Insects: The little things that run the world

They pollinate 90% of the flowering plants on earth; and they eat plants, the crucial first step in changing plant energy into the fats and proteins that feed hosts of other animals. In so doing, insects sustain Earth’s ecosystems.  They truly are, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “The little things that run the world.”

Yet globally, insect populations have declined by 47% since 1974, a loss that translates into a decline in the very ecosystems that sustain all life on earth, humans included! 

https://www.audubon.org/news/yards-non-native-plants-create-food-deserts-bugs-and-birds

What can be done to reverse this trend? By restoring native plant communities in yards and gardens, we can help reverse insect losses and restore ecosystem health to our yards and gardens. 

Why native plants? In study after study, it has been shown that native plants host many times more insect species than do non-natives. 

Which insect groups are most important? In Nature’s Best Hope, author Doug Tallamy suggests selecting native plants that support two important insect groups: large, nutritious insects (think caterpillars of butterflies and moths) and bees. Caterpillars are the mainstay of most bird diets; and native bees perform the lion’s share of pollination. 

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/halictid_bees.shtml 

Where can I find resources for host plants native to my area?

Planting a diversity of native plants chosen for their ability to provide food for caterpillars and flowers for nectaring bees, ensures not only a prairie garden filled with a diversity of insects and birds, but also a garden that contributes to a healthier environment. And it is all happening right outside our door! 

Reference: 

Tallamy, Douglas W.  2019. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Milkweed Pest: Oleander Aphids

Over the past few decades, there is an increased awareness of the importance of milkweeds for the life cycle of Monarchs.  More and more people are planting these native wildflowers in their gardens.  We closely monitor our milkweeds for monarch caterpillars and anxiously watch for the migrations in spring and fall.  We can even track the populations on Monarch Watch.  Milkweeds are vital to reversing the decline of this beautiful butterfly. 

However, large populations of small yellow insects that typically cover the leaves and stems of the milkweed plants are threatening this important wildflower species.  It seems like there are more of these tiny bugs every year.  This year, we have seen large populations of them on our nursery stock and throughout the gardens.  These oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) or milkweed aphids have become problematic. 

Oleander Aphids on Common Milkweed

Oleander aphids are not a native species, but were introduced into the U.S. on oleander.  They suck the sap out of stems and leaves, can cause flowers and pods to abort, and can even kill plants. They concentrate milkweed toxins in their tissue more effectively than native milkweed aphids, which makes them toxic to beneficial insects.  Like other species of aphids, their populations can explode in a short amount of time. When large populations are present, the plants will appear shiny due to the excretion of honeydew, which can also promote the growth of sooty mold.    

 As a milkweed gardener, what are your options?

Choose the right milkweed for your garden. 

Stressed plants will attract more pests.  Know your site and plant the right milkweed for your landscape. Swamp milkweed needs to be in a consistently moist area and butterfly milkweed naturally grows in areas with good drainage. Common Milkweed is very adaptable, but not for a formal garden. Plant common milkweed where they can spread and colonize a marginal area. There are many other species of milkweed that grow in sun to part shade and dry to wet. Continue to plant milkweed, but make sure it fits.  

Encourage beneficial insects

With the milkweed toxins in the aphids, beneficial insects tend to leave these pests alone.  This is a similar reason monarch caterpillars ingest the milkweed sap which makes them less prone to be eaten by predators. We have introduced parasitic wasp into the greenhouse to control these pests but that is not realistic outside that confined space such as your landscape. Lady beetles will typically eat aphids but they tend to shy away from these aphids.  

Don’t Fertilize

Let the milkweeds grow naturally in unamended soil.  Too much soil fertility will attract more aphids.  These aphids reproduce more quickly on plants that have high nitrogen concentrations.

Wait

Be patient as you wait for the natural processes to work.  Often, this is the hardest thing to do, because the plants are being adversely affected by thousands of these little pests.

Oleander Aphids on Whorled Milkweed

When these cultural practices have been unsuccessful, it’s time to take a more aggressive approach.  These are obviously not my first choices because they can also harm beneficial insects and even monarch caterpillars.  You must use as a last resort to save the plant.  Newly established milkweed plants may need some help the first few years until they get fully rooted.  Mature plants typically can fend off most of these pests.        

