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.

Autumn Meadowhawk

The late afternoon September sun is warm and soothing.  Cicadas whine loudly and a monarch butterfly nectars in our patch of sweet Joe-Pye.  But another garden critter catches my eye this afternoon:  the yellow-legged meadowhawk dragonfly.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Also known as autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum), their bodies flash gem-like red, orange and amber in the sun. Perched on daylily stalks, balloon flower seed pods and hosta stems, each dragonfly swivels its head watching for flies, small bees and wasps, and other soft-bodied insects.

Adult autumn meadowhawks are present from August into early November in Minnesota.  The species is common across much of the United States and southern Canada, and often is seen in yards and gardens. Their yellow or brownish legs set them apart from other types of meadowhawks, which have black or dark-striped legs. They also have minimal or no black marks on the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

When I see a meadowhawk flash in the garden, I think of the ancient history of these creatures. Scientists believe that early dragonflies (Protodonata) first inhabited Earth 300 million years ago.  They speculate that Earth’s warmer temperatures, and the atmosphere’s higher oxygen content, contributed to insects growing larger than today.  Fossils show that some ancient dragonflies had a wingspan of two feet. Today, most of the larger dragonflies have a wingspan of two to five inches, and meadowhawks are smaller yet at about one inch.  What they lack in size they make up for in the sparkle of sun on their transparent wings and the jeweled designs of their bodies.  And, after watching a meadowhawk grind up a small bee in its jaws, I’m glad they’ve evolved into smaller predators!

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk's wings.  The ovipositor and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identifies it as a female autumn meadowhawk.

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk’s wings. The ovipositor, yellowish legs and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identify it as a female.

August’s Beauty

August’s warm, sunny days hum with insect activity.  Many kinds of bees and wasps, butterflies and grasshoppers inhabit the colorful swaths of wildflowers and grasses along country roads.  The buzzing of bees is soft against the louder trills and whirs of crickets, grasshoppers and gray tree frogs.  Scents of sweet clover and grass fill the air. Here is a sampling of the beauty my husband and I enjoyed when we walked along the road near our cabin on the Snake River in Pine County, MN, last weekend.

Great spangled frilillary on native monarda.

Great spangled frilillary (Speyeria cybele) on native monarda.

Woodland sunflowers grow in shadier patches along the road.

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) grow in dappled sun along the road.

Jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not grows in moist, sunny spots.

Spotted jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Native big bluestem is also called turkey foot grass due to the shape of the seed heads.

Native big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) is also called turkeyfoot grass due to the shape of its seed heads.

This common wood-nymph's bright eyespot caught my attention.

This common wood-nymph’s (Cercyonis pegala) bright eyespot caught my attention.

Non-native rabbit-clover is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

Non-native rabbit-clover (Trifolium arvense) is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

 

The native field thistle is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The native field thistle (Cirsium discolor) is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The field thistle's "down" is used by American goldfinches to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

Field thistle’s “down” is used by the American goldfinch to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

A white-faced meadowhawk watches for prey.

A white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) watches for prey.

Swamp or blue vervain prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Swamp or blue vervain (Verbena hastata) prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Brown-eyed Susan's and a few early-blooming asters.

Black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) or sweet coneflower and a few early-blooming asters.

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasiculata).

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).

Hog peanut is a member of the pea family. (More to come in a later post.)

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is a member of the pea family.

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas)

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas).

European bull thistle with bumble bee.

European bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) with bumble bee.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye begin to open.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) begin to open.

Male American redstart warbler.

Male American redstart warbler (Setophaga ruticilla).

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Clearwing hummingbird moths favor native monarda in our garden.

Hummingbird clearwing moths favor native monarda in our garden.

Next time you think you see a small hummingbird zip around your garden, take a closer look — it just might be a hummingbird clearwing moth.  People usually think of moths as nocturnal creatures attracted to lights.  But clearwing moths are colorful daytime visitors to flowers. Only about half the size of a hummingbird, this moth has a thick, heavy body in comparison to many moths, large, clear wings with reddish-brown borders, and a long proboscis for sipping nectar. In our garden, they seem to prefer monarda or bee balm, in particular the native variety (Monarda fistulosa).  I’ve also seen them sip nectar from garden phlox, petunias and common milkweed.

