Book review: "Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden"

by Susan Mulvihill

As an organic gardener, I am very careful to only use environmentally-safe products for the occasional insect problem. 

For example, I’m a huge fan of using floating row cover when growing veggie crops that typically have insect issues, such as cabbage family crops, spinach, beets and Swiss chard. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But I have also occasionally used organic sprays such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to control cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms, or Safer’s insecticial soap when dealing with aphids. Here I thought I was being such a good steward of the environment around me but it turns out that’s not necessarily so.

After reading Jessica Walliser’s book, “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden” (Timber Press 240 pp., $24.95), I now know that even organic sprays can cause problems. For one thing, they can be more harmful to beneficial insects than to the pest insects I’m targeting. Yikes!

And if you knock off the good guys, other types of pest insects can become more prevalent in the garden. Suddenly the balance in your garden’s insect world is completely off.

An interesting fact I read in Walliser’s book is that only 1 percent of insects are damaging types, and the other 99 percent are either beneficial insects or ones that do no harm. As gardeners, doesn’t it always seem like there are way more pest insects than that?

As the author puts it, “All these tiny (beneficial) insects are a vital part of your garden. Their inherent intent, of course, is not to help you control pests but rather to survive and reproduce. Isn’t it nice, however, that your garden reaps the benefits of their consumptive and reproductive needs?.... Learning to recognize these natural enemies and encouraging ample populations of them results in a clear win-win situation for both the insect and the gardener.”

Aha, so that really should be our goal, don’t you think?

First of all, she underscores the need for us to have a pesticide-free environment. For one thing, this will eliminate the resistance to chemicals that pest insects have a tendency to develop.

Second, we need to add plants that will shelter and support the benefials.

Walliser points out that, in order to survive and reproduce, beneficial insects need proteins found in pollen and carbohydrates found in nectar. She says it’s best to have both pollen and nectar sources in one place in our gardens so the beneficials don’t expend energy trying to find each.

Within this book, the author has useful photos for identifying beneficial insects and information that indicates which types of insects they prey upon. Next are detailed profiles of plants that attract and nurture beneficial insects. I’ve known for years that members of the carrot family (Apiaceae) attract them, but her information goes way beyond that.

Then there is a guide to landscaping for beneficial insects so it is seamlessly incorporated into our gardens. She refers to these areas as insectary borders, “areas intentionally created to support the nutritional and environmental needs of insect predators and parasitoids.”

And finally, she puts all of the information together in a simple guide that shows each beneficial insect, the insects they eat and which host plants will keep them in your garden.

Walliser has a very enjoyable writing style. She’s quite self-effacing, admitting prior ignorance about the world of insects and admitting she used to spray a lot of pesticides. She also shares that she used to hate bugs because they damaged what would otherwise be “perfect” plants in the garden.

In my humble opinion, this book should be required reading for all gardeners! It contains excellent information on insects and their habits, and encourages gardeners to select a diverse collection of plant species for the most success at drawing in beneficial insects.