Eek! You went out to work in your garden only to find huge bugs crawling all over your plants. Don’t kill them just yet. Some bugs, known as beneficial insects, are actually a gardener’s best friend.
There are four categories of beneficial insects:
- Pollinators pollinate your plants to make them produce more fruits and flowers.
- Predators eat the pest insects that chew up and destroy your plants.
- Parasitoids lay their eggs inside pest insects, killing them in the process.
- Decomposers help break down organic matter and enrich your soil.
So, how do you know what beneficial insects you want to keep in your yard? We’ll help you identify some of the most common “good bugs” and tell you how to attract each one to your yard.
- 1. Ants
- 2. Aphid midges
- 3. Assassin bugs
- 4. Bees
- 5. Big-eyed bugs
- 6. Braconid wasps
- 7. Butterflies
- 8. Damsel bugs
- 9. Dragonflies
- 10. Earthworms
- 11. Fungus gnat predators
- 12. Green lacewings
- 13. Ground beetles
- 14. Hoverflies
- 15. Ladybugs
- 16. Mealybug destroyers
- 17. Minute pirate bugs
- 18. Pill bugs
- 19. Praying mantises
- 20. Predatory mites
- 21. Robber flies
- 22. Soldier beetles
- 23. Spiders
- 24. Spined soldier bugs
- 25. Tachinid flies
- 26. Trichogramma wasps
- ‘Bee’ kind to good bugs: Don’t use insecticides!
What ants look like
You already know what ants are, but did you know they’re great for your lawn and garden? If you see anthills in your yard this summer, think twice about getting rid of them.
There are more than 12,000 different types of ants in the world, and they all look a little different. Most are black or red and no more than ½ an inch in length.
How ants help your garden
Predators: Ants have many functions in the lawn and garden. They help control grubs, fleas, termites, ticks, chinch bugs, and some caterpillars. They also aerate the soil and add organic matter that contains nutrients (like nature’s version of fertilizer).
How to attract ants
It might seem insane to attract ants to your yard on purpose, but the benefits of a healthy ant population could outweigh the drawbacks as long as it’s a species that doesn’t bite (like fire ants) or destroy your property (like carpenter ants). You can attract ants with lots of open space and sugary or protein-based food sources.
2. Aphid midges
What aphid midges look like
Adult aphid midges are flies with long, skinny legs and antennae. Their bodies are various shades of brown, and their wings are translucent. They’re very small, about ⅛-inch long at most.
Aphid midge larvae (the younger version that helps your garden) look like see-through red, yellow, or orange maggots.
How aphid midges help your garden
Predators: Aphid midge larvae prey on dozens of different species of aphids, which are tiny bugs that literally suck the life out of your plants.
How to attract aphid midges
Plant dill to attract aphid midges.
3. Assassin bugs
What assassin bugs look like
Assassin bugs are brown or black with bright red, orange, or yellowish patterns on their backs. They have very long legs and a tube-shaped head that kind of looks like a bottle. Different species range in size from ⅛ inch to 1 ½ inch.
How assassin bugs help your garden
Predators: Assassin bugs prey on basically any insect that’s small enough. They help control many common pests, such as aphids, caterpillars, and even cockroaches. Beware that assassin bugs might eat other beneficial insects in your garden, too.
How to attract assassin bugs
Plant coriander, dill, and fennel to attract assassin bugs.
What bees look like
There are more than 4,000 native bee species in North America, but most of them have a few key characteristics in common. They have thick, roundish bodies covered with hair. They all have wings.
The most common species in the world, the Western honey bee, has the familiar black and yellow (or orange) stripes.
How bees help your garden
Pollinators: Bees are the world’s best pollinators! They help your plants produce more flowers and fruits. One bee can pollinate thousands of flowers in one day.
How to attract bees
Any plant rich in pollen and nectar will attract bees, but you’ll get even more bees with native plants. You’ll have to research plants native to your part of the country. Don’t worry about selection — there are hundreds of options no matter where you live.
5. Big-eyed bugs
What big-eyed bugs look like
Big-eyed bugs have oval-shaped bodies and bulbous eyes bulging out of either side of their head (where did you think the name came from?). They’re tiny, only about ¼ to ⅛ inch long, and can be brown, black, gray, or reddish-brown in color.
