Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Spring Azure Host on Sourwood

On a recent post, I talked about how I discovered caterpillars consuming the flowers to my Sourwood tree. I was determined to find out what they were so I collected one and put it in a jar on my desk. A few days passed and the caterpillar formed a chrysalis, the smallest chrysalis I've ever seen! And roughly ten days later, it has emerged, no surrogate ant colony needed.

Spring Azure it is! Something in the Celastrina ladon complex. Basically there's like 4 or 5 butterflies that all look seemingly identical to one another and have a huge variety of host plants. What makes them a complex is that it's unclear how many species are involved, which ones use what host plants, and how each host plant alters the appearance of the caterpillar and the adult form. Overall this butterfly uses the flower buds Dogwoods, New Jersey Tea, and a few others but some host plants such as the Sourwood are unknown, which might suggest there are more species out there than the initial 4 or 5 believed to be in existence. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Honeybees on Nodding Onion

My little patch of Nodding Onions has started to get more attention than hummingbirds. With more than 45 plants in bloom, my honeybees have started to take an interest. This is good because their focus has otherwise been completely devoted to the patch of mountain mint in an adjacent garden bed. Mints, while rich nectar sources, I've found can sometimes add their flavor of the honey which some folks don't like. They're also starting to work the Anise Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed as well the Buttonbush and Clethra alnifolia now that they're all in full bloom. Nodding onions were a surprise though. I had assumed they'd be treated like purple cone flowers, one or two bees per 50 blooms, but these are getting slightly more attention than that. 

Another thing is that I've realized I probably ordered about 32 plants two years ago, and now I have almost 50 flowering... so they've clearly reproduced. There's the main clump I have in a sandy patch which is how they grow them at the Mt. Cuba Center. Bulbs (onions) benefit from drainage in the soil, so when I read that they will also grow in clay, I'm skeptical. Yes they might grow and flower in clay but I suspect they won't reproduce as well or last as many years as they would in sandy spots.

Granted the ones I have planted in clay are doing perfectly fine. In fact, at the risk of calling myself a hypocrite, the main patch I first planted in the sand seemed like it went through shock. The plants were lanky, wilted, seemed to demand more water. But that was the first year, now that they've got their roots established they seem to be growing equal to if not better than the ones I started in clay.

Sorry for photographing pretty much the same bee over and over again. My camera was out of batteries from another project, and I only had my cell phone to work with. I'll try and get more picks to better diversify my angles and bees, etc...

Along with the main patch, I have a few plants scattered in other gardens and along pathways but nowhere near as densely planted. While walking the garden I noticed the honeybees had found these plants too which is a little odd. Generally when a bee does a waggle dance in the hive to give the coordinates about this awesome source of food they found, they normally wouldn't be finding these random plants away from the main patch. It's as though they're finding the main patch of onions and then exploring a bit to find plants that aren't getting as much attention. Normally when I see bees foraging in, say a field, you find them on the plants where the flowering is the most dense, rarely in the smaller patches forming the outskirts, if you understand what I mean.

I'm taken by the lack of info there is on this plant as a nectar and pollen source for honeybees. It's generally agreed upon that bees like the plant, as well as everything in the Allium family (Garlic, Chives, other Onions) and if hummingbirds are using it as a nectar source you can be sure it's of high quality.

In the book "Honey Plants of North America" they generalize onions into a simple paragraph, almost treating them like a cliff note. Granted the book was published in 1926 but it's still a publication well worth owning (though their taxonomy is almost 100 years out of date). In it they write, "Valuable for honey when grown for seed... ...The honey is amber-colored, and the peculiar onion odor and flavor almost disappear as it ripens. The flowers are white." But this refers to Allium cepa the common white onion grown the world over, not our native Allium cernuum and they pretty much skip over every other species though I think it's safe to say bees like all members of this family.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hummingbird on Nodding Onion


I never really thought of Nodding Onion, Allium cernuum, as a Hummingbird plant until today. I have seen it listed in magazines from time to time as such but the Ruby-Throats that visit my garden always seem to go for the Iron Weed, Coral Honeysuckle, Button Bush, and Joe Pye Weed over these.


The nodding onion patch is situated in a small sand dune I installed in my yard. My home sits on almost 100% clay so adding patches dense with sand allows me to grow a wider variety of plants. They've flowered for the past two years now and do decent with getting bee attention, bumblebees mostly. The patch of Mountain Mint in an adjacent flower bed steals all the attention though.


She (I think from the lack of iridescent feathers on the throat) was out there a good while visiting every last flower on the 30 or so onions I have flowering at the moment.

It got to the point where she had to take a break but that didn't stop her from continuing to feed. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Caterpillar on Sourwood Tree with Ants

It's always exciting when Ants, Bees, Butterflies, and Nature can all come together. This is the former long winded title of this blog, which I've since changed to Biodiverse Gardens. 

So two years ago I planted a Sourwood tree as a nectar plant for my Honeybees. They've yet to find it this year but really it's still just a sapling barely 6' tall. This is one of the prized nectar flows among beekeepers because it produced great tasting honey. Unfortunately it's a rather uncommon landscaping tree in my area and doesn't occur in wild forests here, so for the most part my planting this tree is like adding a drop in the bucket to my overall honey harvest. Still though I'd rather plant a world class honey tree over the more commonly sold plants offered at local garden centers.  


Earlier today I discovered what looks like one of the Blues or Azure Caterpillars feeding on the flowers. This is odd for a few reasons: I live in New Jersey and Sourwoods don't grow here wildly, so it's unlikely to see this kind of relationship so far outside of the tree's native range.

I have heard of Zebra Swallowtails finding groves of Paw Paws here in NJ so maybe something similar has happened, but more likely one of the species that was already here has made the jump to a new host plant, or is using one that they would normally use when they occur farther south.

Also odd, is that no one seems to have ever reported this type of caterpillar on Sourwoods before. Or maybe I'm just not looking hard enough but all the listings for Sourwood in "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" don't look correct for this species.

Another bit of intrigue, prior to the caterpillars showing up, the ants, Tapinoma sessile, were stealing the nectar from the flowers. But now that the caterpillars (there's just 2 of them that I counted,)  have shown up and started eating the flowers, the ants have changed their behavior. Now instead of stealing from the flowers they're tending the caterpillars which are eating the flowers. 

This probably doesn't benefit the tree at all. Flowers that have been nectar robbed can still produce seed, whereas flowers that have been eaten won't develop into anything. The only benefit as far as I can tell is that the ants have stopped nectar robbing the whole tree and are now just going to the section where the caterpillars are found. So sacrificing a few flowers might benefit the tree overall.

When I started my native plant garden, this was one of the behaviors I'd hoped to attract into my yard. Ideally I pictured it happening in a field of Wild Lupins saving an endangered species of Blue but this also works. What eventually happens is the caterpillar drops to the ground and is taken into an ant nest where it then pupates... some species change their diet to eating the ant brood before pupating but the ants don't care at that point. These sorts of caterpillars, along with producing nectar and being treated like cattle, also make noises that mimic the sounds a queen ant makes when she wants to be tended. Ants themselves are also more than happy to eat their own eggs or feed their eggs to developing brood more worthy of the nutrients so this isn't unant-like behavior. They're safe in the nest until the following spring, when they must emerge a butterfly and quickly get out of the next to spread their wings.