Insects – Motivation for Native Landscaping

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.

Gulf fritillary nectaring on prairie dock

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.

Common milkweed wind-blown seed dispersal mechanisms are cool to observe. But I am increasingly interested by the insects this plant attracts too (like the milkweed bug)

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?

Simple image of a prairie food pyramid (Credit: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal (LadyofHats) for CK-12 Foundation)

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.

Milkweed tussock moth larvae feeding on common milkweed
Tour participants observing monarch caterpillars and milkweed longhorn beetles on common milkweed
3rd Graders investigating the contents of an insect sweep net

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.

Seeded Prairie Checkup

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.

Sidewalk edge seeded planting site this week on 8/10/21
The same planting site on the day it was planted 12/28/20 w/ planters Janelle and Kendra

Good Germination

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.

Annual sunflower, giant ragweed, and foxtail grass serve as a shading nurse crop for tender, young perennial prairie plants

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.

Species Identified

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.

Weed Management

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.

This weedy sidewalk edge vegetation is shading and hosting a variety of prairie seedlings underneath
The rare and coveted Gerrius selzeranii

Attracting Insects

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.

A new black-eyed susan is already playing host to caterpillars, possibly of species of checkerspot butterfly

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: A Lesson in Host Plants

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
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) Host plant for: Monarch
  • Mallow (Malva spp.) Host plant for: Common Checkered-Skipper, Gray Hairstreak , Painted Lady and more
  • Violet (Viola spp.) Host plant for: Great Spangled Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Meadow Fritillary and more

Fireflies of Summer

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.

“Who you gonna call” if you want to identify fireflies? Larry Buschman.
Larry trying not to be annoyed by my flash camera messing up his night vision while he identifies a firefly specimen.

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.

Larry allowed me to take home and photograph the next day the two species we found.

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.

Addressing the largest threat to fireflies of habitat loss is one we can also take on in our landscaping. It is a drumbeat that we deliver regularly through our education channels at Dyck Arboretum. Building habitat for insects in general will benefit any subgroup of insects including fireflies. Plain and simple, you can do this by increasing the diversity of native plants in your landscape.

For further firefly conservation recommendations, check out the Xerces Society’s comprehensive publication Conserving the Jewels of the Night.

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.

Landscaping to Attract Pollinators

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. 

Photo by Dave Osborne

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. 

Succession of bloom

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. 

Plant milkweeds

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.

Native Plant Guide
Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

Identify your motivation

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.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web: Part 3 – Shrubs

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.

Prunus

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. 

Sandhill plum-Prunus angustifolia Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

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

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. 

Rough-leaf dogwood bloom

Viburnum

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. 

Blackhaw Viburnum fruit-Viburnum prunifolium

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
New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus

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.

Mighty Burr Oak ready for spring and all those caterpillars.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web, Part 2

A couple weeks ago, we laid the ground work for enhancing the food web by listing some of the keystone species gardeners should include in their landscapes. When choosing plants to support insects, the foundation of the food web in our gardens, we want to make the most of our space. 

Insects are typically not picky when it comes to food sources, but they do have their preferences.  Here is an extension of that original list to give you more options to diversify your plantings and support a more robust food web in your habitat garden.

Grasses

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

This native bunchgrass can be found throughout the Great Plains. It reaches two to three feet tall and prefers a medium to dry well-drained soil. Give it plenty of sunlight for best growth. It is the larval host for many species of butterflies including Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, and Cobweb Skipper. 

‘Twilight Zone’ is a nice cultivar with purple green foliage during the growing season and good fall color.

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem. Photo courtesy Walter Gardens

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

Blue grama forms dense clumps and is extremely drought tolerant. Use in a sunny spot as a ground cover or mix with buffalograss for an easy-care lawn substitute.  The flowers look like tannish eyelashes that are attractive well into winter. There are over 10 butterfly larvae that feed on blue grama, including many skippers, Ottoe, Leonards, and Uncas; but also Mead’s wood nymph and the garita skipperling.  

