Late Season Pollinators 2016

We’ve had a few cool days in Raleigh so far this fall, but it’s been quite warm overall. This means that a lot of insects have been out later than usual, in some cases quite a bit later than usual. A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch at a nearby arboretum, just to get outside in a pretty place for a while, and I came across this field of cosmos:

flower-field

That photo was taken on November 10th, so I was very surprised to come across so many blooming flowers! Several other flowers were also in bloom, so there were quite a few different insect species making use of the nectar. There were, of course, many bees, including honey bees:

honey bee with cucumber beetle

There were also at least three different species of bumble bee, though I’ll admit that I am terrible at figuring out which species is which:

bumble bee

Most of the bumble bees I come across in my area are the common eastern bumble bee, and I suspect this one is as well, but I couldn’t say for sure.

On the same flowers, I came across a few butterflies. I hardly ever see cabbage whites, so I was excited to see this one:

cabbage white

I know they’re a pest species and a lot of people really dislike them. And yes, they did once eat all of the broccoli I planted in my garden. However, they’re really beautiful and they’re just doing what they do when they eat my broccoli, so I like them anyway.  :)

There were tons of these checkered skippers in the field of flowers:

checkered skipper

I don’t know why, but I rarely see these at the museum field station where I work, even though it’s just a mile or so away from the arboretum where I took these photos. There are tons of them at the arboretum though, almost every time I go! I spotted at least two other skippers the same day, but only got a photo of this one:

fiery skipper

I believe this is a fiery skipper, but I’m not 100% sure about my ID. What can I say? Butterflies are not my best group as I just took a real interest in them recently, but I’m working on getting better. Skippers are harder to ID than a lot of other groups, so they’re my weakest group and probably will remain so for a while.

You might have noticed the cucumber beetle in the photo with the honey bee. Once I saw one, I started looking for them and found dozens more, about one per 2-3 flowers:

cucumber beetle

Apparently they really like these flowers. They’re an agricultural crop pest, so it made me wonder if all the holes in the petals I was seeing were caused by the beetles. A lot of the most heavily damaged flowers had the beetles on them, but that could just be coincidence. There were a lot of beetles on a lot of flowers!

I spent a long time watching the insects in this field of flowers, but I saw several more as I walked back to my car. There were more butterflies out, including this common buckeye (one of my favorite butterflies!):

common buckeye

… and this American lady:

American lady

I didn’t manage to get a photo of the swallowtail that was flying around as it wouldn’t sit still long enough, but there was one eastern tiger swallowtail floating around the area. There were also a ton of hover flies, of multiple species. This one:

hover fly

… and this one:

hover fly

… seemed like particularly good bee mimics, about the same size and had rather similar behavioral patterns as honey bees. In fact, a pair of women came up to this planting while I was there and said, “Wow! Look at all those bees!” I, being the annoying person that I am sure I sometimes am, couldn’t let that pass, so I told them that a lot of what they thought were bees were actually flies and pointed out the differences. Not sure they really wanted the entomological lesson right then, but I just can’t help myself sometimes.

Fall has been coming on a lot more slowly in my area than normal this year, so I’ve been surprised more than once by the things that are still visible that are usually gone by now. I found a monarch caterpillar a few days ago and there are still a few milkweed plants alive! A few years ago, I remember seeing a monarch adult on November 2 and thinking it was terribly late, but this year I’m still seeing caterpillars.  Strange, and a little disturbing that it’s so warm so late, but I’m going to enjoy seeing insects out as long as they last – and welcome winter with open arms when it finally arrives.

flower in bloom

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Connect

“Connect” is today’s Photography 101 topic and I decided that a photo of pollinators was in order.  After all, the connection between pollinators and the plants they pollinate is incredibly important.  The mutually beneficial (usually) relationship means the bees get fed lots of sugary nectar and/or protein-rich pollen and the plants get their pollen moved about.  It’s a pretty good deal for both the pollinators and the pollen producers!

