Attracting wildlife and beneficial insects through landscape design

Whether you are a turf management specialist, a landscape designer or a homeowner, you can play an important role in enhancing and improving wildlife habitat. No matter your expertise, your choices in managing the land can make the landscape around us aesthetically pleasing, and healthier for humans and wildlife.

Living creatures need four basics to survive: food, cover or shelter, water and space. Understanding and providing those essential elements will benefit a variety of wildlife, including birds, butterflies and beneficial insects-as well as people. By carefully choosing a variety of trees, plants, shrubs and flowers, you add visual beauty to the managed landscape. But more important, you provide habitat that satisfies wildlife's basic needs, and you play a critical role in the ecology of the landscape.

Diversity is the key Diversity is the key to valuable wildlife habitat. The more diverse the landscape, the greater the health and diversity of wildlife. People sometimes tend to simplify the landscape by creating large areas (monocultures) that contain a single species. But when you increase the number of plant species in a landscape, you increase its ecological stability. The greater the variety of plant species, the greater the diversity of wildlife it will support. From an economic perspective, more diverse habitats are less vulnerable to large-scale destruction from insect pests or diseases that can devastate a single plant species. So in terms of wildlife plantings, diversity is essential.

Naturalizing is the way You can create a more diverse habitat merely with a commitment to "naturalizing" more of the landscape. That means using native plants to restore and enhance the landscape. Some people may tell you that naturalizing means letting nature-the unkempt, out-of-control part of nature-take over. What it really means is making reasonable decisions about how to enhance and manage the land from a more natural perspective.

Begin by using a wildlife perspective to look at the land you manage. Assess the basic requirements for survival-food, cover, water and space. An area as small as a backyard or as large as a golf course has potential as wildlife habitat.

If you need assistance choosing native plants, especially those valuable for wildlife, you can consult local horticulturists, cooperative extension offices, native plant societies or your state's Department of Natural Resources. Look for ways to naturalize these areas with native vegetation. Check with nursery sources for native plants. Not all nurseries sell native plants, and you may have to seek out nurseries that specialize in native plants unique to your region.

Attracting bees and butterflies One of the most aesthetically pleasing ways to attract wildlife is selecting plantings that attract bees, moths and butterflies. You may wish to develop gardens with native prairie wildflowers or native woodland wildflowers to attract butterflies like the monarch, painted lady, comma, red-spotted purple and tiger swallowtail as well as some fritillaries, red admirals, sulfurs, cabbage butterflies and several species of blues. In addition, your plants can provide nectar sources for honeybees and bumblebees, hummingbirds, clear-winged moths and sphinx moths. For best results, your garden needs to get at least a half day of sunshine. A southern exposure is best, but gardens that face east or west will also work.

Butterfly plantings: Butterflies are known for their large, usually bright-colored wings. Like other insects, they rely on the sun to keep them warm and raise their metabolism so they can fly. On sunny days, they can be seen basking on light-colored rocks that reflect more of the sun's light to their bodies, or sitting on flowers free from shade. Butterflies remain inactive on cloudy days. To entice butterflies to your property, grow plants for adult butterflies and caterpillars to eat (nectar sources for butterflies, foliage for caterpillars). You also can provide stones for sunning and a shallow source of water.

Bee plantings: Many plants are excellent for attracting bees. Among the most significant bee plants are those available when bees emerge in the spring. Many of the best bee and butterfly plants are herbs. Creating an herb garden benefits not only wildlife, but the human palate as well.

Good bugs-bad bugs Insects are a natural part of our world. They are found almost everywhere. More than 3 million known insects make up 90 percent of the animal kingdom. Humans view insects as pests that destroy crops, spread disease or ruin gardens, backyards and lawns. In reality, less than 1 percent of insects are pests and less than 100 species consistently pose problems.

Over time we have increasingly used chemicals to control pests. However, researchers are just beginning to understand the roles that insects play in controlling pests. They have discovered that lacewings feed on aphids, whiteflies, mites and mealybugs; beeflies feed on locust eggs and are parasites of fly larvae, wasps, bees, beetles and ants; soldier beetles prey on cutworms, gypsy moth larvae and cankerworms; dragonflies eat small flying insects like midges and mosquitoes; and a praying mantis will eat anything it can catch.

