Choosing plants for Beneficial Habitat At Home

light pink flower with a fuzzy bee crawling on it
A bee gathers pollen from a cosmos flower.

Recall from this post that I’m creating habitat for beneficial arthropods (including insects, spiders, predatory mites, etc.) around my house this spring. Because more of us may be doing this while we’re staying home to keep each other safe, I’m sharing my experiences here (as well as on Twitter and Instagram). The previous post covered site selection. Today I will talk about the species I’ve chosen (and why).

What I’m planting in my yard

Sunny yard alongside a house with several freshly-dug garden beds
My side yard faces south and gets the most sun. But it’s a pretty small area and I want it to look reasonably tidy. I’m still building rapport with my neighbors.

The front and side yards get plenty of sun (because they face south and west), so I’m looking for plants that thrive in full sun. And I’ll admit that I’m interested in more than just supporting beneficial arthropods. I also want my front and side yards to look reasonably nice. (I don’t want to make enemies of my new neighbors!) And I want to grow flowers for cutting. So I am not sticking strictly to native plant species or to perennials. Some plants I picked just because I thought they looked nice. For example, I was beguiled by ‘Chim Chiminee’ Rudbeckia. The pollen and nectar produced by the native species may have been bred out of this variety. I’ll find out. I also just love ‘Persian Carpet’ zinnias.

Plants growing in a large clump with smaller flowers in combinations of yellow, orange, and red.
I grew these ‘Persian Carpet’ zinnias in my garden last year. I love the mix of colors and the abundant blooms that last well when cut.

I’ve started a lot of plants from seeds I had in my fridge (e.g., snap dragons, echinacea, bachelor’s buttons). Others I will direct-seed outside (e.g., sunflowers, zinnia, cosmos), and I may also purchase some transplants from local nurseries (many have great strategies for safe curbside pick-up!).

Several small seedlings growing in paper pots.
I’m starting some plants from seed at home. Using paper pots means that I can compost them when I’m done, and not worry about carrying pathogens over from year to year on plastic pots that I would have to wash very thoroughly after use. Once a plant pathologist, always a plant pathologist!

Choosing plants for beneficial arthropods – the basics

Which plant species to grow to support beneficial arthropods (whether it’s pollinators or natural enemies of pests, or both) is a common question. The answer is both straight-forward, and also complicated. In addition to shelter and protection from pesticides, all beneficial arthropods need something to eat. In general, plants that provide plenty of nectar and pollen help to provide this food. Many natural enemies of pests will also eat pollen or nectar (e.g., at certain life stages, or as a supplement to the pests they eat). Even if they don’t, the pollen and nectar will often attract small arthropods that natural enemies can feed on. So, the simple answer is that a plant that produces lots of pollen and nectar, will thrive in the setting where you want to plant it, and is not invasive is a good choice for supporting beneficial arthropods. Plants that are marketed as supporting pollinators are easy to find and are likely to also support natural enemies.

Bright purple flower with three petals with a yellow and black striped fly perched on it
This Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) in our beneficial arthropod habitat plots is being visited by a hover fly. Hover fly larvae are excellent aphid predators!

But, of course, it’s not exactly that simple…

Choosing plants – natives, cultivars, and more

Many people ask if they should only grow native plant species, or if it’s ok to plant cultivated varieties of native species, or non-native species. (Hopefully it’s obvious that you should never plant an invasive species in your yard!) Annie White at the University of Vermont wrote a 254-page dissertation on the topic. These two sentences from her abstract summarize her findings nicely: “Our study shows that many insect pollinators prefer to forage on native species over cultivated varieties of the native species, but not always, and not exclusively. Some native cultivars may be comparable substitutions for native species in pollinator habitat restoration projects, but all cultivars should be evaluated on an individual basis.” You might also want to take a look at this article from the University of Maryland and this one from the Xerces Society. In summary, I would say it’s up to you whether you want to plant exclusively native species, or not.

According to David Smitley from Michigan State University, perennials are usually better choices for bees than annuals, but this article includes a list of annuals that are attractive to bees. Alyssum is an annual that definitely supports natural enemies, but many of the other annuals on this list may also support natural enemies.

