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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.

 

A PLACE TO RELIEVE THE STRESS CAUSED BY COVID 19

        Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.

       Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.

       One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.

       Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.

       As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.

       In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.

       Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.

       When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.

       I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.

       While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.

       If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.

THE GREAT PURPLE HAIRSTREAK IS AN OFTEN OVERLOOKED BEAUTY

        Each spring nature treats us to a kaleidoscope of beautiful plants and animals ranging from butterflies and moths to flowers and birds. In fact, with so many beautiful things to look at, nobody can appreciate them all. As a result, far too many stunning natural jewels go unseen. Take the case of the great purple hairstreak. It maintains its anonymity because its wingspan only measures 1-1.7 inches and it spends most of its life in the tops of trees. Consequently, although it is one of the most gorgeous butterflies we are likely to see in our backyards; it is safe to say most of us never spot one.

       Recently my daughter stumbled across one basking on the lawn surrounding the place where she works. When she stopped to take a closer look at the butterfly, its beauty took her aback.        The butterfly appeared to be what butterfly enthusiasts refer to as “fresh.” This means the butterfly recently emerged and was sporting undamaged wings cloaked with all of their scales.

      If you see a male great purple hairstreak basking, it is something you will not soon forget. This is because the butterfly’s wings are a bright metallic blue and literally seem to shine in direct sunlight.

       The upper side of the female great purple hairstreak is blackish in color and displays a limited amount of metallic blue.

       Being an amateur photographer, one of the things on my bucket list is being able to photograph the dorsal side of a male great purple hairstreak. However, since the only time you are likely see the topside of this butterfly is when it is flying or basking, my chances of photographing it from above are limited. Consequently, all of my photos of it show the ventral side of the insect.

       The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are best described as blackish in color and highlighted with red spots near when the wings join its body. In addition, a series of blue spots adorn the undersides of the hindwings.

       Lastly, short, fragile tails extend from the trailing edges of the hindwings. If you look carefully at a great purple hairstreak you will likely see the butterfly moving these fragile tails back and forth. It is believed this is done to distract would-be predators. Supposedly, a bird or other predator is more apt to strike at the moving tails and not the insect’s head and body. This would give the butterfly a chance to escape before the predator realized its mistake.

       One feature that immediately catches your eye when you spot one of these butterflies is its orange abdomen. Supposedly, this is a warning to predators that it is distasteful.

       The best butterfly gardens offer butterflies host plants and to nectar-rich flowers. While we can offer great purple hairstreaks a supply of nectar, we cannot plant its host plant. The reason for this is its host is mistletoe. With that in mind, if you see mistletoe growing atop a tree such as oak growing in your yard, there is a good chance great purple hairstreaks are living in your neighborhood.

       I should note that during the spring I most often see the great purple hairstreak nectaring on purple dead nettle (see accompanying photo). Purple dead nettle is an invasive introduced plant most homeowners would call a weed.

       If you do not happen to spot a great purple hairstreak this spring, all is not lost. Great purple hairstreaks can be spotted throughout the state from March to early November.

DRAGONFLIES HAVE AN ODD WAY TO STAY COOL

       With daily temperatures soaring into the 90s and above, we Georgians have been spending as much time as possible inside our comfortable air-conditioned homes.  Without the luxury of having a cool refuge to escape to when the hot sun is beating down, our backyard wildlife neighbors have to employ other means to beat the heat.  Recently my wife spotted a Halloween pennant dragonfly doing just that.

       A couple of weeks ago while watering the flowers on our deck she noticed a Halloween pennant dragonfly perched on the dead branch of a red salvia plant.  Instead of perching with its wings parallel to the ground, the beautiful gold dragonfly had arranged its body so that its tail was pointing upwards toward the heavens.  At first, she thought the insect just happened to land in the awkward position.  However, several times during the next few minutes the dragonfly flew off and then returned to the same spot.  Each time it landed in the normal manner and then quickly rearranged its body so its abdomen faced upward like an obelisk.  This made it look much like a miniature Washington Monument.

