June 24, 2018

Beneficial Bugs and Critters

What are beneficial bugs and critters?

Creatures that do a job for us, like killing pests, pollinating food plants, etc.

Why do we want them in the garden?

Without "beneficials", we have to do their jobs, spraying for pests, pollinating every peach blossom by hand, etc.  Unlike other methods of pest control, beneficials maintain a balanced ecosystem, do no contribute to environmental pollution or pesticide resistant pests, require little effort, and some of these bugs and critters are essential to our way of life.

Types of "beneficials"


Predators eat other insects.  There are too many to list, but here are a few common ones.  I left out several that I didn't have pictures of, like lacewings, and predatory wasps and flies.

Ladybugs eat aphids, mites, scale insects, mealybugs.

Praying mantis eat anything they can physically overpower, including other mantids.

Dragonflies/damselflies eat mosquitoes and other flying insects, and their
aquatic larvae eat mosquito larvae.

Many ground beetles are predatory and eat snails and slugs.

Fireflies are a type of ground beetle and their larvae eat snails and slugs.

Assassin bugs eat a variety of bugs, including ants, as you can see here.

Spiders -- I know, eww, for some people -- are beneficial.
They eat just about anything.  This "garden spider" is one
that I'm always happy to see.

Frogs and toads eat flies, roaches, grasshoppers, moths, and many other pests.

I love seeing lizards in my garden because I know they're eating pests.

Snakes are not everyone's favorite garden dweller, but they can be beneficial.
Larger snakes eat mammals, but many small snakes are harmless and have a
big appetite for insects.  Pictured is a rat snake.

Many types of birds, like this baby bluejays, eat bugs, like beetles,
grasshoppers, and caterpillars.

Many bats, like this tiny Mexican free-tailed bat, whom I lovingly
named Edward, eat mosquitoes by the thousands.

Austin is home to one of the largest urban bat colonies in the world.
A million and a half bats -- literally 1.5 million of them --
emerge from the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin each night.
They eat between 5 and 10 TONS -- that's 10,000-20,000 lbs --
of insects nightly.  Read more about them here.


Parasitoid insects kill other insects by developing on or inside them.  Usually the female lays eggs in or on the host, then the eggs hatch and the hatched larvae eat the host -- sometimes from the inside out!
Braconid wasps are an example of a parasitoid wasp that doesn't sting humans.

Beneficial nematodes - I'm not sure how to categorize these, but they're technically a parasite, so I'm going to put them here.
Beneficial nematodes are a soil dwelling microscopic roundworm that uses biological warfare to kill soil dwelling insects, like fire ants and grubs.  The short version: they crawl into their host insect through any orifice they can find, and then they give the insects a bad case of food poisoning and eat them after they die.  You can read all the gory details here.

Decomposers or recyclers

Decomposers, also known as recyclers, break down waste, like dead plants and animals, releasing the essential nutrients back into the soil, water, and air.  These are critters that are likely to exist in a compost pile, although some are so small you would need a microscope to see them. 
Examples: earthworms, larval crane flies and and soldier flies, some nematodes, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi.


As a beekeeper, this group is dear to me.  Pollinators deliver pollen from one flower to another, which helps produce the food we eat.  Without pollinators, many common foods would not be available without a human pollinating each flower by hand.  Think about how expensive apples, peaches, pears, cherries, oranges, melons, zucchini, almonds, and even coffee would be, if humans had to do the work of millions of bees.
It's estimated that pollinators have a $20 BILLION impact on United States agriculture each year.

Some bats fall into the pollinator category, although I don't have any pictures of these bats. Bats pollinate many things, including cocoa and agave.  If you like chocolate or tequila, now you can have a new appreciation for bats.  You can read more about pollinating bats here.

Most experts say that honeybees are responsible for pollinating
approximately one-third of our food.

Solitary bees get very little credit compared to honeybees, but they
pollinate 80% of flowering plants worldwide. (source).
Here's an article I wrote about Solitary Bees.

