What Will This Year’s Monarch Migration Bring?

Two years ago, I reported on an unusual convergence of migratory paths during the 2020 monarch fallout event here at the Arboretum. As we anticipate an abrupt change in weather and the official arrival of fall with tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for similar monarch migration events in your natural areas.

(Original publication date: October 7, 2020)

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.

Saturated Soils and Wilting Plants

This year we have been facing many environmental challenges from wind, drought, torrential rain for a lucky few, and now soaring temperatures. Nobody said gardening in Kansas would be easy. One of the more common problems we see in spring is wilting plants, especially those that are newly transplanted. This is true after the big rains last week and now the heat of this week. The new gardener may wonder – “what’s wrong with my plants?”

Saturated Soils

The heavy rain has resulted in saturated soil. Plants need water, but standing water for hours or even days depletes the soil of valuable oxygen. The roots need oxygen present in the soil, but as voids are filled with water, the oxygen is removed and root systems can become damaged. The fine root hairs die from lack of oxygen. These fine hair roots are vital for water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Whether it is a perennial or vegetable crop like tomatoes, the plants wilt because the uptake of water has been interrupted.

Will the wilting plants recover?

A number of factors affect the plant’s ability to overcome a flooding episode. How long the plants were flooded, drainage away from the root system, type of soil, type of plants (think about their natural habitat: some plants appreciate wet soils while other don’t), and how long the plant has been established. A newly established plant will be more affected than a mature plant.

Liatris wilting

Many vegetables crops are sensitive to flooding or saturated soils, but if the soil dries out quickly they will usually recover on their own with no help from us. Heavily mulched plants with more than two to three inches of mulch tend to stay wet too long for many perennials. If you see this wilting happening, check soil moisture. The mulch is not allowing the soil to dry out and may be damaging the roots. Rake back the mulch for a few days to encourage the soil to dry out.

If the soil stinks, then it has transitioned into an anaerobic state and everything is killed in the soil, including microbes and roots. Not a good situation. At this point it is very difficult to bring a plant back, because it is too badly damaged. Native plants generally appreciate good drainage. Root rot or crown rot are two of the most common problems, because the soil stays wet too long. As an example, narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows on rocky hillsides with keen drainage and no standing water. Planting one of these coneflowers in a flat garden with heavy clay soils is a recipe for disaster.

This time of year, gardeners should also be on the lookout for increased incidences of diseases such as early blight and powdery mildew. Humidity and excess moisture can quickly damage plants with these diseases, too.

Yellow Leaves

Echinacea turning yellow from too much water

Yellowing foliage can also be a problem after a heavy rain event. This is a visual indicator of compromised roots, but also the leaching out of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is mobile in the soil and moves downward away from roots with moisture. An application of slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a liquid fertilizer will green the plant back up over time.

I only recommend fertilizing fully established perennials, i.e. plants you put into the ground last year. Fertilizing newly planted perennials will cause excess top growth without a sustaining root system. With native wildflowers and grasses, it generally takes three to five years to develop a sustaining root system.

To avoid these problems, it is critical to match plants to your site. Good drainage and keeping moisture away from the crowns of the plants will keep your plants healthy too. Don’t put too much mulch around your plants, especially the main stem. Plant your garden densely and let the plants be the mulch.

If you do mulch your garden, only put enough to just cover the soil. Usually one to two inches is enough. Allow the plants to develop roots that tap into the moisture and nutrients. We need the spring rains, but sometimes we can get too much for our newer perennials.

Defining Common Horticultural Terms, Part 2

We encounter many enthusiastic new gardeners at FloraKansas who have heard about the importance of planting native plants, but don’t yet have the knowledge base needed to establish a successful planting. If you’re dreaming of a flourishing prairie pollinator garden, let me unpack the why behind the what of a few more horticultural terms for you.

Host Plants

Often, the focus for our gardens is on blooms and succession of blooms, more so than host plants.  Beautiful gardens in full bloom are what we see in catalogs, magazine and books. It is natural to gravitate toward these flourishing gardens that nectar-seeking butterflies need to sustain themselves. However, host plants (food for butterfly caterpillars) will keep them coming back to your landscape for years to come.    

