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.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Can You See Me Now?

A friend of mine recently commented that she doesn’t see many caterpillars. As Doug Tallamy has said many times in his lectures on native plants as larval hosts, caterpillars don’t want to be seen because that increases the chance that they’ll be eaten. Caterpillars have several strategies to avoid being seen: staying hidden is one of them.

Who's in there?

There are several butterflies whose caterpillars stay hidden during the day and come out at night to feed. Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars are one type - I have yet to find one of these other than rolled up in a leaf.

There are several legume-eating caterpillars that act the same and this year I’ve had a bumper crop of them so I peeked to see what was growing there.

Amorpha fruticosa in a pot by the pool

This is my first year growing wild indigo bush, Amorpha fruticosa. I purchased it last year at the fall native plant sale at the State Botanical Garden. I planted it in a big pot and the blooms were fantastic in May.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the leaves were being bound together in places to create a type of enclosure. I gently pulled apart a leaf and found two orange eyes staring back at me!

This one might need a bigger size
Leaves sown together

It was the larval form of the silver-spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus). I was happy to support them but a little disappointed at not being able to see them growing every day. Of course, this strategy keeps them safe from the birds.

Now those eyes look like headlamps!

One night this week, I went outside with a flashlight to get a piece of a plant that I was researching. I glanced over at the Amorpha and there were the caterpillars! It was dark and they were crawling all over the plant in relative safety. I went inside and got the camera to take a few pictures with the help of the flashlight. What a treat it was to see them at last.

The adult silver-spotted skipper on Joe pye weed

So if you can’t find caterpillars, consider looking for other signs that they might be there: partially eaten leaves, rolled up leaves, or even pellets of caterpillar poop. That will let you know that your plants are indeed supporting them even if you can’t see them.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summer Greens

Can you spot this Monarda punctata in the jungle below?
I’m pretty sure that people that walk up to my door think I am the laziest gardener around. The triangle next to the driveway/sidewalk junction is at full-bore-crazy-growth phase.

While there are a few black-eyed Susan flowers (Rudbeckia hirta and R. fulgida var. fulgida) here and there, it is mostly a jungle of green. Pale spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) is noticed by the bees if not the humans.

Rudbeckia engulfed by Eupatorium hyssopifolium

The jungle

It’s a phase. The spring-flowering plants have been overtaken by the summer ones. I can see what is to come, with many plants just days or weeks away from bursting into bloom. The thoroughworts (Eupatorium spp.) are loaded with buds, and the cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) are like coiled snakes, slowly unwinding a thick raceme of red flowers. Others, like the goldenrod (Solidago spp.), won’t be blooming for another month or more.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Caterpillar on Eupatorium not yet blooming

I can also see value in that jungle of green – it is a living mass of life even without the flowers. You see, some critters don’t need flowers to benefit from my plants. Caterpillars, the larval forms of butterflies and moths, are quietly knocking back a leaf or two as they transform from tiny egg to adult. Already this year, I’ve watched caterpillars of Spicebush swallowtail, American lady and Gulf fritillary butterflies grow up on my plants.

Those who are not eating my plants still benefit from the jungle. The space beneath it is a cool oasis for toads, turtles and others. Carolina anole lizards patrol the plant stalks looking for a meal while katydids, spiders and ambush bugs are also looking. Dragonflies alight on tall stems.

So when you pass by my garden (or even a wild roadside) and think “Nothing going on there” - there’s a whole bunch of bugs that would disagree with you. Flowers are on the way, but life goes on regardless.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

To Each Her Own

Last week I had the pleasure of watching a female Gulf fritillary butterfly dance around the yard, looking for just the right place to lay her eggs. Gracefully she went from plant to plant, searching for the exact one that she needed. She landed many times, only to lift off again in just seconds when she realized it was the wrong one.

Gulf fritillary looking for nectar on Joe pye weed

Laying an egg (not much time to focus the camera!)
Finally, she found it. She found the passionvine (Passiflora lutea). That was the one she wanted. In a crazy, acrobatic move, she grabbed not a leaf, but a slender tendril (which is actually a modified leaf). She bent her body to it and laid a single, golden egg. Then she took another spin around the area, found another tendril, and laid another egg.

Left side: New egg  /  Right side: 2 days later

Passiflora lutea

How amazing is it that this small creature, just days out of her own chrysalis, knows just what to do? If she lays her eggs on any other plant, they will perish, unable to get any nourishment. Gulf fritillaries have evolved to eat only passionvine (Passiflora), just like monarch butterflies eat only milkweed (Asclepias).

There are several species of passionvine native to Georgia. The large purple one (P. incarnata) is probably the most familiar one. The one in my yard is much smaller, with a pale yellow flower. The vine is quite prolific, though, and it scrambles all over several shrubs. The fruits are small and dark blue, almost like an olive.

Since I saw where she laid the eggs (on my front porch, where the vine had sprawled), I was able to check on them with my hand lens. After a day, they started to darken, evidence of the growing caterpillar within. After 3 days, the first one hatched and climbed up the tendril to find a leaf. The tiny dark caterpillar was only visible because I was looking for it!

The first day it could only eat one side of the leaf, leaving a translucent hole like a tiny window. By the second day, it was making real holes but not big ones. Then another one hatched and crawled to its own leaf, bypassing the leaf occupied by the first one. How did it know to do that!

Two caterpillars, one still very tiny
I was nervous leaving them there. The plant was blooming and the flowers are apparently very popular with a medium-sized wasp. Wasps like to feed caterpillars to their young. I imagined these caterpillars falling prey to a wasp, so after a few days, I moved them to my caterpillar cage for protection. They were growing very well until I noticed that a few of them seemed to be dying. A friend said they might have a disease, so I removed them and cleaned the cage.

The remaining caterpillars are growing larger every day, occasionally pausing to transition to a new instar and shed their skin. Soon they will be attaching themselves to the upper part of the cage and developing a chrysalis in preparation for their final transformation.

Then the cycle will start again. In fact, these two were found in the garden several days ago, in the process of making more eggs.