Damsel in Distress or False Alarm?

One day as I was watching damselflies on the rocks along the Maumee River, I discovered I wasn’t the only one watching them. I first saw the pretty little water snake as his head popped up in front of me, and it looked like he was eyeing the powdered dancer on the rocks. (I wondered if dancer-on-the-rocks was a tasty snake delicacy.) Just as I got excited at the possibility of seeing a surprising predator/prey interaction, the damsel flew and the snake dropped down into the water.

I continued watching more damselflies a few feet away, where the water was pouring over some rocks. I could see the snake under the water a couple times, and then he emerged on a ledge just below where the American rubyspots and powdered dancers were perched. Again I got excited. I didn’t think he’d be able to grab one of them, but wondered if he’d try.

Suddenly I saw the snake had clearly grabbed somebody, and I started shooting pictures. It turned out to be a small fish, and I realized that he was probably on the ledge waiting for fish to be washed over the top, right into his mouth. What an excellent hunting strategy for a snake!

A bit blurry, but I love the proximity of the eyes of predator and prey!

I was pleased that he hadn’t caught one of the damselflies, but I have to admit I would have loved to see him try!

In the Garden with a Monarch

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird … So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. ~ physicist Richard Feynman

I often think of that quote as I’m watching insects in my garden. It reminds me of how easy it is to get caught up in the idea of putting names to things so they can be tallied up on a list. It’s always my goal to learn something more than the name of an insect when possible, because it leads to a deeper appreciation of the interconnection of all life forms.

Monarch migration in northwest Ohio, September 2018

Most people are familiar with the orange and black monarch butterfly, but I wonder how many have spent time just sitting and watching what they actually do in your flower garden. That’s what I did today, and I want to share some photos with you.

The red line marks the area with the Sullivant’s and swamp milkweed.

My garden has a couple small pockets of milkweeds — Sullivant’s (Asclepias sullivantii ), swamp (A. incarnata), and butterfly (A. tuberosa). I’ve been watching every monarch butterfly that comes through the garden, because they can only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family. This is because their caterpillars can’t eat any other plants, and they have to be able to eat whatever plant they hatch on.

Today I was resting on my swing after finishing some garden work, and saw a monarch flitting around. I took a look through my zoom lens to see which gender it was, and when I saw it was female, I paid closer attention to see if she would lay any eggs. She flitted around gracefully, dipping in and out of the main native bed.

First I saw her nectaring on bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) —

Then on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) —

And then on blazing star (Liatris spicata) —

And she even took sustenance from the flowers of swamp milkweed, one of her larval host plants —

Then she went to the Sullivant’s milkweed (which doesn’t have any flowers right now), and I knew she would lay eggs. While she could get nectar from all the other flowers, the milkweeds are the only ones she’ll use for her eggs. And as soon as she arrived at the milkweed patch, she worked over virtually every leaf on every plant, laying egg after egg after egg, as I took photos of the process.

Notice her abdomen curled up under the leaf to lay the egg
Hanging upside down to lay her egg on the leaf of Sullivant’s milkweed
She was busy today!

Because some of the stems were sideways, she also laid lots of eggs on the topsides of the leaves. After she left, I realized that leaving those stems sideways would expose all of the eggs to the elements and make them more obvious to predators, so I staked them upright again. I know this still leaves the topside eggs in a vulnerable position, but I hope it’ll at least give the underside eggs a better chance.

The survival rate of monarch eggs and caterpillars is very low, with fewer than 10% of them making it to healthy butterfly-adulthood. In recent years, many people have begun raising them indoors in an effort to increase the survival rate, but that practice is controversial. I did it a couple times myself and learned a lot from watching the amazing process of metamorphosis. But now I’ve decided not to interfere with nature most of the time, and I think the best thing we can do to help them is to plant as much milkweed as possible. That gives them more places to lay those eggs, hopefully increasing the numbers that can survive predation and disease.

In about four days I hope to see the tiny little caterpillars start to munch their way around those milkweed plants. And two weeks after that, those that survive will make their beautiful green chrysalises and begin that magical transformation into the iconic orange and black butterfly that will migrate to Mexico in the fall. It’s such a rewarding experience to see that my garden is home to so many types of insects. It makes me feel very much connected to the basic life processes on our planet, and that’s one of the joys of my life. I wish every human could have this feeling.

