and how I learned to appreciate all the other “creepy crawlies” that dominate the world around us.
I was raised as a bird watcher. From a young age, I was counting visitors at the bird feeders, reading bird guides, and taking binoculars on family trips. As a birder, it’s safe to say that I was ignorant of nearly everything around me. I kept lists of bird species and the occasional mammal, but I knew almost nothing about the trees they were perching on and the insects they were eating. I dabbled in bird photography in high school, but I was never good.
Laurel Ladwig was the inspiration and COVID provided the opportunity. What do I mean? Back in 2021, I was recruited by Laurel to participate in the City Nature Challenge (2023 edition starts April 28). This was my introduction to iNaturalist and I noticed many plants and insects in my neighborhood for the first time. She also encouraged me to get The Bees In Your Backyard book, which opened my eyes to the diversity of native bees. Arizona and New Mexico each have other 1,000 known species!
COVID shutdowns provided the opportunity to work from home and spend more time in my garden. I started to pay attention to non-bird activity. I dusted off my Nikon D100 from high school and screwed on a 50mm macro lens. I took many mediocre pictures, but I was hooked. I had no idea so many critters were living in my garden. Seeing a new species and taking a clear, well composed photograph continues to provide rushes of excitement nearly two years later.
Elliott’s top reasons for observing and photographing invertebrates:
1) Striving for high quality photos that show all features necessary for identification
2) Documenting garden visitors as a tool to encourage other people to transform their yards into wildlife habitat
3) Distribution of many invertebrate species is poorly understood, so every sighting has the potential to be a new county or state record
The Cossidae, the cossid millers or carpenter millers, make up a family of mostly large miller moths. This family contains over 110 genera with almost 700 known species, and many more species await description. Carpenter millers are nocturnal Lepidoptera found worldwide, except the Southeast Asian subfamily Ratardinae, which is mostly active during the day.
This moth is found in California Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado and most likely in pine forest areas of northern Mexico.
Larvae feed on outer bark of ponderosa pine. I couldn’t find a caterpillar picture in this genus on iNaturalist. Here’s an example of another species in Family Cossidae.
According to Wikipedia: Saturniinae is a subfamily of the family Saturniidae. They are commonly known as emperor moths or wild silk moths. They are easily spotted by the eyespots on the upper surface of their wings. Some exhibit realistic eye-like markings, whilst others have adapted the eyespots to form crescent moon or angular shapes or have lost their wing scales to create transparent windows. They are medium to very large moths, with adult wingspans ranging from 7.5 to 15 cm, in some cases even more. They consist of some of the largest sized Lepidoptera, such as the luna moth, atlas moth, and many more.
If you’re reading this from New Mexico, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Grand Opening of Visitor Center and 10th Birthday is on Saturday, September 10th, about a month away. I hope you’ll join us!
I’ve dedicated more time to nocturnal critters this summer. It’s super rewarding to check the porch lights for moths and find a new one. So many cool insects hang out at night if you go and look.
There are plenty of diurnal critters too. Wasps (yes, wasps!) in all sizes and colors and a few new native bees for my yard list are among the highlights. It is lovely to sit outside with my camera, surrounded by nature. I enjoy watching bees collecting pollen, wasps hunting for a meal, and hummingbirds chasing each other.
What is your background? How did you first get interested in bees and gardening for wildlife?
From a young age I had been gardening and using permaculture techniques before I even learned the term. My maternal grandparents lived a block away, and they both were in their late teens when the Great Depression hit. When I was six, both my parents lost their jobs and we became really poor, and very food insecure, so my grandmother got to work. She had me helping her do work to grow fruits and vegetables in her garden. Most people did not realize how much of the yard was growing food for us. In back we had more organized food gardens. I continued gardening throughout my younger years; then in high school, I started working as a landscaper and helping friends and family install similar gardens, all the while being aware that areas needed to be cared for to support wildlife to help control pests and pollinate flowers.
