007

sorry, ladybirds=ladybugs (I'm English).
posted by tnai at 2:24 PM on May 3, 2007

you can also buy lacewing larvae; they can't fly away until they grow wings, and that way they eat the aphids before the fly away, rather than what ladybugs often do (that is, stuff themselves, then fly away, leaving just enough aphids to reproduce...). They eat scale and aphids, I think, and leafhoppers too.
posted by luriete at 2:33 PM on May 3, 2007

One thing to consider is that malevolent insects can enter your yard as easily as beneficial insects can leave. Ladybugs muching aphids in your neighbors yards means fewer aphids to invade your yard.
posted by Good Brain at 3:01 PM on May 3, 2007

If you have a big enough piece of property(over half an acre), I'd recommend two things. Start a compost, and leave part of your yard wild every year. At least 20 square yards. If you do that you're very likely to attract mantids and other beneficials. But if neighbors are too close or anyone uses too many pesticides, that wouldn't work. This would also depend on your exact location, of course, and which beneficials occur there naturally. Though I've lived all over the midwest and in the mid-Atlantic and this has consistently worked for me.

Mantids are wonderful. Seeding them is not a bad idea. If you do, remember what that egg pod looks like and keep a look out for them in the fall. If you find one, leave it alone. If you find many, bring one inside and put it in a terrarium. If you keep it warm, it will hatch a bit early. They usually hatch all at once. In all likelihood, they will first turn on each other. After there's just a few of them left separate them. If you have house plants, spread them around. In the spring let them outside.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:19 PM on May 3, 2007

I'd focus more on planting the plants will attract them naturally. Buying them will tend to be a one time event without the proper ecosystem in place. With the right plants, nature will mostly take care of itself.
posted by COD at 4:29 PM on May 3, 2007

The majority of the ladybugs you purchase will indeed fly away. Insects are not noted for a high sense of loyalty. The ladybug packages sold where I work contain 1500-2000 ladybugs. Some will stick around and consume the readily available aphids and they will lay eggs that hatch into aphid eating larva that resemble miniture alligators in an orange or red and black combination. If you want an interesting lesson in nature watch a ladybug consume a living, struggling aphid.

The mantids are great predators too. I was in our backyard a few years ago when one of the mantis egg cases hatched. I brought my kids out to see them and we got to watch them immediately begin to prey on their hatch mates. An unfortunately graphic early lesson for the kids.

I advocate both using the beneficals and providing habitat for them in your yard. There are a lot of species that you can purchase commercially for use. I also use Neem oil as a pesticide/fungicide because it isn't supposed to be harmful to the beneficials and we have additional pests for which bio controls aren't readily available.

Do what you can to encourage the birds by providing habitat for them and leave the spiders to work for you.
posted by X4ster at 5:04 PM on May 3, 2007

Buy ladybugs only if they are severely lacking in your neighborhood. (I once had to).

Normally, every spring some bushes in my yard start off with aphid infestations. Shortly thereafter ladybug larvae appear (I think they look like miniture gila monsters), and within a week all the aphids are et up.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:08 PM on May 3, 2007

The entomologist that teaches the Vermont Master Gardeners course I took (and now proctor) laughs about people buying ladybugs. He says they are homing bugs and are more likely to fly home than to help you out. He fancies himself as funny and will tell the class "I'll be happy to sell them to you, and when they fly back to me, I'll be happy to sell them to you again!"

As for Praying Mantids, he says it is a myth that they are beneficials because they are indiscriminate eaters and are likely to eat other beneficials (including any ladybugs you may buy). The first mantid to emerge at birth will devour the rest of the mantids as they emerge. They have been known to even eat hummingbirds (he showed us a photo).
posted by terrapin at 5:50 PM on May 3, 2007

I should have mentioned, I'm on a small parcel of land - less than 1/4 acre. Thanks for all the feedback!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:20 PM on May 3, 2007

Do you have specific issues to address? If not then you are probably wasting your money. For grass, in any area prone to grubs I would recommend putting down some Milky Spore. If you have roses or fruit trees then get lots of ladybugs or preying mantises, etc. We go without chemicals and it can be a challenge at times. Keep the lawn well fertilized and watered, pluck the weeds by hand before they get established and lay down some corn gluten meal to kill off the late sprouting weeds. Address specific pest issues as they arise using natural predators or if necessary natural chemicals. Of course Ortho has quick cure-alls if the natural approach fails. If you start to get too out of whack don't be afraid to apply a measured dose of toxins to prevent having to go even bigger with them later. As you gain experience with your local issues such lapses will be less and less necessary.
posted by caddis at 6:34 PM on May 3, 2007

Read "The Gardener's Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control". This is a really fascinating part of gardening. If you are curious then read that book.