My favorite cultivar of blue grama is ‘Blonde Ambition’. Several birds have been noted feeding on blue grama seed, including grassland sparrows, wrens and wild turkeys.

Blue Grama Blonde Ambition
Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’

Wildflowers

Beardtongue (Penstemon sp.)

To see huge bumble bees crawling into these tubular flowers in the spring is fun to watch. The longer lower lip of the flower makes a perfect landing pad. Many of the species have distinct lines leading to the back of the flower known as nectar guides. These lines act like runway lights, leading pollinators to the back of the flower where the nectar is located. 

Penstemons are a diverse species, but some of our native Kansas species like Penstemon cobaea, Penstemon grandiflorus, Penstemon tubaeflorus and Penstemon digitalis put on quite a show in the spring. My favorite penstemon variety is ‘Dark Towers’.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.)

Black-eyed Susan is one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Its bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity.  Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on their nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter. 

Missouri blackeyed susan and Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ are garden worthy perennials. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.)

There are so many choices when it comes to coneflowers. Oranges, yellows, reds, greens, pinks and every shade imaginable. The options are endless, but I always try to include some of the true native coneflowers in my designs. Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea paradoxa and Echinacea purpurea are all pollinator magnets. Be sure to avoid any coneflowers with double blooms. They may look cool, but they do nothing for pollinators, because they either don’t produce nectar or pollen or, because of their double-decker nature, don’t allow bees access to it.

Native bees (bumble bees, sweat, mining and sunflower bees) along with honey bees and butterflies (monarchs, swallowtails, sulfurs, fritillaries and many others) glom onto these summer blooming (May-August) perennials.  Coneflowers can be quite adaptable, but most appreciate at least 6 hours of direct sun. 

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

The unique globelike blossoms of rattlesnake master attract many types of small native bees and syrphid (hover) flies.  I have seen the tan hollow stems used by overwintering tunnel-nesting bees. Rattlesnake master is the host plant for rattlesnake master borer moth.

Rattlesnake master in full bloom

Narrow-leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

As a member of the mint family, narrow-leaf mountain mint has a tendency to spread, but it is a garden worthy wildflower because of the diverse pollinators it attracts.  Bees, wasps, moths, ants, flies, beetles and many types of butterflies including Ladies and smaller Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Blues, Common Buckeyes seek out this plant’s frosty white blooms.  It also attracts beneficial insects for biological control of pests.

A few others worth considering

  • Campanula         Bellflower          
  • Cirsium                 Thistle  
  • Claytonia             Spring-beauty  
  • Erythronium       Trout-lily             
  • Geranium            Cranesbill           
  • Helenium            Sneezeweed     
  • Heuchera            Coral Bells          
  • Hibiscus                Rose-mallow     
  • Monarda             Bee Balm
  • Oenothra            Evening Primrose
  • Packera                Groundsel
  • Polemonium      Jacob’s-ladder
  • Pontederia         Pickerel Weed
  • Potentilla             Cinquefoil
  • Uvularia               Bellwort
  • Verbena              Vervain
  • Viola                      Violet
  • Zizia                       Golden Alexanders

Solution gardening works to solve a problem with your landscape.  These lists of plants should be considered first to curb the decline of threatened specialist insects. Our goal should be to provide habitat for the largest possible number of insect species and to support a healthy food web. Having most or all of these keystone species in your landscape will make your landscape part of the solution to reversing drastic declines of pollinators in recent years.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web

Last week during my Native Plant School class, I had an interesting question posed to me and it made me pause to think.  The question was “Do you have a list of keystone native perennials for a healthy food web?”  The person obviously had been reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.

