Written (and Photographed) by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
If it is June, then it is time to celebrate pollinators. Pollinator Week, June 18-24, recognized nationally by the US Department of Agriculture and at the state level by Virginia’s Governor, advances public awareness of the significant environmental benefits provided by pollinators. These events provide an opportunity to promote one of our most well-known and indispensable perennials, which also happens to be a North American native, as well as to acclaim some of its many pollinators.
Echinacea (coneflower) has a rich history. Native Americans used it to treat wounds and infections. Today you can find it in pills and teas. Scientists are testing to see how well its purported anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties work. Its efficacy as a medicinal plant may be debated, but what we know for sure: Echinacea purpurea or purple coneflower is invaluable in both a backyard wildlife habitat and a cutting garden. Growing 2’-3’ tall with blooms from July to October, this native Echinacea flourishes in full sun and well-drained soils. (It thrives in raised beds.) This hardy perennial also tolerates a half-day of sun as well as heat and drought, especially in partial shade.
To attract more pollinators, grow Echinacea in one or two large clumps rather than dispersed small plantings. The nectar and pollen rich flowers are especially appealing to butterflies, like skippers and eastern tiger swallowtails, and to bees. They also appeal to hummingbirds—not for the nectar, which hummers usually obtain from reddish flowers with long corolla tubes, but rather for all of the insects that they attract. Insects are the main source of protein for hummingbirds. [According to Thomas G. Barnes at the University of Kentucky, a female ruby-throat can capture up to 2000 insects per day.] Another bird drawn to Echinacea is the American goldfinch. Again, it is not the nectar that beckons, but rather the seed. So, although deadheading will prolong blooming, refrain from cutting back late summer or fall flowers. This way seed heads will form, providing both winter food and winter interest.
If you grow Echinacea, then you may have observed many pollinators, including the eight insects pictured below, on your plants. The captions under these pictures describe the insects and provide hints to their identities. Do you know what they are? [Answers are at the end of this article.]
A butterfly or a moth?
You recognize each of the following two pictures as a lepidopteron; but is it butterfly or moth? Although moths are primarily creatures of the twilight or the night, some, such as hummingbird moths, are active and feed during the daytime. Also, it is not unusual to find a moth resting during the day on a shady leaf. The one sure way to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennae: butterfly antennae resemble slender clubs; moth antennae look feathery without knobbed ends.
A bee, a wasp or a fly?
Sometimes unrelated insects look very similar in color and shape. Stinging wasps and bees often advertise their potential danger with bright warning colors (aposematic color patterns). Some flies that do not possess such defenses use mimicry to appear like bees or wasps in order to confuse predators. Predators, fooled into thinking that these harmless flies are venomous, may leave them alone. However, you will not be confused as to their identity if you remember these facts: Bees and wasps have four wings. Flies have only two wings. Additionally, bees have long (elbowed) antennae and mostly have hairy bodies. They also are herbivores—they feed only on plants. Wasps usually have long antennae and slender, smooth bodies with very thin “waists.” Fly antennae tend to be short and stubby or barely visible.
All bugs are insects but all insects are not bugs…
To learn more about pollinators, visit the Pollinator Partnership at www.pollinator.org/pollinator_week_2012.htm. At Arlington’s Bon Air Shade Garden, during the month of June, there is a poster display about pollinators. Free pamphlets, Celebrate a Pollinator and Gardening for Birds and Butterflies, will be available (while supplies last) at both the Shade and Sunny Gardens in Bon Air Park on June 23rd and June 24th. Stroll through both gardens and see how many different pollinators you can find. Stop and observe pollinators in action. Notice their characteristics and behavior. But most of all, appreciate their efforts and the many benefits that they provide.
1. Atalopedes campestris (sachem skipper butterfly, female),
2. Vanessa atalanta (red admiral, a brushfoot butterfly),
3. Villa (bee fly),
4. Augochlorini (sweat bee) in the Shade Garden,
5. Euodynerus hidalgo boreoorientalis (mason wasp),
6. Toxomerus geminatus (syrphid fly aka hover fly aka flower fly) in the Shade Garden,
7. Bombus (bumble bee, maybe B. impatiens, common eastern bumble bee), and
8. Photinus pyralis (common eastern firefly aka lightning bug).