One Year in my Pollinator Garden

Painted Lady visits apple blossoms (Vanessa cardui on Malus domestica)

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.

3 varieties of sunflowers (Helianthus) blooming in summer 2021

Getting Started

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.

Habronattus festus jumping spider

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.

Large-tailed Aphideater (Eupeodes volucris hoverfly) on Arugula

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.

Tripartite Sweat Bee on Scorpionweed (Halictus tripartitus on Phacelia integrifolia)

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
  • 75 bees
  • 59 butterflies and moths
  • 59 birds
  • 58 flies
  • 50 ‘true bugs’ (Hemiptera)
  • 47 volunteer plant species (“weeds” and wildflowers introduced by wind or animals)
  • 45 wasps
  • 37 beetles
  • 21 spiders
  • 12 crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids
  • 11 ants
  • New Mexico Whiptails and Southwestern Fence lizards
  • Flame Skimmer and Blue-fronted Dancer (dragonflies)
  • 2 springtails
  • 1 mayfly!
An unexpected mayfly showed up as I was leaving for work last year

Closing Thoughts

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!

Quote from Doug Tallamy
Lewis’ Soldier Beetles were abundant in fall 2021 on snakeweed, goldenweed, and Chamisa

Glamorous Moths #4 – Southern Flannel Moth

Wide ranging across the southern USA and northern Mexico, the Southern Flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis, is this week’s featured moth. Read more here, if you’re interested: Megalopyge opercularis (ufl.edu). Flannel moths are in Superfamily Zygaenoidea with Jewel Caterpillar moths, like Dalcerides.

Male Megalopyge opercularis by Judy Aschner on iNaturalist.org

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!

Southern Flannel caterpillar by Diana Foreman on iNaturalist.org

The Ladies and a Gentleman

Painted Lady, American Lady, West Coast Lady and Red Admiral Butterflies

Brush-footed butterflies belonging to the genus Vanessa, the name of the genus may have been taken from the character Vanessa in Jonathan Swift’s poem “Cadenus and Vanessa,” which is the source of the woman’s name Vanessa. In the poem Vanessa is called a “nymph” eleven times, and the genus is closely related to the previously-named genus Nymphalis (Wikipedia).

Painted Lady

The Painted Lady, Vanessa cardul, is the most widespread of all butterfly species, and, like the Monarch, has an amazing migratory story to tell.

Distinguishing features include 4-5 submarginal spots on the underside of the wing, and a white outline at the outer edges of the top of the wing near the white spots.

Larval host plants include Arizona Thistle, Desert Cotton, Globemallows, Western Betony, Mexican Sunflower Bush, Yarrow and Western Mugwort. Adults feed on nectar.

Males perch on shrubs or hilltops and patrol for females. Females are generally larger than males.

Females lay eggs singly on the top of host plant leaves. Caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves tied with silk. Adults hibernate in mild winters.

West Coast Lady

The West Coast Lady, Vanessa annabella, are the least ranging of the Vanessa species in the continental U.S. In fact, it’s typically limited to the Western part of the country.

Distinguishing features include an orange patch at the top outer edge of the wing on the top side and 4-5 submarginal spots on the underside.

Larval host plants include Globemallows, Hollyhocks and other plants in the mallow family. Adults feed on nectar.

Males perch to watch for receptive females. Females lay eggs singly on upperside of host plant leaves; caterpillars eat leaves and live in a silken nest. Adults hibernate.

American Lady

The American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis, reside in the Southern United States and temporarily colonize the northern states.

Distinguishing features include two large eye spots on the underside of the wing, and a white spot in the orange field on the topside of the wing.

Larval host plants include Globemallows, Western Mugwort, Sonoran Everlasting and Groundsel. Adults feed on nectar.

In the afternoon, males perch on hilltops or vegetation to patrol for females.

Females lay eggs singly on the top of host plant leaves. Caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves tied with silk. Adults hibernate.

photo by justmarys on iNaturalist

Red Admiral

The Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, is wide ranging from Mexico up to Canada, but cannot survive cold winters so most of the northern U.S. is recolonized each spring by southern migrants.

Markings are quite easy to distinguish from the Ladies. Red admirals are territorial; females will only mate with males that hold territory. 

photo by burkardleitner on iNaturalist

Larval host plants include New Mexico Hops and plants in the nettles family.