It’s important to plan for the entire life cycle of a pollinator. Butterflies need places to lay their eggs.  Think of host plants as the baby nurseries of the garden. Female butterflies will flit and flutter through your garden looking for the right plant to lay their eggs. Some will lay their eggs on stems, or on the underside of leaves, hidden from predators. If you have a variety of host plants, you will attract a variety of butterflies. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Ultimately, the goal of any habitat garden is to provide everything those butterfly species need to complete their life cycle. Food for all stages of their life cycle, protection, and water are needed at different times throughout the year. The tiny larvae (caterpillars) will emerge and begin eating on the host plant. As they eat, they grow until they leave the plant and form a chrysalis. It is a fascinating process that you can watch unfold in your own garden. 

Here are a few host plants and the pollinator they attract:

  • Wild Lupine – Karner Blue butterfly
  • Golden alexander – Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • New Jersey Tea – Spring Azure butterfly
  • Columbine – Columbine Duskywing
  • Smooth Blue Aster – Crescent Butterflies
  • Little Bluestem – Leonard’s Skipper
  • Prairie Violet – Fritillary Butterflies
  • Pearly Everlasting – American Lady
  • Milkweeds – Monarchs
  • Paw Paw – Zebra Swallowtail butterfly
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly on Pawpaw tree at the Arboretum, photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Resource: Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe, and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. Pollination Press, 2014.

Sunlight Defined

Knowing how much light you have within your landscape is an important piece to a sound design. By simply watching sun patterns throughout the year, you will be able to determine how much sunlight your garden receives. Industry standards and labeling can then be used to assist in selecting the right plants for your landscape conditions. Here are some terms worth knowing since all plants require sunlight to grow, but differ in the amount and intensity of light needed to prosper. 

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day

Full Sun

Not surprisingly, this type of light describes what most prairie plants need. They enjoy open, bright sunny locations with direct sunlight for most of the day. This could also be morning shade/afternoon sun or vice versa, as long as there is at least 6 hours of continuous sunlight. Most of these plants have deeper root systems or adaptations that help them endure this light intensity for the growing season. 

Let experience be your guide when situating plants. Yes, some plants can handle full sun, but need protection for the hot afternoon sun. Or they can handle full sun with consistent moisture. This is the other reason to understand your site, including soil moisture, soil type, root competition and drainage.  All these factors directly affect plants too.  

Sun loving prairie plants

Part Sun and Part Shade

These light definitions are quite a bit different than plants for full sun.  Plants for part sun and part shade obviously require less light, more importantly, the light intensity is a key factor for their endurance and success.  Filtered sun for most of the day or morning sun afternoon shade fit the bill for situating plants.  Too much direct sunlight for too long a period will stunt plants needing part sun or part shade. 

There is often a fine line between getting too much sun that the plants suffer and getting too little light that the plants don’t bloom. For either group, providing direct morning sun is often the best choice.

Full Shade

Most shade plants require anything from the dappled shade found under deciduous trees, indirect light found on the north side of the house or deeper shade found under evergreens. In our area, growing shade plants can be a challenge because we are trying to grow shade plants in what was once a prairie environment with intense full sun. True shade plants often perish because they get too much sun, too much hot dry wind and/or too little moisture.

To successfully grow shade plants in our area, they need protection and consistent moisture. Any shade gardens must mimic the woodland environment. Loamy soils with leaf litter, consistent moisture – but not too much! – and protection from drying winds. It can be a challenge, but shade gardens can be carefully created with the proper light conditions, too.

Dyck Arboretum woodland garden with columbine, woodland phlox, white woodland aster and solomon’s seal

Ecological Resolutions

Down time over the holidays while turning the calendar to the new year always feels like a good time to set sights on things I want to do to make my life more enjoyable and feel more meaningful. Planning for and embarking on challenges can be a way of establishing new habits. This year, I would like to focus more on the Land (as defined in The Land Ethic) and my connection to it. I will call them ecological resolutions and delineate them into three categories.

Land Restoration

From the Dyck Arboretum grounds to a number of public and private lands in Harvey County, there are seemingly endless opportunities to practice ecological restoration on remnant or restored native plant communities. In a grassland ecosystem, those opportunities mostly involve reversing the progress of invading woody plants through wood cutting, prescribed burning, and mowing. Woody plant invasion is a real threat for prairies today that involves regular maintenance and effort.

