Spiders can evoke nightmares and cause many people to pause or scream. For us, they are friends. We have plenty of them in the garden and some in the house which we don’t mind as long as they stay in the corners. I should point out that they keep the house flies in check for us. The webs they create always fascinate me especially when there is dew on them.
I don’t have to waste words extolling their natural beauty…
The population of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) has been dwindling down to a point of concern that they may be heading toward extinction. With a small patch of garden, we try our best to help them by letting the Common Milkweed (Asclepiassyriaca) grow. It’s the only plant that Monarch caterpillars eat.
I didn’t grow the first milkweed. It came to our garden around three or four years ago. The seeds are airborne but I had not seen any milkweed around our area then, but I may have overlooked it. Though it falls in the ‘weed’ category, I let the first one grow anyway. Then I fell in love with its fragrance. The first lone milkweed has grown into a large patch now and we try to keep them confined to one spot. They can be pretty invasive; every spring I have to pull out the ones that sprouted in the middle of the lawn or flower plots. We also let them grow in the spots that are out of the way so as not to over-crowd the other plants.
Aside from enjoying its fragrant and beautiful flowers, it’s also host to a variety of insects both friend and foe of the garden. This year we are seeing more Monarchs so we have started to monitor them more closely. It has taken us a few years to be registered on their homing GPS as one of their destinations. I guess they decided that our garden is a reliable food source for their caterpillars and young adults so they lay eggs. We were so happy and excited close to the point of obsession. We checked on them everyday!
Only a few of them survived. I don’t know who might eat them. Most likely wasps have taken them for the future youngsters in their burrows. But a few are better than none. Hopefully the ones that were born in our garden survive the long flight to Sierra Madre, Mexico, and the winter to tell the next generation where our garden is.
I came out to make coffee in the kitchen this morning and found an unexpected guest resting on the kitchen sink. I can’t really say ‘unexpected’ since I expected him to show up sometime in the near future but not this morning. He has been lounging in his chrysalis next to our kitchen sink for the last couple of months, a totally different outfit. This morning he came out fully dressed in bright yellow and just sat there staring at me. I have no idea how long he had been there, in his new outfit. Here he is…
I found him a couple of months ago when I picked some Swiss chard from our cold frame. I didn’t want to put him in with the stuff to be composted because I know that he’ll transform to a butterfly one day. I set the Swiss chard stalk by the sink where it dried out and shrunk. Every time I had to do something at the sink, I checked on him.
I didn’t expect him to come out this morning but it’s a great thing to wake up to. Really made our morning. I have no idea whether he is a Sulfur or a Cabbage butterfly. It didn’t matter what he is, I offered him breakfast anyway. I dropped some sugar syrup that I made for our honeybees for him and left him alone. I came back a few minutes later and found he had moved to it.
And, his old cloth that he discarded
I went out to the garden for a while to do some pruning and to feed our honeybees and when I came back in, he was nowhere to be found . He didn’t show up for dinner either.
Tomorrow, December 22 will be the official first day of winter but Mother Nature didn’t get the memo. Day time temperature will be over 50° F for the next few days and night time will not be much lower than that. In fact, in this area Christmas Eve is predicted to be 70° F during the day.
The sad part of this unseasonably warm winter is that plants and animals are fooled by it. They base their life cycles on the seasonal temperature changes. When it’s cold they hibernate or go dormant in order to conserve energy when food is hard to find. But when it’s too warm bears will come out from hibernation. Cherry trees will bloom in Brooklyn. Our honeybees came out looking for food too. Luckily they are domesticated so we feed them. But what happens to the wild honeybees? There are no flowers for then to get nectar or pollen from.
Aside from our bees, plants in our garden are also fooled by this weather.
I don’t know what this winter will turn out to be. If the ‘rural legend’ of Wooly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) hits the mark most of the time, this winter should be a warm winter. According to the text in ‘Caterpillars of Eastern North America‘ by David L. Wagner, the legend says the width of the orange band can be used to predict the severity of the upcoming winter; the narrower the band, the colder the winter.
This Wooly Bear on my glove told me the winter will be pretty warm, see how wide the orange band is. But maybe he was just stretching.
We are having a warm autumn this year. The daytime temperature is still hovering above 50° F on most days but drops back to slightly above 30° F at night. We had frost for a couple of days early on in the season which killed off most of the garden. So there is not much left for the bees.
Honeybees being honeybees, they still come out looking for food when the temperature is above 50° F and to relieve themselves as well. We had fed them in mid-October but now we still worry that their food storage may not be enough for a winter that has not yet come. Since they spend more energy flying around instead of semi-hybernating in the hive during this time of year, they probably have gone through more of their storage than usual. So we are putting sugar syrup out on warm days. They know exactly where the feeder is and zoom right to it. They still go for any flowers they find blooming at this time of year: Alyssum, Chinese broccoli, Broccoli raab and…Saffron.
