Insects Feed

50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

Achemon_sphinx
Achemon sphinx moth larvae (caterpillar), on native grape.
 

When it comes to providing more habitat for pollinators, it really doesn't take much to see results. My brother's been amazed to find monarch caterpillars after adding one milkweed, and swarms of bees supping from a sole aster. Here at Dragon Flower Farm, it's only been two years since we kicked off this project in earnest, and we already feel as if we live in a nature preserve. All of the photos here are from this spring and summer.
 
Black_Swallowtail
The larvae, also called instar, for black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.
 
To illustrate that pollinator-friendly yards are easy-peasy to create, I've penned this parody for you, inspired by both the Paul Simon original and the play on the song that aired on The Muppet Show when I was a kid, "50 Ways to Love Your Lever." I apologize in advance for the excessive corniness, but hey. I live in the Midwest now.
 
Monarch
Monarch larvae on Asclepius incarnata (swamp milkweed).

50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

The problem is all inside your yard, I say to you
The answer is to see it ecologically 
I'd like to help you get more than a bird or two
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
 
I say I don't mean for this to sound at all lewd
After all, it's earnestness that guides me not a desire to be rude
But I'll repeat myself at the risk of starting some feud
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Tussock_moth
The white-marked tussock moth, at larvae stage, on Amorpha fruticosa (false indigo bush).
 
It's time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_into_chrysalis
Monarch positioning for chrysalis stage.
 
I say it thrills me to see you've made it this far
I hope there is something here that will help our little instar
That word might confuse you but it just means caterpillar
You know, the fifty ways
 
I say feel free to sleep on all of this tonight
And I believe in the morning you'll know my words are right
But don't freak out too much when you know you've seen the light
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis.
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
You just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_butterfly

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When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside

Double rainbow
View outside through the window of my spare room/home yoga studio.

By Lisa Brunette

In March of this year, the hot yoga studio I attended closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing my practice homeward. This was the case with yoga studios across the United States, of course. Our spare bedroom was already set up for my daily physical therapy, so I tweaked it for yoga. Since I'd been practicing the style formerly known as "Bikram," which is the same 26 poses done every session, it was relatively easy to make the shift to home, as I had the sequence memorized. I even purchased a space heater to take the chill off the room, though it doesn't even come close to the 104°F temp of your average hot yoga studio.

Like many studios, I'm sure, mine quickly began offering livestream yoga classes... but I declined to take them. They offered them via Facebook, and as I'd left that platform entirely in September of last year, I didn't want to log back on just for yoga classes. I also felt as if enough of my life happened via video screens, since as a game writer with a home-based business and clients all over the world, I spend a good portion of my days talking with clients through video monitors. Some of these people I've never even met in real life, yet we've worked together for years.

I didn't want yoga to be one more in a growing list of things that happens through a screen.

So I made the home practice work, and it did for awhile. But when the weather turned nice, and I launched into spring vegetable gardening in a bigger way than I ever had before, I found my yoga practice waning... and then it ceased altogether.

Damselfly
The ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly native to the U.S. My brother Jason snapped this photo on one of our hikes this summer.

Did that spell doom for my health and well-being? Not at all. I walked, hiked, rode a bike, and gardened. In place of meditation on a mat, I enjoyed a walking meditation. Instead of sweating it out in eagle pose, I was outside with the red-shouldered hawks who nest in the trees across the street and frequently touch down in our backyard. I soaked up vitamin D from all that sunshine, I breathed in air that hadn't recirculated through an HVAC system, and I saw the natural world change from spring to late spring to early summer and now to summer's end, with successions of blooms and leaves and different kinds of plants, animals, and insects living out the cycles of their lives.

Rabbit

I had a kind of "dances with rabbits" moment this spring, when two parenting eastern cottontails - one I recognized as a previous visitor because of its distinctively mangled ear - frequented my backyard with their three rambunctious offspring. Actually, I think they literally built their warren in the middle of a brush pile we'd left in a corner of the yard. Perhaps between the hospitable environment we'd created for them and my habit of spending long hours quietly working in the garden, the whole family became comfortable with me. They stayed in the yard with me for some time, the parents regarding me with apparent curiosity - and wariness, at least at first - and the youngsters frolicking around, seemingly oblivious. They were fun to watch as they made up what looked like fun games. One would surprise the other, getting a "shoot up straight into the air" reaction, and then the tables would turn as the other bunny did the surprising next time.

After several hours of occupying the yard together, the rabbits did something strange: They slowly moved closer to me. All five of them were eventually within six feet of me at once, all of us just squatting there in the garden, enjoying... life. They weren't eating or playing or running around then, just sitting, quiet and still, regarding me with their deep eyes. A spell seemed to descend on the six of us, as I sat quiet and still as well, stopping my work, regarding them in return. It was as if we shared one presence together. I'll never forget it.

