Saturday, May 30, 2009

Beetles up to no good: Natives & Not in the HBG

Last night a Frost Warning was in place for the International Airport, but the City Centre was predicting a safe 6C. Since the Home Bug Garden is about halfway in between these two weather stations, and sometimes closely follows one more than the other, out came the old towels, throws, and sheets. In any case, we came through with a low of +4C (39F), about midway between the 1 & 7C reported at the two airports this morning. Being intermediate is more or less ‘normal’ here, and the HBG once again benefited from an ‘unnatural’ modification of the climate, an Urban Heat Island Effect (although not as strong as I would have wished). My friend in Gardening Zone 3b lives nearer the City Center, as one can seen by the numerous beautiful blooms with which his garden has already been blessed.

The Home Bug Garden is getting there, though, and has a few beauties of its own. The Buffalo Currants (Ribes odoratum) and Golden Currents (Ribes aureum) are our alternative to forsythia (an iffy plant in this climate) – covered in attractive yellow blossoms in early spring and with the added delights of a clove-like fragrance and tasty black berries. Some people think these two very similar plants are the same species and the USDA database lists the former as a variety of the latter. There is a difference that some might think important, however; Buffalo Currant (Ribes aureum var villosum) is not considered ‘native’ to Alberta, although Golden Currant (Ribes aureum var aureum) is. UPDATE - Just checked our two forms and the picture was mislabelled - now corrected to Buffalo Currant, which seems to have brighter orange dots in the flower centre and long hairs on the leaf petiole (and hence, one assumes, villosum) that are absent in Golden Currant.

Cold or not, the currants, cherries, marsh marigolds, pasque flowers, and numerous bulbs are in full bloom. That should be good, since the HBG was started with pollinators in mind and stocked with lots of plants that would get them off to a good start in the Spring. Several years ago the HBG would have been abuzz in assorted bees, flies, wasps, and beetles flitting or crashing from flower to flower. Unfortunately, the last couple of Springs have been cold and treacherous and this year pollinators are few and far between: an Andrena or two, a couple of hoverflies and small wasps, and bumblebees – but only the few queens just starting their broods. One wasp of interest; however, was the small, hollow twig nesting moth-hunter Lestica producticollis, a new record for the HBG. Less welcome is yet another beetle, one that eats spruce.

Yet to make an appearance is a most attractive soft-winged flower beetle (Melyridae) called the Scarlet Malachite (Malachius aeneus): a spectacular little scarlet and metallic green beetle, often aggregating in open flowers (marsh marigolds, poppies) and dusted in golden pollen (the picture is from last year on a fleece flower spike). One would guess that any insect with a common name would have at least one striking feature and that goes double for one that makes a conservation list. Once “local but widespread” but now rare in England, the Scarlet Malachite has its own Biodiversity Action Plan. Here, of course, it is an alien invader, and as someone who has worked on ‘invasive species’, I tend to always assume the worst about any ‘alien’. I don’t know how this clear cultural bias inserted itself into my otherwise (in theory) ruthlessly scientific mind. It must have been too much exposure to bloody cane toads, lantana, bumblebees, hornets, foxes, hares, and assorted other neo-Australian miscreants. For example, when my wife pointed out an article (BBC Wildlife June 2009, p. 62) about an extinct UK bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) being re- introduced from exotic populations in New Zealand, my first response was a snarl at the ‘threat’ the same population posed to Australia. Or does it? I think this problem deserves its own post or three, so for now I will just say that I hope the Scarlet Malachites are just late this year and not all frozen.

Meanwhile we have some interesting beetles showing up, most more or less native as far as I know, if ‘native’ means apparently living in Alberta before European people arrived (but not too much earlier unless they fed on ice). The willow (actually an exotic Golden Willow – Salix alba probably ‘Vitellina’) seems to be supporting an interesting array of ‘native’ chrysomelid beetles. According to Laurent Lesage, a specialist on leaf beetles at the Canadian National Collection, the Chrysomelidae has about 50,000 known species of which about 1% (566) are known to occur in Canada and Alaska. Several of these are introduced pests – like the all too common and diverse flea beetles – and some are someone else’s problem, like the striking 12-spotted asparagus beetle (we don’t grow asparagus, so we just enjoy the beetle as it passes through to wreck havoc on a neighbour). The ‘native’ willow beetles can do a fair amount of damage too, but not so much that the willow seems to suffer – it is growing far too well and putting on at least a metre a year.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Internivial blooms with two Two-spotted morphs

Edmonton’s frigid Spring reappeared for the Long May Weekend, the traditional planting out time here, but the week before had a few bright spots in between the cold and snowy end pieces. Two ‘native’ wildflowers were among the highlights, Coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus) and Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), although both were a week or two later than ‘normal’. Coltsfoot produces thick spikes of white flowers in April (well, May now) before the leaves appear and seems to be especially relished by pollinators. Marsh Marigold is just the opposite – leaves pop out of the ground as soon as the snow melts, but flowers hold off until May (or mid-May this year) – but are equally attractive to pollinators.

