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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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)

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 piรจce de rรฉsistance 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 โ€ฆ 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!

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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 โ€“ 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)