Tag Archives: habitat

Creating habitat for beneficial insects – early summer 2018 project update

Betsy, Deb, and Brian transplanting native wildflowers and grasses that will provide habitat for beneficial insects
Dr. Betsy Lamb, Deb Marvin, and Brian Eshenaur (left to right) transplanting native wildflowers and grasses on the edge of a research Christmas tree planting at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, NY. These plants will provide food and shelter for pollinators and natural enemies of pests.

As I mentioned in my January post, I am excited to be working with two NYS IPM colleagues (Dr. Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur) to demonstrate the costs, labor, and effectiveness of different methods for establishing habitat plants for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Remember, habitat for pollinators is also habitat for insects and mites that are natural enemies of pests on your farm or in your garden. Thus, planting for pollinators enables you to practice conservation biocontrol. These demonstration plots are located around a new research planting of Christmas trees at Cornell AgriTech at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. What we learn from this project can help you choose the best way to establish your own beneficial habitat (on your farm, around your home, near your school, etc.)

We are comparing 6 different methods of establishing habitat for beneficial insects, plus a control (Treatment E). Treatment E plots were sprayed with herbicide last fall and this spring, and will be mowed once this year. A summary of the plan for the other treatments is below.

List of treatments in this study. Each treatment is a different method for establishing habitat for beneficial insects
Comparing different methods for establishing plants that provide habitat and food for beneficial insects (pollinators and natural enemies of pests). Treatment E is the control.
seeds for plants that will provide habitat for beneficial insects
Native wildflower and grass seeds (A) were mixed with boiled rice hulls (B) to make them easier to broadcast (C). Much of what you see on the soil surface is just the rice hulls, but there are a few seeds that will hopefully grow into habitat for beneficial insects.

Because of when spring tillage occurred, plots that were scheduled to be tilled in the spring did not need a second herbicide application. About a week after spring tillage, Treatment C plots were direct seeded. I hand-broadcast a mixture of native wildflower and grass seeds at a rate of half a pound per 1,000 square feet. This worked out to be 26 g of seed for each 5-foot by 23-foot plot. To make it easier to broadcast such a small amount of seed, I first mixed the seed for each plot with about 3 cups of boiled rice hulls. After raking the seed in gently with a garden rake, I stomped the seed into the ground to ensure good contact with the soil. In a larger plot, you might use equipment like a cultipacker or lawn roller to achieve the same result.


young buckwheat plants
Two weeks (and three-quarters of an inch of rain) after seeding, buckwheat is establishing. It will hopefully crowd out weeds that would otherwise grow in these plots over the summer.

I broadcast (again, by hand) buckwheat seeds in the Treatment D plots at a rate of 70 pounds per acre (84 g for each of these small plots), and raked them in on May 31st. If the buckwheat establishes well, it will smother weeds during the summer, and we can mow and transplant into these plots in the fall. We plan to mow this crop of buckwheat when it starts flowering and then reseed it, for a total of two buckwheat plantings this summer.


We transplanted by hand 15 species of wildflowers and 1 grass species into plots assigned to Treatments A and B on June 4th. Because we were able to transplant right after it rained, it wasn’t too difficult to plant into the untilled plots (Treatment A). Some of them still had some stubble from the cover crops and weeds that had been growing in this field last year, and were killed by fall and spring herbicide applications.

Young wildflower and grass plants transplanted into untilled soil.
Native wildflowers and grasses transplanted into untilled soil. Some dead weeds and cover crop still remain on the soil surface.

The day after we transplanted into Treatment B plots, we mulched the plants to a depth of about 3 inches to (hopefully) control weeds for the rest of the summer while the habitat plants get established. We used chips from shrub willow because they were available, but other types of mulch would work, too.

wildflower and grass plants surrounded by mulch for weed control
These wildflowers and grasses will have help out-competing weeds from 3 inches of willow chip mulch.

Finally, we laid clear high tunnel plastic over the plots receiving Treatment F. Ongoing research from the University of Maine suggests that soil solarization can be an effective form of weed control, even in the northeast. So we’re giving it a try! To maximize the efficacy of this technique, we laid the plastic when the soil had been tilled relatively recently, and was still very moist. To keep the plastic firmly in place for the whole summer, we rolled the edges and buried them 4-5 inches deep, then stomped the soil down around all the edges. In the fall, we will hand broadcast a mixture of native wildflower and grass seeds over these plots (same mix as Treatment C).

a trench being dug around the edge of a plot to bury the edge of a sheet of clear plastic
Deb Marvin and Brian Eshenaur (left to right) dig a trench to bury the edge of this sheet of clear plastic. The goal is weed control by soil solarization.

