Insects: The little things that run the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference: 

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

Rethinking Garden Clean Up

It may not feel like fall yet, but it is coming.  I am ready for some cooler north winds to blow and the leaves to begin changing on the trees. In the back of my mind, I am grudgingly starting to think about garden clean up.

Things are winding down in the garden, except for the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are a bright spot in the October prairie garden. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden.  The grasses are spectacular this year too.   

Monarch on New England Aster

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. The grasses that are so beautiful now will blend into the landscape.  It will be time for the prairie to sleep.  Before we settle in for the winter, there are a few things to take care of in the garden so that it’s ready for next spring.

Taking stock

I know we don’t want to think too much about the landscape, but if you don’t take a few notes now, you will forget by spring.  I know that will happen to me, so I like to spend a few moments reflecting on what has worked and what didn’t in the gardens. 

Do I need to add a few plants to fill or augment my current design? Should I move some plants to make them happier? I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March.  What areas am I going to focus on next year?  Do some of my trees and shrubs need pruning?  What plants have I seen that I believe would work well in the landscape?  What do I need to do to create habitat for wildlife? 

Fall is also a great time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Even a few steps toward a more sustainable landscape should be recognized.  Your project may not be complete, but you can see progress.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Your stewardship efforts are making a difference.  Hopefully, you know this and have seen evidence of it in your garden. 

Perennials

We have been rethinking how, when and why we do cleanup of our perennial beds.  It is generally better to leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses as they are through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem.  Enjoy these autumnal combinations. 

Little Bluestem

Wait! Don’t clean up your garden too early.  Cleaning up beds often removes natural food and shelter that wildlife need to survive the winter months.   Coneflowers, black-eyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds.  Many pollinators and other insects overwinter in stems and tufts of grass in the landscape.  By prematurely removing all dead vegetation you are removing overwintering wildlife.  We have found that it is better to cut these plants down in February and March, but leave the stems in the garden as mulch.  Overwintering pollinators and insects hatch in the spring and these composted plants are a fantastic mulch that add nutrients back to the soil.  In our experience, overzealous cleaning often does more harm than good. 

Leaves

I love the fall color of the trees in October. However, once the leaves have fallen, what should be done with them? I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds so they can insulate the plants. Keep in mind that too many leaves or larger leaves tend to cake up and seal off the soil. This will keep the soil too wet through the winter for many perennials.

When you are dealing with large quantities of leaves you may need to remove them or shred them so they break down quickly. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get too thick that they smother out your woodland plants, too. Remove leaves from your turf areas, but don’t haul them away.  They make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.   

Tablerock Sugar Maple

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take note of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

In Awe of Insects

“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Edward O. Wilson

Take a moment during your next foray outdoors and observe the level of insect diversity around you. Hint, searching out vegetation and as much plant species diversity as possible will make your exploration more interesting. You can either passively observe or more aggressively make collections with an insect sweep net and it never hurts to have a copy of the color book Insects in Kansas handy. General observations are interesting enough, but counting and recording the species observed (no formal identification necessary) only increases the level of education and interest.

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We do this at the Dyck Arboretum with kids and adults all the time. The findings in our diverse prairie garden on one side of the sidewalk always produce much more insect diversity and inspire greater awe and fascination than the mowed fescue lawn side.

 

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This is no surprise, really, when you consider how much more habitat, cover, protection, and food the prairie garden holds. Concepts including ecosystems, food webs, trophic levels, herbivores, carnivores, etc. are easily discussed with this simple exercise.

FoodWeb

Conversations often migrate towards how important insects are to humans, our survival, and quality of life. Insects pollinate our crops including many fruits, nuts, and vegetables, they provide us with honey, beeswax, cotton, silk, and tobacco, they perform valuable services as scavengers, they serve as food for many birds and animals, they help keep harmful plants and animals in check, and they have been useful in medicine and scientific research.

People in 80% of the world’s nations enjoy insects as food, and this number will continue to grow as world human population growth continues to outpace food production (take a look at this recent Food and Agriculture Organization United Nations Report to understand how common entomophagy is in the non-western world). Sure, one can find annoying, harmful, and even dangerous examples of insects too, but for humans the benefits far outweigh the detriments.

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Deep fried insects in Thai Quisine (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Insekten.jpg)

 

There are fascinating stories to tell about symbiotic relationships between plants and insects, insects as pollinators, brood caretakers, and navigators, and even gruesome ones about insects as scavengers, parasites, and vicious predators. You probably know about the important relationship between milkweed and the monarch butterfly, but did you know that grasshoppers consume more biomass on the prairie than either cattle or bison? Or how about the perilous story of how the male preying mantis becomes food for the female both during and after copulation? There’s a father’s day story you won’t soon forget.

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There are about 900,000 identified species of insects in the world which makes up approximately 80% of the total wildlife species. Entomologists estimate that they have only been able to identify approximately 3% of the world’s species which push total species estimates to 30 million.

Take a few moments to study the following chart of common insect orders to better understand what is out there, have some fun exploring, and as I once heard a great elementary teacher tell her students, “turn your ‘eeewwwws’ into ‘ooohhhhs’!”

Hopefully you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the fascinating world of insects. Your life may even depend on it.

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