Clearwing hummingbird moths are white underneath and have pale-colored legs.

Hummingbird clearwing moths are white underneath and have pale-colored legs.

Two species of clearwing moth are common in the eastern half of North America: the snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe).  The two species are easy to tell apart because (H. diffinis) mimics bumblebees with primarily yellow and black coloration and black legs.  (H. thysbe) is typically olive with maroon or rust, and the legs are yellowish or pale-colored. A third variety, (Hemaris thetis) lives primarily in western North America.

The caterpillars of both clearwing moths are green, although sometimes the hummingbird clearwing’s can be reddish.  Both species’ caterpillars have a horn on one end.  The hummingbird clearwing caterpillar is sprinkled with tiny white dots and the horn is bluish.  It feeds on honeysuckle, cherry, plum, snowberry and European viburnum plants. The snowberry clearwing caterpillar has black spots on its sides and the horn is black with a yellow base. Common host plants for this caterpillar are honeysuckle, snowberry and dogbane.  Cocoons of both species overwinter in leaf litter on the ground and become adult moths the following spring.

Carrot Wasp

A slender carrot wasp nectars on agiopoda.

A slender female carrot wasp nectars in the early evening sun.

One recent evening, a thread-thin burst of movement caught my eye in our garden.  It was a wasp —  slender, agile and fast as it nectared in the early evening sun; and unlike most wasps, it held its abdomen at an unusual vertical angle.  It was too thin and small to fit into the familiar wasp categories.  After searching several resources, I identified it: a carrot wasp in the family Gasteruptiidae spp.  (There are 15 different species in North America.)  Adults feed on the nectar and pollen of plants in the carrot family, especially wild carrots and parsnips.

Carrot wasps have enlarged back legs and red-orange bands on the abdoment.

Carrot wasps have enlarged areas on the back legs and the female has a long ovipositor.

Carrot wasps are a type of parasitic wasp.  Rather than building a colony, or their own individual cells, they seek out the nests of other solitary bees and wasps, such as digger bees and mud daubers.  A female carrot wasp punctures a cell of the other bee or wasp’s nest, inserts her long ovipositor into the cell and lays her egg.  Depending on the type of carrot wasp, when its egg hatches, the larva will eat the host bee/wasp’s larva, eat the larva’s food, or do both!

Besides the abdomen being held vertically, other identifying characteristics include a visible, prominent neck, a black body with reddish-orange bands on the abdomen, and enlarged areas on the back legs.  These wasps are most common during June, July and August.

Late-Season Ladybugs and a Lacewing

After a couple of unseasonably chilly days that put a skin of ice on a neighborhood pond, the temperature rebounded into the mid-50s on Thursday and Friday.  Many non-native multicolored Asian ladybug beetles came out of hiding and scurried about on sun-warmed concrete sidewalks and stone walls.

An Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) soaks up the afternoon sun.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) soaks up the afternoon sun.

I’m not an expert at distinguishing between native and Asian ladybugs, but those I photographed seem to have characteristics of Asian ladybugs:  an “M” or “W” mark (depending on the viewing angle) on the thorax between the head and abdomen, variations in color among individual beetles, variations in the number of spots on wing covers among individuals, and remaining active into late autumn.

Individual Asian ladybugs show greater variation in color and number of spots number of spots amo

Individual multicolored Asian ladybugs show greater variation in number of spots and color than native species.

Asian ladybugs can be a competitive threat to native species and are sometimes pests indoors during the winter.  One November evening several years ago, we drove to our cabin for the weekend.  The ladybugs had gone into hibernation and when we heated the cabin, the warmth awakened a group of about 60 Asian ladybugs that had found a way inside.  They preferred the lights to us and were lined up like beads on a necklace around the tops of lamp shades, and on a lengthy pull-chain for a ceiling fan and light.  We never saw them again, so they must have found their way outside in the spring.

Like native ladybug species, Asian ladybugs eat large numbers of garden and agricultural pests, such as aphids.

Like native ladybug species, Asian ladybugs eat large numbers of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids.

I also found a green lacewing (Chrysopidae) on a window screen.  Lacewings destroy large numbers of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids and other small insects.  (I apologize for the poor photograph taken through the screen; unfortunately, the lacewing flew away as I went outside to photograph it.)