Never Too Old!

Over the past two months I’ve been preoccupied with two things: the approach of a big birthday with a zero on the end, and my first ever public speaking engagement. Both of these things scared me, and the weird thing is that I think the birthday is what motivated me to accept the speaking engagement. Call it a midlife crisis, if you will.

I guess I figured I’d wasted enough time saying “I couldn’t do that,” and it was time to just do it. (I don’t have time to waste anymore!) I’d agreed to lead some friends on a special nature walk, and we’d scheduled it for my birthday (unbeknownst to them — it was my secret plan to use them to keep myself busy on the big day). I looked forward to showing them dragonflies on my birthday, but then life threw me a curveball in the form of the complicated schedule of an electrician. So I rescheduled the nature walk for the day before my birthday, and the highlight of my birthday turned out to be my ability to sweet-talk an electrician into a birthday discount.

Then I had to endure the next eight days of waiting for my dragonfly program. And believe me, I sure know how to make a lot of drama about something in my head: “I’ll say something stupid,” or “The computer will break,” or “People will take screenshots of my face.” Oh man, somebody should have just slapped me out of it. But I practiced it over and over, recording myself on Zoom and even reciting it in the car as I drove around town. #CrazyDriverAlert

But the day finally came and I felt fine…until an hour before the program. That’s when I started feeling really nervous. And a couple things at the beginning of the Zoom call caught me by surprise and almost threw me off my game, but I recovered and it went just fine. Completely fine. And I even sort of enjoyed it. No, I really enjoyed it. For the first three minutes I felt like I was going to hyperventilate, but nobody seemed to notice that. Amazing.

One of the slides from my program (video link below)

The audience was made up of people from nine states as well as Canada and Finland, and I was thrilled to see that everyone seemed to like it. I was told by quite a few people that they would have had no idea it was my first time if I hadn’t confessed to that fact. I’m so pleased to know that I pulled it off, and I’m proud of myself for continuing to push myself to do things that scare me, even at this point in my life.

So here’s the recording (click the image below). You’ll hear about cool stuff like insect sex and butt propulsion, among others. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it serves as a reminder to anyone else who might have the level of self-doubt that plagues me — you can do so much more than you might think, no matter your age. And the feeling of having done it…well, that’s priceless!

Going Native in Toledo – Update

Just in time for Independence Day, things are starting to explode in the garden, so I thought I’d give you another progress update. (There’s a link to all the posts about my native garden project in the main menu, or here.) Come along and look at some of the floral explosions happening in my little corner of the world.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), a pollinator favorite and prolific bloomer

After the spring ephemerals finished, there was a period of time in which nothing much was blooming. Then the golden alexander and wild geranium bloomed and gave me some early season excitement, but then things went quiet again. No flowers, and therefore no insects. Only in the past two weeks have I seen an uptick in things starting to take off. (Note to self: I should probably find some more early bloomers to plant so I don’t have that long boring period with no food for pollinators.)

Starting to bloom for the first time! Common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
I hope to see this in my yard soon! Tiger swallowtail nectaring on buttonbush. (Boom!)

As I walked around to check on the progress of the various beds the other day, my breath caught in my throat as I saw a buttonbush with actual tiny “buttons” on it!! I knew I was taking a risk trying to grow these water-loving shrubs in my sunny and mostly-dry yard, but this one is really thriving only a year after I planted it. And I’ve not watered it regularly or done anything special to help it along. Two others that I planted in a different location two years ago are still struggling, and I think it might be because there’s a huge root system leftover from the gigantic burning bush I removed in that spot several years ago (a beautiful but very invasive plant from Asia). I continue to fight the root sprouts of burning bush all around the two buttonbushes, and may just dig them up and move them somewhere else if I can find a good spot.

Blue vervain just beginning to open (Verbena hastata) (Boom!)

Blue vervain has been a favorite plant of mine for years, and every time I see it I think of the thrill I got when I captured a snowberry clearwing moth feeding on it.

