Garden Bugs: Nifty or Nasty?

Like most of life, my garden is a mix of good and not so great: desirable plants and weeds, loamy soil and heavy clay, beneficial insects and annoying pests — and early August brought many types of insects to our garden. Here are just a few stand-outs.

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica), an invasive species, are a type of scarab beetle that destroy many plant species in North America.

The biggest pest in our yard is the Japanese beetle, which skeletonizes the flowers and leaves of many plants. A few weeks ago they favored apple and crabapple trees, but I’ve also pulled them off of my rose, asters, day lilies and purple coneflowers. Now, they are shredding my hosta and anise hyssop blossoms. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the beetles are native to northern Japan and probably arrived in a shipment of iris bulbs in 1916. They have no natural predators, although some birds, such as starlings, robins, bluejays and sparrows will sometimes eat the adult beetles and the grubs, which live in lawns.

Yesterday I picked 46 beetles off of my royal standard hostas. I used to squish them, but that releases their pheromones, which attract more beetles. Now I pick them off by hand and drop them in a small pail of soapy water, which kills them quickly without releasing their pheromones. I don’t use an insecticide because so many beneficial insects would die from the chemicals.

The convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) is a North American native that feeds on aphids, whiteflies and other pests.

Not all ladybugs are red or orange. The tiny esteemed ladybug (Hyperaspis proba) is black with yellow spots.

Unlike the Japanese beetle, ladybugs, or ladybird beetles, especially those native to North America, are beneficial to gardens. More than 500 species of ladybugs have been identified in the United States. Mom taught us never to harm ladybugs because they eat aphids, a major garden pest. Our native ladybugs don’t bite, so if you feel a pinch and find it’s from a ladybug, it is likely to be an Asian ladybug, which do nip — mainly because they seek moisture and salt, or they feel threatened. Asian ladybugs were imported in the 1970s to help destroy predators in agricultural operations. I let them be when I find them because they destroy so many aphids and other pests. However, the native ladybugs are better suited to our gardens and plant species.

Aphids, that favorite food of ladybugs, are tiny, often wingless, and very plentiful. There are more than 300 species of aphids in Minnesota and they are found on all types of plants. Most aphids on a plant are females that reproduce asexually, without having to mate. They also give birth instead of laying eggs. The newborns are clones of their mother, so they, too, are female. (Environmental conditions sometimes cause females to produce both female and male offspring, which are genetically identical to the mother, except that males lack one sex chromosome.) They come in many different colors. I’ve seen green, black, red, and I have orange ones on some of my milkweed plants. When aphids suck a plant’s sap, it causes curling, yellowing and browning of the leaves. Aphids also secrete a sticky, sweet liquid called honeydew. Last summer, during a heavy infestation of aphids, my milkweed plants were dripping with honeydew and covered with ants, which are attracted to the sweet liquid. Even though I washed the milkweed with water from the garden hose daily, the plants were disfigured and messy.

Tiny soft-bodied aphids (Aphids nerii) suck plant juices from common milkweed. The white specks are moltings that are stuck in the honeydew.

 

This juvenile male eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) will attack any type of insect its own size or smaller, including others of the same species.

In contrast to the slow, rather clumsy flight of beetles, several species of dragonfly dart and swoop among the garden plants. Perched on a milkweed leaf, a green eastern pondhawk zips lightning-quick from its perch to capture a fly. Its powerful jaws quickly crush and consume its prey. Common in gardens, dragonflies eat mosquitoes, gnats, flies and other insects. Their shining colors add beauty to the garden.

Most meadowhawks (Sympetrum spp.) fly in late summer and autumn.

Monarchs, red admirals and other butterflies are frequent visitors to our garden — especially now when the milkweed is blooming and the plants are in their prime for feeding monarch larvae. These tiny caterpillars feed only on milkweed and I discovered two of them a week ago. Adult monarchs sail through the garden stopping to nectar on milkweed, Joe-Pye, garden phlox and purple coneflowers.

Monarch caterpillars hatch and grow only on milkweed plants.

Adult monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and many other butterfly species nectar on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectars on garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).

