Ant Garden

Did you know that National Pollinator Week is coming up June 16-22, 2014?

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To get prepared for Pollinator Week, let's take a look at gardening as a way to encourage local pollinators.

How would you go about it? If you have the typical vast expanse of grass, one step could be to carve out areas from that lawn and start adding beds and borders of a diversity of flowering plants. Over time, you could continue to expand the beds until you reach the point where you can recycle the lawnmower.

Choosing which plants to include in a pollinator garden may be complicated. The best solution is to grow plants that originated in a given area or native plants.

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There are regional plant lists available, but using only native plants is not always possible. These specialized plants may not be available in local nurseries, larger natives may require more space than is available, or there may be local restrictions on landscape appearance that prohibit use of plants that look "messy."

An alternative is to grow common landscape plants. The question then becomes which ones will suit your local pollinators.

In a recent paper in the journal Functional Ecology, Mihail Garbuzov and Francis L. W. Ratnieks quantified how attractive common landscape plants were to bees and other flying insects in a scientific way. They carried out their studies in Great Britain, but give good suggestions that could be used anywhere. For example, geraniums (flowers of the genus Pelargonium) are not a good choice for a pollinator garden no matter where you live because the flowers produce no nectar.

In this video Dr. Ratnieks explains their techniques and some of their findings:

Did you notice how many of the preferred plants were common herbs? Planting an herb garden would give a double benefit, being useful to your cooking and to pollinators.

The take home message is that spending some time getting to know the habits of your local pollinators before you plant your garden can go a long way towards helping them survive in the future.

What do you think? Are quick observations sufficient to make generalizations about pollinators or should there be more rigorous studies like this one by Garbuzov and Ratnieks?

Reference:

Garbuzov, M., Ratnieks, F. L. W. (2014), Quantifying variation among garden plants in attractiveness to bees and other flower-visiting insects. Functional Ecology, 28: 364–374.

I have talked about gardening for wildlife in the past, especially the idea of gardening for insects other than butterflies. With that in mind, let's take a look at a recently published book about wildlife gardening with children, Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids--Simple Ways to Attract Birds, Butterflies, Toads, and More to Your Garden by April Pulley Sayre.

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Who is the author?

April Pulley Sayre is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for a range of ages, but she specializes in natural history for children. She says she has been growing a wildlife garden for over 20 years and that through her husband's work, ended up with over 300 species of native plants in her 1.5 acre yard. Now that sounds like fun!

Summary of the book:

Part one discusses looking at the potential of your space, and advises how and why to make observations about nature to determine what might needed to improve it. She suggests recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. I might add keeping a blog or Flickr stream to share your experiences.

Part two involves planning your garden, preparing your soil, and planting and maintaining your plants. Realistically, Sayre includes a section on how to keep you neighbors happy, too. This is important. Every year our family receives our annual notice from the homeowners' association to remove the "weeds" from our yard. Once we explain the weeds are actually wildflowers, we are let off the hook. Well, that is, until the next year when we have to call and write again.

Part three discusses some of the wildlife to expect, particularly insects and toads. The insects she briefly highlights are butterflies, dragonflies, and bees. Part four concentrates on attracting birds and their various needs. Finally, part five discusses some of the human aspects, such as reaching out to your community and getting your wildlife garden certified. She also briefly discusses some things that may happen that will cause you to leave or lose your wildlife garden, preparing readers for the realities of life.

Comments:

Given the title, I was hoping for more information about butterfly/insect gardening, which was limited to four short pages and didn't give many specific details. I understand one handicap about writing this kind of book is that it is impossible to list native plants to use because those will vary so much from place to place and also depend on what wildlife occur in the immediate area. However, some generalizations are possible, such as monarch butterflies use plants of the milkweed family as hosts. To compensate for being general, Sayre lists an extensive number of resources in the back, many of which will have more specific advice.

Touch a Butterfly is a good introduction to wildlife gardening, especially for people who know little about it. The book's real strength is that Sayre opens the door to the natural world through many excellent suggestions for making careful observations of wildlife all around us. Hopefully you will be inspired to share these insights with children.

Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Roost Books (April 23, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1590309170
ISBN-13: 978-1590309179

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Sometimes we get so used to seeing ants visiting extrafloral nectaries, it seems unexpected to see them visiting regular floral nectaries.

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Take this shrubby dogwood flower (probably gray dogwood, Cornus racemosa). The nectaries are the creamy yellow bands at the base of the female part of the flower (the pistil or carpel) in the center.

 

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Formica workers seemed to be visiting the plants most frequently, although other ants were in the area.

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Ants weren't the only insects attracted to the nectaries of the dogwood flowers.

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Along with the usual wasps, flies and bees, there were also more unusual true bugs and beetles.

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A number of the smaller butterflies stopped by, including hairstreaks and blues.

It turns out azure butterflies in particular are attracted to these types of dogwoods and lay their eggs on them. What happens next? Of course, the ants tend the azure caterpillars! Nature Posts blog has an incredible series of photographs and videos of ants tending azure butterfly caterpillars.

Interested in planting a garden for ants or butterflies? You might want to consider planting some of the dogwoods (Cornus sp.)

Have you ever seen azure caterpillars on dogwoods? I am definitely going to be looking from now on.

 

Did you recognize the big yellow flower from the Wordless Wednesday post with the carpenter bee? This might give you a hint:

It was from a luffa or sponge gourd, Luffa aegyptiaca (previously named L. cylindrica.)

Why were the ants on the underside of the flower in the last photograph of that post? It turns out that the luffa plant has been crawling with rover ants, even before it started to flower.

For a clue, let's look at the underside of the luffa leaves. What are those green bumps on the leaf surface between the veins?

You might wonder if they are the leaf openings called stomata, but the stomata are the smaller dots.

Close up the bumps look like tiny green volcanoes.

Those are extrafloral nectaries, or EFNs. Extrafloral nectaries are nectar-producing glands found in areas of the plant outside of the flowers. Extrafloral nectaries occur in at least 66 different plant species and vary in size, shape and placement. The type of found in luffa are called "button-shaped."

Like the nectar produced in the floral nectaries, extrafloral nectar is a liquid solution of sugar in water, with trace amounts of amino acids. The nectar attracts many different kinds of insects, but ants are often the most common visitors. The ants often chase away or capture plant-feeding insects, thus protecting the plant.

This means we can add luffas to the list of plants that might be useful for gardening for ants.

For more information, see:

Vivek Mohan Agarwal and Neelkamal Rastogi. 2010. Ants as dominant insect visitors of the extrafloral nectaries of sponge gourd plant, Luffa cylindrica (L.) (Cucurbitaceae). Asian Myrmecology, 3, 45–54. (free .pdf available at the "Read full PDF" link after the abstract.)

Have you seen the journal Asian Myrmecology? Currently the articles are offered for free online at the website.