Join the International Monarch Monitoring Blitz

By now I’m sure you know we are in danger of losing the monarch butterfly migration in our lifetime. This critical situation was addressed in 2014 when President Obama met with President Pena Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Harper of Canada about it. At that meeting they agreed to “to establish a working group to ensure conservation of the monarch butterfly”. Since then much has been done to encourage research into the habits of monarch butterflies. One such result is the establishment of the annual International Monarch Monitoring Blitz.

This is an event that takes place all across the range of the monarch butterfly that spans large parts of  The United States, Mexico and Canada. The purpose is to try to get a count of the number of monarch butterflies during a small window of time. This year the count started July 28th and runs through August 5th.

Scientists are looking for help during the Blitz, they’re asking for “citizen scientists” to step forward and pitch in for the butterfly count.  It’s simple and fun to participate as a citizen scientist, anyone can do it. All you need to do is count the number of monarchs you see in all stages of the insect’s development; egg, larva, chrysalis and adult and make some observations about milkweed plants. Once you’re done, report your findings online at the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project website.

There’s another one! Add him to the tally.

This is only the second year of this international event, so now’s your chance to get started as an amateur researcher. Years from now as the Blitz expands and becomes more well known, you’ll be able to proudly tell your friends you were among the earliest participants.

We’re working on our part of the Blitz right now  and hope you find the time to join in too. It’s a great way to spend some time outdoors while knowing you’re doing something tangible to help save our beloved monarch butteries.

Bob and Judy

Become a bee helper

By now, most people are aware of the declining honeybee population. What is not as well know is wild bees are having the same problems.

Wild bees are important because in many instances they are more efficient at pollinating some crops than are honeybees. They are also highly adapted to pollinating wild flowering plants making them an essential part of our ecosystem.

Some commercial beekeepers make a large part of their income by renting hives of honeybees to farmers who grow valuable food crops. Almonds are one example of a crop that requires honeybees to pollinate large plantations of trees. There are now a new breed of beekeepers who are commercially raising wild species such as alfalfa leaf cutter bees and renting them out to farmers. I guess in that case they’re not wild anymore.

So what can we do to help out out little flying friends? We can plant pollinator friendly plants in the garden. We can be be aware not to spray our fruit trees when wild plants like dandelion or dutch clover are blossoming in the orchard. But not everyone has fruit trees or even has space for a garden. Not everyone has the inclination or desire to become a keeper of honeybees either. Or if they did, they may not have the time or resources to spend on a hive of bees

You can however become a beekeeper of sorts with very little effort. Instead of keeping honeybees, you can provide a home for wild bees. Most species of wild bees are solitary. They do not congregate together to form colonies like honeybees. They never will see their parents or siblings unlike honeybees who are surrounded by thousands of family member all pitching in to raise them.

When an adult female solitary bee looks for a place to lay her eggs, she doesn’t look for a hive. Instead she looks for a sheltered spot where the egg will be safe while it is incubating on its own. This is most often a crack or fissure in a tree or even better, an opening made by some other animal such a a hole left behind from a tree boring insect.

Complete bee houses are available already built. Or you can build your own, bees are not picky.

Small bee houses for these solitary bees are available to those who would like to help out our wild bees. These bee shelters come in an almost endless variety but they all have one design feature in common, holes that mimic natural cavities for female bees to lay their eggs. Some designs are not much more than simple blocks of wood with many holes drilled into them. Others use stacked up hollow stems of bamboo to form the shelters. Sometimes a roof is attached to keep the rain out.

You can make your own or buy these bee houses at garden centers or online. Either way it is an easy way to become a beekeeper or at least a bee helper. Unfortunately, solitary bees don’t make honey, they have no reason to.  On the other hand they don’t sting.

Bob

 

Finding a sphinx moth pupa

Butterflies and moths overwinter in different forms depending on the species. For example, the famous Monarch overwinters as an adult, swallowtails in the chrysalis stage. Other species of moths or butteries spend the winter as as eggs or as pupae.

Earlier this week I was filling up a plant container with growing mix that I had saved from last fall. The mix was stored in a few open trash cans inside the barn. Using an antique coal shovel, I was able to make good  filling transferring the potting soil to the planters. I noticed in one trash can, lying there in the soil mix, was a brown, leathery looking cigar-shaped thing. Looking closer I could see it was a large insect pupa, that of a sphinx moth.

A sphinx moth is the adult stage of the tomato horn worm, those big, ugly, destructive caterpillars we often see chomping away on our tomato plants during the summer.

Sphinx moths are one of those species that overwinter as pupae. As autumn approaches, the huge hornworm caterpillars leave the plant and burrow into the soil to morph into a pupa. Although hornworms are abundant, finding a pupa is relatively rare. That’s because they burrow so deeply. Most rotary tillers only till to the depth of six or seven inches or so. A gardener with a spade may work the soil as deep as eight inches. The hornworm tunnel down to at least a foot, well under the disturbed topsoil layer.

