Happily Eating My Words

Yellow-collared scape moth sharing sneezeweed with a common eastern bumblebee, Kim’s garden, October 10, 2021

During a phone conversation a couple days ago, a friend asked me if I would take him out looking for insects sometime, as he’d noticed that I do that for other people from time to time. I’m always thrilled when someone asks me to do that, and I happily agreed to go bugging with him. But I told him we’re at the end of the insect season and we wouldn’t likely find much still out there this year. I knew I could find some insects, but since most of the flowers are finished blooming, I’ve pretty much called it a year and haven’t been out much in the past week.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After we were done talking, I decided to go out to one of my favorite nature preserves to see what I could turn up. It was a gorgeous day with temps in the mid 70s and intermittent cloud cover. As soon as I got out of the car and entered the grass path, I was reminded that it was the peak of grasshopper season. My every step caused a half dozen of them to leap away in front of me. It was as if someone had turned on a grasshopper popcorn machine — pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! I confess to not being too enthusiastic about this particular family of insects thus far, but not because they’re not interesting. I love their crazy armored body structure, for one thing, but I haven’t taken the time to study them well enough to be able to identify them with any certainty. And the fact that there were so many of them jumping around had a kind of sense-dulling effect, making me want to tune them out.

This grasshopper landed on my front window, allowing me this unusual perspective

It’s sort of the same way I feel about birding during spring migration, when I’m out looking for warblers and other cool migratory species, but the woods are full of raucous red-winged blackbirds and grackles. It’s not that those birds aren’t interesting, just that their noise is so distracting that it’s hard to focus on finding other smaller and quieter birds. Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel about the grasshoppers, except instead of noise they just distract me by popping up left and right around me as I walk.

Face view of a narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus) Click to see her bigger!

So I continued on, trying to see what else was there besides the hoppers. One of the most numerous species was the narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus). These are some of our largest hover flies, and I find them to be plentiful in April and May, then again in September and October. Checking data on iNaturalist, I see that about 15% of the Ohio observations by other people were in the three months of summer, so they’re around in smaller numbers apparently. Most of our other hover flies are miniscule compared to these bee-size flies. As you can see, their colors and patterns make them bee mimics, which is believed to give them some protection from predators who might not want to risk a sting from these secretly-stingless pollinators.

Narrow-headed marsh fly posing for me!

I believe this one to be a female because of the space between the eyes, but I’m not positive. Anyway, she landed on a cottonwood sapling looking up at me (first pic above) and I snapped a couple quick shots, thinking that was all I would get. Then she flew to a bare stem and gave me a clear full-body shot. That almost never happens.

I found a few butterflies too, mostly sulphurs but also a copper and a duskywing. This mating pair of orange sulphurs were minding their own business when a second male crashed their party. His attempts to break them up were unsuccessful, and they flew to another spot to finish what they’d started.

Mating pair of orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme)
A second male uses physical force to try to get in on their party

By this point I’d decided to get back to the pond to look for late season dragon and damselflies before I got tired. This was my first day out of the house after two days in bed. I’d gotten my Covid booster shot and had extreme fatigue from that, and at the same time I got a sinus migraine from a weather system that was moving through. The double whammy knocked me down good, and I was so happy to be outside, but still sort of tired.

When I got back to the pond, I found that the marshy area around it had enlarged after the recent rain. I normally just walk around the perimeter of this pond, but this time I decided to walk out in the shallow water to see if I could have more luck away from the edges. It felt so nice and cool on my feet through the water sandals! And I did find some interesting odes — a tiny citrine forktail glowing in the sun, some familiar bluets, one of which was caught in a spider web and being eaten by the spider as I took photos.

I was thrilled to find some blue-faced meadowhawks in a mating wheel, and they allowed me to watch long enough to get a few photos of their beautiful faces.

Blue-faced meadowhawks (Sympetrum ambiguum), male on top

If you enlarge this photo you can see the sperm transfer happening where the female’s abdomen connects to the male’s. And take a look at her lovely face and how her legs are grasping his red abdomen for stability. Dragonfly mating is fascinating, and I never tire of watching it.

There were four green darners hunting back and forth across the pond but I didn’t have the patience to try and shoot them on this day. I settled for the easier autumn meadowhawks and spotted spreadwings.

Autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicunum)
Spotted spreadwing (Lestes congener)

After I’d been out there for about 90 minutes, the mosquitoes suddenly discovered me and I hustled back to the car cursing them under my breath. I’d sprayed my legs against ticks, but didn’t expect the mosquitoes to still be biting and hadn’t sprayed my upper body. Big mistake!

