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Get to Know These Beneficial Bugs

If you've got ‘em, don’t swat ‘em.

Chances are none of us would stomp a ladybird beetle with our garden clogs. We probably wouldn't smack at a shimmering dragonfly as it skittered across our koi pond either. But we might be tempted to squash an assassin bug, swat a hover fly, or scrape lacewing eggs off the leaves of our favorite plant.

Squashing "nasty bugs" just comes naturally to most of us. But it isn't always the right thing to do. Lots of less-than-lovely-to-look-at insects are actually beneficial predators.

Beneficial predators are good for your home landscape.

Although they’re not pretty, bugs like the ground beetle, the bigeyed bug, the spined stink bug, the assassin bug, the damsel bug, the hover fly, and the lacewing help keep our landscapes looking good by eating pests that might otherwise damage or destroy flowers, vegetables, and fruit crops. Because they attack and kill garden pests, they're called beneficial predators.

Learn to recognize beneficial predators so that you don't mistake them for pests.

Descriptions of seven of these helpful creatures follow, as well as a list of the problem pests they combat. Get to know what these Plain Janes look like during every stage of their lives so that you can make them welcome in your home garden. Doing so is just one aspect of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a practical and more ecologically friendly way to deal with problem pests than traditional chemical methods.*

1. Assassin Bugs

During adulthood, assassin bugs can reach up to 1/2-inch long. They're usually brown or black, with narrow heads, strong beaks, and relatively big eyes.

Two common species include the leafhopper and the spined assassin bug. Leafhoppers can be red, brown, or a yellowish-green. They have large, sticky front legs that they use to grab and hold their prey. Spined assassin bugs are usually reddish brown or brownish black with front legs that are covered in spines.

Because they are indiscriminate killers, assassin bugs sometimes feed on other beneficial predators, including ladybird beetles and bigeyed bugs. Nevertheless, they attack and eat plenty of pests, too.

Favorite Meals: Aphids, caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, Japanese beetles, leafhoppers, and damsel bug eggs are just a few of their favorites.

2. Bigeyed Bugs (Geocoris)

In the home garden, bigeyed bugs are most likely to be found in fruit trees. Adults are black or gray, and about 1/8 to 1/4 inches long. As their name suggests, they have very prominent eyes. Bigeyed bug eggs are either pink or light yellow, and they're ribbed.

Favorite Foods: Bigeyed bugs prey on pests that attack fruit, including lygus bugs, aphids, leafhoppers, and spider mites. As nymphs and adults, they kill pests by sucking out their body fluids.

Adult damsel bugs as well as nymphs are ravenous predators.

Adult damsel bugs as well as nymphs are ravenous predators.

They eat a variety of garden pests, including aphids, leafhoppers, mites, and caterpillars.

They eat a variety of garden pests, including aphids, leafhoppers, mites, and caterpillars.

Damsel bug eggs resemble grains of rice.

Damsel bug eggs resemble grains of rice.

3. Damsel Bugs (Nabis)

Assassin bugs and damsel bugs resemble each other; however, damsel bugs are smaller, only 1/8 to 3/8-inch long. Despite their small size, they're voracious. And they continue to feed on pests midsummer, when many other beneficial predator populations drop.

Damsel bugs primarily eat immature insects and insect eggs. They also eat mites at every stage of their development--from mite eggs to adult mites.

Favorite Snack: Pests that prey on fruit trees. If you have an orchard, damsel bugs can be your most faithful workers. They begin eating fruit tree pests in early March and--if you're nice to them--they'll keep munching all summer long.

4. Ground Beetles

There are many types of ground beetles (carabids)--all of them beneficial, including the common black, the boat-backed, the tiger, and the European ground beetle.

Most adults are 1/8-inch to 1¼ inches long. Although their shape varies, they are usually lozenge-like, with tapered heads. Black or dark brown is the most common color; however, some ground beetles are purple, metallic green, or multi-colored.

All ground beetles can move quickly when they want to, and they have prominent legs and antennae.

Favorite Foods: They eat a variety of garden pests, including cutworms, housefly maggots, snails, and slugs.

5. Hover Flies (aka Syrphids or Flower Flies)

As adults, hover flies (also called syrphids and flower flies) resemble bees. Like bees, their abdomens are striped yellow and black or white and black, and they travel from flower to flower, feeding on nectar and pollinating crops. Unlike bees, they don't sting, and they only have one set of wings.

If any of your plants are infested with aphids, consider yourself lucky if you see hover flies in the vicinity. Adult females lay eggs near aphid colonies. When their eggs hatch, the larvae (maggots) feed on the aphids. Hover fly maggots can be green or brown, and some have black markings.

Favorite Food: Hover fly maggots enjoy snacking on mites and caterpillars, but their favorite food is definitely aphids.

Hobbies: As adults, hover flies won't combat the pests in your yard, but they will pollinate your flowers.

6. Lacewings

Lacewings are voracious predators. They destroy all sorts of common garden pests at a great rate, particularly during their larval stage, when they'll eat 200 per week. Some of the pests on their hit list include aphids, thrips, spider mites, whitefly, mealybugs, leafhoppers, and pest caterpillars.

