Fall is a good time to get to know insects

Getting acquainted with insects is not something most of us care to think about, much less actually do. But I enjoy helping people realize that insects are more connected to human health and well-being than most of us care to admit. Once we do admit this fact, we quickly realize that the world of insects is a world we simply can’t live without.

Early fall is a great time to see and observe insects everywhere. It is one of the easiest times of year to catch glimpses of fully mature insects out and about and ‘doing their thing’.

Value of insects

Put simply, insects are the link to food. Insects are the one lifeform on planet earth that seem to be made specifically for harvesting the sun harnessed energy that plants produce and turning that energy (plant material) into protein.

Consider a caterpillar. Once a caterpillar hatches, it grows very very rapidly. It is estimated that two weeks after hatching a caterpillar will generally be 3,000 times larger than the day it hatches.

Caterpillars are eating machines and can quickly and efficiently turn plant material into protein. That protein is a hot commodity for the rest of the food chain which relies on it to survive and reproduce. Songbirds especially rely on caterpillars. Most baby birds won’t reach maturity without a steady supply of protein packed caterpillars.

Most insects are beneficial

Beneficial green lacewing eggs that will soon hatch

Only a tiny fraction of the worlds insects are harmful or pests. The vast majority are necessary for life. Pollinators come to mind one of the keystone species we must protect in order to preserve and ensure life as we know it continues into the future. But there are a plethora of beneficial insects that gardeners get to know as they spend seasons watching insects come and go in their gardens. Green lacewings, wheel bugs, lady beetles, syrphid flies, soldier beetles, ground beetles, damsel bugs, robber flies, and praying mantids are a handful that come to mind.

Green lacewing larva will voraciously feed on aphids and other soft bodied insect pests

Most insects are specialists

This monarch caterpillar is a specialist on milkweed, it is equipped with a gut that can disarm the dangerous glycosides in the sap of this plant

As gardeners get to know insects they are often surprised at how intricately the life of insects is bound to certain plants of plant families. Most insects are specialists and rely on one plant or plant family to grow and reproduce. This is due to the fact that plants defend themselves with complex chemistry and an insect must develop the necessary enzymes and gut biome to effectively render the plant defenses harmless. It is impossible for insects to specialize on every plant.

Grow insects in your garden

Knowing that plants and insects have such unique relationships explains why we home gardeners can have a dramatic and positive effect on building the biodiversity (life) around us. If we choose to plant a robust and diverse number of native plants (plants that have relationships with our native insects) we will quickly begin to grow vast amounts of insects, which will in turn provide a protein food source for songbirds and other wildlife. This will begin to bring back the biodiversity (variety of life) that we humans rely on. It is after all biodiversity and the variety of life around us that provide the ecosystem services we use each and every day-often without even thinking about it.

A beneficial soldier beetle

Getting to know insects might be one of most eye opening, difference making, exciting, interesting, and- yes, even at times gross- things you decide to do.

Check out this link to Missouri Botanical Gardens photo page of many beneficial insects you might encounter in your garden: Photos of Beneficial Insects