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Garden Friends or Foe?

What is that red dot moving on your plant? It’s a ladybug!

These leaves have been chewed through! Maybe it was a caterpillar.

You hear buzzing- is it a pesky fly, or could it be a wasp?

Looking around as you walked forward, you felt something silky on your face…you walked right into a spider’s web! On the web is an entangled fly. So that’s the buzzing noise!

Have you ever wondered what kind of critters reside in your garden or container plants? There are insects that are especially helpful in improving and protecting your plants, and making your home lively. But sometimes you don’t know what they are, or what they are beneficial for. Let’s start with something easy…

It’s Butter (Better) with Butterflies and Moths

When you have a lot of flowers, you’ll run into butterflies. Butterflies, along with moths which you will most likely meet at night (some are even active during the day), can help pollinate your plants (plants included are not limited to flowers- vines, shrubs, trees, grass and sedges, and ferns included). According to the National Wildlife Federation, you can invite more of these fluttering insects by planting “red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms,” and plenty of “nectar sources,” or nectar-rich plants. Another easy way to attract butterflies and moths is by introducing native plants. You can find some native plants in the U.S. at plant nurseries such as from LandHealth Institute’s Native Plant Nursery, our partners at North Creek Nurseries, Pinelands Nursery, and Pleasant Run Nursery. Don’t know where to start? Plant some milkweeds (Asclepias) to attract Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), or Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) for Zebra Swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus)! I don’t think anyone would say a butterfly or a moth is their enemy, unless you have an infestation of caterpillars that are eating up your plants, or moth larvae eating through your clothes.

Bzz…Bzz…Bees and Wasps

Another obvious critter that everyone should have seen at least a few times in their life are bees. Just like butterflies and moths, bees are our number one pollinators. However, we should bring more attention to species such as the bumblebee (Bombus) and the carpenter bee (Xylocopa), and other bee species that are native to North America. The honeybee is not native here! But that is a topic for another time (hint, hint…!)…

Then there is the dreaded wasp (Vespidae) that many, including me, would not try to befriend in their own garden. Why must you aggressively buzz and look intimidating while blocking my way into my house! Jokes aside, wasps do pollinate like bees. They are, however, less efficient as many species hardly have hair on their body.

Robber flies, Crane Flies…Flies!

It was a surprise when I first saw a robber fly (Asilidae). It looked like a fly mixed with a mosquito, but huge and intimidating! But once you get to know them, robber flies are nothing to be afraid of. They prey on pests such as beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, and others that could be feeding and damaging your plants. Since beetles are on their menu, they may also target ladybugs, another beneficial insect. They are harmless to humans unless provoked, and their bite can hurt. So if you see something that resembles one, leave it alone.

Robber flies also remind me of Crane flies (Tipulidae), which may appear to look like an abnormally large mosquito, but don’t fear! This one’s harmless! As a larva, crane flies will feed on decaying organic material and help in the decomposition process, so you can add that to your compost bin! Now, flies (Diptera) in general? When they’re outside, sure they can help pollinate, but they are not friends when they get into the house! But in the end, you are the one who can decide whether these species are your friends or foe. Do consider allowing these helpful allies to live in your garden!

Ladybugs? Lady Beetles? Beetles

Some species of beetles will prey on the pesky insects and slugs that may be chomping through your plants, and some actually pollinate as they feed on nectar. My favorite beetle is the ladybug (Coccinellidae), and I wish I had learned more about beetles before! Ladybugs are especially helpful in dealing with aphids, feeding upon around 50 a day, and over thousands in their lifetime. Aphids…oh, how much I dreaded them the year when they infested my plants!

Fun fact, fireflies (Lampyridae) are not flies. They are beetles! The firefly larvae are great at pest control against slugs, snails, and caterpillars that you possibly don’t want or are invasive. However, the larvae are found in the ground, making them difficult to find, but it is possible to find them under leaves and garden debris. The adult fireflies will feed on nectar, making them another alternative pollinator to your garden!

Did you ever see a beetle that had a particular green shine? You may be looking at a Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica). Pretty as they may be, they are not our garden friends here in the U.S.. They are known for causing destruction of turf, crops, and plants such as the leaves and fruits of trees, shrubs, vines, and roots! Some species of beetles are rather destructive by eating or spreading diseases to plants. By knowing what beetles exist in your garden, you know when you need to take action. Neem oil and some nematodes are some common solutions if you do have a beetle problem.

Delicate But Powerful Lacewings

What is that tiny, green, and possibly delicate-looking fly? House fly (Musca domestica)? No, try again. A katydid (Tettigoniidae)? Too small and narrow to be one. It’s a lacewing (Neuroptera)! Another insect added to defend your garden from pests like aphids and mites! If you ever looked on the surface of a leaf or under it, you may find these white hair-like stalks sticking out, each with an individual oval thing attached at the end like snow. These are lacewing eggs, and they are placed in this manner so hungry larvae siblings do not cannibalise each other! Lacewings are nocturnal, so you will be very lucky to see one broad daylight!

A lacewing and lacewing eggs on an apple leaf. 1st picture from artsehn on Pixabay. 2nd picture by Steve Schoof, NCSU

Wait, That’s Not an Insect! Spiders?

Yes, I know, spiders (Araneae) are not insects. They are arachnids and a land arthropod like scorpions, mites, and ticks. A spider’s web is one of the most helpful and natural traps to keep the pests in check hidden in the grass, the trees, and on your plants. Have you ever seen a web after rain? Astonishing! In the U.S., you can encounter orbweavers (my favorite!), jumping spiders, grass spiders, house spiders, and more. I understand that many people feel uncomfortable around spiders, and I’ve been there! But every time I research to learn more about my home, I start to feel more connected with the environment…now I see spiders as friends rather than foe! The Giant Lichen Orb Weaver (Araneus bicentenarius)? I didn’t know that existed, and it’s so cool! Like a bee, there’s no need to be afraid! Well, unless you are faced with the venomous ones…be careful!

An orbweaver. 1st picture from sandid on Pixabay

Most of what I have listed are general, and not species specific. If you are not sure of what you are looking at or if it is native to your home, you can find all sorts of identification guides throughout the Internet. I recommend a common identification app such as iNaturalist, which is extremely helpful to record your observations and identify if the specimen is invasive or endangered. Plus, you have a global community to help out! The app helps me learn more about what’s in my garden, in the states, and what other amazing species exist in the world!


“Attracting Butterflies - Garden for Wildlife.” National Wildlife Federation,

Fagerlund, Richard “Bugman.” “Crane Flies Are Beneficial to the Ecosystem with Decomposition.” Alamogordo Daily News, Gannett, 12 Mar. 2017,

Gray, Betty. “Beneficials in the Garden Robber Flies.” Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, Galveston County Master Gardener Association, Inc, 2006,

“Japanese Beetle.” National Invasive Species Information Center, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE,

Carman, Debra. “Beneficial Insects in the Garden.” PennState Extension, Feb. 2017,

Barnett, Tonya. “Fireflies As Pest Control – How Are Fireflies Beneficial To Gardens.” Gardening Know How, 23 Oct. 2021,


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