These experiences simply paved the way for me to study biology at Humboldt State University and get a botany minor. Between my master’s and PhD, I worked in conservation, which really helped me grasp ecological niches, microhabitats, and looking at areas from the animal’s perspective. During my PhD, I focused on pollinator communities and worked on side projects with monarch butterflies. I went on to do my post-doctoral work at Cornell University working on bee communities in the Mojave Desert and their vegetation community associations, as well as large-scale solar farm impacts to those communities. After my post-doc, I worked as the preserve manager for Westchester Land Trust in New York, then moved onto consulting and permitting, which I do now, while still collecting data and publishing research and books.
Why did you decide to write a gardening book?
The short answer is because a few people told me I should. With my background in native bees, monarch butterflies, ecology, and conservation, I end up doing a lot of public speaking. I also enjoy reading gardening articles. Between these two things, I kept answering questions that were clearly based on incomplete or incorrect information, most of it printed in gardening articles and even coming from some conservation groups. My first book focused only on the arid regions of North America to help clarify some of the misinformation that is spread around. [Read my review of his first book here.]
Who is your intended audience? Anyone who has an interest in urban ecology, wildlife conservation, or gardening.
What piece of advice would you give to people wanting to start a pollinator garden?
Pollinator gardens should be viewed in context of their surrounding landscape and provide shelter, in addition to native plants for target species. For example, in densely populated urban areas where lawns are abundant and habitat is lacking, a small pollinator garden will not be accessible to bee species that have been driven away, nor will it support many bees overall. Therefore, providing an abundance of flowers for smaller generalist bees and butterfly host plants will be more useful than flowers that support just a few bee species or do not host any butterflies. Resources for nesting bees and pupating butterflies would have to be selected based on the region, but a few logs with holes drilled in always helps. Conversely in areas where there are more wild, plant-filled areas, pollinator gardens that use native plants uncommon in the area will help local pollinator communities because species dependent on those plants are likely still nearby. Viewing a garden from the landscape context is also helpful when trying to attract other wildlife like birds, toads, or even lizards.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
So much. In addition to the literal decades of studying, reading scientific literature, doing conservation work, new data collection, and gardening – I started compiling data for topics and reading various forums, print articles, and reviewing resources gardeners might be using. The most important research I did for this book was probably gathering the data for plant and bee associations, and their current ranges. For the bee species profiles I also reviewed a lot of literature searching to find what substrates each species nested in. I put these aspects together to provide specific information on what a pollinator garden that would “save the bees” really looks like, going beyond articles with native plant lists that benefit honeybees, not native bees.
For the articles that do talk about “bee hotels,” they inadvertently prioritize a nesting behavior used by about 30% of bees and rarely address proper size or care of those structures. There are very few articles that address ground nesting bees, which my new book covers; but promoting ground nesting bees is showing up more and more on online platforms, which is good to see.
Were there any surprise findings? What did you learn in the process?
The most surprising thing I found was how much we simply do not know about pollinators. I had been somewhat aware of the lack of data, but it wasn’t until I was trying to compile information that I really grasped the lack of data. For example, there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the continental United States, but researchers have described the nests of less than 500 species. Frustratingly, many of those descriptions do not characterize soil texture or document entrance solar exposure, both of which are important to nesting bees. So, in this book, soil diversity and structure are discussed to help cover different possibilities. Sandy soils are used more often by nesting bees than any other type of soil.
It was also shocking to see, and this is in the book too, that more than 50% of counties in the contiguous United States have fewer than five native bee species digitized as of 2020. We simply have not done a thorough survey. The data for which bee species feed on which plants are also lacking. Even in this book I could only report plant associations, and I explain this does not mean the bees will feed on those plants. When bee researchers collect bees, they often do not include notes on if the bees were collecting pollen, feeding on nectar, collecting oils, plant parts, or simply sitting on the plant. Most likely, the bees were feeding in one way or another, but the data simply do not exist for most bee species yet. Luckily, community science platforms like iNaturalist are improving our knowledge, but it is difficult to help gardeners choose plants for their gardens when we aren’t sure which bee species might be in the area.
All pictures by Shaun M. McCoshum, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Some answers edited for clarity and length. My thanks to Shaun for agreeing to be interviewed. – Elliott
Thank you for reading my review of “A short introduction to Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions” by Dr. Shaun McCoshum. If you are interested, the book is available for purchase on Amazon.com
With 29 full-size pages, this book is lightweight, but not light on content. It is specifically aimed at arid environments, which is refreshing given the lush, yet unrealistic, gardens portrayed on many websites. Even if we long for shady lawns, it’s irresponsible to maintain high water use landscaping in Arizona and New Mexico.
