We’ve learned that the vast majority of insects are beneficial. Then do you know what are “good”, “bad” and “ugly” insects?
What are “good” insects?
“Good insects” are simply those insects that serve a beneficial role in your garden. For example:
- pollinating crops,
- eating other pest insects, or
- converting inanimate plant and animal matter into bioavailable nutrients for your plants (decomposition).
Technically, that means all insects are good since they all fill an important ecological niche – otherwise, they wouldn’t continue to exist.
Take mosquitoes: there are 3,500+ species in the world, and only the females of a few hundred of those mosquito species bite or spread disease. Are mosquitoes bad? Yes.
But mosquitoes are also pollinators and an important food source for countless other creatures, plus their larvae are important aquatic decomposers. Are mosquitoes good? Yes. (We still squish them when they bite us and we also control them using safe methods in our yard.)
What are “bad” insects?
Bad insects are generally defined as those insects that:
- can harm or kill your garden plants,
- spread disease, and/or
- enjoy eating the same foods that you do.
Is the beautiful little Melittia satyriniformis moth “bad”? You probably won’t want to take a selfie with one when its larvae burrow into your squash stems (yes, this is the “squash vine borer“).
Make no mistake, there are some insects that we kill on sight when we see them in our gardens – squash vine borers (adults, eggs, or larvae) are one such creature. But rather than indiscriminately spraying our plants with poisons that kill/harm other beneficial insects, microorganisms, amphibians, reptiles, animals, and humans, we prefer to use target-specific methods of eradication or deterrence that cause little to no impact on other species in the garden ecosystem.
Ugly insects? Nope, sing along now: “Every-one is beau-ti-fuuuul, in their own waaaay!”
Ray Stevens was clearly a huge insect fan when he wrote that song. As you start to learn and appreciate your insects, those once-ugly creatures will transform into beautiful and fascinating lifeforms right before your eyes.
How can you tell which insects are bad?
Regional Insect Variability
The insects in your garden are very likely to be different than the insects in our garden if you live in a different region of the country.
If you’re an organic gardener, we highly encourage you to get a region-specific insect identification book. Or, find region-specific insect ID sources online.
After a few years of gardening and insect ID’ing, you’ll be able to identify nearly every insect you see without looking it up. You’ll also know what role they play, and know whether they’re considered “good” or “bad.”
A Guiding Principle
Guiding principles are important.
“Primum non nocere“ (translation: “First, do no harm”) is a guiding principle in medical ethics. “Leave no trace” is a guiding ethic amongst conservationist and outdoor enthusiasts (and something you might have learned as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout when out camping in the woods).
We encourage gardeners to adopt the following guiding principle in their treatment of insects: “If you can not identify the insect or its role in your ecosystem, do it no harm.”
Four Methods To Manage the Insects You Consider To Be Pests
If you’ve successfully identified a pest insect in your garden that has few natural predators and can significantly damage your plants, then consider using whichever of the following control methods are most appropriate for your situation:
1. Soapy water
Take a bowl or small bucket of soapy water, grab the insect with your gloved hands, and drop it into the water.
What do you do when you find a mosquito biting you? You squish it!
As you become more comfortable with insects and you’ve been gardening for years, squishing a squash beetle with your hands won’t seem that terrible to you–just like swatting a mosquito probably seems normal to you now. Shoes work great too.
3. Pheromone traps and trap crops
Pheromone traps can draw certain pest insects away from your plants and into a trap where you can easily dispose of them.
If you have a larger garden or farm, trap crops can be helpful. Trap crops are a companion planting method wherein you grow certain species of plants in close proximity in order to attract pest insects away from your higher value crops. A well-known example is planting mustards near strawberries to keep lygus bugs off of your strawberries.
4. Insecticidal products
Horticultural oil, neem oil, etc. There are some good, safe insecticidal products that you can buy to help with certain types of pest insects.
To be continued…