Sunday, August 30, 2020

We Counted – Year 2 Great Georgia Pollinator Census

Collection of useful data can take multiple years and this was Year 2 of the Great Georgia Pollinator Census. Like last year, this was a 2-day event spanning a Friday and Saturday to encourage ordinary citizens, including students in classrooms, to count pollinators in their gardens, schools, and local parks. This year was way different, of course, thanks to the pandemic. While last year featured hundreds of group and school counts, this year was mostly at-home counting. Read about the Year 1 results here.

I performed multiple counts over the two days in my own garden. While I missed counting with and helping other people, my Friday count included a special helper: my two-year old grandson. I’ve been pointing out flowers and bugs to him all during the spring and summer so the concept of being interested in bugs on flowers wasn’t new to him. He’s also been working on his counting so he was able to tell me that there were TWO bugs on the plant and he was also able to say that they were BEES. Alas, he could not yet identify that they were carpenter bees so that will be a goal for next year.

There's a bee on the milkweed!
He wanted a pad and pencil too

The flowers blooming this year were similar to last year with a few changes. Cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) was just as popular this year as last, proving that it is a great late-summer perennial to have in the native garden. Bumble bees were number one on this plant with a smattering of other bug categories. I was especially pleased to see (on both days) an elephant mosquito which I also saw—on this same plant—last year during the count.

Elephant mosquito on Rudbeckia
Bumble bee packing on Rudbeckia

My Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) was in peak form this year while it was almost done last year. Bumble bees were again the major pollinator on this plant with showy tiger swallowtails visiting as well. Another difference this year was a blooming pink milkweed (Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra) that I didn’t have last year. Primary visitors to this included carpenter bees and a few tiger swallowtails. I also counted on anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) both of which supported bumble bees. I never saw any honey bees during the count but clearly my yard is a tasty wonderland for bumble bees.

Tiger swallowtails on Joe pye weed
Bumble bee on Agastache

Another difference this year was the ability to count a late-blooming devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa). This plant bloomed earlier but had one late inflorescence just starting to open. The dozens and dozens of tiny flowers on it brought a surprise visitor: a red-spotted purple butterfly joined in with some tiger swallowtails. Normally I don't see this butterfly species visit many flowers. Counting the Aralia needed special equipment - I had to use binoculars from my deck to get a good look at the insects.

Aralia spinosa with two tigers and a red-spotted purple butterfly

As before, this activity is a great way for folks to realize that:
  • Certain plants support certain insects so a diversity of plants is important.
  • Certain plants bloom at different times so having a succession of blooming plants is key to support pollinators throughout the year.
  • Some plants don’t have many pollinator visitors at all so knowing what works well in your area would allow you to support the best number possible, especially in a more limited space.
  • Being outside and looking more closely at what is using our plants can give us a better appreciation for the local ecosystem and what we do in our gardens.
See you next year!

I wasn't counting on this Verbesina but I noticed this butterfly laying eggs

Official count sticker design by Daniel Ballard and courtesy of

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Confusing Dark Swallowtails

When butterflies are flying to and fro in your garden, it can be hard to quickly identify which dark swallowtail you might be seeing: is it the more common Eastern Tiger swallowtail dark form female or something more unusual? If you can get any pictures, it is helpful to have a dorsal view (as if you were looking down on it) and a ventral view (from the side, including the abdomen if possible). In these days of smartphones, sometimes the easier thing is to take a video rather than focus on single shots which might be blurry.

This post was inspired by a post created in 2009 by Louisiana Naturalist about four species of swallowtail butterflies that have dark forms: Spicebush swallowtail, Pipevine swallowtail, Eastern Black swallowtail, and the dark morph of the female Eastern Tiger swallowtail. All of these butterflies are found in Georgia, particularly in my area (metro Atlanta). Southern Georgians may also have the Palamedes swallowtail (not covered here). With the permission of the original blogger, I am making my own version of her blog in case hers should ever disappear. Here is the link to her original blog.

The beauty of Rachel’s post is the ability to see the same view of all four of them at the same time so I will follow her lead on that. Here is the dorsal view of them (and I believe all of these are females).

In the same order, here is the ventral view of all four.

Now that you’ve seen them, let’s discuss which is which and what makes them different. Here is the dorsal side again with identification tips circled.

Upper left is Black swallowtail: look for the black dot inside the larger orange dot. I find this butterfly to be the smallest of the four.