Woody plant invasion of the Flint Hills prairie over a 29-year period. (Courtesy of Tony Capizzo, KS Chapter of The Nature Conservancy)

Luckily, the action of wood cutting means being outside, getting exercise, creating firewood, and having fun in the process. I have fond memories of firewood cutting outings as a kid with my siblings, parents, and grandparents. While I don’t currently heat my house with wood, I have friends that do and perhaps we’ll work out some sort of bartering arrangement.

Such efforts also liberate prairie. The subsequent vigorous flowering response of grasses and wildflowers once they are released from the stifling effects of shade is what we are ultimately trying to achieve. That is probably for me the most gratifying part (even if it takes a year or two) of the whole process.

A 2009 post-burn crew at Sand Prairie in Western Harvey County (photo by Max Voran)

Selective removal of invasive/exotic wildflowers or grasses, brush mowing, conducting prescribed burns, collecting seed, and planting seed are also very worthwhile land restoration activities. This would be one of my top resolutions and a realm in which I would like to spend considerably more time in the coming year.

Wildlife Education

In a native plant garden or seeded restoration plot, we have some idea of what plants to expect to see blooming and setting seed because of our own work and preparation. The wildlife attracted to these developing plant communities, however, is much more of an unknown occurrence. I am fascinated by and motivated to learn more about the wildlife species attracted to native plant communities.

Regal fritillary butterfly nectaring on tall thistle flowers at a restored prairie near Hesston

It has been incredible to see cause and effect play out so clearly with regard to planting native plants and drawing in wildlife. These host plants and their flower nectar and seeds really do attract critters. From small gardens to larger restoration prairies, I’ve observed the influx of insects, small mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles, both plant-eaters and predators, in a relatively short timeline. Even when that short timeline is years in the making, the reward of seeing those wildlife species come in makes me want to install even more native plantings.

Just like anything else, building skills and knowledge in wildlife identification takes time and practice. But learning and appreciating the visual, auditory, ecological, and life cycle traits of wildlife species can be so interesting and rewarding. So then is the photography and story-telling of these species to try and inspire other people around you to plant native plants and try to attract wildlife to their landscapes as well.

I participate regularly in two events happening locally with regard to data collection of birds and butterflies. They are the Harvey County Christmas Bird Count and the Harvey County Butterfly Count. You can read more about each via the respective links and we are always welcoming new folks interested in participating. Experts lead the two counts that are great events for novice participants to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time. Organized by the National Audubon Society and North American Butterfly Association, respectively, bird and butterfly counts can be found abundantly in nearly all 50 states.

Harvey County Butterfly Count accessories

Not only do I want to commit more time to bird and butterfly citizen science, but I would like to invest more time studying insects in general. Heather Holm has published excellent books on pollinators, bees, and wasps that are educational and inspiring.

To be inspired by a great prairie ecologist that photographs and writes about wildlife regularly, I would highly encourage you to follow a blog produced by Chris Helzer of the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Urban Native Landscaping

Enhancing the urban landscapes in which we live, work, and worship with native plants can be perhaps one of the easiest and most rewarding of activities we promote here at Dyck Arboretum. I could always enjoy spending more time on this particular resolution. Adding a handful of native plants to even the smallest of areas can do wonders – both for increasing biological diversity in your landscape and for increasing your connection to the land.

Penstemon, spiderwort, prairie onion, and phlox blooming behind potted plants in my backyard in early June

Dabbling with native plant gardens in my home landscape is a labor of love in almost all months of the year. Of course, you have the popular processes of planting and watching for pretty flowers that everybody loves. But I also enjoy the time spent in these gardens weeding, mulching, picking flowers for bouquets, collecting seed or dividing plants for friends, chopping down the old vegetation, and building garden borders. It is time enhanced with the delights of observing all sorts of plant-animal interactions. I am outside and unplugged. This practice during the pandemic has been critical for helping me stay sane and grounded.

If you follow our Dyck Arboretum blog, you hear plenty on this particular ecological resolution, so I’ll keep this one brief. If you are new native landscaping, or are looking ways to enhance your native gardening process, consider following some of the best management practices suggested HERE.

Join Me!

Perhaps you would care to join me on any part or all of this quest? I’m always looking for prairie restoration and wildlife watching companions. Spending time with these ecological resolutions will add value to your life and may even enrich the natural environment around you in the process. You won’t regret it.

