Wildflowers aren't only beautiful and easy to maintain. They could soon be used in your home landscape as natural pesticides.
"Insects are naturally attracted to wildflowers, and not all insects are bad," said Kris Braman, a University of Georgia entomologist. "With insects, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. The key is to know which ones are which."
Attracting 'Good' Bugs
Working in her lab at the UGA Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin, Braman has seen firsthand how much beneficial insects -- those that eat the bugs we view as pests -- love wildflowers.
"The wildflowers give the beneficials somewhere to live, and this makes them stay where you want them -- in your lawn eating the bad bugs," she said.
The "good" bugs include lady beetles, parasitic wasps and flies and several spider species. "You want to attract parasites and predators that feed on other pests," Braman said. "So far, we've found wildflowers do an excellent job of attracting beneficial insects."
You Need Lots of Flowers
So which wildflower varieties do beneficial insects like best? And which should you plant?
"Wildflowers are usually sold in mixes containing many flowers that are excellent hosts for beneficials," Braman said. She is still working to identify the best 'pest-fighting' wildflower varieties.
Braman says the key is to select a mix that will produce flowers throughout the year. "You want to have a series of blooming plants so there's something blooming and attractive to beneficials all the time," she said.
Wildflower mixes can be bought at most home improvement or garden centers or ordered through seed catalogs.
Pick the Best for Your Area
No matter which wildflower mix you select, make sure it's the right one for your area. "Pick a mix that's suitable for the Southeast or the coast, depending on where you live," Braman said.
And now is the time to plant. "Put them out in the fall and get them seeded before Thanksgiving for fall planting," Braman said. "Late winter is another opportunity for some mixes. Always check your planting directions."
Adding wildflowers to your landscape is just one way to help reduce the amount of pesticide you apply in your home landscape.
Other Alternative Pesticides
"You can also spot-spray when you see a pest problem, instead of cover-spraying," she said. "And horticultural oils are also excellent for targeting pests."
The next step in Braman's research project is to compare the costs of using wildflowers with pesticides to using just pesticides.
"Wildflowers aren't a total solution to pest control," Braman said. "But we know they can certainly reduce the need for pesticides. Our focus is to improve the habitat by taking advantage of beneficial insects when we can."
(Lady beetle image by Scott Bauer, USDA. Photo of Kris Braman by Sharon Omahen, University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)