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August 29, 2012

Smallest of Wild Neighbors

When you stop to smell the roses, check out the bugs while you are at it

  • The White-lined Sphinx moth visits blossoms day and night throughout most of North America. Mike Neufer

  • Like other Coccinella Lady Beetles, the Seven-spotted (seen in northern states and southern Canada) eats aphids. Cheryl Moorehead

  • Huge eye spots to discourage predators from striking the Alaus oculatus click beetle. Its larvae feed on wood-boring beetles. M.D. Firmani

  • Look for the Common Whitetail dragonfly at ponds and in meadows across most of the U.S. and So. Canada. M.D. Firmani

  • Sharing a milkweed blossom nectar, a couple of two-spotted bees repay the plant with pollination services. M.D. Firmani

  • The woolly bear caterpillar spends fall days seeking a safe winter home. Its adult stage, the night-flying yellow Isabella tiger moth, emerges in late May. M.D. Firmani

  • You'll see the hooked antennae of silver-spotted skippers throughout most of the U.S. Debra Firmani

  • The Carolina Mantis may be green or brown. Males often fly near lights at night; females are flightless. Stephen Pollard

  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are at home in forest or garden. Males are yellow; females may be yellow or black. Debra Firmani

Ever wonder why it is that we somehow lose the fascination we have as kids for observing insects?

Perhaps we acquire a few too many negative stories, or we end up focusing only on the mosquitoes biting us on summer evenings, or the uninvited ants in our kitchen.

But what about all the other insect species, the vast majority of which are harmless, or even beneficial?

Roughly 70 percent of all animal species are insects: Beetles alone comprise 30 percent! “The little things that run the world,” as E.O. Wilson calls them, may be the smallest of our wild neighbors, but they will repay close examination in spades.

Pause a while and watch closely—you're sure to develop an appreciation.

Tiny allies in the garden (and beyond)

Here are some of the small creatures you might encounter in your neighborhood, along with what they are contributing to your backyard ecosystem and beyond.

  • Bees and many flies are pollinating your flowers, fruits, and vegetables
  • Grasshoppers and locusts are providing protein and fat for nesting birds
  • Certain wasps and flies are eating or parasitizing insects that we consider pests
  • Beetles are decomposing organic materials, facilitating the cycling of nutrients
  • Butterflies are pollinating flowers and becoming food for birds
  • Mites and springtails—found in nearly all habitats—are producing humus (mature compost)
  • Glowworms of the firefly genus Photuris are feeding upon pesky snails and slugs
  • Assassin bugs are eating flies, beetles, and hornworms
  • Moths are pollinating the same plant species that they defoliated as caterpillars

How to return the favor

With a few welcoming gestures, you can attract insects that will help your gardens and yard flourish.

  • Refrain from using pesticides and herbicides—they kill beneficial insects, not just their intended targets, and they harm other wildlife.
  • Plant native nectar-producing wildflowers and flowering herbs
  • Use clover as ground cover to provide nectar for bees and other insects
  • Set out a dish with pebbles and water for insects to sip; freshen the water every third day
  • Don't clip down perennials, so they can provide shelter through the fall and winter
  • Leave some leaf litter so beneficial insects can overwinter in it
  • Create a compost pile as a year-round refuge for beneficial insects.

Learn more 

Though butterflies already have a large and loyal following, many other insects are exquisite in their own ways and equally worthy of watching. An increasing number of beautifully illustrated field guides awaits all who wanat to learn about these fascinating animals. An excellent book and CD by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger also introduces insect songs, decoding sounds that would otherwise remain a mystery to most.

And, don’t forget the night! Fireflies (or lightning bugs) can be as magical for you at 50 as they were at 5 if you let them, and furry moths are out visiting fragrant and luminous night-blooming flowers, so scope out the flowers ahead of time and know where to head with a flashlight.

Browse this list of books and websites to learn more about your smallest wild neighbors.

A final word

Despite our battles with a few troublesome insect species, the overriding truth is that we simply could not get by without the help of our many insect friends—and they add infinite interest and beauty to the world. Make the small effort to maintain a healthy backyard where a diversity of insects can abound, and the beneficial ones will keep the others in check for you. Then take time to appreciate the many forms, voices, and behaviors of these smallest of wild neighbors as they busily keep life humming along for you. Your rekindled curiosity is sure to inspire others!

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