The Lesser Known Beneficials

wasps reducing a mess (image : Martin Röll)

We have all heard of the popular heroes in the orchard. Lacewings and honeybees, and who would forget… the ladybird beetle(aka ladybug). There is however a long list of insects we should keep in mind when reaching for that can of pesticide. Here is our first list of unappreciated:


fiery searcher in walden heights

The Fiery Searcher

Audubon lists the food source of this beetle in one word…caterpillars. Need we say more? This is an insect that is hard to miss, both large (up to 1 3/8″) and attractive (the elytra are a reflective green, purple and/or gold). Present throughout North America and southern Canada, we find them everywhere in our landscape. particularly when digging about in the garden beds and in mulch around the fruit trees. It is one of the most common beetles here on the farm. Both adults and larvae will feed on caterpillars, both stages even climbing trees to get them. The larva will do this in the evening hours, the adults during the day. The eggs are layed in the soil and pupate there, within little cells. They can live three years. Culture that relies on tillage can destroy eggs and larvae and occasionally adults.

european ground beetle at walden heights

 At up to an inch this is another large resident of the orchard, garden and woods. The European ground beetle is welcome here due to its appetite for cutworms in addition to caterpillars. It has a more varied diet than the Fiery Searcher (including earthworms and soft bodied insects and larva). Worms aside, it does a good job cleaning up problem species. It is found in the east generally, but scattered about the country as well. It pupates in the soil, larva down there sometimes for two years. Adults live two years as well, emerging in fall. Again this speaks to the care we must take when deciding to use intensive tillage in our growing plans, as it can be destructive not just to weeds and soil dwelling pests, but also those species which lend us a hand (or tarsus as it were).

yellow jacket wasp at walden heights

The Yellow Jacket Wasp (vespula spp.) really doesn’t need much of an introduction. A resident of forest, meadow and nearly every backyard picnic. This creature hunts creatures like honeybees and other pollinators, feeds on fresh fruit in the orchard, and attacks people indisciminately and with little provocation. Ok, now for some good news. It reduces the landscape of many harmful pests (such as housefly and blowfly larva, and caterpillars) in an effort to feed their young. They pre-chew the creatures and deliver it to the colony which generally sits beneath soil level or under debris and sod.  Adults feed widely on nectar, but also on any sweet substance like fruit. We have a difficult time with them at earlier season cider pressings. The nectar feeding, however does result in some haphazard pollination. True, the slicker exoskeleton of the Yellow Jacket makes pollen transfer less likely, but they do have enough hair for the job, particularly on the head and thorax. Our blueberry patch is often filled with them during bloom. Additionally they feed on seemingly any decaying bit on the orchard floor, be it meat or sweet. They are so adept at the task that in short order the mess is reduced to nothing. We can thus consider them of good use in relegating the refuse to the decomposition web. It is a hard call here, listing it as a beneficial, especially by someone who has been stung repeatedly( I average about a half dozen a season, though I have been attacked by entire colonies some years). A compromising statement would be they are quite the beneficial in the early season, but overstay their welcome come fruiting time. That said, although most folks relate they attack without much encouragement, it is often not the case. During blackberry harvesting here, I have been surrounded by them (they also harvest blackberries) without being stung. In fact I have never been stung picking blackberries. I even grabbed two wasps in my fingers accidently last year without being attacked. Nor have I during cider pressing, despite the swarms of them. The thing to keep in mind here is that when the wasps are engaged in harvest, they seldom sting. Going anywhere near their nest is another issue entirely. So, despite some shortcomings, I like having them around. They do plenty of good, even giving the skunks something to munch on (they relish them nest and all). Even if they didn’t do as much good, maybe its important to have something to chase us off once in a while… we being the real pest out there most of the time.