The food web includes, plants, insects, pollinators, birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and mammals, from rodents up through bears.  Each is reliant on the other for their survival. Tallamy focuses much attention on trees that support the food web such as oaks, cherry, cottonwood, willow, and birch.  However, there are many native perennials that are also key components of this food web. To provide a solid foundation for a healthy food web in your garden, start with this list of native wildflowers to include in your landscape:

Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

These summer blooming wildflowers with bright yellow flowers can be striking in the landscape. However, they have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time. The plant is insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar.  In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia.  It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod with red switchgrass

Asters

A diverse genus that supports 112 species of insects, asters are a valuable late-season (September – November) source of pollen for bees and nectar for bees and butterflies. During the summer, the asters are host plants to the caterpillars of some of the crescent and checkerspot butterflies. As summer wanes, asters start blooming with colors of white, purple, and pink depending on the species.  Fall provides a unique challenge for pollinators and asters help with both migration and overwintering butterflies and bees. 

A few of my recommended forms are Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’, Aster novae-angliae varieties, Aster laevis and Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ for sun.  In a shady area, try Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’, Aster cordifolius, and Aster macrophyllus.

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.)

There are eleven species of sunflower recorded in Kansas. These wildflowers are not usually fit for a formal garden setting, because they spread vigorously by seeding and rhizomes.  They have a tendency to push out other desirable plants.  However, they support 73 species of insects, so we maybe need to find a place for them. 

I’m not referring to the large-headed annual cultivars you see growing in a field, but rather the true native perennials with bright yellow flowers seen growing along the roadside in the late summer and early fall.  Plants provide lots of nectar and pollen, and the seeds are eaten by many birds and other wildlife. I would encourage you to try a few sunflowers in the peripheral areas of your yard where they can spread out and have room to roam. 

Maximillian Sunflower and Big Bluestem

Milkweeds

Monarchs are in peril. Milkweeds are one of the answers to reversing their plight. By planting more milkweeds, monarch will find these larval food sources more readily. Milkweeds are larval host plants for Monarch and Queen Butterflies and the Milkweed Tussock Moth. Many bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles visit milkweed flowers for the nectar. Milkweed plants typically produce a lot of nectar that it is replenished overnight. Nocturnal moths feast at night and other pollinators flock to these important plants during the day. 

Choose butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) or green antelope horn milkweed for your formal garden and common, Sullivant’s, or whorled milkweeds for the outskirts of your property. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.

Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.)

Liatris are very important wildflowers. The vibrant purple blooms in summer support many great insect species. They are quite adaptive with different species growing in dry to moist soil conditions. There is literally a blazing star for just about every garden setting. 

I prefer Liatris pycnostachya and Liatris aspera, but many others, including Liatris ligulistylis and Liatris punctata, are nice too.    

Liatris pycnostachya

There is a growing body of research that touts the benefits of keystone species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses to the food web. According to Doug Tallamy, landscapes without keystone plants will support 70–75% fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone plants, even though it may contain 95% of the native plant genera in the area.

Planting just natives is not enough. Garden designs and plant communities must contain at least some keystone plants to positively impact the food web. This is the start of a list, but there are certainly more plants to choose from.  Look for more suggestions in the coming weeks. 

Bagworms: Pest Spotlight

Bagworms have done tremendous damage this year.  Here at the Arboretum, we made multiple applications to our junipers and spruce to get them under control.  Thankfully, we have not had to manage bagworms the past five years too much. However, across the countryside this year, juniper shelter belts are covered with thousands of brown bags dangling from the branches.  These are not very festive and don’t bode well for 2021.  

Bagworm Life Cycle

Here is a glimpse into the various bagworm life cycle stages throughout the year:

In late May through early June, the eggs deposited in the bags the previous fall begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, the larva spins a silk strand that hangs down. These larva begin eating immediately or wind transports them to nearby plants.

Once the larva finds a host, it starts to make a new protective bag around itself. It remains inside this bag, sticking only its head out to eat from the host. If large populations exist on the same plant, they can do tremendous damage as they continue to mature.    

The larva continues feeding until it matures by the end of August. It then attaches the bag they are in to a branch with a strand of silk and starts developing into a pupa.

