The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

February 8, 2019

Selecting plants for butterflies

It’s been a long time coming, but more and gardeners are finally becoming interested in growing butterfly gardens. Eleven years ago, almost to the day,  I posted a blog  trying to encourage folks grow more plants that attract and sustain butterflies. I figure it’s time to revisit that subject again.

Seed catalogs are arriving everyday in the mail now, both in my email inbox and in my outside mailbox. Almost all of them offer seeds for butterfly attracting plants.

This blog is about plants that have flowers that the adult butterflies readily come to for nectar. An even more ambitious butterfly garden is one that includes plants that the larvae of butterflies need to eat, but that will have to be another blog.

Butterflies are looking for flowers that have lots of nectar and a good landing platform for them to cling to. They also prefer small tubular flowers that are especially adapted to the butterflies’ proboscis, their specially shaped tongue that works like a straw. These tubular flowers cannot be too long or the butterfly cannot reach all the way down to the nectar which is usually at the base of the petals.

There are so many plants from to choose from that it can get frustrating. To help you get started , here’s a of list of the more common plants, in no particular order, that attract butterflies:

Thyme; Valerian; Heliotrope; Asclepias incarnata (common name-Red Swallowwort); PhloxAllysum;Verbena, all the different kinds of verbena are good — Verbena bonariensis is very easy to grow here in Michigan; Thistle; Scabiosa; Columbine; Chrysanthemum; Herbs, many of them have good nectar flowers; Milkweed, attracts at least 17 different kinds of butterflies; Queen Anne’s Lace; Liatris, common name Gayfeather; Gaillardia; Butterfly Bush (of course); Echinacea purpurea, common name Purple Coneflower; Violets; Lilac; Yarrow; Rudbeckia hirta, common name Black Eyed Susan; Monarda, common name Bee Balm; Lupine; Marigold; Daisy; and Lavender.

Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they  keep blooming the entire growing season.

Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.

Other things you will want to consider when you plant your garden is: 1) have a sunny site that is sheltered from the wind, butterflies get tossed around by a breeze fairly easily 2) provide a place for them to “puddle”. Have you ever noticed butterflies hanging around mud puddles? They are slurping up much needed dissolved minerals, sort of like a food supplement, that are not found in nectar. A shallow container of water containing sand and rocks allows butteries to land and puddle. Actually, even just a simple mud puddle is fine, just replenish it as it gets dry.

Bob

 

 

October 5, 2018

Insect pest look alikes

Filed under: Insects — bob @ 8:20 am

This week while scouting for garden for pests, I came across an interesting coincidence. Two look-alike, but completely unrelated, insect pests showed up at the same time. They were in the same general area but on different plants in nearby gardens.

The first insect I spotted was rose sawfly larvae feeding on the roses. There were quite a few of them and were pretty big by the time I saw them.  They had eaten quite a bit of the foliage. If I hadn’t spotted them, they would have completely defoliated the bushes.

The other insect I came across, just minutes after seeing the sawflies, was cross-striped cabbage worms feeding on some cauliflower plants. It struck me how similar the sawflies and cross-striped caterpillars look. At that stage in their particular lifecycles, they were nearly the same size.

At this stage of development, this rose sawfly larva looks like a caterpillar but is not.

At this stage of development, this rose sawfly larva looks like a caterpillar but is not.

This cross-striped caterpillar is a true caterpillar.

This cross-striped caterpillar is a true caterpillar.

Even though they were each feeding on their preferred food, if you didn’t know better, you could easily confuse the two. However, cross-striped cabbage worms would never be found on roses and like-wise, rose sawflies would turn up their noses at cauliflower.

Both of these insects eat leaves and the damage they do is quite similar looking too as they both chew holes. That’s where the similarities end. They are unrelated species. The rose sawfly belongs to the wasp family while the cross-striped caterpillar is in the butterfly/moth family (Lepodoptera). About the only thing you can say about them is they are both insects.

That doesn’t make too much difference when it comes to killing them with chemical insecticides, but if you are an organic gardener, it can make a huge difference. For example the biological insecticide Bt (Bacillus thuringensis) infects butterflies and moths so will kill cross-striped caterpillars. But rose sawflies, because they are wasps and not Lepodoptera, are un-phased by Bt spores. They can eat Bt all day long and not be affected in the least.

I see cases of mistaken identity all the time. This is a good example of how easy it is to misidentify something if you’re not careful.

Bob

 

September 7, 2018

Be on the lookout for tomato fruit worms

It seems like it’s been a tougher season than normal for our tomatoes. First they got a late start because of the cold wet spring. Then we had a blast of heat just when they were blooming, causing the flowers to fall off. Now insects are attacking any tomatoes that have made it this far.

In one of my gardens, well over half of my tomatoes have tomato fruit worm damage. This is the same insect that bores into ears of sweet corn and other vegetables.

Typical tomato fruit worm damage.

Typical tomato fruit worm damage.

On tomatoes the damage shows up as holes or depressions that are clearly caused by something eating them. Tomatoes can look fine one day, then bam! holes in them the next. Often the worms tunnel into the fruit and leave behind frass –worm poo — if nothing is done to stop them.

The problem is you can’t find who doing the eating. You might suspect bird pecking or mice bites or even tomato horn worm damage. Tomato fruit worms are hard to find. I saw one today on a plant and by the time I retrieved my phone to take a picture for you it was gone, or at least I couldn’t find it again.

