One of the first things a good gardener should learn is what living creatures are truly considered pests, capable of destroying vegetables or flowers in your yard (like moles to voles to deer and more (like moles to voles to deer and more) and benevolent ones (like snakes, ants toads, lizards, bees, and spiders).
Before you have a collective “ewwww”, consider that being a “pest” is more about time and place than about the organism itself, according to Thomas Green, an entomologist and the founder and board president of the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America, as reported by Realtor’s Sara Kuta. “For example, although we don’t want them near or inside our house, stinging bees and wasps are incredibly beneficial for pollinating crops and natural pest control in gardens.”
Snakes, legless reptiles that are usually harmless can, in fact, be very helpful since they eat all sorts of truly unwanted pests like mice, slugs, grubs, and grasshoppers. They also serve as food for birds of prey like hawks and owls, helping to maintain a balanced ecosystem in your yard and neighborhood, according to Kuta. “Snakes like places to hide, warm rocks, and a water source—so to create a snake-friendly habitat, make sure your yard has these elements,” she adds.
As for those creepy-crawlies — ants — think twice before trying to get rid of them as long as they remain outdoors. “For one thing, these tiny yet mighty workers help to maintain a healthy, vibrant lawn by acting like miniature aerators, digging tiny tunnels through the dirt that allow oxygen, water, and nutrients to reach the grass roots,” says Kuta. “They can also help turn leaves and other debris into compost. She warns, however, that there are some ants that you really don’t want to mess with—red fire ants, for instance, which can damage your vegetables and sting—but most pose no threat. Naturally able to find their way to your yard, the best way to keep them happy is to simply leave them alone and let them get to work.
While they don’t really cause warts and certainly don’t win any beauty contests, frogs do important work in your garden, eating slugs, snails, grubs, cutworms, and other damaging insects. “With a few of them in your yard, you won’t need to use as many pesticides—and that’s good for both your wallet and the environment,” says Kuti. “DIY toad houses are an easy way to encourage these little guys to spend more time in your garden. This tutorial from Lakes Area Television shows how to use a simple garden pot and some dirt to create the perfect toad environment.”
Halloween tales and horror movies notwithstanding, you might get freaked out when dusk falls and you start to see bats swooping overhead in the twilight. Kuti admits these tiny mammals have something of a bad rap, but they eat their weight in bugs every night, helping to keep mosquitoes and moths at bay. They also serve as pollinators and seed spreaders for many plants. She goes on to say that a bat house is a good way to make bats feel right at home in your yard, away from your own abode.
Throughout warmer parts of the country backyard lizards are a common sight, eating their fair share of true pests such as cockroaches, crickets, and flies. “You can make your yard more hospitable to lizards by giving them warm, dry places to hide, including old pipes, pieces of bark, rocks, and other found items,” says Kuti.
Bees and wasps are not what most of us grow up enjoying hanging around. And while it’s true that certain bees can and do sting, they really just want to buzz around your flowers in peace. “Bees are essential to our ecosystem, responsible for pollinating much of the food we grow. In addition, bees provide us with many useful products, including honey, beeswax, and compounds that can be used as medicine,” says Kuti. Wasps are important pollinators, and they like to eat crop-destroying bugs like caterpillars and weevils, so don’t forget to invite them to the party. Just take steps to ensure they build their nests in appropriate locations — not in your kids’ play equipment or the eaves of your roofline.
Spiders need not inspire fear when you realize these creatures feast on insects that can damage your plants. And they have big appetites, too, so they can help you cut down on your use of pesticides. “Spiders are beneficial because they are general predators that hunt and eat an array of garden pests, including flies and stink bugs,” says Karey Windbiel-Rojas, pest management expert from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
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