Garden Insect Identification: A Guide
Here's a Quick and Easy Guide to Garden Insect Identification
Often we find insects in our garden and wonder what exactly they are. More importantly, we wonder what exactly they're up to among our tomatoes and basil. Some garden insects are pests, some are beneficial, and some bugs in your garden are just there, hurting no one. If you're a garner, you may know some of these insects already, by sight if not by name. Some are more common than others, but you might find any of these insects in your garden. When you do, you will want to know how to deal with them! Some garden insects aren't pests at all, or are actually helpful, while some garden insects are serious pests that can really ruin your plants. Insects on plants are a fact of life; knowing which is which can make your life a lot easier!
By Shiva shankar (Taken at karkala, Karnataka as a praying mantis) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Garden Insect Identification --Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms
Pretty much every vegetable garden has a tomato plant or two, and guess who loves to eat tomato plants? The guys, that's who. These big green caterpillars love to munch on tomato leaves and tendrils, and will even eat the fruits. If you find one, you probably have many more, hanging out in plain sight. They're hard to see at first, even though they're huge.
Tomato Hornworms turn into big brown moths (after they're done eating your plants down to the ground). Tomato hornworms are common and widespread throughout North America. If you think you have them, look for their poops on the ground around your plants. They're big -- about the size of a pea -- and shaped kind of like a hand grenade. If you find them, someone up above is making them.
Garden Insect Identification -- Hummingbird Sphinx Moth
This beautiful insect is a perfect mimic of a hummingbird, which protects it from many predators (birds don't eat birds!). Its cousin is the bumblebee sphinx moth, a nearly perfect mimic of a big bumblebee. Both moths can be told by their hovering behavior, especially the bumblebee sphinx, which never ever lands on the flower it's drinking from. If you're in the garden and what looks like a big bee is hovering in front of a flower, drinking nectar with its long tongue, you can be pretty sure that's a moth and not a bee at all.
Garden Insect Identification -- Earwigs
This little guy is pretty harmless, even though they have those big nasty-looking pickers on their rear end. Those pickers are harmless and weak, though, and definitely incapable of giving you a pinch. Earwigs do eat a small amount of plant-based material, but prefer dead insects and rotting vegetation -- nothing you prize too much! Of all the Garden insects you're likely to encounter, these are among the least worrisome.
Garden Insect Identification -- Ladybugs
The individual pictured here has no spots -- not unusual, but in general ladybugs, ir ladybird beetles if you prefer, have black spots on a red background. But there many species, with many different markings.
These beetles gobble up aphids, and can be bought in garden stores as live cultures to control aphids. Their larvae look a little like tiny gila monster lizards. Leave them be and they'll help protect your garden!
Garden Insect Identification -- Aphids
Tiny and nondescript, these garden insects are among the most destructive of all the bugs in your garden. They can quickly become a serious pest once they get established, and in large numbers can cause your plants to become weak and even die.
Here's a pretty good site about Aphid Identification and Control: Aphids On Plants.
Aphids are green or black, about the size of a pencil tip. They're usually found in colonies near the top of the plant, and they're often attended by ants, which attend to them for the drops of honeydew that are excreted out of the rear end of the aphids. These ants also often protect the aphids from predators.
Aphids can be a serious pest once the get established. Fortunately, you can control aphids with ladybugs, who eat them by the handful. A quick search for live ladybug cultures can provide you with a natural and effective method for controlling aphids.
Garden Insect Identification -- Bee Fly
These insects mimic stinging bees and wasps. They are very common in almost all gardens, but most people take them for bees. That's too bad, because they're harmless, and their perfect "copycat act" is pretty cool. If it looks like a bee, but never lands, just hovers in front of the flower, then it could be a fly. Look closely!
Garden Insect Identification -- Squash Borer Moth
This is a pretty insect, a medium-sized moth with a furry green and red body. It flies in the day, and mimics a wasp. The adult moths don't do damage -- in fact, they may help pollinate your squash plants -- but the larvae can do serious harm. They live inside the stems, and you will never even see them, but the damage they cause is obvious -- wilted, brown leaves and dying plants.
Garden Insect Identification -- Squash Bugs
These medium-sized insects are a little like giant aphids -- they suck plant juices with a long, sharp proboscis. They live on squash plants of all kinds, and if there are enough of them they can do damage to your crops. The best way to control squash bugs is to pick them off by hand, or go with an anti-insect detergent or dusting agent.
Garden Insect Identification -- Cabbage White Butterfly
The cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, is an imported pest that thrives on all kinds of garden plants, but especially likes cabbages and broccoli. The caterpillars do all the eating, and you can often see the holes they put in leaves, but good luck finding them -- they are among the most perfectly camouflaged insects in the world, and that's saying something. There really are few ways to control cabbage white butterflies -- it's really a case of "live and let live."
Cabbage White Caterpillar Showing Camouflage
Natural Insect Control - You Don't Have to Use Insecticide!
These resources can help you understand how to go about controlling garden pests.
Garden Insect Identification -- Japanese Beetle
These pests are a serious problem, and are hard to eradicate. They have few natural predators in the United States, where they have been an invasive species for decades. They can chew up your roses without mercy, and will also spread to a wide variety of other plants. A good insect soap can help control them, as can certain preparations that attack the grub stage, which lives in the ground.
Garden Insect Identification -- Preying Mantis
If you are lucky enough to find one of these beautiful insects in your garden, be thankful! They eat lots of harmful insects, and have a kind of zen peacefulness to them that just makes you glad to have them around. In Chinese history, mantids were kept as good luck charms and pets. You can keep them as pets, but it's better to let them roam your garden, eating up squash bugs, flies, and moths.