Sure, you can take a cynical tact about rabbits eating your garden food, and they did gobble up a fair amount of seedlings in early spring. Maybe they felt grateful to me for the yummy treats. But as soon as their preferred food, white clover, popped up, they left my plants alone. I quite like having them around, and that moment in the garden was kind of, well, magical.

Another day, I came upon a deer as I hiked through the woods. We watched each other for some time, even while other hikers passed through, not even noticing the deer, before the deer moved further into the woods, away from the path.

I nearly bumped into a raccoon one morning in my own backyard, both of us surprised to see each other.

These two ailanthus moths took my breath away when I discovered them like this on the underside of pineapple mint leaves.

Moths

This summer I helped a snapping turtle cross an asphalt strip in a local park, moving it out of the path of cyclists and joggers. Normally I leave wildlife alone, but this turtle move is recommended by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Snapping turtle

I've come across opossums and chipmunks, many a butterfly and bee, and once, a rather frightening-looking insect called a 'hanging thief' robber fly. In the evening, you can watch dragonflies and bats, circling overhead. They elude my camera, but hummingbirds have found a habitat here at Dragon Flower Farm, too.

Chipmunk on stupa
The eastern chipmunk, a new resident this year at Dragon Flower Farm.

While all this nature bathing is good for the body and soul, yoga is still amazingly good for you. It's helped me heal from trauma and car accidents, maintain a healthy weight, and counteract the effects of scoliosis. I've also used yoga to de-stress and feel more centered. Its power has been established over thousands of years, and it is not to be dismissed. 

I do crave the benefits of yoga, but now I consider what I've missed in a lifetime of exercise done primarily indoors. Not that I haven't practiced yoga outside - I've taken a few classes in parks in my day. But the vast majority of yoga classes - at least in the U.S. - occur inside. Sure, you can supplement with running outside, as I did for many years, or walking or swimming. But yoga is a studio activity, and that means thousands and thousands of hours logged inside over my 26-year practice, in addition to the time I already spent working, sleeping, and relaxing indoors.

Stick teepee
In a park nearby.

This year, I'm grateful for a deeper connection to the outdoors - on my own 1/4-acre, in a nature strip at a nearby park, and when I have the time, on the hiking trails here in the Missouri woods, grasslands, and wetland preserves. As I welcome yoga back into my life this fall, I don't want to miss any of nature's magical moments, even as I'm reaping the many benefits of a lifetime of practice. 

Sunset

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The Struggle Is Real, the Solution Surprising: What to Do About Galls

Gall2

By Lisa Brunette

It looks like a life form from another planet. But it's definitely terrestrial. Remember that row of evergreen screen trees we planted along our fence line? That was in the fall of 2018, when we had a little help installing a row of nine mature eastern red cedar 'Taylor' trees. This past spring, I discovered massive galls attached to the twigs of many of those trees.

The galls are quite a lot to take in when you first notice them, even in their dry state, as in the above photo. I guess it's a natural human reaction to become simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by things like that, sort of like when you keep flipping through an illustrated book on tropical skin diseases, unable to look away. We've all been there. So it was with equal measures of horror and curiosity that I began to monitor the gall situation. They first appeared in the middle of our rainy spring, and believe me, they are even more startling during wet weather, when the "teliohorns," as they're called, swell and ooze.

Gall1

It's not just a girl thing, either. My brother came by during this time, and he thought I should cut them off the trees, immediately. Anthony was likewise a bit disturbed.

But trying to remove the galls would only spread the spores. While some tree galls are the result of insect activity (feeding or laying eggs), the ones taking up residence in our cedar trees are a type of fungus. The fungus produces growths on the cedar's twig tissues, similarly to warts on human skin. Yeah, does that make it better for you?

If removing the galls isn't the right move, what should you do? The answer: nothing. The fungus doesn't actually hurt the cedar trees. They carry on as if they can spare a few twigs, no problem. So as long as you can handle the sight of those oozy teliohorns emerging out of a shiny sphere like some kind of alien invasion in your garden, it's all to the good.

But this thing isn't called 'cedar-apple rust' for nothing. The issue is the fungus has a two-host life cycle, and the second host is usually a plant in the rose family, particularly apples. 

Now, I had been warned about combining eastern red cedar with an orchard for this very reason, but I'd avoided any issues by choosing disease-resistant apple varieties, such as Arkansas black. It has withstood the spore invasion valiantly. 

But then... I slipped up.

Cedar rust on leaves

I bought a Rome beauty on an impulse, momentarily forgetting it is susceptible to cedar-apple rust. In my defense, it is a good pollinator for the aforementioned Arkansas black, and more suitable as an off-the-tree eating apple than the black, which can be hard and tart. But, yeah, when the galls moved in, the Rome beauty's leaves picked up the rust.

