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Good bugs can be a gardener's best friend

August 12, 2008

Gardeners, take note. You have thousands of allies in the garden, helping your crops stay healthy and productive. Who are they? Bugs!

Yes, insects are a gardener's friend. There are certainly problem pests, but they make up only about 10 percent of all insects. The rest are good guys.

How do insects help us? First, they pollinate our crops, enabling them to produce fruit, vegetables, nuts and more. More than a third of what we eat is pollinated by bees, wasps and other insects. The next time you pop a tasty blueberry in your mouth or crunch on some sweet corn, thank a bee.

Insects are also a vital link in the food chain, feeding the animals that feed us. Chicken, fish and many other animals eat insects.

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Honey, wax and silk are just a few of the products we enjoy that insects produce. Can you imagine life without honey drizzled on a hot biscuit? I think not.

Insects also inspire us with their beauty and fascinating ways. Anyone who has seen a monarch butterfly dance in the air understands the blessing of beauty.

Best of all, hundreds of good insects help control bad bugs. Predators eat bad bugs and parasites use pests as food for their young. These insects are gardeners' best friends.

Who are the good guys? You know some of them already. Ladybugs and praying mantids are the poster children for beneficial insects. They eat bad bugs galore. Also on the good bug list are lacewings, ground beetles, predatory mites, parasitic wasps and assassin bugs.

You don't need to recognize the hundreds of different good bugs in your garden. Learn a few common ones and bring the rest to me to identify. I can tell you whether they are good or bad and whether treatment is necessary. Plus, I can suggest treatment options that won't harm beneficial insects.

How do you attract good bugs to your garden? Provide food, water, cover and nesting sites. Create a diverse habitat with many different plants. Provide pollen and nectar with blooming plants all season long. And offer water in shallow containers.

Since most common pesticides kill both good and bad bugs, it's important to reduce or stop using them if you want to protect beneficial insects. If pests are a problem, choose less toxic controls such as insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and Bt. Again, I can help you by recommending the right product to control a particular pest.

Let your motto be "think before you squish or spray." Good bugs are powerful allies in your garden. Let them help you beat back the bad bugs by encouraging them in your backyard.

To learn more about good - and bad - bugs, come to a free talk called, "Good Bugs, Bad Bugs," that I'm giving at Washington County Free Library at 100 S. Potomac St. in Hagerstown on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. Call 301-739-3250, ext. 136, to reserve a seat.

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