Know Your Pollinators (And Beneficial Bugs)

Meet some of your garden’s insect helpers, including pollinators and predators.

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With honey bees in crisis, pollinator gardens are all the rage. My own pollinator garden hosts an amazing array of insects. On a sunny day the buzzing and flitting is constant. Of course honey bees visit the blooms, but they’re definitely outnumbered by other pollinators.

Honey Bee

Honey Bee

Honey bees are helpful pollinators in the garden.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

I’ve been studying the pollinators visiting each day and working to identify them. Friend or foe? Can it sting? Is it aggressive? Those are the questions always on my mind. If you wonder about the insects in your garden, you’ve come to the right place. Brush up on your beneficial insect IQ.

Sweat Bee

Sweat Bee

Sweat Bee

Sweat bees deliver a mild sting and only when threatened.

Photo by: Jillian Cowles for The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt

Jillian Cowles for The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt

Sweat bees are wonderful pollinators. With their tiny size, they prove especially effective at pollinating tiny complicated flowers, like those found in the daisy family. This group of bloomers includes sunflowers, coneflowers, black-eyed Susan and Shasta daisies—flowers with a petal-encircled center disk packed with tiny blossoms.

These little insects also pollinate a host of other small flowers, including herbs like oregano, dill and cilantro. Sweat bees are not aggressive, so there’s no need to fear. “They deliver only a mild sting and only defensively, like when they’re trapped or grabbed,” says Justin Schmidt, a biologist and entomologist with a passion for stinging insects. “If you do manage to get stung, it’s acute—you feel it, but it’s not serious.”

Great Black Wasp

Great Black Wasp

Great Black Wasp

Great black wasps grow to almost an inch long—big enough to seem frightening. They are excellent pollinators and eat grasshoppers.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Great black wasps grow 1 to 1.5 inches long—big enough to frighten. This is a thread-waisted wasp with a long, slender midsection. Great black wasps are solitary, which means they don't form colonies that need defending. The females dig short tunnels in bare soil to lay their eggs. They deposit paralyzed grasshoppers and katydids into each tunnel, laying eggs on the insect zombies. When the eggs hatch, the wasp larva feed on the un-dead bug buffet. These dainty looking wasps catch, on average, 17 katydids and grasshoppers per day, flying and carrying that load to their tunnels. Female great black wasps are weightlifters in the insect world.

They’re also excellent pollinators, visiting flowers to feed on nectar, often flashing their blue iridescent wings. Like other solitary wasps, the great black is not aggressive and stings only defensively. Schmidt describes a great black wasp sting as “simple and presumptuous. Your younger sibling just nipped at your pinkie finger.”

Hover Fly

Hover Fly

Hover Fly

Hover flies mimic bee coloring, which makes them appear threatening to predators (and people). Hover flies are helpful pollinators in the garden.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Some insects practice mimicry, imitating another insect as a tactic to evade predators. This hover fly is also known as a bee mimic fly or flower fly. Notice its big fly-type eyes—this is a cousin to the common house fly and lacks any power to sting. As a fly, this insect offers a tasty bite to predators, but its resemblance to a bee provides an effective defense. The easiest way to ID it is by its flight maneuvers. “If it hovers, goes backwards and moves at the speed of light, it’s a fly,” Schmidt says. “Bees aren’t that agile.”

Hover flies are fantastic pollinators in the garden, visiting flowers like sweet alyssum, coreopsis, yarrow and anise hyssop. In my garden, hover flies jealously guard pots of osteospermum daisies, verbena and ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia. I’ve even seen them dive bomb and chase large carpenter bees off blooms. Some hover fly larva feed on aphids, adding another beneficial contribution to the garden.

Mud Dauber Wasp

Mud Dauber Wasp

Mud Dauber Wasp

Mud dauber wasps are helpful pollinators in the garden.

Photo by: Margarethe Brummermann, http://arizonabeetlesbugsbirdsandmore.blogspot.com/ for The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt

Margarethe Brummermann, http://arizonabeetlesbugsbirdsandmore.blogspot.com/ for The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt

Mud dauber wasps help with pollination and also prey on spiders. Their favorites are orb weaving spiders, the ones that make large, patterned webs. Mud daubers catch, paralyze and stash spiders as a food source for their soon-to-hatch eggs, which they deposit in mud tubes. You’ve probably seen their tubes on porches and other protected areas of a home. “Mud daubers are about 2 inches long with a long thin waist. They’re kind of scary looking,” Schmidt says, “but the sting doesn’t really hurt. It’s sharp with a flare of heat, sort of like biting into jalapeno cheese when you expected Havarti.”

Welcome Beneficial Insects

Want to invite beneficial insects to set up housekeeping in your garden? Try a few of Schmidt's tips for attracting and hosting beneficial insects.

  • Plant natives. Native plants attract insects, which attract birds and lizards. It’s the first step to creating a cozy ecosystem in your garden.
  • Leave wild areas. Avoid grooming your yard so that every inch is manicured, mulched and tamed. Have areas that are natural—garden edges, under shrubs or beneath decks and porches. Many beneficial insects nest in open soil and won’t dig through mulch.
  • Tend some clover. Lawns are a death knell to insects. Let some clover grow somewhere to provide forage for beneficial insects.
  • Avoid poisons. Skip pesticides and treat problem insects using soapy water or other natural treatments. Remember that if you want beneficial insects to live in your garden, they need food to eat. Learn to live with a few pests if that’s what it takes to keep predator insects well fed.
  • Meet your beneficials. Visit BugGuide.net for help identifying insects in your yard.

Learn more about insects, including the how and why of stings, in Schmidt’s book, The Sting of the Wild.

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