Peonies and Ants

Ant on a peony bud

So what’s the deal with peonies and ants? They are almost always found together–but why?

On the theory that nature doesn’t make mistakes, or there are no accidents in nature, let’s examine this a little more closely.

Clearly the ants derive something from the peonies, right? If you look closely, you’ll see little drips of what look like water near where the ants are–if it’s still even there. The ants are after the peonies’ nectar. (It doesn’t particularly show in this photo too well)

So now we have sorted our what’s in it for the ants. Is there anything in it for the peonies? Perhaps. As in other relationships, the ants may protect the peonies from other insects that may want to damage their buds.

Here is an interesting article from the University of Missouri that indicates that the ants may indeed be protecting the peonies from other insects and certainly that the use of insecticides are unnecessary.

I have found a simple way to avoid bringing ants in when I cut peonies. I cut them in the morning, shake them gently and then leave then outside in a shaded place until evening. That generally gives the ants time to leave the flowers of their own accord.

And, of course, cutting the flowers once they are slightly more open–I usually do so even just slightly past the “marshmallow” stage recommended in the UM article–also helps because most of the nectar has then gone from the flowers. Once the nectar has gone, so have the ants, generally.

By using these simply management practices, both you and the ants can enjoy the flowers–the ants outside the house and you and the flowers (minus the ants) inside the house!

The Other Insects of Summer

Lately the media has been all about the Brood X cicada hatching. I am fortunate that they do not make it far enough north to trouble me (one of the very few benefits of living in the frozen north–we do not get any sort of periodical cicadas, just the ordinary dog day kind).

But of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t have insects. And Memorial Day weekend is just about the time when we start having insect damage. This year has been a bit unusual because the weather has alternated between unusually cool weather and unusually warm weather. So the cool weather insects are trying to hang on a bit and the warm weather insects are here too. It’s like an insect bonanza on the plants–although I am sure they don’t think so!

Aphids on a rose bud

For example, aphids, which are normally a cool season insect on roses, are still here. They rarely hang around this long.

Rose sawfly larva damage

And this damage indicates an insect that is just about invisible to the naked eye–the rose sawfly larva. It’s a caterpillar-like creature that is nearly the same color as the rose leaf and it sucks the juices from the leaf–that’s what the little scrapes on the leaf are.

Luckily, up here in the frozen north, we only have one generation of them a year so I do no type of organic control on them at all. They can really disfigure the leaves a bit, but it’s only for a couple of weeks, and then the shrubs put on some nice new growth and all is well.

And this cute little semi-circle is made by the leaf cutter bee. They take out the leaf parts to line their nests in hollow wood. They are native pollinators so it’s important not to use chemical pesticides on your roses–and that includes those “wonderful” systemics that they sell that do everything from kill insects to keep fungus away.

What do you think is harming the pollinators? Please stay away from stuff like that! If public rose gardens can manage themselves organically, so can you!

I find that the same insects recur at the same time yearly. Once you know what to look for, it’s almost as easy as predicting when those periodical cicadas will be back.

What Insect Apocalypse?

Katydid on fuchsia

I had an interesting experience while I was out walking the dog one quiet Sunday morning not too long ago. Sunrise is getting later so we were out just after sunrise and it was still and quiet–until we approached our property.

As we got in front of the little patch of woods that we have, I heard all sorts of noise. I stopped because I couldn’t identify it at first. I hadn’t heard it anywhere else on the street. Then I realized it was insects. There were cicadas in the trees, and something else chirping, maybe katydids, and I think I am hearing trees frogs.

It’s been so long since I have heard tree frogs that I am not even sure. I used to hear them all the time 20 years ago. Then a new subdivision went in and a lot of trees were taken down and I haven’t heard them since. So how tree frogs might have found their way to our little patch of woods mystifies me, except that it is now one of the few “little patches” of woods left standing.

But whatever I was hearing was so loud that it literally stopped me in my tracks and it was only in front of my property. Everyone else’s property was quiet.

There are all sorts of articles dating back a couple of years ago talking about stories of insect die-offs as dramatic as 75%. This became known as the “insect apocalypse,” and dire warnings and predictions followed.

Fortunately, some of those studies and methodologies proved to be wrong. But for those of us of a certain age, we can notice that, for example, there are fewer of certain types of insects.

I vividly remember the 2 hour car trips to the beach and back as a child. When we arrived around 9 pm in the evening, our windshield and headlights would be bug-spattered.

Car trips of similar duration now don’t leave our cars bug-spattered. And while I am grateful for small favors, I don’t think the insects have become better navigators. I just think there are far fewer of them.

Is this a problem? I will leave that to the scientists to determine. But in the meantime, I will be grateful that I have a cleaner car and a property that welcomes wildlife of all kind, even invertebrates.