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) feeding on blue vervain

My center island bed is still very much a work in progress, but it’s coming along. When I bought this property four years ago, this bed was full of irises and hostas, and hosted a half dozen bird feeders where seed had accumulated in a thick layer for years. I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it up before planting in it, but I’ve learned a good lesson from that. I should have done a more thorough preparation of the bed because now I have to fight the invading grass and other weeds while trying not to damage the native plants I’ve already put in there. Here’s how this bed looks today.

This bed doesn’t have a defined edge or any type of border yet, so it looks messier than I’d like. The butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the only one that survived from several I planted last year; it’s jumped out of the bed and I’m probably going to allow it to stay there because this is one native that doesn’t like to be moved. When I get around to putting some kind of edging around this bed I’ll just make a little curve out around that butterfly milkweed. I’ve got a small patch of dotted horsemint to the left (some in a pot), and that’s where I enjoy sitting to watch the large digger wasps that come to pollinate it.

Dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), aka spotted beebalm (Double boom!)

Here’s a great black digger wasp, and the great golden digger wasps also love this plant. Here’s one of them feeding on rattlesnake master, another one of my favorite native plants.

Great golden digger wasp on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (BOOM!)

Last fall I removed a Japanese maple tree beside my sunroom so I could use that space for natives. I added a couple dozen pussytoes along with a few butterfly milkweed, calico aster, and a wild fennel plant. The fennel is here specifically because it’s a host plant for the caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly. I hope somebody finds it and lays some eggs there!

The newly-planted sunroom bed

The pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) are here for the butterflies too, as they host the larvae of the American lady butterfly.

I should probably take this opportunity to point out the difference between a “pollinator garden” and a “butterfly garden.” These two terms get tossed around interchangeably, and it’s great that so many people want to plant for these valuable insects. But a pollinator garden is designed for adult insects to use the pollen and nectar from the plants — bees, wasps, butterflies, and flies primarily.

Spicebush swallowtail nectaring on Monarda fistulosa (not a butterfly host plant)

The purpose of a butterfly garden, on the other hand, is to provide host plants for the butterflies to use as nurseries for their young. Many butterflies require a specific plant or family of plants, because their caterpillars are only adapted to eat those plants. This is why so much effort has been made to educate people about the fact that monarch butterflies must have milkweed or they will go extinct. The caterpillars of the monarch can only feed on milkweed plants — common milkweed, swamp milkweed, Sullivant’s milkweed, and others in that genus (Asclepias). It’s the same principle for other butterflies, so if you know the host plant for a species you want to attract, you can grow it and get to experience their entire life cycle in your own yard.

If you want to know more about this idea and see a list of host plants for various butterflies, I’ve posted that information for you on our Wild Ones Oak Openings website, here.

Shrubby St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum)
Boom!

And speaking of fireworks, take a look at this shrubby St. John’s wort. This is a gorgeous and fast-growing shrub with glossy leaves and fantastic yellow flowers that look like those big fireworks that radiate out in a circle. I hope you enjoyed this fireworks-themed garden update as much as I enjoyed writing it for you. Happy 4th of July, America, and happy gardening.

Thinking About Wind

We need to sing with all the voices of the mountain
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind

~~ Lyrics to “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas)

Do you ever think about wind? The other day I was browsing my archives and realized that I often make videos of plants blowing in the wind. I never go out intending to focus on the wind, but the fact that I find it interesting enough to record it makes me think that I should consider why I do that.

On the day I made this first video I’d gone to a local Nature Conservancy plot to look for a specific butterfly. If I’d known it would be this windy, I probably wouldn’t have made the trip over there. But even though there were few butterflies able to navigate the gusts that day, I found myself enjoying the feeling of being buffeted by the strong breezes.

Standing in a wide open space with the wind swirling around me gave me a feeling of peace and freedom, I think. And it reminded me of the strength of the forces of this amazing planet. Obviously wind can do enormous damage, but it can also be a source of renewal, can’t it? So many of us spend far too much time breathing stale indoor air. Being outdoors on a windy day also makes me feel younger somehow; maybe it reminds me of those childhood days when we were allowed to play outside during a heavy rain, giggling as we stomped in the rivers of water that ran down the edges of our sloped road, and feeling the wind as it blew water in our faces. (By the way, when was the last time you stood in the rain on purpose? I have an intense desire to do that right now. Do you think my neighbors would think I’d lost my mind if I sat on my garden swing in the rain? I might have to find out….)