       It seems the Halloween pennant was employing an odd strategy to keep cool.  By positioning itself with its abdomen pointing skyward, it was reducing the surface area of its body exposed that was exposed to the sun’s ray.  With less direct sunlight striking its body, it kept itself cooler than it would have been if it perched in a normal position.

       Isn’t nature amazing?

GREAT GEORGIA POLLINATOR CENSUS

       Some of our most fascinating and important backyard wildlife neighbors are pollinating insects.  Unfortunately, populations of many of these critters are declining. In an effort of assess the number of these pollinators across the state, the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension is conducting the first Georgia statewide pollinator census.  The count will be held August 23 and 24, 2019.

       Becky Griffin, UGA Extension school garden and pollinator census coordinator is inviting private citizens, families, clubs, school classes and other groups to cooperate. 

       The count is fashioned after the highly successful Great Backyard Bird Count.  Consequently, whereas you do not have to be an expert in bird identification take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you don’t have to be able to identify the insect pollinators that visit your garden.  Participants are simply asked to separate pollinators into eight groups (carpenter bees, bumble bees, honey bees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies/moths, and other insects.  An easy to understand online guide to these insects can be downloaded from the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website (GGaPC.org).

       Here is what you need to do to participate:

  • Visit the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website and download the GGPC Observation Sheet. The sheet can be used to record your sightings.
  • Select a single plant growing in your yard that you know attracts pollinators.
  • Count the pollinators landing on the plant during a 15-minute period.
  • Visit the website once more and upload the results of your count.

       I sincerely hope that you become citizen scientist and participate in the state’s first-of-its-kind pollinator count.  If you do, you will be helping conserve these valuable insects.

       If you have any questions regarding the census, contact mailto:Becky Griffin at beckygri@uga.edu.

SOUTHERN BEE KILLERS LOOK LIKE BUMBLEBEES

      The next time you spot what appears to be a bumblebee perched on a plant in your garden, take a close look at the insect, as it just may be accomplish insect predator known as the southern bee killer (Mallophora orcina)

       The southern bee killer is one of the approximately 1,000 species of robber flies that inhabit North America.  All of these amazing flies eat all sorts of insects; however, the southern bee killer prefers to eat paper wasps, carpenter bees, honeybees, and bumblebees.

       The southern bee killer is commonly inhabits backyards throughout the entire state.  In spite of this, unless you actually spot this predatory insect flying about with its prey, chances are you mistook it for a bumblebee. Bumblebees do not fly about clutching other insects.  That is understandable as it is fuzzy like a bumblebee, and its body is marked with the yellow and black pattern we associate with bumblebees.  In addition, if its legs seem to be exceptionally long and its eyes extremely large, you are probably looking at a bee killer.

       The southern bee killer is a true mimic.  It definitely looks like a bumblebee.  Biologists are not certain how the bee killer’s similarity to a bumblebee benefits the insect.  Some suggest it causes predators that do not like to be stung by bumblebees to shy away.  Who knows?

       At any rate, the southern bee killer is an ambush predator. It spends its day perched on a blade of grass, flower, twig, or other object and waits from a bee to fly by.  Once it spots a potential prey, it immediately chases it down.  If successful, it grabs the hapless bee in midair and impales it with its powerful, sharp mouthparts.  It then immediately injects its prey with a combination of enzymes and nerve poisons.  This deadly concoction disables the insect and dissolves its body tissues.  The bee killer then drinks its liquefied meal. 

       Since bee killers routinely return to the same perch, if you happen to locate a perch, check out this location from time to time, you can watch the bee killer hunt time after time.

       Although the southern bee killer is a deadly predator, I have never heard of an instance where one attacked a human.  That being said, if for some reason you happen to touch one, it can inflict a painful bite.