The book is essentially split into 5 sections: brainstorming/planning for your garden, reptiles, bees, butterflies, and birds. I would characterize this book as in between a do-it-yourself guide and a reference manual – it has explicit instructions for planning your space, lizard sunning spots, bee hotel, and water feature, but also leaves it open to the reader in terms of selecting plants and doing further research.
One of the strengths of the book is the knowledge Dr. McCoshum brings to the bee section. I love the discussion of ground-nesting bees, which are the majority of native bees in the world (and especially the desert southwest). The book addresses crucial elements of bee habitat in addition to the plants that they forage. Regarding the plant lists, you may want a wildflower book or Internet browser handy, as the names are largely in Latin.
Bottom line, I recommend this book. I think it will be most useful to people starting out, renovating part of a yard, or wanting to attract more of a specific kind of wildlife, like bees or lizards. It would make a great, not so subtle, gift to a neighbor who’s still hanging onto their lawn. You can hear more from Dr. McCoshum in this Youtube recording of a talk he gave for NMSU: https://youtu.be/Q6v6CLOui6c
The way that gardeners feel about moths and butterflies is often quite different, despite how closely related they are. We are happy to grow milkweed to attract Monarchs and allow the caterpillars to devour whole plants. Weed is in the name milkweed, so I think we value the plant more for its role in the Monarch’s life cycle. On the other hand, who ever heard of growing corn to attract Helicoverpa zea or tomatoes to encourage Manduca sexta?
Perhaps the most despised moth is the peach tree borer, which “bring major harm to important fruit-crop trees, destroying the tree’s vascular system through boring and girdling while inducing plant pathogens to invade the weakened tree” (Source). That’s terrible, right? How dare those selfish moths cripple our precious fruit trees?
Without further ado, I would like to introduce the Penstemon clearwing, also known as the Beardtongue borer.
Penstemonia is a genus of moths in western North America (presumably including northern Mexico) in the family Sessiidae (clearwing moths). [Quick sidenote: Hemaris clearwing moths are in the hawk moth family, Sphingidae.]
Clearwing moths often resemble wasps and bees in coloration and marking. They have elongate wings, often transparent owing to the lack of scales. Most of the larvae are borers in the limbs, trunks, bark, or roots of trees, shrubs, herbs and vines (like the infamous peach tree borer). Some bore in galls on woody or herbaceous plants. Majority of adults take nectar. [Source: bugguide.net]
What about our Penstemon clearwing?
There are at least 5 species of Penstemonia in North America. Larval feeding is probably limited to Penstemon or closely related plant species in Cheloneae. (I’ve discussed Penstemon plants on the blog before: https://pollinatorweb.com/meet-the-plants-more-beardtongues/). The larva will be found within a stem [or roots] at crown level and damage appears as a wilting or dieback of individual stems. Pupation is probably in the soil at the base of plants, but there is no description of them. [Source: Colorado State University Extension (colostate.edu)]
I have a feeling that populations of Penstemonia moths will start to increase and spread as more gardeners grow native, drought tolerant beardtongue plants. I hope you will welcome these pollinators into your yards with open arms.
Over recent decades, the plight of wild bees and other pollinators has gone from a niche area to one of the most mainstream environmental topics. Scientific research interest, capacity and consequently publications have grown tremendously in recent years, as has mainstream media coverage. The public has been engaged in a variety of ways to “save the bees” including through community science, policy consultation, planting of pollinator gardens and other widespread initiatives and campaigns … ‘Bee washing’, a term coined by MacIvor and Packer (2015), refers to items or actions claiming to support declining bee populations, and thus claiming to be pro-environment, without due diligence or scientific support … The crux of the matter is that when conservation actions are misplaced, as in the case with bee washing, they can actively harm populations meant to be conserved, waste limited resources (e.g. time, energy, money), misinform the public and/or de-legitimize scientific evidence.
Excerpts from Colla, S. R. (2022). The potential consequences of ‘bee washing’ on wild bee health and conservation.