Upper right is Eastern Tiger swallowtail: the upper edges of the wings have white marks that look like dashes and there is a tiny dot circled showing a spot of orange inside a white dot. This butterfly is the largest of the four.

Lower left is Spicebush swallowtail: the light blue edges circled can look like fingertips.

Lower right is the Pipevine swallowtail: overall the wings have less detail, just a soft wash of blue color and white dots but the tails are noticeably blue.

In the same order, here is the ventral side with identification tips:

The first thing I want to point out is the look of the abdomen: notice that 3 of them have dots and one doesn't (Who doesn't have spots? Well, even kids know that a tiger has stripes! You just can't see the stripes on this all back form.)

Upper left is Black swallowtail: there is a double row of orange dots and the row closest to the body has one double set; there is that orange circle with the black dot again; and the abdomen has spots.

Upper right is Eastern Tiger swallowtail: the white marks still look like dashes; there is a single row of orange dots; and the abdomen is solid black (or striped in an intermediate form).

Lower left is Spicebush swallowtail: two rows of orange dots and in the row closest to the body one dot is missing; and the abdomen has spots.

Lower right is the Pipevine swallowtail: a single row of orange dots (some consider it to be in a strong J form); the tail is blue; and the abdomen has spots and often is bluish.

Of course there are also some differences between males and females, particularly for the black swallowtail so I am including an extra picture of the male black swallowtail (dorsal view). In the case of the Eastern tiger swallowtail dark form, occasionally there is an intermediate form that is in between yellow and dark; I am including a photo of what that might look like. The Pipevine and Spicebush male dorsal view can be more vibrant (than the female) so I am including photos of them.

Black swallowtail - male
Intermediate form Eastern Tiger swallowtail

Spicebush swallowtail - male
Pipevine swallowtail - male on left

And finally there is a swallowtail lookalike that is not a swallowtail: the Red-spotted purple. This species looks very much like a swallowtail who lost its tails, but it is not one at all. This species is distinctive in that it rarely nectars on flowers; it likes minerals on the ground and also some rotting fruit. It has red spots on the edges of the upper wings (sometimes they are very faint).

Red-spotted purple butterfly

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Census is Coming!

The Second Annual Great Georgia Pollinator Census will be held this coming Friday and Saturday, August 21-22.  While last year was filled with group-count events, this year is decidedly different. Luckily, people who counted last year should feel confident enough to do individual counts, either at home or by finding a local garden (a park, library, or nature center with a good floral display).

Tiger swallowtails love
Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum)
Your best source of information is the official census webpage: where you can download a counting guide that includes a printable form (you need one form for each 15-minute count, so print several forms or make your own on scrap paper). It has loads of information for understanding what insects go into the 8 categories (same as last year): carpenter bees, non-native honey bees, bumble bees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies/moths, and any other insect. Pictures are there to help you get familiar with certain bugs (for example, how bee-mimicking flies can be recognized as ‘not bees’).

The task is simple: first, pick a plant to monitor (try to pick one that you’ve seen insects on). Then watch your plant for 15 minutes and count how many insects land on any part of that plant. If an insect leaves and comes back, that's two counts. You might notice that you see much of the same insect over and over (for example all small bees, all flower flies, all butterflies); that can be normal as some insects prefer certain plants. Try to do several counts on different types of plants. Later you can upload your counts to the website.

For inspiration, you are welcome to read my blog from last year’s count. I enjoyed helping other people count but I also had a good time in my own garden. It will be interesting to see if it’s much different in terms of flowers and insects. I can already tell that my cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) will be a major component of the count. My Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is actually a little behind this year so it will be part of the count (last year it was almost tapped out).

I hope you will consider participating. The information that we provide from these counts helps scientists gather valuable information about where and what insects are out there, especially as we add to it every year. According to UGA, the results in 2019 were impressive: “About 4,500 participants documented more than 131,000 insect sightings as part of the inaugural census in 2019, and more than 100 events related to the project took place around the state.”

Bumble bees are reliable visitors to cup plant and rosinweeds (Silphium)

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Butterflies at Last

It’s been another weird year here for butterflies. Similar to last year, we had some spring butterflies (in the case of Eastern tiger swallowtails, that is the emergence of those that overwintered in their chrysalis) and then a long “dry” spell of nothing until July. That drought would seem to indicate that the first generation (those who come from eggs laid by the overwintered generation) wasn’t very robust.

