Well, in a public education setting I do like handling snakes, but in my garden I still get a little jumpy when I encounter a spider of any size.

Actually, I usually let out an eek.

Just do.

I am working on my so-called “fear factor” because those predatory, eight-legged arachnids, plus a slew of other creepy crawlies, including millipedes, centipedes, earthworms, hover flies, ladybugs and yes, parasitic mini- wasps, are known beneficials.

Because, in the garden, and other natural habitats everywhere beneficials are doing their job.

Hornworm caterpillars may look comfy resting on your tomato vine.

But if you have lured in its natural enemy, the Parasitic Mini Wasp, it will become dinner for that beneficial’s babies, as the females hatch their eggs inside the caterpillar and eventually eat their way out. 

When one decides to discard the use of pesticides, to pursue the option of attracting beneficial insects to the garden with specific families of pollen and nectar-producing flowers and herbs to manage pest problems, some call the gardening practice organic pest control.

 Growing the populations of this community of “good guys“, in my recent experience, will naturally stave off the pests (e.g. mites, hornworms and cabbage worms, aphids and so on) whose dining habits tend to destroy crops, and most likely a gardening season.

Bugs in the garden can be pretty big, and really small, but recently, thanks to the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory’s (FOPCON) annual KidFest event at the Oak Park Conservatory, I learned a lot more about some REALLY BIG ones that compose the University of Illinois Extension’s Master Gardener traveling Insect Petting Zoo.

It is available for events such as this one, and visits to schools.  The next stop for The Rose Hair Tarantula, PRETTY BIG Centipede and Millipede, plus THE Bess Beetle, Madagascar Hissing Cockroach and vermicomposting red wiggler worms will be at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, March 12-20 in the Kid’s Pavilion, says Sarah Batka, Program Coordinator, Horticulture, University of Illinois Extension.  As always it will be manned by Master Gardener volunteers who won’t skimp on the bug factoids.

 But back to KidsFest.  On a break from the bug fun, Patti Staley, Director of Horticulture and Conservatory  Operations, told me that in the Elsie Jacobsen Discovery Garden, and especially in our own gardens, “We have a lot of beneficials here.  Really, it’s free entertainment in your own backyard.  From the Aphids that are eating our plants to the Lady Beetles that come along and are eating the Aphids, to the birds that are swooping in and eating that Ladybug.  We have that going on in our yards.  People just don’t stop to smell the flowers and look at the bugs and see what’s happening.”

 Here’s another resource with info, through the lens of permaculture.

 BTW, Patti added that many of those plants could be purchased at FOPCON’s annual plant sale. at the end of April.

 Full disclosure time:  I did handle every critter I was handed.  Did I let out an eek?  Go ahead, watch our latest video, Deb’s Big Backyard:  Insect Petting Zoo at KidsFest 2016 and find out.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....