Friday, July 29, 2011

These are not the Hymenoptera you are looking for

In May I started an insect collection.  I simply wanted to document all the insects in our garden.  Apart from our vegetable garden we have landscaped our yard with plants native to the Missoula area, we have over 100 species, and we don't water any of it.  More than 60 species of birds have used the yard, and annually three species of birds nest in our nest boxes.  I figured with all this diversity, it would be interesting  to collect, document and learn about all the insects that come here too.

I got my inspiration from this from various sources, including Douglas Tallamy's papers and books, and my friend Jen who is starting the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium.  

I have taken a couple of entomology classes in college (aquatic and terrestrial) and I thought I knew the deal.  I was wrong.  I had no idea how much diversity there was, and how interesting so many of these insects are.  I have now refined my collection to mainly flies (Diptera), bees, wasps and such (Hymenoptera), beetles (Coleoptrea), some moths (Lepidoptera),  bugs (Hemiptera), and grasshoppers (Orthoptera).  I'm not even really collecting butterflies (I'm not that great at preserving them), dragon and damsel flies (Odonata- I'm not very good at catching them), really tiny things (not good at mounting them), and nocturnal insects (I'm diurnal).  Despite these various limitations and restrictions, I have collected well over 150 species of insects, and the summer is only half over.

Through all this, the thing that has stood out as the most interesting is all the mimics.  Beetles that are hairy and imitate bumblebees, flies that mimic wasps, moths that mimic yellow jackets, bees that mimic wasps, and so on. So far, I have collected over 20 genera of these mimics and as the summer continues I am sure there will be many more.

At the top of the post is one of my favorite yellow jacket mimics- it is actually a flower fly (Spilomaya sp.).  It does such a good job mimicking a yellow jacket that its deception is nearly complete.  It flies like a yellow jacket, in flight it extends its front legs- these have black fronts that make it appear to have longer antennae, like a yellow jacket.  The wings have a dark leading edge, that give it the appearance of a yellowjacket at rest folding its two sets of wings (like bees and wasps have), but it only has one (like any fly). 

The insect below is a moth- a poplar clearwing moth (Sesia tibialis) that mimics a yellow jacket.  It is very convincing- as its name suggests, its wings are clear to complete the mimicry.  I was fooled at first, too.  The first time I saw one in our garden, it was crawling out of the ground at the base of one of our decadent quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), and its wings had not expanded yet.  I thought for sure it was some solitary ground nesting yellow jacket or hornet, so I gave it its space.  I kept a eye on it, and the closer I looked, the more I realized it was not a yellow jacket at all, but a moth.

Adult poplar clearwing moths lay their eggs in the cracks or crevasses of stressed popular, aspen and willow species, and similar to the poplar borers in our garden (Saperda calcarata), the larvae of the clearwing moth bore into the tree- pushing out sawdust and feed for a couple of years before they emerge.

This is another fascinating chapter in the aspen ecology story I have been telling as I track the aspen in our garden (click here, here and here for more information.

It is really only when you see its face, you recognize how harmless the moth is.

Now that I am paying attention I see so much more than I ever knew was out there.  I have learned so much and have a new appreciation for insects, their life histories, and the importance your garden can have.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Grape Arbor

There is always room for another structure in the garden, and this was a this was a fun weekend project.
The materials only cost $14.40 from Home ReSource- it is all made out of reclaimed wood; redwood, and Douglas fir.  This is what it looked like when I started.

I used the existing fence posts for the posts for the arbor- a situation many people have in common. This arbor is an example of using a small amount of space for a big impact.

 By adding the arbor over the bench it creates a sense of enclosure, and the bench is more inviting- even a destination now.

The next step is to add a new grape plant- and that will happen this weekend.  Kathy from the Blackfoot Native Plant Nursery has about 25 grape plants and I am eager to try one of her varieties (a table grape, but I can't remember the variety).  So, in addition to being our favorite native plant nursery, Blackfoot Native Plants is also our newest grape supplier!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Scenes from the Garden: mid-July

My blog is simply a garden journal, and though I write a lot of how to articles or post information on ecology and wildlife int he garden, at its most basic, it is a place to simply depict what is happening in the garden.  This post is just about capturing what's going on in the garden now.  

It is a showy time in the garden, but I do look forward to when the grasses cure, and things die back quite a bit, and reflect the dry hot summers.
 This is the time of the year when we have an abundance of flowers, and have to prune our showy fleabane (Erigeron speciousus), goldenrod species (Solidago spp.), bee balm (Monarda fisulosa), and others on a near daily basis, just to maintain our walking paths- especially after our summer thunderstorms.

Even though our garden does not get any irrigation, it provides a wealth of flowers for wildlife, and cut flowers for the house.

 Inside the vegetable garden, structures like raised beds, arbors, and benches are prominent.  The vegetables are a focal point, too!
  My next garden project is to make another grape arbor to cover and shade the garden bench (below).

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and monarchs butterflies are in the news a lot these days, especially encouraging people to plant milkweed species in their garden for monarch conservation.  In the right location this is great and effective, and I think every garden deserves a native milkweed or 20.  Here, in western Montana, we are too far east and too far west for monarch butterflies (except the rare stray).  I love our native milkweed (A. speciosa), and the benefits of this plant and its beauty, are not limited to monarchs.
Our hammock finally succumbed to weather this year after eight years of being exposed to too much weather. It was a cotton hammock- I gave it to my wife as a present for our second anniversary (cotton is the traditional gift).  This year (our ninth anniversary) pottery is the traditional gift.  I have to think about that one.

I have a new hammock on its way- a more weather resistant one, made from recycled pop bottles.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The red breasted nuthatches are close to fledging: this is plain adorable

Make sure your volume is turned up when you watch the quick little video.

The red breasted nuthatches in the backyard nest box are growing quickly and they will soon fledge.  This was the nuthatches second attempt at a clutch. For whatever reason, the first clutch failed, but it looks like these little fellas are doing well.  A few years ago a pair of red breasted nuthatches had three failed attempts, but finally on the fourth try, all the nestlings fledged.  The adults were noticeably smaller and really haggard after building nests and finding food all spring and summer for four different clutches.  Watching that whole experience all spring and into late July gave rise to the expression my wife and I have- "we can all learn a lot from the nuthatches."

OK, I couldn't resist, here is another video.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2011 Garden Projects update

At the beginning of the year, I didn't think I had too many projects planned  for the garden, but I took a little time to write down a list of things to do, and I posted it here.  This is why I have a blog- it is my garden journal and it is a place to keep track of everything I'd otherwise scribble somewhere or forget to write down about the garden.

I planted some mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina), to replace the decadent aspen (Populus tremulodes)- and I even planted another one this weekend to replace an aspen that died suddenly last weekend in front of the hammock stand (below).  I have come to think of aspen as short-lived perennials, and that is fine.  Aspen bring so much wildlife- including wildlife that eat and kill them to the garden, that it is a fair trade (click here for more information).  Plus, we actually have more aspen in the garden now than when we started- they are just in different places, and they are always coming up in new areas.

I rearranged some plants in the front prairie, including getting rid of a green rabbit brush (Ericameria viscidiflora) and added a few Wood's rose (Rosa woodsii) close to the house.  In case you are wondering, the green rabbitbrush is now living at the Native Plant Garden at 8th and Grant.  Trust me.  It is fine.

I made a "cut-off" trail in front of the onion/ garlic bed (it is kind of obscured by the plants from this vew). The area near the grill shed is kind of a congested area in the garden and by adding this new trail/ path, people will be able to flow better. 
And along the way on the list, I added more things- a "green" or "living" roof for the grill shed, I started an insect collection to learn about and document all the insects in the garden (more on this soon), I removed the overhead garage door to the shop and replaced it with French doors (below), and I did some landscaping around the new space the French doors provide.

Adding the French doors to the shop was a fun little project and one I wished I had done a long time ago.  The doors add so much light and usable space in the shop.  Plus, they just look better.  I got all the materials for this at Home ReSource (a building materials re-use center, and my favorite place in the world to shop).
Green roof update
I didn't realize how much the green roof had grown, until I looked back on the post and slideshow from this spring. In general it is doing really well.  It is starting to fill in, and weeding has not been an issue.  I watered it for the first time yesterday (I planted it on April 24, but it was a very cool, wet spring).  Now that the weather has dried out and it has gotten hot (Sorry Susan, I know this mid-80's weather is not hot) or, perhaps, the weather has gotten more seasonal, I might water it once/ week through the summer. Here are some pictures showing the progress.
The picture below was taken right after planting, and as you can see, since then it has really filled in.
Below is a view looking down on the green roof.  It looks like a little prairie- just as planned.  All the plants are native to the Missoula area and include: Prairie June grass (Koeleria macrantha), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Rosy pussytoes (Anntenaria rosea), Cutleaf daisy (Erigeron compositus), Lanceleaf  stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum), and  Elkhorn clarkia (Clarkia pulchella).  Click here for information about the green roof, including why I chose these plants.

