July 10, 2014
By Brigette Brown
The black swallowtail caterpillar is attracted to parsley.
Are insects eating your garden vegetables? Before reaching for a pesticide, take a moment to learn about whether the insects may be beneficial to your garden or the surrounding ecosystem. Then consider integrated pest management alternatives that are economical, effective, and sustainable to human and environmental health.
Chemical pesticides can pose health risks for you, your family, and the environment. When pesticides are sprayed on plants, they can mix with rainwater and runoff, causing soil and groundwater contamination. Pesticides can contact your clothes or exposed skin and enter the air you breathe, resulting in irritation of your skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Birds, pets, and other mammals that ingest insects, produce, or contaminated water near your garden may experience adverse health effects.
You can use simple alternatives to chemical pesticides to protect your health, your harvest, and your ecosystem. Be sure to inspect your yard for small amounts of standing water, which may attract mosquitoes. Find out which brightly colored flowers attract your garden visitors, and plant them near your garden to draw insects away from your vegetables.
Studying the life cycles and behaviors of garden visitors can reveal unexpected (and sometimes positive) ways they interact with your plants—and you’ll learn more about local ecology. By limiting conditions such as food, water, shelter, and space that help these guests thrive, you may encourage certain pests to seek other habitats.
Activity: Got Bugs?
Observe your insect closely during the day and at night. Bring a chair or blanket to sit on, and wait quietly so that you do not disturb your garden visitors.
After you record your observations in a journal, take a few photographs to document the activity in your garden. Then visit the library or conduct research online to help answer the questions below:
- What does the insect look like?
- What does the insect eat? Is the insect a harmless visitor?
- If the insect eats my plants, can I tolerate its presence?
- What animals prey on this insect?
- Can I alter my garden or how I care for it to deter this visitor?
- How does this visitor reproduce, and how can I make sure its population doesn’t expand?
The Academy is a great place to get help in identifying your insect. During Bug Fest (August 9–10), our entomologists will be ready for your questions in our Ask a Scientist booth. Be sure to bring a specimen and all the data you’ve collected. Write down your questions and use our scientists as a resource!
Reviewed by Michelle Neidermeyer, PA Integrated Pest Management Program, and Jon Gelhaus, Ph.D., Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University