Holes chewed in the tomato fruit are a passageway for fungus to enter potentially causing serious fruit rot. When the holes are new, you can just cut away the damaged portion and still use the rest of the tomato.

About the only way you can control these critters once they found your garden is to spray an insecticide. I prefer to use the biological insecticide BT since it will not harm pollinators. Most other garden insecticides work well too.

If you are seeing symptoms of tomato fruit worm on your tomatoes, I suggest getting them under control ASAP before they do any more damage.

Bob

August 21, 2018

Cicada killers on the loose

A few days ago I noticed a fresh pile of dirt near one of my tomato plants. Looking closer I noticed a hole in the ground next to the pile. I recognized the excavation as that of a cicada killer wasp.

That’s a descriptive, but unimaginative, name for them since they really do kill cicadas. These wasps show up each year shortly after the cicadas arrive during the dog days of summer.

These are big wasps that make a lot of scary buzzing sounds when they fly. Entomologists tell us that they rarely sting even when provoked. Mine were certainly even tempered. But I’m not the one that is going to tell you that they won’t sting you. I seem to remember a few years back some experts telling us that stingrays in the ocean are harmless, but I digress.

I wanted to get a photo of the cicada killer when I first spotted it but it wouldn’t sit still long enough. As soon a I was able to get close enough to focus my phone camera, it would take off with the immobile cicada in tow. A few days later I forgot all about the wasp and was placing some straw around some of the tomato plants to keep the fruit off of the ground. Low and behold, there was a cicada killer, with a cicada, looking for a way to get into her tunnel. A shallow layer of straw slowed her down long enough for me to snap a couple of photos.

The straw slowed down the wasp enough for me to snap a photo of the wasp and her prey.

The straw slowed down the wasp enough for me to snap a photo of the wasp and her prey.

She found her way into the tunnel entrance.

She found her way into the tunnel entrance.

The female wasps are responsible for all the digging we see. They construct tunnels that are between six and 12 inches deep and can be three or four feet long, or even longer. That’s a lot of dirt for one insect to move all by herself. Often there are side rooms in these tunnels.  Not only does the female wasp dig the tunnels, she also does all the hunting for the cicadas. The male is unable to hunt even if he wanted to since he does’t have a stinger. He does help however by scaring away predators.

Once the female finds a likely victim, she plunges her stinger into the cicada, not to kill it mind you, but  just to paralyze it. She wants the cicada to be alive when her offspring eats it. Once the cicada is immobilized, the wasp flips it over so it is face to face with its prey. Even though the cicada can weight more than twice as much as the wasp, she is such a strong flier that she can lift it and fly with it to her tunnel. There she carries it down to one of the rooms and places it there as sustenance for her young. She then uses her stinger, which is actually an ovipositor , to lay an egg in just the right spot of the cicada.

The wasp grub hatches from the egg right away and quickly starts eating the cicada in such a way to keep it alive as long as possible. In a few days, there is nothing left but the hollowed out shell of the cicada. In the meantime, the grub has grown into a full size larva. If the grub is a female, she gets to eat a second cicada.

Once mature, the larva spin a cocoon and pupate underground until next summer when they emerge as an adult wasp. Like many insects, the adult wasp has a different diet than its larval stage eating only tree sap and nectar from flowers. They don’t even take a nibble from the cicadas they kill.

Cicada killers prefer sandy soil with sparse vegetation — that pretty much describes my weed-free tomato patch. Also there needs to be trees nearby with cicadas in them to provide hunting grounds.

Bob

 

Sphinx Moth caterpillar

When you spend a lot of time outdoors in the garden, you’re bound to run across some interesting things from time to time.

This week I was working around some grapevines. In one area I was cleaning up neglected rose bush pulling out an assortment of weeds including a small wild grapevine. It was there I found the odd-looking, pink caterpillar of a Achemon sphinx moth munching on grape leaves.

The next day I was moving a few small grapevines from one location to another and found two more caterpillars, one orange and the other green. One was another Achemon the other looked to be a Virginia creeper sphinx moth. They are closely related to each other and both are related to tomato hornworms, as you could probably guess that by the horn on their posterior.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen these even though there are a lot of grapes in our area. I usually have to travel to another area to see them and that was the cases this week.

A pink caterpillar this size really catches your eye. Here the caterpillar's "horn" has shrunk down to resemble an eye.

A pink caterpillar this size really catches your eye, over two inches long. Here the caterpillar’s “horn” has shrunk down to resemble an eye.

Because they are so big at this stage, they can eat quite a bit but not enough to do any real harm to the grapevines and harvest size is not affected by their feeding either.They will keep eating and get bigger. In a week or two when they are full size, they will burrow into the soil then form a pupa. There they will stay until next summer when they will emerge as a large moth.

The yellow caterpillar was feeding on concord grape leaves.

The yellow caterpillar was feeding on concord grape leaves when I found it.

If left alone they have the potential to overwhelm a vineyard but their numbers are kept in check by parasitic wasps. Those wasps deposit their eggs into the caterpillar’s body where the eggs hatch. The young wasp larvae then feed on the caterpillar and eventually complete their larval stage of life.

Like a lot of moths, they are only active at night sipping nectar from flowers. Although I’ve only seen a few at night, I occasionally have found them in the morning clinging to a walls near a flower garden. One time I even found one inside, it must have flown in when someone open the door.

I ended up moving the caterpillars to an old, well-established grape vine where I knew they couldn’t do any harm. Once they settled down from all the ruckus, they went back to happily munching  leaves as if nothing happened.

Bob

 

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