Deep orange sunflower with a bee visiting it, starting to gather pollen
Although they are annuals, sunflowers are still very attractive to bees. Also, I like them as cut flowers.

Choosing plants – attracting specific arthropods

If you are trying to attract very specific natural enemies (e.g., parasitoid wasps, lady beetles) your plant choice can also get more complicated. Some great work has been done by researchers at Michigan State University documenting which arthropods (pollinators, natural enemies, and some pests) visited different plant species native to Michigan. They also offer a simplified summary. “Habitat Planning for Beneficial Insects” from the Xerces Society includes notes in the charts at the end about which beneficial insects are particularly attracted to the species listed. This resource from Oregon State University describes some specific plants and the arthropods they support. Finally, although this study was conducted in the United Kingdom, there might be some relevance to the Northeast U.S.

Lists and searchable databases

In addition to the resources already listed, you may find the following helpful in selecting plants:

If you want to focus on native plants, there are many organizations committed to supporting local native plants…too many to list here, but some online searching may turn up an organization that is local for you.

My current plant list

This table lists what I either have already seeded (inside or outside), or am planning to direct seed outside when it gets a little warmer. In addition to the common, scientific, and cultivar name of each plant and whether it is a perennial or an annual in NY, I also included information about why I chose it. I only marked plants as supporting bees or natural enemies if I could find documentation of that fact in the resources above. It may be that more of the plants on this list support beneficial arthropods. If you have additional information on these plants, please let me know! In some cases (for example, zinnia) the species is reported to support beneficial arthropods, but I don’t know if the cultivars I’m growing will. In many cases, the decorative value of the plant was a big part of why I chose it. The arnica? Well, I just saw that in a seed catalog this winter and ordered some on a whim.

Common name Scientific name Cultivar Annual or Perennial in NY Bees Natural enemies Decorative
Arnica Arnica chamissonis perennial
Bachelor’s buttons Centaurea cyanus annual X X
Blanketflower Gaillardia aristata Burgundy perennial X X X
Blue vervain Verbena hastata perennial X
Calendula Calendula officinalis Remembrance Mix annual X X
Celosia Celosia argentea cristata Red Flame annual X X
Cosmos Cosmos bipnnatus Dwarf Sensation annual X X X
Echinacea Echinacea purpurea perennial X X
Marigold Tagetes erecta Senate House annual X X
Poppy Papaver somniferum Frilled White Poppy annual maybe X
Poppy Papaver sp. seed saved by a colleague annual maybe X
Pyrethrum daisy Chrysanthemum cocineum perennial X
Rudbeckia Rudbeckia hirta Chim chiminee perennial maybe X
Snap dragon Antirrhinum majus annual X X
Strawflower Xerochrysum bracteatum annual X
Sunflower Helianthus anus Mammoth Greystripe annual X probably X
Sunflower Helianthus anus Evening Sun annual X probably X
Sunflower Helianthus anus Sonja Dwarf annual X probably X
Zinnia Zinnia elegans Queen Lime with Blush annual maybe X
Zinnia Zinnia elegans Candy Cane Mix annual maybe X
Zinnia Zinnia elegans Benary’s Wine annual maybe X
Zinnia Zinnia elegans Persian Carpet annual maybe X

 

This post was written by Amara Dunn, Biocontrol Specialist with the NYSIPM program. All images are hers, unless otherwise noted.

This work is supported by:

  • Crop Protection and Pest Management -Extension Implementation Program Area grant no. 2017-70006-27142/project accession no. 1014000, from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
  • New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets
  • Towards Sustainability Foundation

Compatibility: Pesticides and natural enemies of pests

Green insect with lacey wings
Lacewings (especially larvae; this one is an adult) are great natural enemies of pests. You want to keep them happy and healthy!

