Guest Blog By: Amy Yarger, Horticulture Director, Butterfly Pavilion
Believe it or not, the second half of summer is the best time to go bug hunting in the garden. The several weeks of warm temperatures and long days have allowed insects to reproduce and new generations to grow up and spread out. This year, because of our wet spring and summer, certain butterflies and other insect species seem to be a little behind their normal schedules. However, they are catching up fast according to local reports, and every gardener can benefit from knowing what is buzzing in the garden.
To get an accurate sense of your garden’s pollinator diversity at this time of year, visit your garden on a warm, sunny day and watch one flower for five minutes. Sunflowers are a great choice – their small central disc florets can supply food for everything from the tiniest solitary bee to a two-tailed swallowtail butterfly. If someone gives you a hard time for just watching a flower instead of weeding , just tell him you are performing a scientific observation. After all, this is what thousands of citizen science volunteers do for The Great Sunflower Project every summer. (Check out https://www.greatsunflower.org to learn more.)
For example, today I saw at least four species of sweat bee, including the emerald-like green sweat bee, two species of bumblebee, leafcutter bees and digger bees. One of my favorite things about this time of year is the appearance of digger bee nests. Digger bees are fast-moving but docile – fuzzy, big-eyed speed demons that nest in bare spots in the ground. I can never get a good photo of them, but at least they don’t mind if I’m standing in their midst. They are a good reminder to leave some bare patches in your habitat garden– the nests only last a brief time, and the pollination is worth it.
The second half of summer is a golden time, with all sorts of brushy, long-lasting flowers that attract some surprising pollinators. On the goldenrod today, I spotted a blister beetle eating pollen. These insects may eat more than they carry, but the shallow flowers of goldenrod fit their small, chewing mouthparts. As the blister beetle makes its way across the inflorescence, the pollen on its body hits other flowers. Soldier beetles are also appearing in the garden right now – I call them “date and mate” pollinators, because they are often found “multitasking” with a partner on late summer flowers.
I also see plenty of cabbage white butterflies, which usually appear early in March and are persistent and unwelcome guests until the cold weather sets in. This species was introduced from Europe in the 19th century and is a pest on anything in the mustard family. I’m always happier to see our native checkered white, which has more dark markings on the margins of its wings. A sunny afternoon also brings visits from yellow sulfur butterflies and the giant two-tailed swallowtail. These swallowtails like to “adopt” a territory, so it’s likely we’re seeing the same individuals as they make their daily rounds.
All the flourishing native grasses in mid-summer bring lots of skippers into the garden; many skippers lay their eggs on grasses. Skippers are the teddy bears of the butterfly world with their wide, furry faces and bodies. They also have distinctive hooked antenna and a funny, jerky flying pattern. I’ve been seeing mostly western branded kippers this year, but some years, especially if you grow leadplant or honey locusts, you may see the larger silver-spotted skipper. These are dark brown with silver spots (of course) on their forewings.
But it is the monarch butterfly that really typifies the slide into late summer. Our first monarch arrived June 7th this year, but as we get closer to August, we see more of them. My volunteers and I check our milkweed weekly for eggs and caterpillars as a part of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (go to www.mlmp.org to learn more). No caterpillars in the garden has made it to adulthood so far this year, but there’s still time, fingers crossed. The migrating generation will begin to appear in September and October; Colorado doesn’t get the huge numbers that eastern locations do, but I’m always grateful to see this “royal” butterfly.
Many of us are not ready to let this buzzing, blooming season go, and the good news is that we still have several weeks to enjoy flowers and their visitors. Take a closer look and get the most out of this “season within a season”. You may be surprised at all the pollinators you see!