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Think twice before getting rid of garden bugs

Home gardeners who want to be friendlier to the planet can start by gardening in a way that encourages beneficial bugs in the garden.

Michigan State University Extension Educator Erwin “Duke” Elsner explains that most plants grown in home gardens – from annuals to large trees – can tolerate quite a bit of insect injury.

“Mother Nature has safeguards built into the system, ways for everything to live together and function,” he explains. “Insects and disease are part of that big picture.”

“A healthy plant can often give up 15 to 20 percent of its leaf area without a significant loss of overall health,” he adds. “Flowers being eaten doesn’t really affect the health of the plant.”

“Many insects feed on other insects and nesting birds depend on insects to feed their young. We also need insects for predatory fish that feed on insects to survive and thrive.”

As an extension educator, Elsner gets lots of questions about insects which his undergrad and PhD work in entomology prepared him to handle. “Most of the time it’s about something that’s very visual like Eastern Tent Caterpillar, or annoying like mosquitoes, ticks and midges.”

Important for gardeners to keep in mind is that nature has hundreds of creatures lined up to feed on any given plant, as well as others waiting to feast on the insects. Without intervention, nature does a good job of regulating populations.

So, if you are going to use sprays to control insects in your garden, Elsner advises knowing the insects, both predatory and parasitoid, that are natural enemies of the pests you may be intent on getting rid of. Don’t spray when they are present in large numbers and avoid sprays during bloom time to protect bees because of their sensitivity to pesticides.

One way to avoid killing off the natural enemies is to hand pick large predators from your plants, and be conscious of certain time periods when the natural enemies are prevalent.

For scientific advice on managing your garden pests, contact the extension service in your state or send an email question to Ask an Expert. There you’ll find questions from around the globe that are answered by extension educators at a wide range of universities.

Dr. Erwin “Duke” Elsner is a Small Fruit and Consumer Horticulture Educator for Michigan State University. Trained as an entomologist, Elsner provides a wide range of information for commercial growers and home gardeners. He also teaches an entomology course for a two-year plant science degree program jointly offered by MSU and Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, MI.

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