Squish

We have resorted to squishing the bugs on nursery stock.  These smaller plants are easier to manage by simply squeezing the affected parts of the milkweed plant between thumb and forefinger and drag along the stem. Use a glove or paper towel as you squish because it will get messy.

Squirt

Another option is to squirt the plant with a strong blast of water especially after you have squished the bugs.  Use a spray bottle of water or a jet of water from a hose. Focus the water on just the infested areas so other beneficial insects are not disturbed. 

Spray

The least optimum choice is to spray with horticultural soap or oil. Concentrate the spray just on the aphid colonies.  Use a piece of cardboard placed below the colony of aphids to minimize drift to other parts of the plant.  Again, this is a last resort option but may be necessary to save newly established milkweeds.   

Milkweeds are beautiful and essential native wildflowers.  They are under assault by these non-native pests.  Hopefully, you can get your milkweed plants through this onslaught of oleander aphids because they are so important for monarchs and other pollinators. 

Landowner Prairie Restoration Spotlight – Carolyn and Terry Schwab

Terry and Carolyn Schwab live on 109 acres in Eastern Harvey County affectionately known by a former neighbor as the “Foothills to the Flint Hills.” While much of the county land has been converted to cropland over the last century, the Schwab property has remained in remnant prairie.

We received a grant in 2004 to identify and study more than 100 prairie remnants in South Central Kansas and to collect seed for our 18-acre Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction project on-site at Dyck Arboretum. Until 2010, this work helped us develop a prairie landowner network through which we consulted with landowners and assisted them with their prairie management needs. It was during these years that I had the pleasure of first meeting the Schwabs. Ever since I have enjoyed observing the dedication they bring to being prairie restorationists and natural area enthusiasts.

Terry and Carolyn Schwab and the property they manage (2007)

Increasing Wildlife Diversity

The property was a moderately overgrazed cattle pasture when they acquired it in 1993. The Schwabs’ main goal as land stewards was to increase wildlife diversity through improved habitat and enhance their avid hobbies of bird-watching and fishing.

The remnant prairie and emergent wetland above and around the ponds on their land can consist of hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and shrubs. High plant diversity translates to high wildlife diversity. Maintaining diverse herbaceous vegetation also serves as a good surface water filter that improves pond health. Terry and Carolyn knew that without grazing or other forms of grassland management, invasion of a handful of tree species (including nonnative species) would create a dense, and comparatively lifeless, forest canopy within decades. Plant species diversity would decrease and wildlife habitat would suffer. They needed to become prairie restoration land stewards.

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Vegetation Management

Controlling woody species and removing nonnative wildflowers became top priorities for the Schwabs in their quest to improve wildlife habitat on their property. Their initial efforts were extensive and laborious. They cut Osage orange and eastern red cedar trees and manually dug out musk thistle. To maintain water levels in the ponds, they repaired holes in the dams and removed trees whose roots can compromise dam life.

Numerous small trees invading in prescribed burning units A and B (2002 aerial photography)
Comparison with the previous photo shows that mechanical removal and prescribed burning have reduced tree cover over a six-year period, especially in units A and B (2008 aerial photography)

They were able to open up the upland areas where they had successfully removed mature trees and restore contiguous areas of grass and wildflower-dominated prairie. In these areas, the Schwabs implemented a regular rotation of mowing and prescribed burning to control any further invasion of woody plants. They networked with a local fire department to help them do this. They found mowing and burning to be much less labor-intensive than manual tree removal and effective tools for long term tree management.

Management Unit B, post-burn in 2009 (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn and Terry have made great improvements in restoring the prairie and emergent wetlands with tree management, but they know that they cannot rest on their laurels. Mature, seed-producing trees on their land and neighboring properties make keeping up with tree invasion a continual challenge. In addition to maintaining a routine of mowing and burning, they continue to cut and treat a number of invading tree species including honey locust, Bradford pear, Osage orange, Siberian elm, eastern red cedar, and the shrub Japanese honeysuckle. They are also on the lookout for the highly invasive, noxious weed sericea lespedeza which is becoming increasingly present in the area.

Conducting a prescribed burn on Unit C in 2010

Wildlife Monitoring

Carolyn invests a great deal of time monitoring and reporting on the biodiversity observed on their property. Daily walks to document bird populations, track phenology of flowering plants, and photograph butterflies are all part of what she sees as being an informed land steward.