Lots of other flowers from the tiny Bugleweed to the more impressive Pasqueflower have made an appearance, so here is celebration of colour and form to chase the cold clouds away. A few insects also made an appearance, including two of the several colour morphs of the 2-spotted ladybug Adelia bipunctata. When the sun shines, more and more pollinators are showing up, including the inevitable queen yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets - signs of summer barbie confrontations to come. Lots of sawflies too - quite the diversity of Tenthridinidae in Edmonton - and all looking for a garden plant to lay their eggs on. Poor columbine, willow, saskatoon, creeping jenny, and currants, but lots of happy grubs to come.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sic transit cucurlio viridis

Last weekend was a bit of a bust weatherwise and things haven’t improved lately. Plants and insects are struggling to start the growing season, but they need more encouraging sun and warmth than has been on offer so far. The weevil being courted off on its last ride by an ant is the same species pictured in the previous post. I guess it gave up waiting for spring (or more likely did its bit for the future of weevildom and then hit the ground not walking).

A few other interesting insects were about, including our first fulgoroid planthopper, possibly Stenocranus dorsalis (Delphacidae). We suspect that it is feeding on our ‘native’ rushes in the pond, and that is okay with us. Additionally, an elegant little fly made an appearance, a species of Lonchoptera, the only extant genus in the Lonchopteridae. John Klymko and Steve Marshall recently reviewed* the family. Only about 85 species are known in this genus, about 1/3rd of which are undescribed. Adults feed on nectar, pollen, fungi, and dead insects in moist, grassy areas. The larvae (aka maggots) feed on microbes and decaying vegetation, so again our pond is probably the reason these interesting little flies are around.

*John Klymko and Steve Marshall 2008. Review of the Nearctic Lonchopteridae (Diptera), including descriptions of three new species. Canadian Entomologist 140: 649–673.

One of the earliest plants to break bud in the Home Bug Garden is the False Spirea Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem'. This plant in the rose family is attractive in all of its stages, blushing new growth, feathery mature foliages, handsome plumes of white flowers that insects love, bronzy fall colour, and attractive dried flower spikes that last all winter. The species is supposedly not so attractive as the Sem variety, and has another questionable feature – this Asian plant is now naturalized across most of northern North America.

We purchased our False Spirea when a ‘native’ shrub, a highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’) succumbed to a ‘native’ insect, the Viburnum Crown Borer (Synanthedon fatifera). This animal looks like a wasp, but is actually a clearwing moth in the family Sesiidae. The adults are attractive insects in their metallic blue scales, but since we planted 8 susceptible viburna (including one Sargent’s cranberry bush V. sargentii), none of which were cheap, and already have lost two of the highbush cranberries to their larvae burrowing through the crown cambium, we definitely feel ambiguous about this Home Bug Garden resident.

According to the Morton Arboretum, Viburnum Crown Borers are attracted to stressed plants, and the hail storms that greeted these shrubs in their first year was definitely a stress. Also not helping, but again native, was an outbreak of the Hummingbird Sphinx Moth (Hemaris thysbe) hornworms the next year. We had noticed the large yellow and brown sphingid (which looks like a giant bumblebee, but can hover like a hummingbird) feeding at a Golden Currant earlier, but missed the large, well camouflaged hornworms until they had eaten quite a bit of leaf area. Oh well, things don’t look to good for the viburna with the European Viburnum Leaf Beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) now spreading across Canada, although according to the University of Guelph fact sheet on the beetle, American Highbush Cranberry is only lightly damaged.

Well, that’s enough gloom and doom. The False Spirea makes an excellent addition to the garden and its wild relatives don’t seem to have made it on to any noxious weed list. I think we can live with the viburnum borers now. We’ll keep what they leave us, and hope their parasites catch up with them while there are still a few left.

Below are a few of the plants that managed to brave the cold last weekend, although the Red Orache needed the help of a pink water jacket (aka Granny Skirt) to get that big so early. And to end on a positive note, the Paeonia anomala seedling came from seed first set out in the Fall of 2007 to overwinter in pots. With nothing showing by the Fall of 2008, I assumed the seeds had rotted, and dumped the pots into a raised bed. Last weekend as I was weeding the bed of what I thought were lovage seedlings (Levisticum officinale – does very well in this climate and the umbels attract lots of pollinators), I noticed big, black seed coats dangling from the roots and realized my error. Now with any luck, it will only be a couple more years before I am enjoying a species peony in bloom.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spring in the Home Bug Garden

Spring in Zone 3 is an iffy thing, especially the last couple of years as the climate seems to be cooling. At the moment (and this could change without notice), Environment Canada is predicting a hard frost (-6 C, ~21 F) for Wednesday morning (13 May). In theory, May 7 is Edmonton’s Last Spring Frost, but this actually translates as the 90% chance date. There’s still that 10% chance you’ll be heading back to the nursery if you plant out on May 8 (actually, for the 6 years I have records for the Home Bug Garden, there is a 50% chance of a hard frost [-3 or below] after May 7). The custom here is to wait until the long weekend near the end of May to plant out, and then hope for the best.

