During the doldrums of late summer, light blue flower spikes thrusting skyward along Kansas roadsides and prairies provide welcome contrast to the yellows of the state’s many sunflowers. Pitcher sage, also known as blue sage or pitcher plant, is a delicate looking prairie native with ironclad constitution.
Pitcher sage is a somewhat common plant in the rocky areas of the tall and mixed grass prairies. This plant is an erect, hairy perennial ranging in height from one and a half to four feet with short, thick rhizomes (horizontal underground stems). Very adaptable to garden situations, it prefers drier soil in full sun. In sandy sites it has been known to self-seed, but this is seldom a problem in clay loams. The crowns can slowly broaden from rhizomes as the plant matures.
Pitcher sage blooms from late July to early October, although peak bloom is early September in most years. It is blooming right now in our Prairie Window Project in the south part of the Arboretum. The light blue flower color is common in prairies around south central Kansas. There is a cultivated variety, Salvia azurea “Grandiflora,” that displays an intense deep blue flower. Once established, it requires water only during extended dry periods.
Besides the unique light blue coloration, the flowers possess an unusual mechanism to ensure cross-pollination. The corolla is lobed with a narrow concave lip covering the style (female) and the anthers (male) which mature at different times in the same flower. The lower lip is broad and protruding, providing a landing pad for visiting honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinators. The bee grasps the platform, thrusts its head down into the throat of the flower and pushes its sucking mouth parts into the nectar glands. By this action, the bee is simultaneously pushing down on the structure at the base of the stamens. This causes them to descend from the upper lip spreading pollen on the bee’s back. As the bee visits other flowers, it spreads pollen to receptive styles.
The Arboretum grows pitcher sage for its late summer color and the bee activity it provides. The plant is a bee magnet in full bloom. It is always entertaining to watch lumbering, black and yellow bumble bees wrestle their way into the flowers in search of nectar while unwittingly carrying the promise of another seed crop on their striped backs.
No, this is not the start of an Eric Carle children’s book. It’s the start of a blog post all about gregarious feeders! Unlike the lone green caterpillar of the book that goes chomping through fruits and cakes and slices of salami, some caterpillars can be seen feeding and living in large groups, and as such are labeled ‘gregarious’. We have found many of these fascinating species on our grounds.
Milkweed is famously host to monarch caterpillars, but many other species depend on it as well. The tussock moth caterpillar is a crazy-haired and charismatic species that seems to appear out of nowhere and turn your milkweed plants into skeletons, eating an entire plant in a matter of days!
Euchaetes egle are orange, white and black, reminding me of my grandmother’s calico shag carpet from the ’70s. As nostalgic as that may be, don’t touch! Their hairs are urticating, meaning they break off into skin and cause irritation. The Latin buffs might remember that “urtica” translates to “nettle”. It is best to let them devour the plants and go on their merry way.
What about the monarchs? Will there by any milkweed left for them? The solution is always to plant more! Try several different species of milkweed to diversify your selection and increase the available habitat.
Walnut Moth Caterpillar
Just last week I noticed a black caterpillar with wispy white hairs crawling along the sidewalk near our greenhouse. Just as I stooped to get a closer look, I saw another. And another. They were everywhere! Crawling every direction on the sidewalk, in the grass, over the rocks and up the side of the building. I followed them back to their host tree, a young walnut. These were walnut moth caterpillars, Datana intergerrimma. There I found a wiggling mass of hairy caterpillars on the trunk. They hatch on the leaves, defoliate the tree with their voracious appetites, then travel down the trunk to disperse and find a bit of open soil to dig in and pupate.
In early June we get lots of calls asking “what is feeding on my Echinacea and sunflowers, and how do I kill it?”. It is usually checkerspot butterfly larvae. These small black caterpillars are lined with tufts of black hair, and they can turn leaves to lace right before your eyes! They host on plants in the Asteraceae family, and their favorites seem to be annual sunflowers and Echinacea purpurea. Through all the years we have had major populations feeding here at the Arb, our Echinacea flowers are doing just fine with no pesticide treatment. They look a little rough for a time, but recover quickly and pop up healthy and green the next spring.