I did a program about tree phenology citizen science for a bunch of college students today and when we visited the redbud on our tree trail, everyone refused to go near it because it was absolutely covered in bees.  All I had with me was my iPhone, so that’s what I used for this photo:

Bees swarming redbud

Bees swarming redbud

The number of carpenter bees flying around this tree was astounding!  I loved it, stood under the tree for a while and let the bees swirl around me.  A rather magical experience overall!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Nom Nom Nom

When the plant called rattlesnake master blooms, you can expect to find all sorts of insects coming to it to feed!  I don’t know exactly what it is about this plant that is so incredibly alluring to so many species of insects, but the strange little spiky flower balls can become absolutely covered with bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, and other insects.  It recently bloomed in my area, so today I bring you a photo of a delta flower scarab and a little bee chowing down on nectar from a rattlesnake master flower cluster:

Delta flower scarab on rattlesnake master

Delta flower scarab on rattlesnake master

The flowers smell awful to me, so I guess you have to be a pollinator to fully appreciate them.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Starting an Insect Garden

I adore gardens and plants!  That doesn’t mean that I’m a competent gardener because that’s not the case at all.  Still, every now and again I will very successfully grow something, just enough that I’m not completely discouraged and really enjoy mucking about in the dirt planting and harvesting.  I’ve been especially taken by the native plant garden at work.  It’s a demonstration garden and I want to implement several new ideas I’ve learned from my coworkers and the garden they’ve built in my yard.  I finally have a yard that’s big enough to plant both a good-sized vegetable garden (this always comes before flowers for me!) and several ornamental flowering plants and I’ve been happily plotting and planning so I’m ready to go in the spring.  I’ve got my native plants picked out already, based mostly on their height and their (wait for it…) attractiveness to insects.  I want to have the same pretty bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles visiting my yard that I see at work!  Here are the plants I’ve chosen to start with.

Tickseed, Coreopsis major

tickseed lowers with butterfly

Tickseed, Coreopsis major, with sleepy orange butterfly nectaring

This is a very common native plant at work as it’s found out in the prairie and it is planted in both the roof garden and the native plant demonstration garden.  It’s a beautiful yellow color and doesn’t get very tall.  Plus, butterflies and other nectar feeders, like the sleepy orange butterfly you see in the image, love it!  I got some of these from work when our garden volunteers thinned the plants for the fall, so they’re already in the ground next to my house.  They’ll bloom in May or so and remain in flower for a few months if all goes well.  Exciting!

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

cardinal flower

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

I got some of these plants from work too and I love them!  Mine were recently planted, so I won’t get flowers until late next summer, but the plants are a gorgeous, vibrant green that are quite pretty even without flowers.  These are, as you might imagine from the color and shape, hummingbird flowers and I’m excited by the possibility of their bringing ruby-throated hummingbirds into my yard.  They’re also attractive to several bee species.  They require moist soils, but I happen to have the perfect place right in my backyard!  The drain from my air conditioner releases a small stream of water into a low point in my yard, so I planted my cardinal flowers there.  I suspect they’ll have a fighting chance of surviving as I won’t have to remember to water them and my new flowers will be a nice little side effect of cooling my house in the summer.

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis

buttonbush flower with butterfly

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, with a zabulon skipper

I was shocked to see how many different species came to the flowers of this shrub last summer!  Butterflies, bees, flies, beetles…  Seems that if there was a pollinator out and about, it would eventually find its way to the buttonbush.  It’s a beautiful tall plant with fantastic flowers, so I’m hoping I can find a good place in my yard to grow one.  It does well in moist soils, so I might plant one near my cardinal flowers.

Frost Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum

Frost aster

Frost aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum

Frost asters are often considered weeds and they can become weedy.  However, if you don’t let them spread all over everywhere they are lovely fall-blooming plants!  Plus, fall insects LOVE these.  Frost asters are all over the prairie at work and when they bloomed there were so many they looked like snow!  I saw dozens of different pollinator species lurking among the flowers and you could hear hundreds and hundreds of bees and flies happily buzzing away out there.  The migrating monarchs loved them too!  I don’t see any real downside to planting some of these in my yard, so long as I keep and eye on them and start pulling up the recruits.  They’re nice little bushy plants, the flowers are adorable, and I can get them from work for free.  What’s not to love?