A sphinx moth pupa is not uncommon but is rarely seen.

 

The caterpillar that formed the pupa that I found came from one of two places, it either traveled from the garden and crawled up the side of the trash can into the mix, which is highly unlikely. Or, I missed it when I was emptying the deep planters last fall, which is probably what happened. One of the planters did have a couple of tomato plants in it, that would explain why the hornworm was there in the first place.

The sphinx moth pupa has a kind of “jug handle” structure that contains the moth’s long tongue.

We have a love-hate relationship with these insects. During their caterpillar stage they can be quite destructive, defoliating entire plants sometimes.  As an adult however, they are fascinating. They don’t have much color but they are quite large and at first glance are often mistaken for a humming bird. They act like a hummingbird too as they hover over flower blossoms gathering nectar.

So, I have a decision to make: should I squash the pupa so it won’t develop into a garden pest later in the season, or let it go to emerge as an interesting visitor to the flower garden. What would you do? Let us know in the comment section below.

Bob

Use warm temperatures during January thaw to control insects with water

 

During many winters we have a January thaw. We had a very welcomed warm spell last week and it looks like there will be another warm-up this week too, even though it may not be quite as warm this time around.

I always like to take advantage of those warm mid-winter days to freshen up my house plants and others that I have growing  inside.

Three of my citrus trees, which are about six feet tall including the pot, share space in a southern window in my woodworking area. That means their leaves are often covered in fine sawdust depending on the project I’m working on. I recently finished a project that required quite a bit of sanding which developed a lot of sawdust that settled on the citrus tree leaves.

Last week’s thaw gave me the opportunity to haul out my two wheel hand-truck and wheel out the heavy potted trees out to the driveway. I didn’t need to hose off the plants because of the drenching rain that came later in the day. That rain was all that was needed to get them clean. Since then however, I’ve generated more saw dust and they’re all dusty again.

The good news is that temperatures are predicted to be near 50 degrees F during the next couple of days. That’ll be the the perfect time to wheel them back out and rinse them off again, only this time I’ll have to drag out the hose. Some of my larger house plants are going to get a good outdoor rinsing too.

I rinse my citrus trees every year we have a January thaw. My trees are 17 years old.

This mid-winter rinsing not only washes off dust but even more importantly, it removes many of the small insect and other pests found on indoor plants such as spider mites, mealy bugs and scale. The population of  those types of pests can build up to a damaging level inside a warm, dry winter environment like we have in many Michigan homes this time of year. Rinsing with water knocks back the insect population to a tolerable level.

Mature citrus tree leaves are tough and can handle strong streams of water. Other plants though have more tender leaves which can be bruised by a too vigorous spray from an exuberant gardener — I know, I’ve done it.

If you plan to do a mid-winter rinsing, I suggest you start with a fine spray and increase the pressure if needed.  You’ll have to use your best judgement as you go along. I use a three-hole nozzle that puts out a very fine, yet strong stream of water that knocks off just about everything without damaging leaves. Be sure to spray the under-side of the leaves. That’s where the biggest concentration of pests will be hiding.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New research on potential organic insecticide

While it’s popular to bash seemingly frivolous tax payer funded scientific research, I think most people would agree that a vast majority of research is worth while.

There is some really interesting research happening over at the US Department of Agriculture that may have the potential to spill over into the organic gardening area. A naturally occurring chemical called methyl bromide may turn out to be a safe, effective, natural insecticide suitable for organic growing.

If methyl bromide sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen it on a list of food ingredients on the package of one of your favorite foods or beverages. It’s often listed under one of many different names such as methylbenzoate, benzoic acid, methyl ester and others.

Methyl benzoate is found naturally in the flower aromas of daffodils, tuberoses, kalachoe, snapdragons, petunias, and many others. These flowers produce methyl benzoate as part of their fragrance to attract bees and other insects. This substance contributes to the flavor of bananas, cherries, cloves, allspice, mustard, coffee, black tea, dill, kiwi and other plant foods. It’s used in the food industry for its nutty, cherry-like flavor and fruity, flowery scent.

As it turns out, this chemical, when isolated or as part of a formulation, can repel or even kill many insect pests. Plus it leaves no long term residue that can build up on food or in the environment. All of this is still in the early stage of research, but if it turns out that a methyl benzoate formulation is effective, it probably won’t take long for it to gain governmental approval.

Many insect pests are developing resistance to current pesticides this may help to fill the void left by insecticides that are no longer effective. Also, organic insecticides are not always good at killing certain types of pests. If it works, methyl benzoate will be a valuable addition to the organic insecticide arsenal.

