Category Archives: Beneficial Bugs

Rocky Mountain Bee Plant: A Useful Weed

by LJ Hodek-Creapeau, Circkles Managing Editor

You will probably not even notice this “weed” until it blossoms. We have them growing in only select areas of Colorado. The bee plant looks like any other ordinary weed, until it flowers; then it is a bouquet of beautiful lavender and humming with bees. That makes this “weed” worth establishing in your yard if possible.

The only challenge to growing bee plants is first, you can’t find the seed in just any seed catalog, and second, it is picky about germination conditions.

Technically labeled as Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, it is also known as Navajo spinach, stinkweed and skunk weed or skunk plant due to the unpleasant aroma the leaves give off if you rub them. One of the showiest wildflowers in the western and prairie regions of the United States once it blossoms. The Rocky Mountain bee plant is often found along dry roadsides and waste places, It is an annual herb that can grow up to 4-feet tall, has an unpleasant odor, and so is mostly avoided by livestock and deer: another good reason to grow it in your yard.

Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (cleome) can be found throughout western North America, from southern British Columbia, east to Minnesota, and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico. It is now also naturalized in eastern areas of North America. This species was one of the many new plants that was collected and catalogued along the Vermillion River in South Dakota on August 25, 1804 by Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery.”

Cleome serrulata is an important cultural plant for many Southwestern Indian tribes. The young, tender shoots and leaves are good sources of vitamin A and calcium. In the past they were used as potherbs or medicinally as teas for fevers and other ailments. The seeds were ground and used to make gruel or bread. The Navajo still use the plant as a source of yellow-green dye for their beautiful wool rugs and blankets. Many pueblo tribes use a concentrated form of dye, made from boiling the plant into a thick black resin, to paint designs on pottery or for decorating their baskets.

How to Sow Bee Plant

Cleome serrulata has traditionally been considered a member of the Caper (Capparidaceae) family but recent genetic studies indicate that it is much more closely related to the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family. It is an annual that readily self-sows but only under certain conditions. The seeds will only germinate if they are planted at least 1/4 inch under the soil and not more than 1/2 inch. They need moist conditions until they sprout, but once they get a good root system going, they are pretty drought tolerant.
The plants like full sun or partial shade and will grow where other drought tolerant weeds or herbs grow, in fields, such as alongside mullein, in abandoned pastures. Bee plant will start producing seeds while it’s still flowering, and because it flowers from the bottom up, it continues to blossom for a long time giving bees some much needed fall nectar. Once the seed pods turn brown, you can collect the seed and keep them to start new plants from year to year.

How to find Bee Plant Seeds

Not many seed catalogs carry bee plant seeds, so your best bet is to collect them if you know of a wild patch that grows nearby, or, we know of a couple online seed suppliers that do carry the seeds: such as or Your best bet is a garden supplier that specializes in seeds and plants for xeriscaping or carries naturally drought tolerant plants for rock gardens and such.

How to keep Bee Plant established in your yard

As mentioned above, once they get going, cleome are fairly drought tolerant and do not require rich soil or much moisture. One thing to keep in mind is they will reseed themselves, so be sure to start them in an area of your yard or garden where they can do so, or, save the seed and restart them indoors a couple weeks before your average last frost date and transplant them where you want them after all danger of frost. The bees will love you and your yard for it.


Photos by L.J. Hodek

Beneficial Bugs: Nematodes.

Beneficial Bugs: Nematodes.

Phylum: Nematoda

We usually think of nematodes as being a bad thing, but there are bad nematodes and good nematodes. Beneficial nematodes attack soil-borne pests. They kill their hosts by invading them and then releasing a bacteria that causes the host blood poisoning.

Beneficial nematodes are microscopic, so you won’t be able to see them, but you can purchase them in a paste-like form from some garden suppliers. Add water to the paste and sprinkle it on moist soil around plants in the evening when the sun won’t just bake them. One particular species of nematode called Steinernema carpocapsea is very effective against caterpillars, cutworms, webworms and billbugs. Heterorhabditis bacteriophora loves Japanese beetle grubs.

Good nematodes can also be used to control fleas, iris borers, cabbage root maggots and strawberry root weevils.

Also read about controlling thistles and the edible daylily in this month’s archived articles.

Beneficial Bugs: Earthworms

Beneficial Bugs: Earthworms.

Class: Chilopoda

From the time we are kids, we are told that worms are good for the garden and soil, but we rarely are ever told why. Earthworms can eat their weight in decaying plant matter every day. That thick band you see toward one end of their bodies is the area that holds their reproductive organs. Two worms become impregnated by each other and offspring can live for 10-12 years.

Earthworm castings (excrement) greatly improve the texture and mineral content of the soil. They are high in phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, all minerals many soils would lack without these soil dwellers.

To encourage worms in your garden, make sure to add plenty of compost to keep them in your garden soil. If they do not have organic matter in the soil to feed on, they will go elsewhere.

Beneficial Bugs: Predatory Mites vs Spider Mites.

miteswestern_predatoryOrder: Acarina. Family: Phytoseiidae

There are good mites and bad mites, they are both the same minute size (almost undetectable with the naked eye) and they can change color in response to their prey, so it is next to impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. About the only way to tell is if you observe mite webs on your plants and your plants look like the leaves have been sucked dry of their juices, you have the bad mites. Spray those with a garlic spray to get rid of them.

Predatory mites are happiest in humid conditions, so you won’t see them in the Southwest much. They are often smaller than the prey they eat, but you can attract them with pollen-rich plants.

