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The Garden Decoder: What Is an ‘Insectary’? (And Why Should You Have One?)

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The Garden Decoder: What Is an ‘Insectary’? (And Why Should You Have One?)

August 30, 2023

If you look up the word “insectary” in Merriam Webster, it notes that it is “a place for the keeping or rearing of live insects.” But after visiting two thriving examples in real life, Benziger Family Winery and Lotusland, I realized that the dictionary definition is stagnant, uncolorful, and not very buzzy and fluttery. I also learned that an insectary does more than just raise insects: It gifts an abundance of sights and sounds and movement, too—plus, it’s quite vital to a happy ecosystem.

Please keep reading to learn more about an insectary.

What actually is an ‘insectary’?

The Benziger insectary was designed by the late Allen York. Back in \1995, a large section of the vineyard was removed to make room for the insectary, which works in concert with nature and its cycles to bring balance and create a stable, healthy property. Photograph courtesy of Benziger Family Winery.
Above: The Benziger insectary was designed by the late Allen York. Back in 1995, a large section of the vineyard was removed to make room for the insectary, which works in concert with nature and its cycles to bring balance and create a stable, healthy property. Photograph courtesy of Benziger Family Winery.

An insectary is a diverse collection of choice plants that attract, feed and harbor beneficial, predatory insects such as ladybugs and lacewings that help repel and manage harmful bugs such as aphids. Plus, insectary plants help capture nutrients from the soil and create a diverse ecosystem.

How is an insectary different from a pollinator garden?

The main insectary at Benziger Family Winery has over \250 unique flowers and plants that work year round to entice predatory insects and animals to hang out and work. Over half of the winery&#8\2\17;s 85 acres is dedicated to this type of self-regulating biodiversity. Photograph courtesy of Benziger Family Winery.
Above: The main insectary at Benziger Family Winery has over 250 unique flowers and plants that work year round to entice predatory insects and animals to hang out and work. Over half of the winery’s 85 acres is dedicated to this type of self-regulating biodiversity. Photograph courtesy of Benziger Family Winery.

While a pollinator garden is helpful and attractive, providing a buffet for all insects, an insectary focuses on attracting helpful workhorse predators on bugs that wreak havoc on your garden. For example, a pollinator garden might attract butterflies and hummingbirds, which are my favorites, but these beauties don’t eat thrip and white flies.

Why create an insectary?

The insectary garden at Lotusland was designed and installed by garden designer Eric Nagelmann and Corey Welles, Manager of Sustainability at Lotusland. Photograph courtesy of Lotusland.
Above: The insectary garden at Lotusland was designed and installed by garden designer Eric Nagelmann and Corey Welles, Manager of Sustainability at Lotusland. Photograph courtesy of Lotusland.

Attracting an assortment of good bugs to aid in pest control helps reduce work in the garden by managing destructive invaders and hopefully eliminating the need for chemicals. By planting with diversity in mind, you are providing food and shelter for beneficial creatures, including migratory birds of prey. When your plants mature and resident populations move in for good, your garden will become a more balanced and healthy environment. The other excellent benefits include lower water use because you will be embracing drought tolerant native plants, better flower and crop production, and lastly, healthy plants not affected by pests and disease can sequester carbon more effectively.

How do you create an insectary garden?

The colorful oasis of vibrant diversity at Lotusland was originally an area where its owner, Madame Walska, grew cut flowers but the space has evolved and taken on the Insectary Garden in recognition of the beneficial relationship between plant, insects, predators and pollinators. Photograph courtesy of Lotusland.
Above: The colorful oasis of vibrant diversity at Lotusland was originally an area where its owner, Madame Walska, grew cut flowers but the space has evolved and taken on the Insectary Garden in recognition of the beneficial relationship between plant, insects, predators and pollinators. Photograph courtesy of Lotusland.