Unfortunately, so did one (but not both) of our serviceberries. I didn't even know cedar rust could infect serviceberries. That one sunk me low. Have you ever eaten a serviceberry? They are delicious, kind of like a combo strawberry/blueberry, only sweeter, but not when they're covered in rust. Just the sight of those teliohorns oozing out of a berry is enough to put you off. Sorry I don't have a photo; I was too sad to take one.

I did not want to use a fungicide to combat the rust since our garden is 100 percent organic; besides, by this point, the rust had already infected the leaves, so it was too late since fungicides work only as a preventative.

Then I remembered an interesting post I'd tripped across previously on a permaculture forum called Permies.com... something about using plumber's tape to combat cedar rust. I retraced my steps and found the post again: It was by someone in the Midwest, in Missouri as well, in fact, who discovered that his home's cedar shingles did not develop cedar rust even when he tried to inoculate them with the fungus. He surmised that the shingle's resistance stemmed from the introduction of metal-frame windows, which act as a kind of fungicide, due to the oxidation from the aluminum, zinc, titanium, and trace lead in the metal windows. He was able to reproduce this effect on his fruit trees with plumber's tape:

...If I attach a piece of plumber's tape (about four inches worth) to the top of the tree, the tree does not develop the fungus.  Plumber's tape is made primarily of lead, zinc and aluminum.  The rain causes the tape to slowly, ever so slowly, rust and the oxidized compound is slowly distributed over the central trunk and the top branches.  Because of the nature and shape of the tree, this same "rust" gets dusted all over the rest of the tree.  Result - just enough anti-fungal action to stop the Cedar/Apple fungus. 

What the hell, I thought, might as well try it. I ordered a coil of plumber's tape and a pair of tin snips and went to work. 

I don't know - this might have saved the Rome beauty! Once I placed the plumber's tape on the tree, the rust ceased to spread. It was early spring at this point, and all of the tree's new growth came in 100 percent without rust, including our first apple. In the next two photos, you can see the rust on the leaves below the tape, but not above it, and the apple is free of rust.

Plumber's tape

Apple

Boosted by that success, Anthony and I took the time to wrap every cedar tree plus every susceptible fruit tree (not just the serviceberry and apple, but the persimmon, too) in plumber's tape. All of the trees are now healthy, and any sign of rust from the spring has given way to fungus-free new growth.

The method checks out as safe; here's this from the original poster on Permies.com:

I have not been able to detect any heavy metal depositing in the soil around the trees (or the house for that matter).  This is a good thing, because I don't want to contaminate my soil.

As you can imagine, I'm quite relieved to see this seemingly crazy, home-grown solution worked. For a while there, I worried we would have to remove all of the cedars. They were planted in a dry, rocky strip that once served as a gravel drive to a garage that is no longer standing, and they took to it with vigor; most other trees would not. They also have high value both to wildlife (as both food and shelter) and to us (as a privacy screen and source of food and medicine, and potentially, wood).

By the way, as an interesting side note, the fungus only took up residence in the 'nativar,' a somewhat cultivated variety called 'Taylor,' but not in either of the true native Juniperus virginianas.

I'm not sure if we'll see the galls return or not next spring, and if they do, whether or not the spores will infect the fruit trees. Our other defense is an increasingly biodiverse 'food forest,' which should also help buffer against the rust. But in the meantime, I humbly give respect to the evolutionary process that produced Gymnosporangium juniperivirginianae. I appreciate its strange... dare I say? Yes: beauty.

Gall 3

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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flowers
Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flower

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I have considered carefully how much of the garden we want to allocate to native plants that aren't a direct food source for ourselves vs. traditional orchard and vegetable plants that do feed us. So far we've tried to learn as much as we can about native edibles and have designed the garden to include them.

But it was exciting to learn through the Shutterbee program (read more about that here) that native bees can make great use of traditional vegetable and herb flowers as a pollen source. That's right: As part of my training as a citizen scientist conducting bee studies in my own yard, I was instructed not to overlook the vegetable patch and herb garden. 

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

Most efforts to promote pollinator habitats focus on native flowers such as milkweed and coneflower, which are terrific additions to the garden that we've definitely incorporated. But this is the first I've heard that food plants could support native bees! That's an exciting finding because it means the annual vegetables we're growing get an added "stacked function." In permaculture, that means it has more than one use in the garden - here as both food source for us and a pollen and nectar source for bees. There's even a specialized 'squash bee' that is so-named because it prefers the flowers of squash plants.

For my first official foray into the farmyard to record bees, I was pleased to find that indeed, native bees were busy taking advantage of the flowering vegetable plants. I'd left the arugula standing when it bolted in the summer heat, and it's popular with tiny sweat bees.

