Summer Solstice

The first wild rose (Rosa blanda) of early summer.

It is the season of light in the North. Earth bows its northern pole to the sun extending daylight to almost sixteen hours — eight more since winter solstice last December. Spring flowers are finished blooming, trees are fully covered in lush green leaves, and swelling buds on many perennials will open soon. Fireflies glow in the night. During the day, delicate lacewings, damselflies and dragonflies patrol the garden for pests. I spotted my first monarch of the season a couple of weeks ago when it visited our milkweed patch, which is almost ready to bloom.

Solstice was mild and clear with a high of 76℉. I enjoyed the company of good friends for lunch at an outdoor restaurant. Later, I sat in our garden to soak up the late-afternoon sun’s warmth, to listen to the robins sing and to toast the long summer ahead.

A monarch (Danaus plexippus) seeks nectar among the buds of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Lacewings (Chrysoperla carnea) eat aphids, mites and other garden pests.

An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) catches late-evening sun in the garden.

A bumble bee nectars in a wild geranium blossom (Geranium maculatum).

Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) belong to the evening primrose family.

‘Husker red’ beard tongue (Penstemon digitalis) has maroon stems and leaves.

Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ begins to open.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is a favorite of bumble bees.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) buds will soon open to provide nectar to monarchs and many other insects.

Garden Damsels and Dragons

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis) damsel fly.

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) damsel fly.

The early morning garden is a place of shadows and peace. Cardinals, goldfinches, mourning doves and house wrens ring out their song in neighborhood trees. Already, bumblebees work the flowers — bluebells, bee balm, hyssop and milkweed — buzzing softly.  Almost camouflaged in the deep green shadows, a tiny damselfly perches atop a milkweed leaf. An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), its slender body, less than an inch long, is mint green, blue and black. The wings are folded over its back in damselfly style.

Across the backyard, a much larger dragonfly relative hangs from the edge of a hosta leaf, wings held away from its body horizontally. It is a green darner (Anax junius), one of the largest dragonflies in the world at three inches in length and with a wingspan of more than four inches. Its spring-green head and thorax hide it among the hosta. It “wing-whirs”, or rapidly vibrates its wings to warm up its flight muscles — and that movement catches my eye and reveals its presence.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest dragonflies.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest surviving dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are members of the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones”. Unlike the peaceable bumblebees, they are fierce predators, hunting for small insects in the garden and eating many pests. Odonata are descended from some of Earth’s most ancient creatures. Fossils of ancient dragonfly ancestors (Protodonata) date back 325 million years. Scientists believe that bees evolved more recently — about 120 million years ago; the oldest bee fossil discovered so far is about 100 million years old. Both insect families contribute to a healthy garden.

 

Late-Autumn Insects

Last week, the coming winter teased us with snow flurries mixed in with the rain. But, during the first week of November, the temperature rebounded to the 70s. The breeze is gentle, the afternoon sun is hot and a few insects are active in some sun-warmed patches of our backyard.

On the garden’s last purple coneflower, a yellow-green, spotted beetle, similar to a ladybug at first glance, nibbles on the coneflower’s center.  It is a spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata).  And, though it’s a garden pest, it won’t survive the Minnesota winter, so I let it stay. It looks beautiful on the deep magenta bloom.

Spotted Cucumber Beetle

Spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) on a purple coneflower.

Across the yard in another sunny spot, bright red insects huddle together on a common milkweed pod. They include three different developmental stages, or instars, of the same insect, the large milkweed bug, (Oncopeltus fasciatus).  They use a tubelike mouth to inject digestive enzymes into the pod and then suck out the partially digested plant material.  Because they eat milkweed, they have the same toxicity found in monarchs and other insects that dine on the plant.  When I first noticed them a few weeks ago, I thought they were red aphids until I spotted an adult on the pod.  Over time, they began to grow larger, develop black markings, and become darker red.  Like the spotted cucumber beetle mentioned above, the large milkweed bug is migratory and those still here won’t survive our northern winter.

