A garden is the best alternative therapy.

Posts tagged ‘Beneficial Insects’

Building a Retreat Web

At just a few millimeters wide, this little striped jumping spider (Salticidae) would have been missed except he was busy scurrying back and forth constructing his retreat web on the very top of the sunflower plant just as the morning rays poked through the leaves of a nearby tree.   It was incredibly difficult getting a picture of him because the wind was blowing so hard and would take him back and forth out of the frame of my camera.  I literally had to wait, holding my breath for a lull between wind gusts so I could snap a shot.   At one point, a carpenter ant that was at least twice its size meandered onto the leaf with the spider’s retreat web.  The spider jumped out so quickly I thought it might be gone for good, but it had tethered itself to the leaf and was resting on the underside.  When the ant left, it scurried back onto the leaf and started checking out its construction.  With a bit of rearranging, it settled down into its newly created funnel.  You really have to look at these full-size to see them (click on the photos).


A Good Buzz

Continuing the “Thinking Small” theme this week, here are a few shots taken yesterday evening and this morning in the garden.  Although it may be a little boring for my readers seeing the same thing over and over, I really can’t get enough of taking bee photos.  I keep up my attempts at the closest/sharpest photo I can get.  This is a real challenge.  As windy as it has been lately, and as quickly as the bees move from flower to flower, I really have to be patient and seek out the best shot.  Because it’s so windy, using a tripod is absolutely useless.  I have to take all of these hand-held.   Another challenge is the depth of field when working with subjects this small.  Any slight movement throws the bee out of focus – or partially out of focus.

the bee's tongue is sticking out

Thinking Small

If I spend any amount of time in the garden, I soon discover some sort of creeping, crawling creature.  Since I was a little boy, I’ve been fascinated with bugs and insects.  I would often turn over the large, landscaping rocks in my mother’s flower beds to discovery what lurked underneath.  When my brother and I would trek through the woods, I spent a good amount of time looking for new bugs, turning over limbs and even breaking apart rotting logs to find them.  Most of these bugs aren’t harmful to my garden plants at all, but serve a purpose in the complex web of life.  Take the green stink bug, for example.

(click photos to view larger images)

This little nymph was discovered hanging onto the Whirling Butterfly gaura.  It wasn’t causing any damage, seemingly content just to “hang out”.  I picked it up and handled it for some time, and luckily it didn’t spray me with its characteristically bad-smelling chemical.  Perhaps it hasn’t matured enough yet.  At this size, I’m sure this bug provides a good snack for the green anoles or perhaps a member of the spider family.

Lurking nearby, I found this little striped wolf spider.  This species can grow quite large and love to terrorize my wife and daughter by their mere presence.  Whenever they show up in unexpected places, they are met by a scream and usually an, “Oh my God!  JOE!”  That’s code for, “There’s a large, ugly bug that you need to get rid of!”  Most of the time, I enter the room to find a small, frightened little spider, which I quickly scoop up in my hands and transfer outside.  Although wolf spiders are known to bite humans, I’ve never had one that I’ve handled do so.  I’m always careful to hold them loosely, though.

Spiders are fascinating!  We used to have a good number of garden spiders when I was growing up.  I would literally spend an afternoon hunting grasshoppers, crickets and moths to throw into their large webs.  I loved to watch this particular spider move with lightning speed to the struggling insect and begin wrapping it in a thick strand of silk that streamed from the spider’s abdomen.  The insect would struggle for awhile, but once it was completely wrapped, the spider would move in for its paralyzing bite, then all movement would stop.  I think the spider appreciated my help, but it made no qualms about telling me when I got too close.  It would run to the center of the web and begin bouncing the entire web back and forth violently to warn me to stay away!

The wolf spider is much different from the garden spider, however.  Instead of weaving a web, it hunts its prey freely.  This particular spider was found in the foliage of some flowers, no doubt waiting for an insect to come and dine on nectar – quite possibly its last meal.  I’ve seen wolf spiders dragging their meals with them as they go, a difficult task when the prey is equal to or larger in size than the spider itself.

Because spiders prey upon a variety of insect pests, I consider them beneficial insects in my garden AND my home.  I’ll have to add this one to my Beneficial Insect Files.

