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10/1/2009
Benefits of bugs
Benefits of bugs

They creep and crawl. Buzz and bother. Startle and scare. Their very nicknames have become synonymous with annoyance. Bug. Pest. Our first inclination is often to flick them away, or even worse to squash them, but insects have many benefits, helping our gardens grow by improving soil health, pollinating plants and removing other pests that would damage our fruit and leaves. While we have built industries around removing them from our homes, our gardens and our lives, it is actually wise for us to consider what insects can do for us, the ways we can cooperate with them and how we can stop killing these winged and multi-legged helpers.

As author and organic farmer Will Allen points out in his book The War on Bugs, many of the chemicals in pesticides are related to ones that have been used intentionally to harm humans in places like Vietnam and Iraq. So their use in agriculture is certainly questionable for our health. Moreover, these chemicals kill more than just the unwanted pests that ruin crops. They also destroy micro-organisms, earthworms, pollinators and helpful predators, thereby upsetting the natural order and leaving the door open for new waves of pests.

Organic farming, which eschews the use of pesticides’ harmful chemicals, provides healthier crops for humans as well as homes for beneficial bugs. Biodynamic® cultivation goes even further in establishing balance, with the entire ecosystem working toward the pollination of plants and the control of unwanted pests. Insects are embraced and supported, and the free labor that they provide is allowed to continue uninterrupted. “Biodynamic® preparations, with their healing and harmonizing effect, create a special environment” for beneficial in-sects, explains Gunther Hauk, founder of Spikenard Farm in central Illinois. In other words, Biodynamic® cultivation puts insects in a better position to help us.

Enriching the environment

There’s a simple but essential cause-and-effect relationship between humans and certain insects. As Janet Gamble, farm and food education director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, puts it, “If not for pollinators, we wouldn’t have food.” Insects such as bees and butterflies contribute to the cycle of life in the garden. This harmony can be seen at Spikenard Farm, where Hauk is raising bees with gentle, Biodynamic® techniques and finds them “developing beautifully” with no signs of the colony collapse disorder that is a constant concern of other beekeepers worldwide.

While pollinators are working aboveground, there is plenty going on down below as well. With billions of organisms and thousands of species in even a small sample of soil, a delicate balance must be struck in every inch and every acre. Insects such as nematodes and mites (both so-called “secondary consumers”) feed on fungi and bacteria and enrich the soil through excretions of nitrogen wastes and organic matter. This environment needs to be well aerated, evenly moist and pH neutral in order to remain healthy and biodiverse. When this is the case, the soil’s surface can support a robust selection of other insects—including beetles, centipedes and spiders—amongst its leaves and debris.

Controlling the pests

While pollination may seem the most obvious benefit bestowed by insects, much of the current discussion—and industry—around harnessing the utility of bugs is focused on predator insects. These creatures make it their business to consume pests such as the aphids and caterpillars that feed on plants, in the process destroying leaves and transmitting viruses. Such harmful insects may develop resistance to pesticides, but they do not develop resistance to predators. Ideally the two populations will be kept in balance, with enough pests to feed the appropriate predators and enough predators to control any newly arriving pests.

This natural approach, dubbed “biological control strategy,” is an important element of Biodynamic® agriculture. The strategy first became popular in the 1880s when less than 150 vedalia predator beetles (a species of ladybug imported from Australia) saved southern California’s orange and lemon groves from the cottony cushion scale, a parasitic insect that was literarily draining the life from the fruit trees. Since then, many other insects such as nematodes, lacewings and parasitic wasps (see sidebars) have been sought out and used to control pest populations.

Signing up for benefits

Although you can purchase beneficial insects to release in your garden, it is better to establish an environment that keeps them coming back naturally. As a starting point, you should avoid the use of chemicals, which will hinder this natural cycle. To lure beneficial insects, plant a border or intersperse a variety of perennials and annuals, such as hyssop, yarrow, fennel, dill and cilantro, as they do at Michael Fields. “Allowing herbs to flower in the garden attracts beneficials and gives them a food source,” explains Gamble, “so that they will stay in the garden and continue an ongoing life cycle for generations.” To truly make a garden a welcoming spot for beneficial insects, consider building them a permanent address with an insect hotel, a natural way of providing homes for those who support your efforts and watch over your garden (see p29).

So the next time you get annoyed by that buzz around your head or that crawler on your shoe, think twice before swatting—or running. Ask yourself if you are removing an integral part of your gardening staff, a helper you should perhaps instead be thanking. mk

Building Buzz: How to Create an Insect Hotel

An insect hotel is a great way to ensure the presence of a variety of beneficial insects, both pollinators and predators. According to Eva Maria Walle, manager of the Weleda Biodynamic® Medicinal Plant Gardens, “We can provide an adequate habitat for the insects to support them, as they are very important for our cultivation.” The early spring is an ideal time to open for business, so start planning now.

The foundation and floors

Your hotel can really be as large or small, wide or narrow as your garden requires and allows. You can build a sturdy structure out of wood, but also consider recycling discarded pallets stacked and secured to one another, or a series of bricks or cinder blocks bridged by wood planks.

The suites

Fill the gaps with recycled and natural materials to provide enticing rooms for temporary residence and for winter hibernation.

Hollow reeds, stems or canes, even logs or wood peppered with drilled holes, will attract solitary bees, but make sure their rooms are on the sunny side.

Sticks, pine cones, twigs, dried leaves and stones will remind spiders, ladybugs and invertebrates of the forest floor they love. Rolled up corrugated cardboard, as long as it is protected from the rain, will provide ideal rooms for lacewings.

Almost anything, including pieces of bark, terra cotta pots and roof tiles, will provide the cracks and crevices to which many insects are drawn.

The roof

A sloped roof will protect your hotel from the rain, but a “rooftop garden” of perennials and annuals (with adequate drainage or a slight angle) can lure even more beneficials.

The amenities

Location is everything, so build in a good neighborhood. The semi-shade, near a hedge or other natural growth, will provide an easy commute. Having food nearby, such as nectar-producing plants, and a dish of water near the base will make your insects want to stay.