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.

Are you ready for the Monarchs?

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. 

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr
A monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

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.

Monarch on New England Aster in the fall. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

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:

Perennials

  • Aster ‘October Skies’
  • Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
  • New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae sp.)
  • Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
  • Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.)
  • Coreopsis
  • Blazing Star (Liatris sp.)
  • Beebalm (Monarda sp.)
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.)
  • Yarrow (Achillea sp.)
  • Eryngium yuccifolium
  • Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
  • Zizia aurea
  • Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’
  • Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavender Towers’
  • Prairie clover (Dalea sp.)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium sp.)

Shrubs

  • Chokeberry (Aronia sp.)
  • Leadplant (Amorpha sp.)
  • ServiceBerry (Amelanchier sp.)
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus sp.)
  • American plum (Prunus sp.)
  • Elderberry (Sambucus sp.)
  • Viburnum (Viburnum sp.)
Buttonbush bloom

Trees

  • 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

October Richness

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.

Monarch fallout.

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.

Tagged monarchs.

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.

Middle school students measuring tree height with the “rough estimate” method.

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.

Measuring tree height.
Lorna Harder teaching a 5th Grader about plant identification.

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.

Lorna Harder leading a tour of the native prairie she is helping steward.
Director, Scott Vogt, welcoming Arboretum Prairie Partners to a meal on LeAnn and Stan Clark’s patio.

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.

Hesston Elementary students search for insects in the Arboretum reconstructed prairie.
Finding seeds, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, spiders, true bugs, and more.
Insect sweeping.
Students found a female striped wolf spider carrying its newborn young on its abdomen.
Grasshoppers are plentiful in the prairie during October.
Initial insect skittishness turned to fondness during the field trip.
Beehives at Earhart.

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.

Earhart students check a birdfeeder while searching for insects in one of their courtyard native plant gardens.
Earhart students found a preying mantis egg casing or ootheca.

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.

College students observing a garter snake.

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.

Bethel students found a Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar crossing an Arboretum sidewalk.
‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac from an Arboretum plant sale was in autumn splendor on October 26 at my house.

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.

Mark Erelli – the first show of the 2019-20 PWCS.
The Steel Wheels – the second show of the 2019-20 PWCS.

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.

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

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.

Students from Smoky Valley High visited the Arboretum on October 31 to prepare for Eco-Meet.

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.

Sugar maple.
Little bluestem.
Seeds dispersing from a common milkweed pod.
The fall prairie is loaded with seeds this season which is good for seed-eating mammals and birds.
It has been a mast year for trees and the ground under this burr oak was covered with acorns.
Late season flowering by Leavenworth eryngo.
Aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’.

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.

Video of Pollinators nectaring on aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Finding Value in the Undesirables

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)
Canada goldenrod with a host of fly, beetle, and true bug pollinators.
Western ironweed with a beetle and a sweat bee.
Tall joe-pye weed with an Ailanthus webworm moth and a beetle.
Tall joe-pye weed with a wasp.
Tall joe-pye weed with a predatory wheel bug.
Brown-eyed susan with an ambush bug.
Brown-eyed susan with a checkered skipper.
Brown-eyed susan with a Horace’s duskywing.
Tall thistle with an eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed with large milkweed bugs.
Common milkweed with a milkweed longhorn beetle.

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!

Welcoming Insects

“If you build it, they will come.”

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

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

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

Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

A Diverse Food Web

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

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

Plenty of Moisture

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

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

Herbivores and Carnivores

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

Bumblebee on common milkweed.

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

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

Harvey County Butterfly Count

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

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

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