A day with gentler breezes at the same Nature Conservancy property

And maybe I’m just being sentimental because I’m approaching one of those birthdays that end in zero, and I’ve been very much preoccupied with feeling older lately. This is the first birthday in my life that has knocked me down a bit, and I can’t wait to get past the day and move on. I know it’s just a number, as they say, but it feels significant this time. I’ve developed a sense of urgency about making sure I do the things that make me happy. No longer will I do things just because other people want me to — this is my life and it’s about time I stopped worrying about the expectations of other people, gosh darn it. 🙂

But I digress. Let’s talk about the wind some more. I found this little clip I made a couple years ago of the breeze billowing the curtains in my sunroom on a spring day. Every time I get to enjoy a day like that in this room, I feel a deep sense of contentment. So grateful to have this space.

And it won’t surprise any of you to find that I made a video of a green darner with its wings braced against the wind.

I hope you get a chance to feel the wind on your wings (or face) soon.

Cicada Mania

Where I live along the western shore of Lake Erie, we don’t have any of the Brood X periodical cicadas that are emerging this year. The Brood X locations are shown in yellow on this map — it looks like the largest concentrations of them are in Indiana, western Ohio, southeastern Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Even though this map doesn’t show them in Williams County (far northwest corner of the state), I’d heard that they were there and I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t make the drive (about an hour and 15 minutes) to experience this infrequent phenomenon of the insect world.

Map from US Forest Service

If you haven’t heard of them, they spend 17 years underground in their larval form (longest life cycle of any insect) and then emerge by the millions billions to complete their life cycle as flying insects. The emergence is accompanied by loud and persistent “singing” as the males seek females to mate with. They only live a few weeks after emerging from the ground, just long enough to mate and lay eggs for the next generation of Brood X that will emerge in 2038.

When I arrived in the general target area I stopped to check for dragonflies at one of my regular locations and could already hear the cicadas off in the distance about a mile to the north of me. I felt the adrenaline spike right away, and quickly headed that direction, car windows down despite the extreme heat of the day. I wanted to enjoy the sounds as I got closer and closer.

You’ve heard of leaf peeping, right? This is insect peeping!

I stopped on a rural road and stood slack-jawed beside my car as I absorbed the immensity of the experience. But I quickly closed my mouth as I noticed that cicadas don’t seem to have much control over their flight. I’ve heard that they’re tasty snacks, but I wasn’t hungry just then. 😉

I couldn’t access the wooded area where the sounds were coming from, but I could imagine how much louder it would be if I’d been able to be in the middle of a big concentration of them. And I was suddenly glad that they weren’t in my neighborhood, because that incessant droning would probably drive me crazy! Here’s a short video I made so you could hear them:

I wasn’t able to photograph any of them flying, but got some pictures of the ones that landed in the grass or other vegetation. I regret that when one of them smacked hard into my throat, I was so startled that I swatted it off rather than gently picking it off for a closer look. Luckily the cicada seemed fine after it recovered its bearings.

If you have any opportunity to experience the cicadas, I highly recommend it. And in closing, I’ll leave you with this fun song parody written and performed by teacher Eric Chandler last year to mark the emergence of the Brood 9 cicadas. Such a nice way to teach kids (and grownups) about this marvel of the natural world.

Bugs and Not-Bugs

Multiple painted skimmers were chasing each other through the wet prairie

After a painfully-slow start to dragonfly season, suddenly things are off and running (or flying, I should say). In the past two weeks almost 30 species of odes have been observed in Lucas County, my home county here in northwest Ohio. June is the month with the highest species diversity each year, so I’m really looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring. We should see more than 80 species by the end of the summer.

