A Mother’s Love: The Race to Provide

A Mother’s Love: The Race to Provide

Metallic Green Sweat Bee

A speck of sunlight warmed the face of a mother, causing her to wake and stand up. She took a few steps toward the sunlight, letting it warm her cold legs in her tunnel. Looking back at the wall of her nursery, she knew she had limited time to finish her work. Behind that wall was a row of rooms, one for each of her eggs. Each nursery room was provisioned with pollen and walled off from the others, providing a safe place to hatch, overwinter, and hopefully emerge next year. Her antennae started twitching excitedly. She tried beating her wings; they buzzed. She was warm and ready for another day’s work.

She cautiously peeped over the lip of her nest entrance. She was a metallic green sweat bee, and just last week she watched as a parasitic bee invaded one of her neighbors’ nests, ending the hope of a future generation from that mother. To keep all her efforts from being in vain, she had to leave and enter her nest in complete secrecy. She scanned the area around her, checking for someone perched on the tops of rocks or hidden in the shaded spaces between grass stems. So far so clear. She stepped out of her nest, allowing the sun to warm her entire body. Looking around once more, and seeing no sign of threat, she zipped off to start her chores.

Gathering pollen was her favorite chore. She had already started a new nursery cell; all there was left to do was to lay an egg and provide a provision of food. Using the sun as a compass, she navigated to a large patch of gold that she had seen yesterday. The yellow rays of one unoccupied flower caught her eye, and she flew into its center, landing on a blanket of brown bristles topped with yellow tufts of pollen. The buzzing of other insects at neighboring flowers reverberated in the air around her, and caused the flower to tremble even more in the breeze. The air was slowly growing cooler each day. It was taking her longer and longer to warm up enough to fly in the mornings. The frantic buzzing of other insects confirmed a sense of fear she didn’t quite understand. She sensed that she must hurry.

Native Sunflower

Thinking of her young ones back at the nest, she worked as quickly as possible, picking up pollen and snatching a mouthful for herself every now and then. As she moved across the flower, she let her body brush against as much pollen as possible. She paused periodically to comb this pollen from her abdomen, head, and feet to tuck it onto her back legs where she had thicker, hooked hair that was much better at holding pollen in place. The sun shone on, warming her even more. Through the race to gather and provide for her family, it was nice to be out in the sun and surrounded by velvety gold rays. The bristled brown underneath felt good on her feet and belly. Once she was through gathering here, she remembered a bright purple area that had looked promising.

Looking for her Nest

After a while, the little sweat bee had as much pollen as she could carry. Pushing off the sunflower, she flew back toward her nest, only pausing once for a breath on a stand of purple flowers. Back on the ground, she felt around with her antennae until she found her own nest entrance. She peered inside her dark nest. All was quiet, just how she left it. She glanced behind her. No one had seen her; her family was safe.

As she pulled pollen off her legs and rolled it into a loaf, she had a sense that this may be the last nest she would finish. She felt much more tired compared to a few weeks ago. She was particularly proud of this nest: it was in a well-hidden location, its walls were smooth, and she had a good mix of pollen from different flowers within each loaf she had made for her children. Although she would never get to meet them, she was glad they would have all the nutrition they would need to start a successful life. She hoped they would find the yellow and purple flower patches. She grew more tired. Maybe one more pollen collecting trip before she turned in for the day.

Container Gardening for Pollinators

Container Gardening for Pollinators

How to Support Pollinators with Limited Space

Most pollinator garden guides are for those who have the space, time, and energy to implement a large garden into a backyard or front lawn. Those of us who rent, have small yards, or can’t commit as much time to gardening are normally left out of the conversation – until now! Apartment dwellers and busy homeowners alike have the ability to provide important resources to pollinators through container gardening! Below we outline some reasons why container gardening is important, give some gardening tips, list fantastic native pollinator plants, and provide links to inspiring resources to help turn your porch or balcony into an beautiful pollinator habitat!