How big-eyed bugs help your garden
Predators: Big-eyed bugs prey on aphids, caterpillars, and mites, all of which can be a huge pain in the garden. Mites are especially bad because they bite humans and pets in addition to hurting plants.
How to attract big-eyed bugs
Plant marigolds, cosmos, mint, fennel, or goldenrods to attract big-eyed bugs.
6. Braconid wasps
What Braconid wasps look like
Braconid wasps are small wasps (usually no more than ½ inch in length). They appear to be all black from far away, but on closer inspection, they often have orangish or reddish-brown on parts of their bodies. Braconid wasps have stingers but only use them on the pests they attack.
Braconid wasp larvae look like little white pellets protruding from the body of a host insect.
How Braconid wasps help your garden
Parasitoids: Braconid wasps lay their eggs inside the body of a host insect, and then the host dies when the eggs hatch and the larvae feed on it from the inside. Their most common host is the tomato hornworm, which ravages tomato plants.
Predators: Adult Braconid wasps eat many other common garden pests, including but not limited to aphids, fruit flies, leafminers, diamondback moths, armyworms, beetles, caterpillars, squash bugs, and stink bugs.
How to attract Braconid wasps
Attract Braconid wasps with flowering plants that have small flowers, such as dill, fennel, parsley, daisies, marigolds, or wild carrots.
What butterflies look like
Unless you’ve lived under a rock your whole life, you’re probably familiar with what butterflies look like. They have large wings protruding from either side of their body, and those wings feature colorful patterns that vary between species.
How butterflies help your garden
Pollinators: Butterflies pollinate flowering plants, which helps them produce more fruits and flowers. After bees, butterflies are the next best pollinators in the world.
The downside of butterflies? Caterpillars (butterfly larvae) feed on leaves and can cause lasting damage to your plants if there are too many of them.
How to attract butterflies
Like other pollinators, butterflies are attracted to any plant rich in nectar and pollen but especially native plants. Some common plants for butterfly gardens are butterfly weed (a type of milkweed), coneflowers, goldenrod, and Joe-pye weed.
8. Damsel bugs
What damsel bugs look like
Damsel bugs have flat, slender bodies that are wider toward the back and tapered toward the head. They’re brown or tan with darker brown patterns on the wings. They have long, slender legs and antennae.
How damsel bugs help your garden
Predators: Damsel bugs eat many common lawn and garden pests, including but not limited to caterpillar eggs, aphids, Lygus bugs, leafhoppers, treehoppers, and spider mites. Unfortunately, they also eat other beneficial insects such as big-eyed bugs and minute pirate bugs.
How to attract damsel bugs
Plant caraway, spearmint, and fennel to attract damsel bugs.
What dragonflies look like
Dragonflies have long, skinny, stick-like bodies with four wings close to their head. They have huge eyes on either side of the head, like other flies. Dragonflies have a wide variety of colors and patterns.
How dragonflies help your garden
Predators: Dragonflies are voracious predators that can consume their body weight in other insects every 30 minutes. They often prey on pests such as flies, gnats, and mosquitoes.
How to attract dragonflies
Dragonflies lay their eggs in water, so they live near water sources. Attract them to your yard with a water feature such as a fountain or pond.
What earthworms look like
Earthworms aren’t actually insects per se, but they’re one of the most beneficial bugs out there for the lawn and garden. Earthworms are long, thick worms covered in circular bands from end to end. They range in color from brown to gray to pinkish.
How earthworms help your garden
Decomposers: Earthworms decompose organic matter and recycle its nutrients back into the soil so your plants can absorb them. As they burrow, they aerate the soil and create channels that help roots grow deeper. Gardeners everywhere recognize earthworms as a sign of healthy soil.
How to attract earthworms
If you want more earthworms in your soil, you can purchase them from any garden center. Add manure or compost to the soil and cover the surface with organic mulch to help earthworms thrive.
11. Fungus gnat predators
What fungus gnat predators look like
Fungus gnat predators are tiny, translucent mites that live in the soil. They usually have a tan or brown tint to them.
How fungus gnat predators help your garden
Predators: As their name suggests, fungus gnat predators mainly prey on the larvae of fungus gnats. If you’re dealing with fungus gnats in your soil, this is the beneficial insect you want in your yard. Fungus gnat predators also help control mites, thrips, and springtails.