Next time you see a mass of caterpillars feeding on your trees or flowers, don’t reach for the bug spray! Use a tool like the Seek app, or BugGuide.net to properly identify them. If they are native, let them continue to eat and fulfill their ecological role!
Remember, native host plants and native insects have been evolving together for thousands of years. They battle, and sometimes even benefit each other in ways we are still studying today.
After my Native Plant School class last week, there were several good questions about native grasses that are worth addressing again.
Question 1: How do you clean up native grasses in the late winter (Feb-March)?
Grasses tend to remain attractive well into winter, providing texture, movement and continuity to the garden. However, they eventually need to be cut back in preparation for spring. We use a gas powered hedge trimmer because we have so many grasses to cut back. The stems are tough but the trimmer easily cuts through them especially compared to hand pruners or loppers.
Starting at the top of the grass, we just cut through the grasses back and forth at 2-3 inch intervals until the grass is cut down to 2-4 inches off the ground. We then scatter the cuttings around the base of the grass so that it is not too thick. The trimmer makes quick work of a five foot grass. If the pile at the base of the grass is too thick, we scatter the clippings someplace else in the garden. This way you are keeping all those overwintering insects in your yard.
In our recent Winter Lecture Series, guest speaker Heather Holm suggested an even more insect-centric approach to spring garden clean up. Gain access to her presentation HERE.
There are more than 400 different native bee species in Kansas.
An estimated 30% of native pollinators nest in pithy stems of plants such as native grasses and wildflowers.
Dead branches or logs decaying provide excellent habitat. Create a small bush pile for birds and pollinators. Overwintering butterflies and ground nesting bees can be found in brush piles and the decomposing wood gives fireflies a place to lay their eggs.
Nearly 70% of native pollinators are ground-nesting, burying into the soil to reproduce. Open soil without landscape fabric or two to three inches of mulch allow these burrowing insects to easily access the soil.
Question 2: When is the best time to plant buffalograss?
Buffalograss is a native warm-season sod forming grass. It needs at least six hours of direct sunlight for it to germinate and grow healthy. It spreads by stolens and has fine blue-green leaves. New seeded forms of buffalograss have been developed over the years such as Cody, Bison, Bowie, Plains, Topgun and Sundancer. Most of these seed forms are available online and some are available at regional Farmers Cooperatives. Seeding can be done anytime from May through August 15 as long as the soil temperatures at a two inch depth are above 60 degrees. Check out Buffalograss: Five Keys to a Successful Planting on our website.
Question 3: Can you list out the heights and mature sizes of the grasses?
One of the key components of a successful native landscape design is situating grasses. Repeating taller grasses at regular intervals looks formal while these same taller grasses at irregular intervals is relaxing and less formal. Grasses unify and blend your landscape together and they are wonderful companion plants with other wildflowers and shrubs.
Short= 4-24 inches, Examples: prairie dropseed, blue grama, pink muhly, sideoats grama, june grass, “Blonde Ambition” blue grama, purple love grass, and Nassella tenuissima,
Medium= 2-4 feet, Examples: Little bluestem, Little bluestem cultivars, Sideoats grama, Blonde Ambition blue grama, Northern sea oats, Pink Muhly grasses, “Cheyenne Sky” switchgrass, “Shenandoah” switchgrass, and sand love grass (Eragrostis trichoides).
Tall= 4-7 feet, Examples: Big bluestem and cultivars, Indian grass and cultivars, Eastern gamma grass, prairie cordgrass, switchgrass and switchgrass cultivars.
Two years ago, I reported on an unusual convergence of migratory paths during the 2020 monarch fallout event here at the Arboretum. As we anticipate an abrupt change in weather and the official arrival of fall with tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for similar monarch migration events in your natural areas.
