Plant-eating insects are important

Why You Need Plant-Eating Insects in Your Garden

In this episode, we’re going to look at the role plant-eating insects play in the garden and how you can bring them into balance instead of fighting them. All while getting abundant harvests for your family and your community. Let’s dive into why your garden needs plant-eating insects.

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Let me ask you a question—are you happy when you see caterpillars or aphids on your plants? What about leaves with holes in them?

If you’re like most gardeners you probably aren’t thrilled to see plant-eating insects in your garden.

I saw a post in a Facebook group a few weeks ago about aphids on some weedy plants along the edge of the property of the poster. These plants weren’t close to a garden and were in a relatively unmanaged area. The poster didn’t know the bugs were aphids and were asking people to identify them.

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Most of the responses identified them but then went on about how the person needed to get rid of the aphids as soon as possible.

Fire came up a couple of times.

Gardeners—myself included—care about our plants. I get it—you don’t like to see the plants you put time and care into growing get eaten by insects. It’s easy to imagine bugs and other pests swarming over your plants.

I think we tend to treat them all as a swarm of locusts moving across the land eating it bare.

But they aren’t a swarm of locusts.

They’re the foundation of the food web that supports a thriving and abundant living world. If you want abundance for people, plants, and wildlife then you need plant-eating insects.

But you don’t have to sacrifice your plants on the alter of these insects. You can bring them into a balance where they don’t destroy your plants but they also don’t go away.

So let’s look at how this works and why your garden needs plant-eating insects.

But before we do I want to take a moment to read a recent review from Chumar on Apple Podcasts.

It’s all too often in ecology that information is presented in a grandiose or technical fashion. Daron makes this podcast accessible and inclusive. Kudos. Looking forward to more.

Chumar

Thank you Chumar—I really appreciate it. A big goal of this podcast is to help people apply concepts found in ecology about how the living world works and apply those concepts to their backyards. To use those concepts in very practical ways to heal the living world around them.

And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.

People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.

Okay, let’s get started.



Letting the Aphids Munch

Plant-eating insects can be controlled with ladybugs

You can never get rid of aphids and other plant-eating insects. But you can bring them into balance—this ladybug larva is helping to do that on my Kosmic kale.

One year a while back my Kosmic kale plants were completely covered in aphids. The leaves were all stunted and the plants looked horrible.

And I wasn’t happy about it.

I like eating Kosmic kale and I couldn’t get any harvests from them.

But I had chosen to leave the aphids alone and not use neem oil or even just soap and water to deal with them.

Despite being upset to see so much damage happening to my plants I let the aphids be.

And I’m glad now that I did.

When the plants were covered in aphids I took a moment to sit down right next to one of the plants and just watch the aphids.

Now they’re not that exciting but after sitting there a while I started to notice that there weren’t just aphids on the leaves.

I started to see these little black bugs that I could just see flying around.

I leaned in to look closer and I realized they were all tiny little wasps. As small or even smaller than an aphid.

And there were tons of them flying all over. Don’t worry they can’t sting you.

These little wasps are a type of wasp known as parasitoids. They lay their eggs on other bugs like aphids which then hatch and the larvae eat the unfortunate host.

I also noticed that there were ladybugs and their larvae moving around on the leaves. And I saw hoverflies visiting and likely laying eggs on the leaves. Their larvae are predators that love to eat aphids.

By leaving the aphids alone I was giving space for all these predators to swoop in and eat the aphids.

But more importantly, I was giving them space to reproduce and increase their numbers.

Now I rarely have any issues with aphids.

They do still show up and they cause some damage. There are some on my Kosmic kale right now.

But there are always ladybugs, parasitoid wasps, lacewings, hoverflies, and many other predators there too.

I can’t find aphids without finding their predators.

The result is a balance—the aphids show up but they’re kept from overwhelming the plants. But this only worked because early on I left the aphids alone to give time for the predators to show up and reproduce.

Predators Take Time to Show Up

Plant-eating insects can be controlled by predators like hoverflies

This little hoverfly is laying eggs near aphids on one of my Kosmic kale plants. If I got rid of the aphids then I would have also gotten rid of the hoverflies.

Unfortunately, predators are slower than their prey like aphids. The aphids and other plant-eating insects will always show up first before the predators do.

But the more predators there are the more likely they will show up before the aphids or other pests can cause much damage.

