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BACKYARD SECRET–NATIVE BEES ARE OFTEN MORE EFFICIENT POLLINATORS THAN HONEY BEES

       As odd as it may sound, many of our native bees are at least three times more efficient pollinators as the introduced honeybee.

       Take for example the bumblebee: many of us grow blueberries in our yards.  Many pollinators including honeybees and bumblebees visit the blueberry plant’s creamy white flowers.  Studies have demonstrated that a honeybee would have to visit a blueberry flower four times to deposit the same amount of pollen as a bumblebee can in only one visit. 

       In addition, native bees are more common than honeybees in many of our yards.  Unfortunately, few honey bees visit the flowers in my yard.  Luckily, tiny solitary, bumble, and carpenter bees are routinely seen visiting a wide range of flowers found there.

       This summer, as you walk around your flower and vegetable gardens take note of the bees you find pollinating your flowers.  If you do, don’t be surprised if you see very few honeybees and an abundance of native bees hard at work pollinating the plants that provide you with food and a cascade of beautiful flowers.

       I am convinced that we are guilty of underestimating the value of the 532 species of native bees that can be found flying throughout Georgia.

LOOKING AT NECTAR PLANTS THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMMINGBIRD

      My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds.  In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants.  The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more.  These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors.  Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.

       Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds.  Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.” 

       The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green.  Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.

       Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three.  The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV).  Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye. 

       The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range.  Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.

              I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors.  Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?

YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR YARD TO SEE SPRING MIGRANTS

      I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration.  If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds.  While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.

       As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds.  These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas.  Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations.  Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.

       The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet.  However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights.  By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects.  However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).

       Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves.  Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.

       When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal.  The worst trees are introduced ornamentals.  Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies.  Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.

       Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies.  The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses.  This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy. 

       In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees.  Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).

       Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list.  The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.

       If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants.  How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find.  If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day.  Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.

       If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage.  While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.

       

THE CAROLINA SATYR IS A BACKYARD GHOST

      In spite of the fact that the Carolina satyr is one of the most common butterflies found in many Georgia backyards, its photograph rarely graces calendars or is featured in popular magazines.  Even in yards where it makes its home, since it almost never visits flowers, some homeowners do not realize it is there. 

       It prefers to live out its life in the moist, dark wooded spots where most flowering plants cannot live.  Even when is seen in its shady lair, it is often mistaken for a drab moth.  Indeed one could say it is our backyard ghost butterfly.

       The Carolina satyr is a small butterfly with a wingspan of only an inch to an inch and a half.  While it will never qualify as one of our most attractive butterflies, if you take the time to closely examine one resting on a dead leaf or twig, it quickly becomes apparent the pattern found on its ventral wings is quite attractive.

       Some have described the butterfly’s color as muddy brown; however, many field guides say it is light brown.  In fact, when the butterfly has its wings outstretched basking the sun; you can see the dorsal wings are devoid of any pattern.  Consequently, if you did not know what you were looking at, you would be scratching you head wondering what it the world you what it is.  Fortunately, for anybody trying to identify his or her first Carolina satyr, you do not often see a Carolina satyr in this pose.

       When we see one at rest, more often than not, it has its wings closed above its body.  In this position, the markings featured on the ventral side of the insect are clearly visible. Usually, the first things that catch your eye are the spots lining the trailing edge of the underwings.  The two largest spots are located in the bottom corner on the hindwing.  Each spot consists of a very small blue spot surrounded by a thick black ring.  In turn, this ring is rimmed in yellow.  Above these two prominent features, a series of smaller spots are positioned all the way to the tip of the wing.  These markings also have yellow rims.  A few will even have dark centers.  The underwings also feature two black traverse lines and dashes, respectively.

       Carolina satyrs are often seen fluttering about in shady woodlands, forest openings and nearby disturbed grassy areas.  They also do well in shady backyard settings. 

