Beautiful Native Plants


Blog HOME ***Our team of bloggers writes about various aspects of ecosystem gardening from native plants to pollinators and wildlife.***

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Insects are a Weighty Matter

Aphids on a pear tree
One of many out of sight colonies,
amounting to several pounds of insects per tree
© Beatriz Moisset
If all the insects in an acre of land chose to sit on you, they would crush you. Is that possible? How many insects are there in an acre and how much do they weigh?

To get a better perspective on the importance of insects, I set myself the task of finding out how many insects there are in any ordinary garden or field. An entomologist/gardener, Frank E. Lutz did just that more than 70 years ago.

For four years Lutz collected and counted every species of insects in his garden and published his results in a fascinating little book, A Lot of Insects. The total number of species was 1,402. You would think that his garden was crawling with pests, but you would be wrong. The carnivores (both predators and parasites) kept the herbivores in check preserving the balance of nature. As a result, his garden won several awards, in part thanks to all those insects.

This doesn’t tell us the total number of insects. Some species may have been represented by just one or a handful of specimens, others by thousands. For instance, you don’t find just one ant or one aphid but entire colonies. Some entomologists have tried to come up with estimates. Larry Pedigo and Marlin Rice tell us in their textbook, Entomology and PestManagement, that there are 400 millions insects per acre.

Any number bigger than a million is hard to grasp. Let us look at insects in a different way. Their total weight, also called biomass, may tell us something significant. What is the biomass of all the insects in an acre of land? How does it compare to the biomass of vertebrates in the same field? Gilbert Waldbauer says in his charming book What Good are Bugs? that in a field in Georgia, grasshoppers outweigh seven times the total biomass of 10 sparrows and 10 mice (7/10 lb.) that may occupy that same acre. When we include all insects, not just grasshoppers, Pedigo and Rice inform us that the average insect biomass per acre in the United States is 400 pounds. The biomass of birds, mice, salamanders and all other vertebrates in the same area may be a mere 40 pounds. Any vertebrate that feeds on insects may rejoice at the abundance of food.

Such amount of insect flesh per acre is hard to believe. Where are all the insects that account for so much weight? Insects frequently go unnoticed for several reasons. Most are tiny, 1/16 in. or less, even such minuscule ones add up to a fair amount of mass because they are so numerous. Others are well hidden. In addition to the ones we see flying around, scampering on the ground, or visiting a flower, myriad insects and their larvae are buried in the soil, inside tree trunks, on the underside of leaves, or high in the foliage.

An assortment of insects were hidden
under a piece of loose bark of one of these logs
© Beatriz Moisset
A shiny metallic Augochlora pura bee sleeping under the bark
© Beatriz Moisset
Even the ones that don’t take pains in hiding often remain unseen by most of us. Last spring I spotted some lady bird beetles on the tree trunks of some pear trees. This alerted me to the possibility of aphids nearby. Each flower cluster was home to a colony of green aphids. I would have never seen them if I hadn’t searched for them. The trees appeared healthy and the flowers, lovely. Nevertheless, I suspect that each tree held a few pounds of aphids.
The sheer numbers and bulk of insects give us some idea of the magnitude of their role in any ecosystem. It is good to remember that most of them are not pests: They provide food for birds and other vertebrates, they recycle organic matter, they pollinate flowering plants, and they keep other insects in check.
Ants and termites contribute heavily to the total insect biomass
© Beatriz Moisset

© 2014, Beatriz Moisset. First published in Beautiful Wildlife Garden, 2014

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bumble Bees: Panda Bears of the Insect World


The impatient bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)
the most common bumble bee in the Eastern US
© Beatriz Moisset

Most people hate or fear insects with just a few exceptions. Bumble bees have enough charisma to be loved, at least by children. You find children’s books, toys, and Halloween costumes about bumble bees. Perhaps what makes them acceptable is their fuzzy roundish appearance reminiscent of a tiny bear. This positive image is reinforced by their cheerful buzzing sound and their penchant to visit flowers. This is one insect whichpeople find easy to accept in a wildlife garden.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Viburnum Under Siege. Part Two

Editor’s note: this is part two of this series. Don’t miss part one of Viburnum Under Siege.

The accidentally introduced pest, viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) or VLB for short, can destroy a shrub in just a couple of years. Unfortunately it continues to spread through North America. So I am trying to learn more about it, hoping that we can protect the viburnums in our area. This is the information that I have gathered from the sites listed and from my own observations. It doesn’t look very encouraging.

