Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gardening for Honorary Butterflies (Mint Moths)

Not all moths fly at night and not all are drab. Some deserve the name of honorary butterflies. In fact sometimes they are mistaken for them. Sorry I tricked you by using the word butterflies in the title (not really); but I was afraid that most would ignore this article if they just saw the word moths. The fact is that there are ten times more species of moths than of butterflies; that they are very important components of ecosystems and worth welcoming in our gardens. Some are very beautiful and can give visual enjoyment to the gardener. To me, most if not all are beautiful each in its own way. But I know people who dislike, fear or hate moths in general. I hope that at least they take time to look and learn to love the pretty ones.

I will save some of the most striking ones, such as hummingbird, imperial and Luna moths for later. I will start with some that many people are unaware of and amazed when they first see them.

The crambid snout moths represent a family (Crambidae) with more than 850 species in North America. They get their common name from the appendage that sticks out on front of their heads. Some of them, the members of the genus Pyrausta feed on plants of the mint family, so I will be calling them mint moths, although they don't really have a common name. Most of them are brightly colored and are seen during the day.
Pyrausta orphisalis (Orange Mint Moth) on mountain mint
©Beatriz Moisset

The larvae of the orange mint moth (Pyrausta orphisalis) feed on a variety of mints and sometimes you cans see signs of their feeding, especially at the buds and newer leaves. But the damage is not known to reach serious proportions. It is good to remember that caterpillars are bird food. So it is a good idea to have a few well behaved caterpillars such as these ones to attract birds to the garden. It is also a pleasure to spot this very attractive moth resting on a plant of mint.

Pyrausta signatalis (Raspberry Pyrausta) on mint
©Beatriz Moisset

The raspberry mint pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis) is also richly colored and earns its name because of the raspberry color of its wings. The larvae feed primarily on spotted beebalm (a member of the mint family), they also feed on a few related plants such as wild bergamot and scarlet beebalm.

Pyrausta tyralis
  © Bob in swamp Flickr
 Another member of this genus, even more striking in its coloration is the Coffee-loving pyrausta (Pyrausta tyralis). This one breaks the mold with its feeding habits, a peculiar feat. It gets its name because it likes wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) found in Florida. It also feeds on some Asteraceae such as dahlia and bidens.

It is worth mentioning that there are many species of mint moths in Europe. Here is a gorgeous one: the golden mint moth (Pyrausta aurata).

Pyrausta aurata © Bramblejungle Flickr

In summary, if you want to attract these honorary butterflies to your garden plant a variety of mints including beebalm which by the way is also good at attracting hummingbird moths and hummingbirds.

Moth as Pollinators
List of articles
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

© Beatriz Moisset. 2012 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pollinator Conservation Short Course

Snyder Farm

On April 27, I attended a short course on pollinator conservation at the Snyder Farm, an agricultural research station of Rutgers University, located in Pittstown, NJ. It was sponsored by Rutgers University, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). There were very informative sessions in the morning and a walk of the property in the afternoon ending with information on the current Farm Bill provisions for pollinator conservation.

We learned about recent research about the most common native pollinators of crops in New Jersey, several bumble bees and sweat bees among others. This is probably applicable to most of the Mid Atlantic region. We were informed about recent studies on the best native plants for pollinator gardens adjunct to farms. Among them some very familiar ones such as: cutleaf coneflower, some types of goldenrods, butterfly and swamp milkweeds, Joe pye weed and New England aster.
One of the best ecosystem-service providers, Bombus impatiens, on one of the best plants for pollinators, New England aster

There were presentations on how to protect pollinator habitats: bare spots in the ground, logs or old trees and plants with hollow twigs; all of them provide nesting places. Perhaps most important is the use of Integrated Pest Management, to reduce pesticides to the bare minimum and to use them only very early or very late in the day, when pollinators are less likely to be active. See: Attracting native Pollinators, Pollinator Friendly Planting Guide.
Canola fields

During the walk we visited the fields of rapeseed or canola, which are captivating with their incredibly bright yellow flowers at this time of the year. Sadly for us the wind was so strong, sharp and continuous that flower visitors were notoriously absent that day.  The pollinator garden was at an incipient stage. Its value will increase with time. We were shown how to do an assessment of native bee conservation practices; for instance, the presence of a windbreak, hedgerows between fields or along the edges of the property, presence of nest sites and natural vegetation within certain distances, etc. This assessment is used later on to evaluate any improvement.
Pollinator garden

What was completely disconcerting to me was the huge expanse of lawn near the farmhouse and between orchard fields. It would have been more acceptable if the lawn was heavily sprinkled by "grass companions", broad leaved weeds which can provide food for many sorts of pollinators. I didn't see any broad leaved plants worth mentioning. To make sure I was seeing right, I got on my hands and knees and only saw some solitary gill-of-the-ground and the occasional violet. I have seen many suburban lawns that are friendlier to pollinators without really trying.
A wasted opportunity, huge pollinator unfriendly lawn

 Perplexed, I asked Tim Dunne, the NRCS representative, about it. He agreed that such lawn was not exactly pollinator heaven. He has tried to change such practice without success. The farmer in charge of planting and maintenance emphatically refuses to have weeds which, according to him, would promptly invade the orchards. By looking at that lawn, I am sure that they are using herbicides, a practice that makes no sense at all when you are trying to create a pollinator habitat. The few square yards of pollinator garden look puny by comparison with the several acres of pollinator unfriendly lawn I saw that day.
Bluets, one of many lawn companions good for pollinators
Another good lawn companion, low growing aster

It is time that somebody comes up with good seed mixes for pollinator lawns. Sam Droege of the USGS said it very eloquently in 2009 in an e-mail to the Bee Monitoring group.
"What if someone would develop a bee lawn seed mix? 
Wouldn't that potentially have a higher impact on the number and kinds of bees in urban areas than the high effort, high cost, high maintenance (but, yes, very pretty) pollinator garden?"

These mixtures should include lawn companions beneficial to pollinators, non-invasive and reasonably easy to maintain. Meeting these requirements should be easier in a farm than in a suburban garden setting; foot traffic and looks are not important. The Xerces Society advocates the use of "ecolawns". It also was one of the sponsors of this workshop. So why aren't they doing more for pollinator lawns?
Another good pollinator for farm fields, Augochlora pura

Lawns for pollinators, grass companions
Lawn for pollinators. Part II
Lawn for pollinators. Part III

List of articles
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors
© Beatriz Moisset. 2012