To see the changes on the roof- here are a few pictures:  
Before- the old metal roof.
After I installed the green roof.
After some growing- it has really changed a lot.  A little tip- for garden projects, always take your "before" pictures in late winter, and your "after" pictures in the summer!
I made great progress on the list, but I still need to make that 3 bin composter for my wife, our compost management supervisor. But a new project has come up- another grape arbor.  There is always something to do, and a place to write it down.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Garden Update for Independence Day Weekend

A guest post by David's Wife (David is pretty busy with his insect inventory of the garden, so I figured this is a good time for a guest post).

We stayed in town this weekend and I'm glad because the garden is extremely pleasant and interesting right now.  Here is a sampler of  some gorgeous pictures David took this morning .

It's hard to believe that we're already well past the "early" wildflowers, like sagebrush buttercups, biscuit roots, larkspur and even lupine and arrowleaf balsamroot.  The bunchgrasses are towering, the blue penstemons are fading, our chickadee family has left the nest box, and we are on to the true summer blooms, like Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum, the bright orange) and clarkia (purple).
Clarkia are one of the only native annual wildflowers that put on a good show for the garden. They look beautiful scattered about singly, or when they pop up in huge clusters like the photo on the right.  Some people call these elk horns because of the shape of the petals. Here's a little Latin name geekery for those who might enjoy such things: clarkia's latin name is Clarkia pulchellum and was named after that one guy in the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Lewis, the other guy, had the Montana State Flower named after him, the bitterroot: Lewisia rediviva.  Of course it wasn't the state flower at the time, since Montana wasn't a state for a goodly time after the expedition, but my point is that they got some nice plants named after them.

Even though the early flowers have passed their flowering time, many of them have really stunning seeds or fruits. For example, look at this prairie smoke in the photo below. It's the pinkish one that looks like something out of a Dr. Suess book. Each flower of this plant makes dozens of seeds, and each seed has a feathery, wispy tail attached, which is how it got the common name prairie smoke. It looks like smoke.  The other common name for it it is old man's whiskers.  Check out the yarrow blooming in the background- they are starting to bloom like crazy.  By the way yarrow is a great perennial to include in your garden.  It has a bad reputation for spreading when it gets too much water, but it brings a lot to your wildlife garden (read more in this post "yarrow is not a four letter word"). 
Here's a close up of one of our serviceberry bushes- another early blooming species that is getting on with the seed formation. About a month ago serviceberry shrubs around Missoula were covered with white flowers the size of quarters.  This individual looks extra cool right now because it has some kind of rust disease growing on the leaves.  This is usually not a problem for the plants- lots of Montana shrubs have various rusts growing on them in the wild, and I've not heard of it becoming a problem (except for that situation with the blister rust and white bark pine, but that was an introduced disease). Notice the young berries hanging in the center of the photo. Don't they look like a combination of rose hips and baby apples? Serviceberries are related to both of those.  The berries are edible but usually pretty pithy, so leave them for the wax wings.

I mentioned yarrow above, and below are two more work horses of the Montana native plant and wildlife garden: showy fleabane (purple) and blanket flower (yellow and red, often with orange).  So simple and so beautiful, and so easy to grow.  They love sunny dry places, and although we never irrigate them, we always have plenty of flowers for bouquets.

A slightly more delicate plant (but not too much more delicate, it just likes a little bit of shade) is shown here growing near my backyard hammock. It's gorgeous. My hammock, that is. And the plant is nice, too. It is the mountain hollyhock, and the flowers look like they are made of porcelain or maybe the most terribly fine parchment paper you've ever seen. They hardly seem real. I like the non-native cottage garden species of hollyhock but this one is even better, almost too good to true. Fortunately for everyone it is not only true, but easy to grow and you can find starts at many of the local nurseries and Saturday markets in Missoula. Latin name is Iliamnus rivularis, just so you don't buy the wrong thing.

And another summer favorite is blooming its head off right now is mock orange (aka syringa). We have about fve of these, and the branches are bending down with the loads of flowers, which smell like citrus. This is the state flower of Idaho but that doesn't mean they are the only ones who get to enjoy it. It grows wild in Montana, too, you know. Today I snapped a picture with my cell phone of a swallowtail butterfly eating nectar from one of these. It was almost too much beauty all at once.

I've not even mentioned the scarlet gilia, golden aster, giant collomia or yellow evening primrose. Suffice it to say, the garden is off the hook. We're having an Open House Garden Party later this month, and if you are on our Butterfly Properties Constant Contact email list, you'll be getting an invitation soon. If you don't get an invitation, you are still invited. Let us know if you need the address and time.  

When you get here, you'll probably get to see the red breasted nuthatches feeding their nestlings.  However you won't be able to gain access to the nest because the parents have cleverly covered the opening in impenetrable sap.  So don't even think about it.  We, on the other hand, would welcome your visit!