Beneficial bugs: good for gardens and for sales

Features - Industry Trends

If your garden center isn’t already offering beneficial insects, it may be time to consider them.

October 13, 2016


One side effect of the surging interest in pollinators and organic edibles is a growing awareness that insects can be good. From gardening blogs to home and garden shows, consumers are learning about beneficial insects — and being urged to use them in their gardens and lawns.

As these newly enlightened customers find their way into independent garden centers, beneficial insects are high on their list for pest control. Providing this alternative to customers may be simpler than you realize — and bring added benefits to your business as well.

Understand beneficial basics

As familiarity with “beneficial bugs” has grown, so have the things that come under that umbrella. A more apt name is beneficial organisms, as the category includes insects, mites, nematodes and more.

Beneficials generally fall into two categories: predators and parasites. Some are generalists, controlling a broad number of pests, while others specialize. Predatory beneficials feed on pests. Ladybugs are general predators that consume aphids and many other soft-bodied insects. Parasitic beneficials lay eggs in or on the pest, which then becomes the food source for hatching offspring.

Whatever their approach, beneficial organisms help reduce unwelcome insects to manageable, non-damaging levels.

Praying mantises are becoming more popular as more customers learn about their benefits.
Praying mantis egg containers can be merchandised easily, as they can go without refrigeration for some time.
Watch trends in consumer demand

Using beneficial insects for pest management isn’t a new idea, but interest is steadily growing. Justin Duddy, sales manager at California-based Tip Top Bio-Control, says the company has seen big changes since it began 30 years ago, when “no bug is a good bug” was commonly heard. Top sellers for the company today include ladybugs, praying mantises, beneficial nematodes and green lacewings.

Shelly Breitenbach, owner of Shelly’s Garden Country in Broomfield, Colo., has been offering beneficials for “10 to 15 years at least” and doesn’t see demand slowing down. “With neonics and bees, people are much more environmentally conscious,” she says. “Millennials and younger generations are aware of them and prefer them. Now we’re seeing it in other age groups, too.”

Jenni Lynne, assistant manager at Strong’s Nursery & Garden Center in Carrollton, Texas, says the IGC has offered beneficial insects for well over a decade. “About half of the people who come in for them haven’t used them before. They’ve seen it on the internet or heard about it and know what they want, but not necessarily how it works,” she says. Beneficial nematodes are especially in demand there, with sales up about three times over last year.

Offer beneficial insects at your IGC

Concerns about shipping or storage keep some IGCs from venturing into beneficials or limit them to offering them only briefly as novelties. But Duddy explains that concerns are often based on misconceptions. “It’s actually very easy. Having a cooler is the only real obstacle to overcome,” he says.

Tip Top’s pre-fed ladybugs, for example, can be stored in a cooler for up to 30 days. An additive in their containers keeps them fed and hydrated — and also enables IGCs to offer them at the counter as impulse buys. Praying mantises, sold in egg cases, can also be displayed without refrigeration for a time. However, beneficial nematodes, which target soil-dwelling insects from grubs to fungus gnats, require constant refrigeration.

At Bath Garden Center & Nursery in Fort Collins, Colo., assistant nursery manager and retired USDA entomologist Steve Johnson keeps it simple. “We’ve been doing this a long time; it’s a staple of our place. We sell mostly lady beetles and praying mantis,” he says. “In our situation, we don’t get too complicated. We have a few packages at the counter and keep them in the pest control area. They keep well in a fridge, and as we run out, we reorder regularly.”

Ladybugs are the top seller for many IGCs.
Find the right vendor

It pays to keep some considerations in mind when finding a beneficial vendor. One is whether the vendor is an insectary — a producer of beneficial insects — or strictly a bug broker. Duddy notes that quality and freshness are essential in offering healthy, effective products to your customers. “The closer you get to the source and the less time the insects spend in packaging, the healthier and better they’re going to be,” he says.

Take time to find out if insects are shipping direct from an insectary, how long they’ve been in storage, how they’re being shipped, and how they’ll arrive at your IGC. Vendors with low or no minimums allow for steady, regular shipments, which mean less insect stress. Other considerations include guarantees of live product, guarantees on retail sales, and the ability to special order for custom requests.

The Bug Day event at Bath Garden Center and Nursery drew hundreds of parents and children to what has become an annual tradition.
This young attendee, who is the daughter of an employee at Bath Garden Center & Nursery, wore a costume made at Halloween but perfect for the beneficial bug event.
Help your customers succeed

While consumers may be tuned into the general idea of bugs for pest control, they don’t necessarily understand the details. “You definitely need to get with a vendor that understands the products and educate yourself, so you can educate your customer,” Breitenbach says.

Effective results depend on proper handling and release, and every type of beneficial insect is different. Some vendors provide technical bulletins that overview storage, targeted pests and details for proper release. At Bath, these types of details are a mainstay in their diagnostic center. “When people come in with a problem, we start with biological and organic solutions,” Johnson says. “Biocontrol education is an important aspect.”

Customers must understand these are live creatures in search of food. There must be a food source — the target pests — available, or beneficials may simply move on. Water sources and temperatures are also important, as is guidance on other pest controls.

Capitalize on bug interest

Informed adults constitute a large part of beneficial insect customers, but there’s no denying kid power. Children can drive beneficial insect sales, and open avenues to educate adults. Merchandizing that appeals to children and their bug fascination — cartoon bug characters are big — help spur impulse sales and get squeamish adults past bug aversions. Seminars and events do the same.

At Strong’s, Jenni Lynne finds the “kid connection” very important. “Parents love the idea of ladybug photo ops. They release ladybugs at home, take adorable pictures of their kids, and post them on Pinterest,” she says. “But it also gets parents talking about beneficial insects, so we can educate them.”

Customers at Shelly’s Garden Country find ladybugs merchandized at the register and with other beneficials in a fridge in the pest control area. “It’s very customer-friendly. Customers open the door and help themselves,” Breitenbach says. “We also have classes every Saturday. The class might be on roses, but we’ll incorporate beneficial insects.”

A beneficial insect seminar at Bath in spring drew good responses, including one young attendee dressed as a praying mantis. In addition, the IGC’s Bug Day event has turned into an annual favorite. This August, hundreds of parents and children came to the IGC to learn about bugs – the good and the bad – and take part in a massive ladybug release. Kids and adults made bug-inspired headbands, studied insect displays, heard expert speakers, and got covered with ladybugs. “Children are the key to educating people about this,” Johnson says.

As interest in beneficial insects continues to grow, add-on items appear on the market. Ladybug attractants, ladybug houses, bug books and bug-emblazoned T-shirts are just a few items to round out offerings. And don’t overlook the benefits of ladybugs or other beneficials at work on your own plants. They get the job done — and make a great sales opener.

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional based in Madison, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.