Here's one of my many garden friends.

Butterflies, like this swallowtail, lay their eggs on a "host plant". 
The caterpillar hatches from the egg, eats the host plant and then
pupates and becomes a butterfly, repeating the cycle.

Most moths are also great pollinators, although not this luna moth.
Luna moths don't actually have mouths! 
You can read more about them on my Instagram.
Photo credit: my friend George Bohnsack

Hummingbirds are pollinators, but they also eat small bugs, like gnats.
Photo credit: my friend Rebecca Corbin

This little gal got stuck in the greenhouse at work.
She perked up after a drink and eventually flew away.

How to attract "beneficials"

Adopt an "integrated pest management" approach to gardening

  • Prevent and minimize the need for chemicals by keeping plants healthy
  • Plant disease/pest resistant varieties
  • Plant in the correct location
  • Use good watering practices
  • Ensure soil is healthy and drains well
  • Focusing on soil and plant health is the best prevention
    * Anytime you use a pesticide, even a natural one, spray it in the evening when most daytime pollinators, like honey bees and butterflies, are least likely to come into contact with it.

    You can read more about integrated pest management here on my blog.

Provide shelter

  • Leaf litter and ground cover plants
  • Overturned/partially buried pots
  • Compost pile
  • Bird houses
  • Keep flower beds mulched 2-3" deep with a wood based mulch and replenish 1-2 times per year.  Mulch provides shelter for beneficials, prevents weeks, reduces evaporative water loss, and insulates plant roots against heat and cold.  
  • Leave a well-drained, sunny portion of your flower bed free of mulch and vegetation for ground nesting solitary bees, and provide deadwood for deadwood nesting bees.
    You can learn more about solitary bees here on my blog.
  • Buy or build a beneficial bug house
  • Hang a bat house
Beneficial bug house I built for a workshop.

Provide water

  • A birdbath filled with water and marbles or stones provides a safe place for many types of pollinators to get a drink without drowning.
  • If you don't have a birdbath, you can do the same thing with a plant saucer on the ground.
  • Fountains

Provide food

  • Many beneficial critters eat nectar and pollen, but their diets vary greatly from species to species, so plant a variety of flowers that bloom in different seasons.  
  • Favorite pollinator plants are:
    • Carrot family: dill, parsley, fennel
    • Brassica family: sweet alyssum, stock, nasturtium, candytuft
    • Daisy family: sunflowers, coneflowers, mums, asters, yarrow, daisies, goldenrod
    • Mint family: salvia, basil, catnip, rosemary, thyme, lantana, agastache
  • Hang a hummingbird feeder
    • Make your own nectar with 1 part sugar to 4 parts water.  Keep it dye free.

Purchase beneficial insects

  • Most pollinators, like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds are easy to attract if you plant their favorite flowers, but predators, like ladybugs, praying mantis, and beneficial nematodes are harder to attract specifically.  You can give your garden predator population a head start by purchasing them through a local nursery or online.

Additional sources

City of Austin's Grow Green Earth-Wise Guide to Beneficial Insects
Beneficials in the Garden, Types of Beneficials, Galveston County Master Gardeners
    Beneficials in the Garden, Attracting Beneficials, Galveston County Master Gardeners

      Do you have a gardening question?  You can ask in the comments below, or on Facebook or Instagram.  Follow along for more helpful gardening tips, tricks, and how-to's.

      #asktheplantchick #theplantchick #gardeningdemystified

      June 22, 2018

      Solitary Bees

      In celebration of National Pollinator Week, I want to shine a spotlight on the solitary bee.  As a beekeeper, I tend to focus my attention on the honey bee, however, solitary bees also play an important role in our ecosystem, and they only get a fraction of the credit.

      What are solitary bees?

      According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, 90% of native bees in Texas are solitary bees.  Unlike "social" bees that live in a colony with thousands of other bees working together -- each with a specific job, like feeding the bee larvae, gathering food, removing dead bees, guarding the entrance (I like to call these nurse bees, foragers, undertakers, and bouncers, respectively) -- solitary bees live alone and tackle every job personally, building their own nests, collecting their own food, and raising their own babies.


