Sunday, August 18, 2019

Get Ready to Count!

The collection of data by large amounts of individual people can have a big impact on the subject being studied. The Christmas Bird Count is one of the oldest such data collection projects. I could not put it better myself as to how this effort matters: “The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

Examples of the categories - Top row: Syrphid fly and small green bee;
Middle row: butterfly (skipper), beetles (category 'other'), honey bee;
Bottom row: carpenter bee (smooth butt) and bumble bee (fuzzy butt).
Missing: wasp is the last category.

This year is the beginning of a new count in Georgia: a count of pollinators, primarily insects, during a time of year when they are at their most abundant (the hot, sticky, month of August!). Georgia leads the way in this new effort and we can all help to make it meaningful.

Your charge, should you choose to accept it, is to spend 15 minutes observing one flowering plant and counting how many insects land on it. Record your counts using defined categories of insects: bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, small bees, butterflies/moths, wasps, flies, and ‘other.’  The days to count are Friday, August 23 (when we hope that lots of schools will be participating) and Saturday, August 24.

Just like the bird count, you are allowed to have more than one 15-minute report if you like. I plan to count several times during those two days, using a variety of flowering native plants. Upload all your counts to the official website: . Share photos of your activities, your flowers, or your insects on social media with the hashtag #GAPollinators.

If you’re unsure of your identification ability, you are welcome to join one of dozens of community scheduled counting events all over Georgia. I’ll be helping out at several that GNPS is sponsoring. You can find them on the count’s official website (scroll down to the census counting events section):

It only takes 15 minutes to make history – let’s submit as many count reports as we can. Get your family, get your friends, and get your neighbors to count. A 15-minute count is all it takes to help bring awareness to Georgia’s pollinators and insects. 

Ok, here's a wasp in case you need a refresher on what
they look like!
I hope to see lots of butterflies.
This is a Gulf Fritillary.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Pollination Takes Two (or More)

When it comes to pollination, plants consist of those that don’t require pollination (like ferns), plants that use the wind for pollination (like oaks, pines, and grasses), and plants that need insects to do the job. It is the case of insect pollination that I want to highlight here.

Over many years, plants and insects have evolved together for the mutually beneficial act of pollination. We all know what plants get out of it: they make more fertile seed with pollination and the cross-pollination between plants means that they are genetically more diverse (which is good for species survival). Insects benefit too: some of them go for the protein-rich pollen as a food source while others want the nectar. Some do both.

Flowers evolved to have bright petals to attract insects. In some cases, certain insects became specialists on certain flowers. For those that collect pollen, visits from flower to flower take a bit of pollen from one flower and, in the process of collecting more, transfer it to the next when the insect goes to the other flowers of the same type. For insects that collect nectar, the flower has evolved to ensure that the collection of nectar doesn’t shortchange the plant’s need for pollination, sometimes depositing pollen on the insect so that is has to carry it to the next one. I call these situations ‘accidental pollination.’

Bumble bee and Centrosema virginianum, stamens exposed
as the bee goes for the nectar

Bee exits with pollen on its back to exchange with next flower

Regardless of how it happens, cross-pollination is more effective when large numbers of flowers are present. I was reminded of this increased effectiveness this week as my spurred butterfly peas (Centrosema virginianum) started flowering. Although I had two plants growing together, few flowers appeared the first week (and perhaps only on one of the plants, it was hard to tell) and none of them produced seed pods.

The next week, flowers were everywhere – easily 10 of them at once! Bumble bees were visiting them constantly. I was excited to capture how they went after the nectar, pushing up the spur to get to the nectar and, in the process, exposing the stamens and stigma to an exchange of pollen on the back of the bee itself. As a result, many of the flowers have resulted in seed pods.

Seed pod forming on Centrosema virginianum

So for better pollination as well as improved genetic diversity, keep in mind that it might take two to get the best result. Plant accordingly.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Remove Invasive Plants Early for Best Results

I drove up to North Carolina last week, driving on US-23 N/US-441 N to get to the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference. After the turnoff from Franklin, the road rises high, with potentially scenic views but the roadside has been plagued with princess tree infestations in the past. Those trees were no longer visible because they’d been swallowed up by a humongous expanse of kudzu. What an awful sight it was to see the beautiful mountains in the distance while the entire roadside had been transformed into a shapeless blob of kudzu.

Kudzu in Cherokee, NC (Credit: Tammy Mercure)

I didn’t stop to take a picture (the roadside looked a bit dangerous for stopping on), but this picture by Tammy Mercure in Cherokee, NC gives a pretty good representation of what I saw. I hadn't been up there for a couple of years and this certainly didn’t happen overnight, but it clearly could have been controlled by property management when the invasion first started. Unfortunately, infestations that appear (distribution thanks to wind, wildlife, or water spread of seed) on large and unmanaged properties contribute significantly to the increasing acreage of invasive plants.

A friend recently moved to a new property and the backyard included a rather wild and weedy area. Of course, we both realized the potential in the area for growing sun-loving native pollinator plants and immediately spotted a few worthy plants already growing there. I ventured into the space to check out something with yellow flowers and found a watermelon-sized clump of kudzu sitting in the middle! Using her shovel, I carefully removed it. If I hadn’t, it would have grown and grown over the next few years until it dominated the space, spreading into the trees in the natural area behind her property. That’s how it gets started: one plant, ignored or unnoticed and allowed to spread.