We’ll give weed seeds in the Treatment G plots a few more weeks to germinate and grow (depending on the rain). Then we’ll kill them with an herbicide, and till these plots again to induce more weed seeds to germinate. Then we will repeat the herbicide application, till again, and so on. This should reduce the weed seed bank in the soil over the course of the summer. After a final tillage in the fall, we will broadcast seed from the same wildflower and grass mix we used for Treatment C. Fall is the recommended time for direct seeding beneficial insect habitat in the northeast. This treatment will also have the advantage of a full season of weed control prior to planting (also recommended). The downside is that it will take longer to establish the beneficial insect habitat.

As we get these plots established, we’re keeping track of the time spent on each treatment and the costs of materials. In the late summer or fall, Dr. Bryan Brown will assess weeds in each treatment, and I will photo document how well our beneficial insect habitat plants have established in each plot. All of these data will help you choose the method that fits your timeline, budget, and equipment/labor availability. Stay tuned for more updates…including an invitation to a field day (not this year), so that you can come see the results of this project for yourself!

If you plant it, they will come: Attracting natural enemies of pests

coreopsis flower (Coreopsis lanceolata)
This coreopsis flower (Coreopsis lanceolata) is more than just pretty; it also provides pollen and nectar for natural enemies to eat (when they aren’t eating pests!).

At this time of year, glossy catalogs start arriving in my mailbox full of pictures of all the beautiful fruits, vegetables, and flowers that I could grow after the snow melts. What these pictures don’t usually show are the arthropod (insect, mite, and related species) pests that can’t wait to eat what I plant. There are many IPM strategies you can use to fight back against these pests, and you can learn more here.

One of these strategies (and seldom is a single strategy sufficient) is to think about what else is growing near the vegetables, fruits, and flowers you want to protect. There aren’t just pest arthropods in your garden. These pests have natural enemies, too. If you provide good habitat for the natural enemies (including food and shelter), you will attract more natural enemies, and they are likely to consume more pests, protecting your plants. This is one way to practice conservation biocontrol – protecting and supporting the biocontrol organisms (natural enemies) that are already present.

So, what makes good habitat for natural enemies? In general, plants that bloom throughout the growing season (early spring to late fall) provide pollen and nectar to the natural enemies that use these as alternate food sources (in addition to pests). These plants also provide good shelter, both for natural enemies and the arthropods (including some pests) they feed on. As these natural enemies reproduce in the habitat you have created for them, they will also venture beyond this habitat and into your fruit, vegetable, and other flower plants, where they will eat more pests.

butterfly on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
This butterfly is finding nectar at a purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Pollen and nectar are also important food sources for some natural enemies.

What is good habitat for natural enemies is also (in general) good habitat for pollinators. You have probably already heard how important pollinator protection is. Those glossy catalogs (or wherever else you buy your seeds or plants) likely sell species and varieties labeled as being “good for pollinators”. Just make sure you include plenty of variety. Because most plants (especially perennials) bloom for a limited time, you will need multiple species to ensure season-long blooms. Also, the variation in height and structure of the plants will provide diverse habitat for all of the different natural enemies you want to attract.

And what about protecting a larger area of plants (like a 5-acre field of pumpkins on a farm)? Will creating habitat for natural enemies help with pest control? The answer is complicated. It probably depends on a lot of things. How big the field is, how much habitat there is and where it’s located, which pests are a problem, and other pest management strategies (especially use of chemical pesticides) will have an impact. Research has shown that in some scenarios, yes, providing habitat for natural enemies can reduce some pest populations in some crops (one example).

Later this spring, I and two of my NYS IPM colleagues (Dr. Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur) will set up a field experiment that will answer this question (over the next several years) in a Christmas tree planting. We will also compare different strategies for creating this habitat (seeds versus plants, and different weed control methods). Stay tuned for updates!

In the meantime, for suggestions on what flower species make good pollinator (and natural enemy) habitat, you can start by checking out lists of plants that provide good habitat for pollinators (also this one), or searchable databases of pollinator habitat plants. Your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office is another great resource. The Xerces Society also a resource on Habitat Planning for Beneficial Insects.