Beneficial Bugs and Beasties of Your Backyard
If you have a water garden or live near a stream, pond, or lake, you can't miss the aerial displays of dragonflies. These bold iridescent insects sweep back and forth across the garden catching small flying insects in their spiky, basketlike front legs. Dragonfly larvae live underwater and feed on aquatic animals such as tadpoles. Damselflies, close relatives, are often confused with dragonflies. To tell them apart, look at the insect's wings. Most damselflies fold their wings above them. Dragonflies can't fold their wings at all.
Constantly hungry, the praying mantis is always on the lookout for a good meal. In fact, these voracious insects can turn their triangular heads 180 degrees to locate prey. They generally feed on crickets, moths, grasshoppers, flies, and other insects small enough for mantises to grab with their strong front legs. Occasionally, they will even eat each other, especially during mating when the female may consume the male. In the early fall, mantises lay tan, frothy masses of eggs on branches or structures. The egg masses quickly harden into a tough protective case for the winter. Praying mantis nymphs hatch in the spring, looking like small versions of the parents but without wings. The wings develop as the nymphs change into their adult form.
Gray Tree Frog
Gray tree frogs are the magicians of the backyard. They have toe pads that allow them to scramble over any surface, and they can change their skin color from brown to gray to green, depending on the environment. Common in the eastern half of the United States, these nocturnal acrobats eat a variety of small insects and rarely set foot on the ground. They breed in small ponds in the early spring, and the tadpoles grow quickly, becoming frogs in just eight weeks. On a spring or summer night, you can hear the high, birdlike trilling of adult tree frogs calling to each other. The calling seems to increase after a warm rain.
If you live near a lake or pond or have a large water garden on your property, you're probably familiar with the deep bass "jug-o-rum" call of the bullfrog. These large greenish-brown amphibians are the largest species of frog in the United States, capable of growing up to 10 inches long. Bullfrogs breed in early summer, and their large brown tadpoles take up to two years to transform into frogs. These frogs are heavy feeders, feasting on insects, spiders, and even small rodents. Basically, a bullfrog will eat anything alive that it can stuff into its mouth. To introduce bullfrogs into your water garden, buy tadpoles from online water gardening resources.
Like bullfrogs, painted turtles are generally found in large ponds or lakes, but occasionally they show up in backyard water gardens. Probably the most common of several forms of painted turtles is the Eastern subspecies, with its dark brown carapace (top shell) over its bold yellow plastron (bottom shell). Red and yellow stripes decorate the turtle's head, neck, and legs. Painted turtles eat algae, aquatic plants, insects, tadpoles, fish, leeches, earthworms, and crayfish. The turtles lay eggs on land in the early summer. The eggs hatch about 80 days later. These handsome turtles can often be seen sunbathing in groups on partially submerged logs or rock outcroppings.
An infrequent guest in backyard gardens, the box turtle occasionally does visit. Box turtles come in a variety of forms, including the well-known Eastern box turtle. Box turtles get their name from the fact that their plastron (bottom shell) is hinged so when danger strikes, the turtle can shut itself into its strong domed upper shell (carapace). Although the Easter box turtle prefers a woodland habitat, other box turtle species can be found in grasslands. These benign creatures dine on earthworms, slugs, millipedes, sow bugs, and other small, slow invertebrates. They also eat grasses, fruits, mushrooms, and leaves. Box turtles are terrestrial creatures and do not swim well. Box turtle numbers are on the decline in many parts of the country, so do not take them as pets and help them if you see box turtles crossing a road or highway.
Native to the American Southeast, the Carolina anole (often called green anole) is a handsome 5- to 8-inch-long lizard that prefers to live in trees and shrubs. It is commonly found in gardens, where it dines on insects such as crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers. The males have a red dewlap under the chin that they flash to court females or protect territory. Although the anole can change its color from bright green to brown, these animals are not part of the chameleon family. Eggs are laid in soft soil throughout the summer, and the young hatch about 45 days later. Overall, these fast-moving reptiles make excellent garden guests.
