As you crawl through your garden picking fruits, vegetables, flowers, and weeds, take a good look around. You are not alone. Many of the tiny critters you come eyeball-to-eyeball with in your green oasis are on your side. If you get to know some of them, they can become your heroes.
If left alone, these garden hunters will prey on the bad bugs causing damage in your garden. You still might have to use an insecticide to tackle an infestation, but beware: You will gas the good guys, too.
Here are a few horticultural heroes:
One insect with a great reputation is the ladybug. Most people love the little reddish orange predator, also called a lady beetle. Ladybug larvae are blue or black with orange spots and love to munch on aphids. Most adults have a reddish orange body with many black spots. They will eat aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, mites, and insect eggs.
From left, Krinn Keller, 1, Kayla Keller, 8, and Kamren Keller, 3, work on a bug house during `A Bug's Life' summer camp at Toledo Botanical Garden.
You may find them in your house in spring because they like to live between walls or in any other warm crevice in winter. The ladybug's close relative, multicolored Asian lady beetle, has become a household nuisance in recent years. It is also a good bug that feeds on aphids and scale that grow on trees.
If you have light, dry soil, you might be able to find tiger beetles. They are shiny and have a flat body with ridged wing covers and can grow to be 1/2 to one inch long. Tiger beetles have powerful jaws and large compound eyes with antennae between them. They eat many different insects and pounce on them like a tiger.
As adults, green lacewings are bright green with skinny bodies and lacy-looking wings. As larvae, they are called aphid lions. Lacewings eat aphids, mites, thrips, whiteflies, caterpillar eggs, and other soft-bodied insects.
Also called lightning bugs, fireflies have soft bodies that grow about _-inch long. Larger species can produce light from an organ in their bellies. Sometimes firefly larvae glow and are called glowworms. They are important to gardens because they eat other insects, slugs, and snails.
Females of some species don't have wings and look like larvae. The adults we like to catch don't eat much. They may have an occasional snack on pollen or nectar. Their main job is to light up and attract other lightning bugs to mate. Each species has its own blinking pattern.
The praying mantis has slender, spiky forelegs that help the insect grab its prey, a triangular head with big eyes, and a long body that can grow up to six inches long. The forelegs come together and make the insect look like it is praying.
The praying mantis will eat any insect it can catch, even its brothers and sisters. Eggs are laid during the fall, and covered with a foam-like substance that hardens to protect them during winter. The eggs hatch in spring.
There are many kinds of spiders. Most of them are helpful to gardeners. Spiders differ from insects by having eight legs, no antennae, and only two body regions. These predators feed on many insects that can damage plants. Only a few species are dangerous. Check with your local extension office for a list of insects and spiders to avoid.
Some bugs nibble on plants and cause serious damage, while others hunt down those bad bugs. Before you grab the insecticide, be sure you know what kind of bug you are fighting.