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 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.

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.

Going Native in Toledo – Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) feeding on blue vervain

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

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

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

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

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

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

The newly-planted sunroom bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy World Bee Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon and the Pearl

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

Pearl crescent on blue vervain

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

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

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

Common green darner (Anax junius)

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

A very brave pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl crescent on black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta)

Fireworks in the Woods

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

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

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching tender new growth on a mayapple

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

1999

“Life is just a party, and parties aren’t meant to last.” ~ Prince, “1999”

Hepatica in the woods

It’s that time of year again, time to hurry up and see the spring ephemeral wildflowers before they’re gone. Every year at this time I’m reminded about how we place so much importance on things that aren’t here for very long. Think about rainbows. Warblers during spring migration. The cherry blossoms in Washington and Tokyo. Hepatica rising from the leaf litter in the woods.

We have festivals to celebrate these things — well, except for the rainbows (as far as I know). We eagerly anticipate them and cherish memories about them when they’re no longer present. If warblers were here all year long like blue jays, would we appreciate them as much? If you could look out your window and see a rainbow every day, how long would it take for you to start taking it for granted?

My opening quote from Prince’s song “1999” popped into my head recently as I was admiring a vast swath of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) on one of my walks. I’ve read that those flowers only bloom for three days.

This party on the forest floor definitely doesn’t last long!

One of the earliest hoverflies to show up each year is this narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus), and they’re plentiful wherever I find spring beauties. Notice the five pink anthers on the flowers, as well as the pink lines that serve as nectar guides that…well, guide pollinators to the nectar, of course.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another spring flower that has a very brief bloom time, but it leaves behind its hand-sized, deeply-lobed leaves as a welcome consolation prize for us. In the photo below, you can see the single flower stem standing in front of the leaf. At night or on a cold day, that big leaf wraps itself around the flower like a protective emerald blanket. Even when I’m out on a cold day, I can enjoy seeing these because I know there’s a beautiful flower inside those tightly curled leaves.

Bloodroot leaf waving at me

And here’s a bloodroot flower blooming, with the leaf gently curving around it.

The back of the bloodroot leaf is yet another interesting part of this plant.

Speaking of leaves, take a look at the speckled ones of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen the flowers of this plant, but I get lots of enjoyment from the leaves all by themselves.

If you’re like me when you think of the word ephemeral, you think of things like those I’ve just written about. But what about our lives? Aren’t we also ephemeral relative to the grand scheme of things? You and I are just here for the blink of an eye, at least in terms of the age of our universe. We do often hear people say that “life is short,” but I don’t think that phrase really captures what I’m thinking of. Considering our lives as ephemeral in this way is reassuring to me, as someone who tends to take everything too seriously and think too much about things that really don’t matter in the end.

Greater bee fly feeding on a bloodroot flower — check out that proboscis!!

This line of thinking leads me to considering nonconformity, and what it means in a social species like homo sapiens. A couple years ago I wrote an article about nonconformity and how it feels when you don’t fit the mold of what your society expects you to be. I included a quote from an author who said humans are basically just monkeys in clothes, and who cares if the other monkeys judge you? That quote has been in my mind lately as I look out over the beautiful yellow flowers dotting my front lawn, knowing that most of my “perfect lawn” neighbors probably think I should be using chemicals to kill them. I know dandelions are aggressive non-native flowers here, but I really think they’re beautiful on the green grass, and they help the early pollinating insects when there’s not much else for them to feed on yet.

This is NOT my yard…but so what if it was?

So yeah, I’m a monkey and I’m only going to be here for the blink of an eye. So why not just do what I think is right, and enjoy the party? Let the other monkeys judge me if they must.

As we celebrate Earth Day this week, I hope you find time to go out and appreciate the ephemeral beauty of spring wildflowers or migrating warblers in their breeding plumages.

Cape May warbler at Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio

Words Matter

Two bumblebees sleeping on New England asters in my garden — not icky at all!

Gross. Icky. Scary. Disgusting. Creepy crawlies. Those are the kinds of words often used to describe bugs. If you do an internet search on an insect name, many of the first results you’ll get are for websites that tell you how to kill that insect (or arachnid). If you don’t believe me, do a search for “spider in my house,” and see if you don’t get lots of results telling you how to kill it.