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

So that's one more compelling reason to grow food in your yard. The list was already pretty long, but here's what we've got now. By growing your own food, you will:

  1. Save money, especially if you grow from seeds. You could also get a secondary set of money savings from a reduced need for medicinal interventions, whether that's from traditional medicine or alternatives.
  2. Eat healthier, as your food won't lose integrity via shipping and storing, and if you grow organically, you'll cut out pesticide contamination. You're also likely to eat more veggies because they're fresh and tasty.
  3. Get more in touch with the cycle of life as you take part in it as a mulcher, composter, and seed-sower.
  4. Enjoy a motivating daily workout as you put sweat equity into something that yields more than a toned physique.
  5. And now we can add: Help pollinators by providing them a much better food source than turf grass!
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber - I use it in salads and to flavor water

Of course, if you want pollinators to take advantage of the flowers, you need to leave them there. The broccoli I started from seed indoors mostly faltered, but a few took off, and then quickly bolted (next year, we try a different approach). The flowers are pretty, so why not let them go? Ditto the chervil and arugula, both of which love cool weather and are pretty much done now that it's 90+ degrees here in June. That reminds me, the arugula is about to go to seed, so I better get out there and snag the remaining leaves...

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

Leafcutter Bee on Rudbekia
A leafcutter bee on our yellow coneflower.

By Lisa Brunette

This spring I joined with 186 other participants in a research project called Shutterbee. Without needing to meet in person, we will conduct a study of the bee populations in our gardens. It basically works like this:

  • Shutterbee ecologists train us in their research techniques and protocol.
  • We learn how to identify, photograph, and record our bee populations using a phone app called iNaturalist.
  • Every two weeks, we spend at least 20 or 30 minutes taking a walking survey of our gardens, photographing bees using the protocol.
  • We then upload our findings to iNaturalist for both Shutterbee's and the general community's ID and record.

I've already gone through the two-stage training sessions, about five hours of education and practice spread over two weekends. Due to COVID-19, the trainings were held online, making this low-touch research project even less-touch. Researchers at Webster University and Saint Louis University are trying to determine whether non-invasive photo surveys can adequately take the place of traditional netting. Normally, bee researchers head out into the field, capturing bees with nets for study. This project explores whether or not photo surveys by citizen scientists can take the place of netting, or at least contribute to it. 

Bee on Wild Garlic
This bee on wild garlic is still awaiting ID.

The answer to that seems to lie with us, the program participants. Based on previous years, what researchers have seen is that while the richness and diversity of bee recordings carries across to the citizen scientist findings, we amateurs in the field often miss the rare bee sightings. So Shutterbee has asked us to keep an eye out for bees that seem to break the bee mold, so to speak. For me, being a good citizen scientist means learning as much as I can to think and act like an ecologist, getting to know the bees in my garden and the plants they prefer.

Shutterbee
The Shutterbee logo, designed by students at Webster University.

The focus of this study is native bees, not the honeybee, which is a non-native, domesticated insect considered by many to fall into the livestock category. While colony collapse disorder in the European honeybee population is of concern to agriculture, it's the decline in native bee populations that fuels this research project. Native pollinators are important because:

  1. 87% of flowering plants are animal-pollinated
  2. 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators
  3. Many of our most nutritious foods need pollinators*
Bee on Wild Hydrangea
A native bee in the family Megachilidae, on wild hydrangea.

I've already learned a lot from this study, such as how to tell bees from flies or wasps. You might think that's a simple task, but you should think again. Many flies have evolved to mimic the look of bees as a defensive mechanism.

Daisy fleabane
Looks like a bee, but it's a hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher,' here on daisy fleabane growing in our wild patch.

After a few test-walks through the garden, I've also learned that all the work to remove invasive plants and exotics and replace them with native plants is worth it. During my surveys, it was the flowering natives that drew the bees for me to photograph, as shown in all of the photos on this page.

I'm excited to take part in this program, offered jointly by Webster University and Saint Louis University. I served as visiting professor in the game design department at Webster during the 2017-18 school year, and one of my students was our first full-time hire at Brunette Games. Not only is Saint Louis University my undergrad alma mater, but we also recently hired two more students from SLU's English department to our Brunette Games staff.

Ligated furrow bee on Rudbekia
The yellow coneflower is popular. This visitor is a ligated furrow bee.

Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann has been an awesome educator and evangelist so far in her leadership of Shutterbee, and I look forward to meeting everyone in the program in person, hopefully, in the future. If you're in the St. Louis area and interested in participating, you still can next year. While the program is at capacity for now, it's a multi-year study, and Shutterbee plans to train more people in 2021.

What's buzzing in your garden? Post your bee pics below!

* According to educational materials distributed by Shutterbee.

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