Sunday, March 9, 2014

Small Worlds

A couple of summers ago, I spent a lot of time wandering around my yard, making notes of things to do, checking up on certain plants and generally wasting time. I usually spent most of this time in the garden beds but, once in a while, I’d wander around the edges of the yard where semi-meadow met forest just to see what was going on.

This little patch of wild grass and weeds has quite a variety of plants, including a selection of goldenrod species. These are, no doubt, the source of the goldenrod plants now trying to take over some of my garden beds. Goldenrod has roots that go down to hell, some kinds send runners out in all directions and most seed prolifically. It is insultingly healthy and can be very difficult to eradicate. Needless to say, I have not been happy they invaded.

However, since I couldn't get rid of the stuff, I tried to appreciate its rude good health and admittedly beautiful flowers, with limited success. Over time, however, I started to become interested in all the activity I saw around these ogres. Bees, butterflies, even birds, seemed irresistibly drawn to the goldenrod stands. I started noticing individuals, like this bizarre and beautiful beetle scurrying around on the flowers.

After a little research, I found this beetle was called a locust borer. The larvae of these beetles feed on locust trees while the adults favor goldenrod pollen. Makes sense, as we have a large stand of black locust bordering our property.

Another little beetle, the Pennsylvania Leatherwing, also called the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle, was also a common visitor.

Other, smaller bugs caught my eye, hordes of them. Shining Flower Beetles are common on flowers in the aster family, feeding on pollen in their adult forms.

Goldenrod flowers have a great deal of nectar and are very attractive to bees. I spotted the usual honeybees,

and several kinds of wasps, only one of which was polite enough to hold still to have its portrait taken.

Then I started noticing the weird stuff. First, the spiders. Little jumping spiders are probably my favorites. They are usually black with a white smiley face on their back end. Here was a variety I had never seen, though. 

Another interesting spider was a yellow crab spider. These fellows are extremely hard to see unless you happen to catch them moving. 

While this picture is not on goldenrod nor the same variety, it is a much better shot of a crab spider with its prey. The flying bug above it is not a bee. It is a flower fly that is a rather amazing bee mimic.

One last bizarre bug made itself known to me that summer - the ambush bug. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a good shot of it in its natural habitat. It just blended in too well and my camera refused to focus on it. So here it is, prancing around on my hand. Check out the little praying mantis-like front feet! 

In addition to providing pollen for some insects and prey for others, goldenrod is also an vital source of nectar for monarch butterflies when very few other things are blooming. You always hear how important milkweed is for their caterpillars (and it is!) but late blooming, high energy sources of nectar are also critical before their long flight south.

I'll mention one last critter which I've never actually seen on goldenrod but I've read about them and seen the evidence. Have you ever noticed the round swellings on the stems? These are caused by a variety of flies,  midges and moths that deposit their eggs on the stems. When the egg hatches, the larvae burrows into the stem, releasing chemicals that cause the stems to blow up like little balloons and providing a nifty home for the critter, called a gall.

Over the winter, at least two types of bird pull the galls apart and eat the larvae, chickadees and downy woodpeckers. Downies drill a small hole in the gall and pull the larvae out with their barbed tongues. Chickadees take the barbaric route and pull the gall to pieces to reach the tasty morsel within.

So here was an entire little world, a microcosm of the bigger world, being played out on this one wild plant. The whole food chain in miniature. How many other critters are dependent on goldenrod for their entire existence? How many more insects were there that I didn't see?  

I now spend quite a bit of time during the summer with the goldenrod, checking out all the cool bugs and birds that make up this little ecosystem. And I'm thinking I may leave a few more patches for the wild critters.


David Truland said...

I think some shots of everything covered in snow would be nice. A lot coming in a couple of days.

Anonymous said...

Very glad to have you back - really enjoy your writings and pics. Keep them coming!

TSG said...

Thanks, you guys! Glad to be back!

Shut up, Dave. ;)