(Original publication date: October 7, 2020)
It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.
The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.
Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.
Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.
With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.
I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.
Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).
Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.
The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.
Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.
This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.
A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.
“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)
There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.
To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.
Articles on Monarch Toxicity
Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.
Early September blooming plants are attracting loads of nectar-sipping insects right now. Host plants are green and thriving from timely rains and providing food for munching larvae. All this insect activity has led to great enjoyment for me in exploring the Dyck Arboretum grounds and my home landscape. It has prompted me to think more about my real motivation for landscaping with native plants.
Plants or Insects?
For many years, I’ve claimed that my enjoyment of native landscaping was motivated by my love of plants. Indeed, their flowers, seed pods, seeds, seed dispersal mechanisms, and roots are all interesting traits and worthy of appeal. Getting to know their growth habits, moisture and light preferences all translate to the level of success I will have (or not) in establishing these plants in a given landscape. And early in their establishment, my focus is geared toward making sure they stay alive with my watering, mulching, and weeding efforts.
But as these long-lived perennials develop substantial root systems, become established, and begin to flower, I worry less about their survival. My perspective changes, turns towards what they can do for the local ecosystem. New questions arise. What insects are attracted to their flower nectar? Which insects are pollinating them and leading to seed production? What insect larvae are eating their leaves or other parts of the plant? What predators are in turn feeding on those insects?
Plants, being at the base of the food pyramid, dictate the level of diversity that exists further up the pyramid of consumption. Small bases lead to small pyramids and bigger bases lead to bigger pyramids. So in theory, the more different species of plants I install in my landscape, the more species of insects I will host. I can specifically predict what insects I will attract to a landscape based on the larval host plants I establish. For example, milkweed species will draw in monarch butterflies. Golden alexander or other species in the parsley family will draw in black swallowtail butterflies. Willow species will draw in viceroy butterflies, and so on. HERE is a list of butterfly larval host plants.
The Insects Have It
When I stop and think about it, the most interesting parts of tours at the Arboretum are when insects are visible and busy doing their thing. Stopping with a group to watch a hatch of caterpillars devour a plant leaf and dream of what those caterpillars will turn into is pretty cool. Observing a huddle of school kids dump out a sweep net and squeal with delight at finding the baby praying mantis, massive grasshopper, or whatever other interesting insect they are not used to seeing, simply makes my day.
Many of the species blooming now around the Visitor Center at Dyck Arboretum are sometimes considered invasive and perhaps even uninteresting because they are common. But as I highlight in another blog post Finding Value in the Undesirables, they attract a load of insects which makes them interesting to me. Here is a collection of photos of insects taken just outside my office last week:
One particular plant, Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii), is stunning due to its vibrant color and interestingly shaped features. It’s often noticed by visitors walking to the greenhouse during FloraKansas: Fall Native Plant Days. However, what most people say when they see it is “did you see the swarms of insects on that plant?!” Customers are eager to recreate such insect habitat at their homes. For this reason, I keep a bag of seed for this annual species collected from the previous year to give away.
Become An Insect Promoter
This subtitle may make many traditional gardeners cringe. I have recently followed social media groups of gardeners where the anti-insect sentiment is rabid. Pesticides are commonly recommended to get rid of insect hatches in home landscapes and the recoil response related to spiders in general can be disturbing. Even many of our dedicated members that love to buy native plants for their landscapes don’t like to see the plants they come to love devoured by caterpillars. I am on a mission to change that.
So, if you are not already an entomology enthusiast and in awe of insects, I encourage you to take on a popular motivation for landscaping with native plants. Become more open to welcoming insects. Choose native plants or native cultivars not only because you think they will be pretty, but for how they will eventually host insects, enhance the food web they support, and increase the wildlife diversity in your landscape.
I recently did a seeded prairie checkup to see how our December 2020 sidewalk planting described in the earlier blog post “Seeding After Disturbance” is doing. I’ve been informally monitoring it regularly since spring and have been encouraged by the progress I’ve seen.
