Nurturing Awareness of Biodiversity in the Place Where You Live

Walking a beagle hound on leash is absurd, yet we do it because of the busy highway only a half mile up the dirt lane from our home. Twice Mia has slipped away and we fretted for hours before she returned, worn out from chasing the scent of turkeys, a deer or fox, or who knows what other creature that shares the place where we live. One time she collapsed in a neighbor’s driveway and had to be returned, exhausted, in his pickup.

Earliest to flower, dandelions provide essential pollen and nectar to bumble bees and native bees.

Earliest to flower, dandelions provide essential pollen and nectar to bumble bees and native bees.

So three times every day, I follow Mia up to the end of the lane and back, a total of about a mile for me, twice that or more for Mia as she does a lot of running from one edge of the road to the other, tracking some creature’s recent passage along the gravelly surface. Snorting gravel, I call it. Sometimes she hits a hot trail and breaks into a blood-curdling bay.

A white admiral butterfly resting on the leaf of a red elder shrub.

A white admiral butterfly resting on the leaf of a red elder shrub.

The lane is a potholed road, at least most of the year, the exception being the week after the annual grading. The potholes slow what little traffic there is to a crawl; no one comes down our lane without good cause. In October you are likely to give right of way to a flock of turkeys and year-round you must be mindful of the neighbor’s free-range chickens scratching in the weeds at the edge of the lane.

A flower beetle on meadowsweet, one of several species of flower beetles found along the lane.

A flower beetle on meadowsweet, one of several species of flower beetles found along the lane.

Over the past year, I came to love these walks. As she snorted gravel, I conducted a survey of insects and the plants they visit, stopping to record observations with my IPhone camera. Exasperated at first by my frequent stops, Mia learned to wait patiently, my end of her leash wedged tightly under my foot so that I could use both hands for the several attempts at one good photograph. The mile walk took up to an hour in spring and summer when photo ops were everywhere.

This tachinid fly is foraging for nectar on Queen Anne's Lace flowers.  Hoverfly larvae feed on aphids, whiteflies and other soft-bodied herbivores.

This tachinid fly is foraging for nectar on Queen Anne’s Lace flowers. Hoverfly larvae feed on aphids, whiteflies and other soft-bodied herbivores.

Beginning at the foot of our unpaved drive and continuing up the lane, insect biodiversity is similar to that of the garden. From early spring through autumn, a succession of plants along the lane provides food for pollinators and herbivores, including many of the same species of insects that we find on the plants we cultivate. Since a bumblebee will fly as far as one mile in search of nectar and pollen, it does seem likely that the bumblebees of the lane are also visiting flowers in our vegetable garden. When flowers in our vegetable garden are scarce, the succession of bloom along the lane keeps the bumble bees and solitary bees nearby.

This emerald green cuckoo wasp is so named because it lays its eggs in the nests of other bees and wasps.  Here it is foraging for nectar on Queen Anne's Lace.

This emerald green cuckoo wasp is so named because it lays its eggs in the nests of other bees and wasps. Here it is foraging for nectar on Queen Anne’s Lace.

Butterflies, including monarchs, nectar on flowers along the lane but lay their eggs on garden plants, such as milkweeds. Adult hoverflies and tachinid flies, the larvae of each an important predator in the garden, move back and forth between the garden and lane. Hoverflies, like lady beetles, lay their eggs on the favorite garden plants of aphids and other soft-bodied herbivores, setting the table for their larvae. The larvae of most tachinid flies are parasites of caterpillars with a few species attacking beetles, true bugs, or grasshoppers.

Flower beetles, like this one, are common foragers on Queen Anne's Lace.

Flower beetles, like this one, are common foragers on Queen Anne’s Lace.

My chronicle of biodiversity began in mid-May with the blooming of dandelions. Through the rest of May, while little else was in flower, dandelions were the primary nectar source for bumble bees and solitary bees.

This sand wasps forages for nectar to supply her own energy needs.  She is also a predator, capturing caterpillars and other insects to feed her larvae in an underground nest.

This sand wasps forages for nectar to supply her own energy needs. She is also a predator, capturing caterpillars and other insects to feed her larvae in an underground nest.

By the end of June, all of the dandelions had gone to seed. By the first week of July, bright red berries had developed on the red elders (Sambucus racemosa var. pubens) along the lane and one morning I was able to photograph a white admiral butterfly resting (or laying eggs?) on the leaves of one of these shrubs. On the same walk I noticed the first wild blue geranium (Geranium maculatum) flowers had opened on plants that would continue flowering until early October, much to the delight of bumble bees.

The red-belted bumble bee is one of several bumble bee species that forage on goldenrod.