All of us should be careful to spot and deal with plants that can spread; the sooner we remove them, the less work it is. Other highly invasive plants to watch for include:

  • Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), often found in part-shade areas; it is an annual that drops thousands of seeds and goes quickly from early appearance to infestation.
  • Mulberry weed (Fatoua villosa), often found in mostly sunny garden beds; it is also an annual with lots of seeds.
  • Privet (Ligustrum spp.), mahonia (Mahonia bealei), and Ugly Agnes (Elaeagnus spp.) are shrubs that pop up initially as single seedlings spread by birds; they grow quickly. All of these are evergreen.
  • Heaven bamboo (Nandina domestica), burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii, and others) are also shrubs that pop up initially as single seedlings spread by birds; these shrubs are showing up more than they used to and thriving with the change in temperatures.
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), English ivy (Helix hedera), and vinca (Vinca spp.) are evergreen vines and ground covers. Non-native wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is another vine.
  • Bamboo (I am not even sure which ones are taking over some roadsides) is very hard to control once it gets going.
  • Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and chinaberry (Melia azedarach) are invasive trees.
  • Emerging invasive plants in Georgia also include Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) (I've seen this growing in Cherokee County and points north); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) (in the North Georgia mountains); and Japanese chaff flower (Achyranthes japonica) (this is already present in Atlanta); Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) (in the North Georgia mountains); and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) (in the metro Atlanta area).
  • See the whole list here.

A small appearance of Microstegium vimineum

An infestation of Microstegium vimineum just across the street;
the mow and blow crew just mows around it!

When you see these plants, even if it is just a few of them, get rid of them quickly to reduce work for yourself as well as reduce the future spread. It only takes a season or two of neglect to have a real problem on your hands.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Moth Field Guide for the Southeast

We’re finishing up National Moth Week today but don’t let my tardiness in reminding you stop you from admiring these abundant insects. I say abundant because there are almost 11,000 native moths in the US, far more than native butterflies (about 800).

Last year, a new field guide for southeastern North America was published: Peterson Field Guide to Moths. It’s very thick and covers plume moths, twirler moths, pugs, daggers, sallows, darts and easily two dozen more very interestingly-named groups! Surely we all know the sphinx and the silk moths? Those are some of our biggest ones.

At first I was puzzled about how to use this guide. I could not simply flip through 600 pages and reasonably expect to spot my mystery moth! The guide talks about first verifying it is a moth (vs. a butterfly) by looking at the antenna: moths have threadlike or feathery antenna while butterflies have antenna that terminate in a club shape. You should also take note of the overall size, of course, because some moths with the same shape are different species based on the size. I found the best way (for me) to use this book is to flip to the very end of the book where there is a two page spread of silhouettes. Match the shape of your mystery moth to the silhouette and then go to the section that has pictures.

So, if you’re interested in the bugs around you, add this book to your library. Use it with your caterpillar identification guide and your butterfly guide. Previous blogs of mine that talk about moths include:

This Southern Pink Moth is one of my favorite tiny moths and I spotted it again this week, hanging around the salvia (one of its host plants). I love the pink-on-pink effect of this photo.

Southern pink moth is very tiny; this is a Salvia coccinea flower

And we'll just finish this out with an adorable picture of the yellow-striped oakworm moth (Anisota peigleri) which emerged in my yard in late June. Look at those antenna!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Butterflies Don’t Need Flowers (to lay eggs)

Did that get your attention? Let me explain. When it comes to butterflies (and moths) finding the plants on which to reproduce, they don’t need the flowers of that plant to lead them there. They can find the plant, lay eggs on it, and go on their way. Therefore, it is of value to have the plants even if they don’t bloom.

Spicebush butterfly on milkweed, in between laying eggs on Lindera

Monarch butterflies are a well-known example of host-plant relationships. Monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed (Asclepias spp.), and lots of people are now planting milkweed for them. I hear/read a lot of comments like "My milkweed isn't blooming, how will the Monarchs find it?" or even "My milkweed is blooming so it's ready for the Monarchs to come." That milkweed is ready for the Monarchs once it is two inches out of the ground! Bees are actually the pollinators you want to find those milkweed flowers so that you get seed pods for future plants.

Two of the most popular species to buy in Georgia are orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and pink milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). I have had particular trouble – and other people have too – getting the pink milkweed to bloom. Even plants that are blooming when I buy them have failed to bloom the next year when planted in my yard. They get plenty of sun!

My leafy and bloom-less Asclepias incarnata

Failure to bloom is certainly frustrating. Blooming plants of all kinds support bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Monarch butterflies actually love milkweed flowers, but they don’t need them. They can nectar on other plants, including non-native zinnias (gasp!). Gulf fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on passionvine (Passiflora spp.) while never using the flowers themselves.  The same is true of the host plant flowers for Pipevine swallowtails (Aristolochia spp.), Zebra swallowtails (Asimina spp.), Spicebush swallowtails (Lindera spp. and Sassafras) and many other popular butterflies that we love to support.