Unknown blue flag iris species, playground of iris weevils

My time has been occupied with our big annual native plant sale for most of the past few weeks, but the other day I finally got caught up enough with other obligations that I was able to take an afternoon all to myself to go look for bugs. (Note: dragonflies aren’t “bugs” but I often use that term as a shorthand, and it’s less confusing than “odes.”) I spent three blissful hours at Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve and photographed close to 30 species of insects. That number surprised me, even for an ecological treasure trove like Irwin Prairie. Only six of those were dragons and damsels, but that was okay with me because I found so many other interesting things. I felt like a kid in a candy store, and more than once found myself standing on the boardwalk grinning from ear to ear. I even told an inquisitive passerby that I was crouched down with my camera beside a bunch of irises because –wait for it– I was anticipating some mating behavior between two iris weevils. (I wasn’t surprised to see the odd look on his face…I’m used to that.) And I did see the mating, but it happened so fast and I wasn’t quick enough to get a sharp photo of it.

Iris weevil (Mononychus vulpeculus) on iris, of course

I remember the day I discovered these weevils on irises and came home to find out that they were actually called iris weevils. Every year since then, I can’t pass a patch of irises without checking for their presence. I love all kinds of weevils because of that dorky snout that protrudes from their little faces…so cute. Weevils aren’t true bugs (Hemiptera) either, but rather are in the beetle family (Coleoptera). The true bugs are distinguished by having sucking mouth parts, whereas beetles and other insects have chewing mouth parts more similar to our own. (Well, vaguely similar to our own, I guess. There are some crazy insect mouth parts out there!)

I found another, much larger, weevil on the same day. This one is harder to identify, but I was thrilled to find him sitting out in the open on the wooden boardwalk. I got down on my stomach to get a face shot.

A rather large and cooperative weevil

In the past couple years I’ve become more interested in beetles, mostly because it seems there are endless kinds of them to find everywhere, and they often have bold color patterns to make identification easier…well, sometimes. Many of them can’t be identified unless you have them under a microscope, so a beetle fan has to be comfortable with some degree of not knowing. And I think that’s okay with me. (Wait, did you see how close I just came to calling myself a Beatles fan? Ha! Different beetles….) In fact, it makes them all the more fascinating when there’s so much mystery about who they are and how they live their lives. It makes the world seem so much bigger and complex and…special, I suppose. (Have I mentioned that a connection to insects has made my life richer? I’m pretty sure I have.)

Northern leopard frog — not a bug

Did you know that 20% of all living organisms on earth are beetles? And that beetles play very important roles in the ecosystem? It’s true. While some of them can cause serious damage to trees (and homes and crops), others are essential nutrient recyclers as they eat decomposing plant and animal matter. And gardeners are familiar with the service provided by ladybug beetles, who are happy to eat aphids by the mouthful.

I was captivated by eyes and faces on this day, and got some nice photos for a little collage that I’ve titled “Three Flies and a Spider.” And of course it made me think of the famous poem by Mary Howitt that begins, “‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the spider to the fly.” In the case of my collage though, the spider is outnumbered and outsized, so these flies are safe from his flattery and manipulations.

This group shows, from the top left and going clockwise:

  1. Broad-banded hornet fly (Spilomyia alcimus) – one of the syrphid flies, a hover fly that can’t sting but looks and acts like a hornet to scare predators.
  2. Dimorphic jumping spider (Maevia inclemens) – jumping spiders are some of the friendliest spiders you’ll ever meet, and so darn cute!
  3. Scorpion fly (Panorpa genus) – This pic doesn’t show it very well, but his abdomen curls up in the back and he must have reminded some scientists of a scorpion. And I just realized that their faces are similar to weevil faces.
  4. Horse fly (Hybomitra genus, maybe) – check out those mesmerizing eyes.

It wasn’t my first time to see any of those insects, but every year I feel like I’m meeting old friends after a long winter in northern Ohio. Here’s a closer look at that syrphid fly — isn’t it fabulous?!

Broad-banded hornet fly, a syrphid fly, not a hornet — totally harmless!

And here’s a damselfly, the lovely emerald spreadwing. They’re named spreadwings because of how they tend to hold their wings spread at a 45-degree angle, which is different from the pond damselflies who hold their wings folded flat alongside the abdomen.