Adult male worms appear in September. These are tiny, grayish, moth-like insects with fur on their body and transparent wings. Adult bagworm females are wingless. They never leave the protective bag.

Mature male and female worms mate with each other to produce offspring. Strikingly, these pests die after mating. Male moths die outside the bag while females die inside the bag and get mummified around the mass of up to 1000 eggs in her case.  The eggs hatch in end-May or beginning of June the following year. 

Only one generation of bagworm eggs are produced every year.

Bagworm Hosts

Bagworms feed on a wide variety of trees and shrubs, but is primarily a pest on evergreens such as arborvitae and Eastern red cedar, cypress, and spruce. Bagworms are quite adaptive. In the absence of these preferred hosts, bagworm will eat the foliage of just about any tree: fir, pine, hemlock, sweetgum, sycamore, honey locust, black locust, willow. Adult moths do not feed, living just long enough to mate. I have even seen them hanging off brick foundations, signs, and houses.  They use the paint flecks to camouflage themselves.

Natural Controls

Each year, bagworm populations vary widely.  Parasitic wasps, diseases, low winter temperatures, bird predation affect population size.  Sometimes large populations are shortlived and let’s hope that is the case this year.  With large populations existing this year, we are set for another bagworm problem in 2021 if some of these other controls don’t happen.

Manual Controls 

Because bagworms are so conspicuous, overwintering bags and the eggs they contain can be picked from small trees and shrubs now and then destroyed. This is a viable option on small areas and smaller trees.  You must discard, the bags completely because any surviving eggs will hatch and disperse larvae to re-infest trees.

Spraying for Bagworms

It is critical that you monitor your trees in June for bagworms.  The most effective time to control them with spraying is when the bags are less than ¼ inch in length. We use DiPel® DF biological insecticide dry flowable on the bagworms. This proven insecticide is derived from a soil bacterium that selectively targets destructive caterpillars and worms. This product is highly selective and will not harm beneficial insects. It contains Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that the larvae ingest, giving them a terminal stomach ache. It usually requires several applications with a high pressure sprayer to get the spray to the tops of the tree but it is very effective and safe. 

The biological control we have been using to control bagworms

There are other labeled, registered insecticides available to use as an alternative means of control against small bagworm larvae in spring or early summer. These are usually not the best option because these chemicals not only kill the bagworms but other beneficial insects. We encourage you to use these as a last resort.  When larvae are more than 1/2 inch (13 mm) long, it is nearly impossible to kill them using insecticide. It is often at this time or later when bagworm infestations and associated defoliation become apparent and it is too late.

With everything else going on this year, why wouldn’t we have a bagworm problem?  It seems rather fitting.  Hopefully, this information will help you plan for 2021 to keep bagworms in check.

Predator Profile: Praying Mantis

The Carolina mantid (Courtesy of Hebard and the Illinois Natural History Survey) from An Introduction to the Study of Insects

The praying mantis is a medieval-looking predator of the garden that could just as well be a source of a horror film. Females are known to bite the head of their male partner during copulation to prevent his premature flight and then proceed to eat him after his job is done. If newly-hatched nymphs don’t find enough insects to eat shortly after leaving the nest, they start cannibalizing their own siblings. After watching my grasshopper-eating video at the end of this post, even some meat-eaters may swear off KFC for a very, long, time.

Carolina mantid cleaning its legs (video by Henry Friesen Guhr)

Identification

Praying mantises or mantids have compound eyes in freely moving heads on a pronounced neck and are the only insect that can “look over their shoulder.” Their front legs are muscular viselike appendages with spines held in front of them. They lie in wait, ambush their prey, and then hold and eat them alive.

