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Desert Gardening

Beneficial Insects for Arizona Gardening


he Arizona climate can make it challenging to grow a productive garden, even without the multitude of pests that will use your plants as a convenient meal. Many gardeners choose to deal with pests using pesticides, but these aren't always the best option. 

Unfortunately, pesticides exact a toll on both harmful and beneficial insects, which can put the ecological balance of your garden out of whack. 

Such tactics may protect plants against the ravenous horde, but the environmental cost is high, and it's a temporary solution at best. Fortunately, Arizona gardeners have another, more environmentally friendly option: to attract an army of beneficial insects to their garden that will bring the riffraff under control and restore balance.

How Beneficial and Predatory Insects Can Restore Balance

Every pest in your garden is a food source for something else. All a gardener needs to do to bring pesky populations under control is to understand how to make a garden more attractive to beneficial critters. 

Predatory insects are not the only kind of insect that can help your garden bloom. Insects like bees and butterflies are essential to plant life because they pollinate surrounding vegetation.

Beneficial insects around Arizona help control pests through a variety of mechanisms. Some species will use the pests as a food source, while others will use them as hosts for their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the pest insect is a ready food source for the offspring’s first meal. A little gross, maybe, but that's nature for you, and it keeps them off your plants.

Common Pests in Southwest Gardens

Despite Arizona's unique desert climate, it is still home to its fair share of garden pests. Here are a few of the most common pests Arizona gardeners will need to confront. 

Pale Green Aphids

These little green guys can show up in the hundreds and wreak havoc on your lettuce and kale crops if you don't quickly contain them. 

Cabbage Aphids

Cabbage aphids will descend on young brassica crops like broccoli, cabbage, and kale around February to March. Don't ignore the first signs because one or two bugs can quickly grow into a sizeable and destructive colony. 

Cabbage Worms

Cabbage worms are the larvae of the common white cabbage moth, which lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. The eggs soon hatch into tiny voracious eaters. You might not see them at first because they are small and green, but you will likely notice the hundreds of small holes they leave behind. 

Grasshoppers and Crickets

Grasshoppers and crickets will go to town on your corn, beans, lettuce, carrots, and onions. Tender young plants are their favorites, but they will happily chow down on the foliage of mature plants. 

Flea Beetles

Flea beetles can often be found on your eggplant crops. The adults will chew small holes in the leaves, while the young larvae will feed on the roots and stunt the plant's growth. 

Blister Beetles

Blister beetles have a wide-ranging diet of tomatoes, potatoes, melons, cabbage, peas, squash, eggplants, and leafy greens. 

Stink Bugs

Stink bug populations will settle on your peppers, legumes, corn, and tomato crop. They are generally not as harmful as other pests but can cause immature fruit to abort. If the fruit does manage to mature, stinkbug presence can cause discoloration while still leaving the fruit edible. 

Squash Bugs

As the name says, squash bugs will feed on the fruits, leaves, and roots of your squash crop, but they are also partial to melons. 

Beneficial Insects Around Arizona

If you're going to conscript an army of beneficial insects into your garden, knowing what they are will help you differentiate the good from the bad. Here are a few of the most common beneficial bugs you will want to see patrolling for pests in your garden. 

Lady Bugs

The ladybug is one of the most well-known beneficial insects. There are quite a few different varieties of ladybug, and they come in many different shades and sizes. 

The convergent ladybeetle is Arizona's "garden variety" ladybug and is recognizable by two white stripes converging behind the head and bright red front wings covered with a smattering of small black dots. 

Adult lady beetles lay egg clusters near aphid colonies. When the tiny black and red larvae hatch, they have a source of nourishment nearby. One ladybug larvae can get through quite a few aphids in a day. 

Green Lacewings

An adult lacewing is a delicate-looking creature, but it is an efficient instrument of death to pest colonies. A lacewing will lay its eggs on the underside of leaves and the tips of stalks. When the larvae hatch, they will feast on small prey and suck the juice out of insect eggs. A small number of lacewing larvae will quickly decimate a colony of aphids and other insect pests. 