SpiderMiteWebsAs we mentioned above, there are good mites and bad and you can really only tell them apart by the damage they do to your plants. (Read above.) Spider mites will also create web-like threads all over your plant leaves which will start to look speckled like the mites are sucking the juices from the leaves, which is exactly what they are doing.

Spray the front and back of all leaves with a garlic spray. Neem oil sprays work as well. Take the plant outside if it is a potted plant, wash the leaves and mites off with a powerful blast of water, relocate the plant so the mites don’t just crawl back on it after hosing them off, then spray it well with the garlic or neem oil.

Let it sit outside for a couple days for the mites to get discouraged by the spray and move their operations elsewhere.

For more on Garden Circkles, check out our main website.

Beneficial Bugs: Robber Flies

robber_flies05Order: Diptera. Family: Syrphidae

Some robber flies are chunky and look a bit like bumble bees, but in general, they are slender and look a bit like damsel flies. They eat flies, bees, beetles and grasshoppers by dropping down on them from above. Robber flies are also rarely affected by other insect’s natural defenses.

The face of a robber fly looks bearded and like it is hollow between their bulging eyes. Usually 1/5 to 1 1/4 inches in size, they are usually found in meadows across the U.S. The larvae or maggots live in decaying wood or in the soil and feed on beetle larvae.

Beneficial Bugs: Trichogramma Wasp

trichogrammaOrder: Hymenoptera. Family: Trichogrammatidae

Changing color from yellow to orange to dark brown with bright red eyes, these wasps are parasitoids of the eggs of othr insects, destroying the eggs of fruitworms, hornworms, loopers, cabbage worms and other insects before they destroy your crops.

The parasitized eggs often turn black and the adults will feed on insect eggs, nectar and pollen. Four or Five of these tiny wasps will fit on the head of a pin, so seeing them with the naked eye may not be possible. To keep this almost microscopic predetor close to your garden, provide a variety of plants such as Queen Anne’s Lace, caraway, fennel, tansy and herbs.

There are many different strains of this wasp depending on climate. You can purchase them from a retailer to benefit your garden, just make sure you get the variety that suits your climate best.

Beneficial Bugs: Ichneumon Wasp

ichneumonOrder: Hymenoptera. Family: Ichneumonidae

These wasps have thread-like waists and very long antennae. They vary greatly in color from red and orange to many shades of brown and some have stripes and some not. There are over 3,300 known species in North America alone.

The larvae take up residence in caterpillars and sometimes spiders. The larvae then develops inside the host feeding on it and killing it.

Adults drink nectar and water, so to encourage them to stay, plant umbrella-shaped flowers such as tansy and lovage. They also prefer higher humidity. They range in size from 1/8 inch to 1 5/8 inch.

Beneficial Insects: Encarsia Formosa

whitefly_encarsiaEncarsia Formosa
Order: Hymenoptera. Family: Aphelinidae

These little guys have been used for over 60 years to control whiteflies especially in greenhouses. They adults are very tiny, only about 1/25th of an inch. To tell you just how small that is, they lay one egg inside an immature whitefly, and you know how small whiteflies are. As the egg grows, it kills its host. The adult wasps also eat young whiteflies.

You can tell if whiteflies have wasp pupae inside because they turn brown or black instead of being a pale yellow.

Not native to North America, but these wasps can be purchased for greenhouse use. They are not hardy in cold climates but may survive a garden in warmer areas.

Photo: Encarsia moth about to infest a whitefly with an egg.

Raspberry Varieties Compared. On our October Health Circkles issue.

See our main gardening page, Garden Circkles, for much more information than what is posted on this blog, including full articles on greenhouse growing, sustainable and organic tips, beneficial bugs, the latest techniques such as aquaponics and vertical growing and much more.

Beneficial Insects: Braconid Wasp

braconid-wasp_eggsBraconid Wasp
Order: Hymenoptera. Family: Braconidae

Average Size: Very, very tiny. Only about 1/10 th to 1/2 th of an inch in size.

Resembling flying ants, these “good guys” are usually too small to be noticed. You may see their eggs on a host before you ever spot an adult braconid wasp.

They lay their eggs on other insects and the larvae feed on them as a host. They will parasitize such insects as tomato hornworms, armyworms, cabbage worms, codling moths, gypsy moths and caterpillars of many kinds.

When adults, they feed on nectar from small blossoms such as sweet alyssum and crocuses, so keeping these flowers around will help keep these beneficial pals around as well.

Photo: A tomato hornworm infested with braconid wasp eggs.

See our main gardening page, Garden Circkles, for much more information than what is posted on this blog, including full articles on greenhouse growing, sustainable and organic tips, beneficial bugs, the latest techniques such as aquaponics and vertical growing and much more.

Beneficial Insects: Aphidiid Wasp

Aphidiid WaspAphidiid Wasp
Order: Hymenoptera. Family: Apidiinae

Average Size: They vary in size but are just slightly larger than an adult aphid: about 1/8 inch.

As the name implies, these wasps love aphids. They are all black and look similar to an ant with wings. The females lay their eggs inside the aphid and when they hatch, the young feed on the aphid eventually killing it. Almost (almost) makes you feel sorry for aphids. But not when they are chewing up your potatoes or brussels.

Active in the late summer and fall, aphidiid females can parasitize hundreds of aphids per day. You’ll know you have these wasps around if you see “aphid mummies” or paper-bag colored aphid shells stuck to leaves.