Common Natural Enemies of Brassica Insect Pests

Numerous species of natural enemies can be found in brassica fields preying on insect pests. This article describes common natural enemies and how they feed or develop on the pests they affect. Growers will benefit by being able to identify these natural enemies to assist in making pest management decisions.


“Natural enemies” is a term used for naturally occurring, beneficial organisms that aid in maintaining pest species below damaging population levels. Utilizing natural enemies to manage pests is known as “biological control” and is an integral component of integrated pest management (IPM). An overview of an IPM program’s basic concepts is provided in the Land-Grant Press publication, Integrated Pest Management: Concepts and Strategies ( Natural enemies affect pest species through predation, parasitism, or by causing disease.1 Predators feed on other insects while parasitoids and pathogens develop on or within their host, usually killing it.2


Predatory Beetles

Ground beetles (figure 1) and tiger beetles (figure 2) (family Carabidae) are predatory beetles that are common throughout South Carolina. Carabids are long-legged, fast-moving beetles that move around on the ground, hunting for prey. They have keen eyesight and powerful mandibles (jaws) and may consume up to their body weight each day.2,3 Their prey includes caterpillars, aphids, and other beetle larvae and eggs. Several species also feed on small seeds of weeds such as ragweed, lambsquarters, crabgrass, and pigweed.4 Larvae generally develop in the soil and are also predaceous.5 This is one of the largest beetle families with 2,600 species in North America.3

Ground beetle on corn kernels.

Figure 1. Ground beetles, like this Scarites sp., are common in agricultural fields in South Carolina. Image credit: Ricardo Bessin, University of Kentucky.

Tiger beetle on gravel concrete.

Figure 2. Tiger beetles, like this Cicindela repanda, are constantly on the move, hunting for prey. Image credit: Denis Doucet, University of Wisconsin.

Lady Beetles

Lady beetle larvae on underside of leaf.

Figure 3. Lady beetle larvae search for prey on the underside of a kale leaf. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Lady beetles (family Coccinellidae) are voracious predators of aphids and may eat several hundred per day1. Adults consume their prey whole while the larvae (figure 3) pierce and suck the internal contents from their prey.2 Lady beetles range in color from red to orange and have a variable number of spots on their back, depending on the species (figures 4 and 5). Though aphids are their preferred prey, lady beetles will also feed on scales, thrips, mites, mealybugs, and even insect eggs when aphid populations are sparse.1,2



Lady beetle on flower buds of brassica plants.

Figure 4. The multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) is a voracious aphid predator. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

A sevenspotted lady beetle on a flower.

Figure 5. The sevenspotted lady beetle (Coccinella septempunctata) is commonly found in South Carolina, though it is native to Europe and India.2 Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Assassin Bugs and Predatory Stink Bugs

Assassin bug on leaf with small bug pierced on mouthpart.

Figure 6. An assassin bug feeding on prey (at the tip of its mouthpart). Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Assassin bugs (family Reduviidae) (figure 6) and predatory stink bugs (family Pentatomidae) (figures 7 and 8) have stout piercing/sucking mouthparts that they use to insert into their prey, inject digestive enzymes, and then suck out the bodily fluids. Predatory stink bugs and most species of assassin bugs actively search for prey, though some wait for prey to move within striking distance.6 Adults and nymphs primarily prey on caterpillars, beetle larvae, aphids, stink bugs, and flea beetles.1



A Spined soldier bug on a leaf.

Figure 7. Spined soldier bugs (Podisus maculiventris) are predatory stink bugs that are common in South Carolina vegetable fields. Image credit: John Obermeyer, Purdue Extension Entomology.

Small, red eggs clustered on leaf with small pined in a circle on the top of the eggs.

Figure 8. Microscopic view (40x) of spined soldier bug (Podisus maculiventris) eggs. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Syrphid Flies

Syrphid flies (family Syrphidae) are small to medium-sized flies (figure 9) commonly mistaken for bees. Like bees, adults are frequent visitors of wildflowers, feeding on nectar and aiding in pollination.3 Syrphid fly larvae are blind, legless maggots (figure 10), though they are great predators that feed primarily on aphids. Female flies lay eggs near aphid colonies, allowing the larvae to hatch and easily feed on the nearby prey.