As a side note, methyl bromide is scent drug sniffing dogs are looking for. Methyl benzoate is produced when cocaine is exposed to the moisture in the air.

Bob

Large population of painted lady butterflies this year

Just about everyone knows what a monarch butterfly is and its amazing migration to and from Mexico. But not nearly as many people have even heard of a painted lady butterfly; until this year that is. Reports of painted lady butterflies seem to be all over the twittersphere. The most popular one I’ve seen is the weather radar in Colorado picking up a huge swarm of the migrating butterflies.

In a garden that I tend, I’ve been seeing lots of painted ladies during the past week or so. Although there’s many more than normal, they’re not in radar-detecting numbers, that’s for sure. Since it is the middle of October, most of the plants in the garden are done for the season.  There are however, a couple of hundred late-planted zinnias still going strong. That seems to enough to convince the butterflies to stop by the garden to tank-up on zinnia nectar before continuing their journey south. I’ve noticed there is a wide size variation in the ones I’ve been seeing, some are only less than three-quarters the size of the larger ones. Apparently, the larger insects had much better feeding conditions when they were caterpillars than did their smaller companions.

Although not as big as monarchs, painted ladies are one of our larger butterflies

A quick search online shows not much is known about this species compared to the the intensely studied monarch. They’re still figuring out how they find their way south and what triggers them to migrate. Unlike the monarchs that take more than one generation to migrate, the painted ladies make the entire trip as a single adult. They’re often found in their southern range all beat up from the long flight, yet they still search out just the right plants on which to lay their eggs.

All round the country the same thing is happening: a large expansion of the painted lady butterfly population. Some scientists are so impressed by some of the reports that they are comparing this rare event to this summer’s total eclipse. If you don’t want to be left out of what is possibly a once in a lifetime occurrence, find a place that still has a few flowers in bloom and take part in some fun butterfly viewing. You probably won’t see clouds of painted lady butterflies around here but you certainly won’t have to look very hard to find them.

Bob

Hoverflies are beneficial insects

As mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, I planted a fairly large plot of buckwheat adjacent to our vegetable garden this spring. The main idea behind planting buckwheat was to provide forage primarily for honeybees and for any other pollinators that might be around to take advantage of it.

As it turns out honeybees are in the minority. When surveying the buckwheat plot, I noticed for every one honeybee I saw there were ten or twenty other pollinators. They included butterflies, small wild bees, small wasps, many kinds of beetles, flies and hoverflies.

Hoverflies are especially good to have in the garden. The adult hoverfly is a very agile flyer able to hover in one spot then zoom away, stop on a dime and hover in place again — they can even fly backwards.  They don’t have teeth or mandibles so they can’t chew or tear into things. Their mouth parts are spongy and are designed to soak up nectar and other liquids as well as picking up small particles such as pollen. That is why they’re so attracted to the buckwheat flowers.

Hoverflies have a superficial resemblance to bees.
Hoverflies have a superficial resemblance to bees.

Hoverfly larvae on the other hand are insectivores that eat small soft-bodied insects. In the garden that means mostly aphids, thrips, leafhoppers and scale. All four of these common garden pests have a stage in their lifecycle when they are soft-bodied.

After mating the adult female hoverfly buzzes around looking for a likely spot to lay her eggs, someplace where her young will have easy access to food. How does she know where the best spot is? Aphids and those other insects get all their nutrition from plant juices. They can only use part of the sugar in plant sap so they excrete the unneeded sugar as a syrupy liquid called “honeydew”. It’s the honeydew that attracts the female hoverfly: where there’s honeydew, there are insects for her young to feed on.

During the larval stage, each individual hoverfly will eat up to 400 aphids and other insects giving it the needed protein to go on to further development.

Since they are such good flyers, it’s very easy for female hoverflies to fly from the buckwheat to our vegetable garden and back again. The habitat that buckwheat provides enables the beneficial insect population to grow much larger than it would otherwise. That is a good lesson about the advantages of encouraging beneficial insects with plants instead of trying to maintain a garden in the middle of a sterile environment like a mowed lawn.

Bob

 

Pruning milkweeds

I saw my first Monarch butterfly several days ago. I know they were here much earlier because I found a caterpillar on my milkweed plants. That means there had to be a female butterfly around before that.

It takes around four days for a Monarch egg to hatch. The caterpillar stage lasts around a week and a half to two weeks. Since my caterpillar was almost fully grown, the female Monarch that laid his eggs arrived nearly two weeks ago. How did she sneak into the yard without me seeing her?

This monarch caterpillar has by now formed a chrysalis.

Most of my milkweed plants are on the verge of blooming. The plants are maturing and the leaves and stems are beginning to stiffen and get tougher in order to hold up the flowers and seed pods. Although female Monarchs will lay eggs on any milkweed, they prefer the more tender leaves toward the top of the plant.