Natural enemies of pests are going to help you out with pest control, so when you are applying pesticides, it’s in your best interest to choose products that will have the least impact on them. Two quick points before we get into details for where to find this information:

  1. Remember that the information in this post is not a substitute for a pesticide label. The label is the law, and you must read and follow the label of any pesticide you are using. Laws and labels change. It is your responsibility to use pesticides legally. Trade names used here are for convenience only; no endorsement of products is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products implied. For questions about pesticide use, regulations, and safety, contact the Cornell Pesticide Management Education Program: pmep_webmaster@cornell.edu.
  2. A great way to protect natural enemies is by following the steps for IPM. Preventing pests (e.g., through cultural strategies and exclusion), scouting to detect pests early when populations are low, and proper identification of pests will help you reduce your need to use pesticides and can save you money. Win win!

Ok, let’s assume you’re doing good IPM and you’ve gotten to the point where you need to choose a pesticide. How do you make the best choice for protecting natural enemies? Here are a few options. (Note that I did post about this about 2 years ago. I’ve learned more, so I thought an update would be in order.)

Read the label

This should go without saying. You should be doing this anyway when you are considering using a pesticide. The label may contain information about the compatibility of a pesticide with either natural enemies or pollinators. And of course it will contain important information about how to minimize risks to yourself and the environment when you use it.

EIQ

EIQ stands for Environmental Impact Quotient. You can read more details on the NYSIPM website, but in a nutshell the EIQ puts a number on the risks of pesticides at the rates they are applied in the field. You can use the EIQ calculator on our website to compare these numbers for different pesticides. The higher the number, the higher the risk. There are different components to the EIQ; risks to consumers, workers, and the environment (ecological). The ecological risk will include risks to natural enemies (as well as fish, birds, and bees).

Pocket IPM Greenhouse Scout App

The Greenhouse Scout app provides information for doing IPM in greenhouses, including pest insects, beneficial insects, application technology, and pesticide interactions. It also gives you a place to record scouting results and track product applications.
A screenshot from the home screen of the Pocket IPM Greenhouse Scout App. You can find information about compatibility with natural enemies under either “Beneficials” or “Pesticide Interactions”.

Especially if you are growing in a greenhouse and releasing a lot of natural enemies, you may find this app helpful. In addition to providing information about compatibility of pesticides with arthropod natural enemies you may be releasing, you can also use it to help you keep records of scouting and product applications.

 

Cornell Guidelines

If you are a commercial producer, hopefully you are already utilizing the Cornell Guidelines, as they are a wealth of information on many subjects. At least some of them also include information on the toxicity of different pesticides to natural enemies. For example, if you have the grape guidelines, check out Table 4.2.2 for insecticide toxicity to natural enemies.

Websites and apps from companies that produce natural enemies

Companies that sell natural enemies (especially predatory and parasitoid arthropods for greenhouse pest control) have an interest in making sure that customers don’t inadvertently kill the natural enemies they buy with pesticides they are applying. I am aware of searchable databases or charts describing pesticide compatibility from four companies that sell (mostly) arthropod and nematode natural enemies: Agrobio, Biobest, BioWorks, and Koppert. If you know of some I’ve missed, please let me know! There are of course other companies that supply natural enemies. Here I’m focusing on resources that help you choose pesticides to conserve natural enemies.

Agrobio

This website is also available as an app for Android (but not Apple) devices. To use it, start by clicking Organisms selection and choose the natural enemies you want to conserve. Then, click Ingredients selection and choose the pesticides you are thinking about applying. You can only search active ingredients, not product names. Finally, click Query. Use the legend to help you interpret the table that’s produced.

Biobest

This website is also available as an app for Android and Apple devices. Use either the Active ingredient or the Commercial product tab to select pesticides by active ingredient or trade name. Then, search for the name of the Beneficial organism you want to conserve. Note that there are a lot of pesticide/natural enemy combinations for which toxicity data just aren’t available. If you select a pesticide, then natural enemies for which no data are available will be grayed out in the Beneficial organism list. As you check boxes next to pesticides and natural enemies, a chart is automatically generated. The legend includes keys for information on toxicity (to natural enemies and bumble bees), application methods, and persistence of the product. You can generate a pdf of your results, but it won’t include the legends.

BioWorks

Check out this resource that summarizes the compatibility of BioWorks biopesticides with arthropod and nematode natural enemies.

