On the Echinacea – What’s that Insect?

Written and Photographed by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

Echinacea and Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England aster) in Alexandria’s Simpson Gardens

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.

Echinacea planted en masse to attract pollinators

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.

#1 When flying, this stout-bodied insect with hooked-club antennae appears to skip or dart from flower to flower. When this insect perches or basks, it often opens its wings in a distinctive ”fighter jet” position.

#2 Easily recognized by an orange-red forewing band and dorsal hindwing margin (ventral hindwing is mottled), this insect has very short, hairy front legs that resemble bottlebrushes and give the illusion of a four-legged insect. It prefers to feed on sap and fermenting fruit, but will eat flower nectar when the others are in short supply.

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.

#3 This two-winged insect is often mistaken for a four-winged insect from which it gets its common name.

#4 When this insect, which is attracted to the salts in human perspiration, rapidly moves its flight muscles, it creates sonic vibrations that release the pollen of certain flowers. It carries pollen on brush-like tufts of hair (scopae) on its hind legs.

#5 In the larval stage, this beneficial insect eats insect pests. As an adult, it feeds on floral nectar. It uses mud in building its nest.

#6 In Great Britain, this insect earned its common name because of its uncommon flight—unlike most insects it can hover and fly backwards. In the United States, it earned its common name because the adults frequent flowers. Not only are some better pollinators than native bees (for crops like apples and mangoes), but some rival ladybugs in consuming aphids.

#7 This insect, with fuzzy thorax and abdomen, also uses sonication or “buzz pollination” to release the pollen of certain plants so it can be conveyed to other flowers. Females use a hind leg pollen basket (corbicula) to carry pollen to their small colonies.

All bugs are insects but all insects are not bugs…

#8 Despite its common names, this insect is neither bug nor fly; rather, it is a beetle. Unlike most insects, you would probably recognize it better at night than during the day.

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.

Picture Identification:

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).

This entry was posted in Demonstration Gardens, Pollinators. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.