I should have grown more saffron but I always start small with any newbies. If it fails I haven’t wasted much. My fellow blogger suggested that I may be able to leave them outside since they are hardy to zone 6. I will leave one pot out as an experiment. If they are like other crocuses that bloom in spring (which I grow in the ground) they should be fine. Then I can have plenty of saffron for tea and cooking, and plenty of food for honeybees in late autumn.
Anywhere I look in the garden I see buds on stems and branches. New shoots sprout up from soft cold ground. Some leaves start to unfurl and early flowering plants and trees are blossoming. A new colorful season has started, a new life cycle.
Spring is always a busy time of year for me. I have started to do a little clean up. The soil is warm and still moist enough to start feeding the trees and roses and mulching should keep it from freezing if the temperature drops for a night or two. Cleaning, feeding, pruning, transplanting and sowing new annuals will take much of my time in early spring. Then comes a time to sit back and enjoy it all in late spring and summer.
While I was doing the clean up, I found a few Lady beetles (Harmoniaaxyridis) hiding in the base of plants so I put back the dry leaves and left them alone. A couple of them were out on the half unfurled rose leaves, helping me clean up small pests that I couldn’t see. Their population seems to increase every year which I don’t mind at all.
A friend who gardens asked me if she should buy a ladybug package for her garden. I told her ‘no’. There is no point since no one can keep beneficial insects locked up in their garden. I told her to improve her garden condition, forego pesticides and chemical fertilizer. Once there is plenty of food and shelter, they will come to stay.
Below are variety of Lady beetle from last year.
Before they become these cute looking beetles, they are in shape and form below. If you see them crawling on leaves, don’t kill them. Both lady beetle adults and larvae will help you get rid of aphids. Ok, the larvae are not cute but they make up for looks in doing a great job.
I’m glad they are in our garden one generation after another. Thank you for helping me keep the pests in check.
Some butterflies have shown up at last. Not as many as I would like to see though. There were dozens of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in past years, but only two or three of them this year. I’ve seen some Swallowtail caterpillars but they disappeared a couple of days after. I think the birds have been doing their job too well. A team of Gray Catbirds, House Wrens, Song Sparrows, Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Titmouse, and Chickadees work non-stop on eliminating insects in the garden. I’ve seen one Monarch briefly this summer before it’s also disappeared.
I had some luck a couple of days ago, two Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus) took their time in courtship, slipping from flower to flower. Wherever the female flew to, the male followed close behind. It’s reminded me of the courtship ritual in many period films….very graceful.
Since I started keeping honeybees I have been more conscious about which new plants I put in the garden. I check to see whether it can be a good food source for the bees or not. I have been adding more herbs and wild flowers lately. It seems to work well. I’m happy to see that the garden is filled with a variety of bees and wasps aside from the honeybees.
This time of year is when Anise Hyssop blooms, and I have a whole patch of them. The bees were busy from early morning onward and I enjoy watching them. To my surprise, this giant showed up this summer. Two of them as far as I know, since I’ve seen them working on two different patches at the same time. They are Giant Resin bees (Megachile sculpturalis).
It’s pretty huge for a bee, around an inch long. The body length is similar to the Eastern Carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) but much slimmer. It was big enough that I thought it was a different type of wasp at first. However it’s a native to East Asia that landed in the US in the early 1990s. First spotted in North Carolina in 1994 and now spotted as far north as Vermont. So far it’s harmless to other bees, except for Eastern Carpenter bees. It will nest in an existing tunnel in the wood and sometimes takes over a Carpenter bee tunnel. I have plenty of Carpenter bees nesting inside the patio beams that if one or two tunnels are taken over by these giants, it won’t be much loss.
National Wildlife Federation ‘Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America‘ by Arthur Evans
‘Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity‘ by Stephen A. Marshall
‘Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Garden‘ by Eric Grissell
I forgot about an article I had read on the effort to rescue the Monarch butterflies from extinction. Setting the Table for a Regal Butterfly Comeback, With Milkweed by Michael Wines in The New York Times on 12/20 may be old news but it is still good news for pollinators, and the Monarchs specifically. It would be very interesting to see wild native flowers growing in the divided area of the highways and along the road again.
The Common Milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) in our garden grew by themselves, probably from seeds that the wind dropped off. I let them grow and flower. To my surprise, the flowers are fragrant and the honeybees love them. I never thought that they were fragrant as the varieties of Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), its relative, I have grown have no scent. Now, I have even more incentive to grow them, not just ignore them, in the garden.
For gardeners who like to help the Monarch butterfly by growing Milkweed, please note that:
They are easy to grow, but hard to get rid of. Their shoots can sprout up in unlikely places.
All parts of the plant are toxic.
The ‘milk’ liquid that oozes out of a broken part of the plant can cause skin irritation.
Aside from the down side, they are drought tolerant, fragrant, and bees and butterflies love them. The shoots are also edible, when extremely careful and well cooked. Here’s a short photo profile of this beautiful weed…
Below are Butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa), it’s relative. They come in very bright colorful colors of yellow, orange and red. They’re much shorter than the Common milkweed but branch out, not just one straight stalk. Butterflies, bees and ants love them.