Chinese mantid with a grasshopper

Kansas has five different species of mantids. There are three native species and two introduced. Of our native species, two are small, uncommon, typically found in prairies, and described in Insects in Kansas (Salsbury and White) as follows:

Descriptions of our two Kansas prairie mantids

For the remaining more common three species in Kansas (Carolina mantis, Chinese mantis, and European mantis), the following is a description of each provided courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation (mantids) with bugguide.net links to photos of each individual species:

  • Carolina mantis (Stagomantis carolina). Native.
    • Pale green to tan or mottled gray
    • Adult length 2–2¼ inches
    • The combined length of the head and thorax is about as long as the abdomen.
    • The middle pair of legs are about twice as long as the antennae.
    • Females are essentially flightless, as their wings are relatively small — when folded, they do not extend as far as the abdomen tip; usually only about three-fourths of the way down the body.
    • Males may have the wings extend beyond the abdomen tip and may fly to lights at night.
    • There is a black patch on the outer pair of wings.
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes: in this and other Stagomantis species, it is long and narrow (in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes).
    • Egg cases are somewhat flattened, elongated, teardrop-shaped structures.
  • Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Nonnative. Very commonly encountered.
    • Tan to pale green; tan individuals often show a stripe of pale green on the side (it’s the borders of the green front wings)
    • Adult length 2¼–4 inches or more
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes): in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes (in our native Carolina mantis, it is long and narrow and lacks stripes).
    • Flies well, often attracted to lights at night.
    • Egg cases resemble tan toasted marshmallows. They are fairly round, about as long as wide, Ping-Pong-ball size; usually attached to twigs of bushes and small trees.
    • Native to east Asia. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1896. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. Among the many insects it consumes are our smaller native mantids, and it may be playing a role, in some regions, in the declining populations of the Carolina mantis. Because the Chinese mantis has been widespread in our country for so long, it is difficult to determine what its ecological impact has been on native ecosystems. Because of the females’ large size, they have occasionally been recorded eating small vertebrates, including small reptiles and amphibians and even hummingbirds, but these seem to be relatively rare occurrences that do not have a significant impact on populations of those species.
  • European mantis or praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). Nonnative; probably the least encountered of these three.
    • Yellowish green, cream-colored, or tan.
    • Adult length 2–3 inches
    • Diagnostic feature is a round black dot on the underside of the basal joint (coxa) of the forelegs. Sometimes this black dot has a white center. This spot can be hard to see when their “arms” are held together.
    • Egg cases are rather egg-shaped, distinctly layered structures.
    • Native to Europe. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1899. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. People may still introduce them occasionally.

For a visual comparison of the ootheca for these three species, HERE is an article with photos.

Reproduction

Once the female has been fertilized and consumes the male as a “last supper” of sorts, she develops and deposits her eggs to complete the life cycle before dying herself.

Mating Carolina mantids – completion of a life cycle before the carnage

The female mixes the eggs with a frothy, protein-based material called spumaline and extrudes them onto a stem or building. This mass hardens to form a strong Styrofoam-like casing or ootheca that helps keep up to 200 eggs from drying out over the winter.

Chinese mantis “toasted marshmallow” egg casing on a goldenrod stem

The nymphs that emerge from the ootheca in spring do not have different-looking larval stages like many other insects. They resemble adult forms throughout their entire juvenile development.

Mantid nymph (dime-sized) found during an insect sweeping activity

Biological Control

It would seem just as appropriate to name this creature the “preying” mantis. I have seen many instances of mantids munching on moths, butterflies, bees and more and recently captured video of a Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper (see end of blog).

Mantids are touted as biological control agents to get rid of pest insects in gardens and greenhouses. However, the effectiveness of this approach is questionable. While they efficiently prey on insects, a small release of mantids cannot possibly control all the insects that humans consider to be crop pests. Complicating their effectiveness, mantids also indiscriminately consume insects that we consider to be beneficial pollinators as well. And since nonnative mantid species are those most commonly distributed for biological control, some rightfully worry about the impact their continued introductions may have on smaller native mantid populations.

However you find and observe mantids in gardens and natural areas around you, observe and enjoy the habits of these fascinating creatures.

Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper at Dyck Arboretum