VLB larvae and leaf damage
© Beatriz Moisset
The grubs or larvae emerge from eggs early in the spring. They are yellowish or greenish, with black markings and can reach one third or a quarter of an inch in length.
They spend a few weeks feeding on the leaves by making numerous little holes between the veins. These holes are easy to identify. By early or mid June they climb down along the stems and bury themselves in the ground to pupate. When I searched for them in mid June, I found none, only the damage remained.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Viburnum Under Siege

Leaf damage inflicted on arrowwood
by the viburnum leaf beetle
© Beatriz Moisset
 The shoots of Viburnum dentatum are thin, strong and straight. Native Americans used them for arrow shafts. That is why this shrub is often called arrowwood. Until recently it was considered as a plant free from serious pests. Now, the arrowwoods in my area are under attack by an invasive leaf beetle.

Last May (2010), I began noticing leaves full of holes (skeletonized); something that I have never seen before. I finally spotted the culprits, little bugs hiding on the underside of damaged leaves. They look somewhat like caterpillars, but not quite; they are greenish, with black dots. A visit to the Bugguide site helped me identify them and provided links to several university sites full of information (see below). They are the larvae of the viburnum leaf beetle (VLB for short, Pyrrhalta viburni), an introduced pest from The Old World. Both the larvae and adults of this beetle feed exclusively on a variety of species of viburnum.

Viburnum leaf beetle larva and leaf damage
© Beatriz Moisset

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Pollinators and the Garden in Winter

Man-made bee houses
Good replacement for holes in old logs
©Beatriz Moisset
Do you ask yourself: where do pollinators go in winter? We see them through the warm seasons visiting flowers and doing their invaluable job. But, then what happens to them? Putting aside the few, such as hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, which fly to better climates, all the others find a secluded place to spend the cold months. Like hibernating bears, many fatten themselves by stocking up on supplies and then go to sleep. Others rest as eggs or in an immature state such as a larva or pupa. Either way, they need a sheltered space safe from predators, parasites and excessive cold.

I know that some gardeners, with the best of intentions, destroy these vital shelters. It may be a good idea to take a look at all the places used by pollinators during the winter. This is one case in which a little untidiness may be a good thing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Winter Food for Birds

Field of Canada goldenrod. © Beatriz Moisset
 When the days get shorter and other signs of winter hang in the air, most birds pack their bags and leave for warmer climates. They are not necessarily running away from the cold weather, but from the lack of their favorite food, insects.

Not all leave; the ones that can make it through the winter on nuts and berries stay. Also those who know where to find insects stay. Woodpeckers belong to this latter category. Some, such as hawks and owls, who feed on other birds, mice and other small creatures, also stay.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Biocontrols. Fighting Fire with Fire

Mile-a-minute choking trees
© Beatriz Moisset
 What to do when an introduced species, be it a plant or insect, gets so out of control that eradication seems impossible? This is a serious consideration. We see it happens again and again. Many species are so entrenched that all efforts seem futile, from the most ecologically benign, such as physically removing the offenders, to the least desirable ones, the use of pesticides.

Part of the reason why some introduced organisms become invasive is that they left behind the enemies that kept them in check in their native lands. Once free from such restraints they can become enormously successful in their adoptive land. When other methods of control fail conservationists have been resorting to what I would call fighting fire with fire: bringing another introduced species to control the one that has become a pest. These are the so called biological controls or biocontrols. This method is a partial admission of defeat. It allows the invasive species to remain but minimizes its impact. The National Wildlife Federation says it best:
In vast natural areas such as the Everglades, where spraying, snipping or bulldozing exotic weeds is out of the question, a well-tested, well-behaved bug is the conservationist’s best weed whacker.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Why I love the Florida Native Plant Society


Florida Native Plant Society

Previously, I talked about our native plant resources in Florida including the Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS), this time I’ll provide more details on how much I like FNPS.

My local chapter (Ixia in Jacksonville) holds informative meetings with expert speakers on a wide range of topics relating to native plants or habitats, offers plants for sale or raffle at most meetings, runs field trips, and participates in outreach programs. Our chapter has developed an “Alter-Natives” brochure for northeastern Florida that lists native plants to replace those frequently sold (and sometimes invasive) plants. Here’s a link to a pdf file of the brochure. We’ve adopted a small park in Jacksonville called Native Park, but ironically it was filled with non-native plants–we have made this into a showcase for native plants in an urban setting. In short, our chapter is filled with smart, active and caring folks doing important work as a group and as individuals.  Here’s a link to find an FNPS chapter near you.

The Annual FNPS Conferences

While the chapter is great fun, the annual state-wide FNPS conference is my chapter on steroids!  I’ve been to two conferences now and I find that them to be even more stimulating and inspiring.  There are 37 chapters around the state: so there we are all together each of us talking about our projects and learning from speakers and local field trips.  I took some photos and will provide a short tour of the 2012 conference which took place on May 19th to 22nd near Orlando.

