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.