American Five-Lined Skink
A rare garden visitor, the American five-lined skink is one of the few lizards that can be found as far north as Michigan or New England. They prefer wooded or rocky locations, where they can bask in the sun but quickly scurry to safety when danger threatens. Adult skinks measure about 5 inches long are dark brown with five pale yellow stripes running the length of the animal. They have bright blue tails that break off easily if a predator attacks. Skinks dine on grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, caterpillars, slugs, and earthworms. In the spring, the female skink lays a small clutch of eggs under a log or stone. The mother remains with the eggs until they hatch in midsummer.
In the early spring, the loud, trilling call of the American toad can be heard in any almost any freshwater pond or puddle east of the Rockies. Female toads lay two long strings of eggs that hatch in just three days. The tiny black tadpoles resemble swimming commas and transform into miniature toads in about 35 days. Adult toads are about 4 inches long with a rough, warty skin. Skin color varies from brown to yellow to black, depending on environmental conditions. American toads are voracious eaters and consume a variety of insects and other invertebrates. They hunt mostly at night, remaining in shallow burrows or under logs and stones during the day. Toads are excellent garden companions and should be encouraged to live in your backyard. Handling toads will not give you warts.
There are thousands of spider species native to the United States, but probably the most obvious one is the large, boldly colored, black-and-yellow garden spider (Agrippa aurantia). This big spider creates 2-foot-wide webs several feet above the ground in and around garden beds. Female garden spiders can grow to about an inch long and will dine on a wide variety of flying prey including grasshoppers, beetles, wasps, and moths. Breeding takes place in summer, with the male dying soon after (or being eaten by his mate). The females lay several egg sacks and attach them to the center of the web. In the fall, the mother spider dies, and the egg sacks hatch the following spring. Although they look fierce, these beneficial animals will not hurt you.
Aphids beware! One ladybug on the prowl can devour several thousand aphids in one summer. Also called ladybird beetles, ladybugs come in a variety of species, but most sport bright red or orange wings with black spots. The adults overwinter under boards or stones and may even try to spend a winter vacation in your home. In the spring, they lay small orange eggs that hatch into black-and-red larvae that resemble tiny alligators. Both the larvae and the adults are carnivorous and, besides aphids, will also eat scale insects, mealybugs, and mites. When alarmed, ladybugs secrete a foul-tasting fluid from the joints of their legs that discourages birds and other predators from eating them. A more aggressive species, the Asian ladybird beetle, was introduced to the United States to help combat the Asian soybean aphid. In many regions, the Asian ladybird beetle is now also considered a pest and a threat to native ladybug populations.
Having garter snakes living in your garden is a good thing! These shy creatures are harmless to humans but are quick to devour a wide variety of insects, slugs, and rodents. Garter snakes live under rocks, under boards, or in leaf litter. They mate as soon as they come out of hibernation in the spring, and two to three months later the female gives birth to live young. Adult snakes generally measure about 20 inches long but can grow to 4 feet. Their scaly skin has a brown or greenish background with yellow stripes running the length of the animal. If handled, they release a strong, musky substance to discourage predators. If you see a garter snake, do not kill it.
Experts in pollination, honeybees are an essential element in every garden. They are responsible for fertilizing fruits, vegetables, and flowers. These hardworking creatures will fly up to two miles from their hive to find nectar and can carry almost half their weight in pollen. During the summer, individual worker bees may live for only six weeks, but because queen bees can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, new worker bees are constantly being produced. Honeybees are more interested in gathering pollen than they are in stinging you, so if you leave them alone, there's no need to worry. To protect bees and other pollinators, do not spray insecticides in your garden.
Last, but not least, the lowly earthworm is probably a gardener's very best friend. Their constant tunneling helps aerate the soil, and their manure, called castings, is an excellent natural fertilizer. Earthworms dine on decaying organic material, helping break it down into essential plant nutrients. There are many species of earthworms, but they all share traits such as being hermaphroditic (having both male and female reproductive organs) and the ability to regenerate missing body parts. Earthworms have no eyes but do have light-sensitive cells on their outer skin. It is estimated that in average soil there can be as many as 1.5 million earthworms per acre.