An Entomologist’s Dos & Don’ts of Dealing with Insects

by | Jun 19, 2020 | Environment, Latest, People, Pests and diseases, Plants

Garden Advice from a Bug Expert

Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She’s the senior science editor at Verdant Word and the author of numerous papers and books, including Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants and Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Spiders.

Why are bees important in our gardens?

First, it’s important to understand that we have more than 4,000 native bee species in the United States. (Honey bees are not native). These native bee species have coevolved with the United States’ native flora, and many have bodies that are perfectly suited to pollinate certain flowers. By encouraging native bees to live on your property, you can help sustain your neighborhood’s ecosystem, and by planting native plants in your garden to attract native bees, you can further help preserve and maintain a happy ecosystem right in your yard.

What kinds of plants attract bees?

Which kinds of flowers you’d like to plant to attract bees depends on which kinds of bees you’d like to attract to your garden. Squash bees, for example, have hairy bellys that perfectly fit with the squash flower, and are super efficient at picking up pollen and transferring it to other flowers on the squash plant. Blueberry bushes have bell-shaped flowers ideal for a bumble bee’s method of pollinating. So you could plant those for bumble bees. You could also consider providing a perfect habitat to attract some of our native bees. Lots of native bees like to nest in the ground, and prefer to make little tunnels in patches of bare ground. Other bees like to nest in straw-shaped cavities, and you can purchase or build your own native bee hotels.

Squash Bee, Photo Courtesy Nancy Adamson, WikiCommons

Are there certain insects in our gardens we should think about before using a pesticide?

Yes. You should always consider all insects before using a pesticide. Of the millions of insect species in the world, only an infinitesimal number of them are considered pests. The vast majority of insects are helpful to humans, crucial to our well being, or don’t bother us or interact with us at all. 

But when absolutely necessary, what is your advice for using pesticides?

One should always take care when selecting an insecticide to spray in their garden. Insecticides can disrupt the natural processes occurring that already keep your garden healthy, and may end up costing you more money and time in the long run. Only spray an insecticide if you determine that you have a problem. For example, you may have a tremendous number of whiteflies on your rose bushes that could be damaging the plant. Then, select an insecticide that is as targeted to the pest problem that you have as you possibly can. That way, you can limit damage to the many beneficial insects you have in your garden. Keep in mind that insects considered pests inside your house, like ants, are tremendously beneficial to you outside your house. 

How do I know if an insect is harmful or helpful?

If you see an insect you think may be a pest, do a little research first to find out what you have living with you. Your local extension agent is often ready to help you with this sort of identification, and can also help guide you to an appropriate treatment. 

Is it okay to kill fire ants?

Fire ants are important to their native ecosystems in Central and South America. Unfortunately, humans brought them to the United States, where they can wreak havoc in the introduced areas—as some people are allergic to fire ants and all people can be hurt by the stings they are considered a health risk to humans. Also, they can displace our valuable native ant species, and so are considered damaging to the local ecology. 

What’s the best method for getting rid of fire ants?

First, make sure you have fire ants. The United States has at least 1,000 ant species, but fire ants can be fairly unmistakable with their highly aggressive nature, small-to-medium size, and large mounds. That said, many ant species build mounds, and many are the same size as fire ants. Native species of ants are beneficial to your garden and should almost always be left alone. If you decide to eliminate your fire ant mound, consider a non-chemical method for elimination (a pot of boiling, soapy water dumped in the stirred-up mound around 6 pm should do the trick), or be sure to apply your pesticide according to the label’s instructions. I often see people spend money on pesticides and then apply them improperly. Their fire ants persist, and they wonder why the pesticide didn’t work. 

Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice

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