Beneficial Bug Guide
Written by Haley Hopkins
Attracting beneficial bugs and insects to your garden is actually fairly easy. Some people make it out to be an elaborate science, but it’s really just a matter of thoughtful courtship. Because (spoiler alert) the bugs know what they want! That’s right– someone who knows exactly what they want and, on top of that, doesn’t actually even need that much? Someone who will show up, ready to support your garden’s overall vitality and provide you with blooms and abundance while they’re at it? Are we all gonna start dating bugs now? I’m blushing. But, like most things, it’s a two way street baby! You have to show up and be intentional if you want that sweet bug symbiosis.
Three tricks to make the bugs go crazy? Easy.
1) Variety is the spice of life. Plant a garden with many different species. You don’t have to get crazy with it, but you also could and we totally support that. A more complex habitat will bring a larger variety of visitors.
2) Play the long game. To help guide that variety, plant a garden that’s going to bloom throughout the year and continue to woo the bugs. An especially important gap to fill is August-October when we’re treading through those heatwaves and the majority of our natives are dormant. Luckily whoever designed this thing did a pretty good job and there are a number of other natives that act as bridges/lifeline food sources for pollinators that are still busy late in the season:
Eriogonum elongatum (Longstem buckwheat), Isocoma menziesii (Menzie’s Goldenbush) , Epilobium canum (California fuschia), Grindellia camporum (Great valley gumweed), Keckiella cordifolia (Climbing penstemon), Penstemon spectabilis (Showy penstemon), Oenethera elata (Evening primrose), Solidago californica (California Goldenrod), Romneya coulteri (Matilija poppy), Stachys bullata (California hedgenettle), Verbena lasiostachys (Western vervain), all of the Coyote brushes, Eriophyllum confertiflorum (Golden yarrow), Hetermoeles arbutifolia (Toyon), Adenostoma sparsifolium (Red Shanks), are all great options that bloom during those months.
And no, we didn’t forget about #3) While, sure, there can be too much of a good thing (monoscapes, booo), there’s nothing wrong with a solid amount of a good thing. Patches of yarrow, swathes of heuchera, mazes of sages, troops of monkeyflowers, prairies of native milkweed… I mean, c’mon. Bug buffets! Consistent supplies of that sweet, funky stuff! Abundance! Abundance = a bug dance… just sayin’.
Hoverflies, sometimes called Flowerflies, are some of our most important beneficial insects. Despite their convincing biomimicry of wasps and bees, their set of two wings and lack of stinging/biting abilities marks them as true flies. In California we’re lucky to be home to over 300 different species of hoverflies, also known as Syrphids. As larvae they are predators to most garden pests and as adults they are pollinating powerhouses. They love to feed on slow moving, soft bodied insects like aphids and mealybugs, but (some species) also eat ants, caterpillars, froghoppers, psyllids, scales and mites. One especially interesting subfamily here in California, Microdontinae, prefers to prey upon immature ants. The Microdontinae larvae have been found inside ant nests where, camped out in undercover agent mode, they manage to go unnoticed by the adult ants, feeding as they please. As with all beneficial insects, learn the larvae! Hoverflies are voracious feeders, and if you have an infestation of bad bugs you’re very likely to find larvae appearing in the area to proliferate and feast, as adults will often lay single eggs in the midst of bad bug colonies. This is important to do before using things like horticultural oils as you will also wipe out those larvae that you want to keep around! While adults are not predaceous, they do the good work of pollination and procreation, plus they’re cute to find in the garden. Some plants they particularly enjoy are Baccharis pilularis (Coyote brush) (this one is major as it hosts many different Syrphid species!!), almost every Arctostaphylos (Manzanita) species, Eriogonum fasciculatum (California buckwheat), Salvia mellifera (Black sage), Salvia apiana (White sage), Eriodictyon crassifolium (Thickleaf yerba santa), Grindelia camporum (Great valley gumweed), most Lupines, etc. Next time you spot a hoverfly be sure to check out its wings in the sun for a wow-ing, iridescent show.
Let’s talk lady beetles. You heard that right– they’re technically beetles not bugs… and sometimes they’re even called birds. California has been blessed with some 200 different species of lady beetle-bird-bugs, many of which are native. However, the iconic red (sometimes orange) lady beetle with many spots and white “eyes” that people usually think of is actually Harmonia axyridis, or the Asian lady beetle. They were introduced in the Southeastern states to help fight pests and eventually migrated across the country, establishing themselves in California sometime in the early 90’s. Since then, they’ve become the dominant species here, eating many different harmful insects and generally providing a net positive effect, except for when they decide to overwinter in homes sometimes. The California lady beetle, or Coccinella californica, can be ID’d by the lack of spots on its wings. Many of the other native lady beetles are often orange as opposed to red, like the Convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) which can have up to 13 small, black spots on its back. If you want to go down the rabbit hole of lady beetle identification please do, as they’re all very beautiful in slightly different ways! If not, no worries– the many different types of lady beetles all generally do the same thing and are pretty darn good at it too.