       Here they prefer to feed on tree sap, animal droppings and rotting fruit.  About the only time they are ever seen feeding at flowers is in late autumn.

       This is one butterfly that hugs the ground.  One observed flying more than a foot or so above the earth, is on a grand adventure.

       The Carolina satyr flight can be best described as slow and bouncy.  Those of us that watch butterflies appreciate the fact that Carolina satyrs rarely embark on extended flights.  As such, I have found that when I flush one in a shady spot, if I immediately stop and wait a few moments, the butterfly will often alight a short distance away.  This offers me the opportunity to take a glimpse of it through my binoculars or quickly snap a picture.

       Carolina satyrs are found throughout the state.  Depending upon where you live, you can see this delicate backyard ghost from late February until early November.

       If you and wondering whether or not these small butterflies are present in your yard, visit some of the shadier area of your yard.  Once there slowly walk about scanning the ground in front of you.  If you happen to catch the glimpse something slowly moving from place to place, more than likely you are not having a close encounter with something that goes bump in the night.  Instead you are probably looking at Georgia’s backyard ghost butterfly.

 

SOME ANTS PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING

      The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered our lives in many ways.  It now appears that our lives will not return to normal until scientists develop a vaccine to protect us from the ravages of this unforgiving disease.  Meanwhile, aside from wearing masks and frequently washing our hands, the only way we can reduce our chances of contracting the disease is to practice social distancing.  This behavior is totally alien to us.  However, Austrian and Swiss biologists have discovered that black garden ants have long practiced social distancing to prevent the spread of disease within their colonies.

       As we all know, ants are social insects.  It seems the worker caste of black garden ant colonies is divided into nurses and foragers.  The foragers are charged with the responsibility of gathering food for the colony.  In comparison, nurses stay within the colony and care for developing broods of new ants.

       When the scientists exposed the foragers with a disease-causing fungus, they witnessed remarkable changes in the behaviors of both the foragers and nurses.  Those foragers that became infected with the fungus increased the amount of time they spent away from the colony.  By so doing they reduced the time they came in contact with other workers.  Their change in behavior coincided with the nurse ants transporting the broods deeper into the recesses of the colony.  The biologists theorize these behavioral changes helped minimize the spread of the disease throughout the entire colony.  The scientists went to say their research might suggest the ants have the ability to detect spores on themselves and other ants.

       Who would have ever believed something like this is going in the insect world?

BACKYARD SECRET–PURPLE MARTINS HELP CONTROL FIRE ANTS

       Purple martins are known to eat at least 79 species of insects including dragonflies, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. However, I would be willing to guess you did not know they also dine on fire ants.

       It seems purple martins target mating male and queen fire ants. One group of researchers studying the feeding habits of purple martins found fire ants were captured during 32 percent of the birds foraging trips. The ants accounted for 31 percent of the insects taken. In addition, fire ants comprised 27 percent of the biomass consumed by the birds and their young.

       Based on these data, the scientists estimated purple martins consume some 1.7 billion fire ants annually across the United States.

MOUNTAIN MINT IS A GREAT PLANT FOR POLLINATORS

       Over the years, my wife and I have been planting a diversity of nectar/pollen-producing plants in our gardens. This has been done in an effort to provide our backyard pollinators with sources of food throughout the year. This approach has offered us the opportunity to watch pollinators feed at a parade of plants from week to week as well as season to season. As the blossoms of one plant wither and die, pollinators redirect their attention to plants that are currently blooming. Right now, many of these pollinators are visiting mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), one of the more recent additions to our landscape.

       Mountain mint is a native perennial herb that grows two to three feet tall. Eight species of this hardy plant are found in the Southeast. Plants grow two to three tall. They exist in a variety of soil conditions, including the dry clay soil found in our yard. While the plant does best in moist soil types, it is drought tolerant. Mountain mint will grow in partial shade as well as full sun.