It takes time to build up the population of predators in your area.

The area around my house went from a lawn to a place filled with gardens, fruit trees, berries, flowers, and native plants in just a few years.

And at first, the aphids were out of balance—that’s why my Kosmic kale was so damaged that year.

But the predators were there too—just in small numbers. The previous landscape of lawn hadn’t supported them.

That changed because I waited and let them reproduce and build up their population. And today aphids aren’t an issue and while I do still have some damage to my plants it doesn’t keep me from getting abundant harvests.

And I don’t have to spend my time fighting all the plant-eating insects. The predators do that for me.

I would rather spend my time cultivating abundance for people, plants, and wildlife and transforming more of my property than fighting aphids.

But beyond that aphids and other plant-eating insects have a vital role in the landscape. You can’t have abundance for people, plants, and wildlife without them.

Why You Need Plant-Eating Insects

Plant-eating insects damage leaves but also provide food for other wildlife

It’s okay for there to be holes in the leaves of your plants. This means things are working and you’re helping to heal the living world. I'm more worried if I don't see any signs of plant-eating insects.

Let me ask you a question—are you familiar with the idea of trophic layers? This is a concept from ecology that helps explain how a food web changes.

It helps to explain why there are far fewer predators than the prey they eat.

The bottom trophic layer is made up of what ecologists call producers. Things like plants or algae. This is the largest layer.

Plants and algae take nutrients from the land combined with energy from the sun to make their food through photosynthesis.

You can think of them as nature’s solar panels.

Plants and algae transform the sun’s energy into a form that is useful for animals like us. But that energy from the sun can only move through the food web if something eats those plants.

That brings us to the next trophic layers—specifically herbivores or plant-eating animals.

All those plant-eating insects like aphids fall into this category. They’re just one trophic layer above the plants. While deer and other large herbivores eat plants, it’s the plant-eating insects that make up the bulk of this group and do the most to support other life.

And that means there is more of them than any other type of animal. This huge abundance of plant-eating insects then goes on to feed a large number of predators and omnivores.

Without plant-eating insects, there wouldn’t be birds, ladybugs, frogs, or really any type of animal life. Even large animals like bears rely heavily on insects. All these insects are the main way that the energy from the sun moves up through the tropic layers to support all the other life around you.

They’re the plankton of the land—they feed so many other types of life that without them our world wouldn’t function.

You’ve got to have plant-eating insects on your property. Without them, you can’t heal the living world and you can’t cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.

How to Support the Predators of Plant-Eating Insects

When placing small habitat features scatter them about

Adding logs provide shelter for many of the predators that eat plant-eating insects.

You need plant-eating insects in your garden, but you don’t need them to be out of balance. These insects are important because they support so much other life.

So let’s embrace that and bring in all the critters that will eat those plant-eating insects. You don’t have to only have those insects—you need them so you can have more birds, more frogs, more ladybugs, and just more abundance.

So how do you bring in the predators that will eat those pesky insects?

The 1st thing you need to do is provide shelter for those predators. This can be done by making things a bit more messy in and around your garden.

If you clean everything up you take away all the places ladybugs and other predators can hide and even overwinter.

So leave the fall leaves on the ground when they fall.

Add some logs and log piles along with some rock piles. You can easily hide them with perennial plants like shrubs and many flowers. And all those plants will also support predators.

That brings us to my next tip for you. Plant lots of flowers—native flowers are the best.

Lots of predators like the parasitoid wasps, hoverflies, and others need pollen too to survive. And those plants also provide shelter.

And if you can add a source of water. This could just be a birdbath but if you can a wildlife pond is a great option.

There are links to more information about all these steps in the resources section of this post.

And a few weeks ago we had a podcast episode all about how you can control garden pests with predators. So make sure to check that episode out too.

But remember the most important thing you can do is to leave the plant-eating insects alone. You’ve got to give time for the predators to show up and do what they do.

If you do this and follow the tips mentioned above like adding flowers and leaving the fall leaves on the ground you will see a huge increase in ladybugs and other predators.

The result will be a balance where all those predators keep the plant-eating insect numbers low enough that they don’t cause any problems. Your property will not only support you but a large abundance of wildlife.

This is how you heal the living world.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we design a fruit tree guild. We will look at other plants you can plant around your fruit trees along with other elements that will help your fruit tree thrive. Tune in next week for that episode.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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