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

common milkweed with bumblebee

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, with an unidentified bumblebee

This is far and away the least handsome of the plants I’ve chosen, but after spending a summer looking for monarch larvae for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, I’m very excited about the idea of having some of these in my yard.  I’ve already collected seeds, so I just need to choose a place in my backyard to grow them in the spring.  These will go in the backyard for sure, so the neighbors can’t see them.  The plants are nice enough while they’re green and lush and the flowers are rather pretty, but then all the leaves fall off and leave the ugly pods out in the open.  Then the pod and the stem both turn brown and crispy and stay that way for a very long time.  They really are ugly plants and I can only imagine the nasty notes we’d get from our homeowners association if I planted these in front of the house.  But, there’s nothing stopping me from planting some in the backyard!   Calling all monarchs: I’ll have dinner waiting for you in a few months!

There are a few other plants I’m considering as well, including aromatic aster (gorgeous purple flowers in the fall) and purple coneflower, that are insect magnets in North Carolina.  I think there just might be enough water to grow some pitcher plants in that wet area of the yard too!  It’s really exciting to think of all the possibilities and learn about all these unfamiliar plants, so I hope I can get a great garden going come spring.  If I do, expect a lot of photos of my bugs!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Late Season Pollinators

Central North Carolina’s weather has been a bit schizophrenic recently, alternating wildly between warm and cold, seemingly at random.  I keep thinking this sort of switching will kill off the last of the insects, but I am constantly proven wrong.  Every time it gets warm, the insects reappear.  Many of the pollinators are taking advantage of the late-blooming flowers at Prairie Ridge, the aromatic asters, frost asters, and narrow-leafed sunflowers:

narrow-leafed sunflower

Narrow-leafed sunflower

There are quite a few flowers in bloom right now, so I keep seeing pollinators.  There are lots of honey bees out still:

honey bee

Honey bee

That particular shrub is no longer in bloom, but the honey bees have simply moved on to other things that provide the nectar they crave.  There are lots of other bees out too, including bumblebees (my favorites):

Bumblebee

Bumblebee on aromatic aster

… and eastern carpenter bees:

carpenter bee

Carpenter bee

Bumblebees and carpenter bees look rather similar in this part of the country, but you can tell them apart pretty easily.  Fuzzy butt = bumblebee.  Smooth, shiny butt = carpenter bee.   I’m sure there are behavioral difference between the two I’ve yet to see too, but I haven’t been around them quite long enough to notice them.

There are other Hymenoptera out and about too.  I was introduced to the existence of scoliids earlier this year, and I have been shocked by how many different types of them I’ve seen in North Carolina!  I love the white patches on this one:

Scoliid wasp

Scoliid wasp

It looks almost elegant!  Scoliids, if you don’t recall, are parasites that lay their eggs on scarab larvae.  We’ve got tons of eastern green June beetles at Prairie Ridge, among other species, so there are probably a lot of scoliids around because due to our wormy bounty.  I haven’t seen many of these around recently, but every now and again I’ll come across a straggler.

I’m not entirely surprised to see bees and wasps around this late in the year, but I have been surprised by all the butterflies.  There are still quite a few sulphurs flying around:

Sulphur butterfly

Sulphur butterfly

I’ve also seen some American Ladies, a few whites, and a few skippers.  It seems odd to see them in November, but I’ve been told this isn’t completely unusual.  What seems very really odd, however, are the number of caterpillars we’re still seeing.  We’ve had a few very cold nights already, but the caterpillars keep on going on.  The monarchs were out until just a few weeks ago, but seeing as I haven’t made any sightings since then, I assume they’re done for the year.  However, one of my coworkers JUST found one of these:

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

Pipevine caterpillar!  I have a feeling the pipevine caterpillar she found won’t make it as it looks too small to pupate and winter is coming, but we’ll see.  Maybe it will surprise me!

There have been flies all over the flowers too, doing their part to help plants reproduce.  Flies provide valuable pollination services, though they certainly aren’t as widely beloved as the butterflies and the bees.  Although it’s not pollination, the flies are also helping another species spread its genes around:

Stinkhorn

Stinkhorn

Flies are important to stinkhorn fungi and help spread fungal spores to new areas.  I’ve become very good at finding these mushrooms based on their smell and I enjoy looking to see what insects they’ve got crawling on them.  Typically I see flies, lots of flies.  Over the weekend, however, I found several stinkhorns that had ants all over them, including this one.  I wonder if the ants are helping spread fungal spores around too…

I suspect I’ll continue to see pollinators as long as there are occasional warm days and plentiful flowers.  I have no idea how much longer I should expect them to last, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy seeing all the flowers and hearing the happy buzzing sound coming from the prairie.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth