National Pollinator Week & Pollinator Contest

Eight years ago, the U.S. Senate in a rare unanimous approval vote, designated one week in June as “National Pollinator Week”  which addressed the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Last week was the official kick off of Pollinator Week, and the event has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.  A proclamation signed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture every year designates a week in June to raise pollinator awareness. Pollinator Week was initiated and continues to be managed by the Pollinator Partnership, the largest non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.

The USDA holds a mini festival on pollinators in front of their headquarters in D.C.

Attending the festival in D.C. on a hot and humid day last Friday, I was impressed with the enthusiasm on display by volunteers and employees of the federal agencies to get the word out. Mason bee houses, giving out free pollinator plants and posters, and a giveaway of Haagen-Dazs ice cream were all on the agenda for the day. Haagen-Dazs is at the forefront of putting their money where there mouth is.

Cone Flowers are a great plant to attract pollinators

Honey bees pollinate one-third of the foods we eat, including many of the ingredients they use to make their delicious ice cream and they are concerned with the decline of bees. Quickly scooping out the ice cream in 95 degree heat before it melted, I appreciated the volunteers who braved the brutal heat.

Handing out free samples of Haagen Dazs
Educating the public about mason bee houses

On their website Haagen-Dazs loves honeybees, I read that they have donated more than $1,000,000 to honey bee research. Also teaming up with Xerces Society, Haagen-Dazs has installed the largest, privately funded pollinator habitat on the farmland of an almond supplier in California’s Central Valley. The newly-planted habitat consists of six and a half miles of hedgerow and 11,000 native drought-tolerant shrubs and flowering plants, impacting 840 acres of farmland.

This year’s poster for Pollinator Week
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2016 Poster

The creation of beautiful posters commemorates Pollinator Week and this years poster illustrates the annual migration of the monarch butterfly. It is available by going to Pollinator Partnership. The 2016 poster puts the spotlight on trees that are important food sources for pollinators. Go to Honeybee NectarFlow-Black Locust Trees to see my recent post on the importance of this local tree for my hives. Most people don’t think of trees as a valuable pollinator source, like they would with annuals and perennials, so I was happy to see the subject of the poster.  Because trees hold their blooms up high where you can’t see them, you don’t see the pollinator activity that you would down below with smaller plants. According to Doug Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, Oak trees rank number one as supporting at least 557 species of caterpillars as a host plant, and Cherry trees as number two attracting and supporting 456 species of caterpillars. And to have butterflies and other pollinators like birds who feed their young ones butterfly larvae, you need caterpillars.

Oaks are top of the list for habitat

To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has  regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.

BEE The Change Giveaway

Anyone who has or wants to teach kids (K-12) about pollinators through gardening, either a teacher, parent, community, or other organization is eligible to win pollinator plants and seeds to be awarded to 31 lucky winners. According to the KidsGardening website, “KidsGardening, American Meadows, and High Country Gardens want to thank educators and parents teaching children about Pollinators with the BEE the Change Summer Pollinator Garden Giveaway. The Grand Prize is a pollinator garden—up to 80 plants to cover an area of 1,000 sq. ft—designed by High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist Dave Salman or American Meadows pollinator plant expert Mike Lizotte”. Sounds like a great contest and you just have to be teaching kids in the school or at home about these essential helpers. You can enter now until August 31, 2017 at KidsGardening.

Native bee house is a great project for kids, seen at the Ripley Garden in D.C.

 

My own poster Plant These For the Bees

 

 

Three For the Bees

Congregating on the front porch, my bees are hungry!
Pollinator container for early spring

#1

Pollinators are flying and searching for nectar and pollen to take back to their colony and the pickings are slim until the rest of the spring flowers open. Help them out with container plantings to supplement their foraging efforts.

Everything here I picked up at my local Lowes and/or Home Depot. Pick a large wide mouthed container  (18″ at least) and plant snapdragons, lavender, foxglove (digitalis), violas, and dianthus. I noticed once I potted this all up, that lots of bees, flies, and other insects started to visit immediately.

This container will remain on my patio all spring and once the foxglove, snapdragons,and violas are kaput, I will add some summer blooming plants to continue the show with the lavender and the dianthus.

#2

Another container which attracts many pollinators is the one above with primrose, scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’, heather, alyssum, woodland phlox, lilies, and yellow dogwood sticks for fun. The lilies will be the last to flower and will take this container into the summer. At that time, I will rejuvenate the container, keeping the plants that still look good and changing out the bloomed out ones. Makeover time!

Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ is a great pollinator friendly plant

#3

Violas are the star in this pollinator container. The silver ball is a great way to add “pizzazz” and amp up the impact. Again snapdragons are an important element for early spring chilly weather. The alliums will be blooming in another month to continue the color show. The cobalt blue container adds a splash of color to the composition.

Frost date for my area of the mid-Atlantic is May 12 so I am careful to plant only cold hardy plants –  no pentas, marigolds, lantana, coleus, etc.! I hold these until later in my greenhouse to fill in for my spent spring flowers.

 

For more information on the best plants for bees, go to my post, Plant These For The Bees.

Native vs Non-Native-Which is Better for Pollinators?

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Tithonia, Mexican Sunflower, native to Mexico and Central America, is one of the top insect drawing plants in my garden

Native Vs Non-Native

Native or non-native in the garden: Which is better? Simple- everyone knows the answer to that question…Natives of course! As gardeners, we have been bombarded with information about the value to wildlife of native plants and the more natives the better. But the definition of natives has always been fuzzy to me. Are natives plants that originated within our region, state, or North America? Or things that predate Europeans settling North America? Or does it mean plants indigenous to a particular habitat or ecosystem? And how about cultivars of native plants-like different varieties of Anise Hyssop which is a North American native? There are no easy answers to these questions.

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‘Pink Panther’ Anise Hyssop is a bee magnet
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Liatris is a great native wildflower that I grow for bee value

I have always been skeptical about the native plant zeal and ready to challenge it after my observations of over 50 years of gardening experience. My blog post on the benefits of planting Butterfly Bushes stirred up some controversy. I acknowledge that Butterfly Bush provides only nectar and not foliage value to caterpillars as a host plant. But I still urge people to plant Butterfly Bush because deer won’t touch it and the butterflies flock to it and I enjoy the plant for its beauty and ease of growth. There aren’t many flowering shrubs that deer leave alone which makes it valuable as a landscape plant.

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Pipevine Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush flower

I always deferred to the experts about native plants because anecdotal evidence is not the same as peer reviewed scientific articles.  So, I had no numbers to back up my belief gained from experience. Planting a diverse assortment of flowers- be it perennials, vines, annuals, trees, or shrubs or native and non-native to provide a healthy and beautiful habitat was always what I have practiced. My decisions on what to plant was determined by whether the plant was appropriate for the location and environment, not fussy, and that it wasn’t invasive.  Invasive means that a plant is spreading prolifically and undesirable or harmful to the habitat.

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A roadside field of invasive Purple Loosestrife,, Lythrum salicaria, originally from Europe
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Invasive Japanese Beetles feeding on Lythrum

Plants For Bugs Article

My longtime observations of planting a diverse selection of plants, both native and non-native, was recently backed up by an article, “Plants For Bugs: all in the mix” by Helen Bostock, who is a RHS Senior Horticultural advisor, from across the pond. Bostock says the average UK garden contains around 70 percent non-native and 30 percent native plants. I couldn’t find the U.S average, but I think it is probably very close to that same percentage. Bostock concludes that native use is on the rise, especially with the ‘back to the wild’ environmental movement, and ongoing education of home consumers of landscapes. I see it happening in my own practice of landscape designer with more and more requests for butterfly/wildlife friendly landscapes and less requests for manicured formal gardens. Gardens are still very unlike natural habitats but have a much greater diversity of plant species than their surroundings which have been degraded with development encroachment.

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Zinnias are not native to my area but pollinators love them

Bostock’s research concludes after studies spanning four years that a mix of plants from around the world may be the most effective way to sustain pollinators. This was no surprise to me. The native bandwagon has acquired mystical connotations in the past 10 years and claims that natives use less water, are disease free, and low maintenance have been made over and over.

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I am slowly removing turf and planting meadows with native plants on my property

But what role do garden plants (both native and non-native) play in supporting wildlife?  Views differ on whether planting native plants only is necessary for the most wildlife friendly garden. This was the question posed by the Wildlife Gardening Forum in the UK and they set up a field experiment designed to test whether the geographical origin of a plant affects the numbers and diversity of insects and other wildlife.

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Pollinating fly on mint flower

Conclusions

This is what the RHS study has concluded:

• Research reveals a mixture of native and non-native ornamental plants may provide the best resources for pollinating insects in gardens
• Native plants are not always the first choice for pollinators visiting gardens
• Non-native plants can prolong the flowering season providing an additional food source

Surprising results for many!

The basis of a garden’s health and vigor is determined by invertebrates, animals lacking a backbone. The more critters making a home or just stopping by for a refueling visit, the healthier your garden is to the environment and your health and well being.

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Dragonfly on waterlily

 Findings and Messages

For all pollinator groups on all treatments, greater floral resource, either native or non-native, resulted in an increase in visits. There was, however, a greater abundance of total pollinators recorded on native and near-native treatments compared with the exotic plots.

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Allegheny Vine, Adlumia Fungosa, is an endangered North American native, closely related to Bleeding Heart

Exotics were notable in extending the period of bloom which is really important to attract insects all season long.

The takeaway here – use site appropriate native plants when possible, understanding that some are a bit more boisterous than others, but add exotics where appropriate to enrich and extend the season. Gardens can be enhanced as a habitat by planting a variety of flowering plants, tilted towards native and near-native species.

 

Pesticide Free Nurseries and Seed Companies

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After picking out dead honeybees from a honeycomb frame recently, I pledged to use only plants that are neonic free. Neonics or neonicitonoids have been implicated in recent bee declines as well as other factors, such as loss of habitat and the bee parasite- the varroa mite. There are a number of studies that have conflicting findings and beekeepers aren’t convinced that there is a number one cause. See this article at The Huffington Post and you will be even more unsure what to believe. But I think that limiting the use of neonics will help.img_4460

Many gardeners have contacted me who say they are no longer buying plants from regular retail nurseries and seed companies because there is no way to tell if the pollinator-attracting plants they are purchasing have been treated with Neonicotinoids/imidacloprid, etc. As a beekeeper, I am interested in keeping my property free of these systemic pesticides.

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Honeybees bring back pollen to the hive from flowers that could be contaminated with neonics

 

Plant Nurseries that don’t use Neonics

Some are wholesale and some are retail; the wholesale ones sell to your local nurseries 

Annie’s Annuals – CA

Arrowhead Alpines – WI

Behnkes Nursery – MD, If the plant is listed as Pollinator Friendly, it hasn’t been treated with neonics

Bluestone Perennials – OH

Brushwood Vines – GA

Dancing Oaks – OR

Dawn’s Wild Things – NY

Digging Dog – CA

EcoTulips – VA

Edible Landscaping – VA

Far Reaches Farm – WA

Fernwood Nursery & Gardens, ME

Forest Farm – OR

Greener Earth Nursery – OR

High Country Gardens – NM/CO

Hostas Direct – MN

Iseli Nursery- OR

Joy Creek Nursery – OR

Lazy S’s Farm Nursery – VA

Mountain Valley Growers – CA

Niche Gardens – NC

Plant Delights-NC

Prairie Moon Nursery – MN

Prairie Nursery – WI

Rolling River Nursery – CA

Santa Rosa Gardens – FL

Select Seeds – CT ,They also sell plants

Streambank Gardens – DE

The Tasteful Garden – AL

Tripple Brook Farm – MA

Valley View Farms– MD, Read their policy concerning pesticide use at the link provided

Walters Gardens-MI, this is a wholesale nursery that provides a lot of Proven Winners Plants

Xera Plants – OR

Big Box

Lowe’s garden stores and BJ’s Wholesale Club have agreed to phase out all neonic-treated products on their shelves.  Home Depot has asked its suppliers to label any plants treated with neonics.  Many local garden stores are doing the same.

This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating
Neonics affect all insects, not just honeybees

Should you boycott nurseries that use neonicotinoids?

No! Many trees, conifers, ornamental grasses, ferns, and other plants provide habitat and tremendous wildlife value and don’t attract pollinators. There is no need to throw out the diverse array of plants available from these nurseries.

Every certified backyard habitat has a variety of plants-pollinator attracting ones and evergreens that shelter animals
Every certified backyard habitat has a variety of plants-pollinator attracting ones and evergreens that shelter animals

Neonics aren’t all bad. The application process is safe in comparison to spraying of the old organic phosphate chemicals.  Neonicotinoids are watered in and taken up by the plants roots to treat the plant internally, so when they are applied correctly, there is less potential for agricultural workers to be exposed to harmful chemicals, plus less residue left externally. For a great article disputing that neonics are causing pollinator problems, go to Financial Post. This article says that “Neonics are a minor issue for bee health and the continued false allegations are pulling resources away from stopping the real threat” and that according to an apiculture scientist there are three top reasons for bee colony death and they are “varroa mites, varroa mites, and varroa mites”. These tiny parasite like ticks suck the blood from bees and they can weaken the entire hive.

