By: Kimberley Pacholko
Jan. 25, 2021
What Are Beneficial Insects?
Beneficial insects are deemed beneficial from a human perspective, for their ability to either pollinate plants or to control pest insects. Creating an environment that is hospitable to beneficial insects usually involves refraining from the use of insecticides and other chemicals in the garden, providing a variety of plant material including brightly coloured pollinating plants, fragrant herbs and providing a shallow fresh water source for them.
Green Lacewings (Family: Chrysopidae)
Green Lacewing adults are a delicate looking insect with lace like wings measuring about 2cm long (3/4 inch). They feed mainly on pollen, nectar and honeydew, but some species feed on insects. Their larvae however are voracious feeders of soft bodied insects such as thrips, mealybugs, caterpillars and insect eggs, but they especially like aphids, earning them the nick name aphid lions or aphid wolves. These alligator looking larvae are oblong shaped, off whiteish in colour with brown markings, tufts of hair down it’s length and measure about 1cm in length at maturity. Their voraciousness is attributed to it’s powerful curved and hollow jaw that ceases it’s prey and injects it with a poison to paralyze it, then sucks the life juices out it (in about 90 seconds), killing it. Each larvae are able to consume about 100-200 insects per week. The larvae can bite humans so handle with care.
To attract Green lacewings to your garden plant sunflowers, bachelor’s button, alyssum, coreopsis, cosmos, daisies, angelica, tansy, crimson clover, fennel, caraway and Dill. The weeds Queen Anne’s lace and wild carrots also attract them. Lacewings can also be attracted to the garden or encouraged to stay artificially, using a product called Wheast or sugar water. The sugar water is sprayed onto the plant while the wheast is mixed into a paste and sporadically painted on cardboard or sticks and placed in the garden.
Dragonfly (Infraorder: Anisoptera)
Dragonflies belong to the odonatan order along with Damselflies. Most people are familiar with adult dragonflies which are most readily identified by their (usually) brilliant metallic colours and their precision, agility and speed of flight, being able to reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Other distinguishing characteristics include: 2 pair of narrow, transparent wings that are held flat and away from the body when they are at rest; long slender and elongated bodies and large compound eyes. They are voracious predators capable of highly accurate aerial ambush of primarily mosquitoes and Midges, but they also feed on many other flying insects including flies, moths, bees, butterflies, beetles and even other dragonflies. They are active by day and commonly found near fresh bodies of water. The larvae live in fresh bodies of water feeding on aquatic insects and occasionally tadpoles and small fish. The larvae have an abdomen ending in five points.
Damselflies (Suborder: Zygoptera)
Damselflies are closely related to dragonflies and also part of the odonatan order. They are often mistaken for dragonflies and look very similar but usually more petite and have more slender builds. Their heads are wider than their bodies unlike dragonflies whose bodies are as wide as their heads. They are also weaker fliers and their flight tends to be more fluttery. They are able to capture and devour their prey during flight by catching and holding it in their hind legs, which are covered in hair. When at rest their wings are folded along their sides or just above. The larvae of damselfly are also more slender than dragonfly larvae and their abdomens end in 3 fragile, leaf-like, caudal gills rather than five points like dragonflies. The diets of both the adults and the nymphs are the same as dragonflies.
To attract dragonflies and damselflies to your yard add a water feature preferably with some water plants like arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), cattail (Typha latifolia), swamp milkweed (Asclepia incarnata),water lilies (Nymphaeaceae) or water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile). Adding some flat overhanging stones at the waters edge will serve to provide a place for adults to perch and provide shelter for nymphs. Do NOT add fish or frogs to your water feature as they will eat the eggs. Since dragonflies diet consists of flying insects, plant pollinating plants such as alliums, black-eyed Susan, coneflowers, liatris etc. to attract their food source to your yard. Keep in mind dragonflies will reduce your pollinating insect population which may not be desirable.
