Growing vegetables or flowers in your yard can easily be undone by a few pests—from moles to voles to deer and more.
But before you assume that all yard intruders should be chased away, know this: Many are not “pests” at all, but can help keep your lawn and garden in good shape.
“Being a ‘pest’ is more about time and place than about the organism itself,” says Thomas Green, an entomologist and the founder and board president of the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America. “For example, although we don’t want them near or inside our house, stinging bees and wasps are incredibly beneficial for pollinating crops and natural pest control in gardens.”
Not sure who’s friend or foe? Here are seven seemingly ominous creatures you should be happy to see in your yard, and how to entice them to stick around.
Your first reaction when you see a snake may be to scream, drop your rake, and run inside to call an exterminator. But these legless reptiles are usually harmless and, in fact, can be very helpful since they eat all sorts of truly unwanted pests like mice, slugs, grubs, and grasshoppers. They also serve as food for birds of prey like hawks and owls, helping to maintain a balanced ecosystem in your yard and neighborhood.
Snakes like places to hide, warm rocks, and a water source—so to create a snake-friendly habitat, make sure your yard has these elements.
Think twice before trying to get rid of ants (so long as they remain outdoors, of course). For one thing, these tiny yet mighty workers help to maintain a healthy, vibrant lawn by acting like miniature aerators, digging tiny tunnels through the dirt that allow oxygen, water, and nutrients to reach the grass roots. They can also help turn leaves and other debris into compost.
There are some ants that you really don’t want to mess with—red fire ants, for instance, which can damage your vegetables and sting—but most pose no threat.
Ants will naturally find their way to your yard. The best way to keep them happy is to simply leave them alone and let them get to work, although you will want to take a few steps to ensure they don’t saunter into your home.
“Making sure your home has well-sealed windows and doors is important,” says Benjamin Hottel, technical services manager for pest control company Orkin. “It is also good to make sure trees and shrubs aren’t touching your home. When they do, the trees and shrubs act as an ant highway, giving them access to hidden entry points on the upper levels of the house.”
Sure, these bumpy amphibians aren’t winning any beauty pageants, but they’re doing important work in your garden.
Toads can eat thousands of slugs, snails, grubs, cutworms, and other damaging insects. With a few of them in your yard, you won’t need to use as many pesticides—and that’s good for both your wallet and the environment.
DIY toad houses are an easy way to encourage these little guys to spend more time in your garden. This tutorial from Lakes Area Television shows how to use a simple garden pot and some dirt to create the perfect toad environment.
You might get freaked out when dusk falls and you start to see bats swooping overhead in the twilight. These tiny mammals have something of a bad rap, but they eat their weight in bugs every night, helping to keep mosquitoes and moths at bay. They also serve as pollinators and seed spreaders for many plants.
While you don’t want to invite bats into your home, you do want them to feel comfortable in your yard.
“Bats are a great example of a group of animals that are extremely beneficial to us but can sometimes be considered a pest if they roost in the wrong places, such as in a person’s attic,” says Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources at Penn State University.
A bat house is a good way to make bats feel right at home in your yard, away from your own abode. See how to build one with wood, screws, caulk, and mesh:
Backyard lizards are a common sight in warmer parts of the country, and these critters can eat their fair share of true pests such as cockroaches, crickets, and flies.
You can make your yard more hospitable to lizards by giving them warm, dry places to hide, including old pipes, pieces of bark, rocks, and other found items. This video shows how to make the perfect “lizard lounge” with items you probably already have around the house.
Growing up, you probably lived in fear of being stung by a bee. And while it’s true that certain bees can and do sting, they really just want to buzz around your flowers in peace.
Bees are essential to our ecosystem, responsible for pollinating much of the food we grow. In addition, bees provide us with many useful products, including honey, beeswax, and compounds that can be used as medicine.
Wasps are also important pollinators, and they like to eat crop-destroying bugs like caterpillars and weevils. You’ll want to invite them to the party, too, so long as you take steps to ensure they build their nests in appropriate locations.
“Preventing critters from becoming pests starts with the design of our built environments,” says Green. “For example, kids’ play equipment shouldn’t have holes that attract bees and wasps for nesting.”
To attract more bees to your yard, consider planting a pollinator garden, filled with yummy flowers, shrubs, and trees that bees are attracted to. As a bonus, pollinator gardens also attract butterflies, as you can see in this video below.
Sure, spiders are creepy as they scurry around on their eight long, hairy legs. But in the yard, these creatures feast on insects that can damage your plants. And they have big appetites, too, so they can help you cut down on your use of pesticides.
“Spiders are beneficial because they are general predators that hunt and eat an array of garden pests, including flies and stink bugs,” says Karey Windbiel-Rojas, associate director for urban and community integrated pest management at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
To make your yard more welcoming to spiders, consider spreading some hay or mulch for them to roam around in. And if spiderwebs give you the heebie-jeebies, it’s OK to knock them down with a broom—you likely won’t kill the spider, says Windbiel-Rojas.
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