Petunia Worm

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I haven’t planted petunias for several years–not since 2014, I don’t think. There’s a reason for that. Every time I do, my container starts looking really good–and then all of a sudden all the blooms are gone from the petunias.

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If I am lucky, I might start to see this. That at least tells me that the worms have arrived.

But I am not one to treat a container of annuals with insecticide, even if the recommended treatment is BT. That kills caterpillars but of course butterfly larva are caterpillars too. So I would just as soon uproot the petunias once they start looking ratty.

What does this critter look like?

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He’s right there in the middle right of the photo, a green caterpillar about a quarter inch long. They can be difficult to see because of course they are the same color as the petunia stem.

They also eat annual geraniums and calibrachoa so this planter will need a refresh shortly.

But summer is very short-lived around here so I can refresh my planter with late season plants shortly.

A Plague of Locusts?

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It’s been a very dry summer–I believe I mentioned Friday that we are in moderate drought. July brought less than an inch of rain and was the second hottest July on record, (last year was the first).

So with the lack of rain, I have been trying to water very carefully–only containers and newly planted plants are getting water from me at this point. But I have rarely seen the gardens look so sad.

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Take this garden for example. This is self-sown goldenrod and asters, with a few other plants added by me in a garden where a magnolia used to grow. The fact that the natives are wilting so severely in a garden that’s actually in a very wet part of my yard (usually) tells you how dry it’s been.

And I suppose I am lucky that I haven’t planted too much due to the pandemic–it would only need watering.

The things that I have planted–or that were already planted years ago–are being ravaged by “critters,” and who blames them? Between the drought and the fact that plants aren’t producing normally because of drought, things are definitely looking for food–and moisture–where they can find it.

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I am lucky to scavenge tomatoes off my own two plants before something–chipmunks, probably–beat me to it. Because the tomatoes are container-planted, I can control the pest damage, somewhat.

But the other day, I came home to find a green tomato on the walk. When I turned it over, dozens of ants scurried away. Ants on a green tomato? Now you know they’re desperate for moisture!

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My sage in the garden has been eaten into lacy bits. I don’t mind–I have more in a container by the door. But what on earth is so desperate that it needs to eat sage leaves? The jagged holes mean it could be anything–beetles, slugs, caterpillars (although I didn’t see any currently)–whatever.

I find that during times of drought things like katydids and earwigs, which normally just eat garden detritus, (the earwigs, I mean) resort to eating “good” parts of plants as well.

And when I was watering the other night, a grasshopper jumped out at me from between 2 containers. Just what I need: a plague of locusts in a pandemic!

Unwelcome Pest

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I acquired two little tropical hibiscus plants early this season–on the same trip that I bought the “invisible” impatiens that I talked about on Monday. One is sort of a red-orange color and the other a orange-yellow color–you know, the tropical bright colors that hibiscus come in!

They haven’t bloomed as much as I would like despite the heat and humidity that we have been having but when they do bloom they make me unreasonably happy. I think it’s just that I can count on one hand the number of trips I have made to the garden center this year so anything blooming in my yard is really making me happy.

I also situated them right next to my door–in among my herbs–so I see them several times a day when I come in and out of the house with the dog. So there’s a splash of color with the herbs when they bloom.

I especially like the yellow one. Yellow is one of my favorite colors in the garden. So I watch the buds as the unfurl.

But last Saturday I noticed something amiss with the buds. They would get to a particular stage–almost open–and then stop. I leaned in closer and reached for one and it came off in my hand.

That’s just not typical–hibiscus aren’t THAT fragile–so I sat right down, picked up the pot and took a closer look. I saw two things that troubled me.

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This was the first. If it weren’t for the presence of the ant on the bud, I might have thought it was mealy bugs. But I didn’t see any full grown mealies–just this sort of white cottony stuff.

So I looked a little more and sure enough, there was a little green wedge shaped bug–a green plant hopper. So the white mess is the wax hiding its nymphs.

My first choice–always–when dealing with any pest–is a sharp blast from the hose, which seems to have worked well and gotten rid of the nymphs. We are in moderate drought so I am trying to be judicious about water use, but at the same time, hibiscus are very sensitive to any sort of insecticide, even organics, so the hose seemed the best choice here.

And so far, so good. No more plant hoppers or nymphs. We shall see if the remaining buds open properly. Fingers crossed.

At First Light

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I love going out with the dog first thing in the morning. Everything is still and quiet, if we’re lucky, we see no one else and no other cars either.

On this particular morning, there had been a light rain the night before and it had caught all the spiders’ webs in the grass. This isn’t something I usually see in my neighbors’ lawns as we walk because most of them use pesticides, as I have remarked before.

