biodversity in the garden

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium)

Yesterday, robin from Dharma Bums commented:

Someday, if you haven’t already done so, maybe you could tell us what you planted to attract all these incredible spiders into your spider garden. You do have such an inspiring diversity of species there.

Shortly after I began this blog, I wrote a post entitled Thirty Years Later that does explain how our land has changed over time. Sometime very soon – perhaps next week, I’ll post some photos taken at various locations around the property to give some idea of the habitat here. However, today, I thought it might be useful to write something about how one could go about creating biodiversity in a garden. This is just something short and more a starting point than a how-to-do-it treatise.

Flower crab spider, most probably Misumenops asperatus on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

When I first began photographing insects, I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the plants where each one was found. I believe I may have thought that it was just “luck” that I found a certain insect. It took at least a few weeks before I realized just how strong the connection was between plants and insects, and that I could make use of that connection when searching for a particular creature. Insects that are found around a particular plant are called “associates”. They may be attracted to it because they feed upon it, but they might just like to perch or hide on it, or perhaps it’s where their favourite prey hangs out. In any case, it really was an earth-shaking moment for me as I realized just how important it was for me to understand the connection between plants and insects.

As described in the Thirty Years Later post, we didn’t really do much in the way of plantings other than trying to plant a good variety of trees. Instead, we let the old fencerows around the farm grow wild, and didn’t do too much cutting of the pastures after we stopped growing hay and grain for our horses and a large herd of dairy goats (now long gone). When planting trees, we left many areas of pasture open as there are certain birds and insects that require the habitat of grasslands or oldfield pastures. In the gardens around the house, we have a mix of cultivated plants, and of native and non-native “wild plants”. Of the cultivated plants, they include mainly rugosa roses, day lilies, peonies, a variety of perennials such as phlox, delphiniums, and pink turtlehead, hostas, and bushes such as hydrangea, lilac, highbush cranberry, and elderberry. Of the wild plants (native and non-native), the most useful for attracting insects are Common Milkweed, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, Daisies, Black-eyed Susans, Asters, Mullein, Virginia Creeper vines, Wild Cucumber, and a few different species of ferns. By far and away, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the best plant I can think of to attract an amazing variety of insects and spiders. I’m just now beginning to try to create a list of all of the creatures I commonly find on milkweed, but I can already tell you that it will be a very long list. As well, Common Milkweed is a critical plant for Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), so that alone is enough reason to have some in your garden if you’re interested in wild plantings.

unidentified Katydid on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Returning to the idea of “plant associates”, I try to read up on certain insects that I would like to see, and then look on the plants where they are likely to be found. If I wanted to see a certain insect — say, a certain species of butterfly or moth — then I’d be sure to plant its larval food somewhere in the garden. For example, Black Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) larvae eat parsley, dill, carrot, and Queen Anne’s Lace, so I would be sure to plant those if I wanted to see the butterflies around my garden. As far as reference material goes, good insect field guides should provide information on food plants for each species. Those interested in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), should consult David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America. He provides plenty of information on the food plants of almost all species covered in the book. Likewise, The Butterflies of Canada by Layberry, Hall and Lafontaine, describes both the habitat of each species, along with typical foods (see the “Early Stages” entry for each species). For those who are truly interested in learning about plant and insect relationships, there’s a very nice series of books written by John Eastman and illustrated by Amelia Hansen — these are simple field guides with ink drawings of plants, shrubs and trees. There’s an “associates” section for each plant. I’ve found the books quite helpful, particularly in the case of figuring out which larvae, eggs, galls, etc.. are found on a particular plant. Unfortunately, these books are intended for use in Eastern North America, but I’m guessing there are equivalents for other regions as well. A couple of their titles on my own shelf are The Book of Forest and Thicket and The Book of Swamp and Bog. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy of The Book of Field and Roadside. I expect that last one might be very useful to someone attempting to create an oldfield type of garden. That’s pretty much what my own garden is — a sort of “oldfield meadow” which surrounds our house, and is bordered by conifers. Again, I’ll try to put together a post that is sort of a “grand tour” of our gardens very soon.

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14 Responses to “biodversity in the garden”

  1. Patrick Says:

    That Dogbane Beetle photo is stunning. I have all three of the Eastman books and I love them. They are great references and interesting reading material.

  2. DougT Says:

    Dogbane beetles are one of my favorites. I posted a photo of one that I took on Yours puts mine completely to shame. Do you ever post photos there?

  3. bev Says:

    Patrick – Thanks! I agree about the Eastman books – they contain a lot of good info.