Keeping My Interest

Some of the biggest, most beautiful blooms in my garden aren’t flowering perennials, but vegetable plants.   The squash and zucchini flowers not only catch my interest, but keep the local bee population busy all day long.  There’s plenty of nectar to go around, and the bees have to wipe their feet before exiting to dislodge caked on clumps of pollen.

honeybee tongue darts out like a sword

Beneficial Insect Spotlight: Paper Wasp

Right outside our back door, we have a small herb garden.  Last fall, we planted three parsley plants at the back of the herb garden.  This spring, they grew considerably at first and then immediately started flowering and haven’t stopped now for several weeks.   Because the herb garden is so close to our back patio door, we often stand at the door and watch a variety of insects that stop to enjoy the parsley flower nectar.   This plant really attracts an assortment of flies (houseflies, tachinid flies, hoverflies), wasps (paper wasps and thread-waists), and bees (honeybees, sweat bees, mason bees and solitary bees)!  Many of these insects prefer the shallow nectaries of flower umbrels as opposed to other species of flowers with deep nectaries which require elongated mouthparts.

umbrels of parsley flowers

My wife, who is understandably a little alarmed by the number of bees and wasps by our back door (she’s allergic to their stings), asked me why we want so many wasps in the garden.  She understands that parsley is the host plant for Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars and can appreciate the beauty that adult butterflies bring to the garden, but wasps are an entirely different story in her book.  I explained to her that wasps are beneficial insects to gardeners.  She then asked me, “In what way are they beneficial?”  To her, they seem like a pest to avoid and not one to invite so freely into the garden.

The fact of the matter is that wasps are beneficial insects in the garden for two main reasons.  The first is that they are pollinators.  I find wasps on a number of flowering plants in the garden, including squash, cucumber, zucchini and melons.  This family of plants, called cucurbits, have unisexual flowers, meaning that each flower either contains anthers or ovaries (i.e. is male or female), but not both.  They cannot self-pollinate.  Pollinators such as butterflies, bees and wasps are drawn to the flowers of these plants by color and are enticed to stay by the nectar that the flowers offer.   As they lap up the sweet goodness, the flower’s pollen sticks to the legs and bodies of the pollinator, which then flies to another flower and deposits some of this pollen there.  With regards to cucurbits, the male and female flowers need pollen from one another in order to produce fruit.  Pollinators are the key to making this happen as they move from male flower to female flower, depositing pollen.

Wasps are beneficial in another way.  They are parasitic.  They feed on a number of garden pests, including flies, beetle larvae and even caterpillars.  To me, this is where wasps fall into a sort of gray area when you are butterfly gardening.  Naturally, a butterfly gardener wants to raise butterfly larvae to adulthood, but other creatures in the garden see butterfly larvae as a good meal.  So, there’s a catch-22 here.  A butterfly gardener grows plants that attract beneficial insects, and some of those beneficial insects end up killing one another.  Wasps do their part, however, since out-of-control caterpillar populations can decimate plants and crops.  Still, I cringe at the thought of my little caterpillars preyed upon by wasps and even birds.  It is nature, however, and everything exists in balance, so I have to let the natural process play out.  All things considered, wasps are beneficial to my garden – I just wish they preyed exclusively on beetle larvae!

The Paper Wasp

If you’ve ever seen a wasp nest in the shape of an umbrella hanging from a thin thread under the eaves of a house, then you’ve seen how paper wasps live and how they got their name.  Paper wasps gather fibers from plants, chewing and mixing them with saliva to form a substance similar to paper, which is then formed into nests with many adjoining hexagonal cells.

Nests are started by a single queen in the spring, which can grow to hold up to two hundred cells.  The queen overwinters in brush or wood piles and emerges in the spring to expand her kingdom.  After picking a suitable spot for a nest, she works tirelessly, gathering and chewing plant fibers and forming the first several cells.   In these cells, the queen lays her eggs, which hatch into worker (non-queen females) and male larvae.  As the brood grows, the queen continues to do most of the egg-laying and studies show that her behavior actually suppresses the ovarian functions in subsequent female wasps so that she remains the dominant female.  Workers care for the queen’s larvae and continue to build the nest, while also visiting the field to harvest nectar, plant fibers and insects for larval food.

Adult wasps do not eat insects, they subsist entirely upon nectar.  Workers collect caterpillars and carry them back to their nests, first stinging them to paralyze them.  Then they stuff the paralyzed caterpillar into one of the prepared cells, and the queen deposits a single egg on the caterpillar’s body.  The egg hatches and a tiny wasp larva emerges and finds all the food it could possibly need until it pupates and emerges as an adult, winged wasp.

Males are needed only for fertilization of the queen.  The queen has a specialized organ called the spermatheca, which captures and holds the male wasp’s sperm for later fertilization of eggs.  Males typically live short lives.  Late in the season, they mate with female offspring of the queen, which then leave the colony to overwinter and emerge in spring to start their own colony.  All other members of the colony, including the original queen, perish during the winter.  The newly mated female holds the sperm in her spermatheca until the following spring when she begins laying eggs on harvested caterpillars!

As far as hierarchy in the colony goes, the founding queen is generally the dominant queen, and rules over her workers to ensure their cooperation and subservience.  The most aggressive females will take up the role of queen should the founding queen die, and on rare occasions, aggressive females can root out the founding queen in a process called usurpation.  The aggressive female then takes over as queen, while the founding queen takes on the role of worker.  Despite this aggressiveness, paper wasps are not aggressive except in defense of their nests.  As I tell my wife, they won’t even bother you should you sit right next to the parsley flowers to watch them.  They are more interested in feeding than they are in you!