Bloodroot flower in pot

The Importance of Container Gardens

Container gardeners fulfill unmet pollinator needs

If you live in a large, uniform area such as a rental complex or a grass-turf suburbia, it is all the more important to provide native habitat! These areas are full of concrete and frequently-mowed grass, making the area inhospitable to most pollinators. By growing a container garden, you contribute an important “stepping stone” for pollinators by providing them with nectar and pollen resources to help them move through your neighborhood.

Balcony gardens are inspiring

Have you ever looked at your neighbor’s porch or balcony and been inspired to add solar lights or a hammock to your own? You can do the same by inspiring your neighbors to start a pollinator garden! Apartment balconies are highly visible, giving you the perfect opportunity to showcase your efforts and spread the word about how your neighbors can help pollinators. The more people providing native habitat in your area, the more likely you will be able to start enjoying butterfly and bee sightings!

They are great learning experiences

Everyone starts somewhere. It can be daunting to start growing plants you are unfamiliar with. Additionally, you may be aware of topics surrounding native and nonnative plants, invasive plants, local ecotype… the list goes on. How “correct” do you have to be to get started? In my opinion, it is a great loss to miss out on a learning experience about native plants due to the fact that you were afraid of not being “correct” enough. The more you try, the more you learn, and pollinators desperately need more people learning about them and the plants they rely on if they are going to survive in the future. Also, because you will be growing plants in a container and trying to incorporate native plants, it is less likely that a plant would escape its container and cause issues. Caution is important and it shows that you care, but don’t be afraid, do what you can, and use this article as a starting point to get a pollinator container garden going!

Container Garden Tips:

Plan Ahead and Make Room

Start planning for next year’s container garden now, so you can get a jump on ordering seed or plugs! Also, use pots measuring about 18 inches wide and 18 inches deep or larger; prairie plants have deep roots.

Think Diversity

Provide a range of bloom times, colors, flower shapes, and plant structures to support as many pollinators as possible. This also provides you with a beautiful, dynamic garden space throughout the growing season. It may also increase your chances at seeing polliantors!

Grow Native Plants

Incorporating plants native to Iowa is fantastic, but utilizing native plants with a local ecotype is even better. Local ecotype means that the plant (and its resulting seed) was grown within a certain area, making it well-adapted to that area. To find local ecotype seed,  find nurseries and greenhouses within 150-200 miles of your home, and ask where they source their seed.

 Provide with Patience

It can take a few years for a native plant to bloom if started from seed, whether planted in a pot or the ground. This makes creating a native garden very rewarding! If starting from seed sounds daunting, plan your plant list now, and use plugs instead of seeds for the next growing season. This route is more expensive but gives you a nearly instant pollinator garden.

Heel and Save Seeds

Successfully overwintering grown native plants in pots is difficult; research the term “heeling” for info on how to overwinter pots with more success, or overwinter them in an unheated garage. You could also donate your potted plants to someone who can plant them in the ground in early fall. Remember you can collect seeds from your plants to use next year.

Leave it for the Bees

In the fall, leave potted plants outdoors until November and do not cut back dried-up vegetation. Place pots back outside in April, and only cut back stems and leaves when nightly temperatures consistently reach 50°F. Doing this increases the survival of any pollinators that may have decided to nest in your plants; it gives them a chance to emerge and start the next generation of pollinators!

Pollinator Plants for Container Gardens:

The following plants are mainly tallgrass prairie plants native to Story County, Iowa, and grouped by sunlight requirements. Remember to never take plants from natural areas in an attempt to transplant them into your garden. Natural and wild areas are increasingly scarce, making the plants in them vitally important to pollinators and other wildlife!

Full Sun:

The following native plant species are for balconies and patios that receive full sun during the day. They are also mostly tolerant of drier soils, which is handy as container plants in sunny areas tend to dry out faster than shady areas.

Common NameBloom Period
Butterfly weedJune – August
Species NameDetails
Asclepias tuberosaSupports monarch butterfly caterpillars

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom Period
Narrow-leaved purple coneflowerJuly
Species NameDetails
Echinacea angustifoliaLocal alternative to Echinacea purpurea
Narrow-leaved purple coneflower
Common NameBloom Period
Bee balmJuly – August
Species NameDetails
Monarda fistulosaBee and butterfly magnet

 

Bee balm
Common NameBloom Period
Rattlesnake masterJuly – August
Species NameDetails
Eryngium yuccifoliumAdds unique shape to garden, supports many kinds of pollinators 
Rattlesnake master
Common NameBloom Period
Dwarf blazing starJuly – September
Species NameDetails
Liatris cylindracea Attracts butterflies and bees very well

 

Dwarf blazing star
Common NameBloom Period
Little bluestemWarm-season grass
Species NameDetails
Schizachyrium scopariumSilvery-green bunch grass; turns orange with hints of purple in fall. Supports butterfly caterpillars. 
Little bluestem in summer and autumn

Partial Sun:

The following native plant species are for balconies and patios that receive partial sun during the day. They are also tolerate medium to wet soil. Most pollinator plants love full sun; the following plants require sunlight and tolerate some shade. If you have shade for a majority of the day, you could try researching native woodland flowers.

Common NameBloom Period
Wild geraniumMay
Species NameDetails
Geranium maculatumThis flower blooms before most, making it an important pollinator food source in spring
Wild geranium
Common NameBloom Period
Golden AlexanderMay – June
Species NameDetails
Zizia aureaAs a member of the carrot family, it provides for the black swallowtail butterfly’s caterpillars
Golden Alexander
Common NameBloom Period
Black-eyed SusanJune – July
Species NameDetails
Rudbeckia hirtaProvides great landing pad for butterflies
Black-eyed Susan
Common NameBloom Period
Great lobeliaAugust – September
Species NameDetails
Lobelia siphiliticaIt’s tube shape and blue color make it a favorite among bumble bees
Great lobelia
Common NameBloom Period
Showy goldenrodAugust – October
Species NameDetails
Solidago speciosaCan bloom into October; important food source for late-season pollinators
Showy goldenrod
Common NameBloom Period
Bicknell’s sedgeFruits in late May
Species NameDetails
Carex bicknelliiProvides great cover for all pollinators; possible host plant of some declining butterfly species
Bicknell's sedge

Inspirational Resources!

The Missouri Botanical Garden showcases examples of different pot designs and teaches how to expertly arrange native species together to create a beautifully unique and cohesive look:

Build your own personalized container plant list by finding plant species native to your county at this URL. This website is a digitized version of the book Prairie Plants of Iowa (published 1999) with text and maps by Paul Christiansen and drawings by Mark Müller:

Have fun planning next year’s container garden!

 

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Moths and Butterflies

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Moths and Butterflies

Did you know that National Moth Week is celebrated in July? Read up on Iowa’s native moths and butterflies to be ready to celebrate Moth Week right, from July 23rd to 31st!

Iowa is home to about 110 butterfly species, and over 2,000 moth species! Butterflies and moths are related: both are in the insect order Lepidoptera, which roughly translates to “scaled wing”. Most of us think of moths as the ugly stepsisters of butterflies, but this is not true! In fact, I would call moths the sleeping beauties of our natural world (they are beauties that are often active while we sleep). Don’t continue to sleep on the incredible beauty of Iowa moths, and get to know our butterflies better!

Giant Silk Moths
If you’re lucky enough to have seen a luna moth, then you’ve seen a member of the giant silk moth group, called the Saturniidae family (Saturnia is the daughter of Saturn in Greek mythology). This group also includes the cecropia moth, named after Cecrops, a half-man-half-snake king in Greek mythology. If you squint at the top outer corner of the cecropia moth’s front wing by the dark eyespot, you can see what appears to be a profile of a snake’s head. Lastly, the luna and cecropia moths don’t eat as adults – they have no mouths! They only eat as caterpillars, which is common in the mysterious world of moths.

Cecropia Moth

Hawk Moths and Hummingbird Moths
Aptly named, these moths look and fly like humming birds, hovering while drinking nectar with their straw-like mouths (called a proboscis). Some also mimic bumble bees, like the snowberry clearwing pictured on the right! Belonging to the family Sphingidae, these moths can be diurnal (day-active) or nocturnal (night-active). Some species don’t eat as adults. For those that do, they are important pollinators for prairie orchid and primrose species!

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Owlet and Underwing Moths
Most of these moths are the experts of disguise, using drab colors on their front wings to blend in with bark and dead leaves. They are in the family Noctuidae, the largest family of moths in North America. Underwing moths, however, have a secret weapon: their back wings can have bright colors that hide under the front wings, and can be flashed to startle a predator during escape!

Sweetheart Underwing Moth

Tiger Moths
When wooly bear caterpillars mature, they are called tiger moths, also known as the family Erebidae. These moths can have bright colors decorated with geometric lines, consequently nicknamed “tiger” moths. I saw the tiger moth pictured here the last week of June at Ada Hayden park! This species of tiger moth is called the “reversed haploa moth” due to the fact that it has two color variations: either geometric lines on the front wings with plain white back wings, or the reverse: plain white front wings with geometric back wings.

Reversed Haploa Moth

Brush-footed Butterflies
The family Nymphalidae, commonly called the brush-footed group, is one of the most popular groups of butterflies with monarchs, regal fritillaries, and painted ladies included in its ranks. Why are they called brush-foots? Their front legs are very small, and kept close to their body (similar to t-rex dinosaurs in my opinion). These front legs aren’t used for walking and are basically reduced to little “brushes”.

Common Buckeye

Swallowtails
While one of the most entrancing butterflies, swallowtails are tough; they overwinter here in Iowa! As caterpillars, this group (which is the family Papilionidae) spin their chrysalises and wait out the winter under dead leaves, giving us another reason to leave areas in our yard undisturbed this fall. The caterpillars of this group can just as awe-inspiring, with some having bright green colors, or eyespots that can make them look like snakes to scare predators away!

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Whites and Sulphurs
This group of butterflies has a charming behavior; they like puddles! Belonging to the Pieridae family, these butterflies are the most likely to be found in a “puddling” group, sucking up extra nutrients in the water. Adult butterflies appear white, yellow, orange, and sometimes have black markings. One of the coolest butterflies in this group is the Olympia marble, a species of special concern in Iowa due to declining numbers. Just look at its metallic markings against snow-white wings!

Olympia Marble

Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks
These tiny butterflies are also called gossamer wings, due to the beautiful shimmer that reflects off their wings! These butterflies are a part of the family Lycaenidae, and also love visiting puddles, so don’t let their looks fool you; they are hardcore. Continuing that thought: the species Satyrium edwardsii, or Edward’s hairstreak, has some wild behavior as a caterpillar. At night it feeds on oak leaves, and during the day it rests in active ant nests for protection! This species is also a species of special concern in Iowa due to declining numbers.

Hairstreak

Skippers
If you can’t tell if an insect is a butterfly or a moth, you may be looking at a skipper. Skippers are in the family Hesperiidae, and have chunky bodies with hooked, hockey-stick-shaped antennae. They appear carefree as they skip through the air. From the side, their wings give them a triangular, shark-fin shape. Out of the two butterfly species in Iowa considered endangered, one is a skipper, called the Dakota skipper. It requires high-quality prairie remnants, a habitat extremely hard to find in Iowa.

Skipper

While many people love butterflies, these insects don’t always receive the respect they deserve being diverse and important wildlife. They are more than nature’s gems-they are important pollinators that have fun behaviors to appreciate! Moths are often forgotten, despite the fact that they can be bigger and more colorful than many butterfly species, and have the coolest adaptations, such as flashes of color and mouth-less adults! The world of moths and butterflies is not just a pretty one; it’s a wild one!

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Bees

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Bees

June is National Pollinator Month! While many animals can act as pollinators (from bats to butterflies to beetles), this month we are choosing to celebrate the most efficient pollinators of them all: native bees!

Iowa has nearly 400 species of native bees. While the word “bee” brings the honey bee (Apis mellifera) to most people’s minds, this is just one species of bee and it is not native to Iowa; they were brought to the States by early settlers. Unlike honey bees, nearly all of Iowa’s native bees are solitary, meaning one female bee creates and tends her own nests. There are too many bee groups and species to cover in one article, and therefore we are focusing on only eight common groups of bees in Iowa to appreciate this month: bumble bees, cellophane bees, sweat bees, mining bees, mason bees, long-horned bees, leafcutter bees, and carpenter bees.

Bumble Bees
One of the most beloved groups of bees, bumble bees are large bees that look chunky and fluffy (what’s not to love?). They nest above or below ground in abandoned burrows or cavities, and are Iowa’s only truly social native bees! Their colonies can be large but only live for one year. Near the end of the hive’s life, young queens hatch and leave the hive to hibernate alone during winter, then emerge the next year to start their own hives. An easy way to tell bumble bees apart from large carpenter bees is that they have fuzzy abdomens, while carpenter bees have shiny black, nearly hairless abdomens.

Common Eastern Bumble Bee

Cellophane Bees
Also known as plasterer bees or polyester bees, these fuzzy friends are in the bee genus Colletes. They are known by a wide range of plastic-alluding names due to the plastic-like coating they create to line their underground nest cells. The plastic-like substance acts like waterproofing, protecting eggs and developing larvae from moisture, fungus, and other threats. Cellophane bees are active in spring here in Iowa.

Cellophane Bee

Sweat Bees
Bees in the sweat bee group belong to the family Halictidae. They come in a vast array of colors, sizes, and nesting strategies; there are about 500 different species of sweat bees in North America alone! My favorite genus of sweat bee may be Augochloropsis; these bees have green, comma-shaped wing shields (also called tegulae), are a brilliant blue-green color, and there’s even a bee with the species name metallica! Other sweat bee genera range from metallic to dull brown in color, with many nesting in the ground. While not truly social, some sweat bees nest communally by sharing main tunnels underground, similar to how we share hallways in apartment buildings!

Sweat Bee

Mining Bees
This group of bees often includes bees in the Andrenidae family. These bees excavate their nests in the ground and come in a range of sizes. These bees are currently active in Iowa! Look for their nests by finding small piles of dirt around a hole the size of a #2 pencil (though the size of the hole varies between species). You may find more than one nest in an area!

Mining Bee

Mason Bees
Belonging to the genus Osmia, this group of bees is especially important for the pollination of fruit and other crops! They are also in the same family as leafcutter bees (Megachilidae). They are beautiful metallic bees here in Iowa and are active in spring. Some species are cavity nesters, so they may occupy a bee hotel if provided! Alternately, some species make their nests entirely out of mud, a trait that earned them the nickname “mason bee”.

Mason Bee

Long-Horned Bees
Aptly named for their long antennae, most species of long-horned bees nest in the ground. Only males have amazingly-long antennae, sometimes nearly reaching the length of their entire body! Many bee genera belong to the long-horned bee group. Some species are very fluffy and are consequently called “teddy bear” bees, which is probably the cutest nickname in the insect world!

Longed Horned Bee

Leafcutter Bees
Belonging to the genus Megachile (meaning “big-lipped” in Greek), many leafcutter bees have huge jaws that cut pieces of leaves with which to line their nests. These bees mostly nest above-ground and may utilize your bee hotel. While many bees store pollen on their hind legs, leafcutter bees are unique in that they collect and store pollen using the underside of their abdomen! There they have thick, broom-like hairs called scopa that sweep up and trap pollen during flower visits.

Leafcutter Bee

Carpenter Bees
Did you know that there are two main kinds of carpenter bees? There are the large carpenter bees that you are probably familiar with, which can look similar to bumble bees. However, there is a second, lesser-known group of tiny carpenter bees belonging to the genus Ceratina. These tiny carpenters chew down the pithy centers of stems and twigs to form rows of nest cells. These bees are one of the reasons to dead-head your flowers and leave the stems standing at the end of the growing season; you’re providing a nesting site for tiny bees! Also, some species have the coolest cream-colored spot on their nose.