How to attract fungus gnat predators
If you want to introduce fungus gnat predators to your soil, you’ll probably have to purchase them online or from a garden center.
12. Green lacewings
What green lacewings look like
The name of this bug tells you pretty much everything you need to know about its appearance. Green lacewings have light green bodies and translucent wings with a delicate, lacy pattern. Their eyes are metallic gold. Adults are about ¾ inch long.
Green lacewing larvae can grow up to ½ inch in length. They’re white and brown in color, and they have two large pincers protruding from the mouth.
How green lacewings help your garden
Predators: As larvae, green lacewings are voracious predators of all kinds of soft-bodied insects. Green lacewings are great for controlling caterpillars, aphids, whiteflies, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, and thrips.
How to attract green lacewings
Plant dill, angelica, coriander, fennel, cosmos, sunflowers, tansy, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, or ornamental onion to attract green lacewings.
13. Ground beetles
What ground beetles look like
Ground beetles are a group of beetles that have wings but rarely fly. They stay hidden during the day. Most adults are ⅛ to ½ inch long and shiny black. However, some species can be brown, iridescent, or brightly colored.
How ground beetles help your garden
Predators: Don’t confuse ground beetles with pest beetles that devour your plants, such as the Japanese beetle. As larvae and adults, ground beetles feed on garden pests, including but not limited to caterpillars, weevils, thrips, silverfish, slugs, snails, cutworms, cabbage maggots, and squash bugs.
How to attract ground beetles
Because ground beetles hide during the day, they need places to take shelter. Pavers, potted plants, rotting wood, and perennial plants are all shelters that can attract ground beetles.
What hoverflies look like
Hoverflies, aka syrphid flies, might look to you like bees or wasps. Most species are black or brown with yellow stripes. They range in size from ¼ to ¾ inch long. Some species are hairy. You can differentiate them from bees and wasps because hoverflies only have two wings instead of four.
How hoverflies help your garden
Pollinators and predators: Hoverflies pollinate flowering plants, just like bees and butterflies. But that’s not all. As larvae, hoverflies prey on garden pests such as aphids, caterpillars, beetles, thrips, scale insects, and mealybugs.
How to attract hoverflies
Plant common yarrow, fern-leaf yarrow, dill, basket-of-gold, cosmos, bergamot, lemon balm, goldenrod, mint, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, or zinnias to attract hoverflies.
What ladybugs look like
Ladybugs, aka lady beetles, are a familiar sight to anyone who has spent time outdoors. They’re about the same length as a staple. In the most common species, the seven-spotted ladybug, the shell-like wing casings are bright red with black spots.
How ladybugs help your garden
Predators: They might be cute to us, but ladybugs are vicious to pest insects. As larvae and adults, they prey on aphids and eat up to 60 aphids per day (impressive considering how small ladybugs are). They also prey on mealybugs, leafhoppers, mites, thrips, small caterpillars, and scale insects.
How to attract ladybugs
Attract ladybugs with plants such as dill, fennel, cosmos, bergamot, lemon balm, mint, parsley, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, statice yarrow, or zinnias.
16. Mealybug destroyers
What mealybug destroyers look like
The mealybug destroyer is a specific type of lady beetle (aka ladybug). They have the same dome-shaped bodies as more familiar ladybugs, but mealybug destroyers are even smaller at just 3 to 4 millimeters long (compared to the average ladybug size of 1 centimeter).
Mealybug destroyers have a brown head and abdomen (the back-end) with a shiny black thorax (the middle segment of an insect’s body).
How mealybug destroyers help your garden
Predators: As you probably could’ve guessed, mealybug destroyers prey on mealybugs, which are soft-bodied insects that suck the juices out of many plants.
Mealybug destroyers eat all life stages of the mealybug, so they can help you control a mealybug infestation in your garden. Sometimes, they also feed on other soft-bodied insect pests, such as aphids.
How to attract mealybug destroyers
Fennel, dill, sunflowers, and goldenrods all attract mealybug destroyers.
17. Minute pirate bugs
What minute pirate bugs look like
Minute pirate bugs are extra tiny at about 3 millimeters long (for reference, that’s about the width of two pennies stacked on top of each other). They have oval-shaped bodies that are black with white patches on the wings.