    Doug – Dogbane beetles are one of my favorites too. It was nice to find this one yesterday when I was checking the dogbane patch for insects. Thanks re: the photo. I have posted some of my photos to, but haven’t kept up with it (although I should). I have such a slow net connection that it’s difficult to keep up with uploading images onto my blog and also into my pbase galleries. I sort of fell down trying to upload to too. If I ever get a better net connection, I’ll definitely make a point of contributing images again as I think bugguide is such a great service for the naturalist community.

  4. Cathy Says:

    Yes, the Dogbane beetle is a stunner. The Katydid wins my heart.

    “Old Field Pasture” “Old Field Meadow” Such evocative phrases. I think there’s a poem due here, Bev.

  5. Wren Says:

    I have to join the chorus in praise of the dogbane beetle photo. I’d never heard of it before today, more’s the pity.

  6. bev Says:

    Cathy – I really liked the katydid photo. Unfortunately, the compressed version of the photo doesn’t quite cut it as far as capturing the green of the katydid in the original image. I like “old field” too – has a sort of antiquated feel – and also describes such an interesting and much-overlooked habitat.

    Wren – Thanks! They’re really very beautiful beetles. If you find a patch of dogbane, do look around as you may just fine one.

  7. robin andrea Says:

    Thanks for providing this guide to getting started to attract insects through thoughtful planting practices. Interestingly, I planted some flowers that were touted as what hummingbirds love to eat, and when they finally bloomed, our hummers were long gone, on their way south for the winter. So, I’ll really have to find some books that are specific to our location to get the right flowers and plants and timing.

  8. Pamela Says:

    Very nice flower crab spider–so small! I’ve been finding more of these lately now that my eyes are adjusted from so much time looking at M. vatia. Now to learn all their names….

  9. bev Says:

    robin – Your mention of bloom dates not being in synch with hummingbird activity is an excellent example of how we have to consider season and bloom dates when creating habitat for wildlife. That’s why it’s important to find information that is relevant to a particular area. I think that one way of figuring out plantings is to look at plants that one might find in a fairly natural area (somewhere fairly close by), and then try to incorporate those into the garden if they seem to be attracting the kind of insect or bird activity you would like to see. In my area, Swamp Milkweed is a good insect plant. We have some here at our farm, but only at the very back of our land where the soil is moister. I’m thinking that it might be worth planting some in the drainage creek area as there has never been any before.

    Pamela – I checked out the crab spiders on your blog and the third one down does look like Misumenops asperatus to me. Not sure about the second one though. I suspect it’s a species of Xysticus, but its markings don’t look familiar. The black dots are rather conspicuous though. I’ll keep your spider in mind when I’m looking at crab spider photos over the next while.

  10. Wayne Says:

    Great beetle – I’ll have to keep an eye out on our blazingstar – it’s in the dogbane family. (On another note – were you aware that milkweeds are tending now to be placed in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae, instead of being given their own family, Asclepiadaceae.)

    I like the word “associates” used for insects that tend to be around certain plants. I’ve been watching out for hackberry emperor moths, since we have a lot of hackberries, and yesterday spotted one.

    I enjoyed reading through your previous post “Thirty Years Later”. The changes are amazing, and it’s especially neat that so much has come about by just letting the plants either show up from the seed bank, or letting them come to you. Heavy tree cover, I’m afraid, is our biggest enemy (but only in that sense).

    However I do have to plant more milkweeds.

  11. bev Says:

    Wayne – No, I didn’t know about milkweed being placed in the Apocynaceae, but it does make sense as they are similar as far as the fluids contained in the leaves. Many of the insects associated with either milkweed or dogbane can use the other plant as as alternative host.
    Regarding “Thirty Years Later” – yes, this is a very different place than it was 30 years ago. There was so little in the way of insects, birds or mammals back then, but now the place is teeming with life. A couple of times, friends who hadn’t been here in many years have dropped by and said they actually drove right past as they didn’t recognize our place at all.
    And regarding tree cover – yes, heavy tree cover has a pretty large impact on the likelihood of seeing non-woodland species. It’s nice to have a mix of habitat, although I do wish we had a really nice mature forest on part of our land. Unfortunately, much as we’ve planted so many hardwoods, we will be long gone before they amount to anything much.

  12. Gloria Says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m always on the lookout for such.
    Happily several milkweed are now growing in our gardens. Whorled milkweed, the orange asclepias tuberosa,and for now just two common milkweed.
    I’ll be watching for more plant-insect connection from your blog.

    Is it ok to link to your individual posts when talking about a particular insect you have covered? All your photos are so great.

  13. bev Says:

    Gloria – Thanks! Yes, sure, link to any posts you like. The Eastman books are nice — not a field guide about every species, but of a select group that would almost always be found in a certain habitat and have plant and insect associates. They’re the kind of books that you can just keep picking up and reading and enjoying for years.

  14. Gloria Says:

    Thank you Bev. I am fairly new to blogging and not sure of the etiquette involved.