Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Native Pollinators: Part 3 - The Merry Merry Month

Many people never think of paper wasps as pollinators, but many species are.  This is Polistes annularis, a relatively common woodland/suburban resident.  In addition to foraging for nectar, they also hunt small insects and caterpillars.
One way to think of May is that it is August in reverse.  Cinco de Mayo and cinco de Augusto are, in terms of the length of the day and the angle of the sun, equidistant from the summer solstice.  May is the final meteorological month of spring, no matter what the Julian calendar claims, and nature knows it.
Meet the Gray Bee Fly, one of May's little zooming gems.  Like many of the nectaring fly species, they are able to hover and change flight angles in seemingly impossible ways.
Those earliest bees, such as certain species of Andrena mentioned previously, have already built and provisioned their nesting tunnels and passed on.  Their progeny will now use the long warm weeks to nibble the pollen and honey cakes their mothers have prepared and left them. In this way they pass through their various larval stages and fatten themselves up for the long pupal stage and final metamorphosis. These latter transformations take place during the cold months. Every calorie required for this process is left them in those amazing honey cakes and these offspring will not see daylight for another ten months.  But Mom thought of everything.
"Variegated fritillary" is not just fun to say, it is also a real animal and a close cousin of the rock star Monarch butterfly.  The butterflies that show up in spring are the ones that spent the winter as a chrysalis.  These adults reproduce to give rise to an intermediate, summer generation.  Some butterfly species generate several "intermediates" prior to winter, though many are very long-lived as individuals.
This life-cycle story is similar for most of the solitary bees no matter when they emerge during the season, and no matter where they nest.   
From a distance, this syrphid fly resembles a honeybee.  As a defensive mechanism, many syrphid (flower) flies are amazing mimics of other species of bees and wasps, difficult to distinguish even up close.  Hard-working syrphids tend to be generalists in their nectaring habits, making them useful to many plants.
May ushers in the era of the big, long-lasting blossoms which require a good deal of light, heat and water to fuel their slow development. The myriad insects that inhabit and animate the summer also begin to emerge.  Right now is a good time to hunt around your garden for the larval forms of insects such as ladybugs.  These larva are beneficial in that they prey on the same aphids as their parents.  Bees and flies still predominate the pollination scene in May, but the paper wasps are busy crafting their durable, papyrus nurseries, and mature beetles, butterflies and moths can now begin to depend on the blossoms they require for nutrition and find the host plants they need for reproduction.  May is also an excellent time to tune up your native bee spotting and identification skills.  It’s not too hot and your garden has not yet been chewed, sawed, blighted and roasted.  It’s lovely out there.
A water source is an important constituent of any garden setting. Paper wasps need water to create their papyrus, but other insects require fresh water as well.
There are mining bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, large and small carpenter bees, cuckoo bees. mason bees, digger bees and all sorts of highly specialized bees that only nectar on specific plants.  It is neither as bewildering as it might seem and much easier than you might suspect.  If you have some native, flowering plants or a small assortment of flowering herbs such as dill, catnip, oregano, thyme or basil, you don’t need to go chasing the beautiful pollinators, let these plant bloom and they will come to you.  All you have to do then is pay a little bit of attention to when the insects show up, pull up a chair and enjoy the show.
Slow-flying butterflies are easy targets for predators such as birds, but their wings provide some defense by tearing easily without impairing the rest of the animal.  I have seen butterflies with heavy damage to both wings still managing to go about life. This is a Red-spotted Purple Swallowtail.
But really, when all is said and done, you don’t have to name them or classify them or count them or even notice them for that matter.  What matters is that you create a space where they can thrive and let them do their timeless work.  In the garden shop, look for plants that attract butterflies and bees.  And I am not a “native” absolutist by any means.  If the insects like it, it’s part of the solution. 
Not all natives, such as this stinging spurge nettle, belong in your garden, but left where they do belong they support pollinators of all sorts, such as this Palamedes Swallowtail.  The Palamedes is the most common woodland swallowtail seen throughout the spring and summer in First Landing State Park.
Guest writer: Robert Brown, LRNow Stewardship and Access Committee

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