How minute pirate bugs help your garden
Predators: Minute pirate bugs make excellent pest control helpers because they prey on so many different insects. Their most common targets are aphids, spider mites, and thrips, but they’ll eat other pests, too. The downside of their indiscriminate prey list is that they’ll eat other beneficial insects, as well.
Another warning: Minute pirate bugs bite humans sometimes. Their bites usually cause only minor irritation.
How to attract minute pirate bugs
Plant alfalfa, daisies, cosmos, fennel, mint, marigolds, or goldenrods to attract minute pirate bugs. Leaf piles also can attract minute pirate bugs, but we don’t recommend letting leaves sit in your lawn, as they’ll attract lawn pests, too.
18. Pill bugs
What pill bugs look like
The pill bug, more commonly known as a rolly polly, is another helpful critter that isn’t technically an insect. Pill bugs are actually crustaceans (like shrimp and crabs).
Pill bugs have slate-gray body segments that look like plates of armor, and they roll up into tight balls when exposed. They’re usually about ½-inch long when unrolled.
How pill bugs help your garden
Decomposers: Pill bugs operate in your soil like earthworms. They help decompose organic matter (like leaves or even dead plants), which recycles nutrients back into the soil for your grass and plants to soak up.
How to attract pill bugs
Pill bugs look for moisture and decaying matter, so you can attract them with uncovered compost, leaf piles, or decaying wood. Unfortunately, all these options also attract common pests such as termites. Instead of attracting them, you can purchase pill bugs online or at a garden center and introduce them to your soil.
19. Praying mantises
What praying mantises look like
At 2 to 4 inches long (not counting the front legs), the praying mantis is huge compared to the other insects on this list. There are different species, but most are light green in color. They have long, slender bodies and legs, with the front legs folding out in front. Their heads are triangular with two bulbous eyes on either side.
How praying mantises help your garden
Predators: Praying mantises eat huge quantities of pest insects. Their diet can include aphids, beetles, caterpillars, locusts, spiders, and adult moths. They’ll also eat beneficial insects like butterflies, bees, and even other praying mantises, so don’t attract these predators to your yard if you also want a healthy pollinator population.
How to attract praying mantises
Tall grass and shrubs make attractive habitats for praying mantises. You also can attract them with dill, marigolds, yarrow, fennel, and cosmos.
20. Predatory mites
What predatory mites look like
Like other mites, predatory mites aren’t insects but arachnids (in the same family as spiders and ticks). They’re extremely tiny at less than ½ millimeter long (smaller than the edge of your credit card).
You probably won’t be able to tell without catching one and putting it under a microscope, but predatory mites have pear-shaped bodies. They’re translucent on their own, but they turn orangish or reddish after they eat. From afar, they look just like pest mites, but you can tell the difference under magnification by the predatory mite’s rounder body and longer legs.
How predatory mites help your garden
Predators: These small but “mite-y” predators eat more troublesome members of their own family: spider mites, rust mites, and bulb mites, all of which suck nutrients from plants. Introducing predatory mites to your garden can get rid of a pest mite infestation quickly.
How to attract predatory mites
Predatory mites are attracted to extreme humidity, so they may not naturally occur in your garden unless you live in a humid climate. However, they’re available for purchase as a pest control method online and at garden centers.
21. Robber flies
What robber flies look like
Robber flies have a distinctive appearance you aren’t likely to miss. They have elongated bodies that stretch out far past their legs, which are covered in bristles. There’s a hump on their back near the head, where the wings stick out. They’re usually brown or black in color.
How robber flies help your garden
Predators: Robber flies prey on a variety of common garden pests, including but not limited to grubs, grasshoppers, adult beetles, leafhoppers, and some species of spiders and wasps. Their prey also includes beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies, so you don’t want too many of them in your yard, just enough to keep pests under control.
How to attract robber flies
Plant mint, catnip, chamomile, and daisies to attract robber flies.
22. Soldier beetles
What soldier beetles look like
Soldier beetles don’t look like your typical shiny-backed beetle. They have soft, leathery wings and long, straight bodies instead of the typical rounded shape. Different species are red or yellow with brown or black wings.
How soldier beetles help your garden
Predators: Soldier beetles feed on young, soft-bodied insects such as aphids and caterpillars, two common garden pests.