Pollen is collected from flowers and carried by the bee to the hive
Pollen is collected from flowers and carried by the bee to the hive

Pollen is the problem with neonics. When plants treated with a neonicotinoid produce flowers and pollen, the pesticide is contained within the pollen and bees bring it home to their hive, where even small amounts can build up over time into a concentration that weakens or kills the hive.

Bumblebees are affected by neonics like honeybees
Bumblebees are affected by neonics like honeybees

Many nursery owners who use neonics say they take precautions by not applying them when the plant is in bloom.Though growers who use neonics say they take these precautions, the chemical is still carried through the entire plant system-enough to harm honeybees.

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Some seed companies that don’t use neonics

Seed Companies that don’t use Neonics

  • Adaptive Seed
  • All Good Things Organic Seeds
  • Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
  • Baker Creek
  • Blue River Hybrids
  • Botanical Interests
  • Burpee
  • Denali Seed Company
  • Fedco
  • Goodwin Creek Gardens
  • Grow Organic
  • Gurney’s Seed Nursery Co
  • Harris Seeds
  • High Mowing Seeds 
  • Horizon Herbs
  • Hudson Valley Seed Library
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds 
  • Maine Potato Lady
  • Native Seeds
  • Northeast Seeds
  • Peaceful Valley
  • Pinetree Seeds
  • Renee’s Garden
  • Seed Savers
  • Southern Exposure
  • Sustainable Seed Company
  • Territorial Seed

Other plant sources that are usually safe

Local native plant sales (ask to be 100% sure). Local farmer’s markets ( many growers are not organic and so it is important to ask). If you shop at big box stores and aren’t sure where the plants come from, the grower’s label is usually applied to the pot.

Where Can I Find More Information?

So much has been written on this subject and here is some further reading:Xerces Society

Buying Bee-Friendly Plants

How Your Bee-Friendly Garden May Actually be Killing Bees

A Native Bee Rancher

Beyond Pesticides

Home Depot to Label Neonics

Rearing Monarchs – Start With Milkweed

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Full grown meadow with lots of nectar plants and milkweed around my beehives
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A Monarch nectaring in a Joe Pye Weed flower

Rearing Monarchs at my house was one of my goals this year. But I needed a ready source of milkweed to hand as I knew they were voracious eaters of this specific plant. A meadow of grass and goldenrod surrounded my three bee hives and I decided to plant nectar plants and milkweed in the grassy area, backed up with the goldenrod which is an important source of late nectar.

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A field of Goldenrod backs up my beehives

Trolling the byways as I walked my dog for Monarch caterpillars on milkweed is not the same as having milkweed plants in my back yard. “Plant it and they will come” is so true-you just need the room to plant your milkweed and nectaring plants. Popping out the back door while preparing dinner to check for eggs, caterpillars, and milkweed made it much easier for me.

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Take it section by section

Start Early

Late February was my starting date when I had time that was not taken up with other garden duties. First lay out your area with paint or a hose. I targeted an area about 15 feet wide by 60 feet in front of my bee hives to provide my bees with lots of floral sources and loads of milkweed for the Monarchs that I hoped would visit. Saving old newspapers all winter prepared me for the day when I started laying it down directly on top of the turf. Wet the newspaper so that it clings to the ground surface without flying away in the wind. A convenient hose to water everything down as you place the newspaper down is essential. I used at least 5 layers of newspaper to kill any underlying turf.

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Potting soil bag

Go Section By Section

Using about a dozen bags of potting soil, I added a thin 1 to 2 inch layer on top of the newspaper to hold the newspaper layers firmly to the ground. Mulch is also an option. I progressed one section at a time as the newspaper could dry up and blow away if you leave it too long exposed. After leaving this sandwich sit for about 8 to 10 weeks, the turf underneath was mostly dead and the newspaper was almost rotted through so that I could plant through it. When I gathered my plants for the meadow, I planted directly through the soil and newspaper layer into the underlying soil.

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Spread topsoil on top of the newspaper

Planting

Early in the spring, I gathered perennials in quarts and plugs to plant. Different varieties of of milkweed were planted among the other perennial plants to give a long season of bloom time, from early in the season to late. I planted all my milkweed transplants that were started in February into the ground at the same time. Go to Planting Milkweed to see how to start milkweed from seed. Weeds started growing, but I let them in! This wasn’t a manicured groomed perennial border and I didn’t bother the weeds that popped up.

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Planting Milkweed inside in February
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Newly planted perennials planted in the meadow, backed up by goldenrod

In early May, after danger of frost was over, I broadcast mixes of different seeds that were pollinator friendly in the open spaces. Mixing together many seed packets made a diverse mix and I sprinkled these on top of the soil and firmed it down with a hoe.

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Mixing lots of seed packets together
Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly
Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly

Next Step

Now I have a great little meadow which is a nectar source for my honey bees, as well as for other pollinators. And a great area to pick milkweed to bring in to feed my Monarch caterpillars. Watering in the spring is the only maintenance that I had to do until the plants rooted in and started growing. I left it alone after the initial planting and watering and have enjoyed the flowers that popped up all season long. To see what types of plants that pollinators seek out, check out Plant These For Bees.

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Milkweed in the foreground with other perennials and sunflowers

 

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The meadow is growing in nicely in July

Next Up: Rearing Monarchs

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Butterflying

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Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas in a ballet. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easy to do with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.

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Swallowtail inserting its proboscis into Phlox

More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?

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Queen butterfly on tropical milkweed

Flowers

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‘Black Beauty’ Lilium is the top draw for butterflies in my garden

Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, when the greatest number of butterflies are active, I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorites.

Host Plants for Larval Food

Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly?

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After planting milkweed in my garden, Monarch caterpillars appeared

Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.

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Beautiful Passion Flower is a host plant to spiky bright orange Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary caterpillars munch the plants on their way to becoming butterflies.
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Life cycle on monarch with milkweed

Other Attractants

Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.

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Owl butterfly feeding on fruit

Moist Soil or Gravel

Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.

Corridors

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Cut-throughs for power lines are a good spot to view butterflies

Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to a power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.

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Clouded Sulphur butterfly seen in my yard

Warm Weather

Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia
Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera!

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

 

Butterfly Pic Tips 

  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze.

  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.

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  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements

  • Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless

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Monarch
  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon

  • When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.

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A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them
  • Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.

Curled proboscis
Curled proboscis
  • Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.

  • Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this.  I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.

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    A tussock moth caterpillar munches on milkweed
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Skipper butterfly on lily
Skipper butterfly on lily

 

  • Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton,  thousands of tiny scales  cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.

Transparent wings of a swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
  • Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food.  A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.

Swallowtail on Zinnia
Swallowtail on Zinnia
  • Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching.

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Bee Skep poster, go to Etsy Store The Garden Diaries

National Pollinator Week

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Eight years ago, the U.S. Senate in a rare unanimous approval vote, designated one week in June as “National Pollinator Week”  which addressed the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.  In 2016 the dates are June 20 – 26 and the event has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture signs the proclamation every year designating this week. Pollinator Week was initiated and continues to be managed by the Pollinator Partnership, the largest non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.

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This year’s poster, Trees for Bees, by artist Natalya Zahn, is a beautiful reminder of the many trees you can include in your pollinator-friendly habitat

The creation of beautiful posters commemorates the event and this years poster by artist Natalya Zahn celebrates trees  in the landscape that will help attract pollinators. It is available by going to Pollinator Partnership.  Most people don’t think of trees as a valuable pollinator source, like they would with annuals and perennials, so I was happy to see the subject of the poster.  Because trees hold their blooms up high where you can’t see them, you don’t see the pollinator activity that you would down below with smaller plants. According to Doug Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, Oaks rank number one as supporting at least 557 species of caterpillars as a host plant, and Cherries as number two attracting and supporting 456 species of caterpillars. And to have butterflies and other pollinators like birds who feed their young tons of the butterfly larvae, you need caterpillars.

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Maple Tree flower: Most people don’t notice that bees are visiting flowers high in the canopy of trees

To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has  regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.

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21 popular flowers and herbs that attract pollinators

For seed sources, I rely on Botanical Interests for their great diversity and selection. You can order a seed packet from them, I Love Pollinators, #4007 which includes a mix of pollinator friendly plants- bachelor button, sunflower, borage, hollyhock, marigold, zinnia, hyssop, and dill. Costing only $1, all proceeds go to support the Pollinator Partnership which supports the health of our pollinators.

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This mix creates a pollinator-friendly habitat with annual and perennial flowering plants that supply pollinators with nectar, pollen, and shelter. For more information, go to www.botanicalinterests.com/pollinators

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Calycanthus, or Carolina Sweet Shrub, is a great native addition to a garden that will attract many pollinators