March 2016

Bugs and us - all the good they do!

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

Our yards and acreages are broken into many different types of micro-habitats. There is an increasing desire to grow vegetables and herbs, landscape for beautification and wildlife, and maybe build a rain garden to help with rainwater run-off. No matter what about gardening interests you, the end result is probably the aesthetic beauty that it will bring.

You may not realize the intricacy of the ecosystem you are beginning to create or have already created. To gain more enjoyment from your design and all possible aspects of your backyard, here is an introduction to some of the first visitors, insects, and a few spiders. These six and eight-legged creatures will become a huge part of your experience, and with some understanding, possibly make your gardening more enjoyable and possibly, less stressful.

Set aside any preconceptions of creepy-crawlies and look at some benefits. With approximately 80,000 species of insects, some seen as good and others as bad, about 80% of them are beneficial in some way. An insect may feed upon the actual plant destroying pests or consistently work as a pollinator for much needed fruits, vegetables, and grains. Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and approximately 35% of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, birds, bats, and other insects. You might think many of the insects in your gardens are pests, but they are actually important species we need to take into consideration.

Let’s begin with some insects and their niche within our environment. Some may surprise you.

Native bees and honeybees

Bees are the most important and best known of our ‘good bugs.’ Honeybees are not native to Iowa, but serve as one of the major pollinators of flowers and crops. Don’t forget the honey that provides healthful and tasty benefits. Bumblebees and carpenter bees love our flowers and we can watch their meticulous flight hauling loads of pollen on their back legs from flower to flower.


Wasps may look like bees, but lack fuzzy hairs. They are considered very important pollinators, but a little less efficient in pollinating than a bee. With the wasp’s lack of fuzzy hairs, the amount of pollen able to stick to their bodies to travel from flower to flower is less than what a bee can gather. Potter and mason wasps are common wasps found within our flowers. They are dependent on pollen and nectar from a variety of different flowers because of their high-energy needs.

Bee Mimics

There are many species of bee look-a-likes including hoverflies and bee flies. The bee fly resembles a furry bee hovering close to the ground. It appears to have a long stinger going into the flower, but is actually the proboscis. Their little antics are so much fun to watch and no stinging from these little guys. Why? Because they are flies. Hoverflies look like a bee or wasp, also. How do you know which is a bee or not a bee? Flies have one set of wings and bees have two sets of wings.

Green Lacewings

Lacewings are very delicate looking in their adult form. Their larvae are considered the lions in the garden and sometimes recognized as being more beneficial that ladybeetles at eating aphids, other small insects, and larvae.

Dragons and Damsels

Dragonflies and damselflies are like raptors of the gardens and grasslands. If you enjoy birds, you will enjoy the presence of dragonflies and damselflies. All dragonflies and damsels begin their life in the water and return to the water to lay their eggs. There are many beautiful species of dragonflies, but they are all predators from beginning to end. With great eyesight and great speed, their large eyes help as they hunt mosquitoes and other flying insects.


There are many different beetles that visit flowers. One of the most common found in our yards are the soldier beetles. They are often found on flowers feeding on nectar and pollen. The larvae of beetles usually feed on eggs and larvae of other insects and are valued as pest control. The goldenrod soldier beetles are normally found in August and September when goldenrods and other fall flowers are in bloom. The margined leatherwings are normally found in early spring on milkweeds and asters. These beetles get their name from their wings. The first pair of wings are hard and protects the membranous second pair which are used for flying.


Butterflies are highly welcomed in gardens. Those little ‘flowers that dance’ bring brilliant color and movement to our gardens. Have you ever noticed that butterflies seem to flit from one flower to another? Did you ever wonder why? Butterflies taste with their feet! If they like it, they will drink the nectar with their straw-like proboscis. There are many species of butterflies that will visit your gardens if you offer a diverse selection of habitat for them. Some will sit on the ground to get different minerals and help decay different plant materials. Others will continue to flit from flower to flower making them excellent pollinators. If you have a wet area in your garden, you may notice some puddling or gathering.


Sphinx moths, clearwings, and other hovering nocturnal moths use the night shift for pollinating. Light colored, fragrant flowers seem to attract these stunning insects. Sometimes called hawkmoths, the sphinx moths have tongues that are longer than their bodies. The caterpillar form of these moths are voracious feeders and considered pests in our gardens, but the benefits are worth the wait. The next time you see a tomato hornworm, think about the benefits the adult moth will bring. Some gardeners will purchase inexpensive tomato plants, or just a few extra, and will use them as sacrificial plants to move the caterpillar to another part of the garden.

Praying Mantis

These voracious eaters eat non-stop all day long and are not the kind and gentle insect their name references. Praying mantises are opportunistic feeders, waiting and moving like the wind to grab and devour whatever may come along. Although they feast on many pests, they also eat good bugs. Anyone who discovers these large insects are fascinated and in awe at their antics. Most consider them beneficial because of their pest control duties, but you can decide if they are good or bad.

Garden Spiders - The ‘Guardians of the Garden’

Just about any garden will be home to several types of spiders. The most common spiders do not spin webs - some live in the ground and will feast on slugs, others use a single string of silk between vegetation, and some look like crabs running along a beach with their oversized front legs waiting patiently for a particular insect landing on a flower. Spiders are eight-legged and are arachnids not insects. These groups of spiders are extremely beneficial predators. The familiar yellow and black garden spiders are common and considered the great ‘Guardians of the Garden.’ These colorful spiders weave a lovely circular web, so we give them the name of orb-weavers. Some call these spiders ‘writing’ spiders because of the visible zigzagging pattern within the web. National Wildlife Federation experts believe the function of the zigzagging X pattern may assist in alerting birds to the presence of the web so they do not destroy it or fly through it.

Simple Starts

Enjoying your garden is what it’s all about! If you plant it, they will come. Habitat loss, pesticides, and other environmental factors have made a major impact on our pollinator species and beneficial garden insects. A good diversity of plants and insects creates a healthy ecosystem. Planting small areas with blooming times from spring, through summer, and into fall can make a huge impact. The role insects’ play can help teach patience, observation, and knowledge of how to work along with the environment.

See some photos of beneficial insects and spiders in Google Photos.

Just like the beneficial insects, birds, bats, frogs, and toads should be rewarded for their part in controlling insect numbers. They are all vitally important to garden ecology.

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