I Heart Pollinators!

Magical Farfalla
Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

For those of you who didn’t know (guilty!) last week, June 22-28th was officially pollinator week! I will need to mark my calendar in the future because pollinators are animals that we would have a tough time getting along without.

The best known are, of course, bees and butterflies – but hummingbirds, moths, bats, beetles, flies, wasps, and many many more are all pollinators. We owe so much to these animals and they deserve no less than a whole week of celebration! They are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take and, if you’re like me,  none of those are from foods you would like to even imagine living without. If not for pollinators, I would not have been able to make such a fabulous vegetable lasagna last night!

Not only that, but animal pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of 80 percent of all flowering plants that contribute so much to our general happiness and state of mind. Can you imagine a world with few or no flowers? Well, we certainly could not exist in it – these plants are essential to maintaining a healthy and well-balanced ecosystem as well.

Hover
Creative Commons License photo credit: aussiegall

Important native pollinators are always in danger of losing habitat and crucial food sources. So, if you would like to help, grab your shovel and gardening gloves – don’t forget the sunscreen! – and get outside. We can all help by doing the easiest things in our own backyards! Here are some quick and easy tips from the National Wildlife Federation. Just click on the blue text for more details!

- Always think native. Exotic plants may look nice, but they don’t belong here and they do more harm than good. Native plants are meant to survive in our environment so they require much less maintenance and will make things cheaper and easier. Check them out - just as I am sometimes surprised at which insects are native to Houston, you may be surprised to see the variety of plants that are native to our semi-tropical environment.

Anna's Hummingbird in Flight
Creative Commons License photo credit: Noël Zia Lee

 - Hang a hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are absolutely gorgeous and fun to watch. Feeders are super simple to make and will attract these important pollinators to your garden.

- Build a bee house. Honeybees are not the only ones that pollinate. Houston is home to dozens of bee species, many of which are solitary and non-aggressive. If you provide shelter for them, they’ll want to hang out in your garden.

- Plant a butterfly garden! We are always promoting butterfly gardening, especially during our spring and fall plants sales. It is easy and fun, and if you use the right kinds of plants, the butterflies will come to you! The bonus is that all kinds of beneficial insects enjoy butterfly gardening plants. If you love insects, your garden will love you and you will be rewarded! Be sure to stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center and pick up one of our butterfly gardening brochures. It is full of all the information you need to get started.

-Finally, certify your yard with the National Wildlife Federation. You may already meet all of the requirements. If you follow the simple steps above, you will get there faster than you realize. The National Wildlife Federation is a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving native plants and animals. Anything you can do to help, big or small, is fantastic!

hummingbird
Creative Commons License photo credit: Monica R.

Luckily, my home is a wildlife sanctuary with many plants that are attractive to pollinators and my yard is constantly buzzing with activity! My very favorite of these is Hamelia patens, also known as flame bush, fire bush, hummingbird bush, butterfly bush, you name it! It attracts a lot of attention! The fiery red tubular flowers are a wonderful addition to my colorful garden.

I hope you will find these resources helpful, but if you’d like to speak to someone in person, feel free to contact the Cockrell Butterfly Center - or just leave a comment below. Our knowledgeable and friendly staff members are always happy to help however we can! Until next time, happy nature watching!

Poisoning Pesky Pests

mosquito
 © Photo credit: Gerald Yuvallos

April showers bring flowers – and mosquitoes!!!  The one good thing about our prolonged dry spell is that we have had almost no mosquitoes for months…but that is about to change.  Truly, mosquitoes are some of the most pestilential insects on this earth – not only is their bite unpleasant, but some species have the capacity to transmit diseases.  People will do almost anything to get rid of them.  And pest control companies prey on this urge, and will sell you just about anything. 

The device the pest companies are pushing these days – the “mosquito misting system” – costs several thousand dollars to install, but it does actually kill mosquitoes.  These systems use a series of nozzles, usually placed around the periphery of the homeowner’s yard, which emit a fine mist at intervals (many have programmable timers).  The mist, which contains water mixed with a pyrethroid insecticide, kills mosquitoes on contact.  Pyrethroids are widely used, generalist insecticides touted as “safe” for humans and pets such as dogs and cats, because they are derived from plants (learn more about these “safe” chemicals by clicking here.)

foxglove
  © Photo credit: Foxypar4

Some pest control companies boast right up front that these misting systems also kill “spiders, ticks, fleas, wasps, gnats, and roaches” as well as mosquitoes.  Of course, they don’t mention that along with these “undesirables,” the mist also destroys butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, praying mantids (and some of us consider spiders to be beneficial), etc., and is toxic to fish and amphibians.  In other words, although the chemicals used in these systems may be relatively safe for humans (but check out this link for some sobering information)  I wouldn’t want my child or dog or cat to be directly exposed to them.  Yes, pyrethroids are derived from plants, but they are generalist poisons that are bad news for many creatures.  And just because something comes from a plant doesn’t mean it is safe – would you want to be sprayed with extracts of oleander, foxglove, or poison ivy???