You might notice small dark round things beneath his thorax; those are parasitic water mites. A small number of them probably won’t impact the lifespan of a damselfly, but sometimes they occur in large numbers and can be deadly. They attach to the dragon or damselfly while it’s a nymph living in the water, and when it emerges from the water to become a flying insect, the mites quickly transfer from the shed exoskeleton to the adult insect, and thus are able to ride around and feed off of it. I’ve seen much heavier parasite loads on some dragonflies, like this meadowhawk:

White-faced meadowhawk with a heavy load of water mites

Are you still with me? I realize I may have just gone a bit too far into squeamish territory for some of you, so sorry about that! Let’s end this with a pretty picture then. I give you tiger swallowtails feasting on the native buttonbush that grows in wild abundance at Irwin Prairie. Yep, that oughta do it. Thanks for sticking with me for the reward at the end. 🙂

Happy World Bee Day!

Sure, there’s a “day” for almost everything, right? Why should we care about, much less celebrate, those nasty, scary, stingy, buzzy bees? Well for starters, they’re responsible for pollinating a large portion of human food crops — and they are in trouble. They need us to pay attention to the impact of the massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides we use so reflexively, and to help them so they can continue to feed us. It’s long past time for humans to have a huge attitude adjustment toward bees and other insect pollinators.

But I’m not here to preach to you today. You can read all about the importance of pollinator insects and how to help them on the United Nations “World Bee Day” website. Here’s a little bit from their “Background” page:

Pollinators allow many plants, including many food crops, to reproduce. Indeed, the food that we eat, such as fruits and vegetables, directly relies on pollinators. A world without pollinators would equal a world without food diversity – no blueberries, coffee, chocolate, cucumbers and so much more. They also serve as sentinels for emergent environmental risks, signaling the health of local ecosystems.

So the United Nations is doing their thing. My own contribution to helping bees and other pollinators is to help humans be less afraid of them. So if I’m going to get on my soapbox at all, my purpose is to convince people that they don’t have to automatically be afraid of insects. This is something I’ve only learned in the past few years, so I’m not trying to shame anyone for their fear. I definitely get it. But we can change! And knowledge often erases fear, so that’s why I keep talking about all kinds of insects here. (I’ve written about my own history with insects if you’re interested in that background and how I went from a bug squasher to the bug dork I am today.)

So let’s just admit it, most of us think of bees and wasps as those insects that are aggressive and that will sting you if you get anywhere near them…right? The truth is that we have around 4,000 different species of bees in North America, and very few of them are of any danger to you whatsoever. And yet we mindlessly tarnish all of them with that sloppy paintbrush of fear. What if I told you that this great golden digger wasp is a frequent visitor to my garden, and I can sit within inches of it and get absolutely no reaction from the wasp as I watch it feeding? It’s true. It has no reason to hurt me unless I threaten it. These are some of my favorites, especially when they’re on rattlesnake master. I’ve got a hundred close-up photos of this species and I eagerly await their return each year.

If we start paying attention, we’ll notice that they’re beautiful and fun to watch. Most of our native bees don’t even nest in colonies like the “dreaded” honeybee (which isn’t even native to this continent, by the way). Most native bees are solitary, meaning that each female bee makes her own nest and takes care of her own eggs, without the help of others of her species.

The other day I watched as the back end of an unidentified bee disappeared into a small tunnel under the mulch in my garden. I sat there with my camera for ten minutes, hoping to document her species, but she didn’t come back out and I had to leave. I put little plant stakes in the ground beside her hole so I wouldn’t accidentally step on it, and when I came back the next day, the hole was sealed up. As I understand it, that means she’s laid her eggs and sealed them up for safety, and her role as a parent is done. I love knowing that little bee babies are growing under that small raised mulch pile among my wild ginger, and when they emerge, they’ll find a garden lush with native plants where they can find as much pollen and nectar as they could ever need.

There’s a native bee nest under the mulch, marked with plant tags for protection.

Here’s another cool thing about bees: they sleep in your flowers at night! Last summer I found this bumblebee napping in my blue lobelia.

I have lots of carpenter bees in my yard too — they’re the large black-and-yellow ones that look very much like bumblebees, except their black abdomens are shiny and not covered with hair like those of the bumblebees. I’ve gotten used to them hovering around my head every time I go in to my little open-sided garden shed beside the garage. For the past several years, they’ve been using the wood frame of that shed for nesting holes. They chew holes into the wood and lay their eggs in individual chambers they block off for each egg, after provisioning the chambers with food for the larvae to eat when they hatch.

