Spread the welcome mat — for predators

By Lynette L. Walther | Mar 14, 2014
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Oh yeah, they are creepy and crawlie, but you’ve got to hand it to spiders, they do consume a lot of bugs.

Have you heard of the “new” wolf/coyote hybrid, the coywolf? I’m not making this up. A PBS special I saw a few weeks back introduced them. In one part of Canada these unlikely canine relatives have formed an alliance. Seems both coyotes and wolves have some longstanding “image” issues with the public, and the arrival of these new kids isn't helping — although it turns out they are hardly the scourge some might fear.

But then a lot of predators don’t seem to be up for popularity awards. Even so we should be giving many of them gold stars for the work they do. Rather than the dark villains portrayed in films, coyotes and wolves aren’t out stealing babies and carrying off livestock willy-nilly. A lot of coyotes have learned to thrive on scavenging. Seems those coyotes and their hybrid offspring are also especially fond of Canada goose eggs, and are thereby helping to keep nuisance goose populations in check in some areas. Score one for the predators.

Indeed there are many predators out there providing beneficial services, several in fact which lend a helping hand in our gardens. The truth is that predators move into areas where the pickings are easy, that is where populations of prey have grown to become a problem. Got groundhogs or mice or rats? Better call the coyote or fox or owl or hawk “hotline,” because once these guys arrive on the scene your rodent or small game problem will thin out precipitously. Likewise they’ll disappear like magic once the nuisance populations are down.

In fact you probably won’t even have to call them. They’ll most likely know about it before you do. But whether it is flying or four-footed or eight-footed predators or even the slithering kind, it doesn’t hurt to spread the welcome mat for them. Take predatory wasps or flies for instance which prey on insects that can devour your crops or ornamentals. Some such as the braconid wasp lay their eggs on tomato hornworms for one. When the eggs hatch they consume the hornworm from the inside out. Learn to recognize the signs, and then let this grim little aspect of nature take its course.

And there is the tachnid fly which is our main defense against those alien nuisance Japanese beetles which can decimate many garden ornaments and crops. In addition to preying on Japanese beetles, tachnid flies also consume caterpillars, beetles, sawflies, borers and green stink bugs by laying their eggs on the host insects.

You can attract these valuable flies to the garden by planting flowers and herbs such as dill, parsley, spearmint and Queen Anne's lace. Allowing spiders and parasitic wasps and flies, lady bugs and more to safely scour your garden of insect pests will benefit you and everyone. Of course it goes without saying that pesticide use should be avoided in the garden and landscape because it kills indiscriminately both the bad and the beneficial insects. Powerful broad-spectrum insecticides may eliminate some pests in the short run, but frequently create an unwanted bounce back of nuisance insects mainly because the chemicals have eradicated the predators as well. The same goes for any poison rodent bait which could end up making a predator, an owl or hawk for instance, an unintended victim.

One important thing you can do to benefit the tachnid fly is to inspect individual Japanese beetles when handpicking them. Take a moment to look at the beetle’s back. If you see small opaque white spots right behind the head, you have found tachnid fly eggs. The slightly raised spots are about the size of the head of a small straight pin. Allow those beetles with the eggs present to go, and that gives the eggs an opportunity to hatch. The parasitic flies will consume the beetle and provide a whole new army of predators. There are other good-guy bugs too.

According to About.com where you can see images and information on the top 10 beneficial insects, they are:

1. Green lacewings

2. Lady beetles

3. Assassin bugs

4. Praying mantis

5. Minute pirate bugs

6. Ground beetles

7. Syrphid flies

8. Predatory stink bugs

9. Big-eyed bugs

10. Damsel bugs

I’d like to add dragonflies to this list because these incredible fliers are insect-eating machines in every form of their amazing life cycle which begins in the water. There they gobble up mosquito larvae. Of course a pond or water feature would be a great way to attract dragonflies.

Although we take steps to use a crop cover fabric on the strawberries to prevent the birds from snacking on the berries, birds are welcome in the garden because they also relish most insects and caterpillars. We provide posts on which birds can perch and hunt from and houses for them to nest in. Toads and frogs are also great consumers of insects and along with their slender cousins, snakes, and all are always welcome in my gardens. When we allowed a small corner of the property to grow back into a semi-wild state, we provided cover for a variety of wildlife. We’ve even discovered a garter snake luxuriating in the warmth of an old hay bale left to decompose. It is all a fairly simple to provide a welcoming environment for predators, and the rewards are many.

It won’t be long before our gardens come to life, and the vegetable crops go in. If you are lucky the predators will arrive on time. Not only do they enhance our gardening experience, but they are some of our best allies. Most likely your predator friends will be in the form of insect-eating birds or helpful bugs, maybe a toad or frog, but while you may not be happy at the idea of coyotes about, rest assured they are most likely there for a reason and you can count on them to help protect your garden.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Lynette Walther | Mar 18, 2014 08:13

Florence: I know at times nature is not pretty. We've all seen those films of African lions, hyenas or killer whales with their unfortunate prey. However predators have an essential part to play, and according to one source: "Once predators are removed from an area, the food chain is fundamentally disrupted - usually to the detriment of the overall ecosystem."

Posted by: Florence E Tolman | Mar 16, 2014 16:27

Some may find the coyote "useful" but I doubt if they have seen their handiwork on deer in the winter.  Every year, they drive deer onto the ice and start chewing. If it was an outright kill, it would be one thing but the ones I have seen on Crawford, year after year, are heart breaking. They start on the hind ends and stomachs....it's not pretty....and the deer is still alive. I for one, say a big thank you to the coyote hunters in the area. I wish a big bounty would be put on them to encourage hunters to thin the packs out.

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