Top 2017 Discoveries in Our Humane Garden

Image of mourning cloak butterfly

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

Image of Trogus pennator 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

Image of cardinal carrying Abbott's sphinx moth

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

Image of blister beetle with fire-colored beetles

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

Image of fawn by patio

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

Image of scarlet tanagerWhen 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

Image of gray tree frog

Image of gray tree frog

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

Image of crow with bread in birdbath

Image of crow with bun in birdbathOur 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)

10 thoughts on “Top 2017 Discoveries in Our Humane Garden”

  1. We have many scarlet tanagers that spend the summer in our woods here in Garrett County, Maryland. But this past summer we had a nesting pair that came to share our blueberries with their baby birds! They were here for a two months and we got to watch them sit on the garden fence waiting for the blueberries to ripen. Then they started picking them and taking them back to their nest – what a treat! They like it here because we have 20 wooded acres surrounded by thousands of other wooded acres – the perfect habitat for lots of different birds.

    1. Hi Linda! Wow, that’s really amazing! What a treat to be able to watch them feasting on your blueberries. Now I want to try growing blueberries again! I’ve never been successful with them here. One year we got exactly one flower that produced one berry (which of course I left for the birds), so it must be possible. 🙂

      1. Hi Nancy, it may be too warm down there, but I have blueberries ripening over a 6 week period from 10 bushes! I get tons of berries and freeze many to enjoy throughout the year. They are very easy to grow as long as you get really good bushes, preferably from Michigan. The native mason bees that show up to pollinate them are amazing, as they bloom when it is still pretty cold out. Even with the robins and scarlet tanagers helping themselves, there are tons more for us! Yes, you need to get some blueberry bushes!

  2. Hi Nancy! Happy New Year and warmest wishes! We can successfully grow lusty blueberry bushes down here in Texas by potting them up in big tree pots (in the eastern third of the state we even have blueberry farms and blueberry plots in-ground because the soil acidity and moisture is just right for low-bush). In the tree pots, you can easily control the acidity, humus and moisture. They make wonderful accents for a landscape, too. And remember to plant several in the sunshine (better flowering and cross-pollination). Carrie McLaughlin, Texas Pollinator PowWow

    1. Hi Carrie! Happy New Year to you, too! I’m thinking it might be both the soil and a shade issue here, so if I get the time I will try that! I have three that I put in the same spot near an ash tree maybe four or five years ago, thinking the tree would not be here forever (and sure enough, it has split down the middle). I was trying to plan for the future when there would be more light, but instead the tree has cast more and more shade, and those little blueberries have just sat there, not dying but not thriving and not growing at all. I was going to give them away, as this has been my third attempt in different spots, but maybe I will see what happens in a pot. 🙂 I’m not sure when the ash tree will give up, but we haven’t had the heart to take it down, and tree companies aren’t permitted to make ash trees into snags here because of the emerald ash borer (though we’ve still seen no signs of it).

  3. Ms. Lawson:
    I am a big fan of your sensible articles about promoting wildlife near our homes. Only our dogs and kids need a lawn to play on.

    As to your blueberries under your ash tree. You would be wise to take a soil sample to your county extension office to check the pH.

    I know the blueberry needs an acid soil to do well, and I think the ash is doing well in an alkaline soil. Check it out. You need to feed the plants with suitable conditions, just as you are doing for the pollinators and animals.

    Keep up the good work. We look forward to your encouraging articles.

    1. Hi Joe!

      Thanks so much. I’m so happy you find the articles helpful!

      And I think you are right about the blueberries. I’m pretty sure I put them there in a kind of holding pattern, hoping for the best but figuring I could move them if I could find a spot with the right conditions. We do have maybe one spot with acidic soil, but it is very shady now. I tend to want to plant plants that fit the soil, rather than amending the soil to suit the plants … but this does mean there are a few things that don’t do as well. Maybe this summer I’ll make an attitude adjustment and move the blueberries and try something more proactive. 🙂

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