The first sign that Spring is on its way, is the raucous call of the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) overhead in late March. It may seem strange that ‘seagulls’ are a common sight in landlocked Alberta during the warmer months, but we have lots of lakes, and remember how the settlers around Great Salt Lake were saved from a plague of Mormon crickets. We’ve identified two other gulls overhead, Bonaparte’s (Larus philadelphia), which is probably what the black-headed gulls I saw yesterday were, and Franklin’s (Larus pipixcan).

Technically, the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) seems to be the first migrant to show up, but Ravens (Corvus corax) are resident in winter and it usually takes the call of a gull to make me check if I’m seeing crows instead of ravens. Later in April, our Pink Flamingo (rescued from a rubbish pile by my wife) starts to appear through the snowpack. That’s the signal that the sun is high enough in the sky to melt some snow and it is time to pull out the birdbath. Sometime during this period, ‘hey baby’ becomes more common than ‘chickadeedeedee’ in the calls of the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and The First Flies of Spring (see previous post), a variety of spiders, soil arthropods, and overwintering nymphalid butterflies (Mourning Cloak, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell) appear.

Last week we finally had some warmth and some signs of insect activity in the Bug Garden including the first bumblebees (Bombus), yellow jacket (Vespula), and solitary bee (a male Andrena). We had a few pleasant surprise visitors too, such as a tiny shore bug (Saldidae), probably a species of Saldula. Some we don’t know yet, such as the green weevils at the head of this post. Weevils usually aren’t a good sign, but we try to keep an open mind. On the closed mind side are the various sawflies (Tenthridinidae) flitting around, each probably intent on ovipositing on some cherished plant, and flea beetles (Chrysomelidae). One of these, the Striped Flea Beetle (Phyllotreta striolata) has already wrecked havoc on my first crop, salad rocket (Eruca vescaria sativa). Oh well, Canada isn’t really an arugula nation. There’s a male Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) taking a bath in the backyard at the moment, the sun is more or less shining, and the wind isn’t blowing too fiercely, so I guess it is time to leave the computer for a few backyard bugs.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bugs in the Bug Garden: Overview, Caveats, Definitions

There’s been a lot of talk in previous posts about garden bugs, but not much in the way of evidence. Now that I’ve got the garden evolved to the stage where it started attracting more than the usual suspects, I think it is time to start celebrating the bugs and other critters that make life interesting for the discerning bug gardener. From time to time I will digress into some aspect of gardening theory or practice, but for the moment lets enjoy some bugs.

ABOUT the PHOTOGRAPHS: As time and weather permit, we do our best to document the diversity in our yard, but neither of us are professional photographers: taking pictures is a way for us to relax and the quality of the images will vary. Most of the macrophotographs (and all of the good ones) that appears on this blog were taken by my wife and she retains all rights to them. If you wish to use them for some purpose, then you must request permission (leave a comment). Ditto for any of my images – but feel free to link to them or feature them.

MISINFORMATION @ The Home Bug Garden: I (the HBG) do the preparation and labeling of the photographs. If anyone sees what they think is a mistake, then please let me know (leave a comment). If you are correct, then I will change the id and give you credit. Any and all suggestions about improving the identifications are welcome, as are any comments about the natural history of the organisms. Remember, take all identifications on this blog with a grain of salt. The higher the taxonomic level, the more likely the identification is to be correct. So, family names will usually be correct, genera less often so, and species least of all.

WHAT is a BUG in the Home Bug garden? The HBG view on animal life on this planet is Manichean: there are the charismatic invertebrates (the bugs) and then the other 1%, the birdibrates. We do keep track of the birdibrates (birds and other animals with a backbone, such as myself) – any one we can see from our yard is fair game, from the sandhill cranes in their thousands as they gruk overhead every spring and fall, to the coyote scurrying across the street in the predawn, to the white-tailed jackrabbits that eat the shoots of anything in the Rosaceae that doesn’t have spines, to the red-breasted nuthatches and house sparrows that fight over the bird boxes every spring. In total, we have identified 31 families of birdibrates (including Hominidae) visible from or in the Home Bug Garden. In contrast, and remember we do this as a hobby while both holding down full-time jobs, we have identified 137 families of invertebrates actually in the Home Bug Garden. If we were just a little more industrious, say actually trapping insects and lugging them off to a microscope (instead of taking their pictures), we could have easily doubled this total.

So, let’s start bringing on the “bugs”.