When we think of beneficial insects in the garden, butterflies are usually at the top of the list. However, if we could take a bug census, we would discover that butterflies make up one of the smallest percentages of all insects visiting our gardens. From dragonflies to bees, hundreds of insects frequent our backyards. And while a small handful are considered pests, most are good bugs for your garden, or at least are completely harmless.
In my own backyard, we leave a small part of our lawn wild to create a natural habitat for our insect visitors. In turn, we attract a wide variety of crawlers, fliers and hoppers that pollinate our flowers, gather nectar and eat pesky garden bugs. In addition, they enhance the garden experience with their beautiful colors or sounds. While specific insects vary greatly by region, here are a few that you actually want to see in your yard this spring and summer. Go ahead and take a closer look outside. You just might be amazed at what you find.
Twelve-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella, wingspan 3 inches) You’ll notice these dragonflies throughout the summer, flying over gardens looking for food. Because they—and all dragonflies—have multifaceted eyes, they are extremely good hunters and eat all sorts of insects, especially mosquitoes.
Green Darner Dragonfly (Anax junius, wingspan 4+ inches) These are our largest dragonflies. Very strong fliers and commonly seen, they’re one of the best insect-eaters in our gardens. Green darners start their lives as nymphs in water and emerge as winged adults. Nymphs eat mosquito larvae, and the adults eat the mosquitoes that bite us, which definitely make them good bugs for your garden!
Widow Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa, wingspan 3 inches) You can often spot this common dragonfly perched upon the tip of a stick or branch, staking out a territory for hunting. They will chase off other dragonflies. They eat mosquitoes and many other insects. The white patches on the wings and the pale blue abdomen identify this one as a male. The female has no white on her wings, and her abdomen is brown with orange stripes on the sides.
Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis, 3/8 inch) This distinctly colored beetle is common in gardens where milkweed has been allowed to grow. Often mistaken for ladybugs, they’re almost twice the size of the common ladybug.
Pennsylvania Leatherwing Beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus, 5/8 inch) Common in gardens and considered beneficial, these garden bugs transfer pollen from flower to flower, plus they eat aphids and other insect pests. If you have goldenrod or Joe Pye weed in your garden, you’ll very likely see them on those plants.
Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus, 1/2 inch) If there are any milkweeds in your garden, this beetle will show up, especially if you grow common milkweed, its favorite host plant. Its bright red color warns birds and other insects, “Don’t eat me. I’m toxic.”
Honeybee (Apis mellifera, 5/8 inch) Besides being the producers of the honey that we eat, honeybees serve as major pollinators of flowers and crops, making them some of the most important good bugs for your garden. They’re known as social insects because they live in large colonies. Although they’re capable of stinging, they will do so only when they feel threatened.
Bumble Bee (Bombus species, 3/4 inch) One of the most entertaining garden bugs, it’s a rather clumsy flier and stays on flowers such as monarda and coneflowers long enough for you to take a picture. You can see the pollen sacs on its hind legs. A very beneficial pollinator, it is capable of stinging, but will only do so if it thinks you plan to harm it.
Virescent Green Metallic Bee (Agapostemon virescens, 1/2 inch) You’ll see this bee in most gardens. A shiny green metallic head and thorax and banded abdomen clearly make it stand out from other bees and wasps. This bee, which is a pollinator, makes its nest in the ground.
Bee Fly (Poecilanthrax species, 1/2 inch) This flier gets its name because it resembles a furry bee. What looks like a stinger going into the flower is actually a proboscis (tongue) it uses to gather nectar. It’s harmless, can’t sting and serves as a beneficial pollinator, making them very good bugs for your garden.
Long-Legged Fly (Condylostylus species, 1/4 inch) These very common garden bugs can be seen racing around on leaves. They eat aphids, mites and other small insects. Their metallic colors-in bronze, blue, green or gold-make them easy to see when sunlight hits them.
Syrphid Fly (Helophilus fasciatus, 5/8 inch) These flies help control aphids, especially their larvae. They also pollinate by flying from flower to flower. As part of their self-defense, several species are considered very good bee mimics with coloration that looks quite similar to bees. But because they’re flies, they don’t have the ability to sting.
Other Beneficial Bugs
Green Lacewing (Chrysopa species, 1/2 inch) This beautiful insect is very common and very beneficial. Its larvae eat as many aphids as they can find. You’ll see it during the day throughout the garden and at night near light sources.
Broad-Winged Katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium, 2 inches) Katydids are a common sight at night near light sources. The night calls of the adults are part of the evening symphony throughout the summer into fall.
Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni, 3/4 inch) You probably haven’t seen these garden bugs, but you’ve definitely heard them. In late summer and into the fall, the chirping you hear in the evening comes from snowy tree crickets. They’re not very big, but they can make an amazing amount of noise.