In order to better protect wild bee health and biodiversity, conservation actions and policy will have to shift away from bee washing to more evidence-based, nuanced and precautionary approaches. Efforts should focus on reducing the reliance of systems on managed bees and reducing the impacts of managed bee use on wild bees. This will require policy which acknowledges and values the importance of wild bee health biodiversity for pollination services for crop plants and for resilience under climate change. Critical actions to protect wild bee health includes screening and monitoring of pathogens among commercial stock and in adjacent wild populations.
Excerpt from Colla, S. R. (2022). The potential consequences of ‘bee washing’ on wild bee health and conservation.
I joined iNaturalist in April 2021 to participate in the City Nature Challenge – 2022 edition is coming up soon! – and I had no idea at the time that it would be my go-to resource for appreciating and documenting the visitors in my pollinator garden. I was quickly drawn in by the many friendly and knowledgeable users and the potential to improve my understanding of the natural world. One year later, I’m delighted to reminisce and share highlights from my edible garden and native plant xeriscape. It has been a blast watching, photographing, and learning to identify hundreds of species of plants and animals. Please, join me for a celebration of diversity in my New Mexico neighborhood.
My journey to hosting a pollinator garden in Albuquerque began with an all but blank slate. The front yard was a sea of bare gravel plus cheatgrass, tumbleweeds, and goatheads, while the back featured 8 Russian olive trees and plenty of dandelions. In 2020, I decided to transform the landscaping and hired a local company to cut down the invasive trees. In their places, I planted Peach and Apple trees for fruit, Utah serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) and New Mexico olive (Forestiera pubescens) to feed songbirds, and Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) for shade and fall color. Thanks to the New Mexico Native Plants Society, Plants of the Southwest, Osuna Nursery, Hilltop Landscaping, the American Penstemon Society, and the ABQ Backyard Refuge Program, I found plenty of resources and support to select appropriate, drought-tolerant plants for my yard and begin to create habitat for wildlife.
Watching the Grass Grow
At the beginning of the project, I typically saw common city birds, lizards, bumblebees, rock squirrels, paper wasps, and not much else. It takes a while for new plants to get established and for neighborhood critters to (re)discover my yard. It’s all worth it now for moments like watching an American Robin eat serviceberries, a longhorn bee sleeping on a sunflower, or munching on a fresh apple that I grew.
When I started, I was familiar with common pollinators, like honeybees and hummingbirds, but there were so many branches of the Animal kingdom of which I wasn’t aware. (I’m doing a little better now and I hope you’ll scroll through some of our visual guides Insects – Pollinator Web.) By slowing down and observing with purpose, I find something new in the garden almost every day. It is both fun and frustrating to follow a little bee on her journey to collect pollen as I struggle to get clear pictures for identification.
By The Numbers
Honestly, I have been blown away by the diversity that can exist in 0.2-acres of land. We tend to think of deserts as arid and empty; in reality, Arizona and New Mexico combined have over 1,000 species of native bees plus more than 300 species of butterflies! I have recorded more than 600 yard species in the last 12 months, using iNaturalist. They include:
>100 species of cultivated plants, including 20 varieties of native trees and shrubs
59 butterflies and moths
50 ‘true bugs’ (Hemiptera)
47 volunteer plant species (“weeds” and wildflowers introduced by wind or animals)
12 crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids
New Mexico Whiptails and Southwestern Fence lizards
Flame Skimmer and Blue-fronted Dancer (dragonflies)
Imagine what we can do working together in our communities by planting yards full of flowers, instead of spraying chemicals and mowing lawns.
Every square inch of planet earth has ecological significance, even where we live, work, and play. If we landscape these areas with plant function as well as aesthetics in mind, we can create viable habitat where humans are, not just where humans are not … Today’s environmental challenges are so enormous that it is easy to feel helpless, as if one person can’t make a difference – despite the cliché that suggests you can. In this case, however, the cliché is right on: by choosing ecologically-effective plants for your landscape, by shrinking your lawn, and by removing your invasive ornamentals – all actions a single person can take – you will be able to make a difference that you can see, and enjoy, almost immediately. Life will return to your property!
It’s larval food plants are mostly oak trees and some Manzanita species in Arizona and Mexico. The caterpillar is small and hairy like adults and it would be really cool to find one in the wild, so please let us know if you see any!