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)

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)

Maybe Dorothy Was Right

It’s been more than two months since I’ve written here. My absence hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or anything to show you, but rather because I have too much to say and can’t figure out how to channel it into something good and uplifting. The turmoil in our society has become something that weighs heavily on me, and it’s getting harder to stay optimistic when there’s no end in sight.

Monarch on butterfly milkweed
Monarch on butterfly milkweed

My usual solution of going to nature for solace doesn’t always help anymore. But I cling to it, still, out of sheer determination to not succumb to despair. I admire my blogging friends who have been able to write regularly and optimistically. I know some of them will be reading this, and I am so grateful for their writing about nature. They are my inspiration to sit here now and try to put some positive energy out into the world.

I want to show you some bits of my native plant garden and the critters who live in it. After the early-blooming spring ephemerals are done, most of the other native plants in my garden don’t bloom until at least late June. I’ve had to be patient, but that makes it so much more exciting when everything finally bursts into bloom. I took this video of my biggest monarda patch yesterday, trying to show you the dozens of pollinators buzzing over it. This section is about 10’x3′ and there were easily a couple dozen bees working through the flowers.

You’ll notice how that bee in the close-up portion goes completely around the flower, making sure to get every possible bit of energy it can from it before moving to the next one.  That patch of monarda is about four feet tall and I can stand right up against it with my face only inches away from the buzzing bees, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to me. It’s such a calming, meditational thing to do.

One of my favorite plants is this Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum), with its cheerful lemon-yellow flowers and glossy leaves. This one is about four feet tall in its second year and looks fabulous. A friend gave me another small one and I can’t wait to see how big it will be next year.

Shrubby st john's wort

Anemone virginiana - tall thimbleweed
Tall thimbleweed flower, only an inch across

Last year I put in two Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) that another friend gave me. They’re blooming this year and I’m in love with their dainty little flowers and the “thimbles” that remain after the flowers are spent. This plant has large lobed leaves below bare, thin stems that tower a couple feet higher and support the flowers. When I’ve found thimbleweed on my walks in local parks, I’m always struck by how easy it would be to overlook it. So many native plants seem to be overly enthusiastic (“we’re gonna take over everything!”) that it’s nice to have a few that behave themselves better. I’ve got these at the front of a bed where they’re easy to see and enjoy, and they won’t get bullied by anybody else.

I found this little grasshopper eating a leaf on boneset. I watched him. He watched me.

grasshopper collage

One of the first times I noticed Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) was when I photographed a Snowberry Clearwing moth feeding on it a couple years ago as I hiked in a state wildlife area. I took a series of photos that remain some of my favorites. Here’s one of them from that day.

Snowberry clearwing moth feeding on blue vervain

I also found a dragonfly on this plant along the shore of Lake Erie last fall. Dragonflies aren’t pollinators and so it’s not common to find them perched on flowering plants like this Common Green Darner was during fall migration last September.

Green darner on blue vervain

And here’s a pic from my garden this week, where my own Blue Vervain is just beginning to bloom. The tiny purple flowers bloom from the bottom to the top of each spike, with just a few blooming at a time. I just adore this plant!

Blue vervain - verbena hastata

I’ve noticed that I often use the word “love” to describe how I feel about some native plants. Since I’m spending lots more time at home these days, I’m getting to know my plants more intimately, and I’m feeling very connected to them in a way that feels like love. I take care of their needs. I mourn when the rabbits chew a young plant down to the ground before it even gets a chance at life. I spend lots of time just wanting to be near the plants, to enjoy their beauty and the unceasingly fascinating world of the insects who come to eat them. The garden is my connection to something larger than myself, something intensely gratifying and life-affirming.

When the pandemic first arrived and we were just getting used to lockdown, I wrote about desperately missing my friends. As time went on, I wrote about starting to enjoy some time without a busy schedule. These days I see a few of my friends regularly (outdoors only, and always six feet apart). As my schedule has gotten busier again, I find myself wanting to hold on to as much of my “home time” as I can. Sure, there’s a lot to see “out there,” but this place is where my heart is, and where I find peace and a connection to the natural world. So I guess I’m a bit like Dorothy in discovering that you don’t always have to leave home to find what you need. #TheresNoPlaceLikeHome

Young rabbit in my yard
One of my resident bunny twins chowing down on ferns

Native Gardeners: Monkeys in Clothes

I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water.  I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!

My first year native bed July 16 2018 - blog
Year one – July 16, 2018 – Monarda barely visible

Garden year 2 on July 22 2019 v2 - blog
Year two – July 22, 2019 – an explosion of Monarda!

And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them.  I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.

But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.

Overgrown weeds by Keturah Stickann on Flickr - blog
This is NOT the look we’re going for!      (Photo courtesy of Keturah Stickann)

It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.

I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.

Sterile lawn in front of traditional house - Photo by Milly Eaton from Pexels
This lawn doesn’t support any life…it’s sterile and depressing. (Photo by Milly Eaton via Pexels)

Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.

By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations.  But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.

Shrubby st. john's wort Kim Clair Smith
Shrubby St. John’s Wort in my garden

These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.”  As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.

As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors.  Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.

Fork-tailed bush katydid on purple coneflower Kim Clair Smith
Fork-tailed bush katydid, a good food source for birds in my garden

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice.  I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.

Tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed in my garden

Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.

Eastern calligrapher fly Kim Clair Smith
Eastern calligrapher fly in my garden —  great little pollinators!

So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust.  Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.

I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it.  Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.

I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.

I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:

REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES

This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.

So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.

 

Going Native in Toledo — Series Intro

Backyard preview through redbud blooms - blog teaser
Peeking into the backyard through the redbud blooms

In the spring of 2017 I moved to Toledo, Ohio. I bought a house with a lovely yard where I would finally be able to experiment with native plant gardening. I’m beginning a series of posts to document what I’m doing — the plans, the failures, the successes — and to provide information about why native plants are important. This is a learn-as-I-go project, so it might be messy (and maybe even embarrassing) but I figure that will still be entertaining for you. 🙂

This series will be intermingled with my usual posts about dragonflies and birds, but you can always find the posts in this series by choosing “Native Plants” from the Category drop-down on the right side of the blog.

Here are a few earlier posts that serve as background to the upcoming series:

Ohio Has the Blues – May 22, 2017 – in which I tell you a bit about the Oak Openings region of Ohio and the rare plants and animals found here.

Going Native in Toledo – September 6, 2017 — in which I define “native plants” and dream about my garden plans.

City Girl Goes Wild – December 12, 2017 — in which I join Wild Ones, an organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants. And I actually begin collecting the first plants for my garden project!

I’ll need to do a couple more posts to catch you up on what I’ve done so far this summer, and then I hope to keep up in real time.  I hope you’ll want to read the series — to commiserate with me about my mistakes and celebrate the successes. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser pic for now.

Garden teaser for blog July 2018