Regal fritillary butterflies are dependent on habitat including diverse, large tracts of prairie. Even though the Schwabs have been improving the habitat of their prairie, regal fritillary numbers seem to be declining in recent years on a landscape scale. Carolyn has been planting nectar plants like butterfly milkweed and regal fritillary host plants (prairie violets) in the landscaping around her house to try and further support regal fritillary numbers.

This 2013 regal fritillary on butterfly milkweed (a yellow native landscaping variety near house) was the last one that Carolyn has seen on her property (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn is a top-notch birder. According to the Kansas Bird Listserv Database, a total of 329 species of birds have ever been documented as observed in Harvey County. Carolyn has seen more of these species (270) than anybody. And with easy access to 109 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland, and open water habitat, Carolyn has seen a whopping 232 of these species on her property!

A favorite experience of hers was witnessing a rare event on October 27, 2010. Eastern Harvey County is well east of the main sandhill crane migration flyway and seeing cranes there is not common. That night, however, the Schwabs observed 200+ sandhill cranes settle in for the night at their pond and enjoyed hearing their calls through the night. The cranes took off the next morning, but left behind a lasting memory for Carolyn.

Return of Butterfly Milkweed

The Schwab prairie restoration efforts are not only increasing the presence of grassland bird populations, but plant diversity as well. For years, they have not seen any butterfly milkweed on their property. But during the growing season of 2020, Carolyn reports that she has seen 20 plants.

Butterfly milkweed (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Protection for the Future

The Schwabs are considering registering their property with the Kansas Land Trust to protect this native prairie in perpetuity. By establishing a conservation easement on the property, Terry and Carolyn would be establishing guidelines for future landowners to follow that would help protect the prairie, watershed, and the diversity of species therein.

Thank you, Carolyn and Terry for your important prairie restoration land stewardship and for being willing to share your story.

A white-tailed deer doe and two fawns sheltering on one of the Schwab pond islands (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

The Mystery of the Orange Bug

As a lover of nature and all its small, crawly things, I often drop everything to observe and identify even the smallest bug. Much to the annoyance of my coworkers and volunteers, I just can’t give it up!

Learning to correctly identify the creatures around me brings a lot of fun and joy, but also:

  • Increases my scientific understanding of the world
  • Adds to my taxonomic and ecological knowledge
  • Builds empathy and compassion for the lives of smaller beings
  • Gives me a greater sense of place and familiarity in my Kansas homeland
This is the face of our little mystery. There were over ten of these orange bugs on a single plant!

Identifying the creatures around you is not always intuitive. Recently I found some small, orange, wiggly friends in the landscaping at my house. And so begins the mystery! Here are the steps and resources I always use to identify new-to-me bugs. Hopefully they can be useful to you as well!

Step One: Photograph

Make sure to quickly capture some detailed images of your friend. Life for a bug is fast paced — they are moving, flying, fleeing, eating or being eaten! You will need to have a good photo to refer to, as your search for answers may last longer than your memory.

I like to snap a quick photo with my iphone, but for tiny details I add a clip on macrolens. This one was very inexpensive and does a great job.

Insect or other?

Start by discerning whether you are a looking at an insect or something else. The word ‘bug’ is used to generalize all small, crawly things, but there are important distinctions. Spiders, for example, are not insects. Roly-polys are not insects. Earth worms are not insects. Counting legs and body segments of your specimen can help you determine if it is an insect; true insects will have 6 legs and 3 distinct body segments.

This diagram shows the 3 main body parts of an insect, and the characteristic 3 pairs of legs. Diagram from Wiki Commons

If you are a beginner and don’t know much terminology, use the easy picture-based and shape-based search tool BugFinder. My mystery friend could not be found on this form. They had 6 well-defined legs but no obvious body segments. I thought perhaps I was looking at a caterpillar (still an insect!), so I visited DiscoverLife and answered their beginner-friendly caterpillar search form. In the past it has been tremendously helpful, but not this time.

Step Two: Where is it?

Where is this individual living? If you can identify its preferred habitat, you have a huge clue to discovering its identity. My mystery bug was living and feeding on Scutellaria resinosa, (also known as skullcap), but nothing else around it. Many insects have a host plant (a specific food plant that the babies must eat) or host plant family. By knowing the plant, I can work backwards and find out what insects are likely to feed on or interact with it. Sometimes these interactions are called faunal associations.

