The Summer of Fireflies

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Forgive the filthy glass door. I can’t bear down hard enough to wash it yet (after my surgery). Besides the fireflies sure don’t seem to mind. This is one of their favorite daytime resting places.

This summer they are so abundant, however, that they seem to have a lot of favorite resting places, so long as there’s shade.

One morning, I actually drove with one on my driver’s door window all the way to work! Luckily, I don’t have a long drive, it’s local roads, and I sure drove as near to the lower end of the speed limit as I could (you realize that many folks take speed limits and stop signs–and even traffic lights–as mere suggestions here. Or they’re for “other” people. )

Anyway, no fireflies were harmed. And I am getting quite a show in my yard this year!

Disorder

Since my Friday post was about the possible insect apocalypse, I thought I might post about this disruption that happened to some of my bumblebees on July 4th.

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I had been out in the yard doing something and I noticed my edging disturbed. Since it was the middle of the day, that alone was peculiar enough. So I took a closer look.

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This doesn’t look like much (the pink is rose petals from a shrub rose nearby). But of course I didn’t want to get too close to a bunch of very disturbed bumblebees that had been–what?

Normally the only animal that will go near a stinging insects nest is a skunk. I have had skunks dig whole underground hornets colonies out for me. Gotta love a creature that will do that!

So that’s what I am presuming did this. But boy, the remaining bees were mad as hornets. So I watched–and photoed–from a distance.

Nothing worse than getting on the wrong side of angry bees!

Monarch Musings, Part 2

Okay, if we’ve gotten through the tropical versus native asclepias issue without killing one another, here’s another issue that seems to be dividing folks: the home rearing or raising indoors or monarch chrysalises for later outdoor release.

At first glance, you think, how could anything about this be controversial? And indeed, one of Connecticut’s oldest and most respected organic nurseries not only does this but encourages others to do this.

But very recently–in the last week or so–it has come to light that monarchs that are hand-raised or home raised have difficulty migrating. There was a long article in the Atlantic that discussed various problems with the home raised butterfiles.

Here’s an article from late last year that both thoughtfully summarized the debate, the issues (including the tropical versus native milkweed issue from last Friday’s post) and even has some comments attached that shows how heated the discussion can get.

I don’t raise monarchs indoors. I have had them in my outdoor garden where I grow my native milkweed, asclepias incarnata (which goes by the lovely common name swamp milkweed. Is it a wonder more folks don’t grow this stuff?) I’ve watched the caterpillars crawl around on it–I even did a post last summer on it where I compared watching them to a form of “garden bathing” (like “forest bathing.”)

But I do have friends who raise monarchs. They love the hobby–and yes, they have lost some to disease. It’s been heartbreaking for them. Amazing how fast you get attached to little crawling caterpillars, I guess, particularly ones that you have watched hatch.

What’s the takeaway? I am not sure. I wish I thought we were helping nature. Perhaps someday we’ll learn how to get better at it. Until then, does that mean we shouldn’t try?

Monarch Musings, Part 1

When we talk about “pollinators” or “wildlife,” honeybees and monarch butterflies are two species that people seem to have heard the most about. Even people who don’t garden know that both species are in trouble and that efforts are being made to help each.

In the last couple of months, however, a couple of interesting things about the monarch and the ways people try to help them have come out. Today and Monday I will look at each one–trying not to get controversial about it–so that people can be informed.

Today I want to look at ascelepias–milkweed. We know that monarch butterflies need to lay their eggs on the milkweed plant and their caterpillars need to eat milkweed in order to live.

So in order to help the monarchs, gardeners have been encouraged to plant milkweed, and here’s where the problem begins.

As you might already know, there are many different varieties of milkweed. They are all asclepias, but depending on the variety, they can be “native” or “tropical.” And that’s where the problem began.

In some parts of the country, the tropical variety, asclepias curassavica, is more “common,”–or at least more readily available–than native varieties so gardeners planted those. (It didn’t help that a. curassavica is really pretty.)

Unfortunately caterpillars that feed on tropical milkweed are also eating fungal spores. They pass these on to migratory butterflies on their way up from Mexico and the population is weakened in the process.

