Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Suburban wildlife

My parents live in the heart of suburbia, in Worthington, Ohio. My mother is a longtime gardener, and has always kept an interesting stable of plant life. When I came into being some years back and gradually became aware of birds, I began to encourage additional plantings. At that time - I was just a tot - I had not yet developed any sophistication about flora; I just knew that MORE plants and MORE cover meant MORE birds. Being that I wasn't to be mobile beyond the limits of my bicycle for a good number of years, it seemed wise to lure as many birds as possible to MY location, and plants seemed to help with that.

Well, a number of years have passed by, my parents still live in that same house, and their level of sophistication involving the garden has evolved. Many native plant species now share space with a dwindled number of day lilies, four-o-clocks and the like. I was up the other day for a visit, and was pleasantly surprised by all of the beasts great and small that had adopted their yard and the plants within.


The walk from the driveway to the front door is a brief one, but an interesting trip nonetheless.

In part because of this luxuriant Helianthus sunflower. It's right along the front walk, and I noticed a lot of action in its boughs as I walked past. Directly in front of the sunflower is a smooth beard's-tongue, Penstemon digitalis (another native!), and my mother reports that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds stop by to sip from its flowers.

I saw that many of the sunflower's stems teemed with tiny red aphids - very cool!

Here's a closeup (as always, you can click the pic to enlarge). These are red sunflower aphids, Uroleucon helianthicola, which apparently are quite happy to nosh on this planted sunflower. Some of the aphids still have their wings, as that's how some them disperse to establish new colonies. Their probosci (snouts) are firmly inserted into the plant tissue, and the tiny insects are happily sucking out nutritious liquids. Happy, that is, until the goldfinches stop by and strip some of them off the stems like boys chomping corn off a cob, which mom reports seeing.

Whether the aphids ultimately kill the sunflower remains to be seen, but for now they have probably provided fodder for all kinds of predators such as those goldfinches. They'll stay, and if some enemies rise up against them and wipe out the colony, so be it.

Myriad flies of several species were in constant attendance. Whether they are seeking honeydew secretions from the aphids, lapping up detritus left over from aphid bore holes, or are just there to watch the show remains unknown to me. Like the aphids, the flies were doing no harm, and certainly weren't rushing the house or causing concern.

I and my camera were excited to see these orange and black brutes wandering about in Sunflower World; comparative giants among the tiny aphids.

They are false milkweed bugs, Lygaeus turcicus (thank you Janet Creamer for helping me identify these. Janet's excellent blog is RIGHT HERE). My initial reaction was that they were one of the milkweed bugs, and I guess they are, sort of. While false milkweed bugs occur on milkweed plants, they routinely jump ship and feed on plants in the sunflower family.

I'm sure this one sunflower plant spawns plenty of other action that I didn't see in my limited observation time. It certainly created a bit of intellectual stimulation between passing the fifteen feet from my car door to the house's front door. Even just a few native plants can cause a massive boost in biodiversity. You would never see this sort of action on a hosta or most other alien garden fare.

And that's just the front yard, which has to be kept rather tidy and groomed for appearance's sake. Wait'll you see the far wilder backyard!

Again, if you wish to delve more deeply into the world of native plants and their myriad benefits, visit the Midwest Native Plant Conference.

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1 comment:

Cathy said...

Last fall there were hundreds of
these insects on my butterfly
weed. If it happens this year,
I will be sure to take a photo.
Still learning the basics.