Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sneaky Invasives: Porcelainberry

You’d think that invasive plants would be super noticeable, much like how kudzu smothers everything it encounters. It doesn’t always work that way, and the time between the plant arriving in your landscape and your realizing that it is not a good one can really give the plant a good head start.

Fruit and unlobed leaves of Ampelopsis brevipedunculata

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is one such plant and I am seeing it more and more in the metro Atlanta area. The vine is often mistaken for a type of grape vine – it is related to grapes. As very well-described in this post by the Virginia Native Plant Society, this plant has several different leaf shapes, making quick identification a bit challenging.

Lobed leaves, flowers forming
Lobed leaves and flowers blooming

The photos in this post are from an Atlanta location, a public garden that didn’t even realize what had moved in. It was actively choking out desirable native plants at this point. I have also seen large infestations in Cobb County. Of course the birds spread the seeds.

If you don’t want invasive plants to take over your landscape, pay close attention to what moves in so that you can eradicate it early. If you’ve got this one now, remove and bag the fruits before it spreads further. Native plants all around you will breathe a sigh of relief.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Year 3: Counting Pollinators


The Great Georgia Pollinator Census count is in the books for its third year. At my counting locations we managed to miss the predicted rain and therefore enjoyed good counting weather; I love clouds on a hot day! On Friday I counted at my house, using a single thistle flower, cutleaf coneflower, and – my favorite – Joe pye weed.

The thistle (Cirsium altissimum) had just opened its first flower and while its counts were low, just 3 skippers in 15 minutes, it was a flower much loved by these skippers. They stayed on that flower for hours, only briefly leaving when another insect jostled them.

The cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) are summer favorites and their counts absolutely reflected their popularity with insects (plus they also had more flowers per plant than the thistle). I like to count the Joe pye weed in the afternoon when the Eastern Tiger swallowtails are at their most abundant. The big inflorescences can hold 3-4 butterflies at once!

On Saturday I took my grandson to a friend’s house; her garden had tons of things in bloom, including a thistle with many more flowers that attracted several large American bumblebees as well as tiny sweat bees and Tiger swallowtails. The ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) was buzzing with smaller bees, including several nice metallic green sweat bees. The mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pycnanthemoides) was blooming nicely and just covered in bees and wasps.

American bumblebee
Metallic green sweat bee

I always enjoy this activity and the interest in pollinators that it generates in Georgia. In particular, many K-12 students participate in schools around the state. According to news published about the 2020 count: “In the end, 3,755 people representing 124 counties participated in the 2020 census, collecting close to 82,600 insect visit observations. Additionally, 525 new pollinator gardens have been created as part of the project.” Here is my previous post about the 2020 count. If you're in Georgia, do join us next year!

This guy graduated to a mini clipboard this year for the count

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A Moment in Nature for August

Moments in nature are rarely planned and my #momentinnature for August was a chance encounter with a small bright green-blue bug that I mistook for a type of sweat bee. I must have seen this insect before because I always hoped to find such a bright small bee again. I rushed inside for my camera when I spotted this one on the back deck.

Cuckoo wasp checking extra-floral nectary on Chamaecrista

It turns out that this is not a bee but rather a type of cuckoo wasp - one that does not provision a nest but instead lays its eggs in the larval chamber of other wasps. Where did I find it? Around the bee box that was being used by other small wasps to create their larval chambers!

There are several genera of green-blue cuckoo wasps in the family Chrysididae, but this one appears to be in either the genus Chrysis or Caenochrysis. As I was reading about them in my Wasps book, I realized that species of these two genera have specific hosts in the genus Trypoxylon which is a type of wasp that specializes on spiders. It is always amazing to learn about these so-very-specific relationships! Last year I happened to watch wasps build their nests in this box and bring small spiders for them. 