Native plant vendors display their plants for sale under the live oak tress.

Monday, November 14, 2016

It is Cold Outside. Where did all the Butterflies Go?

Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)
Its tiny caterpillars will survive the winter
© Beatriz Moisset
Winter has arrived. What happened to all the six legged creatures we saw in summer? Where did the crawling, scuttling, flitting, buzzing multitudes go? Those of us who live in temperate and colder climates notice the disappearance of practically all insects when the weather gets cold. We are talking about the ones that live outdoors, not about those aggravating creatures that have found their ways into our houses and turned them into their homes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Toward the Plastic-free Garden

Leaf recycling the natural way, an eternal cycle
© Beatriz Moisset
Plastics are a curse and a blessing. They are changing our world for better and for worse. That is why Susan Freinkel titled her book on this subject Plastic: "A Toxic Love Story." I recommend her ForaTV lecture.

The most serious trouble with plastics is that they are not truly recyclable. It is true that we place them by the curbside and they are taken by trucks to recycling facilities. If all goes as it should, that plastic is turned into something else and given a new life. But that doesn’t complete the circle back to the original components. Perhaps it should be called something else, down-cycling, half-cycling?
Recycled or not, this is where plastics end up
© Kevin Krejci. Flickr

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Deer Running through the Pepperdine Lawn

Deer Running Through Wildlife Corridor in Topanga State Park,
Photo by VenturaCountyTrails.org

It is so dry that deer have appeared on the Pepperdine lawn.  Anyone who has spent any time in Malibu or has just driven up the Pacific Coast Highway has seen that huge expanse of green-covered hillside that is the front lawn of Pepperdine University.  I try not to think about how much water it takes to keep it green throughout the summer!  Now, it seems that the Santa Monica Mountains are so dry that deer are bringing their families down to the Pepperdine lawn to drink the freshly watered lawn, even in January!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Pollinator-Friendly Lawns

Lawn and more lawn. © Catherine Zimmerman
Ordinarily a lawn is a desert, unwelcoming to wildlife from tiny insects to birds. The total surface of lawns in the United States has been estimated with the help of satellite technology as somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000 square miles, somewhere between the size of New York State and that of Texas. Some gardeners have started replacing large sections of grass ground cover with garden plants or meadow grasses in an effort to create beneficial habitat for wildlife. Many articles in “Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens” discuss the advantages of reducing the size of lawns and provide abundant suggestions on how to do it (see references below).

Thursday, August 11, 2016

In Praise of Wasps

Southern Yellowjacket (Vespula squamosa)
© 2007 Beatriz Moisset
Most people I talk to express an inordinate hatred for wasps. They agree that bees are important because they are pollinators, but think that wasps play no role in nature other than mistreat us with their stings. It is time that somebody comes to their defense. I will do more than that; I will sing their virtues.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Bountiful Buttonbush

Buttonbush, (Cephalanthus occidentalis), is a native shrub that gets high marks for its usefulness to wildlife. It’s also a personal favorite because, well, it’s just plain so amusing! And what could be better than a plant that’s useful and entertaining at the same time?

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
Just look at that crazy flower! How many different connections does it bring to your mind? Here are some of its other common names: Honeyballs, Spanish Pincushion, Globeflowers, Little Snowball – and that’s before we even get into sputnik space and beyond.

Surrounding the spherical flower heads is a delicate fringe of pistils protruding past white corollas. You will occasionally see variations in the flower color from pale yellow to a very light pink. They are not only showy and long-lasting but also quite pleasingly fragrant.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Pollinators and Native vs. Non-native Plants

A daffodil’s visitor
This bee is not likely to find any nourishment
© Beatriz Moisset
Are native plants important to the plant-pollinator communities? Sometimes I hear somebody say: “When it comes to pollinators, all flowers are the same; after all, nectars are all alike” or “my English ivy must be good for pollinators because it is teeming with insect visitors”. Such comments show a lack of information and understanding, as I mentioned in “Wildlife Food and Non-native Plants”.

I have been photographing and studying pollinators for years, and I learned long ago not to waste time looking for them in the typical suburban gardens that are the pride of many of my neighbors. Nature centers and wildflower preserves are the source of most of my photos. Flying insects rarely visit a daffodil, forsythia or a tulip. Those that do so look rather puzzled, and leave promptly without visiting similar blossoms. Roses, the fancier ones, get no visitors either. The same applies to many of the “naturalized” plants, such as lesser celandine and garlic mustard. Recently, I spent time looking for pollinators on a few non-native flowers (lesser celandines, daffodils and forsythia), knowing what the results would be. I reported some of my observations in “Of Spring Beauties and Lesser Celandines”.