We frequently receive calls from butterfly gardeners around town who worry when their neighbors install one of these systems that it will impact their gardening efforts.  We don’t have good news for them – yes, it will.  Gardening for butterflies with one of these systems next door (since the mist can drift, and flying insects don’t stay put) is like putting out bird food if you have an outdoor cat.  You are luring butterflies and other beneficials to their death. 

The companies installing these systems will assure you that since you can use the spray just at night, day-flying insects will not be affected.  But think about it:  first, many beneficial insects are active at night, and many larval insects (e.g., butterfly caterpillars) are not able to fly away from areas that are sprayed.  Furthermore, plants or other objects near the spray nozzles build up a residue of the poison that is certainly not good for anything eating them or living in or on them.

mosquito-spray
 Mosquito Misting System

You may be surprised to learn that scientists working on mosquito control do not like these home misting systems any better than I do.  A couple of years ago, while doing research on mosquitoes and careers in entomology for the new insect wing, I talked at length to Dr. Rudy Bueno, head of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division (part of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, www.hcphes.org ).  I was impressed (and frankly surprised) by the conservative nature of their spraying programs.  For Dr. Bueno’s crew, spraying is a last resort, done in specific areas where their field workers have identified large populations of mosquitoes that may vector diseases such as West Nile virus (not all mosquitoes transmit disease), and where they cannot use other treatment methods such as getting rid of the standing water or treating with mosquito dunks.  They only spray when an outbreak cannot be controlled with more benign methods, and – here’s the rub – the sprays they use contain the same chemicals as the home mosquito misting systems.  Dr. Bueno’s concern is that through constant exposure to these chemicals that mosquitoes get through the home systems helps mosquitoes to evolve resistance to the chemicals – making the county’s spraying efforts much less effective, and meaning that more potent and dangerous chemicals may have to be used to control outbreaks.

gutter
 © Photo credit: akeg

I asked Dr. Bueno what he would recommend to the homeowner concerned about mosquitoes.  Their mantra in HCPHES is “reduce the source” – in other words, eliminate as much as possible any place around your home where mosquitoes might breed.  Some mosquitoes can breed in less than a tablespoon of water, or even in wet leaves, and can complete their life cycle in less than a week.  Most homeowners are fairly careless about leaving potential breeding spots on their property.  Clogged gutters, plant saucers, bird baths, dog or cat water bowls, and many other containers that hold water are all potential breeding sites.  So clean out those gutters and change the water regularly in bird baths and drinking bowls, and turn wheelbarrows or pots or buckets upside down so they don’t hold water.  Put mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis, a small native fish species that eats mosquito larvae) into any outdoor ponds.  In areas of standing water that can’t be drained you can use “mosquito dunks” – floating “donuts” that release a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis israelensis,) that infects only mosquitoes.  One of the main places mosquitoes breed in Houston is in clogged storm sewers, so be sure not to put leaves or other debris into these sewers.  Of course, if you live next to a salt marsh or other area with shallow standing water, you may still be plagued by mosquitoes from time to time.  But there is a lot we as homeowners and good citizens can do to reduce the number of mosquito breeding areas right in our own neighborhoods.  Click here for more information on mosquito prevention

In my opinion, these home misting systems should be outlawed!  Yet to date they are almost completely unregulated, and people are so eager to rid their surroundings of mosquitoes that they don’t think about the consequences of the widespread use of these poisons.  Please do your research, and some thinking, before you spend any money on mosquito control.  One thing you can do is check out information in the lower level of the Butterfly Center – a computer kiosk rates a variety of potential mosquito control methods.  You’ll learn that in addition to “reducing the source,” using repellent with 33% DEET (more is overkill) and/or wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors in mosquito-infested areas are the best ways to prevent bites.  And in your backyard, a simple fan can keep mosquitoes away during outdoor activities, and in fact is as at least as effective, and much safer, than any of the candles or coils on the market.

I hope one day the Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use of home mosquito misting systems and other supposedly “benign” poisons that may make our lives more comfortable but that on closer examination have deleterious effects.  It would be nice if pest control companies would voluntarily stop installing these systems, but as long as the public demands (and shells out money for) them, why should they?  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to educate as many people as I can – and I hope you will too.  Butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, frogs, fish, and many other wonderful creatures would join in the chorus, if only they could!   

Your Friend: The Roach

A family out for a bite to eat.

A family out for a bite to eat.

Often dogs are credited as “man’s best friend,” but I beg to differ.  I offer you instead the humble roach. 

The usually and immediate reaction to the word “roach” (or the actual specimen) is disgust and panic.  I will fully admit that I don’t love them in our garage and that they give me the creeps when they skitter across the driveway, but I DO enjoy not being waste high in detritus.

Cockroaches are nature’s decomposers and are essential for returning nutrients to the soil.  They take one man’s trash – namely, yours - and turn it into little ecological treasures.

Additionally, roaches make tasty treats for reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, other insects, and several mammals.  Not surprisingly, humans don’t love them (but have been known to eat them, though not frequently).  This is not because humans don’t like to eat bugs, but rather because of the particular taste of roaches which is similar to ammonia.  If you ever do decide to partake, know that they have three times as much protein as chicken.