The red-belted bumble bee is one of several bumble bee species that forage on goldenrod.

Two very important plant species began to flower along the lane in mid-July, meadowsweet (Spiraea alba var. latifolia) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), the former a shrub, the later an herbaceous biennial. Meadowsweet continued to flower until late August, providing nectar and pollen for bumble bees, solitary bees, flower beetles, hoverflies, and tachinid flies.

Butterflies, like this red admiral, also forage on goldenrod.

Butterflies, like this red admiral, also forage on goldenrod.

Queen Anne’s Lace flowered along the lane into the first week of September. During this time, the rounded umbels of small white flowers were a primary source of nectar and pollen for a variety of insects, including hoverflies (several species), thread-waisted wasps, beautiful emerald-green cuckoo wasps, colorful flower beetles, butterflies, honeybees, solitary bees, and tachinid flies.

This colorful caterpillar is the larva of the brown hooded owlet moth.  Goldenrod is one of its host plants.

This colorful caterpillar is the larva of the brown hooded owlet moth. Goldenrod is one of its host plants.

A succession of goldenrod species (Solidago sp.) dominated the edges of the lane from late July until mid September. Bumble bees, such as the red-belted bumble bee, solitary bees, and sand wasps, including the great black wasp, were foragers of the early goldenrods, joined in early August by other bumble bee species, several hoverfly species including one that mimics a bumble bee, tachinid flies, and a very stylish ermine moth. In late August, red admiral butterflies were seen nectaring on goldenrods and in early September I photographed a brightly colored caterpillar of the brown hooded owlet moth as it fed on the leaves of goldenrod.

This ermine moth is another lepidopteran forager on goldenrod.

This ermine moth is another lepidopteran forager on goldenrod.

From mid-August until early October, the fall asters were in flower, attracting cuckoo bees, bumble bees, and ichneumon wasps, a group of parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on host insects, many of which are garden herbivores. Another interesting insect found foraging on aster flowers was the winter firefly, a relative of fireflies and lightening bugs. The diurnal nonluminous adults can be found in spring feeding on the sap flow of maples.

This ichneumon wasp is foraging on aster blossoms for nectar.  Notice the long ovipositor (egg-laying tube) that is used to drill small holes in plant stems to deposit eggs.

This ichneumon wasp is foraging on aster blossoms for nectar. Notice the long ovipositor (egg-laying tube) that is used to drill small holes in plant stems to deposit eggs.

As I write the last paragraphs of this essay, it is the end of the first week of October and I have just finished a mid-day walk up the lane with Mia. The goldenrods have gone to seed, as have the Queen Anne’s lace, each umbel ready to break free of its stem and disperse its seeds like a tumbleweed. Spent flower stalks of meadowsweet rise above leaves that have turned pumpkin orange brushed softly with yellow and green. Only a few blue asters remain in bloom, their flowers tattered, yet there was a red-belted bumble bee, foraging as if there is no tomorrow.

This is a winter firefly, a nonluminous relative of fireflies and lightning bugs.  Here it is foraging on pollen of an aster flower.

This is a winter firefly, a nonluminous relative of fireflies and lightning bugs. Here it is foraging on pollen of an aster flower.

The lane is strewn with oak and maple leaves, many moth eaten, and under the tall pines a carpet of tan pine needles covers the lane. The insects are gone, each in its own prescribed way hunkered down for the long dormant season. My botanizing and amateur entomology are done for the year.

Like the sand wasps, this Great Black Wasp constructs its nest underground.  It captures grasshoppers, crickets, and similar insects to feed its larvae and forages for nectar for itself.

Like the sand wasps, this Great Black Wasp constructs its nest underground. It captures grasshoppers, crickets, and similar insects to feed its larvae and forages for nectar for itself.

So what have I learned from hundreds of walks up and down the lane? The diversity of insect life in the place where I live boggles my mind, yet I am sure that I have sampled only a small portion of it. I paid scant attention to the trees growing just beyond the drainage ditches and the smaller, less conspicuous herbaceous plants. The plants I did study provided pollen and nectar to a wide variety of pollinators, some of which also function as predators or herbivores in at least one stage of their life cycle. I see many of these same insects in Marjorie’s Garden and now wonder if at least some of them are the same creatures I met earlier, or will see later, along the lane.

I am left with the sense that the insect diversity in our garden would be much lower if it were not for the plants that grow along the lane. I am grateful for the lane and will never curse the potholes, for with paving would likely come the end of the roadside flora that I’ve come to cherish. I wish all roads were filled with potholes and lined with dandelions, goldenrods, Queen Anne’s Lace, meadowsweet, fall asters, and large swaths of milkweed for the monarch butterflies.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)