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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
For patio containers, consider Gardenia or Datura.
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.
Spring is coming. Nature is not locked down, but continues to come to life. We notice the buds expanding and the crocus blooming. Leaves emerging from the depths and plants all around us waking from their winter slumber. As spring unfolds around us, something extraordinary is about come our way again. The Monarchs are coming.
Providing for pollinators
The monarch’s annual spring migration north from Mexico has begun. You can track their progress through Monarch Watch and Journey North. Each year we take note of when this incredible journey passes through our area. It is amazing to think that these delicate creatures can make this trek north and south every year.
Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in
North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years. This is disheartening. One of the biggest factors in monarch decline
is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds.
Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting
in the species decline.
Monarchs also need other blooming native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that provide nectar for the adult butterflies to feed upon. This habitat, critical to the survival of the monarchs, continues to disappear at an alarming rate. This natural habitat decline is taking a steep toll on wildlife of all types.
Plant more than milkweed
Many of us are planting milkweeds and native nectar plants in our gardens to help monarchs survive. Here is a list of plants from our Native Plant Guide that monarchs prefer:
Aster ‘October Skies’
Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae sp.)
Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.)
Blazing Star (Liatris sp.)
Beebalm (Monarda sp.)
Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.)
Yarrow (Achillea sp.)
Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’
Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavender Towers’
Prairie clover (Dalea sp.)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium sp.)
Chokeberry (Aronia sp.)
Leadplant (Amorpha sp.)
ServiceBerry (Amelanchier sp.)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus sp.)
American plum (Prunus sp.)
Elderberry (Sambucus sp.)
Viburnum (Viburnum sp.)
Buckeye (Aesculus sp.)
Redbud (Cercis sp.)
Persimmon (Diospyros sp.)
Linden (Tilia sp.)
Stretch the season
A greater variety of plants will attract a greater variety of wildlife, including monarchs. Try to plant several species of wildflowers with varying bloom times, providing nectar sources that stretch through the season. Different pollinator populations peak at various times through the warm months, so provide for them by having a long blooming garden. Early spring and late fall flowers can help sustain migrating species in the difficult stages of their journey. Research has shown that a lack of late season nectar sources is as crucial to migration success as milkweed. Help these insects get the energy they need all through the year!
If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects. Support habitat and other food sources for monarch butterflies and other wildlife by planting native plants. It is always beneficial to reduce mowing, and limit or eliminate the spraying of herbicides and pesticides. You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle. Watch for these incredible butterflies. They are coming.
One final thought I came across the other day:
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” – Audrey Hepburn
Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.
I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.
October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.
Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.
Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.
Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.
Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.
On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.
Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.
Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.
On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.
The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.
The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.
I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.
It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.
In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.
In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.