Understanding Backyard Insect Pests
A lot of insects get a bad rap because they bite, swarm, skitter or are just generally creepy looking. But all of them play important roles in the ecosystems of our gardens and yards.
“Of the approximately 100,000 species of insects known in the United States, less than one percent are considered pest species,” says Thomas Dobrinska, a board certified entomologist with Western Exterminator.
“Furthermore, of the one percent, these pest species are only considered as such if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. In most cases, many of these insects we consider pests are actually benefiting us in ways that we cannot see or comprehend.”
What Are The Benefits of ‘Pests’?
While their full significance to our ecosystem is sometimes unknown and often unappreciated, Bernie Holst III, CEO of Horizon Pest Control in Midland Park, New Jersey, says the value of many so-called pests can be divided into five large categories.
- Pollination: Bees and butterflies get most of credit, but many other insects help pollinate our plants as well, including wasps, ants, moths, flies and midges.
- Pest control: Many insects feed on beetles, ladybugs, dragon flies and parasitic wasps. “Praying mantises also eat other insects, and their camouflage is amazing,” says Holst.
- Food supply: “Insects are a food source for the birds and animals we enjoy seeing in our yards, and when hiking or walking,” says Holst.
- Decomposition: Insects like termites, beetles and flies help organic materials decompose. “Termites are also highly social and very good at what they do,” says Holst.
- Awe: Observing insects of all sorts opens our curiosity and deepens our connection to the natural world. “Insects, like butterflies and moths, are truly one of Mother Nature’s masterpieces, and to see them in a garden can significantly add to one’s experience and enjoyment,” Holst says.
Mary Phillips, head of Garden for Wildlife, says “bad reputations can be hard to overcome.” But, she adds, some of our biggest pests are actually helpful. “And by planting a diverse garden of native plants, you’ll attract an array of wildlife that will naturally keep balance in the garden, without spraying toxic pesticides,” she says.
Here are some of the most misunderstood backyard pests.
Ants are superheroes for keeping nature running smoothly. They eat other insects, aerate soil, carry seeds to help plants disperse into new areas and break down organic matter.
“By carrying pieces of animal and plant remains underground, they fertilize the soil and recycle nutrients through the world’s ecosystems,” says Dobrinska. Adds Phillips: “These tiny actions make a huge difference, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and irrigation.”
Holst says ants are also just really interesting. “They’re organized, social, they farm, they herd aphids, they practice teamwork and help pollinate,” Keep them out of our home by sealing small cracks and holes, especially around utility lines.
Wasps and Yellowjackets
Paper wasps and yellowjackets feed their young with flies, caterpillars and other insects that can damage garden plants. Paper wasps also pollinate many flowers while feeding on nectar.
“While dodging them at your picnic, consider that wasps, like bees, are among the most ecologically important organisms for humanity,” says Phillips. “They contribute to global food security. So you can thank them for the food in your spread!”
A novel idea for keeping paper wasps from nesting too close for comfort: Hang coconuts from your porch. Because they look like competing colonies, they can deter new ones.
The overall health of bumblebee populations, along with other bees and butterflies, is particularly depressing these days. So any bumblebee in your garden should be not only tolerated, but celebrated.
Many of their struggles stem from pesticides and herbicides ruining their habitat. So making your garden bee-friendly can truly help them out.
Monica Murphy/Getty Images
Their cousins, multicolored Asian lady beetles, sometimes come in annoying swarms or try to move indoors to overwinter. But ladybugs are strong predators, eating the larvae and adult versions of many pests, including aphids, scale insects, spider mites and mealybugs.
Because these bugs are beneficial, it’s best to use preventative barriers to keep them out instead of pesticides.
We know: Spiders aren’t technically insects, but they are pests. And while all spiders are venomous, few will actually hurt you. “Bites are very rare as they only bite in self-defense,” says Dobrinska. “That said, spiders are extremely effective at capturing and controlling pest populations.”
Some spiders capture their prey in webs while others hunt. Minimize them around your house by reducing hunting places like cardboard boxes, wood storage and mulch. Also turn off exterior lights at night to reduce the number of flying insects, remove webs, and seal cracks and crevices.
Centipedes and Millipedes
They’re creepy and move fast, but centipedes are like a football team at an all-you-can-eat buffet of insects. “Like spiders, they are a natural form of pest control,” says Dobrinska. Centipedes are also venomous, but common house centipedes are generally harmless because their mouthparts are too small to puncture skin.
Millipedes, on the other hand, are not poisonous. They’re great recyclers, breaking down organic matter, fertilizing the soil and aerating it as they tunnel. To keep centipedes and millipedes out of your house, eliminate nearby moist areas like dead leaves, grass clippings and excessive mulch.
Yep, earwigs are totally creepy looking. They’re also totally misunderstood. “Earwigs are extremely beneficial,” says Dobrinska. “They feed on decaying organic matter and in turn aerate and fertilize the soil.”
They also eat aphids, mites and insect larvae. Similar to centipedes and millipedes, the key to controlling them is cleaning up moist areas near the house, like dead leaves, grass clippings and mulch.
“Ugh, one of the most annoying insects of all,” says Phillips. “But believe it or not, their primary food source is flower nectar, not our blood!”
Mosquitoes are pollinators, just like bees and butterflies. It’s only when the female lays her eggs that she needs a protein-packed blood meal. (Males only eat flower nectar and do not bite.) They’re also essential to the food web because they feed birds and other insects.
To naturally keep their population in balance, eliminate stagnant standing water. Then plant habitat that encourages their predators, like dragonflies, turtles, bats and hummingbirds.
Tetiana Kolubai/Getty Images
For sure, slugs are not insects, but they hang out in our gardens with the insects. Slugs break down organic debris and turn it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer, similar to worm composting. They’re also a natural food source for many beneficial insects, birds, frogs, snakes and toads.
“While they can eat garden plants, they are still an important part of the ecosystem,” says Phillips. “So try to repel them from the garden instead of using harmful sprays. And just don’t step on them. Have you ever accidentally stepped barefoot on one of these suckers? Gross.”
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“Gnats, gnats, gnats. We have to say it three times because they just insist on bringing all of their friends, cousins, siblings and neighbors to the party,” says Phillips. But these annoying, swarming insects are an important food source for helpful insects and birds, including hummingbirds.
“Are they the most helpful pest we have to deal with? No, but they surely aren’t the worst,” says Phillips. But if gnats are ruining your outdoor fun, there are natural ways to get rid of them.
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