We’ve been lucky with the weather since this planting. Conditions to promote good seed germination have been excellent. Remember the deep freeze we had in February? While it tested our human resiliency and strained our heating bills, it was good for this seeded prairie. Adequate precipitation and freeze/thaw action commenced throughout February and March. These conditions helped work the seed down into the soil while also breaking down their seed coats to help prepare them for germination.
Warmer temperatures along with rains in April and May promoted good germination. Identifiable prairie seedlings from the planted species list identified in the earlier blog post were evident amidst the expected seedlings of annuals like ragweed, sunflower, and foxtail.
Thanks to the planting areas’ proximity to a water spigot, I was able to do some supplemental irrigation during the hot, dry weeks of late June and early July to keep the new seedlings from burning up while the seedling roots were small. But periodic rains in July and early August along with mottled shade from the nurse crop of sunflowers and annual grasses provided the conditions needed to help the prairie seedlings get well established as we head into fall.
A brief perusal of seedlings during this week’s seeded prairie checkup helped me find and photograph 14 of the 43 species that were part of the Prairie Moon Nursery seed mix. My prairie seedling identification skills are rusty, but I was able to identify the following seedlings to at least genus and some to species.
Seedlings of these identified species are thick throughout the planting and I’m confident that a good number of the rest of the 43 species in the mix will also show up eventually.
Typical management for a less-manicured seeded planting is simply to mow it a couple of times during the growing season to keep annuals from going to seed. Since such an approach for a higher profile area near the visitor center may look a bit scalped and perhaps not as appealing, we are taking the approach of cutting or pulling stems of the annuals. It is more labor intensive than mowing but not an unmanageable approach for small sidewalk edge planting, and regular volunteer, Gerry Selzer, has cheerfully embraced this task.
One of the main reasons for planting this diverse wildflower seed mix in addition to adding pretty splashes of flower colors, is to attract insects and biological diversity to our sidewalk edge prairie beds. In two or three years, these planted species will be flowering and attracting insects with their flower nectar and host plant vegetation. I look forward to engaging school kids and teachers with regular investigations of these sidewalk edges to learn more about relationship between prairie plants and insects.
Overall, I’m pleased with the progress of this planting as seen during this seeded prairie checkup. Days are getting shorter and we are almost to the cooler months of this planting’s first year when I can be pretty sure that these young prairie seedlings will have deep enough roots to survive about any weather conditions. Stay tuned for future updates about the development of this planting and consider how you too might add a seeded planting somewhere in your landscape.
Coneflowers are so emblematic of the prairie. I love to include these prairie denizens in many of my designs. They are quite adaptable and I love the yellows, purples and pink colors of the true natives as they bloom during the summer. The new cultivated varieties are attractive too. A mass of coneflowers with little bluestem make a nice combination by providing color and texture through the growing season. But right now, many of the plants are full of little black or brown caterpillars that are using Echinacea and Rudbeckia as their food.
Coneflowers as host plants
We are getting calls from our members and customers, and are seeing damage on our plants as well. Coneflower leaves are blackening, getting holes and disappearing. Contrary to how you may feel, this damage is an indication that your garden is functioning properly. Host plants are the vital food source that caterpillars live on. Adult butterflies will seek out these plants to lay their eggs on because they know that the caterpillar cannot travel far and will not survive if placed on a plant that they cannot eat. These caterpillars will eventually turn into checkerspot butterflies or a relative in that family.
Think differently about your landscape
One of the goals of any garden – besides beauty – is to have pollinators in your garden. Sometimes they might not immediately be in the form you desire. Sometimes pollinators or their caterpillars may eat your plants or deform them. Don’t be too hasty to spray or remove the culprits. They are doing what comes naturally to them and it is often better to leave the insect. These insects are fantastic food for fledgling birds as well.