It’s a shame that humans have decided that our homes (and even our lawns!) should be sterile havens from those creepy crawlies. In some cases it’s understandable because they can do damage that has a significant financial or health impact, as with termites or rodents. But most insects are harmless to us. When you know more about them, they become much less scary. And as I’m finding, the more you pay attention to them, the deeper your connection to nature becomes. And having a closer relationship to nature is a way to make your life richer.

With that in mind, I’ve been trying to study and photograph various kinds of insects. As you know, 2020 has been my first Big Bug Year. But even before this year, I’d begun tracking insects in my own yard — and in my home. This last part was inspired by the book “Never Home Alone,” by Rob Dunn. Don’t freak out, but there are nearly 200,000 species of insects and other organisms potentially living in your house. Although I’ve only recorded 15 species in my house so far…mostly spiders and ants. (I feel like I need to keep pointing out that spiders aren’t insects, but it’s just easier to keep saying “insects” as an all-inclusive word for the arthropods I included in my project.)

Sometimes I’m amazed at how my attitude toward insects has changed in recent years. I grew up with the feelings toward them that I described in the first paragraph above. I did things as a child that horrify me now, like pulling the lights off of lightning bugs to wear on my finger, or using a magnifying glass to pop ants in the sunlight. I had no concept of them as individual life forms just trying to survive. I feel like I’m trying to make amends now by sharing interesting info about these misunderstood tiny organisms that make up the intricate web of life that supports our own lives.

Common eastern firefly, aka lightning bug — a beneficial insect for your garden ecosystem

Some insects are naturally interesting to us because they’re pretty and we see them on flowers. They’re not threatening at all. For most people, butterflies would be in this category. In my case, dragonflies caught my interest first, and then I began learning butterflies as well. But aside from those more obvious and charismatic insects, it’s a tough sell to get most people to open their minds to being more tolerant of insects, let alone to study them. But I persevere with my mission….

My yard list has 145 insect species at this point, a number that really surprised me. Eventually I’m going to track the changes in insect diversity in my yard as my native plants mature, to see if I can discern any changes. But that’s a separate project for another time.

Everybody loves butterflies like this eastern tiger swallowtail, right?

Because of the pandemic, I didn’t travel far from home this year. All of my insect observations were in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. My Big Bug Year project on iNaturalist shows 351 species at the time of this writing, but there are some caveats to interpreting that number:

  1. Many of my observations are still unidentified at the species level, and some not even at the genus level. I’m nowhere near an expert, and have to rely on people with more knowledge than me for some identifications. And I’ve found that in many cases, insect identification can’t be done from a photograph alone. It requires having the insect in hand to put it under a microscope. And honestly, that level of study is beyond my interest.
  2. Some of the identifications may change as other people review my uploaded photos. The community on iNaturalist is full of dedicated identifiers of various types of life forms, and sometimes they disagree with each other over an identification. I learn so much from the discussions that ensue from some of these (always friendly) disagreements.
Grapevine Beetle - Pelidnota punctata
This grapevine beetle is an inch long — very big for a bug!

Having said that, and after downloading all of my data for the year and starting to sort through it, I’ve already realized that I have tons of questions. And that makes me a happy girl. I could easily spend the next year researching the answers to all of those questions. I’m especially interested in all kinds of beetles right now, as they make up the largest portion of the insect world and are so varied in their ecosystem roles as well as their appearances.

We all know that words have enormous power to influence how people think and respond to ideas. In my own life, I’ve discovered that by consciously changing the words I use in my self-talk, I can drastically alter my feelings and behaviors. If I tell myself that I’m a loser, I’m going to feel and act like one. But if I consistently tell myself I’m strong and can do anything I set my mind to, then I’m going to end up believing that and behaving in ways that make it true.

So I’d like to propose some new words for our conversations about insects and other arthropods (yes, including spiders!). How about cute, amazing, incredible, fascinating, or even funny? If you look at each insect and think about why it’s there and what part of its life it’s showing you, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to want to know more about it. You may still decide you don’t like it, but I think you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll decide you’re glad you discovered it and are sharing this world with such a cool critter. Try it out and let me know!

