Welcoming Insects

“If you build it, they will come.”

I often use this phrase to describe my home prairie garden which is a common misquote from a favorite 1989 baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The actual quote uses he, not they…multiple baseball players walk out of the cornfield when he builds the field…hence the likely confusion. Nevertheless, the premise of my misquote seems to be proven by my observations. Insects and a whole host of other wildlife species come to my yard, because of the plants I am adding to my landscape.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

I haven’t done any quantitative sampling of insects in my yard to prove with statistical certainty that landscaping with native plants has increased the presence of fauna around my home. However, every year I do see what seem like increasingly more insects, as well as other animals that eat insects, around my yard. Therefore, I am deducing that Kevin Costner’s quote (or my made-up version) rings true for me.

Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

A Diverse Food Web

It would make sense that an increase in insects in my yard would happen as plant diversity increases in our landscape. The principles of ecology and trophic levels of food webs tell us this will happen. In a previous blog post (In Awe of Insects), I discuss an Earth Partnership for Schools curriculum activity called “Sweeping Discoveries.” We do this activity at Dyck Arboretum on a regular basis with teachers and students to test whether insect diversity is higher in a fescue lawn or prairie garden. The prairie garden always produces greater numbers and greater diversity of insect species.

Ailanthus webworm moth – an introduced species that uses the invasive exotic tree-of-heaven for its host plant. Unfortunately, this tree is showing up all over our neighborhood and it makes sense that this little moth is around now too.

Plenty of Moisture

Another factor coming into play that is likely causing a bountiful number of insects in our yard has been an abundance of rainfall in the first half of 2019. Roughly half of the Newton, KS area’s 34 inches of average annual precipitation fell in record-breaking fashion during the month of May. Not only is this prairie garden mature, since I have been adding to it regularly for 15 years now, but the existing plants are reaching their maximum size and duration of flowering due to the abundant moisture. There is plenty of host plant material and nectar right now for insects.

15+ inches of rain in the last six weeks has made the garden quite lush.

Herbivores and Carnivores

I make daily morning/evening weeding and observation visits in our prairie garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies, flies, moths, beetles, true bugs, ants, katydids, small bees, big bumblebees, and more in recent weeks. The especially intense blooming of common milkweed has really attracted plant-eating and nectar-sipping insect visitors lately.

Bumblebee on common milkweed.

As one would expect, species that eat insects should also be abundant. Insectivorous birds common around our urban yard include grackles, cardinals, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluejays, starlings, Baltimore orioles, chimney swifts, and American robins. Joining these birds in our yard are carnivores including assassin bugs, Great Plains skinks, big brown bats, preying mantis, spiders, cicada killers, eastern screech owls, and Cooper’s hawks that have made their presence known (somewhat regularly).

Our big brown bat population (up to 16 at last count) eats loads of insects around the yard.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

If you have any interest in learning more about the butterflies in Kansas and even if you are a butterfly novice, consider joining me and others this Saturday, June 22, 2019 at our 20th Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count. Spend either a half or full day looking for, identifying, and counting butterflies with experienced group leaders around the county. This citizen science data is logged through the North American Butterfly Association and helps track trends in butterfly populations. Send me an email if you are interested and I will get you involved.

With monarch populations on the decline, regular monitoring of this species is more important than ever.

Now, get out there and tune into the fascinating world of insects around you. Consider what you can do to add more plant diversity, and ultimately more insect and wildlife diversity to your landscape. Both you and the insects will benefit.

Do Native Grasses Help Pollinators?

I love native grasses.  Grasses make dramatic focal points when mixed into garden beds or planted individually.  They pull the landscape design together and provide movement within the garden.

Over the past 10 years, there have been some tremendous advances in landscape quality native grasses.  ‘Northwind’ switchgrass is a perfect example.  It offers great form, a tidy columnar habit, texture and ease of care.  It is a reliable grass with consistent qualities that can be counted on year after year in any sunny landscape.  In my opinion, ornamental grasses should be included in all garden designs because they are easy to grow and provide three seasons of interest.

Indian grass Sorghastrum nutans

Obviously, grasses are gaining in popularity, but one of their most important roles they play in the garden is often overlooked.  Grasses help balance the ecosystem by providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for many different pollinators along with birds and small mammals.  Pollinators need protection from severe weather and from predators, as well as sites for nesting and roosting.  By incorporating different layers of flowering plants and grasses in the landscape, pollinators can find the food and shelter they need for survival.   Pollinators use corridors of plants to safely move through the landscape and be protected from predators.

Over 70 different butterflies and moths depend on native grasses as part of their life cycles.