Synchronized American ladies on white Echinacea purpurea

Like last year, butterflies didn’t seem to ‘catch up’ and appear in noticeable numbers until July. That is when a couple of butterfly magnet plants start to bloom: buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). My neighbor has the buttonbush and I walked over there on July 8 after seeing nothing on my buckeye and was surprised to see about 12 tiger swallowtails fluttering around her blooming plant.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on buttonbush (Cephalanthus)

This has been the week that I’ve really started to see good tiger swallowtail numbers at my house, as well as other butterflies. They are enjoying the remaining blooms on the Phlox paniculata, the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), the cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), and the devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa). The Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is just about to open and I know they’ll love that too.

Tiger on Phlox paniculata
At my place this week I also had American lady butterflies, spicebush swallowtails, numerous skippers, hairstreaks, and summer azures (which were laying eggs on my wingstem (Verbesina)). On Saturday I went to visit a place with a lot of flowers (Night Song Native Plant Nursery), and also saw Gulf fritillaries, common buckeyes, long-tail skippers, as well as the tiger swallowtails.

Of course we had another wet spring this year so that could be the cause for the dip in May and June. This post is a way to document what I observed as well as to help others know they are not alone if their numbers have been down. 

There was one other difference this year that I’d like to mention. Several folks in the metro Atlanta area saw more Monarch butterflies than usual after the spring migration. Females continued to visit the area in May, June, and even in early July, laying eggs where they found milkweed. Even though they weren’t in my yard, I helped raise some of those and reported their presence to Journey North for citizen science. And, as I posted earlier, I also had fun raising some Queen butterflies from eggs laid by a female that came through the area in late May.

American lady on Silphium
American lady on Rudbeckia fulgida

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Southeast Native Plant Primer (the book)

The resources for helping people to learn about regional native plants—and how to use them—have never been better. I have filled my social media feeds (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) with native plant friends, conservation organizations, and businesses that share gorgeous and insightful posts on plants and related topics. More people than ever are creating web content (blogs, websites, videos) with plant profiles, articles, and other resources. And books continue to be published, including one that just came out this week.

Beginner-level resources are especially welcome for the many newbies learning about native plants and their benefit to our local ecosystems. If you’ve been looking for something for yourself or for a friend that you are encouraging, check out this new book entitled “The Southeast Native Plant Primer: 225 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden.” 

This is a new book by accomplished North Carolina authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross plus the wonderful photographer Will Stuart.  Larry and Will published a book in 2014 (read my review here) that is similar but bigger (460 plants are covered). This new book is specifically geared towards beginners, so the organization of it is simplified plus enhanced for today’s issues (like home pesticide use and invasive plants).

In general, the older book has larger sections on any topic that is present in both. The downsizing of details in this one surely makes reading it less intimidating to newbies, but it doesn’t lose anything important. This book has new resources at the end, including sections on Recommended Reading, Mail Order nurseries, and a list of Southeastern Public Gardens with Significant Native Plant Collections (including 6 in Georgia). The book also includes several lists (caterpillar host plants, pollinator garden suggestions across 3 seasons, plants that deer might avoid, plants with fruit for birds) that help guide your choices.

When it comes to the reduced number of plants in the new book, some categories are not included: bog plants, aquatic plants, and a dedicated conifer section are in the earlier book but not the new one. In addition, not as many canopy trees are included in the tree section. New gardeners might be more focused on perennials and shrubs so those sections are robust. There is a section at the end that covers the value of existing native trees that gardeners might have, including oaks, which they should be encouraged to recognize and treasure for their value.

Helianthus angustifolius, one of the few featured plants with 4 icons:
birds, bees, butterflies, and caterpillars are supported by this perennial

Shade and sun perennials are broken out separately to let you search more efficiently for the conditions you have. Each plant profile has useful icons for birds, caterpillars, butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to help you recognize important characteristics for an Earth-friendly garden. The profiles include 14 ferns, 12 grasses and grass-like plants—a great term for gardeners who probably get frustrated with nerds insisting things are sedges instead of grasses even though they look like them—39 woodland wildflowers, 71 sun perennials, 12 vines, 46 shrubs, and 31 trees.

Solidago caesia is a wonderful shade-tolerant goldenrod;
its plant profile has 3 icons: bees, butterflies and caterpillars

If you’re just starting or you know of someone that needs a helpful resource, this is a book to consider. As we continue to stay home more than usual, planning for fall garden changes starts now!

[Timber Press has a similar book out for the Midwest region, so consider your friends there as well.]

Aronia arbutifolia earns 4 icons: birds, bees, butterflies and
caterpillars; it is a worthy garden shrub!