Today’s post is a public mea culpa to my friend Barry — I was wrong, the bugs are still there! But whether we go this month or wait until next spring, I look forward to a day in nature sharing the joy of insects with a fellow naturalist. 🙂

Familiar bluet, watching me watching him (Enallagma civile)

Relax, You Don’t Have to Rake Those Leaves!

leaves and rake

[Note from Kim: It’s that time of year again, so I wanted to re-share my post from 2019 about fall yard & garden cleanup for wildlife. Enjoy!]

Imagine a world in which fall is a time for enjoying the beauty of the season before the onset of winter, without the burden of hours of raking, leaf blowing, and garden cleanup. Just think about it: If you don’t have to face the drudgery (and futility) of trying to make the outdoors as “neat” as the indoors, what else could you be doing on a gorgeous fall Saturday? How about walking in the woods? Or going on a country drive to admire the fall foliage? Or picking apples with your family? Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Gnome in the woods - fall leaves - blog

Allow me to suggest that this utopian world is already here, if we can just change our way of looking at things. And I know some of you are already saying, “But the neighbors will disapprove!” And I get it, I really do. It’s tough to resist a lifetime of cultural conditioning. But please keep reading.

Back in the day, it was considered important to “clean up” your garden each fall, but now we know better. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do any garden cleanup, just that we reduce what we do.  There’s a growing movement to begin looking at gardens as part of the ecosystem rather than just something pretty for humans to look at. Our species has a tendency to try to bend the natural world to our will, rather than considering ourselves part of it and trying to work with nature rather than against it. This encouraging new perspective impacts our choice of plants as well as how we care for the overall ecosystem in our yards.

Now we understand that if we remove all the fallen leaves from the ground, we’re killing innumerable caterpillars who overwinter in those leaves. By destroying caterpillars, we’re killing many of the butterflies and moths who would have graced the garden next summer. Some butterflies migrate south, that’s true. But so many of them overwinter in our yards, whether as adults or in pupal or larval forms tucked into crevices or leaves.

Hollow stems of boneset left for winter
Hollow stem of boneset, ready for overwintering insects

The way we tend our gardens in the fall has a huge impact on the amount and diversity of wildlife it can support there in the next spring and summer. Many of our native bees spend the winter tucked into hollow plant stems, like those of our native monarda (aka bee balm). That’s why it’s important to leave some of those stems standing over the winter. In my garden, for instance, I’ve cut my 5-foot tall monarda down to 3-foot stems, so any insect that wants to use those hollow stems will have easy access.

Hollow stems of monarda left for winter (2)
Monarda stems cut at about 3-feet tall, so insects can overwinter in them

And let’s talk about birds….

Sure, seed feeders help get birds through the scarcity of winter. But did you know that seeds only comprise a small percentage of a bird’s diet? They get most of their nutrition from spiders and caterpillars or other insects, many of which spend the winter tucked into fallen leaves or hollow plant stems. Well, they do unless you cut all those stems down and blow all the leaves away.

Brown creeper w sig

Can you start to see how restraining your fall cleanup impulses can result in having more birds in your yard? I sure hope so, because that’s the whole reason I’m writing this.

What I’ve been doing the past couple of years since I learned about this is to gently rake most of my leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Not only does this preserve the insects who are tucked into them, but it helps my plants survive the winter and it enriches the soil as the leaves break down. Now I admit, some of the leaves get mulched up by my lawn mower as I do that final mowing of the year in late October, but other than that, I restrain myself from removing all the leaves that drop after that.

Many birds come to the yard in winter to flip leaves over to find food, or to harvest the seeds from the native plants I’ve left standing for them. Goldfinches are pros at this and I’ll often see a dozen or more of them bouncing around on brown stems in the garden.

And if you like to take photos, that’s one more great reason not to cut down your flower stems in the fall. You can get some lovely images of frost and snow on spent flower heads.

Frost on flower head - reduced size - blog

Try it this year and see if you can’t get used to it. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we want our priorities to be, isn’t it? And if anyone comments on your yard, why not take that golden opportunity to tell them why you chose not to rake those leaves? You never know who you might influence with your actions. (#EachOneTeachOne)  Feel free to copy the image below and use it on social media with a link to this post. And thanks for reading!

Fairy - leave the leaves @NIMT

Gold Stars for Goldenrod

It’s September and this, my friends, is glorious goldenrod season. These blazing yellow flowers are a visual feast shimmering in the early fall sunlight all around my city, in our many metroparks and nature preserves. But there’s so much more to them than what meets the average human glance. My gosh, this family of plants should be celebrated for so many reasons…where do I start?