Knowing how to ID lady beetle eggs is important so that you don’t accidentally mistake them for a pest. Eggs are yellow and oval/football shaped, usually laid upright in tight little pods on the underbellies of leaves. After one or two weeks the eggs will hatch and ladybug larvae will emerge, looking sort of like tiny alligators with their black, orange-striped bodies and bumpy skin. Lady beetle larvae are voracious feeders and can eat up to 1,200 aphids throughout their 4 instars. In the bug world development is marked by something called an “instar”, aka a distinct phase in between different molting periods. Lady beetle larvae have four instars where they molt and get bigger each time, and after that they form a hard shell and enter their pupal phase, which is when their little alligator body basically melts down and reforms into its final beetle form! Adult lady beetles can eat around 5,000 aphids during their lifetime since they can live up to 3 years. The egg to adult metamorphosis takes anywhere between 3-6 weeks and there are usually 5-6 generations of lady beetles each year. Lady beetles don’t really have a host plant, since they’re not leaf eaters and are mostly concerned with the bugs they want to eat. That being said, as far as native plants go, they do seem to really enjoy spending time on the flowers of Baccharis salicifolia (Mulefat), Baccharis pilularis (Coyote brush) and Achillea millefolium (Common yarrow) and frequently visit Artemisia douglasiana (Mugwort) and Artemisia californica (California sagebrush).
While they sound fancy and dainty, lacewings are actually some of the heaviest hitters in terms of the natural enemies we have against the various garden pests buggin’ out on our plants. The larvae of green lacewings are affectionately nicknamed “Aphid lions” because they “can eat 600 aphids in 14 to 20 days… [along with] other small bodied invertebrates such as caterpillars, beetles, scales, mealy bugs, leaf hoppers, thrips, and mites.” (UCI extension source). The way lacewing larvae eat their prey is also pretty metal– they look similar to the ladybug larvae we discussed earlier, tough little alligator shaped creatures, and in addition to that, the lacewings have a large jaw that they lock onto aphids so that they can spit out a paralyzing venom while sipping on aphid juice. And it doesn’t stop there, lacewing larvae have been observed covering their own bodies in dead aphids and other detritus to camoflauge themselves for the next time they sneak up on colonies. They really don’t mess around! Luckily, like almost all of the beneficial insects we have, they don’t bite or bother humans, just other bugs. In addition to the green ones, California is also home to a few different types of brown lacewings, which are essentially the same, just slightly smaller in both their larval and adult stages.
One thing the lacewings seem to have figured out that lady beetles haven’t is to lay their eggs separately. Sometimes larvae cannabalize their own egg siblings, and the adults seem to know this which may inform this behavior, though sometimes they will still lay them in clusters and let natural selection play out. It’s tough work being a mom! Egg laying methodology is another way that green and brown lacewings differ from one another. Green lacewings lay their eggs atop these little yet mighty silken stalks that they excrete to help protect the wee ones from predators. The result looks sort of like the appendage and bobble of an angler fish’s head, or a teeny tiny fairy light coming off of the surface of the leaf. Brown lacewing eggs, however, are simply laid upon the leaf’s surface, as they lack the special anatomy green lacewings have that allows them to make silken stalks. Adult lacewings will lay some 100-300 eggs during their lifespan, which go through 3 larvael instars before pupating and becoming adults of their own.
It’s difficult to find much literature on plants that specifically attract Lacewings, since, like ladybugs, they’re mostly interested in eating other bugs. That being said, because they aren’t the strongest fliers and therefore are much more active pollinating/feeding in the evening, having some night blooming natives and/or moth pollinated plants (which often get more fragrant at night) in your garden may help attract them. Keystone species are also never a bad idea, as they host so many insects: think buckwheats, salvias and oaks. Many of the observations of Lacewing eggs I’ve seen have been made on various oak species. For night bloomers some good options are Oenethera californica or Oenethera elata (California evening primrose and Hooker’s evening primrose), Datura wrightii (Sacred datura), and, even though they’re not a true night bloomer, ceanothus as they tend to smell stronger at night, most likely because they are largely pollinated by moths, and are also a keystone species. Lastly, you could try some natives who’s new, tender growth can often get buggy and that also have lots of blooms like Encelia californica (California bush sunflower), any of the Lupines and Asclepias fascicularis (Narrowleaf milkweed).
Bees are more than worthy of their own in-depth guide, so we’ll try to keep it short and sweet. If there’s one take away from this section, let it BEE that honeybees, which are actually non native imports from Europe, are really just the eeniest, teeniest tip of the iceberg and there is soo much more buzzing around beyond them. Out of the “4,000 bee species known in the entire United States, about 1,600 have been recorded in California” (ucanr source), or in other words, we have 1600 of our own native bees here. Remember, abundance = a bug dance! “With more than 5,500 native plant species, 40 percent of which are ‘endemic’ (occurring nowhere else), California has more species and more endemic species than any other U.S. state, and is more species rich than most other places on Earth” (ucsc source). All of this plant diversity is what translates into our bee (and other bug) diversity.