It's OK if there is insect damage on your plants. Give a little. When the damage gets to a level that disfigures ornamental plants, or ruins the crop of a food plant, then you can figure out what to use to control the pest next year. I say next year because by the time you see significant damage it's probably too late.

What COD said is good. I keep weeds in my garden. Not all of them. Just a few of the type that attract the most beneficial insects.

I'm a landscape gardener by trade and I rarely ever worry about pests.
posted by recurve at 6:42 PM on May 3, 2007

Look into companion planting. When I put some petunias in near my tomatoes, hornworm damage dropped off to nearly zero. A little googling about "companion planting" gets a lot of information.

Ladybugs are good for small pests like aphids and thrips but won't do much against the larger beetles and flies. Mantises are sort of not great because they eat everything, including some insects that are beneficial. (They eat ladybugs!)
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:48 PM on May 3, 2007

caddis - My only issues currently are the bugs that are eating a few plants, as mentioned above.

I will definitely keep "companion planting" in mind as I choose new plants for the back yard.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:58 PM on May 3, 2007

Hey, show us a picture of the bug-eaten bits and we'll help you figure that out too. Or, gardenweb will do that. They are great for garden help. Free site. I was going to say just put plants that attract beneficials, but someone already said that. The compost is good too.

However, a big plant-eating pest problem is earwigs at night. Earwigs are not native to North America and don't have substantial predators. So we have to ridiculously drown them in stinky tuna cans and so on. Why don't you go out with a flashlight and some rubber boots and prepare to be grossed out. (SHiver.)
posted by Listener at 9:27 PM on May 3, 2007

I would love to compost, but I do not have a lot of available space. I'll take some pictures of the rhod, it's the only one that is currently being eaten. The hostas and daisies are not completely out yet, but they have been eaten in the past every year.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:12 AM on May 4, 2007

We get aphids on our tomatoes, so we get a batch of ladybugs every year. Most do, indeed, fly away, but we minimize, or, at least, delay that by keeping the bugs in the refrigerator, wetting them down with sugar water (it makes their wings too sticky to fly for a few days), and distributing them at night. The hope is that they'll stay around long enough to eat a few aphids and lay eggs--I believe we get the best benefit from the larvae that are left behind. We've never done much study of the various theories, but we figure it's a relatively low-cost way to get rid of at least some of the bad bugs. Mantids just freak me out, so we haven't tried those.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:52 AM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

One more thing to consider, are you sure it is bugs? Deer love all those plants. Groundhogs can also be a problem, but not so much for the rhododendron.
posted by caddis at 8:11 AM on May 4, 2007

Probably bugs. I'm in very suburban Long Island. Not a lot of deer in this area.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 3:08 PM on May 4, 2007

Here are two photos of the rhododendron (and one of a tree I'm still trying to identify).
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 4:00 PM on May 4, 2007

Hmmm. Looking at this page, the two things that come to mind are caterpillars and root weevils, and I would guess it is too early in the season to see leaf damage from root weevils. That definitely is not deer though. I would take a few leaves to your local garden center to see if they know what affects your area. They will probably push some chemicals, but if you know the insect then you can find a more natural remedy online. This guy has some natural remedy tips. Good luck. I have to say that the rhodedendrons have been one of our most trouble free of plants. We had to give up on the roses, as we could not figure out how to protect them without chemicals. The cherry tree may be next. Rhodedendrons though, only the deer seem to like them near us, and we are lucky to have few deer in our neighborhood
posted by caddis at 5:47 PM on May 4, 2007

I would love to compost, but I do not have a lot of available space.

Planet Natural has an awesome small composting system that even makes compost tea. We used this model when we lived in a city.
posted by terrapin at 6:07 PM on May 4, 2007

And we use that model still, as we still live in a city, though we've supplemented it with a big-ass barrel composter.
Hi, terrapin!
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:22 PM on May 4, 2007

caddis - Thanks! In the past, I've had the discoloration to rhod leaves. And from the first link, it looks to be like it's from leaf miners.

terrapin/MrMoonPie - I've always wanted to do composting, but I don't know where I could hide the device. But now that I think about it, maybe in the corner, behind the fence, next to the cedars...

Thanks again!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 5:10 AM on May 5, 2007

Ooops! I read wrong. The discoloration looks to be from spider mites.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 5:11 AM on May 5, 2007

« Older I need a basic website template with paypal as...   |   Better than Jack Tripper, a roomate reflects. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.