My thistle is blooming this week so I thought it was a good time to dust off an old article about this great beneficial plant.
Dateline: April 19, 2013*
In my garden, I always savor the often unheralded plants. Plants that many remove from their own landscapes because they are unattractive “weeds”. If you remove Thistle (Cirsium spp.), you are missing out on experiences better than any action movie.
Meet Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii) a resident of my landscape. This guy took forever to bloom, starting out with dirt hugging basal leaves about 12 inches in diameter. Slowly it began reaching for the skies, eventually becoming eye to eye with me. Five foot tall (or short depending on who’s doing the measuring).
I patiently waited as this larval host for Painted Lady Butterflies (Vanessa cardui) and the little Metalmark butterfly (Calephelis virginiensis) slowly grew to produce one of the most abundant food provider of any Florida Native Plant I have encountered in my garden. I’m still searching daily for caterpillars, but they are elusive at this point, that or with the way this plant can stick you, I’m reluctant to get stabbed in the search.
What I did find is somewhat awe-inspiring. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Some type of Diptera, likely a flesh fly whose Larvae parasitize bees, cicadas, termites, grasshoppers/locusts, millipedes, earthworms, and snails. Adults have a sweet tooth choosing nectar, sap, fruit juices and as this guy likely is, honeydew produced by the aphids.
Chalcidid Wasp (possibly Conura spp.) use butterfly and moth pupa as diet, but also will parasitize beetles and flies and some are secondary parasites of Ichneumon and Braconid Wasps.
Velvet ants (Dasymutilla spp.) are not ants, they are wasps.
Leaf-footed Bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus) are a common visitor to thistle, and while a pest, if it hangs out on the thistle, it isn’t sucking the life out of your citrus.
Various stink bugs, both pests and predatory beneficials.
There are sure to be more species to come and I’ll venture to guess that the birds are waiting in the wings, so to speak, too reap the benefits of this amazing provider.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 19, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
Quite a mouthful. Antlions and owlflies may be a tad easier to say for the non-entomologists such as myself. They are members of the Insect suborder Myrmeleontiformia. Still not familiar? Ok, let’s put it in terms of their relatives that tend to get all the glory: Lacewings! Along with some additional allies, all are members of the Order Neuroptera.
Ok, enough with the scientific name mumbo jumbo. What the heck will they do to help me in my garden?
Antlions as adults are a rather attractive flying insect which can easily be mistaken for a dragonfly in flight. The majority of Ant Lion species are nocturnal for the most part. Your best bet at seeing them in flight is at dusk or at artificial lights at night. The species shown in the photos can be seen up close and personal when they rest during the day. They try to blend in with plants…generally some dried stalk of taller grasses or, as shown here, comfy on a Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) frond. I inadvertently disturbed this fella and (s)he moved over to the green frond.
The ones pictured here are most likely Mymeleon spp. (Family Myrmeleontidae).
Antlions undergo complete metamorphosis. The female searches for a spot where she taps her abdomen and then inserts a single egg below ground. Several eggs may be laid in the same area, up to 20 eggs per site. As the eggs hatch, the larval stage is formed and this is likely the most beneficial stage.
The larval stage is commonly known as Doodlebugs, because in their quest to find just the right spot to build their pits, the bugs scurry around drawing “doodles” in the sand. The larvae build a funnel shaped pit and wait for an ant, termite or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in. As the prey slides over the edge and into the pit, the Doodlebug uses its jaws to paralyze the ant by injecting poison. Then it sucks out the vital juices. Once they finish their meal, they toss the skeletal remains out of the pit. Rather like spitting out a watermelon pit in order to eat the next bite.
Next up in the world of Myrmeleontiformia are Owlflies, members of the Ascalaphidae Family. The Owlfly I have encountered is in the Genus Ululodes.
Adult Owlflies are similar in appearance to Ant Lions, but they have longgggggggggggggg antenna. They try to blend in with plants by bending their abdomen out to emulate a stick or thin branch on dried out stalks of grasses. Take my word for it, they can be very convincing. The adults eat “on the wing”, similar to dragonflies.
Rather than laying eggs underground like the Ant Lion, they go high, laying eggs along the stalk of tall dried grasses. The larva has a similar appearance to the Ant Lion with scary looking mandibles. When the larva hatch they congregate briefly before heading down into the leaf litter or up into trees to chow down in a solitary fashion. They can be cannibalistic so they part ways with their siblings rather quickly. When they are fattened up, they build their cocoons in the leaf litter.
This brings up an important point. At all times of year it is imperative to leave some uncut debris as habitat to support these beneficial insects. If you clear away every last stalk of dried grasses, Owlflies have no place to lay their eggs. If you clear away all the leaf litter, they have no where to prey upon insects and no safe environment to form their cocoons.
I used to think that cutting down the dried native grass seedheads in spring while leaving the remains in a brush pile was adequate for use by the fauna. After all, the debris was available for the birds to pick up as building materials and any insects would still be there…like a centralized buffet. After seeing the habitat necessary for the Owlfly, I leave quite a bit of tall dead materials for them to use as support structures to lay their eggs. The resulting increase in the numbers of Owlflies at my place has proved quite rewarding.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 13, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
I’m always excited when I find a new species to add to my “Florida buggy life-list”. Yes, I maintain a sort of life list of the insects and spiders that I am able to identify in my beautiful wildlife garden. I then try to determine whether of not they can prove to be beneficial in the garden. Some are a mixed bag, such as the Green Lynx spider. It is a spider, so it eats destructive bugs and is a food source for birds, but it also has a habit of eating pollinators. I tend to like them having observed grasshoppers in their clutches. I just hope that the pollinators are smart enough to avoid their grasp. At any rate, I suppose it is Mother Nature keeping us in balance. If a certain insect seems destructive, I learn how to control them without resorting to chemicals, much as I did with the Cottonwood Leaf Beetle where I used handpicking as my method of control. (Editor’s note: as I have evolved and learned more about wildlife gardening, I would not put handpicked insects into soapy water, I would merely squish them and place them in the compost pile to be recycled back into the earth.)
Amazingly, I find new insect species all the time, despite having lived in this location 5 years. This week was no exception. I was outside with the dogs having an afternoon stroll in record high heat when I saw a VERY LARGE insect land on the wood chip mulch pile. I was excited because it was something I had never seen before. I had to race to get a camera and unfortunately, the one that was “loaded” was my zoom camera which I generally don’t use for the insect pictures since I’m not good at getting close-up detail with it (thus the less-than-quality photo). I zeroed in as best I could and snapped a few shots. My initial thought was that it was some sort of robberfly.
When “new bug” flew off, I headed to the computer to do some research. “Black orange robberfly Florida” was what I put into my Goodsearch search engine that is powered by Yahoo (not a Google fan). I scanned the results and saw there was a listing from whatsthatbug.com, a favorite insect ID site of mine. Sure enough, there was a picture of my finding, Mydas Fly (Mydas clavatus). Then, as I always do, I headed on over to bugguide.net to confirm my findings and to see what information I could learn:
Adults sometimes found on flowers, presumably taking nectar. Some sources say adults take caterpillars, flies, bees, and true bugs. Others are skeptical of this. Bugguide further expands, “Eggs are laid singly in soil or rotting wood. … Mydas larvae prey on beetle larvae, esp. those of June beetles. Larvae pupate close to soil (or wood?) surface… Adults are active only in mid-summer. Mating system in this species unknown.”
Since the University of Florida didn’t have it listed as a “Featured Creature”, I turned to the University of Arkansas who, in addition to behavioral data, stated:
“…Adults were long presumed to be predaceous, but the lack of mandibles along with other features of mouthpart morphology and observations of flower feeding tend to indicate that they consume nectar.”… Larvae are associated with decaying stumps and logs, where they feed on scarab beetle larvae.
Bottom line: I vote beneficial. Flower feeding always produces some pollination ability. Got grubs? Mydas Fly larvae will help in control, although the birds might not want to share those delectables.
What are your favorite insects?
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 13, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
Hate pesticides? Concerned with caterpillars devouring your plants? Mother Nature has a natural solution that you may not be aware of.
I was opening the drive gate and next to the post where it locks when open I noticed some dead brush from Bidens alba being utilized by a mason wasp as housing for her nest. It brought back a memory from the first time I spotted this behavior some years back. Time to dust off the lost article and post it again.
Dateline: March 23, 2012*
A week or two ago I was out and noticed some activity by the Chickasaw Plum sapling I planted this past fall. The tree is staked with a hollow bamboo stick where an attractive Red and Black Mason Wasp(likely Pachodynerus erynnis) was busy. As I looked closer, I saw that it was dragging a caterpillar into the center of the bamboo. So, this Mason Wasp, also known by the common name Red-marked Pachodynerus is beneficial in the garden since larval stages develop as a parasitoid of caterpillars. It is also beneficial as an adult performing minor pollination duties as it feeds on nectar and pollen.
A Mason Wasp is one of the solitary wasps so you really don’t have to fear being stung unless you grab the poor thing. Being solitary, they don’t swarm and they don’t tend to defend their nests. This little bugger didn’t give me a second look, even though I was circling with the camera and was very close.
Mason wasp parents build mud cells and lay a single egg in each cell placing it on a caterpillar. They capture caterpillars by paralyzing them and the family of choice is Noctuidae, which includes cutworms, armyworms and other destructive pests. They also have been known to feed on beetle larvae.
I am waiting for an identification confirmation on the caterpillar that I believe is the larvae of a Pyralid/Crambid moth. After they get the nest set up and the eggs laid, they seal it up with mud which in Florida really is damp sand. Now we wait.
This is integrated pest management at it’s best. Why use pesticides when Mother Nature will perform admirably if given the chance.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on March 23, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.