“Ecological restoration also involves restoring our relatedness to the wild.” ~Dwight Platt

Predator Profile: Eastern Screech Owl

The wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees at Dyck Arboretum have mostly slipped into dormancy here in mid November and the activity of insects they support has greatly diminished. As a result, I often turn my attention this time of the year to wildlife. This week I am focused on the eastern screech owl (Megascops asio).

The attention to this species started when colleague Katie Schmidt recently alerted me to a head poking out of a wood duck box installed along our west border this spring by member Woody Miller.

Eastern screech owl in a wood duck box at Dyck Arboretum last week, photo by Gerald Leinbach

Species Description

According to Kansas birding experts Bob Gress and Pete Janzen from their book The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots, this small species (8″ tall and with a wingspan of 20″) is typically found in wooded habitat and is common in urban areas throughout Kansas.

Eastern screech owl, photo by Bob Gress. Check out all the great images of eastern screech owls at Birds in Focus by Bob Gress, Judd Patterson, and David Seibel
Eastern screech owl range map from TheCornellLab All About Birds species profile page

Trees are essential habitat for eastern screech owls where they roost/nest in cavities and cache extra food when plentiful. Woodpecker holes, spaces of wood rot, abandoned squirrel cavities, and boxes built for purple martins or wood ducks all make for suitable abodes for the eastern screech owl. They prefer an open understory and will also make use of open parkland, farms, and suburban areas as hunting grounds.

Behavior

Eastern screech owls will nest once each year and lay two to six 1.3-1.4″ long white eggs. In Kansas, they nest in spring. The incubation period takes 26 days with the female sitting on the nest while the male hunts and the young will fledge roughly a month after hatching. The young depend on their parents for food and learning hunting tactics for roughly 8-10 weeks after fledging.

Preferred Diet

Their diet includes just about any small animal including rodents, birds, frogs, lizards and even smaller prey such as insects, earthworms, crayfish and tadpoles. I even spotted one early on a summer night in my backyard waiting on a tree branch and intently watching my bat house 10 feet away, which was squeaky with big brown bat activity before a night of hunting.

Eastern screech owl just outside my parent in-laws’ back door (red morph). According to Gress and Janzen, only about 10% of the eastern screech owls in Kansas are red

Attracting Eastern Screech Owls to Your Landscape

As with any segment of wildlife, you will greatly increase your chances of attracting eastern screech owls to live near you if you provide food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. Having trees with cavities will certainly help your case and putting up a nesting box certainly won’t hurt either. Then, as we promote with so many of our posts, create as much diverse native plant habitat as possible. This habitat will attract the insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles that owls love to eat.

With these kinds of conditions as attractive habitat, you may very soon hear the shrill, descending whinny call of the eastern screech owl.

References: The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots by Bob Gress and Pete Janzen and the Eastern Screech Owl species page, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds.

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.

Succession of Bloom

Every gardener strives to have a continuous symphony of flowers in their gardens from spring through fall.  However, most gardens, including some of mine, seem patchy in appearance with sporadic blooms from time to time.  Although a continuous floral bloom is the goal, it is often not achieved unless a method called succession planting has been implemented. 

Succession of bloom is used to describe a diverse set of plants in a flower border that will always have interest. At any given time during the growing season there are plants coming into bloom and fading out of bloom.  This consistent bloom is important in a design, especially when using native plants.   

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie. If you visit a prairie landscape like the Konza Prairie every two to three weeks throughout the year, you will observe plants beginning to bloom, in full bloom or going out of bloom. That is how you need to design your native landscape. Include plants that bloom in every season of the year and then strategically add grasses for movement and texture in the winter months.

In my opinion, succession of bloom is one of the most important concepts in native plant design, right after site considerations and matching plants up to your site. Take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know, the easier it will be to seamlessly incorporate them into your design. Succession of bloom always provides something of interest in the garden, but it also provides season-long food for pollinators and other wildlife.   

Starting a List

Put together a list of plants that bloom at different seasons and will grow well in your area.  Include early season bloomers, midseason bloomers, and late season bloomers. Select a set of grasses that combine well with those wildflowers or provide backdrop for other perennials in front of them. 

Native Plant Guide
Working on a landscape design for one of our members.

Begin the Design

As you layout your plants in your design, think about heights and layer of plants. Typically, there are only three or four layers of plants.  Plants 4-18 inches tall in the front, middle layers of 18-24 inches and 24-48 and then taller perennials at 48+ inches tall.  These tiers guide how I combine the plants and layout the design. 

