Sunday, August 28, 2016

It Starts with a Plant

Monarch butterfly nectaring on goldenrod
Actually it starts with sunlight. But right after that, it starts with a plant. It is at no time more evident to me how much native plants nourish the natural ecosystem than at this time of year when butterflies are flying, laying eggs, and birds are feasting on everything!

I remember listening to Doug Tallamy for the first time in 2009 as he described that plants are the only organism that can take sunlight and convert it to food. The plant’s foliage and fruit then becomes food for other creatures. Those creatures then become food for something else.

There is no web of life without plants.

Remember when we thought that we only needed plants to make oxygen for us? Truthfully, they make so much more. They make life. Back then we thought that any plant would be fine because they would make oxygen. So we happily planted crape myrtles and other non-native plants, secure in our understanding that we were helping!

Then Doug came along and burst our bubble. I was already a fan of native plants and appreciated them for their unique beauty and sense of place. It took an entomologist’s perspective to bring the story to life. Real life! The bugs had evolved with these native plants over thousands and even millions of years. The bugs need these plants to survive - the plants from half-way around the world just won’t do (in a few cases there might be related plants they can eat but that is the exception, not the rule).

Snowberry clearwing caterpillar
on native honeysuckle (Lonicera
Snowberry clearwing moth

Cloudless sulphur butterfly on partridge pea 

American lady butterfly on pussytoes

Above are some examples of bug-plant relationships that have taken place in my yard this year as well as many others like the stories in this blog and this one. (It's been a great year for butterflies.) These caterpillars grow up on native plants. Without these plants, you would not have the beautiful adult butterflies and moths that they turn into.

Picture a plant if you will, perhaps a goldenrod (Solidago) - one of fall’s finest perennial plants. It grows up in spring, rising taller in the summer, nothing but green for months. During this phase, bugs land on it. Some nibble on it as adults while others will lay eggs on it. Eggs turn into caterpillars and other larvae, most of which will be consumed by other organisms (birds, spiders, wasps). Some will turn into moths or butterflies.

Next comes the floral phase. Small but numerous flowers open up, providing pollen and nectar to hungry bees, beetles, and butterflies. The beautiful monarch butterfly, shown in the first picture, depends on this nectar as it flies back through Georgia on its migration. These floral visitors might also be consumed by hungry predators: more birds, some ambush bugs, perhaps a dragonfly, and spiders again.

After the flowers are finished, dozens of tiny seeds form, each topped with a small bit of fluff. These seeds feed small songbirds and small mammals. A few insects may also eat them.

During the winter, standing stalks might be a nesting place for the larvae of bees and wasps. For most of the year, this plant has nourished and sustained countless insects. Can the crape myrtle do that? Not in these United States of America.

If you want to support life in your yard, remember: it starts with a plant. And that plant would be a native plant.

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