Roaches are also good pollinators.  In fact, the first pollinators were beetles, not bees.  They are also the most frequently used speciments in the study of insect behavior, anatomy and physiology.

So in review, if you DON’T like being waste high in debris, but you DO like growing plants and eating, you must love the roach.

Where Have All the Bugs Gone?

It’s that time of year again. The days have gotten shorter and the temperature is slowly dropping. You may have been too busy to notice, but sometime between the shopping and cooking you probably have thought to yourself: I haven’t had to swat away any mosquitoes, or I haven’t been dive-bombed by clumsy June bugs. Where have all the bugs gone? Did they die? Are they hibernating? Well, the answer isn’t quite that simple. Over the last millions of years, insects have learned to employ all sorts of strategies to ride out the winter. While we are putting on thick socks and sweaters, the bugs are right there with us. They are everywhere, right under our noses, literally!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

If you’re an insect, you basically have two choices; you can stay or you can leave. An overwhelming amount of insects choose to stay put and deal with the frigid temperatures. One of the best ways to deal with the cold is to suspend your growth and remain as an egg, larva (or nymph), or a pupa. The adults of these insects do die off in the winter, but they are very busy until then. In the late summer and early spring, praying mantidsall around are laying their egg cases in preparation for the winter. They will lay hundreds of eggs, glued together, attached to a stick or leaf, and cover them with a thick layer of foam. After constructing her last egg case, the mother of many will pass away. Through the winter, the egg case will remain safe until it feels the warmth of spring. Then hundreds of tiny mantids will hatch and start the life-cycle over again.

If you are like the June bug, you will spend the winter as a fat grub, lazily feeding on roots all winter deep underground, where it is much warmer. When spring arrives, they form a pupa and emerge as adults in early summer, giving rise to the name June bug. Similarly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs will remain under the water’s surface where temperatures stay warm enough to sustain them. This is often under a thick layer of ice! There are plenty of mosquito larvae down there to feed them through the long months. Right now in Texas, swallowtail butterflies are forming a chrysalis. The life stage that usually lasts about 2 weeks, will last for 3 months or more. Many of our visitors have a hard time thinking of a chrysalis as a living thing. It doesn’t resemble anything alive at all. When they see them wiggle in response to touch, they are always amazed. The thing that they don’t realize is that aside from not being able to see, they know exactly what’s going on. They can feel the days getting shorter, and the temperature dropping. They won’t make a move to emerge until spring comes!

If an insect is stuck as an adult, the most vulnerable life stage, it gets a little trickier! As long as they can keep their body temperature above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they will make it. In Texas, this is not a problem, but in the north, they sometimes have to use drastic measures. These insects often find shelter in hollowed out trees, in leaf litter, and under rocks or dead logs.

If this cannot keep the freezing temperatures away they can do something pretty interesting. They can lower the water content in their bodies and replace it with a substance called glycerol. This chemical has several practical uses, but most importantly it lowers the freezing point in their bodies, acting as antifreeze! This is what can make an insect that appears frozen and dead to magically come back to life when thawed. That’s pretty impressive! This, along with going into a hibernation-like state called diapause keeps them alive. One insect that uses this method is the mourning cloak butterfly. This beautiful butterfly is the first to come out of hiding and appear in the spring.

Now if you’re a social insect, you pretty much have it made. Honeybees can store several pounds of honey for food. They don’t even need to leave the hive which is kept warm by the body heat of all the bees. Ant colonies spend all year building up a food supply and stay very deep below the ground. Even some insects that are not social will seek out others to pile on top of for warmth, like ladybugs.

bugs 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jef Poskanzer

Butterfly in HDR
Creative Commons License photo credit: chefranden

There are some insects that have opted to take a yearly vacation to sunny Mexico, which would definitely be my choice! The monarch, perhaps the most well known insect in North America makes this amazing journey every year. It’s a mind boggling to think that millions of butterflies fly up to 3000 miles to a few sites that they have never been to or seen before, how do they know how to get there? It is a mystery that keeps us all enchanted by the amazing insect. If you’d like to learn more about the monarch butterfly and their journey, visit the monarch watch website.

Since we live in an area with very mild winters, there are some bugs that we still see all year, including a lot of butterflies. There are a few local monarchs that don’t feel the need to migrate south. Every year we get several calls from people who have spotted a monarch and want to know what will happen to it or if they should help it. The answer we give them is to just let it be, the temperature will probably not drop low enough to kill it and if it does freeze, the butterfly will find shelter. They know how to deal with the cold! So you may enjoy this little break from the bugs buzzing all around us. As for myself, I can’t wait until the spring when all of the bugs are back, happily doing their jobs to keep the world turning! Plus I hate cold weather!

Go buggy! Learn more about insects:
The Sphinx Moth: It’s a Work of Art
Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt: learn how to pin a butterfly
Do butterflies breed? Your butterfly questions answered