Organic Pest Control: The Best Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects and Bees

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by Adobestock/sumikophoto

Pesticides — even organic varieties — are not the safest, healthiest or most effective natural pest control options. The addition of certain plants from the list below to your garden or farm will encourage biodiversity and a healthy population of beneficial garden insects that act as Mother Nature’s best organic pest control. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture methodology both rely heavily on the use of plants known to attract beneficial insects that prey on damaging garden pests. According to Dr. Geoff Zehnder, Professor of entomology at Clemson, “If you are going to farm or garden organically, you need to build in attractants for beneficials.”

The first rule to learn is the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”: Not all pests are a threat to your garden plants, and many of them are actually helpful in fighting off other plant predators. (See Your Garden’s ‘Most Wanted’ Beneficial Insects for more specifics.) As described in a previous MOTHER EARTH NEWS online article, Protect Your Garden with Beneficial Bugs, you can classify the good guys using the three “P’s” system:

“The three ‘P’s’ of beneficial insects are pollinators, predators and parasites. Pollinators, such as honeybees, fertilize flowers, which increases the productivity of food crops ranging from apples to zucchini. Predators, such as lady beetles and soldier bugs, consume pest insects as food. Parasites use pests as nurseries for their young. On any given day, all three ‘P’s’ are feeding on pests or on flower pollen and nectar in a diversified garden. If you recognize these good bugs, it’s easier to appreciate their work and understand why it’s best not to use broad-spectrum herbicides.”

The use of such herbicides and pesticides can be detrimental to the complex relationships between plants, pests and predators — all the more reason why natural insect control works better. Because pesticides, even organic varieties, make no distinction between helpful and hurtful insects, in the end their regular use can have many negative impacts, including the suppression of the soil food web and pollution of waterways. Instead, encouraging the presence of predatory warriors that will defend and protect your garden plants from common  pests is not only an environmentally sound management strategy, it also encourages biodiversity and plant pollination.

Using a strategy known as farmscaping, you can keep your pest population under control by adding plants to attract beneficial insects. A general rule of thumb is to designate between 5 and 10 percent of your garden or farm space to plants that bring in beneficials. An important key is to plant so that there are blooms year-round — the beneficial insects will not stay or survive through a season if no food is available. This continuous-bloom feature in farmscaping has earned the practice the nickname “chocolate box ecology” — your garden or farm will be beautiful year-round with a variety of colorful blooms and humming insects.

The list below is a compilation of the best plants to attract the good guys to your own farm or garden. For more specific planting information, including hardiness zones and bloom dates, you can search for each plant at

For a quick guide to the top 10 beneficial insects (including illustrations of each), see Enlist Beneficial Insects for Natural Pest Control.

Annual Plants

Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)

Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila elegans)
Bachelor’s Buttons (Centaurea cyanus)

Barley (Hordeum vulgare)
Basils (Ocimum basilicum)
Bee Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
Bird’s Eyes (Gilia tricolor)
Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
Blue Lace Flower (Trachymene coerulea, aka Didiscus coeruleas)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
California Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica)
Candytuft (Iberis umbellata)
Celery (Apium graveolens)
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla)
Common Vetch (Vicia sativa)
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Corn (Zea mays)
Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)
Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum)
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
Gopher Stopper (Melilotus indica)
Johnny Jump-Up (Viola cornuta)
Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)
Meadow Foam (Limnanthes douglasii)
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
Pincushion Flower, aka Sweet Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea)
Rye (Secale cereale)
Signet Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia)
Subterranean Clover (Trifolium subterraneum)
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa)
Triticale (X Triticosecale)
White Sweetclover (Trifolium repens)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Perennial Plants

Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea)
Anise Hyssop (Anastache foeniculum)
Asters (Aster alpinus and A. tartaricus)
Basket of Gold (Aurinia saxatilis)
Blanketflowers (Gaillardia)
Blue Cardinal Flower (Lobelia syphilitica)
Blue Wild Rye (Elymus glaucus)
Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Califonia Lilac (Ceanothus Spp.)
California Brome (Bromus carinatus)
California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
Carpet Bugleweeds (Ajuga)
Catmints (Nepeta)
Cinquefoils (Potentilla)
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus california)
Comfrey (Symphytum)
Coneflowers (Echinacea)
Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis)
Cowparsnip (Heracleum maximum)
Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis)
Creeping Boobialla (Myoporum pavifolium)
Crimson Thyme (Thymus serpyllum coccineus)
Crocus (Crocus)
Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Fernleaf Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare var. crispum)
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium)
Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Golden Marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria)
Goldenrod (Solidago)
Green Lace Flower, aka Toothpick Ammi (Ammi visnaga)
Horsemint (Monarda punctata)
Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
Korean Mint (Anastache rugosa)
Late Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)
Lavender Globe Lily (Allium tanguticum)
Lavenders (Lavandula)
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Lupines (Lupinus)
Meadow Barley (Hordeum brachyantherum)
Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba)
Milkweeds (Asclepias)
Mints (Mentha)
Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica)
Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum muticum and P. virginianum)
Mountain Sandwort (Arenaria montana)
New England Aster (Symphyotrichumnovae-angliae)
Pale Indian Plantain (Cacalia atriplicifolium)
Paleleaf Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)
Patrinia (Patrinia)
Penstemon (Penstemon hirsutus)
Peonies (Paeonia)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa caucasica)
Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)
Purple-Needle Grass (Nassella pulchra)
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)
Riddell’s Goldenrod (Oligoneuron riddellii)
Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus)
Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
Sea Lavender (Limonium latifolium)
Sea Pink (Armeria alliacea)
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
Soapbark Tree (Quillaja saponaria)
St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
Stonecrops (Sedum kamtschaticum, S. spurim, S. album)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Teasel (Dipsacus)
Thrift (Armeria maritima)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
White Lace Flower, aka Bishop’s Weed (Ammi majus)
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
Willow (Salix Spp.)
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
Yellow Giant Hyssop (Agastache nepetoides)
Yolo Slender Wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus majus)

Trees and Shrubs

Burning Bush (Euonymous)
California Lilac (Ceanothus)
Firethorn (Pyracantha)
Four-Winged Saltbush (Atriplex canescens)
Golden Bells (Forsythia)
PotentillaTexas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens)

Sources to Help You Attract Beneficial Insects

This plant list was compiled from a variety of scientific sources, including the following:

Enhancing Biological Control — Habitat Management to Promote Natural Enemies of Agricultural Pests, edited by Charles H. Pickett and Robert L. Bugg.

A 3-year study of 170 species of ornamental plants by Mohammed Al-Doghairi and Whitney Cranshaw, Ph.D. of Colorado State University.

Beneficial Insects Move from Flowering Plants to Nearby Crops, a peer-reviewed research article by Rachael Freeman Long, Andrew Corbett, Celia Lamb, Chris Reberg-Horton, Jeff Chandler and Michael Stimmann. Published in California Agriculture.

Enhancing Beneficial Insects With Native Plants, a project of the University of Michigan. Research results prepared by Doug Landis, Anna Fiedler, Rufus Isaacs and Julianna Tuell.

Insecta-Flora from Albright Seed Company by Wendy Dager.