Cuckoo wasp, photo enlarged

How very serendipitous to find this wasp exactly where it is supposed to be - truly a wonderful moment in nature. Keep looking, nature is out there!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Easing Into Using More Native Plants


Several weeks ago I talked about how non native plants in our gardens don’t do enough things for our insects (and, by extension, also not enough for birds and things that eat insects). Since they don’t contribute sufficiently to the insect life cycle, excessive use of them actually contributes to the decline of insect and bird populations. Extensive use of lawn (which is not native), large mulched areas (they have zero plant life), and non native trees, shrubs, and perennials offer much less food for insects and their young.

The camouflaged looper caterpillar says your yard is feeding the ecosystem

It might sound intimidating to change your landscape so this blog is going to offer some simple suggestions to transition into using more native plants. Select some of these ideas as you have time, effort, and money so that within a year or two you’ll have made good progress.

The front of my house in 2008, sod was laid in 2004

1.      Reduce your lawn: take a good look at how you use your lawn and identify areas to remove or shrink it. Yes, I said look at how you “use your lawn.” If you’re not using it to walk on (to reach other areas of the yard) or to play on then it really is just dead space, often in some of the sunniest places of your landscape (sunny places are perfect for flowers, why let the lawn have it?).

This page has good ideas and great pictures of people shrinking their lawn to make room for more perennials, shrubs, and trees. Shrinking can be as easy as widening the beds adjacent to the lawn, allowing you to plant “real plants” that pollinators can use. That’s been my approach.

2.      Replace a non native tree or a group of shrubs with native choices. Perhaps you have some older landscaping that you’ve wanted to update; swapping them out for native choices is a win for the ecosystem. Swap out something invasive like an ornamental pear (like ‘Bradford’) or privet (Ligustrum) shrubs and your impact is even greater. Swap out Nandina, which has toxic berries for cedar waxwings, and again your change is significant when you replace with native shrub like our viburnums. Plan now to do the work in Oct/Nov when it is the best time to plant trees and shrubs in Georgia.

3.      Add a pollinator garden and fill it with milkweed (Asclepias), Golden Alexander (Zizia) and other host plants, as well as flowers that bloom in spring, summer, and fall. Add some colorful yard art, rocks, and a birdbath to welcome the critters. This is a good replacement for lawn if you needed some inspiration for removing lawn.

4.      Remove an invasive groundcover like Vinca or English ivy and add a more diverse mix of perennials as replacement (a monoculture is the opposite of diversity) and you’ll get the benefit of fewer mosquitoes since they breed in thick, waxy vegetation like those groundcovers. If you have a lot, plan to do 10 feet a week or month until you’ve reached your goal.

Hopefully some of these ideas will help you move forward towards your goal of using more native plants in your landscape. Pick one or more and start your journey to helping make a difference in your area.

Front in 2016, sod corner replaced with a 3-season mix of perennials

Sunday, August 1, 2021

A Moth for the Mulch Pile

I have really been enjoying my mulch pile and this blog is at least the third one to be inspired by the activity on/around it. In July I had written about the eyed click beetle on my new one and in June it was the Dekay’s brown snake that was using the old one. This week a flutter of evening moth activity had me searching my moth book to identify the species for dozens of tiny moths that appear around the pile in the afternoon.

Idia moth

Since I first noticed the moths several days ago, they consistently show up in the late afternoon, around 4 pm, fluttering away (but landing again on the pile) whenever I get too close. Each one is about the size of my thumbnail and quite triangular in shape. I identified them as a type of “litter moth” which feed on dead leaves and lichens. I think mine is the pale form of the American Idia moth (Idia americaulis).

Two of the moths, waiting for nightfall

Idia moth, different perspective

We just finished up National Moth Week so it’s great to discover a new moth (after all, there are over 11,000 species in North America) and to realize that there are so many things out there that we don’t find until the conditions are right. 

I might never have noticed a single one of these but having the mulch pile attract a dozen or more certainly caught my attention. I love finding new insects in the yard.