The photos below are of a red paper wasp (Polistes carolina) on parsley flowers.  This wasp is common from as far west as the Texas panhandle to the east coast up through New York.  They are quite large at an inch in length.

(Click on any photo to view larger)

Insect Life in the Garden

We are thankful for the bit of rain we received!  I must admit, however, that the prediction of large hail and super strong winds had me just a tad bit worried.  I was awakened at 4:15 Monday morning by thunder and wind.  As I lay in bed, I thought about my poor plants  and imagined them being shredded by hail.  Luckily, we didn’t get any hail.  I still kept myself awake for about forty-five minutes worrying about them, though!  The plants will just be stronger for all the wind, I concluded.  In the morning, I did a quick check of the garden plants and everything looked alright.  I was relieved.

Now let me go back a few days.

My milkweed cuttings arrived last Thursday and I put them in the ground Saturday morning.  I was so busy working in the garden that I entirely forgot an appointment I had scheduled at 9AM.  Oh well, it was more important to get those cuttings in some dirt, right?  Besides, I was able to reschedule the appointment, so no harm done.  🙂   Back to the milkweed.  I have ten plants (of thirty-two) that made it through the winter.   With these new cuttings, I have thirty plants that are well on their way.  In addition to these plants, I have eighteen of nineteen milkweed seeds that germinated, so I have almost fifty milkweed plants this year for the monarchs in my butterfly garden.  Most of the seedlings I germinated have at least two true leaves right now, but I’ll let them mature another couple of weeks before putting them into the ground.  I doubt anyone can say that I’m not doing my part to help the monarch population back from their severe loss in 2002!  (80% of the monarchs overwintering in Mexico died that year due to freezing temperatures.)

Milkweed cuttings awaiting transplant

While I haven’t seen any monarchs yet, I did see quite a few pearl crescent, cloudless sulphur, skipper and buckeye butterflies over the weekend.  The pearl crescent butterflies seemed to enjoy the yellow flowers of wild oxalis that I dodged with my mower.  I’m glad that I left them.  (As an aside, yellow oxalis is an edible, herbaceous plant that is very high in Vitamin C and has tangy flavor.)  The sulphur and skipper butterflies danced through the yard, landing on the Four Nerve Daisies and verbena.   The buckeye was content just to warm itself on the rocks.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to get any good photos.  It was also VERY windy, so the few that I did take just didn’t come out sharp enough for my liking.   In addition to these guests, an unseen visitor left her traces for me on the dill plants.  I found a couple of first or second instar Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting away, as well as a couple of unhatched eggs.

I was successful taking photos of honey bees, flies, bumble bees and even a lady beetle.  The honey bees were really loving the thyme flowers, while the bumble bees seemed to dine exclusively on the salvia greggii.  I chased a honey bee to the gaura bushes before it flew off.  At that precise moment, however, lady beetle flew by and landed on the gaura bush.  She kept me distracted for awhile.  I watched her feed on the nectar of the gaura flowers.  Then she hunted down and devoured several aphids before she suddenly became aware of me and darted down into the dense leaves at the base of the plant.  Here are some of those photos.

Click on the photos to view them in a larger size (1500×1000 pixels):

fly on Four-Nerve daisy

baby Black Swallowtail caterpillar

Black Swallowtail butterfly egg on dill plant

European honey bee on thyme

bumble bee on salvia greggii - love his eyes!!

Lady Beetle on faded bloom of Whirling Butterfly gaura

suckin' down some aphid

holding an aphid corpse in her legs

death comes swiftly to these little aphids

a second after the previous shot - walking over the aphids lifeless body

It was a beautiful weekend – even despite the high winds – and I not only got a lot of work done in the garden, I actually had time to sit down and enjoy it for awhile, too.  That’s something I don’t do often enough.  I’m too busy working and running around with a camera!  🙂   My wife, daughter and dog joined me and we sat out there until the sun went down.  It was very relaxing.

my dog soaking up the last rays of Saturday

sunset through the fence

Monarch Nursery

Last spring I ordered ten milkweed cuttings from livemonarch.org.  When they arrived, they also arrived with 75 free milkweed seeds.  I sowed the seeds and then let them sit outside until July when I finally got around to transplanting them.  I ended up transplanting a total of 32 plants along the southern fence line.  The heat of the summer killed off a few of them, but I now have at least 25 plants over two feet tall and all of them are blooming.  Besides seeing a couple of monarch caterpillars and a couple of queen caterpillars, I thought that the monarchs must have missed me this year (I haven’t seen one land on any of the plants in the yard).  I was very excited to go out yesterday and find about thirty monarch cats busily munching away on the milkweed.  Here are some photos of them:

Milkweed bed looking west


Milkweed bed looking east