Understand the life cycle
The caterpillars eating your coneflowers will make cocoons in a week or so and then turn into butterflies. We must learn to embrace these caterpillars and accept some damage. The coneflowers will eventually recover. The tradeoff is that we create habitat suitable for butterflies to complete their life cycle. The “ugly, hairy” caterpillars will morph into beautiful butterflies that are equal to the beauty of the flower.
The key to a successful butterfly garden is to plant both nectar and host plants, so that the butterflies will have a food source in all stages of their life cycles. We often design our landscapes as nectar sources and forget that these pollinators need host plants too. So as you design your landscape, include flowering plants that produce nectar and also double as host plants.
Other host plants
Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Gorgone Checkerspot, Bordered Patch butterfly
Aster spp. Host plant for: Pearl crescent, Painted Lady and more
Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) Host Plant for: Silvery Checkerspot and more
Hollyhock (Alcea spp.) Host plant for: Painted Lady, Common Checkered-Skipper and more
Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) or Dill (Antheum graveolens) Host plant for: Black Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail and more NOTE: The Black Swallowtail will feed on any plants within the Parsley family.
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Painted Lady and more
The longest days of late June in Southcentral Kansas for me feel synonymous with sweltering hot swimming weather, carefree kids riding bikes, backyard BBQs, blooming milkweeds, butterflies, and the first signs of the fireflies of summer.
Saturday evening, June 12, 2021, I saw the first flash of a firefly in my backyard. I found many adult fireflies on the underside of milkweed leaves while looking for monarch caterpillars in my prairie garden. Over the last week, fireflies have begun putting on a dazzling light show in the early evening hours.
Firefly Diversity, Life Cycle, and Habit
Fireflies, sometimes referred to as lightning bugs, are neither flies nor bugs. They are beetles (order Coleoptera) in the family Lampyridae. Nearly 170 firefly species of Lampyrids have been documented throughout the United States and Canada.
Like all beetles, fireflies go through complete metamorphosis in four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The complete life cycle can range from two months to three years or more, the majority of the life cycle spent in the larval stage. The larva is a predator that eats soft-bodied invertebrates including earthworms, slugs, and snails. It first injects paralyzing neurotoxins to immobilize its prey. Then it secretes digestive enzymes to liquify it for easy consumption.
Fireflies have specialized light organs under their abdomens that produce the compound luciferin. Luciferin combined with oxygen undergoes a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence that produces light with almost no heat. Even the eggs and larvae of some species glow, hence the name “glow worm”. Adult males and females turn that light on and off to communicate in their mating ritual. Each species of firefly has its own distinct lighting pattern.
Research shows that this illumination system also deters predators. Just like a monarch butterfly has a bright coloration system to communicate that it is poisonous, fireflies send the message that their bodies are toxic by flashing. I have big brown bats living in my yard. I thought they would easily munch on fireflies since beetles are a favorite part of their diet, but this article helped me to learn otherwise.
Larry Buschman – Local Firefly Expert
I probably would not have become inspired to learn more about fireflies if it hadn’t been for meeting Larry Buschman. Larry is a total firefly nerd and a knowledgeable one at that. He travels throughout the Central United States every summer to look for and study different species of Lampyrids. Larry was kind enough to let me tag along last summer and observe him in action. When I met him for the first time in a parking lot along the Walnut River near El Dorado, he wasn’t hard to spot. With his red light head lamp, insect net, and his homemade contraption consisting of a “flashing system” and camera on a fishing pole to lure in and photograph various species, Larry looked like a character out of Ghostbusters. I knew right away I had met a new friend.
We set out for the deepest and darkest part of the riparian woods. As it got dark and Larry got to work luring in fireflies, we caught two different species of fireflies. We found Photinus pyralis “The Big Dipper” abundantly. This is the species that you and I probably most commonly see in our yards in Kansas. The males display five 1-2 second flashes regularly every 4-5 seconds, which elicits a similar one-time flash by the female.
