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Predators, parasitizers, pollinators, soil enrichers all serve a purpose

By Toni W. Riley
With temperatures rising, families won’t be the only ones out and about to enjoy the weather, but a myriad of insects that are native to our yards and gardens will also be crawling and abuzz. Before dousing every creepy-crawly, bug-like creature, it is important to know there are beneficial insects that provide a real service and pose no threat to humans.
Dr. Doug Johnson, entomologist at the University of Kentucky Extension, says beneficial bugs can fall into three categories: predators and parasitizers, pollinators and soil enrichers.

Pollinators
Pollinators have furry bodies that collect and carry pollen from one plant to another, allowing the plants to reproduce. While honeybees are the most recognizable pollinator, there are other important pollinators to remember.
Butterflies, flies, moths and other types of bees are also
attracted to bright blooms to feed on nectar. These insects pollinate more by accident as they move from blossom to blossom in search of food.
“Bee per bee, many other bees are more efficient pollinators than are honeybees,” Johnson says.
He points out the bumblebee, known as a general pollinator, and the Squash bee, which is a solitary bee that specifically pollinates squash.
There are more than 3,500 species of bees in North America. On a historical note, Johnson notes, honeybees are not native to America. The Europeans brought them here. Some early American writers said Native American’s called honeybees “white man’s flies” and knew a white settlement was nearby because of the bees.
Johnson goes on to say that all pollinators, even those that aren’t widely recognized, should be protected.

Soil enrichers, predators and parasitizers
Soil enrichers, such as earthworms, centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs and dung beetles, all have a niche in the soil to aerate, compost and control pests.
These bugs either eat other bugs or lay their eggs on them. The hatched larva uses the host bug as nutrition. Though gruesome, all of this has a purpose.
Kentucky is home to several species of lady beetles, which are probably the most recognizable beneficial bug. Known commonly as “ladybugs,” these beetles are a universal garden predator and enjoy eating aphids, which are sap-sucking plant lice. Before becoming adults, ladybugs go through a pupal stage and resemble caterpillars. Once developed, most are red with black spots but some are black and shiny.
Similar to the ladybug, green lacewings are important garden predators and also love to eat aphids. Lacewings look like small green dragonflies but are more closely related to beetles.
The praying mantis is commonly mistaken with the walking stick insect. The Chinese mantis is 4 inches long and a prize in insect collections. Using its color for camouflage, the mantis ambushes its prey with its front legs and then devours its food by chewing.
While the praying mantis can fly, it doesn’t fly often; however, it is an excellent jumper. The praying mantis is not remarkably beneficial, but it also isn’t considered a pest.
While everyone detests their painful stings, wasps are beneficial. Most wasps, including ants, feed on caterpillars and other pests, and some are parasitoids. The latter lays its eggs inside caterpillars, where the larvae hatch using the host for food.
Parasitoid wasps serve as vital pest control agents for many crops. The ichneumon wasp has a special, egg-laying tool that inserts its eggs into logs or branches that are infested with
wood-borer beetle larvae. When the eggs hatch, the wasp grubs consume the larvae.
Assassin and ambush bugs are named that for a reason. An assassin bug catches its prey and instead of chewing, it uses tube-like mouthparts to suck out the juice. Assassin bugs actively search for prey while ambush bugs wait in hiding.
Assassin bugs will bite humans if handled carelessly, and the bite can be painful. The wheel bug is one of the largest and most common assassin bugs. Hence its name, it has a large wheel on its back.
Everyone knows spiders catch prey in their webs, and most aren’t dangerous to people. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. While most spiders spin webs to trap their prey, the wolf spider actually hunts for food on the ground. Spiders use their venomous fangs to control their prey. Orchard spiders, which are bright green, white and yellow, can be fascinating to watch. These large spiders are long-jawed and weave large, intricate orb-shaped webs in gardens.

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