How to attract soldier beetles
Plant marigolds, goldenrods, zinnias, and linden trees to attract soldier beetles.
What spiders look like
- Yellow garden spider
- Barn spider
- Grass spider
- Wolf spider
- Crab spider
- Different types of jumping spider
Note: None of the spiders on this list are considered toxic to humans, even if they bite.
These species vary widely in size and color, but all spiders have eight legs, two body sections, and no wings or antennae.
How spiders help your garden
Predators: All kinds of spiders found in your garden eat many insects, including a lot of pests. Bed bugs, aphids, caterpillars, fruit flies, grasshoppers, and wasps are just some of the pests they help control. As with many predators, the downside is that they’ll also eat beneficial insects.
A note on spider bites: Some spiders have venom that can cause serious illness or death in humans. However, most spiders won’t bite anything other than their prey unless provoked. Even when provoked, they’re more likely to run away and hide than attack.
How to attract spiders
If you want spiders in your garden, plant trees and shrubs large enough to give them room to weave their webs. Undisturbed crevices, like a crack in a stone wall or a space beneath your home, also can attract spiders.
24. Spined soldier bugs
What spined soldier bugs look like
The spined soldier bug is a species of stink bug. It has a wide, flat body with a small head. Its back and wings feature a brown, black, and tan mottled pattern. Unlike the common brown stink bug, which looks similar, the spined soldier bug has spines protruding from just behind its head.
How spined soldier bugs help your garden
Predators: Spined soldier bugs are excellent to have around in a vegetable garden, as they feed on common crop pests. They help control:
- Colorado potato beetles (which attack potato plants)
- Mexican bean beetles (which attack legumes)
- Cabbage worms (which attack cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous plants)
How to attract spined soldier bugs
Attract spined soldier bugs with perennial plants around your vegetable garden. Perennial plants give each new generation of spined soldier bugs a place to take shelter year after year so they don’t move somewhere else.
25. Tachinid flies
What tachinid flies look like
There are many species of tachinid flies. As adults, they’re less than ½ inch long. Most species are dark-colored with thick bodies and legs. They look like house flies but bigger.
How tachinid flies help your garden
Parasitoids: Tachinid flies lay their eggs in the bodies of host insects, killing the host in the process. Different species of tachinid flies attack different pests. Their most common targets are the larvae of moths, such as the common lawn pests armyworms, and cutworms. They also attack the grubs of Japanese beetles.
How to attract tachinid flies
Plant clover, dill, parsley, coriander, and other herbs to attract tachinid flies.
26. Trichogramma wasps
What Trichogramma wasps look like
Trichogramma wasps are very small for wasps, only about 1 millimeter long or less. They’re a translucent yellowish, tan, or brown color. They are shaped like any other wasp but with squatter features.
How Trichogramma wasps help your garden
Parasitoids: Trichogramma wasps are another type of parasitic wasp. Unlike Braconid wasps, they don’t target one specific host. They lay their eggs inside more than 200 types of insects, many of which are garden pests.
Targets include but are not limited to gypsy moths, corn borers, Japanese beetles, Mexican bean beetles, squash bugs, stink bugs, and grasshoppers.
How to attract Trichogramma wasps
Wasps are pollinators, so you can attract them with flowering native plants.
‘Bee’ kind to good bugs: Don’t use insecticides!
When you have pests in your lawn and garden, it’s tempting to reach for the pesticide bottle for an easy fix. But most insecticides are bad news for these beneficial insects, too.
Without pollinators, your garden will have fewer flowers. Without predators and parasitoids in your garden to ward off bad bugs, you’ll have more pests next season than ever (and fewer fruits and vegetables). And without decomposers, your soil will become poor in nutrients for your plants.
Instead of insecticides, try organic pest control methods, such as:
- Neem oil
- Diatomaceous earth
- Bacillus thuringiensis
Don’t recognize any of the bugs on our list as the same ones crawling around your lawn and garden? Use the BugFinder insect identification tool to figure out if your creepy crawly visitors are good bugs or bad bugs. Either way, leave the insecticides on the shelf.
While beneficial insects keep your garden looking its best, let our local lawn care pros do the same for your lawn with mowing, fertilizing, weed control, and other regular services.
Main Photo Credit: Photorama | Pixabay