Early instars of Large Milkweed Bug

Early developmental instars of large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus).

Large milkweed bug in developmental stages.

Large milkweed bug in several developmental stages on a common milkweed pod.

The orange shells of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia Axyridis) glow where they’ve settled on the sun-warmed brick of our house and on a few hardy garden plants.  Unlike the insects mentioned above, these beetles survive the Minnesota winter.  They were introduced into the southern United States in the mid-1900s to help control agricultural pests and first appeared in Minnesota in the 1990s, according to University of Minnesota records.  To some people they’re pests because the beetles often find a way inside in the autumn. But, they also eat aphids found on trees, in gardens and on agricultural crops.  The easiest way to distinguish Asian lady beetles from native species is by an “M” or “W” mark (depending on the viewing angle) on the thorax between the head and abdomen.  (More about Asian and native ladybird beetles in another post.)

Asian lady beetle on goldenrod.

Asian lady beetle (Harmonia Axyridis) on goldenrod.

Asian lady beetle on 'Henry Kelsey' rose.

Asian lady beetle on ‘Henry Kelsey’ rose.

2015 Monarch Journey South

Coppery orange and black monarch butterflies glow against the warm, late summer sun.  Monarch migration to Mexico is underway in the northern United States.  According to monarchwatch.org’s peak migration chart, at 45° latitude the greatest number of monarchs will migrate between August 29 and September 10.  In St. Paul, Minnesota, I’ve primarily seen the butterflies floating beneath trees in backyards and along the streets.  A few rest in our garden and nectar on garden phlox, goldenrod, snakeroot, Japanese anemones, black-eyed Susan’s and Joe-Pye weed, which appears to be their favorite.

Monarch resting on white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

A male monarch suns itself on white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

Monarch resting on one of more than 40 species of goldenrod (Solidago) native to Minnesstota.

A monarch rests on one of more than 40 species of goldenrod (Solidago) native to Minnesota.

A monarch drinks nectar from sweet Joe-Pye weed.

A female monarch drinks nectar from sweet Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium).

Will this year’s migration numbers be higher or lower than 2014’s?  It’s easy to help scientists track the data by contributing your own monarch migration observations.  Visit learner.org’s Fall 2015 Migration Report Page and complete the short information form for monarchs.  Or, if you’re just interested in how 2015 fall migration is progressing, you can check out the latest information on their Fall 2015 Maps and Sightings page.

Rainy Evening Gift

The backyard was lush and green after the week’s heavy rain. The air felt chilly and damp as I picked up windfalls from our beacon apple tree.  Soaked, bedraggled bumble bees and long-horned bees clung to Joe-Pye blossoms and the undersides of leaves.  Only a few crickets chirped in the unusually cool August evening air.  As I reached into the garden to pull some weeds, I felt a fluttering against my fingers and heard the slightest rustle of wings.  Barely grasping my fingertips was a beautiful green dragonfly —a common green darner.  Its aqua-green thorax and dark maroon abdomen hinted that it was probably a female or juvenile.  I thought it was injured, or perhaps dying. Gently, I held my hand next to some sedum plants.  The dragonfly struggled onto the flower buds and I left it for the night.

Common Green Darner (Anax Junius).

Common Green Darner (Anax junius).

greendarner2a

In the morning, the green darner was gone.  I found no scattered wings or chitin, no other remains in the garden to indicate that it had been eaten. I believe that the sun’s warmth revived it.  Since then, I’ve glimpsed a large dragonfly zooming over the garden on several different days; perhaps it is the same one. I hope that it lives to make the long migration flight south to the Gulf Cost in September.

 

Variety in an Urban Milkweed Patch

Most of us learned about the special relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants when we were young children — and just about anytime I look in our garden, monarchs sail among the milkweed.  Females lay eggs on the underside of leaves and monarchs of both genders sip the plant’s sweet nectar.  But milkweed isn’t just for monarchs!  It also provides a place for many other creatures:  A few that are immune to its toxicity eat it; others drink its nectar, depend on it for reproduction, watch for a meal, or simply rest. Here’s a sampling of critters living in our backyard milkweed in early August.  What’s in your milkweed patch??