Lacewing larvae are rather pedestrian looking, with bristly yellow-brown bodies. They have long, curved mouthparts that are perfect for seizing prey, injecting paralyzing venom, and sucking out body fluids.

Adult lacewings and lacewing eggs are unique in appearance, which makes them easy to spot. The eggs are bright white, and they are laid at the ends of silken stalks about a 1/4-inch long. Adult females attach them, either individually or in clumps, to leaves and stems.

Adults lacewings are notable for their thin, veined wings which extend beyond their bodies. They're eyes are large, too, especially compared to their tiny heads. They may be brown or green.

Favorite Meal: Although they like to eat aphids, lacewings also snack on other small insects, like caterpillars.

7. Stink Bugs (Spined/Rough Shield Soldier Bugs)

Some stink bugs are pests themselves, but not spined and rough shield ones. They can truly be soldiers in your garden, attacking and killing over 100 species of insect pests that harm plants. Adults are only about 1/2-inch long. Nymphs are shorter, and they have shorter wings. Both adults and nymphs, however, have no problem attacking pests much larger than themselves. Once they have prey in their grip, they suck out its body fluids.

Favorite Food: Spined stink bugs love caterpillars, including canker-worms and gypsy moth caterpillars.

*More Information About IPM

Want more information about IPM strategies for your garden? Read these fact sheets from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Or check out IPM for Gardeners: A Guide to Integrated Pest Management at Amazon.com.

Beneficial Predators & Their Prey

Predator Prey (Garden Pests) 

Assassin Bug 

Aphids, leafhoppers, caterpillars, & other beneficial predators

Bigeyed Bug 

Lygus bugs, aphids, leafhoppers, & spider mites 

Damsel Bug

A variety of pest eggs & nymphs, as well as mites at all stages of development 

Ground Beetle

A variety of insect larvae & pupae as well as other garden pests, such as snails & slugs 

Hover Fly

Aphids, scale insects, & thrips

Lacewing

Aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, leafhoppers, and more

Stink Bug

Over 100 pest species, including gypsy moth caterpillars

Good Bug Books

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on January 13, 2016:

Hi cat, thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your comments about IPM. It really is the way to go!

Catherine Tally from Los Angeles on January 13, 2016:

Hi Jill, Excellent article! How did I miss this? Integrated pest management is the best approach to gardening and agriculture. Thanks for sharing this valuable resource:)

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on April 07, 2012:

Thanks, kerlynb!

kerlynb from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^ on April 06, 2012:

Argh, I feel guilty! I never knew that hover flies are not bees. Actually, I would not be able to their difference. Glad to have come across this hub, I learned something new and informative. Voting this up, awesome, interesting, beautiful (it's well-written and well-illustrated!) and useful :)

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on March 22, 2012:

Thanks, Q. I need to update this--or do a related hub about a new stinkbug that's hitting the U.S. It's definitely NOT beneficial! Take care, Jill

quester.ltd on March 22, 2012:

J - hope you don't mind but I have linked to this Hub - told people that this was the 'bug' place - I have been back over and over again - again thanks for the great information

q

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on April 12, 2011:

Couldn't have said it better, kentuckyslone. Thanks for reading!

kentuckyslone on April 11, 2011:

Great info for all! Even if you're not growing a garden it is good to know that a lot of the bugs we see are much more than just a nuisance. They are an integral part in our food chain and the very fabric of how life exists here...

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on March 22, 2011:

Thanks, Ghost32! Appreciate it.

Ghost32 on March 22, 2011:

Guess I'm not much of a dirt farmer--unless I can do my plowing from the top of a tractor, anyway.

Do love a decent crop of home grown tomatoes, though.

I can't say I've actually noticed most of the critters you've listed here, other than the ground beetles and stink bugs. Although it shouldn't matter; I may not like gardening all that much, but I don't make a habit of squashing bugs, either.

Voted Up and everything but Funny.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on March 11, 2011:

If anybody hasn't read quester.ltd's two avatar hubs, check them out. They're a real-life wolf tale!

quester.ltd on March 10, 2011:

thanks - I write a little bit about why I use the wolf couple if you care to look...

The Dirt Farmer on March 10, 2011:

Glad you liked it! Thanks for stopping by. --DF

Emma from Houston TX on March 10, 2011:

Good hub,thanks for sharing.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on March 09, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by, quester.ltd. Love your profile image--just beautiful.

quester.ltd on March 09, 2011:

Thanks for the information - we are in the middle of reworking sections in the back yard

Good to know what eats what - as long as it is not eating me, I'm generally okay with buys... :)

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on March 08, 2011:

Thanks, Esmeowl12. If you haven't been using pesticides, you'll probably see lots of them. Just last year, we started getting lacewings. At first I thought they were leaves!

Esmeowl12 on March 08, 2011:

Very interesting hub. Thanks for the info. I'll be looking for these guys in my garden this year.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on March 08, 2011:

Yep, bugs and weeds--the two things gardeners can depend on! Thanks for commenting, RTalloni.

RTalloni on March 07, 2011:

Thanks much. I definitely want to keep an eye on these. Spring is coming, with its bugs!

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