Goldenrods and asters at the Toledo Botanical Garden

A bit of an introduction is probably in order first. There are more than 100 known species of goldenrods worldwide (primarily in the genus Solidago) and most of them are in North America. Ohio is home to a couple dozen goldenrods, and I’m happy to say that I’ve got four of them in my own garden (so far).

Ambrosia trifida, aka Giant Ragweed (Le.Loup.Gris/ Wikimedia Commons) – This causes seasonal allergies, not goldenrods!

And let’s clarify something: Goldenrod often gets a bad rap when it’s mistakenly blamed for seasonal allergies. But the pollen of goldenrods is too heavy and sticky to be blown around on the wind, so if you suffer from pollen allergies, you might want to point your finger toward ragweed, which blooms at the same time and throws its pollen around quite recklessly.

By now you know that I always give a plant bonus points if the insects love it, and goldenrods get plenty of gold stars because they are pollinator magnets of the highest caliber. They don’t produce the most nectar, but since they have so many flowers on each plant, that helps maximize feeding opportunities. One source in my library says the average goldenrod plant has more than 1,000 flowers. (Goldenrods of Northeast Ohio, by Bissell, McKee, and Semroc.)

Most of my other garden plants are past their peak now, but thank goodness I’ve got some goldenrods. They’re known to support over 400 species of insects, who use them as food or as host plants for their larvae. If I walk up to my stiff goldenrod, it’s guaranteed to be buzzing with all kinds of bees and wasps. And since they bloom so late in the season, they’re not only important to the bees, moths, and other resident insects, but are essential food sources for migrating monarch butterflies and dragonflies. Of course the dragonflies don’t eat the plants directly, but green darners and wandering gliders often hunt over prey-rich fields of goldenrod late in the season, fueling up for their long journeys.

This is Riddell’s goldenrod (Solidago riddellii), and this is its first year in a new bed in my garden. My friend Kate gave me one plant at the end of last summer, and this is what it looks like today. It’s more than four feet tall and absolutely loaded with native bumble bees every time I look at it.

The other day I was hoping to document some of the bumble bee species. I’ve been lax in learning to identify many of the bees who live in my yard. I know the common eastern bumble bees and their almost-twins the carpenter bees, but there are lots of other smaller bumbles here too. My eyes go crossed every time I think about trying to figure them out. But happily, I found a convenient distraction from that tedious task on this occasion: As I got close to one of my patches of stiff goldenrod, I noticed somebody else in there among the bees.

Ambush bug on stiff goldenrod in my garden

An ambush bug! Normally I see these insect predators sitting motionless waiting for their next victim to happen along, but this one was moving around among the flowers. I started taking video, thinking that he’d settle into his chosen spot and I might see him grab lunch. But it looked like he was feeding on the flowers. Odd. I’ve since learned that, in addition to eating other insects, they also feed on the nectar of flowers. I love those learning moments!

As you’ll see in this two-minute video, there was no insect on the menu this time. This particular branch of the goldenrod was especially busy with activity — you’ll see an eastern bumble bee and a couple small wasps making an appearance as well as the ambush bug. I enjoy sitting at eye level at one of these insect Grand Central stations to imagine what that tiny world might be like.

As I was showing my friend Ginny around the garden the other day, she commented about something smelling nice. We lifted up the stiff goldenrod and inhaled its sweet sweet fragrance. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I’d not even noticed that fragrance in the two years I’ve had this in my garden. Although I’d certainly noticed the exuberance of those tall, stiff stems that like to snake their way around other plants and weigh them down. I’m still learning how to tame it and teach it some manners so it can play nicely with the other natives, but I’d never stopped to smell it. And now I can’t walk past it without stopping to breathe it in.

Part of my sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is an extreme reaction to strong fragrances, whether they’re perfumes, candles, or even flowers. For many years I was seduced by the sweet fragrance of hyacinths in the supermarket, and would often bring some home to freshen up my house in the early spring. But once I got them in the house the scent was overpowering and I had to take them outside. So when I find a plant that has a lighter scent like this stiff goldenrod, I can bring it inside and enjoy it in the house. More gold stars!

I brought some goldenrods and asters inside and Sam immediately tried to eat them!