When searching the web to identify a new insect, remember to include the plant it was found on and the region of the world you are in. This will narrow your search. I love to use the maps at butterfliesandmoths.org to see what species have been spotted in my area.

The blooms of Smoky Hills skullcap. Photo by Craig Freeman

Step Three: Ask and Post

If you have scoured the internet and all your favorite insect guidebooks, but still are stumped, it is time to visit BugGuide.net. They are “an online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing our observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.” There you will find a wealth of information on insects and their common whereabouts, but you can also post photos and ask questions of that expert group. They love to share their passion, and “to instill in others the fascination and appreciation…for the intricate lives of these oft-maligned creatures.” You may also find answers by posting a photo to your local naturalist Facebook groups.

And the bug is…

A shining flea beetle larvae, Asphaera lustrans! I finally found my answer by searching through the records at BugGuide.net and coming upon this page. While I can’t be sure, it was the closest match I could find. I also discovered that particular flea beetle hosts on Scutellaria, so I became even more convinced of its identity. I plan to post my photos and ask the experts on BugGuide to be sure.

Identifying wildlife and plants in your region is a lifelong pursuit; a never-ending puzzle. It can provide hours of stimulating entertainment for adults and children alike, and it will introduce you to like-minded folks who are also curious and engaged with world around us.

Next time you see a bug crawling across your porch or on your kitchen sink, don’t squish! Capture it, take a photo, release it outside, and begin the fun of unraveling its mystery!

Pollinator Week: Seen Through a Child’s Eyes

Children are naturally inquisitive.  We see it all the time.  Children marvel at the world around them.  They ask questions and are passionate about so many different things. 

At some point along the way as we grow up, that desire to learn and observe gets muted. Often, I find myself walking past the natural world to the next task, not taking the time to enjoy the beauty around me.  However, watching children around butterflies and other pollinators brings back the child in me. They marvel and are amazed by the smallest things, especially pollinators.

Pollinator Week: Pollinators, Plants, People, Planet

As we celebrate National Pollinator Week, I want to encourage you to look at these pollinators through a child’s eyes.  Slow down and watch the mesmerizing and beautiful work of pollinators.  If you have children or grandchildren, watch their eyes as they discover new things.  Their eyes are wide open and and their minds are ready to learn. 

Students conducting an Insect Sweep

Children are also our future conservationists, land managers and biologists. Adventures into the wild can be transformational for these youngsters.  We all know these connections to nature will plant a seed for the future. We need people who are passionate about the natural world and its management. And the younger we can develop those interests, the better.

So as you think about your garden and how you can save pollinators, think about your own transformative experiences. What was awe inspiring, what made you smile, and what had you never seen before? Simply having plants that attract pollinators will have an impact on pollinators in the present, but having people (you and your children or grandchildren) in your garden to love and appreciate them will save the pollinators into the future. 

Help Us Count Butterflies

Put Saturday, June 27, 2020 on your calendar and plan to help us count butterflies. The 21st Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count will consist of groups of butterfly enthusiasts dispersing to butterfly hot spots around the county to observe and count as many butterfly species as possible. Participant age or experience does not matter.

Whether you can immediately tell the difference between a pearl crescent and a gorgone checkerspot or you are unable to differentiate between a monarch and a moth, we encourage you to attend. The only requirement is a curious interest in finding and counting butterflies.

E. tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

The Harvey County Butterfly Count typically takes place on a single day in late June throughout a 16-mile diameter circle that includes Newton, Halstead, and Hesston. Emeritus biology professor, Dwight Platt, organized the first Harvey County Butterfly Count in 2000. Dwight has long been a champion of citizen science in South Central Kansas. As a Bethel College freshman in 1948, he helped organize the first Harvey County area Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count. As my major professor in the early 1990s at Bethel, Dwight inspired me to get active in citizen science, and many years later (in 2016) passed along to me oversight of the Harvey County Butterfly Count. Dwight plans to participate all day in this 21st Harvey County count at the age of 89.

Dwight Platt, conducting a butterfly survey at Sand Prairie in W. Harvey County in 2008.

