If you're like most central Florida home gardeners, you probably find yourself spending more time than you would like trying to keep damaging insects out of your garden.
While small numbers of insects aren't usually a huge problem, larger infestations can have a serious impact on the look of your plants. The good news is that not all bugs are bad for your plants. In fact, here in central Florida, we have a variety of beneficial insects that actually work to keep damaging pests at bay.
Here are some of the most common beneficial insects in our area and how they can help you keep your garden looking its best.
Growing up in Polk County, we had tiny red and black beetles flying about several times a year. I'll admit I never gave their purpose a second thought; we just liked to catch them. Now I know these little beetles have a big job to do in the garden.
Ladybeetles are members of the Coccinellidea family, which actually have about 6,000 different species. In Florida, four species of ladybeetles feed on whiteflies, including silverleaf whiteflies.
These powdery flies not only feed on your plants, but some of them carry and spread diseases that can kill food crops such as tomatoes, cotton and sweet potatoes. Whiteflies congregate on the underside of plant leaves, usually in large numbers where they extract plant juices and introduce toxic saliva.
Mealybugs are one of the most problematic plant pests in Florida and many other states. A ladybeetle species native to Australia, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri Mulsant is a fierce predator of mealybugs, armored scales, cottony scales and soft scales and it lives in our growing area. Unfortunately, many home gardeners spray the larvae of this beetle with pesticides thinking they are pests because they have a waxy appearance that makes them look like mealybugs at first glance.
Approximately 12 species of ladybeetles in Florida feed on aphids and psyllids. This is a good thing because aphids are abundant in my garden several times a year.
Beneficial insects like ladybeetles work hard to keep the natural balance of their environment. Unless you have a serious pest problem, you can control damaging pests with strictly natural methods. While you can purchase ladybeetles from commercial suppliers, you can also attract them into your yard by planting foods they love.
Ladybeetles need adequate food, moisture and shelter to survive. They are drawn to plants that produce pollen, vector plants and all types of grains. Certain weeds will also give them shelter.
There are plenty of other bugs that are helpful to home gardeners. Assassin bugs are black or brown and reach up to 1 inch in length. These bugs have a wide host range, but watch out they will bite if you pick them up.
Lacewigs are typically found in weeds and shrubs. These insects feed on aphids and the larvae of other pests. One of my favorite insects is the dragonfly, because they greatly reduce the mosquito population. Dragonfly nymphs live in water and feed on mosquito larvae before they have a chance to become adult mosquitoes.
Keeping beneficial insects in your garden will help you control pests naturally. If these helpful bugs are abundant, you will not need to use chemical control products as often.
Michael J. Holsinger is a former horticulture agent at the Sarasota County Extension and said, "Set schedule spraying of pesticide poisons can be wasteful and the worst thing we can do to upset the natural balance of our environment." The bottom line is to use chemical control products only as a last resort. These products do not discriminate between predatory or beneficial insects and damaging pests.