Syrphid fly on leaf.

Figure 9. Syrphid flies are often colored like bees and are commonly seen foraging wildflowers. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Syrphid fly larvae on underside of leaf.

Figure 10. Syrphid fly larvae have no legs, which easily distinguishes them from tiny caterpillars. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.


Numerous species of spiders prey on insect pests, though some of the most common include lynx spiders (family Oxyopidae) (figure 11) and crab spiders (family Thomisidae) (figure 12). Neither builds a web to catch prey. Lynx spiders rely on their excellent eyesight, speed, and agility to hunt prey.7 Though helpful in managing numerous pests, they will readily prey on other beneficial species, including wasps, bees, other spiders, and parasitic flies. Due to their relatively small eyes, crab spiders usually do not spot prey from far away. They hunt by sitting still and waiting for prey to come within striking distance.8

Large green spider eating a wasp.

Figure 11. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is fast and has excellent eyesight allowing them to catch fast-moving prey like this wasp. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Green and white spider sitting on the edge of a leaf.

Figure 12. Crab spiders sit still and wait for prey to come within striking distance. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.


Parasitic Wasps

Small black wasp near edge of leaf.

Figure 13. A tiny parasitic wasp rests on a collard leaf. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

There are thousands of species of parasitic wasps (families Ichneumonidae, Braconidae, Trichogrammatidae, Encyrtidae, etc.); however, most go unnoticed due to their minute size (figure 13).2,4,8 Parasitic wasps use their ovipositors (stingers) to insert eggs into the bodies or eggs of caterpillars, aphids, and other insect pests. Once the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae feed on the host’s body, eventually boring out to pupate (figure 14) or pupating within the host and emerging as an adult (figures 15 and 16). This process usually kills the host. A tell-tale sign of an aphid parasitized by a wasp is the tan, hollow, bloated-looking carcass known as a “mummy” that is left behind once the wasp pupates (figures 16 and 17).

Close up of black holes on the cabbageworm.

Figure 14. The black holes on this cross-striped cabbageworm are where parasitic wasps (likely Cotesia orobenae) bored out of the caterpillar to pupate. (25x magnification) Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

A Copidosoma truncatellum on a cabbage leaf.

Figure 15. Copidosoma truncatellum is a parasitoid of cabbage loopers. It lays a single egg that divides multiple times (polyembryony), eventually filling the caterpillar’s entire body with larvae (pictured above). The larvae pupate within the host’s body and emerge as adults.8 (15x magnification) Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Aphid mummy with a hole in its body.

Figure 16. The hole in the rear of this aphid mummy is where a braconid wasp emerged following pupation. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Cluster of aphids on underside of tree, some normal and others are a tan color and bloated.

Figure 17. Braconid wasps have parasitized the lighter-colored, bloated-looking aphids in this colony. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Parasitic Flies

Parasitic flies (family Tachinidae) (figure 18) lay eggs on the outside of a host’s body, usually on or near the head (figure 19). Once the egg hatches, the larva bores into the host’s body to feed.3 Some species gain entry to the host’s body by laying eggs on leaf surfaces where they are inadvertently eaten. Like parasitic wasps, parasitic flies exit the host’s body to pupate, usually killing the host. Tachinid flies parasitize caterpillars, true bugs, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, and others.1,2,3,8

Orange and black fly on edge of leaf.

Figure 18. The feather-legged fly (Trichopoda pennipes) is a parasitoid of caterpillars, stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, beetle larvae, etc. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Leaf-footed bug high on flower stem with a small white egg on its head.

Figure 19. This leaf-footed bug has a small, white tachinid fly egg laid on its head. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.



Dead caterpillar that is a dark brown color and shriveled looking,

Figure 20. This caterpillar has succumbed to a virus and is hanging from the bottom of a bean leaf. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Viruses such as the nuclear polyhedrosis virus (NPV) and granulosis virus mainly affect caterpillar pests. They often occur naturally at low levels in caterpillar populations but may cause severe disease outbreaks when population levels are high. Viral infection mainly occurs when caterpillars inadvertently eat infectious viral particles as they forage. The virus replicates within the caterpillar’s body, killing it within three to eight days.9 Infected caterpillars turn white or dark-colored, cease feeding, and die. Once dead, the caterpillar hangs limply from the underside of the host plant’s leaves or stems (figure 20), where viral particles fall onto lower leaves to be eaten by other caterpillars.