Citizen Science

Guidance for the Harvey County Butterfly Count protocol is provided by North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Their efforts to build and organize a robust data set is important to monitor trends in butterfly populations. Comparisons of the results across years can be used to monitor changes in populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies.

By participating in such counts, you are contributing to research through citizen science. In the process, you are also increasing your scientific understanding, learning about environmental issues, gaining an appreciation for the natural world, and becoming a more engaged citizen. Thanks to Dwight, family members, and friends who encouraged me to do such things at a young age, citizen science shaped my choice of vocation and was personally transformative. I am hooked now and consider citizen science a fun hobby.

Delaware skipper butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Common Butterflies Observed

In addition to sending all the data to NABA from each year’s one-day count, I have 20 years of Harvey County Butterfly Count data in a spreadsheet that can be organized in a variety of ways. Here are a few summary numbers:

  • Over the last 20 years, 85 butterfly species have been observed during the one-day Harvey County counts.
  • The average number of butterfly species seen over the last 20 counts is 50.8.
  • 25 butterfly species have been observed nearly every year of the count (19 out of 20 counts).

Those 25 commonly observed Harvey County butterfly species are featured here for easy visual reference (photo credits). I lumped some of the similar-looking species together to help you more easily discern some of the subtle differences. Review them a few times and you will already start to develop a familiarity with the majority of butterflies seen on a typical count!

While the above 25 species are mostly what you will see and be counting, the real fun comes in finding the other 25 or so more rare species throughout the day. Searching for different types of habitat and flowers usually helps expand the diversity of species observed. Looking for certain host plants to find rare species is also part of the strategy.

What to Bring

The most important mode of preparation for a summer butterfly count is adjusting to the elements. Once you protect yourself from the sun with a hat and light cotton clothing and apply insect repellent around your ankles to repel ticks and chiggers, you can more easily turn your focus to the fun of looking for flowers and the butterflies they attract. If you simply plan to sweat and stay well-hydrated (bring plenty of water), you will find yourself enjoying a breezy summer day in Kansas.

Additionally, consider bringing binoculars (I also have close-range butterfly binoculars to lend you) and/or a camera with a zoom lens, but neither are mandatory. Each group will have a leader with an expertise in identification and a plan for sites to visit.

Let me know at brad.guhr@hesston.edu if you would like to attend for a half (3-4 hours) or full day (6-8 hours) and I will send you an email with more details.

Plan to enjoy part or all of a summer day counting butterflies and help make an important contribution to citizen science.

Rare regal fritillary butterflies nectaring on butterfly milkweed.

Mantises in the Greenhouse

In our greenhouse and nursery, I work very hard to create a hospitable environment for pollinators and wildlife. This means limited use of pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, greenhouse pests flourish when uncontrolled and can lead to devastating crop losses. They affect the appearance of our plants, which in turn affects how well they sell. This year, to minimize my use of insecticidal soap spray, I tried using Mantises as greenhouse predators instead.

I can tell by the shape of the egg case that these mantises are not our native species, but likely the chinese mantis, Tenodera sinensis.

Finding and Identifying Egg Cases

While cleaning garden beds this spring, I found many mantis ootheca (egg cases) hanging on branches of shrubs and trees. The egg cases can easily be spotted in areas of dense vegetation that stay standing through the fall and winter. Non-native mantis ootheca are round and bulbous, but native North American mantises (Stagmomantis carolina) have a long, flat egg case resembling a tiny trillobite.

I carefully cut the cases away from the parent plant, leaving the egg sac attached to its branch. I then placed those egg sacs in our unheated greenhouse, sticking the end of their twig into potted plants that often get pest problems in early spring.

This mantis nymph is freshly hatched and just a little bit bigger than an eyelash. At his feet are the white skins of aphids that molt as they grow.

For two months, nothing happened. But in mid April when the days were consistently sunny and warm, they finally hatched out in a giant wriggling mass!

They were fun to watch, and they dispersed themselves all across the greenhouse. But when it comes to aphid control, they were not voracious enough. In the past I used lady bugs and parasitic wasps as predators, both of which preyed on more aphids and at a faster rate than the mantises.

Do Not Order or Buy Mantises

I would not recommend ordering mantises from any garden center or organic pest control website — often they send the non-native type that are more likely to cause problems than solve them. Mantises are indiscriminate, and eat beneficial insects like bees, caterpillars, and even prey on hummingbirds.