Koppert

This website is also available as an app for Android and Apple devices. Start by entering the name of the Beneficial organism you want to conserve. You can search by either the Koppert product name, or the Latin (scientific) name, but you can’t select from a drop-down menu. Just start typing. Then, choose the Agent (pesticide you are considering applying), by either trade name or active ingredient. Again, you need to know the name; you can’t select from a drop-down list. Start typing, and then check the box next to the product you are interested in. Click Results and be sure to click on ‘Legend’ at the bottom to help you interpret the table. There is also a more complete explanation of information in the legend under Info.

Some caveats about these websites

Admittedly, finding information about conserving natural enemies that are not commercially available for release (e.g., in greenhouses) has some challenges. These websites tend to focus on what you can buy and release, rather than on what may be naturally occurring in a field. Although sometimes there is some overlap. These apps/websites don’t include all natural enemies, and data aren’t available for all natural enemy/pesticide combinations. Also, these websites/apps usually list natural enemies by scientific names. Do you know what the scientific name of a lacewing is? I didn’t before I started this job!

To help with this last barrier, I created a chart (also below) to help you figure out what scientific names you should look for on these websites/apps if you want to conserve a particular natural enemy. It also includes information about which pests the natural enemies target, whether they are commercially available, and whether they are naturally occurring (not necessarily native) in NY.

Arthropod and nematode natural enemies

Can I buy them? Found in NY? If I want to conserve this beneficial arthropod… (whose scientific name is…) that helps me control… I should look for these names on the compatibility apps: 
yes yes aphid midges Aphidoletes aphidimyza aphids Aphidoletes aphidimyza
some yes beetles that are predators (for example, rove beetles, ground beetles, and others) Coleoptera is the scientific name of the insect group that includes all beetles. The following families are generally predatory: Coccinellidae (lady beetles), Carabidae (ground beetles), Staphylinidae (rove beetles), Cantharidae (soldier beetles), Melyridae (flower beetles) many insect pests Coleoptera is a beneficial insect listed on at least one compatibility app. However, some coleoptera are pests. And, since this is such a broad group, the compatibility information provided may not be correct for all beneficial beetle species.
yes hover flies, syrphid flies Syrphus spp, and many, many others aphids Syrphus spp.; Syrphus corollae; Episyrphus balteatus
some yes lacewings Chrysoperla spp. and some others aphids, insect eggs, small larvae Chrysopa carnea = Chrysoperla carnea; Chrysoperla spp.
some yes lady beetles Coccinellidae aphids, mites, small insects, insect eggs Coccinelidae, Coccinella 7-punctata, Hippodamia convergens
some yes minute pirate bug Orius insidiosus insect eggs, small caterpillars, thrips, mites, aphids Orius laevigatus may be a reasonable proxy; Orius spp.; Orius insidiosus
yes yes nematodes Steinernema spp., Heterorhabditis spp. thrips, fungus gnats, shore flies, some grubs Nematodes (note that this is a very broad category and it’s possible there are differences among species), Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, Steinernema, Steinernema feltiae, Steinernema carpocapsae
some yes parasitoid wasp Aphidius spp. aphids Aphidius spp., Aphidius colemani, Aphidius matricariae, Aphidius ervi
some yes parasitoid wasp Eulophidae, Diglyphus spp. leafminer larvae Diglyphus isaea
yes yes parasitoid wasp Braconids, Dacnusa sibirica leafminers Dacnusa sibirica
yes parasitoid wasp Aphelinidae, Aphelinus semiflavus aphids on potatoes Aphelinus abdominalis or Aphelinus mali may be reasonable proxies
yes yes predatory gall midge Feltiella acarisuga spider mites Feltiella acarisuga
some yes predatory mites Amblyseius (= Neoseiulus) fallacis, Typhlodromus spp., and probably others thrips, whitefly, pest mites; may vary among natural enemy species Amblyseius californicus, Amblyseius cucumeris, Amblyseius swirskii, Phytoseiulus persimilis are sold commercially and may be good proxies for the pesticide compatibility of naturally-occurring predatory mites
yes yes spined soldier bug Podisus maculiventris many immature insects, including many species of caterpillars Podisus maculiventris
 

some

some trichogramma wasps Trichogramma spp. moth eggs Trichogramma spp., Trichogramma brassicae, Trichogramma cacoeciae, Trichogramma evanescens, Trichogramma pretiosum