The adult red milkweed beetle (Tertaopes tetrophthalmus) eats milkweed leaves, buds and flowers.

The adult red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) eats milkweed leaves, buds and flowers. Its larvae eat the plant’s roots.

The Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eats the seed pods, stems and leaves of milkweed.

The Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eats the seed pods, stems and leaves of milkweed.

A hover fly or flower fly (Syrphidae).

A hover fly or flower fly (Syrphidae).

 

An eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons).

An eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) hunts for small insect pests to eat.

A honey bee (Apis millifera).

Honey bees (Apis millifera) favor the sweet milkweed nectar.

Bumble bees (Bombus) of several different species are attracted to milkweed blossoms.

Bumble bees (Bombus) of several different species are attracted to milkweed blossoms.

Red admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) are attracted to the milkweed's nectar.

A red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) sips milkweed nectar.

I never tire of seeing monarchs (Danaus plexipus) nectar on milkweed blossoms.

I never tire of seeing monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectar on milkweed blossoms.

Insects aren't the only critters to favor milkweed nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) frequently drink it, too. Insects aren't the only critters to favor milkweed nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) frequently drink it, too.

Insects aren’t the only critters to favor milkweed nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) frequently drink it, too.

 

About Those Bumblers

My first encounter with a bee was not a happy one.  I was five years old and Mom was mowing the clover-filled front lawn.  I tried to step carefully in the clover, but my flipflop flipped up a honey bee that stung the side of my big toe.  I was hysterical when I felt the jolt of pain, looked down and saw the bee on my toe trying to pull its stinger out. According to Mom, I wailed loudly enough to bring the neighbors outside.  I didn’t care that the honey bee stung out of self-defense and that it would die.  I was petrified of bees and their kin for many years and always avoided them.

Honeybee (Apis melifera) collecting pollen from sedum "autumn joy".

Honeybee (Apis melifera) collecting nectar and pollen from sedum ‘autumn joy’.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and a gardener that I grew to like bees — especially bumble bees. Why bumble bees?  It comes down to temperament.  Bumble bees are large, round, fuzzy, noisy and very intent on collecting nectar.  Their sting packs a wallop, but bumble bees are even-tempered and rarely sting unless they feel threatened.  Many times I’ve accidentally knocked a bumbler out of a flower;  the bee ignored me, flew back into the flower and resumed pollination.  Once, a neighbor was cutting back old hosta stems, squeezed the faded blossoms in the process, and was stung by a bumble bee that was deep inside of a blossom. In decades of gardening, that is the only time she’s been stung by a bumble bee.

A bumble bee (Bombus ----) nectars in monarda "Jacob Kline".

A black-and-gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) nectars in monarda ‘Jacob Cline’.

A tricolored bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) rests on red clover.

A boreal bumble bee (Bombus borealis) rests on red clover (Trifolium pretense).

Common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) on Veronica.

Common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) on Veronica ‘Red Fox’.

Bumble bees are native to North America, unlike honey bees, which were brought to the United States from Europe.  Covered with thick, soft hair, bumble bees vibrate their strong flight muscles to raise their body temperature and fly at colder temperatures than other bees; as low as 41˚F (5˚C) in comparison to about 57˚F (14˚C) for honey bees.  They pollinate flowers and crops both earlier and later in the season than most species.  I love the sound of their buzzing in the autumn garden, which is much quieter now than the busy insect-filled garden of just two weeks ago. The bumble bees will fly until early November if the weather stays mild.  Then, only the young queen bees will overwinter to create new colonies next spring.  I miss all of the bee activity during the winter and look forward to seeing a queen bumble bee collect pollen and nectar in the first crocus next April.

Common eastern bumble bees are active in autumn, even on cloudy, cool days.

Common eastern bumble bees are active in autumn, even on cloudy, cool days.