Black-legged meadow katydid — Adorable! Fascinating!

Going Native in Toledo – Update

It’s been far too long since I updated you about the progress in my native garden project, so let’s fix that today. In re-reading my earlier posts in this series, I discovered that I hadn’t shared very many photos either. I guess I was more focused on writing about the ecological basis for this project, and hoping to get everybody up to speed about the critical importance of native plants. So you can go back and read those earlier posts if you’re interested in the background stuff. Today you’ll see photos and get a few more details about what’s been working and what’s not. (Depending on what kind of device you use to read this, you’ll see a link to “My Native Plant Project” at the top or bottom of the blog, so you can find those posts all together.)

When I started this project, I was so enthusiastic that I started ripping out everything that wasn’t a native plant. That was a mistake, and I’m glad I stopped myself from continuing that. I’ve come to accept that this will be a years-long learning project, and I may end up keeping some of the non-natives that I have a particular fondness for.  There are some allium cultivars here that are structurally interesting and attract lots of pollinators, so they can stay. And the 15-foot tall Rose of Sharon shrub is a hummingbird magnet, so it stays too.

Hoverfly on NE aster w sig
Hoverfly on New England aster

But at this point, I have about 60 species of natives in my garden. After three growing seasons, I’ve started to become more familiar with the habits of some of the plants and am able to make better decisions about when and where to add new plants or more of the same species.

New England aster monster
New England aster last August – what a monster!

For example, I know that New England aster can take over the entire garden while you’re at the grocery store. In late June I cut it down to three feet tall and it’s back up to about six feet again and leans over onto the less-sturdy plants around it. Its purple and yellow flowers are beautiful, and are important for migrating monarch butterflies and other late fall pollinators, but it’s definitely a tough one to control. I’d like to try putting in some goldenrods and other asters for fall blooms, and maybe then I can eliminate some of the N.E. aster.

Here are some photos of the first native bed I started along my east fenceline.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (1)
My first native bed, in its third year

You can see a gap in the middle where some plants had to be removed, but the rest of it is doing great. Scanning from right to left, you’ll see common boneset (white flowers in back), pink coneflower, monarda (bee balm), and Sullivant’s milkweed, and then across the gap there’s rattlesnake master, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, and shrubby St. John’s wort. It’s funny, last year the black-eyed Susans were on the right side, in front of the coneflowers, but this year they showed up on the left side. Apparently they’ll move around from year to year, so you have to be prepared to go with the flow. There are some other plants mixed in this bed too, but I want to show you closer shots of a couple of these amazing native plants.

First up is rattlesnake master, a plant that grabs your attention simply by saying its own name. And if that’s not enough, just look at these wonderful globe-shaped flower heads! In this wider shot, it’s on the right side.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (3)

Rattlesnake master flower heads - blog - NIMT
Rattlesnake master

I’ve got some cool photos of insects on those globes, but I’ll save that for my update about Kim’s Big Bug Year.

The shrubby St. John’s wort is also a beautiful plant, and I’ve regretted putting it back there in the corner where it’s mostly hidden. The flowers and leaves are so pretty. But thanks to my friend Kate, I’ve got two more young plants of that species that I’ve just put down as specimen plants in another new bed. First a wide shot, then a close up:

East bed alternate view with shrubby St John's wort - blog - NIMT

Shrubby st. john's wort with bumble bee
Shrubby St. John’s Wort with bumble bee

If you look back at that wide shot above, you’ll see my swing, and behind it two huge boxwood shrubs. I want to take those out and put some natives in there eventually. Have you ever smelled a boxwood shrub? It’s not something you want to sit beside for any length of time. The only reason I’ve hesitated removing them so far is that there’s only a 3-foot tall fence behind them, so when they’re removed there won’t be anything blocking the view into my garden from the road in front of the house. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to see the garden, but the reason I tucked the swing back in that corner is because it’s the most private part of the yard, and I like that. If I could buy mature native shrubs that were already five feet tall, I would do that in a heartbeat. But whatever goes in there will take years to grow big enough to give that privacy back. Decisions, decisions. Oh wait! I just realized I could plant something on the other side of that fence and let it grow up, and then remove the boxwoods. Aha, a plan materializes!

