As a human in the modern world, I’m experiencing a bit of habitat envy. I crave more chances to sleep longer, pick my own fruit, and curl up with loved ones under a tree. If the universe determined our fates based on personalities and preferences, I’d likely be assigned to sloth-hood: slow-moving, plant-eating, tree-dwelling. The bumblebee lifestyle would be a good fit, too, allowing me to visit flowers all day and cozy up with family at night.
But I’m not complaining. This year has yielded extraordinary opportunities to spread the word about the importance of caring for wild plants and animals in our backyards. If it’s meant less time in my own garden, I don’t regret it. And I’ve learned to live vicariously through the creatures taking shelter there. Even brief strolls through our little oasis have brought countless insights into their often hidden world. Follow along as I recap 11 unforgettable moments in our 2017 humane garden.
1. The Eclipse Wasp
When her iridescent blue wings close, she is twilight. When they open, she’s as brilliant as the sun. How fitting, then, that I first discovered this otherworldly wasp in my garden just as the solar eclipse was starting on the afternoon of August 21. The sight of such a brilliant animal just feet from the ground was even more spectacular than anything I could have spied in the sky. Known scientifically as Trogus pennator, she appeared to have no common name, so I dubbed her the eclipse wasp. Harmless to us, she has an unusual nesting site: the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies. She injects a single egg into each caterpillar she finds; when the egg hatches, the wasp larva feeds on and eventually kills her host. To those who find this gutting of butterfly babies distasteful, I suggest remembering that birds devour caterpillars, too, and we don’t hold their predatory ways against them.
2. The Devoted and Drenched Dad
A summer downpour didn’t stop this papa cardinal, spotted one day through a screen door to our deck, from feeding his hungry family. Wondering about the identity of the unlucky soul about to end up in a baby bird’s belly, I checked my copy of Caterpillars of Eastern North America and discovered his name: Abbott’s sphinx moth caterpillar. Though I’d never seen one before, I guessed that we had plenty, as this species’ host plants—grape and Virginia creeper—proliferate in our gardens. Most chicks need an abundance of caterpillars in their diets, so these volunteer vines provide a plethora of baby food to young bird families.
3. The Superman Ant on a Mission
Taking a quick break from writing to refresh the birdbaths one day, I happened upon a familiar-looking butterfly skating oddly across our patio. Closer inspection revealed an ant carrying the wing of a silver-spotted skipper. How that butterfly met her demise, I’m not sure, but the scavenging ants made sure she did not die in vain.
4. The Hitchhikers
At first glance, this might look like the opossum of the insect world, a devoted mama carrying young ones on her back. That’s what my husband, Will, and I assumed when we came upon this scene under our ash tree last spring. But the diminutive hitchhikers are no mini-mes. They’re a completely different species. Called fire-colored beetles, they are attracted to cantharidin, a caustic chemical exuded by the larger blister beetle to deter predators. The tiny passengers may lick, chew or nip to extract the coveted potion, which some beetle species pass along to females while mating to confer protection to their offspring, according to the book Beetles of Eastern North America.
5. The Special Delivery
Whenever Will says, “Nancy, come here and look at something, and come quietly,” I know I’m in for a treat. This time it was a special delivery in the patio garden right outside our basement door. All our outdoor plans ceased that late spring week; we barely set foot into the backyard for fear of disturbing this newborn fawn. Except to stand, stretch and turn around, she didn’t move much either. We knew her mother must be close by, calling her baby to nurse but otherwise keeping her distance to avoid attracting predators. We saw no signs of distress—no crying, no flies, no indication of discomfort or confusion. Still, I couldn’t help but worry. Just as I started to wonder aloud if we should be concerned about her well-being, we woke up one morning to find our baby had left as quietly as she’d arrived. She was strong enough now to join her mother, who would find new spots to hide her precious cargo each day and plenty of food for her family in our deer-friendly garden.