Male carpenter bees can’t sting, and the females normally won’t sting unless you mess with them. I can walk among them without fear, and I usually even say “hi” as they buzz around my head.

The shiny, hairless abdomen is how you can tell this is a carpenter bee and not a bumblebee.

Even though their abdomens are hairless, carpenter bees are still very effective pollinators. Check out how much pollen is being transported on the back and legs of this one as it crawls around on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Pollinating my native plants is a sort of accidental service they provide for me as they’re feeding on pollen and nectar, and I often sit beside the plants and just enjoy the sounds of them working through a patch of native plants. Bzzz bzzz bzzz!

If you want to read more about how to help native bees in your yard, you might start with this fact sheet from the OSU Extension Office. They’ve got lots of easy suggestions for things you can do to make a big difference in supporting these important pollinators.

And Chris Helzer of The Nature Conservancy (Nebraska) has written a fantastic article about native bees and why they’re important. And he’s got incredible photos to go with it. I highly recommend that you pop over there, and maybe even subscribe to his wonderful blog, The Prairie Ecologist.

And the next time you’re outside in your garden or in a public garden or park, try to notice how many different kinds of bees and wasps you can find visiting the flowers. I think you’ll be very surprised…and maybe curious enough to start taking pictures of them and learning more. So…Happy World Bee Day! I leave you with more adorable sleeping bumblebees.

Bumblebees sleeping in New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

The Dragon and the Pearl

It’s amazing how quickly things can change at this time of year. For example, I wrote this opening paragraph for a draft post yesterday:

Pearl crescent on blue vervain

It’s mid-May and I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of my favorite insects, the dragonflies and damselflies. At this point I’ve still only found common green darners, but the next couple weeks should bring us at least a dozen more species as we kick off this summer’s dragonfly season. Knowing that any day might be “the day,” I keep going out looking for odes. That’s how I happened to stumble, almost literally, onto a really rare photo opportunity the other day.

So I wrote a bit more on that draft post and left it to be finished later. And then I went out today and found three more ode species! Today was, in fact, finally “the day”!! But back to the story of the rare photo opportunity I stumbled upon:

Darners are large, fast-flying dragonflies, and so anytime I find one perched is exciting. I nearly stepped on this one, and was surprised when he didn’t fly away instantly. Often when they’re newly-emerged adults (teneral), they’ll sit still like this as they’re waiting for their wings to harden, but this one didn’t look teneral to me. I always try to approach them from directly behind when possible, because that’s the only place they can’t see me coming (they have a field of view that’s nearly 360 degrees with those big compound eyes). But even so, this one stayed put long enough for me to start shooting pictures from almost directly above.

Common green darner (Anax junius)

And then THIS happened! The little pearl crescent butterfly landed on top of the dragon’s wing and sat there for maybe ten seconds. All I could think was that it’s always best to be behind the dragonfly’s mouth if you’re a butterfly.

A very brave pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

I held my breath and kept shooting, and even took five seconds of video before the butterfly flew away. I figured somebody might not believe this really happened, so I wanted proof that I didn’t Photoshop it!

My gosh, that was so exciting, I still smile about it when I think of how I felt in the moment!

Then today I was back at this same location and was treated to another lovely view of this very common butterfly. These pearl crescents are so ubiquitous that I usually stop taking pictures of them rather early in the season as I have so many already. But this one landed briefly in a field of little bluestem, and I couldn’t resist making another image.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is such a great native grass, and this particular Nature Conservancy parcel is loaded with it. Little bluestem’s big brother is, not surprisingly, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). While both are gorgeous prairie grasses, I’m partial to the little one that only gets about four feet tall. I find it particularly gorgeous in late fall and through the winter, when the dry stalks are a warm brown that glows in the sunlight. I’ve tried many times to photograph it, but have never been satisfied with what the camera captures.

Here’s a short video clip I made in March, as the grasses were swaying in the wind. There wasn’t much sun shining on this day, but it’s still very pretty.

I hope you enjoyed meeting some of the plants and animals from one of my favorite places. Most people who drive past this former-agricultural-field-now-restoration-project would think it’s just a “weedy field,” and not give it a second thought. But I love traipsing around out there, because you just never know what’s next to discover as the long-dormant native plants begin to stir from the seed bank, and new animals come to make their homes among them.

Pearl crescent on black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta)

Fireworks in the Woods

It’s May in the Oak Openings region of Ohio, and that means things are busy busy busy! Not only is bird migration already in high gear, but my Wild Ones chapter is in the middle of our annual native plant sale. I’ve been in charge of setting up the website for our pandemic-version online sale, and it’s taken up a lot of my time over the past month. But I’m happy to say that the sale is open now and we’re doing very well so far, so it’s time for me to allow myself some relaxation.

The other day I treated myself to a long walk with a friend to look at more spring wildflowers. I’d gotten a hot tip on the location of a plant I’d never seen before — goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) — so we set off into the woods with that as our primary goal for the day.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Are you familiar with that rush of adrenaline when you first set your eyes on something you’ve been ardently searching for? I felt it when we spotted our first goldenseal, but quickly realized it was too far off the trail to get a good photo. I was disappointed when it looked like that was the only one, but was relieved when we came upon a couple larger patches and were able to see them without leaving the trail.

Goldenseal grows natively in 27 states, and more than half of those have declared it as threatened, vulnerable, or uncommon. At the end of the 19th century, goldenseal populations had dropped significantly due to overharvesting (for purported health benefits, or for use as a dye) and habitat destruction.

My interest in it is because of how visually appealing it is, with the petal-less flowers projecting like white fireworks above the beautifully-textured leaves. I was quite pleased to meet this striking ephemeral flower!

My friend isn’t as much of a wildflower enthusiast as I am, and so it was gratifying to be able to answer many of his questions. Teaching others always helps to improve my confidence, and it showed me that I’m not as much of a novice as I tend to think I am. Having said that, I had to admit to ignorance when we came upon these trillium with maroon flowers.

The first one we found had the flower hanging below the leaves, and I boldly proclaimed it as drooping trillium. I’d never seen them before, but it seemed obvious to me what they were. But shortly afterward, we found others with the maroon flowers standing above the leaves. A quick web search on my phone indicated that both red trillium (Trillium erectum) and drooping trillium (T. flexipes) can have red or white flowers, and both can occur above or below the leaves. Well that’s no help! So I took pictures, and only after I got home did I discover that I probably needed to have better pictures of the interior of the flowers for a positive identification of either one. Apparently, it’s all got to do with the relative lengths and colors of anthers and filaments. As I tried to figure it out, reading about flower parts….pistils, stamens, anthers, filaments, sepals…my eyes quickly crossed and I gave up. I’m sure this stuff is obvious for a botanist, but it’s apparently beyond the limits of my interest in plants, because I just can’t get myself to spend much time figuring it out.

And, after all that I realized that red trillium mostly exists in the eastern half of Ohio — where we’re not — and so all the flowers we saw that day were most likely drooping trillium (T. flexipes). Thank goodness for range maps to help narrow down likely candidates! My brain hurts.

The state wildflower of Ohio, White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Earlier that day, before I met up with Ryan, I’d gone to Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve to see one of my favorite spring flowers, wood betony. More specifically, this is Canadian Wood Betony (Pedicularum canadensis). I don’t know a lot about this flower, but it’s a favorite because of its interesting structure.

Remember when I said that the goldenseal reminded me of fireworks? Well look at this! It seems I have a fondness for flowers that are exuberant…they actually bring a smile to my face and lift my spirits. (By the way, did you know that you can improve your mood just by smiling? Even if you don’t feel it, do it anyway and see if you don’t notice a change in how you feel. Works for me every time.)

As I finish writing this, I’ve just come home after walking in the woods with a different friend. She commented on how she especially loves the woods at this time of year because of all the young leaves and the pretty greens. I agreed, and added that I love touching fresh leaves because they’re so tender and soft and full of new life. I talk often about the healing power of nature, and today was one of those days when I got a much-needed dose of “vitamin N” by touching some of the plants we encountered in the woods.

Touching tender new growth on a mayapple

Next time you’re out in nature, make a point of touching the plants and noticing how they feel against your skin. Leaves, petals, bark, and soil have such varying shapes and textures! It’s one thing to walk in the woods and take pictures, but adding the tactile sensations can be a richer, more intimate way to experience the natural world. And I’d love to hear your thoughts afterward.