      Because they're so busy doing everything, they're quite docile and rarely sting, unless grabbed.  They don't defend their nests the way that social bees (like honeybees) and wasps do, so it's safe to put up a homemade bee house near your home or patio (or take a peek inside one) without fear of attack.  If solitary bees sting, they die, which leaves nobody to care for their babies (bay-bees?), so they will usually buzz off or hide instead of stinging.  (Sidenote: Really, what's the point of having protection if you have to die when you use it?  Hm...)

      Beneficial bug house I built for a workshop.


      Most solitary bees nest in small holes in the ground, and you can help them out by leaving a well-drained, sunny portion of your flower bed free of mulch and vegetation.  Other types of solitary bees nest in "deadwood", which is a fancy name of a piece of wood that is dead and rotting on the ground.  If you don't have anything like this, you can create one with a block of untreated wood and a drill.  The Native Plant Society of Texas has some good tips on that here.
      but some build their nests in other things, like rotting wood stumps.

      I spotted a native bee nesting inside this hole in my flower bed.

      Why are solitary bees important?

      Solitary bees play a big role in pollination, some might even argue a bigger role than honey bees, and just like honeybees, their populations have been declining in recent years due to diminishing habitat (think big open spaces full of wildflowers).  Honey bees get more credit for pollination because they're responsible for pollinating 30% of our food, however, native bees (honey bees aren't native to the US) pollinate 80% of flowering plants worldwide (source).  It's estimated that the financial impact of native bees on US agriculture is around $3 billion a year (source), and unlike honeybees that are usually housed inside expensive hives, native bees do the work for free, as long as there is adequate habitat nearby.

      This unidentified solitary bee was spotted visiting cosmos in my vegetable garden.

      How can I tell the difference between a bee and a wasp or yellow jacket?

      Here's a quick Q/A to help determine if you're looking at a bee vs a wasp or yellow jacket.

      - Is it fuzzy?

      Bees are fuzzy.  Some are fuzzier than others.  Yellow jackets can be fuzzy, too.
      If its body is bald, it's definitely not a bee.

      - What shape is its abdomen?

      The tip of wasp and yellow jacket abdomens (the largest section of their bodies) come to a sharp point where the stinger would be.  Bees abdomens don't have a sharp point at the end.

      What can you do to help solitary bees?

      1. Plant flowers. 
        Natives are best, but you can't go wrong with anything that is daisy shaped (think sunflowers, coneflowers) or closely related to mint (think salvia, catnip, lantana, basil, rosemary, etc.)  Variety is good and will be inviting to a variety of native bees and other pollinators.
      2. Provide water.
        A shallow dish filled with water and marbles or stones provides a safe landing place for many types of pollinators to get a drink.
      3. Provide nesting habitat.
        Leave a well-drained, sunny portion of your flower bed free of mulch and vegetation for ground nesting solitary bees, and provide deadwood for deadwood nesting bees.  You can also buy or build a beneficial bug house.
      4. Go organic.
        Adopt an "integrated pest management" approach to your gardening, meaning you prevent the problems you can by choosing the right plants, planting them in the correct location, using good watering practices, etc, and if you absolutely must treat a problem, choose the least toxic method that will be effective.  More details about that on my blog "What's the Best Natural Pesticide to Use in My Garden?"
      5. Learn and educate others.
        We all know people that "nuke" their yard with pesticides at the first sign of bugs or leaf spots, and while that might seem like the easiest way, it's not usually the best way.  If you know a natural solution, share that information with someone who could use it. 
        Harmless native bees are often mistaken for wasps or yellow jackets, and they're treated accordingly.  Learn what you can to avoid misidentifying them, and again, share.

      Additional resources

      Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center searchable database that you can use to select plants that are bee/pollinator friendly.