Initial planting next to the Prairie Pavilion.
Needs more grasses and wildflowers to fill the gaps and cover the mulch.

Layout

Always think about foliage and flowers. In matrix planting, made popular by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, every square inches is covered with plant material.  From the groundcover layer through the seasonal interest layer and on up through the structural layer, plants crowd out weeds and mimic the prairie community.  Keep in mind, blooms will fade, so foliage is important too. Seed heads can be supported and highlighted with grasses. A striking example is the dark seed heads of coneflowers later in the season with little bluestem.

Little Bluestem and Pale Coneflower seedheads

Plant in smaller groups

I prefer to plant is smaller groups such as five, seven or nine individual plants. Often, I will mix in some native grasses with the wildflowers. A larger swath of something out of bloom leaves a large void in the design, especially if it blooms in the spring. Plant closely enough so that foliage intermingles. If plants are spaced too far apart that there is more mulch or soil than plants, this void will draw your eye to the plant that is out of condition. By planting densely, you will hardly notice a plant out of bloom. 

The example below is simplistic, but the concept is the same. Succession planting combines specific plants for your garden that all look good together and bloom at different seasons. Try to avoid planting two different groups of plants next to each other that bloom at the same time. Those groups will leave a larger hole in the landscape.   

Example: nine coneflowers (pink) with five little bluestem ‘Twilight Zone’ (blue) planted next to seven Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ (yellow) which is planted next to three Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite (purple).

Your pattern can be continued or another set of seasonal plants can be incorporated into the design. This is also a tier in the overall design. They are all about the same heights. Plant something taller behind and shorter in front of these perennials.

Succession planting is very rewarding, and these simple techniques should guide the process. Again, take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know the easier it will be to combine them according to bloom time. Succession planting is something that we all respond to, and brings the garden together visually.

What is Land Stewardship?

The other day, I was reading an interesting article about modeling sustainability in our landscapes.  This particular article focused on botanical gardens and their importance as models for sustainable practices and stewardship of the land.  Obviously, it made me think about our own landscapes here at the Arboretum, how we manage and maintain them and how we can help encourage conservation and stewardship of our lands, waters and wildlife. It also made me keenly aware of my own feelings toward stewardship. How do I share my empathy for the land or my belief that the land is worth saving?

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr.

What’s your personal land ethic?

Certainly, a land ethic is a very personal thing. Stewardship is about a person’s relationship to the land. It’s about what you believe on the inside.  What I am willing and able to do right now regarding stewardship of the land in my little corner of the world, is quite different from what my neighbor is able to do, or even what you, the reader, are able to do.  We may feel driven to make drastic changes right now, but others may see those changes as excessive and unimportant in light of other issues they are currently dealing with. 

I am reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Each of us has some sort of land ethic. Whether or not we can articulate it to someone else is another thing. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit
Arboretum tallgrass prairie garden in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

The stewardship spectrum

I like to think of stewardship on a horizontal plane.  On the one end of the spectrum are those who hold a deep reverence for the land.  They are compelled to actively incorporate practices into their lives, such as using native plants, harvesting rainwater, reducing/eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, mulching, creating habitat for wildlife, and other sustainable actions. They are caretakers of the land. 

On the other end of the horizontal plane are the novices.  These are the folks who want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to get started.  This end also includes someone with a pristine lawn and tidy flower beds.  There is nothing wrong with this type of landscaping — remember that a land ethic is a very personal thing.  This landscape reflects their beliefs about how a landscape should look.

Those of us who see the value and beauty of a native landscape have the opportunity to model a paradigm shift in landscape practices and show a different land ethic that can be beautiful in its own way.    

Developing a connection to the land

So how do we move people along this horizontal plane from novice steward to sustainable steward of the land?  Whether here at the Arboretum or in your own back yard, the more people who see and experience nature up close, and connect with the land, the more progress will be made. 

This connection with the land is important. A deeper connection results in a deeper empathy for the world around us. Change starts at home in your own landscapes by modeling your convictions. 

“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.” 

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
A small garden of native plants

People will want to change when they see change is possible.  If they see stewardship modeled for them, they will begin to embrace this change in their own feeling about the land. To care for the land, people must see that the land is worth saving. 

Those of us who see that stewardship is possible need to: model it for others, share it with others, help others, and support others as they gain understanding and confidence on their own stewardship journey.

“ A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

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.