Praying Mantis (Order: Mantodea)
Although there are between 1500 and 2000 species world wide, there are only 3 in North America. The Chinese mantid (Tenodera aridifolia), European mantid (Mantis religiosa), and the ground mantid, (Litaneutria minor). The ground mantid is the only one native to Canada making it’s home in B.C’s southern Okanagan Valley.
The males are typically smaller than the females, brown in colour and have 8 abdominal segments while the females are larger, green in colour and have 6 abdominal segments. These stick like insects measure between 5-13cm (2-5inches) in length and have a triangular head held on a long flexible neck. They have powerful front legs that are used to catch their prey at lightening speed. Once caught they hold their prey in its saw-like forelegs, and deliver a paralyzing bite then devour the insect alive or alternatively bite off it’s head and then consume it. When the front legs are folded together the insect appears to be praying, thus it’s name. They look similar to their cousins the grasshopper, but are much larger. Most species have wings with the front wings being narrow and leathery while the hind wings are fanlike. They tend to camouflage into their environment but will rear up into threatening postures when threatened.
Praying mantis are predators and pretty much each anything that does not eat then first, even prey larger than themselves including frogs, snakes, birds, small rodents and lizards. In the garden they devour all types of insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches, horseflies, mosquitoes, flies, aphids, bees, wasps, hornets, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, spiders, other praying mantis, etc. They have a short life span between 6-12months. They can bite humans if provoked so best to leave then be.
To attract this beneficial insect to your garden create a good habitat for them including plenty of plant material such as shrubs, colourful perennials, raspberry, roses, tall grasses, and fragrant herbs. This habitat serves to attract their food sources and provides shelter, places to hide and places to lay their eggs. They also need a water source, shallow dishes of fresh water with a few rocks placed in them to perch on to drink, work well. Sugar water can also assist in luring them to your garden.
Soldier Beetles (Family: Cantharidae)
There are many species of soldier beetles (Cantharidae) with varying appearances but typically adults are elongated and slightly flattened measuring up to 15 mm in length. Colouring is black and orange, black and red or black and yellow. The bright colouring (aposematic coloration), serves as a warning to predators that they are highly unpalatable or toxic. Their forewings are leather like and as such the insect is often referred to as leatherwings. Like Japanese beetles they are often observed mating. These sun loving pollinators feed on pollen, nectar, aphids, caterpillars and small insects. Their eggs are laid in the soil at the end of summer and once hatched the brown, maggot-like grubs remain in the soil until late spring living at the base of tall grasses and weeds and feeding on soil borne insects like slugs, snails and springtails.
To attract soldier beetles to your yard plant goldenrods, ragwort and species from the Asteraceae family. They are particularly attracted to umbel flowers.
Lady Beetle (Family: Coccinellidae)
Adult lady beetles are one of the most readily recognized and beloved beneficial insect in North America. The species most people are most familiar with are brightly coloured red/orange with black heads and spots, but of the 166 species found in Canada only about 1/3 fit this description (Gov. of Canada, 2010). The remainder vary in appearance, being smaller, and lacking the bright colouring, but their overall shape remains the same. The brightly coloured ones contain high concentrations of alkaloids that the lady beetles release from their leg joints when threatened. Their aposematic coloration warns predators that they are distasteful to eat. The red/orange and black larvae also secrete these distasteful alkaloids but their appearance is very different from the adults. The wingless larvae look more like tiny alligators with long, spiny bodies (abdomens) that end in a point and legs that protrude from their sides.
Most of us are aware that lady beetles favoured food is aphids, but they also feed on a variety of other soft-bodied insects including mites, thrips, mealybugs, leafhoppers, whitefly and even other lady bugs. Both adults and their larvae feed on insects.
Unfortunately for Canada most of our native species of lady beetles, such as Nine-spotted Lady Beetle (Coccinella novemnotata),Transverse Lady Beetle (Coccinella transversoguttata), and Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens), have been displaced by the non-native European species such as Seven-spotted Lady Beetle (Coccinella septempunctata) and the Multi-coloured Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) also known as the harlequin.