An insectary garden is a long-term commitment, as the results are cumulative and not instantaneous. It can be as large or as small as your garden space allows, just as long as your plot can hold about eight varieties of plants with different or overlapping bloom times. Use only organic fertilizers—never toxic chemicals—cover with mulch, and add compost when needed. Corey Welles, Sustainability Manager at Lotusland shares, “The recipe Lotusland uses for homes, botanic gardens, or large estates is basically: 1: pure natives strategically placed in hedge rows around a property (major cost savings and huge ecological services). 2: 50/50 natives and select non-natives closer to the house. 3: fancy-schmancy ornamentals carefully clustered for focal points or other ornamental elements. This recipe can be customized for any size house.”

What plants are good for an insectary?

Vitex is a key player in the insectary at Lotusland. Photograph courtesy of Lotusland.
Above: Vitex is a key player in the insectary at Lotusland. Photograph courtesy of Lotusland.

Vitex agnus-castus: According to Corey, “Although it’s not a native California plant, Vitex brings in all the best butterflies and beneficial insects. It’s tough, takes radical pruning, plus likes deep and infrequent water.”

Borage: This multitasking plant attracts beneficial bees and wasps and adds trace elements to the soil. Bonus: The blue flowers are edible. Borage is an annual but readily reseeds itself so you will definitely have more next year.

Achillea: This favorite sunny border plant attracts all sorts of helpful flying friends, from butterflies to lacewings and ladybugs. Tall, flat flower clusters are also great in fresh or dried arrangements.

Cosmos: A charming flower that attracts lacewings, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps.

Cilantro: If you let this herb go to flower, you will witness a plethora of predators visiting this plant.

Sunflower: This stately flower attracts beneficial aphidus, pirate bugs, and parasitic wasps. Did you know that you can plant sunflowers to lure aphids away from other plants? Ants will pack up and move their colonies to sunflowers with little to no damage.

Members of the mint family: Sages and lavender have short nectar-producing flowers that make them more accessible to pollinators with short mouthparts such as native bees.

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Frequently asked questions

What is an insectary?

An insectary is a garden feature designed to attract beneficial insects by providing them with food, water, shelter, and places to reproduce.

Why should I create an insectary in my garden?

Insectaries can help control pests naturally as beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and hoverflies are attracted to them. These insects feed on garden pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides.

What plants should I include in an insectary?

Select plants that produce nectar, pollen, or other food sources for beneficial insects. Good choices are dill, fennel, yarrow, marigold, lavender, and sunflowers.

How do I design an insectary?

Consider planting in clusters or drifts rather than single plants. Allow some native or wildflower plants to grow and provide different heights and textures to attract a variety of insects. Add some water sources like shallow dishes or birdbaths.

Do insectaries require special maintenance?

Insectaries generally require minimal maintenance. Regular watering and occasional grooming to remove spent flowers or damaged leaves is usually sufficient. Avoid using chemical pesticides that can harm beneficial insects.

Can I still have ornamental plants in my garden with an insectary?

Absolutely! In fact, integrating insectary plants with ornamentals can create a beautiful and functional garden. Mix in insectary plants among your flowers, shrubs, and trees.

How long does it take for a new insectary to attract beneficial insects?

It may take some time for the insects to discover and populate the insectary. However, by providing the right plants and habitat, you should start seeing beneficial insects within a few weeks to a few months.

Are all insects attracted to insectaries beneficial?

Not all insects attracted to insectaries are beneficial, but most are. Some may be neutral or prey on other insects, but the majority will help control pests or pollinate plants in your garden.

Can I apply any pesticides in my garden if I have an insectary?

To fully benefit from an insectary, it's advisable to avoid using chemical pesticides altogether. These can harm both pests and beneficial insects. Instead, try organic pest control methods like handpicking pests or using natural predators.

Are insectaries suitable for any size of garden?

Insectaries can be scaled to fit any size of garden, from small urban balconies to large rural landscapes. The key is to provide a variety of plant species, water sources, and shelter in a space that suits your garden.

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