I’ve had some manual labor help lately too, and I’m glad I did, even though it was shockingly expensive.  There was this area back by my shed that had shrubs that were declining and just kind of ugly — there was hibiscus, purple smoke, and a huge arborvitae, along with a few raggedy hostas that didn’t like all the sun they got there. Here’s what it looked like before the contractor arrived a few weeks ago:

Before shrub removal 7-16-20
Before….

And a few hours later, I’d already started filling it with native plants…button bush, ninebark, shrubby St. John’s wort, white snakeroot, purple coneflower, and Riddell’s goldenrod. I’ll be adding some more in this bed after I go to the last native plant sale of this year in a couple weeks. It should look great next year.

New garden bed July 29 2020 - blog - NIMT
…and after! So much potential!

That’s one of the shrubby St. John’s worts front and center, ready to be the star that it should be!

This year also brought the first blooms on the gray-headed coneflower that I grew from seed and planted in 2018. I had been impatiently waiting for them, and when I saw them finally bloom last month I could have jumped for joy. I raised them from teeny tiny seeds and they are spectacular! I did that! (Well, the Earth did that…but I helped.)

gray-headed coneflower - blog
Gray-headed coneflowers beside tri-color beech tree – nice combo

That tri-color beech tree was here when I bought this property, and I thought it was probably going to remain a small tree, but I’ve seen some in the neighborhood that are forty or fifty feet tall, so I guess I’ll find out…in twenty years.

So that’s a good update for now, I think. Maybe next time I’ll show you some of the other native beds. I’m having so much fun growing native plants, and–especially this year–have enjoyed spending much more time than usual just being among the plants and insects. My fellow Wild Ones members have continued to be generous in their support of my new-ish garden; they give me plants and advice whenever I need it. And when I visit their mature native gardens, I feel better about what I’m doing. I see that, even for the most experienced among us, this is a process of trial and error. It’s messy and it’s hard work, and it’s never done. But it’s definitely worth it.

Yucca_filamentosa from Wikipedia
Yucca photo by Moriori on Wikipedia

I’m going to finish up here with a sort of warning — a “buyer beware” message. Three years after moving here, I’m still waging an epic battle against the yuccas (Yucca filamentosa). There are probably 15 of them scattered around the property, front and back. They look like they would be native to the desert southwest, but it turns out they’re native to the southeastern part of this country. I’m still a bit confused because the USDA Plants Database shows them as native to Ohio as well as much of the eastern US. But regardless of whether they’re natives or not, I have a strong dislike for them. And yet many people plant them around their houses, probably because they’re evergreen, and they don’t require any watering or other maintenance other than cutting down the enormous flower stalk that towers above the leaves each year. But they multiply prolifically, and turn into these monstrous multi-plant clumps that are so tough to eradicate that a web search on “how to get rid of yuccas” turns up hundreds of results. (Some of the videos are quite entertaining, like this one, and the one where Mike doesn’t think I’m trying hard enough.)

Yuccas removed from yard Aug 2019 - blog
A few yuccas I dug from my yard last year

Despite what Mike-on-YouTube thinks, I am trying hard! I’ve tried digging them up. Nope, life’s too short. I paid landscapers try to eradicate some of them two years ago, but they used a stump grinder which only served to chop up the massive root system and sprout hundreds more of these horrible plants. Last year I chopped one off at the ground and painted herbicide on the stump. It came back anyway. Earlier this summer I paid the teenager next door to try to dig one of them out. He spent more than four hours digging up ONE plant, and it re-sprouted a month later. (That poor kid will probably never come over here again after being defeated by a yucca.) Here’s a pile of the roots from that one plant — and this is only about a third of them!

So I’m experimenting with another technique now — I’ve covered the yucca hole with two layers of thick cardboard and a heavy layer of mulch. I’ll check on it next summer and see if I’ve finally managed to kill one of them. Stay tuned for my next yucca update, in which I fully expect to report that they’ve tried to kill me in my sleep.