Parasitic Wasps

Parasitic wasps find suitable prey to use as hosts for their young. Most species are so small you will rarely notice them, so they rely on their agility to attack bugs much larger than themselves. 

The prey is first paralyzed with venom, and then an egg is laid either inside the host or on it. The host is alive while the egg matures and dies or is eaten alive when the larvae emerge from the egg.

Just about every insect pest has a corresponding parasitic wasp that will prey upon it, making them incredibly efficient allies to have in the garden.

How to Attract Beneficial Insects to Your Garden

The list of pests roaming the Arizona landscape looking for a place to settle down is extensive, but for every pest making a meal out of your plants, there's a hungry predator ready to pounce. 

Most plants can deal with small populations of pests. It's when the population grows out of control that the damage becomes noticeable or costly. Let's look at a few strategies you can use to ensure your garden becomes a haven for beneficial insects. 

Choose Plants Preferred by Beneficial Insects

One of the best ways to ensure pest destroying insects or pollinators descend on your garden is to grow a few of the plants they like. Colorful blooms will attract bees and butterflies. All bees are pollinators, but a few varieties will also help control populations of the undesirables. Red flowers, or red feeders, will also attract hummingbirds, an excellent pollinator in the Arizona area.

Ladybugs will home in on yarrow, and wild lilac will attract lacewings. Dill is another plant you can use to attract other predatory insects. 

The great thing about using plants is that you can use different varieties depending on the season to ensure stable populations of beneficial insects all year round. It's always satisfying to see butterflies and bees hovering and flitting around your garden no matter the month. 

Add Places They Can Shelter

Insects always seem to be busy whenever we notice them, but they need periods of inactivity to sleep, reproduce, or hide from predators. Design your garden so it has a few hidey-holes your beneficial insects can use as a shelter or get out of sight of predators.  

Predatory bugs are still relatively low on the food chain, so they need to stay hidden as much as possible. Plants placed reasonably close together will allow them to move around your garden without overexposing themselves to passing birds or other wildlife that might consider them a tasty morsel. 

Access to Moisture

The dry climate in Arizona can make it challenging for your hard-working insects to get a drink. If there's nowhere nearby to satisfy their thirst, they won't hang around for long. Place a few water sources around your garden to make it easier for them. A small water dish near flowering plants will do the trick, and a rock in your water feature will provide a dry location to take a sip. 

Should You Buy Beneficial Insects for Your Garden?

More and more gardeners are starting to understand the importance of using natural pest control measures in their garden. Knowing that a few predatory insect populations will sway the battle in their favor has given rise to the trend of purchasing predatory insects for release into the garden.

Unfortunately, while it looks good on paper, this strategy does come with problems if you don't plan it correctly. 

Pros of Purchasing Beneficial Insects

Purchasing bugs for the garden means that you always have an available supply, regardless of the season. It's relatively straightforward to select bugs you know will deal with the pest problem currently running rampant through your crops. 

Gardeners quite often witness results that are as effective, or even more so, than insecticides. Buying beneficial insects is a lot faster than waiting for the populations to increase naturally, especially if the groundwork for attraction is relatively new. 

Cons of Purchasing Beneficial Insects

Many of the insects you purchase online are collected from the wild. There have been no long-term studies completed on the consequences of boxing up insect populations and sending them across the country. Would you appreciate someone collecting all the bees in your area just so they could sell them to someone on the other side of the state?

Once released, you have no guarantee that the bugs you paid good money for won't just up and fly away over to your neighbor's garden. You can mitigate this problem somewhat by ensuring you have created an environment that will keep the bugs hanging around for the long haul.

Another issue is that wild-caught bugs could have diseases and parasites and releasing them into the wild may spread it to the bugs already occupying the area. Only deal with reputable suppliers when purchasing beneficial insects for your garden. 

Bring Ecological Balance Back to Your Garden

Designing a garden that doesn't rely on pesticides to control pests may take a bit of work initially, but once you discover the benefits you will never want to go back. Using beneficial insects in your war on pests has numerous environmental benefits while ensuring your harvests are healthy and bountiful, and free of harmful chemicals.