      Native Plant Society of Texas article about native bees, with information about creating habitat and building a pollinator house.

      Texas Parks and Wildlife article detailing solitary bees versus social bees.

      United States Geological Survey article about native bees with statistics about native bee impact.

      Do you have a gardening question?  You can ask in the comments below, or on Facebook or Instagram.Follow along for more helpful gardening tips, tricks, and how-to's.

      #asktheplantchick #theplantchick #gardeningdemystified

      June 5, 2018

      A Day in the Life of a Garden Center Manager

      Today we caught up with Chris, the garden center manager at Texas Backyard RR4 in Round Rock, TX, a garden center specializing in plants for the Texas backyard, boasting mostly Texas-grown plants and a knowledgable staff dedicated to helping you with all your gardening needs. Texas Backyard is located at the Round Rock H-E-B Plus at Hwy 79 and A.W. Grimes. They offer free gardening workshops throughout the spring season (taught by yours truly) on things like how to grow succulents, how to build a strawberry tower, and how to build your own rain barrel. You can follow them on Facebook or Instagram.

      Photo credit: Texas Backyard RR4

      Q. How long have you been working in the plant industry, and how did you get started?

      A. I've been in the nursery business 25 years. I grew up in the restaurant business and one day I was just done. I thought that spending my day "playing" with flowers would be peaceful and fun.  LOL, I was clueless!

      Back then there wasn't Google, s
      o I used a phone book and went to every nursery in my area with my resume.  No one would hire me.  Then I went to a grower called Color Star Growers and they wanted to give me a job in the office. I kept insisting I wanted to work in the greenhouse. Long story short, I finally got my start, and from there I went to work for a small independent [nursery] that specialized in organics. That is when I truly fell in love with the business.
      Photo credit: Texas Backyard RR4

      Q. What kinds of related jobs have you had?

      A. Over the years I have done landscaping, worked for a large "box" [garden center], and finally now I've been at HEB Texas Backyard for 4 years.

      Q. What do you like about your current job? What are some of the perks/downsides?

      A. What I love most about my current job is the community involvement.  The [gardening] classes we host are fun and creative, and the response we get from the customers is amazing.  One of the best compliments of my career was when a regular customer told me I changed how she sees things.  She said [she] used to go shopping at Goodwill or the dollar store and look for what [she] needed, now she looks and wonders what she can plant in that [item]. I think that is pretty cool.
      What do I like least?  Winter, LOL.  I'
      m not a "Scrooge", but I hate the Christmas trees with a passion.  I am allergic to them, but the show must go on, as we say in retail, and I keep my ho-ho on the high-high and dream of spring until they are gone. 
      Photo credit: Texas Backyard RR4

      Q. What advice do you have for people considering a job in the plant industry?

      A. Have a sense of humor and be flexible.  Because you deal with live plants, anything can happen.  Mother Nature is not always your friend.  One year when all the Christmas trees were frozen solid --and customers wanted, of course, to see them "fluffed out" -- we had to actually take them inside the building to thaw them first.  And you know, no one ever picks the first tree they look at. LOL.

      Q. What is one of your favorite plants?

      A. That changes from season to season.  Right now I am in love with succulents and all the fun ways you can plant them up.  They are pretty "goof-proof."

      Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed is available at HEB Texas Backyard RR4
      and also here on Amazon

      Q. What's one of your favorite gardening products?

      A. One of my favorite products -- no surprise to anyone who knows me -- is liquid seaweed.  I use it for everything, and because I am a bit of an excessive person, [I love it because] it is a very forgiving product that I can use as much as I want and not kill anything.  I always point new gardeners to it because [they'll] get nothing but good results.

      Do you have a gardening question?  You can ask in the comments below, or on Facebook or Instagram.
      Follow along for more helpful gardening tips, tricks, and how-to's.
      If you're in Texas, you can probably get some of the products I mention at your neighborhood HEB.  If you make a purchase using one of my blog links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you as part of the Amazon Associates Program.


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