Walk out to get the paper on a nice California day in summer or fall and you may run smack into a spiderweb. Nearby is the maker: the fattest, hugest spider you’ve even seen. Later, while getting some fresh compost for the garden, you uncover a gargantuan grub. Disgusted, you bravely throw it to a hungry-looking jaybird, who flees in terror. Then as you weed and spread the compost, large, worrisome wasps buzz between the plants … and occasionally near your head.

Fruit beetle larva

The 2-inch-long larva of the fruit beetle helps compost happen.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

Fruit beetle

The adult fruit beetle looks like fine jewelry and only nibbles on damaged fruit.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

Paper wasp

Note the distinct waist on the caterpillar-hunting golden paper wasp.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

Scary stuff, huh?

But despite their actions or looks, these bugs are not out to get you. They are merely looking for garden pests or are busy breaking down compost. In other words: They are our garden friends and helpers.

It may be hard to believe, but that fat grub, often more than 2 inches long, is doing you a favor. It’s the larva of the green fruit beetle, and it eats only decaying vegetation. This garden visitor turns dead leaves into rich nutrients that will fertilize your yard in a gentle, natural way like nothing else can.

The good larvae of the fruit beetle become those huge metallic green scarab beetles that are such poor fliers. If you live in California, you know them – they’re the ones that tend to crash into things as they fly crazily across the yard. They also make a lot of noise as they go, and they only nibble on damaged fruit. (The beetles are actually pretty enough to be jewelry if you can figure out how to keep one on your lapel.)

The big low-flying wasps that frequent your garden are also good guys. These winged wonders are looking to grab a few leaf-munching caterpillars for dinner. Unlike the easily provoked and rather nasty little yellow jackets that love to dive-bomb a good hamburger and a Coke, most large wasps are uninterested in humans and their activities.

Not only are the good wasps bigger, they have distinct waists (yellow jackets don’t). The mud dauber wasp’s waist, for example, is thread-thin, and the golden paper wasp’s is simply narrowed. Their sting is said to be severe, but I don’t know of anyone who’s been stung by these types of wasps – only the yellow jackets.

Those big spiders also trap garden pests, but they are indiscriminate so you’ll have to catch the good guys along with the bad (though examination of their catch shows mostly baddies). The good eight-legged visitors are called orb weavers because they make perfectly round webs. There are two common kinds: One is fat, a dull reddish color and, frankly, ugly. The other is more handsome (by spider standards), but it’s no less fearsome. It’s shiny black and has yellow stripes. If the webs of either kind get too close for comfort, knock them down with a stick or a blast from the hose and they’ll probably build higher the next night. But don’t do them in. Like you, they’re only doing their job.