Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city.

Category: Biophilia (page 2 of 4)

Butterflies to see and links to share for Pollinator Week

It’s said that birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammal pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of our food. Pollinating flowers is a serious job. For this reason, the Pollinator Partnership organization created an event called Pollinator Week, every year around the third week of June – this year (2017), it’s June 19-25. I blogged about it a few years ago, with a bonus DIY Mason Bee house project.

It’s very important to give honeybees and native insect pollinators as much habitat and food as we possibly can, because of Colony Collapse Disorder. In absence of remedies to prevent this disease from killing the honey bees that pollinate our non-native food crops, only natural resistance, the kind where survivors (in particular, survivor queens) go on to create new hives, will improve the survival rates of beehives. In addition, honey bees are very competitive with native pollinator species, so we need to make sure that the natives get a fair crack at food sources – specifically native plants, which honey bees are less adept at pollinating.

So, to inspire people to do something to appreciate or even help our pollinators, I found a few links to share. Nature herself also motivated me: the cover photo for this post came from my recent trip to the Adirondacks, where I found a bunch of Eastern Swallowtail butterflies mud-puddling on the beach.

  • If pollinators had dating profiles, these would be those. This is an article by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on my favourite publishing platform, Medium. It’s cute and clever and I learned a few species.
  • Updated in 2018: there’s also an Irish website, “Don’t Mow, Let it Grow,” dedicated to education about helping pollinator species such as bees. They have an animated cartoon series suitable for children to explain what bees and other pollinating insects do. (Note for little children: it would be helpful for a parent to read the titles on the animation!)

What more can we lawn-owners and gardeners do to help bees and other insect pollinators, such as butterflies?

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Things you didn’t know about wasps

I once wrote about small paper wasp hives at residences. Today’s post is because when August sets in, wasps can become rather bothersome. The reason wasps are so pesteriferous! lately is that they are male and it’s the end of the season. They’ve served their purpose of gathering food for the larvae, so they’re no longer getting nectar rewards. Starving, they are looking for anything sweet to eat.

That’s not the only way in which the female wasps cut off the males. They also “stuff” them into cells to starve them.  

My neighbour’s tree was dropping apples all over the ground, so that’s where the wasps were. They were very peaceful, and were probably drunk (like moose get, too).

In 2014, I had a bunch of hornets hanging around drinking sap from a wounded sumac tree. A nylon cord I’d used to keep the tree upright when it was flopping over had restricted its growth, and so it was cutting into the new bark. Of course, hornets are big, so I was worried about the potential for stings.  The sooner the wound would stop seeping, the sooner they would go away. So to hurry the process along, I hosed the tree down a few times a day, and cleaned the wound while the hornets were stunned.

Not all wasps are dangerous to people. They can be beneficial, too. 

Moral: If you are getting bothered by wasps this time of year, put out some sugar water or juice a little ways away from you’re sitting, and don’t panic.

Sugar ants aren’t pests – they’re helpful!

Photo caption: A legion (hah, get it  – not army, but part thereof!) of sugar ants committed mass suicide in my bottle of honey. In honour of those that might resurrect – and I can see some of them will – I pooled it in the sink for what chance they get to extract themselves. A few less foolhardy brothers and sisters are supping from the edges.

People don’t know what to make of the teeny-tiny ants that march indoors like school children on spring and summer days (when they should be outside!). They can’t be mistaken for carpenter ants – like the many other species that aren’t carpenter ants, but get killed as if they were as dangerous (carpenter ant infestations are dangerous to your house).  All people think is “ew!” If you do a quick search on Google for “sugar ants,” it zones in on how to kill (“get rid of”) them.

However, when they first made their appearance in my kitchen in June of 2010, killing them was never my thought. Yes, there were many of them, but I’m curious: why are they here? Answer: I left the maple syrup out on the counter, and they were attracted by the sugar in the ring mark from the bottle. Once they ate all the sugar, they marched off to look for something else sugary.

No sugar? Not that much of a problem. I don’t consider 10, 15, even 25 ants smaller than a grain of rice to be a problem in my kitchen. Why should I begrudge them eating what I cannot?

One time they got into a tray of dates that I had left out. Once I picked up the tray, exodus! I tapped it a few times, and even those snacking on the cracks in the date skins (the dates were gooey, leaving a syrupy residue in the tray) pulled themselves away and fled. So I made them a bargain: I took out all the dates, washed them off and put them in the fridge. I left the tray for the ants to clean.

NPR did a special on sugar ants in “The Tiny Ant that’s Taking Over the Big City.” The comments for the article are illuminating of this ant’s background and context in the American city.  Sugar ants are able to create supercolonies that they could not sustain if they were in the forest. However, for all the preventions and solutions the article included in its sidebar “Keeping Ants Away,” I failed to see a compelling argument why.

I have an umbrella plant –  I don’t know what kind – and I’ve had it for a long time. With the onset of spring, I put it out on the deck for its own good. It immediately produced new branches and leaves, and I noticed how the sugar ants laid eggs right at the junction on the underside of the growing terminal leaf, with several “nurses” remaining with the small clutches. They look like they are aphid farming. Yet the plant wasn’t damaged in any way.

But, just when the plant was in reach of the balcony rails, along came my rabbits and ate a few of these terminal leaves and their sisters – annihilating the sugar ant eggs and their nurses in a few quick nibbles. The poor plant had to regroup and send out new terminal buds – to which the ants responded again. What’s more, the attacked part, with the new growth, seems little worse for wear. Could this be a symbiotic relationship?

In 2007,  Mathews et al published a paper titled EFNs Enhance Biological Control of G. molesta (Environmental Entomology 36(2)) about the sugar secreted by peach tree leaves and how, if ants have access to the canopies of the trees, they competitively exclude (or predate upon) oriental fruit moths. They then become a biological pest control agent.

The moral of the story is, though this isn’t the same plant, and it isn’t the same ant, the view of “pest” needs to be more rigorously applied: are those sugar ants doing you any harm? For me, no – they help clean my counter and then they go away. It seems, perhaps, their going about their business is an overall good.

A new wildflower lawn when the herbicide stops

My dad, an old farmer in a very conventional Ontario town, must have applied herbicide to the lawn because now that he’s gone, the lawn has gone to a heavenly variety of plants. Here’s a pictorial of what happens to a lawn with some disturbance, no herbicide, and left to grow.

Tiny wild forget-me-nots. Notice the lichen on the walk!

Unknown name, a less prickly thistle that is quite pretty

Ragweed, the kind that sets off people’s allergies. Pull them up! Luckily the rabbits eat them.

White and pinkish clover

Oxalis on the left, something I don’t know in the middle, and forget-me-nots

A nicely filled-in patch where the rabbit hutch used to be

Lambs quarters, which are edible, by the fence. Lots of oxalis, edible with a lemony tang for salads

Creeping Charlie is the dark purple flower in the corner; the white flower would be open on a sunnier day

The white flower is just as unknown as the leafier one from above; you can see a thistle on the right

Where the ground is bare: cultivated pepper plants

Cultivated rhubarb, this patch about 4 years old. I have gathered seeds from a mature plant that I will hopefully harvest from in the next three years.

While this is not my lawn, I would continue to allow it to grow and diversify. I’d pull the ragweed and thistles and whatever weeds surrounded the pepper plants (we weed vegetable gardens so that the vegetables can get the resources and thrive. I’d also mow only the paths that foot traffic might take, to strengthen the things that like to grow low.

But of course, I also might consider having a bunny-renting service. Dad really did say that when they were living there, he only had to mow a couple of times that season.

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