 

Big Blustem

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

These grasses are important for adults but they also serve as larval hosts for butterflies and moths.   Many different butterflies lay eggs amongst the native grasses which larvae then utilize during their development.  Some species of bees need open ground to burrow into the soil, so leave small exposed areas of soil between your plants.  Even a small garden containing native species can make a tremendous difference for insect conservation.

Here is a list of native grasses and the pollinators that use them:

Big bluestem-Andropogon gerardii

Larval host for many species of butterflies (Delaware Skipper, Ottoe, Dusted Skipper, Beard-Grass skippers and Common Wood Nymph).

Buffalograss- Bouteloua dactyloides

Butterfly larval host for green skipper butterfly.

Switchgrass- Panicum virgatum

Larval host for skipper butterflies.  Overwintering host for bees and other pollinators.

Little bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium

Larval host for many species of butterflies and moths (Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, Cobweb).

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Indiangrass- Sorghastrum nutans

Larval host for skipper butterflies.

Prairie Dropseed- Sporobolus heterolepis

Prairie Dropseed is of special value as nesting sites for bees.  Native grasses are the larval food plants of the Leonard’s Skipper.

Prairie Dropseed

Native grasses are attractive, low-maintenance additions to the landscape.  Once established, they help minimize erosion and increase organic matter in the soil.  Native grasses are also vital in the life cycles of many bees, butterflies and other pollinators.  Grasses provide the habitat for overwintering eggs, caterpillars and pupae of butterflies.  The thatch at the base of the grass clumps is ideal for protection from predators and cold weather.

There is a direct correlation between the decline of native grasslands habitats and the decline of many species of butterflies, bees and moths.  Habitat loss is not the only reason for the decrease in pollinators, but it is certainly a factor.  By planting native species of wildflowers and grasses in agricultural, suburban and urban settings, we can help to reverse the population decline.  Even though grasses don’t provide nectar, they are just as important in pollinator gardens as beautiful wildflowers.  So as you plan your pollinator garden, don’t forget to include some native grasses.






Insectopia

With all the beautiful blooms around the Arboretum these days, the bugs are on a feeding frenzy! I have been having a blast snapping photos of all the active insects with my new camera gadget – a clip-on macro lens that attaches to a phone camera. My iphone can now get incredibly close and detailed shots of the tiniest insects. This handy tool is inexpensive and invaluable for bug-crazy individuals like me. I got mine courtesy of a Xerces Society pollinator workshop back in April.

Can you identify these Kansas insects? (without reading the captions first!)

Grey Hairstreak on Wild Quinine flowers (Strymon melinus on Parthenium integrifolium) with outstretched proboscis!

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) dipping his head into the flower cup of Indian Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Notice the long segmented antennae and claws on the feet for climbing.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea) with pollen on his hairy legs.

Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on the underside of a fuzzy Common Milkweed leaf (Asclepias syriaca)

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) resting on limestone near the greenhouse, probably on his way back to the pond.

The lens even allows me to take videos –
watch as a paper wasp forages on horsetail milkweed flowers and the pollen-covered bee in the picture above enjoys a snack on some purple prairie clover.

If you want to bee an insect expert, get one of of these lenses for yourself and snap away! They are useful as educational tools or for taking detailed pictures to help you and your extension agent identify particular garden friends or pests. When you visit our grounds to see these beauties for yourself, be sure to check the gift shop for a wide selection of children’s books and as well as adult field guides that focus on insects found in Kansas.
Find more goregous shots of Dyck Arboretum flora and fauna on our Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/255013257/dyck-arboretum-of-the-plains/






Earth Partnership for Insects

Sweeping for insects.

We had a great time with our 11th annual Earth Partnership for Schools Summer Institute last week. K-12 teachers brought their enthusiasm for learning and a willingness to put themselves in the shoes of their students. For five days, they practiced hands-on curriculum activities and developed action plans to plant native prairie school gardens in the coming years with their students.

A big focus of the week is the study of insects. We learn about their diversity, preferences for different habitats, and importance in pollination. We make observations, conduct studies, think about how certain plant shapes and colors attract certain insect groups, and even play insect charades.

Insects are critical components in the function of nutrient cycling, natural areas, food systems, and general human existence. We hope that teachers will embrace the importance of these critters and inspire the next generation with the fascinating world of insects.

 

Models showing common insect orders of classification.

Conducting and presenting science inquiry studies with insects.

Studying whether pollinators are attracted by different colors.

Data collection with soapy water insect traps near purple coneflower.

Flower-pollinator observations at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge with butterfly milkweed in the foreground.