Red admirals are smaller and fly faster and more erratically than monarchs. A male finds a sunny spot and watches for a female to fly by. After mating, the female lays eggs on nettle plants. Adults nectar on milkweed, red clover, ripe fruit and tree sap. They are one of the few species that overwinter in Minnesota, often in a wood pile or mound of leaves.

The summer garden harbors so many interesting, and often beautiful, insects. Next time you’re working in your garden, or simply enjoying your yard, take a look at the diversity of these tiny creatures all around us. The majority of them are either beneficial or harmless. Nifty or nasty? You decide!

Winged Beauty

The numerous blue scalings along the wing border identify this as an eastern tiger swallowtail female (Papilio glaucus).

Just before supper on a hot August evening, the air is heavy with smoky haze from Canadian forest fires. I hear the constant whine of cicadas and smell the scents of garden phlox and royal standard hostas. In a corner of our garden a creature of great beauty nectars in the Joe-Pye; its striped wings open and almost glow against a background of green leaves and shades of pink. The deep blue spots lining its hind wings reveal it to be a female eastern tiger swallowtail. She’s oblivious to the numerous bumblebees that gather nectar and pollen around her. At one point a territorial monarch chases her from the Joe-Pye. (The monarch repeats its rounds through the yard many times an hour, and tries to oust “intruders” — especially other large butterflies.) The two dance a quick scuffle in the air and the “tiger” disappears over the neighbor’s fence for a few minutes. She soon returns to the Joe-Pye garden and continues to nectar.

Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite source of nectar for eastern tiger swallowtails.

I like to recall such moments of warmth and beauty in January and February as I mark off the days on the calendar and wait for spring. I’ll think of the gentle humming of bumblebees, the lilting call of a goldfinch passing by, and the delicate, colorful wings of all of the butterflies that sail through the garden, especially the tiger swallowtail. I’ll remember that her progeny will overwinter in chrysalis form — attached to tree bark, a plant stem, or in leaf litter — snug and asleep under the snow. In May, they will hatch to continue their life cycle of beauty.

A Present Moment

A male eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly.

Our native monarda begins to bloom. One early-July afternoon, I read in the garden for a few minutes. It is so quiet with most of the neighborhood out-of-town for July vacations — I hear just the rustling of leaves and flowers in the breeze and a few mourning doves calling. A male eastern tiger swallowtail nectars in the monarda, and is so intensely focused on the blossoms that I walk right up to him with my camera. His wings are radiant yellow and unmarred, showing no signs of wear or age. The yellow glows when he dips into the shadows, and the scallops under his wings are vibrant orange and steely blue.

Underwings of an eastern tiger swallowtail on monarda or bergamot.

Though he ignores the company, three red admiral butterflies and several bumble bees busily nectar in nearby blossoms. They, too, are absorbed with collecting nectar and are oblivious of each other and of me.

Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) love the nectar of monarda blossoms.

Red admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) visit gardens from April through October before migrating south.

This peaceful time on a warm summer afternoon is, for me, an active meditation on living in the present moment. It is a gift to share this time and space with such lovely creatures; to put aside frets and worries, to let go of the past and future; to just be in this one moment.

Painted Ladies

Black, white and shades of orange set off the upper wings of a painted lady.

Bright orange, black and white, a brush of pink underneath; these butterflies are too small and swift to be monarchs. Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are everywhere; perched on the roof, fence and sun-warmed sidewalk — and especially in the garden (15 to 20 most of the time) on asters, Joe-Pye, sedum and garlic chives. The last time I remember seeing so many was in 2001 or 2002. My neighbor’s sedum ‘autumn joy’ was covered with the butterflies. Our son was little and we sat together in a patch of warm September sun watching the bright creatures sipping nectar.

Why such large numbers? Painted lady populations have cyclic highs and lows. Numbers are high now, possibly linked to good weather in their wintering grounds. Unlike many butterflies in the north, the ‘ladies’ migrate, and that’s happening now. Scientists think that the painted lady has the widest range of any butterfly in the world, living on parts of five continents. In North America, adults overwinter in the southern United States and Mexico, but cannot survive the northern winter.

Four eyespots along the edge of the hind underwing help identify a painted lady.