Nature is going to do a lot of the work for you if you let it. There’s a nice combination of funnel web weaving and sheet weaving spiders that have made webs here on my lawn, just waiting for whatever might happen by.

When we think of spiders’ webs, we most often think of–and notice–the large orbs that look like the Halloween decorations. But spiders build all sorts of webs.

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This is a sheet web between these two plants. It looks just like a messy bunch of silk, but it’s quite effective at catching–and holding–insects.

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And this is a web built by a grass spider, who is a funnel web weaver. It gets its name from the “funnel” you see at the top of the web. The spider hides at the bottom the funnel and when something gets caught in the web, it comes out and pounces.

Grass spiders in my part of the country can actually get quite large. Of all the spiders in my yard, they–and the orb-weaving cross spiders–are about the largest. By the end of the season, their bodies can be larger than a quarter–or so it seems to slightly arachnophobic me!

So I am actually quite brave taking photos of all these webs. I shudder at the thought that the spiders are anywhere near–although I love that they are the “good guys” in my garden and yard! I do treasure them for that!

A Buggy Time of Year

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I mentioned on Monday that we had had the house power washed recently. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Of course I had to move many of the over 100 house plants that I had brought outside so that they too wouldn’t be “power washed” or damaged in the process.

As I was doing so, I discovered that somehow the mealybug infestation that I had indoors had returned and had spread to several other plants.

Now, one of the reasons why I “summer” the plants outdoors is because a lot of these pesky plant issues have natural predators that are kept in check.

Scale, for instance, is nicely handled by wasps and ants.

And the hose washes off spider mites.

But apparently nothing likes mealy bugs. Doesn’t that figure?

Anyway, I found the problem, isolated the infected plants again, and we’ll see. I have one troublesome ficus that may just become compost at the end of the season.

So I definitely got much more than a power wash from this adventure!

Aphids Are Like Something From Another World

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Ah, here it is Friday again and I am posting about bugs. This is getting to be a bad habit.

This is something that usually happens in late April for us. Aphids are a cool season pest for us, so we will get them in late April (usually) and then again in the fall. I most often ignore them completely because they are usually only on new leaves and once it warms up, I will have a nice robust population of ladybugs to deal with them.

Well, we have had record cold so far this June so I decided that I had better take some preventative measures until the ladybugs got here.

What did I do? I dragged a hose down to this garden and hosed off the plants.

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This is the result. The aphids are almost all gone. You can see that the front shoot has been hosed off and the back one has not–it is still full of aphids.

I would probably not have done it if I hadn’t seen aphids with wings. That told me that the population was so high that it was about to move on to other plants. Since only half the rose garden was affected at this point, I thought it best to try to keep it that way.

Aphids are freaky insects. They are all female and they can be born pregnant with the next generation already waiting to be born.

They come in various colors to better blend with your plants, but green and black are the most common by me.

They are born wingless, but when the population on a particular plant gets too high, they’ll grow wings and migrate to a new plant.

Luckily, they are quite easy to hose off. And once they are knocked down, they don’t generally return to trouble the plant. So I don’t expect to have to deal with this again–at least until fall, at which point, I usually just ignore them.

Rose Sawfly (or Why Are Little Caterpillars Eating My Roses?)

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First things first: the “little caterpillars” that you see on your rose leaves aren’t really caterpillars. Yes, I know that’s exactly what they look like, but they’re not.

If you recall my “holiday gardening” post about 2 weeks ago, I said that in my climate there were some sawfly larva that showed up between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day in my climate. And here they are.

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This is the rose sawfly larva. It showed up the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. You see that on this leaf (and look closely, because it’s a tiny caterpillar the same color as the leaf. It is on the petal nearest to you) the leaf is just beginning to show a bit of damage. More in a moment about that.

Why is it important that these aren’t caterpillars? For organic control purposes. If you want to spray (I generally don’t; I just let the roses get slightly disfigured because there’s only one hatching of these a season in my part of the world)–you can’t us BT which only works for caterpillars.

Also if you do spray, they tend to hide beneath the leaves, so be sure to get the undersides.

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Otherwise they will leave your leaves disfigured (with these scrape marks that then often get burned into holes by the sun, making it look like some other disease or insect has been there). Don’t be fooled.

The two sets of leaves in the above photo show early damage and more advanced damage. The top set is the earlier damage, although even there, some of the scrapings and holes have been burned or eaten through the leaf.

As you can see in the bottom photo, the mouth scrapings made by the insect are browned by the sun. It’s not a good look.

What can you spray? Insecticidal soap is a nice remedy for soft bodied insects. Just remember to spray in the evening or first thing in the morning before the heat of the day and before most of your beneficial insects might also be accidentally sprayed.