Carpenter Bee

There are countless details in the bee world to learn and appreciate. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the bee groups and their quirks occurring in Iowa, much less the rest of the world. For instance, I didn’t even mention parasitic bees, which are bees that don’t make their own nests or collect pollen for their young; instead, they steal it from other bees! Next time you are outside on a sunny day, take a moment to focus your eyes on a smaller scale and look for flower visitors; you may meet someone new!

Take it Easy for Pollinators This Spring!

Take it Easy for Pollinators This Spring!

Signs of spring and warmer weather can be energizing, motivating us to start spring-cleaning our homes inside and out. However, some pollinators are still resting in their winter homes, and cleaning up your lawn too soon can be detrimental to the new generation. For some spring lawn care tips that support pollinators continue reading below!

Pollinators either migrate to warmer climates or go through a phase called “diapause” to survive the harsh winters of Iowa.

Diapause is similar to hibernation in which an insect pauses any development and stays in a kind of suspended animation until conditions are more favorable. There may be many insects in your yard that are still hibernating under leaves or inside flower stems waiting for warmer weather in order to emerge. Rushing to clean up all your leaves and brush now can disturb and damage these pollinators so it is best to leave some “messy” areas in your yard as long as possible. Waiting until the end of May, a time of year when day temperatures consistently reach 50 F (usually), is best. Taking it easy and waiting until later in the spring to tidy up is the easiest way to support pollinators at home!

One specific way to protect pollinators until they emerge is to leave the leaves that have accumulated in your yard. Bumble bee queens especially love to overwinter under layers of leaves as it provides them an insulating layer that protects them from the wind and cold. While you may not want leaves covering your entire yard this spring, leaving the leaves in your garden beds, in particular, can not only protect the pollinators resting there but may also provide you with some composting and weed-suppressing services. Additionally, leaving last year’s flower stems in the garden and not cutting them back until late May will give most stem-nesting bees a chance to emerge as well.

An additional option to support pollinators is to participate in No Mow May, a campaign started by Plantlife in the UK and spearheaded here in the US by Bee City USA, run by the Xerces Society. The goal of No Mow May is to keep your mower in the garage until June and allow floral resources such as dandelions and clover to spring up in your yard providing early pollinators with food resources. Waiting to mow also means the longer grass is able to provide more cover for other insects needing shelter.

While we all want to support pollinators and enjoy them in our yards this year, it can be difficult to allow your lawn to look a bit wilder and to your neighbors, it may look a bit messy. They may not understand that your yard isn’t a mess – it’s a habitat for pollinators! There is much pressure to maintain the traditional, yet outdated, yard of green turf grass containing little to no diversity. To address these concerns we provide the following solutions:

  • Start taking it easy on your backyard
    If your front lawn simply must remain manicured, set aside your back yard to leave the leaves and flower stems and not mow until May. This will still help pollinators and make the pollinator habitat less visible from the street.
  • Create a “Cozy Corner”
    If you can’t put aside your entire back yard, try leaving an unused area in the yard undisturbed. You can create a “cozy corner” for pollinators throughout the coming growing season by leaving the leaf litter there undisturbed and by adding twigs, branches, and other brush to the area as you clean up. This cozy corner can provide shelter for not only insect pollinators, but birds as well! Adding layers of brush to your cozy corner will ensure it serves as an excellent shelter for birds and a fantastic nesting site for pollinators, especially for overwintering. It is also a fun family activity that can be built upon throughout the year!
  • Educate your neighbors
    Let your neighbors know that your yard is providing a specific and important purpose and that it may mean they will be able to enjoy more butterflies and bees in their garden this summer. Here’s a link to free signs created by the Xerces Society you can print out and place in your yard. Spread the word about how you are helping pollinators. Ask others to join you!

There are many ways to support pollinators at home. Many people are starting the fun process of gardening for the foraging needs of pollinators by growing native flowers. However, few people think about the nesting resources that pollinators require. Be mindful with yard clean-up by taking it easy this spring and finding an area to leave undisturbed throughout the year. It will aid in pollinator emergence and provide them with nesting sites. Have a happy and relaxing spring!