Before Reaching for Pesticides, Get to Know Beneficials – The Good Guys!

By Judi Di Bord, Master Gardener Volunteer

Did you know there is an alternative to controlling pests in your garden by using a pesticide?  Attracting beneficial insects, like lady beetles, green lacewings, praying mantis and dragonflies can help control insects that feed on your plants.  Beneficials don’t just help control pests. Some beneficials are also important pollinators! 

Ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) on an Common Yarrow's umbel (Achillea millefolium)
Ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) on an Common Yarrow’s umbel (Achillea millefolium). By Hélène Rival on Wikimedia Commons.

How can you attract beneficials to your garden?  One way is to purchase them at a local garden center and release them into your garden.  You can also attract them to your garden by growing plants to provide an enticing habitat for them.  If you are able to dedicate some space to growing these habitat plants, the rest of your garden can reap the rewards.

Following are some recommendations from the Penn State Extension Service:

  • Carrot Family (Apiaceae)  Plants in the carrot family are especially attractive to small parasitic wasps and flies. Interplant them in your vegetable garden and flower beds. Plants in this family include: caraway (Carum carvi); coriander/cilantro (Coriandrum sativum); dill (Anethum graveolens); fennel (Foeniculum vulgare); Bishop’s flower (Ammi majus); Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota); and toothpick ammi (Ammi visnaga).
  • Aster Family (Asteraceae)  Attractive to larger predators such as lady beetles and soldier beetles. Incorporate into the vegetable garden and flower beds. Plants in this family include: blanketflower (Gaillardia spp.); coneflower (Echinacea spp.); coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.); cosmos (Cosmos spp.); golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria); goldenrod (Solidago spp.); signet marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia); sunflower (Helianthus spp.); tansy (Tanacetum vulgare); and yarrow (Achillea spp.).
  • Legumes (Fabaceae)  Generally grown as cover crops and attractive to many beneficials. Plants in this family include: alfalfa (Medicago sativa); fava bean (Vicia fava); hairy vetch (Vicia villosa); and sweet clover (Melilotus spp.).
  • Mustard Family (Brassicaceae)  Attractive to beneficials that are parasites and predators of the insect pests of the mustard family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, mustard greens). Be sure to plant these away from the garden rather than in the garden since these plants attract pests as well as beneficials. Some are common weeds, such as yellow rocket and wild mustard. Plants in this family include: basket-of-gold alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis); mustards (Brassica spp.); sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima); yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris); and wild mustard (Brassica kaber).
  • Verbena Family (Verbenaceae)  Attractive to a variety of beneficial insects. Many plants in this family are favorite garden flowers. They include: lantana (Lantana camera); Buenos Aires verbena (Verbena bonariensis); hybrid verbena (Verbena x hybrida); and lilac vervain (Verbena rigida).

Beneficial insects also need a source of water. Shallow containers such as ceramic pot saucers with pebbles for the beneficials to rest on are best.

Suggested OSU Extension publications:

PNW550: Encouraging Beneficials in Your Garden

For kids:

EC1601: The Wildlife Garden: Dragonfly

EC1604: The Wildlife Garden: Lady Beetle

EC1605: The Wildlife Garden: Praying Mantis

Suggested websites:

National Pesticide Information Center, Beneficial Insects.

Penn State Extension, Attracting Beneficial Insects

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