It’s a lot more complicated than I have made it seem here. To read an in-depth study by the Xerxes Society, go here.

The takeaway from this: when it comes to asclepias, native really is best.

A Buggy Time of Year

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What on earth are you looking at? Good question. I spent all weekend trying to photograph the garden spider in its web (and its web).

It’s a lovely black, yellow and green spider that is hanging in its web by the black pot. You’re a better person than I am if you can spot it in the photo.

As I was scouring my 15 photos, trying to decide which one might look like something at least, I did see something that I completely overlooked IRL, as the kids say.

I knew that my parsley was getting eaten but we have had so many rabbits this year I just assumed it was rabbits. Silly me.

In the photo, I saw the real culprit and I was thrilled: there are swallowtail butterfly caterpillars on the parsley. Yay! I guess they feel safe nestled in there in among the other herbs. But wow, who would have expected the butterflies to find the parsley there?

The Fish Can See Clearly Now

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I always say that my backyard pond is the one place in my yard where I spend the most time and do the least amount of work.

That definitely isn’t true on the weekend when I have to clean it, however. It’s an “old-fashioned” pond–pre-formed, not liner with rocks on it, so that in and of itself causes a lot of issues.

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It was put in over 35 years ago–before they knew about putting in filters and building filters into the waterfall feature–so I have to plop a filter box onto the bottom to house the pump.

But despite all the drawbacks, it works to keep some smallish fish alive, even through New England winters. And the sound of moving water definitely helps you to feel cool on a hot day!

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The fish are probably 12-13 years old–I’ve lost count now–and when I was cleaning it this year, I found a 2 year old that I didn’t know that I had. So that’s always a nice bonus. We’ll see if it lives long enough to grow into an adult, although if it’s made it this far, chances are good it will survive.

I don’t generally put plants in the pond anymore although I used to. The photo at the top of the post is from several years ago. The fish, rooting around in the gravel and the mud just made a much bigger mess for me to deal with when I was cleaning. I want the fish to eat the algae that forms–and there’s plenty of that–and any bugs that might fall in. Obviously it works or the fish wouldn’t have survived this long.

I also don’t use that fountain feature. The birds loved it a little too much. They would try to perch on it, which was really funny to watch, but then they would tip the whole fountain and pump over if they were heavy enough–think something like a mourning dove.

Even the robins would sometimes knock it over flying too quickly around it. So it had to go.

But the end of the day, to sit beside the pond is one of the best things in life.

Ants and Peonies Work Together

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Back when I was working in retail gardening, I confess to telling a little white lie: if I thought someone was likely to douse their peonies with heavy doses of insecticide to rid them of the ants that always appear before (and perhaps just shortly after bloom time as the above photo shows), I would say, “Oh no, please don’t do that. The ants are eating the sap so the peonies can open.”

It worked like a charm and my favorite pollinators, the ants, were spared.

Of course we know that the peonies don’t need the ants to “eat the sap” for them to open. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship, akin to the way that the ants pollinate things–although this isn’t a true pollinator relationship.

What is happening here is that the ants are attracted to the peonies sugary sap. In the process, they keep other predators at bay–things like aphids, which are prevalent in this early spring, and thrips, which affect so many of our ornamental flowers. Ants might even be thought of as the peonies own natural insecticide.

You can read more about this beneficial relationship here at this fact sheet from the University of Missouri.

But of course no one wants to bring ants into the house if you want to enjoy peonies as a cut flower. There are a couple of ways to solve for this. First, cut the peonies in the evening, or first thing in the morning and leave the cut flowers in a cool place (a shed or garage) for several hours so that the ants, if any, can leave the flowers.

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If you cut the flowers at this stage–or slightly larger–you can gently shake or wash the ants off to know that you have removed them all. That way there’s no guessing. Make sure that there’s enough color showing in the bud that the flower will open. This bud is just a little bit too small yet.

Finally, I am sure that most of you won’t get to the point where you’ll rejoice when you see ants in the garden as I do. But if you see them on your peonies, thank them. They are protecting them from other insects pests–so you don’t have to!

And once the blooms are fully open, they move on. So once again, no insecticide needed. It doesn’t get any better than that!