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.

Bumble bees, richness where some just see “bugs”

I could have written this post about just about any living thing, but I’m predisposed to notice and care about bumble bees, which I studied during my MSc in Ontario and Colorado. This spring, worried about the lack of bumble bees in my area, I contacted a former lab-mate, now a professor at York University, about what I could do to help pollinators beyond making my garden more hospitable. By coincidence, she had just posted these recommendations on Twitter, and drew my attention in particular to participating in the Citizen Science project Bumble Bee Watch. The data such projects provide to conservation biologists is invaluable, I’m told; and I’ve found it strangely addictive to generate such data for them.

It’s become a bit of an obsession, actually. I now walk around with a camera and exasperate my family by stopping everywhere to take multiple photos of bumble bees. Some are reproduced here, all the photos above and below having been taken since July 2021, across Ontario and Quebec (for IDs and locations, look up my name on Bumble Bee Watch). I also have bumble bee photos dating back to 2002, from my field work and my subsequent ability to care about and notice bumble bees, the many species that coexist and differ subtly in colour pattern and behaviour, and the plants they visit. Bumble bees strike me as the most personable and psychologically interesting of insects, but maybe that’s just because I’ve paid attention to them.

It’s a particular thrill, when something that was just generalized (“bees” or even “bugs”) becomes particularized (“bumble bees” or even “Bombus impatiens,” and beyond that “Bombus impatiens male, or worker, or queen”). I can imagine a Borges short story, in which a character develops the ability to see everything in its absolute particularity. No doubt that would be a curse, and a problem for science. But seeing species only generically–such as my friend who can’t differentiate roses from daffodils, seeing them both simply as “flowers”–is also a curse, both for the beholder and for their community.

I remember playing in the lawn in the backyard when I was about 7 years old, and noticing, quite suddenly, that what had seemed like a uniform carpet of self-same grass was in fact a patchwork of many greens–not just grass, but moss, creeping plants (Creeping Charlie?), and other plants with tiny leaves and flowers.

Comfrey, sage, and fennel, and thyme

I have been ruthless in removing non-native plants from my garden, even those I planted myself in past years. There are some exceptions, though. Some of these non-natives either flower when little else is there to feed pollinators (forget-me-not, Forsythia), while others are so obviously valued by bees and butterflies that they clearly perform an important role in maintaining and feeding insects. Comfrey (Symphytum asperum) is one of these, an attractive (though prickly) plant whose hanging bell-shaped flowers are favoured by bumble bees (who use “buzzing” to get at its pollen). A bunch of comfrey flowers are in the picture at top left, below. Another non-native I foster is fennel, which I don’t cook with but plant because it seems to be the favourite food plant for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars (they also like Queen Ann’s Lace, but they ignore that if there’s fennel around). Thyme and other minty herbs (oregano, basil, mint) have small flowers that small bees and flies like.

But my favourite, and the biggest draw for bees in my garden, is sage. It flowers in late May and over continues to do so for weeks. Bees of all sizes come for the nectar, and looking down at my big sage plants yesterday I could see the busy traffic of dozens of bees. These include honey bees (Apis mellifera), like the one seen taking off after feeding at a sage flower, top right; Osmia sp., second down from top left; Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens), second down from top right, using its front leg to hold up a leaf; Bicoloured Agapostemon (Agapostemon viriscens), third down on the left, seen here approaching a sage flower on the wing; the Polyester Bee (Colletes inaequalis), third down from the right; and several others too small for me to recognize. There are also ants feeding on sage nectar and several species of fly, as well as Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris rapae), bottom left. The surfeit of insects also attracts parasitic wasps, one of which I captured in a fuzzy image (bottom right).

Apart from sage, this week’s major draw for bees was my honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos), which I planted in 2009 as a seedling and which is now taller than the house. It’s the first year that it’s produced a lot of flowers, and the bees are all over it. They also love the Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), which is going through a second round of flowering. As the honey locust stops flowering, the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is about to flower; I never imagined that these interesting-looking inflorescences (a bit like Romanesco brocoli) could be appealing to insects, just because they’re green and not showy–but I was wrong. Bees love them:

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.

Northern wildlife

After years of canoe-tripping in northern Ontario and Quebec, I have come to find the flora and fauna of boreal regions impressive in ways that nature documentaries tend to reserve for tropical rainforests and coral reefs. There are obviously major differences, not just in biodiversity but also in vividness. But the colour palettes of the north are pleasing in their own ways, and these ways are not only subtle. The photos below, from a road trip in 2019 starting near Sudbury then heading into the mountains north of the St Laurence and west of the Saguenay and then east to the Gaspe peninsula, give a glimpse of this beauty and variety.

From top left: a Gray Tree Frog (Dryophytes versicolor) on a willow leaf; a katydid by the roadside; a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in a Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium maculatum) inflorescence; a fly on an aster flower; the landscape about 45 minutes north-east of Quebec City; fire-weed on the roadside; Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia); a gentian (likely a Closed Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii); Joe Pye-weed by a slow-moving river; a porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum); unidentified caterpillar on Mountain Maple; the maritime forest; a meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus). All photos (C) D. A. Newman.

Signs of the times…

Yesterday (January 20, 2021) was a pretty cold day (-4C), an anomaly. Not so long ago it would have been an anomaly because it was so warm for late January; now it’s anomalously cold.

Having lived in the same place for 12 years now, it’s easy to notice certain trends. In the past few years, I have been alarmed to see crocuses starting to sprout in mid-February. Last week I saw the little shoots a whole month earlier than any previous year. My irises are also throwing up a few brave leaves. On Sunday it was warm enough to transplant my Purple Flowering Raspberry (Rosa odoratus) from the backyard to the front. The soil was pliable and not even close to frozen. In fact it was crawling with earthworms. Yesterday my kids saw a robin, not a usual sighting in Toronto in the heart of winter.

Crocuses sprouting in the third week of January: not the Toronto I grew up in!

As a once avid and now more mellow birdwatcher, one of the most tangible evidence of Toronto’s changing environment has been the appearance of mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). Back when I birdwatched a lot in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I never saw one until I went to California. I saw my first Ontario mockingbird at the Oakville GO Train station in 2003. Since then, mockingbirds have become a daily sighting in my neighbourhood, often coming to feed on the berries of Virginia Creeper growing on my porch.

A Northern Mockingbird, just done feeding on fruit from a Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), January 2021.

Today (January 21, 2021), they’re calling for a high of 3C.

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)