An easy way to identify painted ladies is to look for four brown ‘eyespots’ along the edge of the hind underwing. The closely related American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) has two large spots in the same region. Another relative, the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), doesn’t have any spots on the underwing.

A painted lady nectars on native Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

I enjoy identifying and learning about all of the creatures that visit our garden. Perhaps, the most satisfying piece is sitting quietly next to the garden and the butterflies, hearing the slight sound of their flickering wings and the hum of bees, and watching the beautiful dance of color as the ladies move among the blooms. If you live in the Midwest, look at your garden, a field of flowers, or perhaps a roadside this weekend, and you might spot the painted ladies.

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are very attractive to the painted ladies visiting our garden.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies

A female eastern tiger swallowtail – black form (Papilio glaucus) nectars on an ironweed flower.

It was an unexpected gift on an August afternoon: A black eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, its wings faded and worn, even tattered in places, showing its age.  It settled in for a long drink of nectar from an ironweed flower on the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, MN. Though we’re more likely to see the yellow form of the tiger swallowtail in the North, the black form isn’t rare or even uncommon — but it only occurs in females. The butterfly’s name refers to the long projections on its tail, which resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

An eastern tiger swallowtail – yellow form nectars on a monarda blossom.

In the northern United States, eastern tiger swallowtails typically fly from mid-May to late August or September. They usually have two broods per summer, and the young of the second group overwinter as chrysalids to emerge the following May. The caterpillars are bright green with two blue eye spots. (They turn brown when ready to form a chrysalis.) They mainly feed on the leaves of trees such as wild cherry, chokecherry, basswood, cottonwood, ash, willow and maple. Adults nectar on many types of flowers, but prefer wild cherry and lilac in spring, Joe-Pye weed and milkweed during the summer.

The name swallowtail comes from the long tail projections that resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

The ironweed on which I spotted it belongs to the Composite family, which also includes coneflowers, sunflowers, daisies, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, asters and others. Ironweed is a native perennial, prefers full sun and often grows near marshes, along riverbanks, edges of moist fields, and wet prairies. It’s typically 4-to-6 feet tall and its violet-colored flower clusters are often visited by bumblebees. The black tiger swallowtails seem attracted to ironweed and I’ve seen them on the blossoms in past years, too. I enjoy seeing both forms of the butterfly.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) grows on the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, Minnesota.

 

 

Lake Michigan Walk

In August, many wildflowers begin to bloom in the Upper Midwest. Bees, wasps, moths and butterflies visit them for nectar and pollen. While in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last weekend, we walked along Lake Michigan to enjoy the warm sun, gentle breeze and flowers both native and non-native that grace the shoreline. Among the blooms were chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, everlasting pea, goldenrod, sweet clover, gray-headed coneflower, bouncing Bet, red clover, Black-eyed Susan, monarda and lesser burdock. (If you look closely, you’ll spot a few pollinators, too.)

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Thoughts on a Butterfly

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

I spotted a small orange-and-black butterfly in a patch of white clover at our cabin in Pine County, MN. Most butterflies rarely sit for more than a few seconds; this one was an avid sunbather, fully opening its dark-spotted wings and resting on a clover bloom for several minutes. Its wing pattern indicated it was a type of crescent butterfly.

Because of their similar appearance and habitat, crescents challenge us to identify them correctly, and this could have been either a pearl or northern crescent. Adults of both species nectar on white clover, asters, thistles and dogbane. Their brown, spiky caterpillars feed primarily on the leaves of asters, and they overwinter to become next spring’s first generation to take flight.

Look closely at the photos and you’ll see the crescent’s worn, tattered wing — evidence that it’s no newbie, has seen some extended flight time, has already lived a good portion of its life. And still, though it shows some wear and tear, it remains beautiful even as it ages and lives out its brief days.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator, or advancing old age.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator or advancing age.

I think of the recent death of my mother-in-law, Mary, and of my friend, Cathy, last January. I watched them complete their lives, I held their hands, hoped they could hear my prayers and words of comfort. I wonder about them often, and deeply hope that, as the simple brown caterpillar morphed into a creature of light and air, they too have transformed into something lovely and eternal.