The Red Admiral has a very erratic, rapid flight. Males perch, on ridgetops if available, in the afternoon to wait for females, who lay eggs singly on the tops of host plant leaves. Young caterpillars eat and live within a shelter of folded leaves; older caterpillars make a nest of leaves tied together with silk. Adults hibernate.

Resources

Meet the Plants: More Beardtongues

Common southwest species include Beardlip/Scarlet bugler (top row, 2nd from left), Palmer’s beardtongue (top, 3rd from right), and Rocky Mountain beardtongue (bottom row, 2nd from right).

I previously shared a few common garden Penstemon in this post. Yesterday, I was watching a talk on Penstemon by Dr. Andi Wolfe (Ohio State University) and she has some beautiful slides. Please enjoy this look at Penstemon diversity.

The shape and size of Penstemon flowers varies dramatically. Top row, second from the left, is Penstemon barbatus, a common wild and garden plant in Arizona and New Mexico.
Botanists use the anthers (male reproductive organs) of Penstemon flowers to classify species.
In the bottom of most Penstemon flowers is the staminode aka beardtongue. One theory states that this provides a landing platform for bees to enter the flowers.

Glamorous Moths #3 – ‘Colorado’ Yucca Moth

This is the third post in a semi-regular series of interesting, colorful, and unique moths of Arizona and New Mexico. Today, I’d like to introduce you to yucca moths.

Prodoxus coloradensis © BJ Stacey on iNaturalist.org

Yucca moths are in the Family Prodoxidae and found across the USA and Mexico. They are a spring and summer moth, timing their flights with blooms of different plants in the Agave family (Asparagaceae). Prodoxus coloradensis is found from southern California to West Texas and north along the front range of Colorado. It’s black stripes are a bold contrast to many plain, white yucca moth species.

Yucca moth caterpillar © Bill Harms on iNaturalist.org

Like all desert blooms, Joshua trees depend on just the perfect conditions: well-timed rains, and for the Joshua tree, a crisp winter freeze. Researchers believe that freezing temperatures may damage the growing end of a branch and stimulate flowering, followed by branching. You may notice some Joshua trees grow like straight stalks; these trees have never bloomed—which is why they are branchless! In addition to ideal weather, the pollination of flowers requires a visit from the yucca moth. The moth collects pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower ovary. As seeds develop and mature, the eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on the seeds. The tree relies on the moth for pollination and the moth relies on the tree for a few seeds for her young—a happy symbiosis. 

Source: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm

The Gulf Fritillary Butterfly

The Gulf fritillary or passion butterfly (Agraulis vanillae/Dione vanillae) is a bright orange butterfly in the subfamily Heliconiinae of the family Nymphalidae.

Females are generally larger and have more brown in their markings. Gulf fritillaries have a chemical defense mechanism in which they release odorous chemicals in response to predator sightings. As a result, common predators learn to avoid this species.

Gulf Fritillaries have several broods in spring and summer, and can survive winter temperatures as low as 21 degrees F. Adults overwinter.

Favorite nectar plants include Lantana, Butterfly Bush, Zinnia, Aster and Thistle.

Yellow eggs are laid singly on or near some species of Passion Vines like Maypops (Passiflora incarnata), Passiflora lutea and Passiflora affinis. Eggs gradually turn a brownish-red color.

Left: A Gulf Fritillary nectaring on Lantana

Suitable host plant species provide a good structure for larval host habitats which enables young populations of gulf fritillaries to be sufficiently nurtured and protected.

The driving factor behind what causes the female to oviposit on or near the host plant is most likely due to the certain chemical composition of the specific genus of the host plant. Once the female recognizes the chemical composition (by using the antennae), the female will oviposit.

Larvae may feed on all parts of the plant and can rapidly defoliate host vines.

Right: Caterpillar on Bluecrown Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)

Gulf Fritillary and chrysalis

When the caterpillar is ready to create a chrysalis, it turns a grayish color and begins to spin a silk-like ball that it uses to attach to a surface.

The pupa is mottled brown and resembles a dead leaf.

Lifecycle:
Egg stage – 4 to 8 days
Caterpillar – 2 to 3 weeks
Chrysalis – 5 to 10 days
Butterfly – 2 to 4 weeks

Resources:

Butterflies at Home

University of Florida

Wikipedia

ButterfliesAndMoths.org

Glamorous Moths #2 – White-lined Sphinx

This is the second post in a semi-regular series of interesting, colorful, and unique moths of Arizona and New Mexico. Today’s inspiration comes from a brief encounter last Friday. I was at an orchard and a White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), was getting nectar from plum flowers mid-afternoon.