So incorporate host plants into your landscape and rejoice if they bloom. Should your milkweed (or other host plant) fail to bloom, check the usual reasons: does it get enough sun, enough moisture, the right soil acidity and nutrients? Meanwhile, keep up your supply of other blooming plants and garden on! If you need some ideas for spring/summer/fall blooming plants, check out my lists in this previous post.

Monarch butterfly on blue mist flower in the fall (Conoclinium)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bring Back the Weeds

Rosepink (Sabatia angularis) is a summer roadside
annual whose presence is being sprayed away
The hand of man is heavy upon the land, and the need to exert control seems to be increasing. We’ve heard of the agricultural fields that have been sprayed into obedience thanks to using modified crops, but this control extends to residential and business landscapes as well.  

People want sweeps of shorn grasses and tidy edges where the grass meets a hard surface. The surfaces themselves must be blown clean of debris. The lawn and flower/shrub beds must be sprayed to control any intruding vegetation.

All of this behavior has taken a toll on insect life and the trophic levels in the food chain above them, including birds.

In plain English: We’re killing the things around us so that we can shape nature the way we want it.

The solution: Reduce our usage of herbicides, pesticides, and power equipment and make room for a little more native life in our landscapes.

  • If we stopping using non-native plants in our landscape, particularly ones just valued for being an evergreen blob, we could support more native insects.
  • If we stopping spraying pesticides and applying chemicals to our non-native outdoor carpets, also known as lawns, we’d have more native insects and underground critters/organisms to nourish the soil.
  • If we stopped using leaf blowers as a casual device and a lazy substitute for brooms, we might have more insects and we’d definitely enjoy the outdoors more!
  • And finally, if we stopping using herbicides and weed whackers to beat down the tiny wildflowers that were here way before we were … we would definitely have more insects. It’s time to bring back the weeds

Common violet (Viola sororia) in lawn

I should qualify that, of course, not all weeds are native and even some native plants could use a little control. The definition of ‘weed’ that I’m using here is "any plant that pops up and that humans feel must immediately be controlled."  From the tiny Geranium carolinianum in the lawn to the black cherry (Prunus serotina) seedlings next to the driveway, these things must go! I wish that humans were half that diligent about controlling Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum) and other non-native plants that just pop up.

There was an article circulating around recently about ‘plant blindness.’ While intended for a discussion about blindness to plants in general, it is definitely a problem about native plants. Most people don’t figure out what a plant is, if it is native, if it has a value in being here (over and above what it can do for their yard, that is). Today we have more resources than ever for figuring how what something is, so why don't we figure out what it is before blasting it to smithereens?

Geranium carolinianum

We should consider that we had some of our healthiest pollinator populations when we left a few ‘weeds’ around (many of which were native plants quietly trying to grow and bloom to feed the insects).

So put down the spray bottle and the ‘weed & feed’ treatments and start learning about these plants that were around long before we were. [And get rid of that opportunistic non-native plant that snuck in while you’re at it!]

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Where are the Butterflies?

At my house in Cherokee County, GA, the presence of butterflies has been noticeably minuscule. They emerged in spring as normal, and I photographed the first one on March 28. When the crabapples bloomed the next week, I photographed them enjoying it on April 3. After those early ones, I saw very few but I was busy and then out of town and thought perhaps I just missed seeing them.

Red admiral on May 11 in my yard

In 2014, I blogged about a similar decline in my area, but that year there were butterflies elsewhere as I noted. It seemed that my area was an isolated instance (and there were plenty of skippers which I’m not seeing this year). This year, it’s not just me. Numerous people throughout the state have acknowledged declines in their areas on the NABA – Georgia Facebook page. We’ve been able to acknowledge that “It isn’t just me!” as the reports reached from south Georgia to central, west, east, and north.

Two plants which are normally covered up with tiger swallowtails are blooming now – my Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ and my bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). One hard-working hummingbird is trying to keep up with gathering nectar from the phlox! A clearwing moth pops by now and then as well. In previous years, I’ve photographed 2-3 butterflies sharing the same plant.

What could be the blame for such a statewide decline? Someone suggested it had to do with a wetter than usual spring.  I found an article from 2017 (in Rhode Island) commenting on how a wet spring might affect butterflies: “The wet weather can suppress the population when you have a lot of butterflies wintering as pupa and a lot of small caterpillars.”

Another article – this one from 2009 (another yet of decline) - offered this explanation how wet springs affect them: "In the rainy weather, (butterflies) are sitting ducks, cannot fly and we had so much rain this spring that even if they did emerge, they couldn't find a mate and lay eggs for the next generation," [Pat] Sutton said.

Summer azure in June 2019
People in Georgia are gradually starting to see a few more butterflies in the last few days, but the lack of Eastern tiger swallowtails, our large and abundant state butterfly, is particularly noticeable. Here’s hoping that the population recovers enough to birth the generation that will overwinter for next spring.

In the meantime, keep planting native plants and educating people on the need to avoid pesticides, particularly the increasingly available use of mosquito spraying.