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.