On the Echinacea – What’s that Insect?

Insect #1

Written and Photographed by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

[Note: This is an updated and revised version of an article originally posted on June 13, 2012.]

This year, June 2oth is not only the summer solstice, but the beginning of Pollinator Week, created to advance public awareness of the significant environmental benefits provided by pollinators. This is the perfect opportunity to stroll through an MGNV demonstration or other public garden to enjoy the flowers 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.

A garden stroll also may help you identify which plants, especially natives, you could add to your property to make it more inviting to pollinators. You may want to consider one of our most well-known and indispensable perennials, which happens to be a North American native.

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

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

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. For growing and maintenance tips, see our Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid Atlantic Echinacea fact sheet.

Echinacea planted en masse

Echinacea planted en masse to attract pollinators in Bon Air Park’s Sunny Garden in Arlington. Photo © 2016 Mary Free

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 and 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. 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 food and winter interest.

If you already grow Echinacea, then you may have observed many pollinators, including the ten 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. -or- Answers will be posted after Pollinator Week.]

A butterfly or a moth?

You recognize each of the following four pictures as a lepidopteron; but is it butterfly or moth? Although moths are primarily creatures of the twilight or the night, some 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.

Insect #1

#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.

Insect #2

#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.


Insect Sleeping on Echinacea Leaf

#3 This insect, which feeds on Lonicera, is a strong and rapid flier–in fact some of its relatives are often mistaken for hummingbirds. Its larva, which can be either green or brown, is called a “hornworm” due to a prominent dorsal “horn” at the end of its abdomen.

Echinacea with insect

#4 Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia all recognize this as their state insect. In the South especially, females may be either yellow or black. The dark morph mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail to protect itself from predators.

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.

Insect #5

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


Insect #6

#6 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.

Insect #7

#7 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.

Insect #8

#8 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.


Insect #9

#9 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…

Insect #10

#10 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.

You can learn more about pollinators and how to aid them by creating natural habitats on your property in the following reference materials:

Answers at the end of the week!

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