Conservation Corner: If you build it, they will come

It’s no secret that we are having problems with our pollinator species.

Loss of habitat, pesticides, pests, diseases, and weather are all taking their toll.

One of the ways farmers and gardeners around the nation are looking to reverse this trend is by creating habitat to attract beneficial insects.

This approach is actually a multifaceted solution that can address a number of concerns simultaneously, such as habitat loss, pollinator decline, pesticide use, pests, and disease.

Like any endeavor worth doing, it will take time. But the results are well worth the effort.

So, you may ask, how can creating this habitat magically make my garden healthier or help pollinators?

Glad you asked!

Beneficial insects are the bugs that eat the bugs that eat the stuff you were looking forward to eating yourself.

Think of your garden as a microcosm of the great plains of Africa where roving bands of herbivores graze on the lush vegetation after a monsoon.

Meanwhile, lying in wait in the tall grasses are various species of predators, eagerly waiting for just the right moment and just the right prey to nab their own special meal.

Once the rains are gone and the herds move on, those predators that don’t follow the herds settle back down to wait until the next feast.

Beneficial insect habitat is designed to create a place for predator insects to shelter, feed, and raise young to keep them around and prowling your garden or crops for food.

Many predator species also feed on pollen and nectar plants, while some species larval stages are more predatory than the adult.

Habitat is designed based on the needs of the predator species that you need to keep happy in order to take out yourgarden pests.

At the same time, planting for pollinator species will keep them around and ensure your crops will bear fruit.

Once habitat is in place it will take time for predatory populations to build — unlike pest populations, which seem to go from zero to a thousand overnight.

Like weeds, insect pest species are much hardier than their beneficial cousins.

On the bright side, a single predator insect can take out hundreds of pests in a week; cultivating a variety of predators can be a very effective method of pest control. This can considerably reduce, if not eliminate. the need for pesticides.

Healthy plants are more resistant to diseases and can tolerate being chewed on better.

Adequate water and nutrition will keep your plants strong and enable them to withstand a minor onslaught of pest predation.

It will take time to establish balance between pest and prey, so establishing a tolerance level for damage before bringing out the “big guns” is important.

Pest populations recover faster and are often more numerous than predator species after pesticide applications. If early in the process it becomes necessary to use a pesticide, target the infestation site, use pest-specific products, apply judiciously, and avoid open blossoms.

Where to locate this magical field of dreams should probably be addressed.

It needs to be close enough to your crop to be useful. Hedgerows, riparian areas (along streambanks), along fence rows, strips of unused land between crops, and field borders are areas ideally suited for beneficial insect habitat — providing they aren’t at risk of being sprayed with pesticides.

If I piqued your interest you might now be wondering how to cultivate this marvelous insect oasis.

The first step is to identify the pests you alredy encounter in your garden or crop.

This will help to determine the types of predator insects you’ll want to cater to and thus the kind of habitat and the plants you will want to start with.

Structures, such as brush piles and beetle banks also have their uses.

Keep in mind, once habitat becomes established it will naturally begin to attract a whole host of insect species.

Once pest and predator insects are identified, a habitat must be planned to cater to the prey species.

This is where I strongly recommend the Xerces guide to Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.

It is a clearly written, step-by-step guide loaded with a wealth of useful information.

It takes the reader through establishing various habitats, has lists of beneficial insect species and their offspring, prey and alternate sources of food. It explains how to plant insectaries, pollinator gardens, and cover cropping. It can be ordered from their website at www.xerces.org.

The Conservation District has a copy if anyone is interested in seeing it.

Xerces is an incredible resource for “everything pollinator,” and will guide you in creating a habitat to attract beneficial insects, pollinators and predators alike.

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