To attract lady beetles to your yard plant aphid loving plants such as nasturtium, radishes, horseradish, marigolds, roses, petunias, fruit trees, and more. Lady beetles also feed on flower pollen and nectar and are attracted to brightly coloured flowers (preferably yellow and white) with flat, shallow flowers that are easy to land on; examples include zinnias, sunflowers, dill, coriander, alyssum, tickseed, yarrow, butterfly weed, curly-leaved parsley and others. Providing a shelter for your ladybugs and a shallow water source will help to encourage them to stick around.
Mealy Bug Destroyer (Genus: Cryptolaemus montrouzieri)
The Mealybug Destroyer is a tropical species of lady beetle that is used as a biological control for mealy bugs. In temperate climates, such as Canada they will not survive the winter outdoors and must be reintroduced each year. The adults have the typical lady beetle shape but are a bit smaller measuring 3-4mm in length. They appear predominantly dark brown to black in colour with orangish heads and posterior (tail). The larvae look very similar to mealybugs, with woolly appendages of wax, but they are twice the size, measuring up to13 mm in length and have legs (although they are barely visible). In addition to mealy bugs they also feed on aphids and soft scale.
Ground Beetles (Family: Carabidae)
Ground beetles are a rather large predator beetle that feeds on other insects such as slugs, wire worms, caterpillars, moth larvae, beetle larvae, mites, ants, aphids, midge and maggots. Some species feed on weed seeds such as lambsquarter, thistle, foxtail and ragweed, which helps to control some weed populations. Unfortunately there are a couple of species (seedcorn beetle and slender seedcorn beetle), that can sometimes be damaging to corn crops. Worldwide there are more than 40,000 species, (Wikipedia, rev. Nov. 2021) 800 of which are found in Canada alone (Orkin Canada n.d.)
Although the beetles appearance varies according to species, most range in size between 5 and 25 mm and appear black or dark brown with iridescent hues (some species can be more brightly coloured however). They are oval and elongated in shape and fairly flat with prominent mandibles (lower jaw) and a head that is smaller than it’s neck. Ground beetles feed at night.
To attract them to your garden avoid tillage, plant cover crops or install mulch and plant a variety of plant material to provide hiding places during the day and places to lay their eggs.
Rove Beetles (Family: Staphylinidae)
Rove beetles are the longest living organisms on earth with about 63,000 species, over 1654 of which live in Canada (Klimaszewski, J.; Bourdon, C.; Pelletier, G.; et al. 2013 rev. 2020-12-08). Both the adults and larvae are predators of insects such a aphids, mites, small caterpillars and the larvae of other beetles, with a few species being parasitic. They also feed on decaying plant material and some species feed on root maggot eggs, larvae and pupae (eg: apple maggot).
Rove beetles appearance varies somewhat according to it’s species but overall adults are black or brown in colour, long and slender measuring up to 2.5 cm (1″) in length. They look a lot like earwigs without front pincers. They do however have a large mandible (lower jaw) that they use to grasp their prey. They have 2 sets of wings with the forewings being short, thick and hardened to protect the hind wings. A distinguishing characteristic is the way they raise up the tip of their abdomen, like a scorpion, when disturbed or threatened, even sometimes when they are running. They are fast runners in addition to being good fliers. The larvae look similar to the adults but are wingless, tan in colour with dark heads. Avoid handling these beetles as they can release a toxic fluid called paederin that can cause contact dermatitis.
To attract rove beetles to your yard provide plenty of decaying organic matter for them to nest in and over winter. Provide rocks for them to hide under and a variety of plant material.
Damsel Bugs (Family: Nabidae)
Damsel bugs are native to Canada and the USA. They are a predatory insect that feeds on other insects such as small caterpillar and their eggs, thrips, Colorado potato beetle eggs, aphids, spider mites, leaf hoppers, lygus bugs, fleahoppers, minute pirate bugs, tarnished plant bug nymphs, and more. Care should be exercised when handling them as they can inflict a painful bite to humans.