    Mountain mint has a unique, eye-catching appearance. What makes this plant stand out is the fact that the leaves growing just below its flowers look like they have received a dusting of powdered sugar. In fact, to me, this foliage is far more attractive than the plant’s small white-purple blooms. In fact, these blossoms or so small you might overlook them if they were not arranged in clusters.

       However, though mountain mint plants won’t win any awards for beauty, the fact that it blooms from June into October makes it an important source of food for wild pollinators.

       Speaking of awards, in 2013 the Penn State Extension Service evaluated 88 pollinator-rewarding perennial plants for their importance to pollinators. At the end of the trial, mountain mint (P. muticum) received the highest rating for longevity of flowers, diversity of pollinators that use the plants, and the most insects attracted during the trials. In one trial, 76 insects visited the plants in just two minutes.

       I am not surprised at these findings. When my wife and daughter found our mountain mint blooming a few days ago, they saw a stand of mint being visited by three species of butterflies (juniper hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and pearl crescent). They competed with the likes of thread-waisted wasps, hornets, and bumblebees.

       One thing I like about mountain mint is that it is easy to grow. A friend gave us some mountain mint plants two summers ago. We set them out and kept them watered. The very next year the plants produced a crop of flowers.

       If you like to create dried arrangements, you will love mountain mint. Each fall after the flowers have disappeared, you are left with scores of unique prickly, round, brown seed heads displayed on long stems.

       Mountain mint is a plant that definitely deserves a place in your flower gardens.

MONARCH NUMBERS TUMBLE

       Monarchs are already being seen in the Peach State. My wife and I saw our first monarch of the spring a little over a week ago. I hope that many more with visit our yard in 2020. While I am certain our gardens will be visited by this popular butterfly, according to a survey conducted on the monarch’s wintering grounds, chances are we will not be seeing as many monarchs as we did in 2019.

       It seems the annual survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico, National Commission of Protected Natural Areas, World Alliance-Telmex Telcel Foundation, and local communities in the monarch’s wintering area. 

       This year’s survey of the monarch’s wintering grounds situated in the mountainous region of central Mexico revealed the butterflies were occupying just seven acres of habitat. In comparison, monarchs were wintered in 15 acres during the winter of 2018-2019. This tells monarch specialists the monarch population plummeted 53% from the previous winter.

 

       According to Lepidopterists involved in monarch research and surveys, the precipitous drop in monarchs is linked to extremely low temperatures prevalent in South Texas in March and May 2019. These temperatures slowed down the growth of both monarch eggs and caterpillars. This, in turn, reduced the numbers of monarch adults that continued the migration on north to produce the 2019 crop of monarchs across much of North America.

MONARCH (True Truetlen Co. Record) – 13 October 2010)

       The survey leaders that conducted the study emphasized they felt this decline was temporary and the better weather (e.g. less drought, normal temperatures) would enable what is arguably our most recognized butterfly to rebound.

       Let’s hope they are right.

WILD POLLINATORS HAVE COLOR PREFERENCES

       It is common knowledge that wild pollinators will visit flowers displaying a kaleidoscope of colors. However, it you carefully watch the number of times they visit the flowers in your garden, you will notice wild bees, butterflies and hummingbirds seem to feed more often at flowers imbued with certain colors more often than others. This information can prove to be invaluable to anyone planning a pollinator garden.

       As we all know, hummingbirds prefer red flowers above all others. However, they are also partial to purple, orange, and pink blossoms. On the other side of the coin, they are not big fans of yellow flowers.

       Such is not the case with wild bees. Yellow flowers are favored by these insects, as are those that are white, violet, and blue.  

     Largely, butterflies are drawn to yellow, red, orange, and pink blossoms. Whereas they seem to visit green flowers least of all.

OAKS ARE IMPORTANT BUTTERFLY AND MOTH HOST PLANTS

              Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths.  In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants.  Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants.  Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard.  Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.

 

       Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies.  More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State.  Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards. 

 

       Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants:  red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth,  imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.

      If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks.  With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard.  If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.  If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list.  This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.