A bug-eat-bug world

Amid increasing demand for organic vegetables and a chemical-free environment, many people are turning to a pest-management system used by Mother Nature since the beginning of time: beneficial bugs.

Given so much evidence of the damage caused by pesticides and herbicides, there are myriad reasons to consider bug-for-hire alternatives to controlling unwanted pests, says Nathan Jackson, owner of Ladybug Indoor Gardens in Medford.

Common beneficial bugs

and their roles in the garden

Ladybugs, used primarily to control aphids, will eat nearly any small, soft-bodied insect that fits in their mouths, including spider mites, thrips and whiteflies.

Predatory nematodes, a common "feeder" used in the valley, will attack all pests that have a life stage in the soil, but they won't hurt earthworms. Often used to control fungus gnats, crane flies, thrips, earwigs and cucumber beetles, nematodes are sold on a sponge of 1 million, which covers up to 3,000 square feet when mixed in water.

Caterpillar parasites, tiny winged insects that control caterpillars, come as eggs attached to cards that you hang from trees. They hatch out and fly around looking for moth eggs on which to lay their eggs.

Green lacewings and pirate bugs are general feeders, both native to this area, that combat many of the same pests as ladybugs.

For information, call Ladybug Indoor Gardens in Medford at 541-618-4459 or see www.naturescontrol.com.

"Obviously, the major issues with pesticides are increased rates of cancer and death of wildlife, including beneficial bugs," says Jackson.

"Letting beneficial bugs do what they do is easier than spraying pesticides and better for the planet for a lot of reasons."

While most garden critters are seen as pests, it's smart to learn which ones actually benefit fruits, veggies and flowers and which ones should be swiftly annihilated.

After identifying problem bugs, begin planting things that provide food or habitat for beneficial bugs that can keep their adversaries in check, says Marsha Waite, a Jackson County Master Gardener affectionately know as "the bug lady."

Gardeners want to attract insects that prey on the pests that cause the most grief, says Waite. For instance, if aphids are bugging their plants, gardeners could attract ladybugs or lacewings by planting yarrows, zinnias, alyssums, sunflowers and herbs.

If slugs and snails are a problem, planting nasturtiums would attract beetles that eat the mollusks, says Waite. An Internet search can help gardeners select other flowers that will coax beneficial bugs into their yards, she adds.

A rule of thumb in planting "for bugs," says Waite, is opting for plants with small flower heads. Beneficial bugs can drown in the pools of nectar found in larger flower heads. Herbs, such as fennel and coriander, might be better choices.

While working to attract beneficial bugs, be sure to avoid gardening methods that will repel or even kill desirable insects.

"Not using chemicals is really the biggest thing," says Waite. "And you want to keep plants healthy and watered to provide (a) food source and habitat for good bugs."

If you can't wait for host plants to lure allies in, especially in a newly landscaped yard, it's possible to purchase beneficial insects locally at various nurseries, including Jackson's business on Jacksonville Highway.

Indigenous to the Rogue Valley are three preferred garden predators: green lacewings, ladybugs and pirate bugs (a pricier bug that pays its way with a rapierlike, sucking snout). Once they finish off pests, they'll hang around if food-supply plants are nearby and chemicals kept at bay.

"Mother Nature provided these insects to control the bad bugs," says Waite. "We're all so spoiled wanting to have perfect-looking crops or plants, but when you have an imbalance of insects because you've killed the good and the bad bugs, something is disturbed in nature.

"Integrated pest management is a fine balance where you tolerate a certain number of bad insects in your garden to feed the good ones that you hope will stay and do their job."

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