Mint family flower shapes attract certain types of pollinators.

Legume family flower shapes attract certain types of pollinators.

Observing a clear wing moth collect nectar from common milkweed during the week.

The clear wing moth is also known as the squash vine borer.

After seeing the two sets of wings, efficient lateral movement, compound eyes, and short antennae, it becomes obvious that this is a dragonfly.

Butterflies nectaring at a flower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 






Be A Good Host for Insects

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed (April 9, 2017).

There are many positive things that can be said about insects. They are important to healthy ecosystems. If you have any appreciation for wildlife of any kind in Kansas, you have insects to thank. Aside from a handful of pests they are beneficial to humans as well. Click HERE to see an earlier blog post on why I am in awe of insects.

Many insect species require a specific host plant or group of plants to feed their young. Therefore, it should be no surprise that greater plant diversity leads to greater insect diversity and ultimately a greater abundance of wildlife. I like to see more biological diversity in urban landscapes and this is why my landscaping tendencies trend towards more plant diversity rather than less.

Butterfly enthusiast and master gardener Lenora Larson gave us this similar message last month at our March winter lecture. She highlighted more than two dozen species of butterflies and moths that folks can easily attract to their landscape with specific host plants. A summary of her presentation, host plant and butterfly species lists, and helpful references can be found HERE.

Monarch egg on common milkweed (April 10, 2017).

Monarch Update

A little over a week ago on April 9, I saw my first couple of northerly migrating monarchs of the season. There were many other reports of first of season monarchs reported that weekend as well. In the week since, newly emerged milkweed shoots more often than not are found hosting one to six monarch eggs each. Yesterday on April 18, nine days after the first monarch siting, I observed the first two hatched caterpillars. More on the plight of the monarch and why we are so carefully observing this progress can be found HERE in an earlier blog post.

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (April 18).

We’ll be touting at our spring plant sale the many benefits of gardening with Kansas native plants. Attracting insects and biological diversity to your landscape is one of those many benefits.






In Awe of Insects

“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Edward O. Wilson

Take a moment during your next foray outdoors and observe the level of insect diversity around you. Hint, searching out vegetation and as much plant species diversity as possible will make your exploration more interesting. You can either passively observe or more aggressively make collections with an insect sweep net and it never hurts to have a copy of the color book Insects in Kansas handy. General observations are interesting enough, but counting and recording the species observed (no formal identification necessary) only increases the level of education and interest.

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We do this at the Dyck Arboretum with kids and adults all the time. The findings in our diverse prairie garden on one side of the sidewalk always produce much more insect diversity and inspire greater awe and fascination than the mowed fescue lawn side.

 

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This is no surprise, really, when you consider how much more habitat, cover, protection, and food the prairie garden holds. Concepts including ecosystems, food webs, trophic levels, herbivores, carnivores, etc. are easily discussed with this simple exercise.

FoodWeb

Conversations often migrate towards how important insects are to humans, our survival, and quality of life. Insects pollinate our crops including many fruits, nuts, and vegetables, they provide us with honey, beeswax, cotton, silk, and tobacco, they perform valuable services as scavengers, they serve as food for many birds and animals, they help keep harmful plants and animals in check, and they have been useful in medicine and scientific research.

People in 80% of the world’s nations enjoy insects as food, and this number will continue to grow as world human population growth continues to outpace food production (take a look at this recent Food and Agriculture Organization United Nations Report to understand how common entomophagy is in the non-western world). Sure, one can find annoying, harmful, and even dangerous examples of insects too, but for humans the benefits far outweigh the detriments.

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Deep fried insects in Thai Quisine (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Insekten.jpg)

 

There are fascinating stories to tell about symbiotic relationships between plants and insects, insects as pollinators, brood caretakers, and navigators, and even gruesome ones about insects as scavengers, parasites, and vicious predators. You probably know about the important relationship between milkweed and the monarch butterfly, but did you know that grasshoppers consume more biomass on the prairie than either cattle or bison? Or how about the perilous story of how the male preying mantis becomes food for the female both during and after copulation? There’s a father’s day story you won’t soon forget.

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There are about 900,000 identified species of insects in the world which makes up approximately 80% of the total wildlife species. Entomologists estimate that they have only been able to identify approximately 3% of the world’s species which push total species estimates to 30 million.

Take a few moments to study the following chart of common insect orders to better understand what is out there, have some fun exploring, and as I once heard a great elementary teacher tell her students, “turn your ‘eeewwwws’ into ‘ooohhhhs’!”

Hopefully you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the fascinating world of insects. Your life may even depend on it.

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