And sticking with the theme of yellow, let’s not forget to include an insect. As I did my dragonfly monitoring route the other day, I walked up to check out the insects on a small patch of unidentified goldenrod beside the lake. I saw something moving around among the flowers, and as I moved in to take a closer look I was intrigued by what I thought was a large wasp. It turned out to be this locust borer (Megacyllene robiniae), a rather large beetle (up to 1″ long) with bold, geometric patterns of yellow on its black body. And this was the first time I’d ever seen this particular insect, so I was even more pleased to meet it.

Locust borer beetle (Megacyllene robiniae)

They lay eggs in the wood of black locust trees, and the adults feed on goldenrods. In fact, the robiniae part of its scientific name comes from the name of the black locust tree, Robinia pseudoacadia. Coincidentally, I had just been looking at a black locust tree before I found the nearby patch of goldenrod, and I’ve read that these beetles can be more abundant in exactly that situation, when goldenrod occurs near their larval host trees. Interesting, no? (Another learning moment for me!) I need to go back there to take a closer look at that area to see if I can find more of these beautiful beetles.

And as we officially award a big gold star to goldenrod, let’s acknowledge how great it is that these gorgeous glowing flowers bloom at the same time as the lovely purple and yellow New England asters. The impact of placing complementary colors together is well known, and there’s real science behind why those combinations are so visually pleasing. All I know is that every time I visit my garden in September I feel a huge smile spreading across my face as my breathing slows and I absorb the colors into my soul, trying to imprint them deeply so I can recall them when everything is brown and gray in a few months.

I’ll leave you with this gallery from my garden, showing just a small portion of the insects who live and love among the purple and gold flowers. Click any image to enter the slideshow with captions. Enjoy! (Note: if you’re using your phone to read this, you won’t see the photo captions unless you click the small “i” in a circle in the bottom corner of your screen.)

Newsflash: Damsel (B)eats Ogre!

Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.

Mark Knopfler, The Bug Song

Dragonfly season is fast coming to a close, and this is always a melancholy time of year for me. I get so much pleasure from going out to watch them (and other insects) and it’s hard to let go of that every fall. But then again, if they were here all year long I might not appreciate them as much. It helps if I think about it in the way I think about rainbows: we’d take them for granted if they were permanent fixtures in the sky, but we value them because they’re so brief and infrequent.

This summer has been sort of miserable — either raining endlessly or so hot I could barely tolerate it. And the mosquitoes were ravenous! I spent much less time in the field this summer, and I sure hope I’ll be back to my normal level of nature explorations next year. But the other day we got one of our first beautiful fall days, with a crystal blue October sky (in September!) and refreshingly cool north winds. It’s been wonderful to turn the air conditioner off and open all the windows in the house to get some fresh air in here.

So on this gorgeous day I took advantage of the comfortable temperatures to get out for one of my last dragonfly surveys of the season. As I started out I was feeling sort of dejected because there was hardly anything flying, dragonfly or otherwise. My spirits lifted a bit when I saw a tiny gnat ogre, our smallest robber fly at about 1/4″ long. There are three possible Holcocephala species in Ohio, and they’re not easy to identify. But they’re one of my favorites and I’ve seen lots of them at Wiregrass Lake this year, although they’ve gotten scarce in the past few weeks. I took some quick photos of the tiny predator on his hunting perch and moved on to resume my dragonfly count.

A gnat ogre, a robber fly that’s only a quarter inch long — tiny but fierce! (Holcocephala species)

A few minutes later I was taking photos of a female spreadwing damselfly, and getting much happier because spreadwings are rare at this location, and this was the first one I’d seen here all summer. This is most likely a Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis).

Slender spreadwing damselfly, female – Lestes rectangularis

Spreadwings are so-named because of the way they hold their wings outspread, in contrast to other damselflies, who hold their wings folded together. I think they look like they’re wearing ballerina tutus, and that makes me smile.

My spirits soared yet again when the damselfly grabbed a gnat ogre right in front of me! It happened so fast that I didn’t realize what she’d caught until I enlarged the pics on the back of my camera. A case of predator becoming prey, or as Mark Knopfler put it, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug!”

Slender spreadwing with gnat ogre prey

I sat on the ground and watched her for ten minutes as she enjoyed her meal. She started with the head, then ate the thorax, dropping the wings on the ground. Here’s a short video so you can see some of the action. There’s some wind noise but you might be able to hear crunching sounds as she munches on her lunch. (I don’t think the video needs a “gross” warning, and if you haven’t clicked away already, you’ll be fine!)

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Predatory insects are fascinating because you just never know what you might get to see. And in this case, when one predator catches another one, it’s very dramatic. (If you want to see a series of dramatic photos I took of another insect interaction, check out “The Circle of Life, Insect Edition.)

As I left the damselfly to finish her meal, I snapped a photo of the scene. The circle indicates where she was, in the vegetation alongside Wiregrass Lake. If you weren’t tuned in to these insects, you could easily walk past them and not have a clue about the life-and-death drama that was playing out at your feet!

That’s one of the things I love about being out there paying close attention to insects. It’s like I’m living in a fascinating secret world that nobody else is noticing. And yet I know there’s still so much out there that I’m missing, and that’s what keeps me going out again and again.

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Thanks for reading! (And if you’re not a subscriber, you can fix that here!)

Micro Nature Study: Boneset Bonanza

I hope you all enjoy these occasional “micro nature study” posts. The first one I did was “30 Minutes Under an Elm Tree,” and then there was the recent post where I reported on the insect life I observed as I sat quietly beside my dotted horsemint. (If you search “Micro Nature Studies” using the blog search bar, you’ll find all of the articles in this series.) The idea is to sit quietly near a particular plant and just watch what’s happening on and around it. It’s my way of forming a closer bond to my little patch of the earth by getting to know who else lives here with me. It’s a joyful way to spend some time. (I recommend you try it soon, and please tell me all about it!)

This time I want to highlight a wonderful native plant that was one of the first ones I added to my yard when I began gardening with natives. Meet Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

This five-foot-tall plant with delicate white flowers is supposed to grow in wetter soils than mine, and if I had been more knowledgeable a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t even have tried to grow it here. And I would have missed out on a fantastic plant! Not only is it well-behaved and doing great in my sandy soil (without needing to be watered!), but it has a light sweet fragrance that’s quite pleasant, even to my extra-sensitive nose. I love how the hairy stems are clasped by the rough leaves (this is how it got the Latin name perfoliatum).

Boneset on the right, supported by purple coneflower

Boneset has been used medicinally for hundreds of years, often given as a tea to treat colds and fevers. One of my favorite floral reference books, The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, says that it was also one of the most hated by children because of its bitter taste. Sanders says that boneset was also used to treat dengue fever: “Transmitted by mosquitoes, the ailment was also called break-bone fever because the pains were so severe that bones seemed broken.” If you want to read more of the fascinating history of this and many other native plants, I highly recommend his book. (Caution: do not ingest this plant without consulting your doctor.)

Today I want to focus on the insect activity that I found on my boneset, because that’s the whole point of gardening with native plants, isn’t it? To feed the insects, who in turn feed the birds, and so on — to support life on our planet.

To set the scene, I’ve got three small patches of boneset around my garden, each covering an area of about 3×3 feet. For thirteen minutes, I photographed every insect species I could find on one very busy patch. Conveniently, the flowers of this plant are at eye level for me, so I don’t have to bend over or crawl around to watch the party. Here’s a 15-second glimpse of the crazy activity that happens all day every day on this plant:

Isn’t that fabulous? As I began my study on this particular day, I immediately saw familiar friends like the native bumble bees and carpenter bees, as well as the non-native western honey bee. (Honey bees were one of the first domesticated insects and are used worldwide for their honey as well as for their pollination services.) You can click any photo in this gallery to open a clickable slide show with captions.

Wasps seem to be particularly enamored of this plant, and I found seven species of wasps on this day. Did you know that most wasps are solitary nesters and are not aggressive? They all get lumped into the category of “stark raving mad stinging jerks,” but they don’t deserve it. (Some definitely do, but not all of them!) I’ve spent many hours up close and personal with them and have never felt the least bit threatened because I’m not bothering them. Remember to click on the pics to open the larger slide show to see the beauty and diversity of these wasps!

And speaking of wasps, noted author Heather Holm has just published a new book about the wasps of eastern North America. My copy just arrived as I was finishing this post, so I haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet but it’s a gorgeous large-format hardcover book of 400 pages. What a treasure for my library! Heather is one of our Honorary Directors for Wild Ones, and she’ll be presenting a free virtual program on wasps on October 20th. (It’s open to the public — registration info will be posted on our Wild Ones website soon.)

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that there were only six species of wasps in that gallery above. What about the seventh one? I’m so glad you asked!

One of the more interesting things I saw was a mating pair of Gold-marked Thread-waisted Wasps. One of these alone is a cool sighting, but two of them linked together was a sight to see! And as is common in the insect world, the female was crawling around feeding as if the male wasn’t even there. They stayed joined together for at least a couple minutes before I lost sight of them. (Click the pics to see them bigger, and notice the difference in the faces of the male and female.)

And then there were a couple moths too. The colorful Ailanthus Webworm Moth is often found on this plant, and I take a photo every single time. It’s sort of a compulsion, because how many pictures of the same moth does a woman need, seriously?

Ailanthus webworm moth

Next I found the big surprise of the day, which I later learned was a Boneset Borer Moth. I knew as soon as I saw its orange-banded abdomen that it was a new species for me, both in my yard and anywhere else. Even better was the discovery that boneset is its host plant. Clearly it was named for that plant, but I didn’t know that when I first found it.

Remember that a host plant is the plant that the insect’s babies (larvae) will eat when they hatch. Many insects specialize on a limited number of plants, and are unable to eat anything else (like monarchs needing milkweed, for example).

I still have a lot to learn about the various species from this Micro Nature Study, but it sure was a thrill to see so many different insects. So in thirteen minutes I found twelve species of flying insects using common boneset — three bees, seven wasps, and two moths. And I know I’ve seen other species on it as well. If that doesn’t illustrate the ecological value of this single native plant, then I don’t know what will!

And before I go, I want to thank all of you who subscribe to this blog. Seeing that I’d just reached the milestone of 700 subscribers the other day was a nice surprise. And to think, it only took me a decade of writing to get here, LOL. But seriously, I appreciate all of you who continue reading my bug dork ramblings and interacting with me. I love when you share my posts on your Facebook feeds and tell me that you’re starting to see the insect world with new eyes. You make it all worthwhile!

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I’ll leave you with this summary of the insects who were finding sustenance on Eupatorium perfoliatum in one 13-minute period in my garden:


Common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)
Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)
Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) – non-native
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)
Mexican grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana)
Dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus)
European paper wasp (Polistes dominula) – non-native
Euodynerus hidalgo – potter/mason wasp – tentative identification
Fraternal potter wasp (Eumenes fraternus)
Gold-marked thread-waisted wasp (Eremnophila aureonotata) – mating pair
Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)
Boneset Borer Moth (Carmenta pyralidiformis)

“Scream By Tree”

This is a story of irony, hypocrisy, and maybe hilarity. You be the judge.

I spent last week in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of New York, indulging in a personal writing retreat. I’d chosen an isolated place where I would have privacy and quiet, planning to spend most days writing and walking in the woods.

My cabin at the top of a steep hill

I’m always a bit anxious before I arrive at a new vacation rental, not knowing if it’s going to live up to my hopes and expectations. But I found the place easily and my car managed to make it up the steep gravel driveway. Check. The cabin was cozy and had everything I needed. Check. So far so good.

Hammock. Check.

I enjoyed reading the magnetic poetry left behind by previous guests.

I circled a couple of my favorites. (Click to see it bigger)
Hmm, sounds like they had an interesting visit — scream by tree?!

After a quick exploration of the cabin, I walked up through the woods to the top of the hill to see the wind turbines. I’d been concerned about being so close to these monstrosities, but after I saw them I felt okay about it. And I couldn’t see them from the cabin, so they didn’t bother me too much. Although when I was outside I could hear a steady hum and occasional clicking sounds from them, so I know I could never live near one of those things. My sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) would cause me to fixate on the noise and it would make me crazy.

After I settled in, I got plenty of writing done and enjoyed taking breaks to photograph insects in the nearby woods and meadows. As to be expected, the cabin also had its share of insects and spiders inside. I’m used to seeing the occasional spider or beetle in my own house, and I always enjoy trying to identify them before releasing them outdoors or just letting them go about their business. A rustic cabin in the woods is a whole different experience though. I knew it would be a challenge for me to live up to my “do no harm” policy toward the larger numbers of six- and eight-legged critters.

I didn’t mind the numerous moths who found their way indoors, as they mostly ended up on lamp shades or in the window screens, and I know they pose no threat to me anyway. But on my last night there, I was sitting in bed reading when a large wolf spider ran across the sheet beside me and scared the bejeebers out of me. I jumped out of bed so fast I almost hit my head on the loft ceiling. I shook out all the bedding and shivered as I wondered where the heck it had gone. After a minute or so, I reluctantly got back in bed and picked up my book. Two minutes later I felt something on my head and reached up to find another spider in my hair. Out of bed again…not happy at all at this point.

I know, I know. I constantly write about how we shouldn’t fear insects and spiders, and we should leave them alone to live their lives if they aren’t hurting us. But as tolerant as I want to be, if a spider startles me by running across my bed or my head, that’s where I draw the line! I’m not saying I’d purposely kill a spider for this egregious violation of my personal space, but I take no responsibility for any accidental injuries they might sustain from being flung across the room when I panic.

