Insects as a source of food

Hawk eating prey ©Janet Allen
This hawk is eating its prey in our backyard

Insects are an essential food for most birds, as well as for frogs, toads, bats, and even other insects. (And we also raise mealworms for birds.)

Insects are also an essential link from plants to the animals that eat the animals that eat insects, though except for hawks, we don't have many of those larger animals.

(And cats don't count.)

Native plants are key

Chickadee on the monarda ©Janet Allen
This chickadee was excited about getting something

Douglas Tallamy's book Bringing Nature Home transformed my understanding of the role of native plants.

Before, I had assumed that indigenous plants were important just because they belonged here. Now I understood why they're crucial: native insects (for the most part) can eat only native plants.

It may seem odd to say we want plants in our landscape that insects can eat. After all, gardeners consider most insects their enemy.

But when we think about the food chain, we realize that the energy from the sun is what drives the whole system.

Bug in the monarda ©Janet Allen
The tasty treat the chickadee found in the monarda flower

The plants use energy from the sun to grow, creating food. By eating these plants and then by being eaten themselves, insects transfer the sun's energy to the rest of the food web.

Insects are a foundation of the entire food web.

No native plants, no insects. No insects, no birds … nor many other creatures.

And here we humans—us, our children, our grandchildren and everyone else—here we sit at the tippy top of this (increasingly unstable) system, totally dependent on it functioning properly. Yet by planting mostly non-native plants in our landscapes, we're relentlessy digging away at the foundation underneath us.

Some insect food

Cicada ©Janet AllenCicada

We've seen these being chased by birds (and I assume they've been caught and eaten, too). A tasty, nutritious meal for their nestlings.

Dogwood sawfly larvae eating pagoda dogwood leaves ©Janet AllenPest or part of our habitat garden?

We discovered these dogwood sawfly larvae eating our pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) seedlings. Though we have lots of dogwoods of various kinds, this is the first time we had seen these insects. After a little research, we discovered they were a native insect … and that they didn't harm the plant (except for aesthetics).

Most interesting, though, is that most websites offered a list of pesticides to get rid of them—despite the fact that they didn't endanger the plant!

Parsley worm ©Janet Allen
Parsley worm

We hand-picked these caterpillars since they were on our little dogwood seedlings, which would be harder-hit than a mature plant.

But when an insect doesn't harm a plant, why would anyone want to spread poison around their yard just to prevent a few—or even many—nibbled leaves?

We don't have a sawfly problem on our other dogwoods, I assume because birds eat these tasty morsels. These dogwood seedlings, kept near the house, didn't have this bird protection squad.

Black swallowtail ©Janet Allen
The beautiful black swallowtail butterfly

We've also seen ads for pesticides that kill the "parsley worm"—in other words, the larval phase of this beautiful black swallowtail butterfly.

The bottom line is that a few nibbled leaves out of the millions of leaves in our yard really doesn't bother us.

Places for wildlife to find insects

Towhee getting bugs in leaf litter ©Janet AllenTowhees and other birds find bugs in leaf litter

Leaf litter is a great place for some creatures to find food. (Of course, leaf litter is great for the soil, too, and a convenient way to "dispose of" your fall leaves instead of having them trucked away.)

Birds such as white-throated sparrows, for example, love to search for insects in the leaves. It's fun to watch them do their little dance designed to unearth insects. Robins also find it a good place to find worms, which tend to congregate under this kind of stuff. Toads probably like this area, too, but since they are nocturnal we don't often see them.

Log ©Janet Allen
Logs line our garden beds

Logs are another good place to find insects. I've lined our paths with a variety of old logs, some old firewood logs and some logs people put out to the curb.

There's always insect activity in these logs as they decay.

(And I've always found decomposing logs to be fascinating!)

Gall on a goldenrod contains an insect ©Janet AllenGall on a goldenrod

Goldenrod gall: Before

This gall contains an insect, which can be nutritious food for a bird.

Gall after insect left (voluntarily or involuntarily) ©Janet AllenGall after insect left

Goldenrod gall: After

I had noted where the above gall was and checked it the following spring.

The insect had left the gall—either voluntarily or involuntarily.

A landscape in balance

Our yard is pesticide-free ©Janet AllenOur yard is pesticide-free

Because we don't use pesticides (which also kill beneficial insects), we have insects for birds and other insect-eating creatures to eat.

At the same time, since birds, toads, and beneficial insects eat so many insects, we have very few insects left to bother us.

Our yard seems to be nicely in balance.