In recent years milkweed has received much attention as habitat for dwindling populations of monarch butterflies. Most of the more than 100 species in the Americas are tropical, but one species in particular is a staple of monarchs in the North: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
My backyard milkweed project started in 2015 with a few transplants from a nonproductive, roadside location. Establishment was slow, but they’re now flourishing. Vegetative reproduction by root sprouts has created a colony of about 30 stems and the large, fragrant flower clusters are insect magnets (according to the US Forest Service, over 450 insects are known to feed on some part of the plant, including flower nectar). I focused on the Lepidoptera, attempting to document the variety of butterflies and moths that benefit from flowering milkweed. Multiple benefits from a single management action is a best-case scenario. The value added from a colony of milkweed is much greater than monarch habitat.
I’ve observed 9 or 10 species of butterflies and moths thus far, as well as countless bees, flies and other insects. This is a sample!
Old fields, forest edges and road corridors harbor an impressive variety of summer flowers, many of them alien. Knapweed is one that I have grown to appreciate due to the tremendous insect activity associated with its flowers. On a hot, muggy summer afternoon it is possible to hear a field of knapweed in full bloom before you see it….bees! I liken the sound to that of the faint hum of traffic on a distant highway.
I appreciate the importance of this bloom as a food source for bees, and couldn’t walk away from a serving of knapweed honey. However, the main reason I trudge through the matted, thigh-high tangles of knapweed in the mid day heat is butterflies.
Becoming immersed in the continuum of spring scenes from March to June is a bit like viewing a blog post that features an endless gallery of world-class images. Each phase of spring has exceptional, defining visual qualities and it’s virtually impossible to pick favorites.
Young Red Squirrels are maturing rapidly, but still show the fearless curiosity of a juvenile.
Buttercups are in full bloom…
As are the Dame’s Rockets…..
Tiger Swallowtails, our most common, large butterfly, liven up the June landscape as they follow the sequence of bloom.
Tiger Swallowtail on hawkweed
And it’s not all about youngsters and flowers: large herbivores seize the moment, feasting on succulent new plant growth (throughout the day if undisturbed).
A young doe (yearling) foraging in a brushy meadow
When landscaping for wildlife (including some insects), I prefer plants that provide multiple benefits through the seasons. A flowering crabapple tree (Malus spp.) with attractive, spring flowers and persistent, colorful fruit that feeds Robins in late winter is an example. As the snow melts in early spring, my attention is drawn to a small perennial flower that also supports this landscaping priority: Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa spp.).
Glory-of-the-Snow is native to alpine habitats in the eastern Mediterranean region and is therefore very hardy, tolerating winter temperatures down to minus 20 degrees (F) or colder, depending on the variety. In this area it is often seen blooming in a snow-covered perennial bed or lawn (they naturalize) in March or April.
The temperature was 18 degrees (F) when this photo was taken (the slender green structures framing the flower are the typical leaves of this variety).
Aside from the obvious aesthetic appeal of an early spring bloom and carpet of blue on white, Glory-of-the-Snow also performs a valuable ecological role in the landscape. It provides a food source for honeybees, flies and other insects. Take a walk and tally up all of the flowers in bloom that might be visited by a honey bee for nectar. Here, you’ll find landscape crocuses (Crocus spp.), some willows (Salix spp.; cultivated and natural) — but not much else.
Bees returned to feed soon after the deep freeze, when afternoon temperatures reached 45 – 50 degrees (F).
The summer season and waves of brightly colored wildflowers that arrive with it can be a seemingly endless array of sights, sounds and ecological interactions. There’s usually something in the mix to baffle, entertain and satisfy any nature enthusiast, regardless of their specialty. A simple, short walk through an open natural area (meadows, fallow fields, waste places) in the middle of a hot, steamy day can prove to be quite rewarding!
My gallery is a sample of images captured in the month of July. Let’s take a hike!
Common Yellowthroat foraging to feed fledged young; Valerian in bloom
Virginia Ctenuchid Moth on Knapweed
Goldenrod Spider on Fleabane; hunts by ambush from flowers rather than a web
Fritillary on Knapweed
Bees on Queen Anne’s Lace
Monarch on Swamp Milkweed
Bee on Cinquefoil
Tiger Swallowtail in Day Lily
Honeybee on Knapweed; Eurasian Honeysuckle (invasive shrub) fruit
Sulphur on Knapweed
Kingbird with a dragonfly; 3 fledged young waiting nearby
Viceroy on thistle
Fruit of Yellow Goats-beard (Dandelion-like flower)