A gardener I know suggested that I cut back my some of my milkweed plants to stimulate new growth and leaves. Theoretically, those new leaves would make my plants more attractive to the butteries than others in the area. I just snipped off the plant just above the existing leaves. That caused some milkweed sap to ooze out of the cut. That sap is poisonous and irritating so make sure you don’t in your eye.

Cutting the milkweed just above the leaves allows secondary leaf buds to sprout and grow.

This is the first time I’ve tried this with milkweeds. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Bob

Check those plants you moved indoors for scale insects

With Christmas and other hectic, holiday happenings over, now is a good time to check those plants you brought inside for winter.

When potted plants live outside during the summer, they become susceptible to infestations of all kinds of insects. Usually, if they are in reasonably good health they can tolerate a moderate insect attack. And natural predators like lady bugs and lace wings will keep the bad insect population to a minimum. But when plants are moved indoors, they loose the protection of those natural predators which can allow the insect population to grow.

Scale insects are the ones I have the most problem with. When I start to find a sticky coating, called “honeydew”, on the lower leaves, table, nearby furniture or floor, I know that the scale insects are ramping up their feeding. They can get out of hand quickly at that point and do some real damage to the plant– not to mention the mess they make. Honeydew is sometimes mistakenly called “sap” because the plant owner thinks it is the plant leaking sap all over the place. It’s not always easy to spot a scale infestation if you’ve never seen it before.

The brown ovals are the outer shells of the scale insects. The clear substance is honeydew.
The brown ovals are the outer shells of the scale insects. The clear substance is honeydew.

Scale feed by poking their “beak” into the the plant and feeding on the nutrients from the plant juices. Like most other animals, they excrete waste. In this case it is in the form of that sticky, syrupy  honeydew. Honeydew contains a high concentration of sugar. But how and why do scale insects produce so much sticky residue? The answer is that they pick their feeding spot very carefully. If you remember from middle school biology, plants have two basic types of tubes inside. Those that carry water from the roots up into the plant are called xylem. The other tubes that carry nutrients manufactured by the leaves to the rest of the plant are called phloem.

It is the phloem where the scale insects like to poke their beaks. If they pierced a xylem tube by mistake, all they would get is mostly water and some dissolved minerals. The phloem sap contains sugars for energy, proteins for growth and other things necessary to sustain plant and animal life.

The scale can’t use all of the sugar dissolved in the phloem juices so they excrete the excess sugar which then falls all over the immediate area. Since it is primarily sugar, it is water soluble and fairly easy to clean up with a damp cloth. Small plants can be rinsed off in the sink or bathtub.

My citrus trees are way too big to rinse off in the bathtub and too heavy for me to move to the shower. Instead I use a damp cloth — or even my bare fingers– to rub off the scale from the leaves and branches whenever I find them. I find that if I do a few leaves every day, I can usually keep up with the multiplying insect population, especially if I remember to start early. If you wait too long, it can turn into a tedious, frustrating job.

One other by-product of honeydew is sooty mold, a black, powdery mold that grows om the surface of leaves and other surfaces. All of that sugar provides food for sooty-mold fungus which will grow and leave sticky surfaces with an unsightly black film that can rub off onto clothing.

Even though you may feel overwhelmed by the holiday rush, remember your plants, they will thank you for it.

Bob

 

Look for squash bugs on pumpkins and squash

The squash crop is looking pretty good so far but has had its share of problems.

Earlier in the season we were worried about squash vine borers moving in. Now we have a new pest that we need to take care of, squash bugs. A few days ago I spotted a very familiar sight, squash bug eggs. Once you’ve seen them, you’ll have no trouble finding more.

The eggs are small, shiny, metallic-looking usually found on the underside of the leaves. Many egg clusters I’ve seen this year however, are appearing on the top side of the leaf. Usually, the female lays clusters of eggs that follow the outline of the veins of the leaves giving the clusters a roughly triangular shape.

Here's a couple of squash bug egg clusters. Down in the whorl of the leaf is a group of squash bug nymphs.
Down in the whorl of a squash leaf is a group of squash bug nymphs. To the left and right of the nymphs are two small egg clusters.

Squash bugs can do a lot of damage to your vine crops if you are not careful. Several years ago I had nearly half an acre of pumpkins that became infested with squash bugs. We tried battling them with the first line of attack, crushing their eggs whenever we came across them. After crushing literally hundreds of egg masses, it became apparent we were not going to be able to keep up with the insects. We ended up having to resort to applying an insecticide to save the crop.

The eggs hatch about ten days after being laid. The young newly hatched nymphs have a very soft “skin” making them very susceptible to contact insecticides. Spraying the nymph stage is your best chance to control these pests since the adult bugs are very tough and hard to kill.

Bob