Other species of interest…

Can I buy them? Found in NY? If I want to conserve this beneficial insect… (whose scientific name is…) that helps me control… I should look for these names on the compatibility apps: 
yes yes bumble bee Bombus spp. NA – pollinator Bombus spp., Bombus terrestris
yes yes European honey bee Apis mellifera NA – pollinator Apis, Apis mellifera

Notes:

Different strains or populations of these natural enemies are sold by different companies and each population may differ from natural populations. Each company is most likely to report compatibility data that applies to their population. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

When the first word in the scientific name of an insect (e.g. Trichogramma) is followed by the designation ‘spp.’, it means multiple species that all belong to the same genus. Some compatibility information is given for only the larger group (e.g., Aphidius spp. or Syrphus spp.).

Natural enemies that are pesticides (active ingredients are microorganisms, i.e., fungi, bacteria, viruses)

If I want to conserve this microbial natural enemy… (whose scientific name is…) that helps me control… I should look for these names on the compatibility apps: 
Bt Bacillus thuringiensis (various strains are available, and they control different pests) many caterpillars and some immature beetle and fly pests (target pest varies by strain) Bacillus thuringiensis
entomopathogenic fungus Paecilomyces fumosoroseus = Isaria fumosorosea, Beauveria bassiana, Metarhizium anisopliae (= M. brunneum) (various strains) many insects (target pest depends on fungal species and strain) Paecilomyces (=Isaria) fumosoroseus, Beauveria bassiana, Metarhizium anisopliae (= M. brunneum)
fungi that attack plant diseases there are multiple species, including Trichoderma harzianum (several strains) Plant pathogens (the target pathogen depends on the fungal strain) Trichoderma harzianum T-22 is the only fungal natural enemy I found on these apps, so far. It is unlikely that its compatibility is representative of other fungi that are natural enemies.

Notes:

Different strains or populations of these microorganisms are sold by different companies and each of these populations may differ from natural populations. Each company is most likely to report compatibility data that applies to their population. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

In these apps/websites, microbial active ingredient may be listed as the natural enemy (e.g., Paecilomyces fumosoroseus on Biobest website), but sometimes it’s only listed as a pesticide active ingredient. For compatibility of biopesticides with chemical pesticides, you should start by reading the label, then seek information provided by the manufacturer.

All tables were assembled by Amara Dunn, NYSIPM using information from Natural Enemies of Vegetable Insect Pests (Hoffman & Frodsham) and were last updated January 2020.

Give it a try!

Imagine you were considering using one of the following active ingredients:

abamectin

acequinocyl

fenpyroximate

…to control spider mites. (Of course, before you did this, you’d read the labels and be sure that the use you were considering was legal!) If you were concerned about hurting parasitoids that help with aphid control (for example, the species Aphidius colemani and Aphidius ervi) which of these active ingredients would be the best choice (from a compatibility standpoint)?

 

Go ahead!

 

Look it up!

 

A note about microorganisms as natural enemies

Green leaf with blue rectangles with smiling faces representing microbes as natural enemies of the pest microbes (yellow rectangles with shocked faces). The blue microbes are producing blue droplets (representing antimicrobial compounds).
Microbes used to control pests are biopesticides. In this conceptual diagram, the happy blue microbes are producing antimicrobial compounds that are killing the plant pathogens (represented by yellow rectangles with shocked faces).

There are a few “natural enemies” on this chart that are actually biopesticides, and I have listed them separately. Remember that microorganisms (fungi, bacteria, viruses) that are natural enemies of pests are biopesticides. A few of them can be found in the websites/apps summarized above. There are two compatibility questions when it comes to using biopesticides with living microorganisms as active ingredients: (1) Will this biopesticide harm other natural enemies (e.g., predators and parasitoids)? and (2) Will the living microbe in this biopesticide be killed by other pesticides I might use? The websites/apps have some information about the compatibility of biopesticides with arthropod natural enemies. If you’re wondering about the compatibility of biopesticides with other pesticides, that may be a topic for another post (so many posts to write, so little time!). I’ll just offer two quick pieces of advice here:

  1. Read the label of the biopesticide. If it doesn’t contain compatibility information (for use with other pesticides) or doesn’t answer your questions about compatibility with other natural enemies, contact the manufacturer to get your questions answered.
  2. If you happen to be using one of their products, BioWorks describes the compatibility of their products with other pesticides, and this information is linked to individual product pages.

