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
Senegalia greggii (formerly Acacia greggii) is native to the southwestern united states and northern Mexico at elevations below 4500′. It’s a large thorny shrub or small tree growing to 20′ tall. Flowers are fragrant. Full to part sun, low water and hardy to 0 degrees F.
Flowering Season: J F M A M J J A S O N D
Sonoran Desert Native, great nectar plant, attracts native birds and super larval host plant:
Mexican Yellow (Eurema mexicana)
Mimosa Yellow (Eurema nise)
Reakirt’s Blue (Echinargus isola)
Marine Blue (Leptotes marina)
Hubbard’s Small Silkmoth (Sphingicampa hubbardi)
Tricolor Buckmoth (Hemileuca tricolor),
Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata),
Owlet Moths (family Noctuidae)
Mesquite Stinger Flannel Moth (Norape tenera),
Naval Orange Worm Moth (Amyelois transitella)
Merry Melipotis Moth (Melipotis jucunda)
Common names include catclaw acacia, catclaw mesquite, Gregg’s catclaw, paradise flower, wait-a-minute bush, and wait-a-bit tree; these names mostly come from the fact that the tree has numerous hooked prickles with the shape and size of a cat‘s claw which tend to hook onto passers-by; the hooked person must stop (“wait a minute”) to remove the prickles carefully to avoid injury or shredded clothing.
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.
7June22 Plants in the garden, and sharing plants from the neighbor’s garden
Most urban and suburban lots are small relative to the natural tracts of native habitat, so there are limits to what we can plant, both in size and variety.
And, it turns out, putting your yard into context with the nearest forage/host area is quite important because many insects are limited in how far they can travel for food and lodging. To some, a football field of length can push limits of mobility.
So if you are close enough to a natural area that you can leverage it’s resources, fantastic! Add one or two specimens of various native plants can still get you to critical mass if considered as shared resources with the natural area. Same goes for sharing other resources, like water and nesting habitat.
Similarly, you can view the plants and other resources in your neighbor’s yards as something to be shared by the pollinator web of animals.
The neighbor behind us has a large Sissoo tree (not a tree that I would recommend), and the birds love the height and cover it affords. Good thing, because our backyard is only 2 years old, and even our fast growing mesquite and palo verdes need a bit more time to become truly comfortable perches.
Other neighbors have citrus, hibiscus and Arizona Yellow Bells to share. Let’s look at how some of the plants in and around the garden are looking on this 109 degree day.
I’ve found some interesting bees on the sunflowers, but no butterflies so far. On the non-pollinator side of things though, the sunflowers attract a wide array of insects from lace bugs, psyllids, long legged flies, assassin bugs and lady beetles! Oh, and birds eating the insects off of the leaves.
7June22 Blood-colored Milkweed Bug, Tarantula Hawk Wasp, Queen Butterfly, Ceraunus Blue Butterfly, Great Horned Owl
The beauty of a pollinator garden is a two-edged wand:
The reward of knowing you are contributing to the health of the ecosystem that you inhabit
The treasure hunt of discovering the web of characters that visit your paradise
In the previous installments of this post I presented the blank slate layout of our garden along with the ideas that drove the implementation of the garden. In these next installments I’ll be sharing the visitors to the garden, and in the process also showing the plants and structures that define the spaces.
Although it may appear that your garden has only one or two varieties of milkweed bugs, closer observation is likely to reveal more diversity. Our garden also has Large Milkweed Bugs, Water Small Milkweed Bugs and Southern Small Milkweed bugs.
These wasps can be quite intimidating, flying like military helicopters in the garden, but they take little interest in humans. They do seem to love the Desert Milkweeds (Asclepius subulata) and Desert Willows. As the name implies, these wasps hunt tarantulas, and there must be a lot of tarantulas around because the garden is currently a-buzz with these wasps. I love tarantulas, so I’m keeping the faith that eco-balance is holding steady.
So if there is any doubt about the versatility of milkweeds in the garden, it should be apparent at this point that they serve as more than host plants for Monarch and Queen butterflies.
Queens are aptly named, so regal and beautiful! Last year I “rescued” a caterpillar right before a cold snap and raised it indoors: The Making of a Queen.
Blues are tiny wonders in the garden, and you need to be up close to appreciate their beauty and differences. The top side of the wings are blue for males, but females vary from blue to silvery-blue to brown. Host plants for the Ceraunus Blue include legumes like Mesquites and Acacias.
Also known as the “tiger of the air” this owl primarily hunts rabbits and hares, rats and mice, and voles. One look at those talons and it’s clear this is a very capable predator, and it will hunt whatever it can overtake.
I was very excited to see this owl swoop into the tree during daylight hours, and even more fortunate to have camera at hand. Local nesting birds were pestering the owl, trying to protect their nests I would guess, but the owl was unflappable and stayed in the same spot for hours.
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.