A green lacewing perched on a window screen soaks up suns itself.

A green lacewing (Chrysopidae) perched on a window screen suns itself.

The lacewing was a lovely and delicate gift on a late-autumn day; a symbol of spring to remember during the long winter.

Autumn Garden Creatures

Last Friday was a golden day with gentle sun, temps in the 70s and a southerly wind.  I walked at lunchtime and spent a few minutes in our back garden observing insects, birds and chipmunks.  It was the final day before a strong Canadian cold front and soaking rains moved in — and probably my last chance until spring to enjoy some of the garden’s inhabitants:

Autumn meadowhawk dragonflies, which fly late into autumn, still patrolled the garden.  The reddish-colored mature females, with clear wings tinted amber at the base and red spots at the top, added jewel-like color to the changing garden.

A male autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A female autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A celery looper moth visited the garden from morning until dusk each day for more than a week.  Though it’s not colorful, the contrast between the chocolate-brown wings and the bright silvery-white curved markings makes it glow in the sunlight.  Though looper larvae can be agricultural pests, the adults pollinate many varieties of plants.  This one seemed to prefer Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

A celery looper (   ) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A celery looper (Anagrapha falcifera) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

Celery looper

Side view of a celery looper moth.

Syrphid flies, also known as hover flies or flower flies, are small insects that zip between flowers much quicker than bees and wasps.  Syrphid flies are bee and wasp look-a-likes, but they don’t sting or bite!  Many species are helpful in the garden for two reasons:  The adults pollinate flowers and the larvae eat aphids and leaf hoppers, which cause a lot of damage and disease in plants.  They are called hover flies because they often hover in midair over the garden before zooming off in a new direction — sometimes flying backwards.  They are known as flower flies for their pollinating presence in the autumn garden.

A Syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

A syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

Another species of Syrphid fly pollinates garden asters.

Another species of syrphid fly (Helophilus) pollinates garden asters.

Hidden among the garden plants, an eastern chipmunk gathered seeds to store for winter use in its nearby den.  There’s a stable chipmunk population in our urban neighborhood, in spite of many gardeners’ attempts to eradicate the rodents.  At least the chipmunks retire to their dens until spring, unlike squirrels, which raid the garden during the growing season and the suet feeder during the winter months!

An eastern chipmunk surveys the backyard from its perch on our back steps.

An eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) surveys the yard from its perch on our back steps.

The backyard bird population is changing as many bird species migrate south.  For example, most of the warblers, orioles and swallows have left; ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows are passing through from further north.  Daily visitors to our garden, trees and hedges include northern cardinals, blue jays, American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, American robins and a brown creeper. I don’t have a telephoto lens yet, so I don’t photograph many birds.  An excellent website with photos, key facts, bird calls and other information is allaboutbirds.org.

Lastly, bumble bees and honey bees nectared on the Sedum ‘autumn joy’ and garlic chives. (Earlier in the summer, I pruned the sedum to different degrees so that it would continue to bloom late into autumn.)  The sedum and asters were the main attraction for insects last week.  I haven’t seen either bee species since the weather turned cold and rainy.  I miss their industrious presence and look forward to their return next spring.

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A bumble bee (Bombus) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

Lake Darner Dragonfly

I love dragonflies for their aerial acrobatics, beautiful colors and ancient presence — they’ve flown Earth’s skies for about 300 million years.  In Minnesota, a few species of large, colorful dragonflies are active into October.  Last week I found a darner (Aeshna) dragonfly sunning itself on a nearby cabin.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

Called darners for the resemblance of their long abdomen to a darning needle, the blue or mosaic darners can be confusing to tell apart.  I believe the one I photographed is a lake darner (Aeshna eremita), based on the notched side stripe, the vivid greenish-blue jewel-like coloration of the stripes, its length (about three inches) and its vertical perching position.  It flew away before I could get close enough to see its facial markings.  Lake darners are native to Canada and the northern United States, and are the largest species of North American darner.  They prey on mosquitoes, wasps, mayflies and most other kinds of soft-bodied insects.

Related Websites:

The Dragonfly Website includes a great overview of dragonfly facts in its “Frequently Asked Questions” section.

ARKive.org features a profile and photos of the lake darner, along with thousands of other plant and animal species.