Ha, it seems someone else had a similar experience here: “Why spider me”

At the end of my week, I’d had several sleepless nights in the cabin and was looking forward to returning home and getting caught up on my sleep. (Don’t judge me, but I was scared being alone in the woods and couldn’t sleep well. And there were two days of steady pouring rain and wind that made me worry about getting down off of that hill alive….) My drive home should have taken six hours, but it ended up being closer to eight because of weather-related detours and multiple stops for caffeine. The area I’d been staying in was impacted by tropical storm Fred, and on the day of my departure there was a state of emergency due to flooding in local communities. Travel was prohibited along the route I’d planned to take, so I changed my route to avoid the flooded areas.

I finally arrived home in the evening and greeted my happy cats, who then “helped” me unload my luggage. My plan was to quickly throw all the dirty laundry in the washer, get a quick shower, and fall into bed.

That’s not how we unpack, Sophie!

But as I walked into my kitchen, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the windows were covered with flies! There had to be a couple hundred of them — it was like a horror movie. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again.

I texted my friend who had been in the house that morning to take care of my cats. “Um, did you see any flies in my kitchen today?” “Yeah, there were four or five and I killed them.” Based on that information, I figured they had all emerged that afternoon from…someplace…in the house. But there was no rotting food or any obvious source, so I still don’t know where they came from. I suppose a fly could have laid eggs on a dead mouse in the walls or the attic. Gross. (I swear, I don’t live in a filthy house!)

I opened the windows and swatted about 80% of them out within the first half hour. That left me to deal with a few dozen of them. As I started slamming them against the windows, I admit I got great satisfaction in watching each lifeless body drop to the windowsill or floor. I’ve spent many happy hours watching other types of flies, but these nasty ones are a different story. If they’re the common greenbottle flies, as I suspect, they can lay up to 200 eggs per clutch, so it was important to get rid of them before they were able to lay more eggs.

Random sunset picture to contrast with the mental image of the flies. You’re welcome.

As I was killing them (and saying “sorry” to each one), I realized the hilarious irony of how I’d been looking forward to coming home to get away from the excessive numbers of insects and spiders in the cabin, only to walk into my own personal Hitchcock movie. I also wondered why my two lazy cats weren’t showing the slightest interest in helping me catch the flies. Useless felines.

Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. It’s so easy to tell people to respect insects, but I don’t deny that there are definitely some exceptions to that. I still believe we shouldn’t just reflexively kill any insect we see — without good reason. But I decided that 200 flies in my kitchen was a good reason to use any means necessary to get them out.

The next day I found a couple dozen more, and on the third day just two or three. I hope they’re gone now. But something really cool happened on the third day. I was sitting in my sunroom talking to my parents on the phone. I saw a lone straggler fly on the window. I also saw a little jumping spider on the wall. I’d been watching that jumping spider for a couple days, enjoying having him in there. (You’ll remember me writing about the cuteness of jumping spiders before.)

Anyway, it happened so fast I couldn’t believe it., but the spider ran over and grabbed the fly. The spider was no bigger than the fly, and yet he caught it easily. My parents laughed as I interrupted our conversation so I could use my phone camera to try to get photos of the capture. That didn’t work because the spider and fly were backlit by the bright outside light. So after I ended the phone call, I got my real camera and tried to get better pictures as the spider continued to dine on its bounty. I went outside to tape a piece of green construction paper behind them, then went back inside and got some decent photos.

I’m grateful to the spider and I say “good riddance” to the fly. Hosting this jumping spider in my house makes me feel somewhat redeemed for my unwarranted fears of the spiders in the cabin. I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand that (most) spiders are awesome and you should be happy to have them in your house (unless they’re venomous, of course).

In the end, I suppose I understand and accept my hypocrisy as part of being a human in a complicated world. I’m doing my best to help other people get over their fear of insects by teaching about them here, but it’s clear I still have some work to do on my own fears. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so fire away in the comments!

Got Mint? (I do, and a video too!)

Mints are known to attract a wide variety of insects, and I’ve spent many hours watching and documenting the beetles, bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and wasps visiting the mint family plants in my garden. I enjoy my wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), but I definitely have a favorite in the mint family, and it’s Monarda punctata, known variously as dotted horsemint, spotted beebalm, or any combination of those four words. When I try to think about how to describe it to someone, I get all tongue-tied because it’s so pretty and the structure is unlike most other plants that I know.