Native bees are very different from European honeybees in a number of ways. Instead of living in large colonies they often live solitary lives, instead of beehives they often live inside wood or underground tunnels, and none of our native bees make honey. I know what it sounds like, but trust me, native bees are not just weirdo underground loners! They’re still doing incredibly important work, they just do it a little differently than we’re used to learning about in our honey-centric view of these creatures. In bee world there are generalists and specialists. Generalist bees aren’t too picky about where they get their nectar and pollen from, and will visit a large variety of different plants, while specialists have co-evolved with small groups of plant species, sometimes even individual plants. Specialists will emerge at the same time that those plants begin to bloom and have an essential symbiotic relationship pollinating them in return for food. As Hollis Woodard, an entomologist at UC Riverside, said, losing honeybees would be “an agricultural issue, not a conservation issue… They’re not native, and they’re completely entangled with our agricultural system, many aspects of which are not sustainable (CNPS article). Losing native bees, however, would absolutely be a conservation issue (and an agricultural one as they often are more efficient pollinators). Many species have seen sharp declines in population alongside the loss of their habitats.
That’s where we come in! Planting early bloomers (winter/spring season) is a great way to support bees coming out of diapause or hibernation– Arctostaphylos species (Manzanitas), various Ceanothus, and Ribes (Currants and Gooseberries). If you have the space, bees often do better with large swathes of flowers so plant big patches of poppies, Lupines, etc. Then there are some of the specific bee-plant relationships that have been observed, like how Ascmispon glaber (Deerweed) seems to be a favorite of native mason bees, or how the bright green sweat bees and longhorn bees enjoy plants in the Asteracea family like Encelia californica (California bush sunflower) or Erigeron glaucus (Seaside daisy). Lastly, as mentioned in the intro, the end of summer and early fall blooming plants that act as nectar bridges in that dormancy season are also very important– Eriogonum elongatum (Longstem buckwheat), Isocoma menziesii (Menzie’s Goldenbush) or Hazardia squarrosa (Sawtooth Goldenbush) and Solidago californica (California goldenrod). And while red blooms are especially attractive to hummingbirds, bees can’t actually see the color red and seem to prefer purples, blues, whites and yellows– think salvias and sunflowers.
In addition to planting lots of nectar and pollen sources for bees, it’s also helpful to think about if your yard is a place where they can actually build their homes. As mentioned before, native bees don’t make hives and don’t live in huge colonies, so housing them in your backyard is generally drama free. By simply leaving some bare dirt in your yard that may be enough for the native species that live in the ground, as surfaces like thick grass or too much mulch are impenetrable for them. For bees that nest in cavities, like bumblebees, sometimes abandoned beetle or rodent burrows do the trick, or bird nesting boxes. This is a really great resource for making bee homes from our friends at the Arroyos and Foothills Conservancy.
No need to reinvent the wheel here. This guide created by the good people of The Xerces Society have tons of information and actionable steps for you to take, including a good list of things to avoid doing in the collective effort to save these imperiled beauties. The Environmental Defense Fund also made a great guide you can find here that has a lot of information, including tips for seeding milkweed in large numbers and transplanting. And if you have made it this far in the guide and your brain really only has space left for one singular piece of info regarding monarchs, let it be this: PLANT CALIFORNIA NATIVE MILKWEED, WE HAVE 15 DIFFERENT TYPES. In a big win for the butterflies, CDFW finally designated tropical milkweed as a noxious weed and banned the sale of it in nurseries. Why? Because it is also the host plant to a protozoan parasite, OE, that, aside from habitat loss, has been one of the leading contributors to monarch loss as it largely inhibits their ability to grow to maturity, fly proficiently, mate successfully and live long lives. The best Southern California native milkweed options are: Asclepias fascicularis (Narrowleaf milkweed), Asclepias eriocarpa (Woolypod/Kotolo milkweed), and Asclepias californica (California milkweed).
The field of entomology is a massive one and we essentially just sprinted through a very specific, yet still massive, corner of it. There are so many more bugs and insects (and spiders, hello!) to talk about, but these are just some of the basics to get you started. If you’re already itching to expand your bug brain, darkling beetles, minute pirate bugs, aphid midges and the many moths of Southern California are all very fun places to start.
Lastly, habitats are living, breathing, everchanging entities that are sometimes messy, or aphid infested, or dormant and “ugly” looking, but tapping into the more than human world and its different rhythms is always helpful when trying to be in a more harmonious, reciprocal relationship with all that goes on around us. Befriend the beetles, seek out the spiders, mother the monarchs and enjoy the many lessons they all have to share. Happy planting!