We also found a less common species in the genus Photuris. This group is easily identified by its humped back and longer legs. Female adults of Photuris are often predators of other fireflies. While the long, slow flash narrows down the identification of this firefly to one of a couple of different species of Photuris (either P. caeruluscens or P. lucicrescens), Larry was not sure on the identification. So, for now it gets the more generic designation of Photuris spp. See more details about the firefly species of Kansas in Larry’s Field Guide to Western North American Fireflies.
Firefly Threats and Conservation
World Firefly Day is coming July 3-4, 2021 and marks a good time to think about their conservation. Firefly species around the world are threatened. A recent study identified that the three most prominent threats to fireflies are 1) habitat loss, 2) artificial light, and 3) pesticide use. Artificial light at night and pesticide use are two threats that we can curtail fairly easily and with minimal effort. Check out light pollution solutions and firefly-friendly lighting practices to help you reduce light pollution in your landscape. And consider the sensible approach of Green Scaping to reduce and even eliminate pesticide use in your landscape.
I’ll leave you with a favorite children’s book to share. Children will be an important part of firefly and insect conservation into the future. Consider how you might restore insect habitat, curb pesticide use, and reduce light population to help protect the fireflies of summer.
This time of year, we are all evaluating our yards and landscapes as we prepare for spring. If you are like me, you want your landscape to do so much more. I want beautiful plants and season-long bloom. I want to choose plants that require less water. I want to provide a setting that attracts pollinators and wildlife of all forms. For those focused on gardening to attract pollinators, here is a checklist to follow to welcome more wildlife into your landscape.
Meet their basic needs
Generally, pollinators need three things: food (nectar and pollen), water and shelter. Native plants are more attractive to different pollinators than exotic (non-native) plants. These native pollinators have adapted to the life cycles of the native wildflowers and seek them out.
Choose location wisely
Native plants generally require less water and thrive with minimal attention if properly sited and established. Take the time to do your homework and choose plants that grow best in your soil and site conditions. Look for a sunny area (6+ hours of direct sunlight) with areas of shelter on the peripheries from strong winds. Design your landscape to include a water source. A simple bird bath with a stone inside so pollinators can land will suffice.
Design in clusters
A cluster of wildflowers of one species in bloom will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered throughout the landscape. I like to plant in odd number groups such as three, five, or seven and include plants with purple, yellow, white, blue or violet.
Provide diverse nectar sources
Wildflowers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This diversity is attractive to pollinators, too. There are over four thousand species of bees in North America. They are different in size, shape and they feed on different shaped flowers. Having a diversity of plants means more pollinators can benefit.
Wildflowers should be coming into and out of bloom throughout the growing season. With several plant species flowering at once, and a sequence of plants flowering through spring, summer and fall, you will sustain a range of pollinator species that fly at different times of the year.
Monarch Watch encourages the planting of milkweed species because monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds. Milkweeds are so important to the life cycle of monarchs. For our area, they recommend common, swamp, butterfly, spider, and Sullivant milkweeds. We will have these milkweeds at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.
Is it important to provide habitat for bees and butterflies? Is it important to conserve water? Do you want more from your landscape than sporadic blooms and a haphazard design? Are conservation and stewardship efforts important to you?
Monarch populations have been dwindling. Bees are threatened by the environment, disease, pesticides, herbicides, and beehive decline. According to Monarch Watch, the United States consume habitat for monarchs and other wildlife at a rate of 6,000 acres a day, or 2.2 million acres per year. We could help offset these losses by creating a landscape that welcomes birds, pollinators and other wildlife.
If you have questions about landscaping with native plants, the Arboretum staff or volunteers can help you plan and design a landscape that will attract pollinators AND meets your expectations. Check with us during the spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. We offer species and varieties that pollinators love. No amount of effort is too small to have a positive impact.
Over the past few weeks, we have been listing native wildflowers that support the food web. Because many species of insects have suffered significant declines, any help we can give them will make a real difference in their life cycles. Our goal should be to provide habitat for the largest possible number of insects, pollinators and other wildlife. On that theme, here is a list of native shrubs to aid the food web.