Adult damsel bugs appear long and slender, measuring about 8-12 mm (1/3 to 1/2 in) long with two pairs of fully functional wings. Their colouring varies according to species but can be grey, brown, tan, yellowish, black or cream coloured. Like preying mantis they have enlarged, spiny front legs that they use to catch their prey and deliver a toxic bite to subdue their prey but unlike preying mantis who have chewing mouth pieces, damsel bugs have sucking mouth parts and suck the living juices out of their prey. They look very similar to assassin bugs but do not have the proboscis (elongated feeding tube). The nymphs resemble the adults and go through five instars stages.
To attract damsel bugs to your yard provide low growing grasses and other ground covers that provide shelter for them. Increase plant diversity. Since they overwinter as adults leave some plant material for winter interest and to provide winter shelter for them.
Assassin Bug (Family: Reduviidae)
Nearly 200 species of assassin bugs are native to North America (Missouri Department of Conservation, n.d.). They are predatory insects that feed on a wide variety of insects, including flies, beetles and caterpillars. They ambush their prey, then pierce the victim’s body with their sharp beak (proboscis) and suck the bodily fluids out.
Assassin bugs move slowly and are generally oval-shaped or elongated with a long and narrow head. They are usually black, orange-red, or brown. Avoid handling them, as they can defend themselves with a painful bite from their proboscis (sucking mouth part). They emerge in June and stay throughout the summer.
You can attract assassin bugs by avoiding pesticides, installing garden lights like solar-powered ones, and planting marigolds, dandelions, sunflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, daisies, goldenrod, alfalfa, and various herbs like dill and fennel. They also like to hide in mulch, lawn clippings, or leaf piles in order to ambush their prey.
Pirate Bugs (Family: Anthocoridae)
There are 500-600 species of Anthocoridae worldwide (Wikipedia, rev. 2021), with forty-one of those species living in Canada (Kelton L.A., 1978). The Minute pirate bugs (Orius spp.) more specifically the Insidious flower bug (Orius insidiosus) and the minute pirate bug (Orius tristicolor) are the most common species.
Both the adults and the nymphs are predatory insects that feed on thrips, mites, aphids, psyllids, whiteflies, jumping plant lice, small caterpillars and insect eggs. When their food source is low they may feed on pollen and plant juices. The insects feed by holding their prey in their front legs and puncturing it with their sharp beak (proboscis), then suck the life fluids out of the insect. This same sharp beak can also be used to inflict a painful bite on humans. To avoid their bites wear dark coloured clothing with long sleeves and pants in late summer and fall when they are actively flying.
Adult pirate bugs appear flattened, oval, quite small (measuring 2–5 mm long) with a shiny black head and thorax. The wing colouring varies a bit by species but they are predominantly patterned in black, brown and white with a white tip on the end of the wings. The top of the fore wings have a distinctive triangular shape in black. Their black and white colour patterning is thought to resemble a pirate flag, and thus it’s name. The nymphs are pear shaped and orangish to light brown in colour. Pirate bugs overwinter as adults in leaf litter.
To attract this beneficial insect to your yard insure adequate food sources, avoid the use of pesticides. They are attracted to weeds like clover, goldenrod and vetch and to perennials like daisies and yarrow. They are also attracted to food crops like strawberries, grapes, corn and peas.
Hover Fly (Syrphidae)
There are more than 6,000 species world wide (Wikipedia n.d) with about 500 of those living in Canada (Gavlosk, J. rev. 2017). There is great variation among species, with many of them appearing similar to wasps and bees in colour, both having the dark brown/black and yellow banding, but the hover fly has no stinger and is harmless to humans. They have large fly-like eyes and have only 1 pair of wings rather than 2 as in bees and wasps. Wasps also have a narrower waste and noticeable antennae. Another distinguishing characteristic is the loud buzzing sound hover flies make when they fly. The adults are pollinators and can be found hovering over nectar and pollen rich flowers. The larvae however are predatory insects and feed on aphids and small caterpillars. The slug-like larvae appear mottled green or brown in colour and are somewhat transparent and very tiny, usually requiring magnification to be seen. They feed on the underside of leaves. They are also known as Syrphid fly or Flower fly.
Tachinid Fly (Tachinidae)
Tachinid fly adults are pollinators but their larvae are a parasitoids who feed on a host caterpillar or insect, thus killing it. The adult females lay their eggs either on, in or near the targeted host. When they hatch a few days later the larvae begin feeding on the host causing it’s death. Most tachinid flies are host specific and only parasitize a specific species or a narrow range of similar species. The preferred hosts are caterpillars and the larvae of beetles but there are also species that feed on sawfly larvae, stem borers, several species of worms, aphids, grasshoppers, scale and other insects. There are over 10,000 species world wide (O’Hara J.E., 2008). with about 1300 of those appearing in North America (Mahr S., n.d.).
There is quite a bit of variation in appearance depending on the species. Typically they are larger than a house fly but can measure between 2–20mm in length. The majority of tachinids are grayish black and more bristly than house flies. Many are wasp or bee like in appearance with yellow and black colouring. They have 2 dark coloured wings that are usually clear.
To attract this beneficial insect to your yard plant a variety of pollen and nectar rich plants especially fragrant herbs and flowers with small flowers or flat tops like members of the aster and dill family, daisy, feverfew, chamomile, clover, rudbeckia etc.
Aphid Midge (Cecidomyiidae)
Aphid midge (Aphidoletes aphidimyza) larvae are an effective predator of over 60 species of aphids. They also feed on mites and other soft bodied insects. The larvae are orangish coloured maggots with rounded bodies that taper toward the head that measure up to 3 mm in length at maturity. They feed by biting the leg joints of the aphid, paralyzing it, then suck the life fluids out of it. The adults are small mosquito-like flies measuring about 2-3 mm in length. They are orangey/brown in colour with 2 translucent wings but they are poor fliers. They lay their tiny orange eggs on leaf surfaces near aphid colonies. They are nocturnal.
Braconid Wasps (Family: Braconidae)
Braconid wasps are a parasitic wasp that lay their eggs usually in their host insect, but some species lay them on the insect. The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the host and continue to develop. When they are fully developed they pupate on the inside or outside of their host, or many species will leave the host and spin silken cocoons in which to pupate. From here the adult wasps emerge and the hosts usually die. There is thought to be 10’s of thousands of species in the Braconidae family, with about 830 of those species living in Canada (Gavlosk, J. rev. 2017). Some of the insects parasitized by braconids are aphids, beetles, flies, butterflies, moths (including gypsy moth larvae), true bugs, fruit fly larvae, caterpillars and tomato horn worms. Although there is a wide range of hosts most Braconids are host specific. In addition to laying their eggs in their host, braconids also inject their host with a virus (polydnavirus) that serves to disable the defenses of their host, so that their immune systems do not destroy the eggs. Most braconoid species do not sting people but a few species will sting if mishandled.
Braconid wasp adults appearance can vary quite a bit depending on the species, many of them are black or brown and may have a reddish abdomen but some are more brightly coloured resembling the stinging wasps. They range in size from 2-40 mm in length, have long antennae, narrow waists, ant-like heads and wing venation patterns that help to distinguish them from the Ichneumonid Wasps. The females have an ovipositor for depositing eggs which is usually quite long, depending on the species. It can be difficult to distinguish braconids from other parasitic wasps so look for their signs of parasitism, such as caterpillar surrounded by multiple small cocoons, cocoons attached to hornworms and mummified aphids that may have an exit hole.
To attract braconid wasps to your garden plant and array of pollen and nectar rich flowering plants for the adults to feed on. Also provide a clean, shallow water source for them with some rocks placed in it for them to drink from.
Ichneumon wasps (Ichneumonidae)
There are around 25,000 species currently described world wide (Wikipedia, rev. Dec. 2021); with about 5000 of those appearing in North America (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, (2016)) about 2,000 of which live in Canada (Gavlosk, J. rev. 2017). Like the braconid wasps they are a parasitic wasp that lay their eggs on or in their host. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the host eventually killing it. Preferred hosts are usually moth and butterfly larvae, but they also parasitize many other insects such as flies, aphids, some spider, beetle larvae, other wasps and bees, even another parasite that lives inside a host (hyperparasitism). When they are ready to pupate they leave their host and spin a cocoon around themselves.
They look a lot like braconid wasps and it is very difficult to tell them apart. The most distinguishing difference between the two is the venation on the wings. See the photo above.
To attract adult Ichneumon wasps to your garden provide some of nector and pollen rich plants. Some of their favourites include: members of the aster, carrot, parsley and mustard families. Adults also feed on honey due.
Trichogramma wasps are a much smaller group of parasitic wasps with only about 200 species world wide. They are so tiny they are almost invisible measuring only 0.3 mm- 0.9 mm in length and are gold in colour, with red eyes. The adult females lay their eggs inside the eggs of a wide variety of moth and butterfly eggs such as “codling moth, cabbageworm, tomato hornworm, corn earworm, European corn borer, fruitworm, cutworm, peach borer, diamond back moth, tomato pinworm and tent caterpillar” (NiC, (n.d.)). Once the Trichogramma eggs hatch the larvae feed inside the host egg, killing it and causing the egg to turn black. They then pupate, and emerge as an adult wasp. Trichogramma spend about 7-14 days in the larvae/pupae stage and about 3-14 days as adults.
Parasitized eggs can be purchased and introduced to your garden. They usually come attached to a card that you set out in the garden or they can be purchased loose. To keep them around your garden provide pollen sources for the adults with tiny flowers such as Queen Anne’s lace, caraway and fennel.
Many spiders species are also beneficial to the garden but they are not technically insects but rather Araneae. There are over 3000 species in North America, with 1400 of those residing in Canada. Spiders are predators and eat other insects. The spiders who spin webs feed mainly on flying insects such as mosquitos, flies and moths. The species who are hunters feed on beetles, grasshoppers and crickets. Most spiders are harmless to humans but others are venomous or poisonous and deliver a nasty bite. A few of the nasty ones to watch out for in Canada include: The Brown Recluse spider, Black Widow, Yellow Sac Spider, Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Green Lynx Spider and to a lesser degree the Wolf Spider and Parsons Spider.
Pollinators make possible most of our fruit and vegetable crops, as well as flower crops and displays and all flowering plants. Their role is absolutely vital to our existence. Bees are considered the most efficient pollinators and a great deal of research has gone into them, learning how to protect this valuable resource. Some valuable pollinators include:
- Animals (although not an insect they never the less belong on this list).
- Humming birds (again, not an insect but never the less a pollinator).
Beneficial insects are part of the natural eco system and play a vital role in pollination and the management of pest insects. Nature is all about balance. Establishing an natural eco system in your yards, gardens, crops and orchards will not only serve to attract these beneficial insects, it will also reduce the use of pesticides, produce healthier and tastier fruits and vegetables and reduce the amount of time and money spent caring for the gardens. To create a healthy eco system in your garden, farm, orchard or green house:
- Plant a variety of plants (not mono crops).
- Provide pollen and nectar rich flowers and fragrant herbs.
- Provide a shallow fresh water source for insects and wild life to drink from. Adding a few rocks to the water is helpful to provide a place for the insect or animal to perch on.
- Avoid the use of chemicals, which are destructive to beneficials.
- Build up the micro organism populations in your soil by avoiding tilling, adding compost yearly, improving drainage and using cover crops or mulch.
Healthy eco systems take a while to establish but once achieved the benefits are endless.
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