I had fun experimenting with them because they were readily available to me on our grounds, but I would otherwise be cautious of using a nonnative insect for pest control. The best pest control method for residential gardens is a diverse planting that attract lots of pollinators and predators. These insects will find a balance amongst themselves!

Butterflies in the Greenhouse

One of the best parts about my job is working in the greenhouse. Yes, it is usually hot and humid in there, and yes my feet are always wet. But none of that seems to matter when I am surrounded by butterflies! With little wind and lots of native blooms, the greenhouse attracts butterflies of all shapes and sizes.

Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Agastache ‘Blue Boa’
Queen butterfly on Agastache ‘Blue Boa’

Anise Hyssop

In the greenhouse and in the garden, Agastache (aka anise hyssop or hummingbird mint) is a fan favorite for butterflies, bees and wasps. Sometimes they are so full of pollinators I don’t want to water and disturb them! ‘Blue Boa’ is a great garden variety, and grows best in hot sun and well drained soil. Agastache foeniculum is better for less formal spaces, as it tends to spread readily by seed.

Grey hairstreak (Strymon melinus) resting on my thumb; my favorite butterfly! It may be small, but the contrast of orange and grey make this one unforgettable.
Bordered patch butterfly, Chlosyne lacini

Will Sweat for Butterflies

While working in the greenhouse during the summer months, it isn’t hard to break a sweat. Butterflies will occasionally land on my skin and get a taste of the water-soluble minerals in my perspiration, giving me a great opportunity for up-close viewing and sometimes even a photo. Remember to avoid touching their wings when handling butterflies; this can damage the delicate scales and structures that allow them to fly.

Monarch (Danaus plexipus) sipping on some Verbena canadensis

If you want more butterflies in your life, consider planting a native pollinator garden. (Order one of our Pollinator Nectar Garden Kits for curbside pickup HERE.) If you don’t have the time or the yard space, find a natural space or Monarch Waystation near your home where native plants grow and plan a visit!

White Flowers, Dark Garden: Habitat for Moths

Do you remember a time, in summers past, when your porch light was covered in moths? Or maybe you remember moth carnage left on your windshield after a drive at night? With moth populations in steep decline, those sights are harder to come by.

Moths, like most insects, are not faring well in an increasingly human-dominated world full of pesticides, mono-culture crops, and urban sprawl. Especially troublesome for moths is artificial light at night.

Tiger moth (Grammia parthenice) found near the Visitor Center at Dyck Arboretum

Embrace Darkness

True darkness has important implications for biological processes in humans and animals. For millions of years, life evolved with the sun, moon and stars as the only light source (with an occasional fire here and there). Within the last two hundred years, artificial, electric light has forever changed the night sky and the way we interact with darkness.

Though most people associate a negative connotation with dark nights, darkness has been shown to positively impact how well we sleep, and dark night skies are essential for migrating birds. Light pollution all over the world is a growing problem as it can confuse and disorient nocturnal creatures like moths.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) are large, docile moths commonly found in garden settings.

Build a Moth Friendly Habitat

Start by keeping the outside of your house as dark as possible. Consider turning off outdoor lights after a certain hour. Then install native plants to feed your moth friends! Like butterflies, most moths drink flower nectar. Some are active by day, others prefer to feed at night. White or pale flowers are attractive to night feeding moths because they are visible in low light. Moths are also attracted to heavily scented flowers, and those that open late in the afternoon or evening.

Any garden designed for pollinators will support moths as well. Plants like Liatris spicata, Asclepias tuberosa, and Aster leavis are perfect for attracting all types of pollinators to the garden. But consider adding more white flowers to hopefully spur some moth activity. Native options available to order for no-contact pickup at FloraKansas include:

Achillea millefolium
Pynanthemum tenuifolium
Podophyllum peltatum
Penstemon digitalis
Penstemon grandiflorus
Anemone canadensis

Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’

For patio containers, consider Gardenia or Datura.

Moths often cling to light colored surfaces. To study moths in your yard, shine a light on a white sheet during a summer evening and watch as the insects gather.

Moths are fascinating creatures. Some are as large as hummingbirds, others as tiny as your pinky nail. Some moths evolved so closely with the plants they pollinate that they have become completely co-dependent! They have a special ecological role in our biome, and deserve our attention and conservation.