Hyles lineata visiting Lantana in Phoenix © George Roark

These strong fliers are members of Family Sphingidae – the sphinx, hawk, and hummingbird moths. They are active at dusk (occasionally daytime) and can hover like hummingbirds instead of landing on flowers.

“Hornworm” caterpillar of Hyles lineata © Kevin Faccenda on iNaturalist.org

This insect has a wide host range. Some of the plants utilized as host plants in the Midwest include apple, evening primrose (Oenothera spp.), four-o’clocks (the common annual Mirabilis jalapa and wild four-o’clock, M. nyctaginea), fuchsia, Gaura lindheimeri, grape, pentas, purslane, tomato, and willow-weed (Epilobium). Other native plants are used elsewhere, such as sand verbena (Abronia umbellate), wishbone plant (Mirabilis californica and other species of Mirabilis), and brown-eyed evening primrose (Camissonia claviformis ssp. piersonii) in the desert Southwest and toothed spurge (Euphorbia dentate) in Texas.

Source: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/white-lined-sphinx-moth-hyles-lineata/

Glamorous Moths #1 – Dalcerides ingenita

This is the first post in a new, semi-regular series of interesting, colorful, and unique moths of Arizona and New Mexico. The first post is inspired by Ronald Parry’s talk I saw on Zoom last week (recording here on Youtube). In the USA, the label “moths” represent over 90% of all Lepidoptera species, but butterflies get most of the attention. We can save the Monarchs and appreciate/support their overlooked “cousins” too!

Dalcerides ingenita caught in Gila National Forest, NM © Ronald Parry

Dalcerides ingenita (no common name yet) is the only species in the moth family Dalceridae that makes it north of the USA-Mexico border. The caterpillars are covered in a gelatinous material to deter parasites and predators. The larval host plants are manzanita and native Emory’s and Blue oaks.

Monarchs Are on Their Way

Monarchs leave their Mexican roosts in the second week of March

For those of us in the South, Monarchs are already creating the 1st generation of the year, moving north from Mexico and laying eggs on milkweed plants. These Monarchs have had an incredible journey in their migration south in the fall, and now they work to create the generation that will recolonize the southern United States.

The Monarchs develop from egg to adult in about 30 days:

  • Eggs hatch in about 4 days. Females lay one egg on a plant; in their lifetime they will lay 100-300 eggs.
  • Caterpillars go through five instars in about 14 days. When they first hatch, caterpillars eat the egg shell for nourishment. Similarly, they eat shed skin after every molt.
  • Chrysalis stage is about 14 days

The overwintering generation lives about eight months due to a biologic change that stops reproductive behavior during their migration south. The summer generations of the butterfly live only three to five weeks.

Resources

Monarchwatch Migration and Tagging

Monarchwatch Biology

Great Purple Hairstreak

Family Lycaenida, Gossamer Wing Butterflies – Jewels of the Insect World

Also known as the Great Blue Hairstreak, Atlides halesus is one of the largest gossamer wing butterflies, but it’s solitary and uncommon. The caterpillars feed on mistletoes (Phoradendron spp.) and there are several broods during the year.

The best time to view the Great Purple Hairstreak is whenever Desert Broom or Seep Willow are in bloom, although I just observed on in the backyard enjoying the nectar of Desert Marigold:

Female nectaring on Desert Marigold in March
Male Great Purple Hairstreak (iridescent blue streak on the underside of the front wing)

Lifecycle

  • Egg – 4 to 6 days
  • Caterpillar – 3 to 4 weeks
  • Chrysalis – 10 to 20 days
  • Adult – 4 to 10 days

Caterpillars are unremarkable in color (mostly match the mistletoe host) and about 1″ long. The species gains protective toxins from their larval host plants that stay in their system into adulthood. Adult butterflies have their orange and black colorings to signal the protective toxins and even have a behavior of rubbing their wings together. This draws attention to the markings on their back wings that serve as a “false head.”

The larvae pupate in well-protected areas close to the base of the tree, under pieces of bark or fallen leaves.

In the spring, male butterflies compete for the right to occupy the highest point in a territory in order to attract a female.

Resources:

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Butterflies

Butterflies at Home

Wikepedia

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Arizonensis

University of Florida: Featured Critters