6. The Buzz That Fell on Half-Deaf Ears
Being half-deaf all my life, I’ve missed a lot. Punchlines elude me amid roaring laughter, and having them repeated to me is of no use when I’ve already missed half the joke. But maybe this forced tuning-out of human noise has given me more sensitivity to nature’s music, including the dramatic soundtrack of bumblebee buzz pollination. Turn up the volume on the video, and between the lower drone of wing flapping, you’ll hear it, too: the distinctive high pitch of the bee’s flight muscles vibrating at a rapid clip to shake the pollen out of the anthers of this wild senna. It’s an amazing trick that some flowers—including those of tomatoes, blueberries and other human food crops—require for pollination. Only some bees can perform it, though, and the honeybee, a domesticated animal originally introduced from Europe, isn’t among them. We’d be awfully hungry without our buzz-pollinating wild friends—yet another reason to skip the hives in favor of nurturing habitat for the native bees already in our midst.
7. The Bird Who Thought Our Yard Was a Forest
When this scarlet tanager joined our happy hour one evening in the height of summer, I knew it was a rare event. Little did I know how rare until I posted the photo and received responses from avid birders saying they had yet to spot one on their treks through the woods. Described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “frustratingly hard to find” because of their preference for high canopies of “large, undisturbed tracts of forest,” scarlet tanagers seem unlikely candidates for suburban backyard stopovers. This one kept us company for at least 20 minutes while feasting on the ripening fruit of staghorn sumac trees.
8. The Ant Hill That Wasn’t an Ant Hill
I’d read about it, written about it, and seen it from a distance in the past. But until this summer, I’d never actually gotten close enough to photograph a ground-nesting bee emerging from her hole, gathering pollen, and returning to her nest repeatedly. That seems strange in retrospect, since these soil dwellers are everywhere, comprising about 70 percent of our 4,000 or so native bee species in North America. They’re generally small and solitary, so it takes patience and a zoom lens to stake out such minifauna. One helpful clue to their whereabouts is the presence of mounds that look like anthills. Though they work alone, many bees create these nests near each other; I found mine along the edge of a mowed path that runs through our meadow down to the compost pile.
9. The Frog Who Thought He Was in a Jungle
As their name implies, tree frogs like to hang out high in the canopy. And sure enough, their vocalizations led my binocular-aided eyes to one atop a sassafras tree this summer. But sometimes the diminutive frogs descend to much lower altitudes during breeding season, seeming to take a particular liking to our potted rubber trees. In mid-May, just hours after I’d moved a few from their winter home in the basement to their summer spot on the patio, this little guy made himself right at home atop one of the sturdy leaves. Thin-skinned amphibians are especially vulnerable to the onslaught of chemicals and power equipment in a typical home landscape, so I feel especially protective of each one I find.
10. The Hamburglar Bun Gourmand
Our birdbaths serve many purposes: quenching animals’ thirst, helping birds clean their feathers, and—apparently—giving crow connoisseurs a place to prepare their meals. This hamburger bun of unknown origins got a thorough soaking last March before the bird took off with the dripping mass gripped firmly in his beak. Was he cleaning off the human refuse before deigning to eat it himself? Was he softening it up to make it more palatable? Theories abound, but this is a common behavior among our highly intelligent feathered friends. I’m just happy I got to see it, even if through a fuzzy window screen.
11. The Plant That Inspired Our Neighbor to Go Wild
How many species can one plant support? At some point we stopped counting, but our neighbor walked by when we were still trying. “What is this plant called?” she asked. “Can you give me some seeds?” I was surprised by the sudden interest. She’d never wanted tall plants but didn’t seem to care that this boneset towered above her. She’d never wanted prolific spreaders but could clearly see this self-starter had sprouted from a crack in our driveway. What sold my friend on Eupatorium serotinum? It certainly wasn’t me. Nothing I can say comes close to the sales pitch made by the bees, butterflies, mating wasps, bee flies, and moths crowding every bloom each summer. The moment confirmed my belief that wildlife of all kinds are the best ambassadors for the native plants that sustain them. We just need to have the courage to let them shine in our gardens for all the world to see.
Featured images, top: Tachinid flies also use caterpillars as a nesting site; when eggs hatch, the fly larvae feed on the caterpillars. Despite all this predation on baby butterflies and moths, we have dozens of winged beauties making it to adulthood in our garden, including the mourning cloak who emerged from winter dormancy in early March. (All photos by Nancy Lawson and Will Heinz)