Each stem holds whorls of small yellow tubular flowers dotted with maroon (thus the name), and below each whorl of flowers are large showy bracts (they look like leaves) that can be purple, pink, white or yellow. Sometimes as I’m watching insects crawling all over the various levels of a stem, I imagine it as an insect condominium tower, with everybody going about their own business on a different level.

I have just a small amount of dotted horsemint in my native garden, and most of it has been in a pot for the last three years. I grew some plants from seed, and then I’d bumped the seedlings up to small pots that are meant to biodegrade. The idea is that you can just put them in the ground in the pot, without risking the soil falling away from the roots when you unpot them. So I put several small pots in a larger planter and intended to put them in the ground at some point, but they did so well that I decided to leave well enough alone. And now that I see how well it’s doing in a planter, I may try to get a few more planters of it going so I can have them right beside the patio and keep a closer eye on the insect activity.

I spent some time the other day trying to photograph more of the insects who were feeding (and doing other things) on this wonderful native plant. I saw many of the “regulars” and met a couple new species, much to my delight. So let’s see who’s been to visit.

My happy place, with my camera on the ground beside the dotted horsemint.

The easiest to photograph are the large wasps who are here every day, the great golden digger wasp (1″) and the great black digger wasp (1.4″). They allow me to sit very close while they explore every nook and cranny of these complex blooms.

Great black digger wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus)
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

This was the first time I’ve ever seen the noble scoliid wasp, and I watched a pair of them feeding and mating.

Noble scoliid wasp (Scolia nobilitata), the first one I’ve ever seen!

An ambush bug lay in wait, hoping for a meal to wander close enough. I didn’t see him (her?) catch anybody while I was there.

Pennsylvania ambush bug (Phymata pennsylvanica) – shhh, pretend you can’t see him.

As I started to get bored watching the ambush bug sitting motionless, there was other motion nearby. I’ve seen this little character enough times that all I had to see was something ‘weird’ twitching around and I knew who it was. The camouflage looper caterpillar uses pieces of flowers to disguise itself and protect it from predators. I’m not sharing my first shots with you because the caterpillar was so well dressed that I didn’t think you’d be able to see him through all the fancy stuff. I went back a little while later and he was out in the open, where I was able to get a much better shot. But…I’ve just discovered that I took those pictures without the memory card in the camera — haha, one of the perils of not yet being familiar with your new camera. So here’s a picture of another one from another day.

Camouflaged looper caterpillar, on black-eyed susan on a different day

Isn’t he smart? When this caterpillar grows up, it’ll become the wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata), a lovely little green moth.

I wonder if the ambush bug was wishing he could reach that caterpillar?

And now I give you the pièce de résistance from the “mint extravaganza,” a wonderful beetle that doesn’t even have a common name. Meet Macrosiagon limbata, and tell me this doesn’t remind you of two stag reindeer facing off for battle with their huge racks of antlers. Aren’t they fantastic?!

Until a couple weeks ago, I’d never seen these beetles anywhere, let alone in my own yard. But they’ve become regular visitors to this patch of horsemint now. I’d assumed my earlier sightings had been females, and when I saw these two with their big antennae, I assumed they were males. But it looks like the one on the left is ovipositing (laying eggs), so I’m really not sure what I’ve got here. But a few minutes later I saw a pair of them mating, so there were definitely both sexes present. (Another photo I took without a memory card…sigh, you would have loved it.)

When their larvae hatch, they’ll sneakily hitch a free ride on a bee or wasp, and when they get back to the host’s nest, they’ll disembark and burrow into the larvae in the nest. This practice of babies eating babies is very common in the insect world, as I’m learning.

I hope you enjoyed this focused study of the life that’s happening on a single plant. I’ve written about this a couple times before — the most recent was Thirty Minutes Under an Elm Tree. Last week was my secret staycation, and I spent it with limited contact with other people, focusing instead on my home and garden and quiet study of the insects who live here with me. It did me a world of good, and I feel refreshed and happy. Sitting on the ground in my garden was a perfect way to end the week, with gratitude for the natural world.

I have one more surprise to share with you before I go, but it has nothing to do with dotted horsemint. After I finished my outdoor photo session, I walked in the garage and found this adorable jumping spider (maybe Phidippus putnami) on top of my trash bin. He’d caught a leafhopper for his dinner, but he had to tolerate me holding my phone in his face for a minute before he finally chased me away so he could eat in peace. I almost edited off the last couple seconds of blurry footage, but I thought you’d like to see that I’m apparently afraid of a tiny, cute spider charging me.

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!