And what about the bees?

Take a look at the resources created by the Pollinator Network @ Cornell. They have prepared decision-making guides for several crops already, with more to come.

 

This post was written by Amara Dunn, Biocontrol Specialist with the NYSIPM program. All images are hers, unless otherwise noted.

Conservation biocontrol in the time of COVID-19

rows of small Christmas tree seedlings in a field on a sunny day, with a pond in the background
I was so excited to check on our Christmas tree and beneficial insect habitat plots on this sunny May day!

Thanks to everyone who’s been following the project I’ve been working on with Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur to establish (and document the impacts of) habitat for natural enemies of pests and pollinators (collectively, beneficial insects) around a research planting of Christmas trees! For many people, life does not look the same as it did in January, and we are no exception. Don’t worry, we and the excellent Field Research Unit staff at Cornell AgriTech will be maintaining our research beneficial insect habitat plots (and the Christmas trees around them) so that we can continue to do research here in future years. But, in the interest of keeping people safe and working remotely as much as possible, we won’t collect insects this season. I will be going out about once a week to take pictures of both plants and insects (by myself, with a mask on hand just in case). You can see these pictures on either my Twitter or Instagram accounts.

Clusters of still-closed yellow flower buds
Zizia aurea (golden alexander) is the earliest-blooming plant species we have in our beneficial insect habitat plots. And it wasn’t blooming yet the first week of May.

There’s also a new project you can follow this spring and summer (here, and on Twitter and Instagram)! I recently moved into a new house, and was already planning to put in a (mostly flower) garden, including plants that support beneficial insects. Since many people are doing more things at home, this seemed like a good year to share my experience establishing habitat for beneficial insects in a home garden.

First step? Site selection. My backyard is a bit shady (and I suspect it will be shadier when the leaves come out). You can’t tell from this picture, but the ground also tends to be a little squishy after it rains.

Lawn with shadows from nearby trees
Even before the leaves have come out, I can tell that my backyard is not going to be the sunniest.

The front and side yards face south and west and are drier.

Lawn along the side of a house that is mostly sunny
The side yard at my house faces south, and gets more sun (except first thing in the morning).

In my experience, the list of plants that support beneficial insects is longer if you have plenty of sun and reasonably dry soil. This doesn’t mean that you can’t support beneficial insects in a wet and/or shady spot. But you need to choose plant species carefully. You will be more successful if you choose plants that will thrive in the conditions you have. More on plant selection in a later post.

In addition to simple aesthetics, another important part of site selection around the home is knowing what’s underneath the ground. My local utility company provided information about getting water, gas, electric, and internet service lines on my property marked before I start digging. They recommended marking these lines even if I’m just planning to dig by hand with a shovel. If you are planning to use larger equipment, this is even more important (and may be required, depending on where you live). Better safe than sorry. Call before you dig!

Sunny lawn with a stripe of yellow paint and and a yellow flag marking the buried gas line
My buried gas line runs through the side yard. I got it marked before I started digging.

Out of an abundance of caution, I’m going to use the location of the buried gas line on my property as a good place to locate a path (rather than a flower bed that requires digging).

I’ll talk more about weed control in a future post, but when you are selecting a site (and deciding how big an area you want to plant), you should also be thinking about how you are going to manage weeds. I am planning to get mulch. But I have resigned myself to the fact that I may be doing some extra hand weeding this summer. It will be a good activity to get me out of the house in the evenings and on the weekends.

Stay tuned for more updates on this project!

 

This post was written by Amara Dunn, Biocontrol Specialist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program. All pictures in this post were taken by her.

This work is supported by:

  • Crop Protection and Pest Management -Extension Implementation Program Area grant no. 2017-70006-27142/project accession no. 1014000, from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
  • New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets
  • Towards Sustainability Foundation