This diverse genus includes: sandhill plum, dwarf sand cherry, chokecherry, plum, and wild plum. These spring blooming shrubs attract many species of insects, and their fruit later in the season is a favorite of wildlife, including birds.
These plants support over 450 Lepidoptera species, including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Coral Hairstreak, Striped Hairstreak, Red-spotted Purple, Cecropia moth, Promethea moth, and Hummingbird Clearwing.
Not all of these shrubs are garden worthy because of their spreading/suckering root systems and size. My preference would be to relegate many of these to the outskirts of my property so they can comingle with each other and form a nice thicket.
Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’s is a nice small shrub with excellent characteristics.
Side note: The black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a 35-45 foot tree with fragrant, pendulous flowers that burst open in spring, resulting in loads of fruit cherished by wildlife. This is one of the top choices among woody trees for its exceptional support of wildlife.
Dogwoods support specialist bees, generalist bees and over 100 caterpillars. This too is a diverse genus of varying heights, forms and textures. These spring/summer blooming shrubs or small trees attract aphids, beetles, flies, grasshoppers, sawflies and wasps. The fruit are eaten by birds. Many species form thickets or have dense branching that provides shelter as well.
Of the native species, the Redtwig Dogwood is the most common. Its red and yellow stems stand out in the winter landscape. Cultivars include ‘Cardinal’, ‘Arctic Fire’, Arctic Fire Yellow’, and ‘Winer Flame‘.
Other dogwoods worth mentioning are Cornus amomum ‘Red Rover’, Cornus drummundii (rough-leaf dogwood), and Cornus racemosa.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) is difficult to grow in our area because most cultivars need acidic soil. They are more common in southeast Kansas and into the Ozarks. If you are lucky enough to see these bloom in the wild you will be awestruck. They are one of the most conspicuous and attractive flowering trees in our area.
Kansas is home to two viburnums, Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum). They can be found in the wild, east of Wichita and into southeast Kansas. The creamy-white blooms in the spring attract all sorts of pollinators. Fruit in the late summer into fall is the first choice of birds. These are large shrubs or small trees that ultimately reach 10-12 feet tall and each has attractive fall color.
There are hundreds if not thousands of viburnums and viburnum cultivars. A couple others worth mentioning are ‘Allegheny’ which has semi-evergreen foliage and Viburnum dentatum cultivars (Blue Mufffin, All that Glitters, and All that Glows) with their abundant fruit displays.
Other shrubs to consider:
New Jersey Tea – Ceanothus americanus
black chokeberry – Aronia melanocarpa
Willows, Salix sp. – (#1 plant supporting bees)
Pussy Willow – Salix discolor
buttonbush – Cephalanthus occidentalis
elderberry – Sambucus canadensis
eastern ninebark – Physocarpus opulifolius
St. Johnswort – Hypericum densiflorum
spicebush Lindera benzoin
swamp rose – Rosa palustris
winterberry – Ilex verticillata
Witch-hazel - Hamamelis virginiana
Inkberry – Ilex glabra
Deciduous holly –Ilex decidua
Winterberry – Ilex verticillata
red chokeberry - Aronia arbutifolia
Fragrant Sumac – Rhus aromatica
Eastern Ninebark – Physocarpus opulifolius
Fringetree – Chionanthus virginicus
Among woody plants, these shrubs will add much diversity to your landscape and attract a diverse set of wildlife. By offering abundant food sources to insect and wildlife throughout the growing season, you will naturally expand what you see in your garden. We must consciously consider plants that fit both the insects’ needs and our longing for garden beauty. We can have the best of both worlds.
Side note: Of all plants studied by Doug Tallamy, he found that oaks support the most caterpillars. Obviously, these are not shrubs, but rather large trees. Oaks must be one of your first choices when considering shade trees for your landscape. Recommended trees of south-central Kansas.