As land managers, we have the opportunity to learn more about how to control some of these pests with beneficial insects. And what could be more appropriate than to look to nature to help us balance the role that insects play in our lives?

How insects benefit nature Most people don't appreciate just how valuable insects can be. Many wildflowers, ornamental plants, fruits and crops couldn't survive without the assistance of insects. In their search for nectar, bees, butterflies and other flying insects pollinate many plants, promoting reproduction. Migratory songbirds, which overwinter in the tropical regions of North, Central and South America, consume thousands of insects each spring. Insects that feed on decaying plants or on dead animals enrich soil by returning nutrients and organic matter that is readily used by living plants. In addition, insects that spend all or part of their life cycle underground, especially ants, are valuable as earthmovers that help to aerate soil.

Some insects, by their very nature, are aggressive stalkers of their kin. Preying mantis, spiders and lady beetles are among the best known "beneficial insects." Predatory mites, centipedes, lacewings, bees, wasps and ants are some additional species that also consume insects. These are encouraged in many gardens and farms because they help to naturally control more destructive insects.

Attracting and sustaining beneficial insects There are a variety of plants that will help to attract beneficial insects to the property you manage. These include umbels, composites and spikes.

Umbels (the carrot family) include dill, Queen Anne's lace, angelica, fennel and yarrow. Composites (the sunflower family) include sunflowers, coneflowers, daisies, cosmos and asters. Spikes (the mint family) include flowers such as lavender, goldenrod and hyssop. Cups, those with relatively flat petals, include flowers like evening primrose or buttercups. While these plants are especially good for attracting insects, plant a range of other types for greater diversity.

Nature is a balancing act What is most important in managing landscapes is trying to delicately balance the way nature works with what humans want. One of the best ways to do that is understanding nature and encouraging it as part of our surroundings. Instead of managing nature so intensively, we should invite it to take a place in our managed landscape.

Landscape and turf managers, grounds maintenance personnel and golf course superintendents are in a unique position to make a larger commitment to the health of the land around them. As we lose more land to development, we need to make an even more concerted effort to manage what remains in ways that promote the health of the environment, enhance habitat for wildlife and leave a legacy for our children. Habitat diversity, sustainable land management and habitat enhancement are all within your grasp. Join the effort to educate people about their stewardship responsibilities and the satisfaction of making the natural part of the world an integral part of the managed landscape.

Ron Dodson is president and CEO of Audubon International, which manages The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System (ACSS). The ACSS is an environmental education program that helps landowners and land managers to become actively involved in stewardship activities, enhancing wildlife habitats, managing human landscapes and conserving natural resources on their property. For membership information, contact the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System at (518) 767-9051, Ext. 11.

* Consider potential locations and ways you might modify the existing landscape to include more or different plantings.

* Evaluate potential locations and plant selections in light of their visual appeal and whether the landowner and surrounding property owners will accept them.

* Incorporate naturally landscaped areas in phases.

* When selecting trees, shrubs and flowers, choose native plants that provide food and cover.* Locating plants near water sources will increase their habi tat potential.

* Select native plants. They are well adapted to your local climate and soil and often require little maintenance.

* Survey the property, and learn more about the native plant communities in your area to determine which species will grow best on your site.

* While native species are extremely tough and hardy, they do benefit and establish faster with some site preparation and post-planting care.

* Mulching, weed barriers and supplemental irrigation will increase shrub survival rates.

* Increase the diversity of your landscape. Grow a variety of plants, especially native species, to support a variety of insects and other wildlife.

* Use pesticides sparingly, if at all, and choose those that are less toxic when you do need to use them.

* Learn about and employ integrated pest management techniques.

* Like all wildlife species, insects need water. A simple dish or pan filled with pebbles will provide water for a variety of insects as well as other small wildlife.

* Leaving some leaf litter and debris under shrubs may provide beneficial insects and other small wildlife species a place to hide during adverse conditions, such as hot summer days.

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