Insects of my garden

I just found this post in my drafts from July 2021. I no longer have this garden, now that I live outside Toronto. The plants and insects in that small space were the thing I loved most about that home. Here are, clockwise from top left, some aphids on cup plant; a hawkmoth visiting common milkweed flowers; a lady beetle on cup plant, again with aphids; a solitary bee on purple coneflower; a stink bug (I think) on giant hyssop; a small wasp on wild bergamot; a tiny solitary bee on Queen Ann’s Lace; a bumble bee queen on lavender; a gorgeous yellow fly on a milkweed leaf; tiny solitary bees on wild bergamot; some kind of beetle (perhaps a weevil) on a plant I can’t identify from the photo; a small beetle on marsh milkweed; and a lacewing on common milkweed.

I initially collected these photos for young Finn, who was worried about the decline of insects in the world. There is lots to worry about. But there is plenty of joy and wonder to be had from insects close to home nonetheless.

The small things…

Spring is always a time of anticipation. I find myself checking on the growth of my plants many times a day, always astonished to find visible changes in the height of a common milkweed shoot (Asclepias syriaca) or the surprisingly scarlet first growth of dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). My wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are doing very well, and both redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are about to burst into flower. I’m particularly psyched about the many giant hyssops (Agastache nepetoides and A. foeniculum) that have taken hold. No plant got more bee visits last year than them.

Yesterday I saw a few Dunning’s miner bees (Andrena dunningi) making holes in the bare ground at the base of my burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa). I had never noticed these bees, let alone seen their nests, which look like ant holes. The bees are a bit smaller than a honey bee. In the photo to the left (below), you can see two bees: the fully visible one and also the head of another one poking out from a tunnel. The image on the top right is a new lupine (Lupinus perennis), with its gorgeous star-shaped first leaf. I have yet to succeed in growing a lupine beyond this early stage. Let’s hope for better luck this year. Under the lupine is a cluster of redbud flowers, and at the very bottom is a closeup of one of redbud’s main pollinators, the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria), though so far it seems to prefer visiting forget-me-not flowers (Myosotis scorpioides), one of the few non-native plants I am not actively trying to eradicate from the garden because it flowers abundantly in the early spring, when small bees and flies have few other options.

There’s been something new this year. Along with the usual movement of migratory birds–the most exciting of which is always hermit thrushes–I’ve been hearing a white-throated sparrow singing in the neighbourhood for a few days now. This is an instantly recognizable song for anyone who’s spent time in the Norther (see a version here, though this is rather different from the one I’m hearing); in fact I’ve always associated this song with canoe trips. I’ve never heard it in Toronto before. Who knows that it means, but I couldn’t help find it uplifting.

Tending our garden

I am lucky enough to have a front yard and a back yard at my home. In an ideal world I would use these spaces to grow a long-grass prairie, a Carolinian forest, an oak savanna and a wetland, but with 4mX6m (back) and 4mX5m (front) to work with, this is a bit of long shot.

When I moved here 11 years ago the backyard was mostly covered by a corrugated metal garage, the remainder being concrete flagstones. The front was lawn. One of the most heartening experiences of my life was right after tearing down the garage and removing the concrete in the backyard, leaving a muddy mess: within minutes, there were robins picking for worms in the newly exposed soil–the first birds I’d seen in the yard. Within days, the mud was turning green with new plant growth.

Over the years I have been trying to build on that moment by planting as many pollinator-friendly native (and some non-native) plants to create habitat and food for insects (apart from one ruby-throated hummingbird years ago, it has been insects exclusively). The pictures below show just a few of the visitors from the summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

From top left: an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) visiting one of my two Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis); what I think is a Red-Belted Bumble Bee (Bombus rufocinctus) visiting chives; two monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); a Bicoloured Agapostemon (Agapostemon viriscens) visiting one of an unidentified thistle; a Black Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes) on my fennel plant; what I think is probably a Spotted Apatelodes caterpillar (Apatelodes torrefacta) on fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium); three young raccoons (Procyon lotor, one of the best Latin names ever), partly concealed by staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); two recently emerged monarch butterflies; the incredible caterpillar of the Abbott sphinx (Sphecodina abbottii), believed to be a grape mimic; a red-and-blue leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) on staghorn sumac; and a Black Swallowtail recently emerged from its chrysalis; a Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinus) on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), one of the most pollinator-friendly plants I have; Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); the gorgeous little beetle Chilocorus stigma on Common Milkweed; a monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); an unidentified bee (Megachile inermis, perhaps?) on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). (All photos (c) D. A. Newman)