A diamondback moth caterpillar covered with spores.

Figure 21. Beauveria bassiana has colonized this diamondback moth caterpillar’s body, and thousands of white-colored spores are being produced. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Beauveria bassiana is a common entomopathogenic fungus that causes white muscardine disease. It affects a wide range of insects and has been utilized as an active ingredient in numerous biological insecticides. Infection occurs when fungal spores, called conidia, adhere to the insect’s outer cuticle. The conidia germinate and grow through the cuticle, allowing the fungus to colonize the inner body and feed on the internal tissue.10 Infected insects die within three to seven days. Once dead, white-colored fungal growth develops outside the host’s body (figure 21), producing infectious conidia to be dispersed by the wind or splashing rain.11 Pathogenic fungi have their most significant effect on insect populations when environmental conditions are damp or humid.2,8

Promoting Biological Control

White flowering plants in a field of kale.

Figure 22. Strips of sweet alyssum have been planted to attract parasitoids. Natural enemy habitat may be planted on field edges or within the field, as pictured here. Image credit: Justin Ballew, Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Biological control may be promoted by avoiding the use of broad-spectrum insecticides, such as carbamates (IRAC Group 1A), organophosphates (Group 1B), pyrethroids (Group 3A), and neonicotinoids (Group 4A), unless absolutely necessary.2,8 Broad-spectrum insecticides kill beneficial insects and spiders in addition to targeted pests. Instead, use materials that are less damaging to natural enemy populations whenever available.

Improving natural enemy habitat by planting a variety of wildflowers is another good way to promote biological control. Many parasitic flies and wasps feed on pollen and nectar as adults; therefore, providing a food source near crop fields may improve predation and parasitism of pest species. Parasitoids travel between the flowers and the crop to forage and lay eggs in or on pests. Species with small flowers such as sweet alyssum (figure 22), buckwheat, cilantro, fennel, and dill are particularly attractive to parasitoids.

References Cited

  1. Hoffman MP, Frodsham AC. Natural enemies of vegetable insect pests. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University; 1993.
  2. Flint ML, Dreistadt SH. Natural enemies handbook: the illustrated guide to biological pest control. Richmond (CA): University of California Press; 2016.
  3. Triplehorn CA, Johnson NF. Borror and DeLong’s introduction to the study of insects. 7th ed. Belmont (CA): Brooks/Cole; 2005.
  4. Lundgren JG. 2005. Ground beetles as weed control agents: effects of farm management on granivory. American Entomology. 2005 Oct; 51: 224-226.
  5. Capinera JL. Handbook of vegetable pests. 2nd ed. San Diego (CA): Academic Press; 2020.
  6. Resh VH, Carde RT. Encyclopedia of insects. San Diego (CA): Academic Press; 2003.
  7. Weems Jr. HV, Whitcomb WH. Green lynx spider. Gainesville (FL): University of Florida. IFAS, Featured Creatures; Feb 2021. EENY-249.
  8. Mahr DL, Ridgway NM. Biological control of insects and mites. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Publications; 1993.
  9. Biological Control. Viruses. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University.
  10. Groden E, Boucher TJ. Using Beauveria bassiana for insect management. Integrated Pest Management Program. Storrs (CT): University of Connecticut; 2012.
  11. Brack DJ. Dynamics of the fungus Beauveria bassiana [pdf]. Ames (IA): Iowa State University; 2001. p. 1–91.

Additional Resources

Bryant T, Reay-Jones FPF. Integrated pest management: concepts and strategies. Clemson (SC): Clemson Cooperative Extension, Land Grant Press by Clemson Extension; 2020 May. LGP 1051.

Ballew JB. Identification of common insect pests of brassica crops. Clemson (SC): Clemson Cooperative Extension, Land Grant Press by Clemson Extension; 2021 Sept. LGP 1122.

Ballew JB. Scouting for insect pests in brassica crops. Clemson (SC): Clemson Cooperative Extension, Land-Grant Press by Clemson Extension; 2021. LGP 1127.

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