Here in Western North Carolina, there are journal entries from the turn of the century describing how monarch butterflies blacked out the sky during their fall migration to Mexico. But this spring and summer, consider yourself lucky if you see a monarch butterfly or two. If you’re incredibly lucky, a monarch butterfly will lay eggs on your milkweed. Monarch populations east of the Rockies are down at least 80% since the 1980s. Even worse, monarch populations west of the Rockies are down 99%.
Planting milkweed for them to lay their eggs on and not using pesticides is more vital than ever to bringing them back.
In the fall, a single young insect that weighs the equivalent of a raisin may fly south all the way from Ontario, Canada, to the high oyamel fir forests of central Mexico—3000 miles! That astounding feat continues to be one of the world’s great wonders. In Mexico, those same “super” butterflies will rest in a state of diapause through the winter, mate around Valentines’ Day, and then remarkably migrate northward through Texas to the Midwest and eastern United States, laying their eggs on young milkweed along the way. It will take three-four generations to reach Canada.
They are being spotted in Asheville right now, which means they almost certainly overwintered in Mexico, 2000 miles away from Asheville. Hopefully you planted your milkweed (their only host plants for their caterpillars) last fall or winter and it is coming out of the ground right now ready for the hundreds of pearly white eggs the females will lay.
Monarch Joint Venture explains the fall migration well here.
We are in luck! Throughout the spring, our local plant nurseries and retailers are selling several species of milkweed that is native to our area. The Asheville GreenWorks Bee City USA recommended species list provides a list of pollinator-safe native plants suppliers. The Montreat Native Plant Sale is April 23rd and the Botanical Garden of Asheville is having its spring plant sale on April 29-30.
Milkweeds are a perfect example of the importance of choosing the right plant for the right place. If you have a sunny and especially dry location, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) grows a long taproot and is quite drought tolerant once established. If you have a sunny but soggy spot, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is tolerant of having “wet feet.” If you have a sunny area with soil of moderate moisture, take your pick! If you have a larger sunny area, you may want to plant common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). This species spreads by horizontal underground rhizomes. Be prepared for it to move around and also form large colonies in a short amount of time. For this reason, it is typically recommended for more naturalized plantings or pocket meadows instead of smaller or more formal gardens. If you have a shadier site, poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) will not only survive, but thrive and even bloom in partial shade. If your milkweed gets tall and leggy, consider trimming it back in early July to regrow in time for monarchs’ fall migration.
There are two nonnative/tropical (annual) species generally available to gardeners, Mexican Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and Balloon Milkweed (Gomphocarpus physocarpus, formerly known as Asclepias physocarpa). Though widely available, attractive, long-blooming, fast-growing, and easily propagated, it is best not to plant these non-natives in WNC for several reasons. In warmer regions where they don’t die back in winter, a build-up of a debilitating protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE) that infects monarchs can occur. While tropical milkweeds should eventually die back during western North Carolina winters, another concern is their presence in fall could cause migrating monarchs to break diapause (a temporary non-reproductive state) and lay eggs instead of completing their migration to Mexico. Reseeding is also a concern.
When you plant, mark your milkweed! Milkweed is notorious for emerging in late spring (usually late April), just when you plant over it because you’ve given up. Leaving its stems and labeling the spot will remind you to be patient.
By previous environmental educators at Asheville GreenWorks and edited by Livia Charles
If you’ve ever strolled through a deciduous forest in the colder months you’ve probably noticed that, unlike the average lawn, no one rakes up the leaves. Instead, these fallen former solar panels accumulate on the forest floor and persist for many months to come. The leaves not only reintroduce carbon and other nutrients into the soil as they decompose, they also harbor their own little living world. For the smaller critters of the forest, the layer of leaves, also known as duff, can provide shelter from the elements, much-needed microclimates, camouflage, and even a crunchy, carbon-rich snack.
The majority of butterfly and moth species in temperate climates seek refuge among fallen leaves during the winter months, capitalizing on the many benefits previously mentioned. Different species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) can be found overwintering in any one of the four distinct life stages these creatures occupy: egg, caterpillar, pupa, or adult. Take the red-banded hairstreak, for example—these delicate beauties lay their eggs on the underside of fallen oak leaves. When the caterpillars emerge they munch on these leaves to their hearts’ content and gear up for a harsh winter made livable thanks to their detritus home.
Lepidopterans are not the only pollinators that appreciate a leafy winter abode. Bumblebee queens burrow into the ground and rely on a layer of duff above them to keep out the elements. Unlike honeybees, these bumblebee queens will be the sole survivors of their colony, and the existence of next year’s colony is entirely dependent on her ability to make it through the winter. Seems an awful shame to rip the royal roof off of a queen’s house only to be tossed in a bag and hauled away.
Spiders, worms, nematodes, snails, and other invertebrates also occupy this under-appreciated microcosm. However, the role of fallen leaves extends even further. Leaf litter provides a crucial food source for birds that need larvae to feed their young. Even herbaceous perennial plants, waiting out the winter underground, benefit from the insulation the leaves provide their root systems. Like any other facet of an ecosystem, when the leaves are taken away, the effects radiate outwards impacting far more than just the critters that call them home.
Considering that pollinators are responsible for one in three bites of food we eat and pollinate nearly 90% of flowering plants, we need to do everything we can to protect them—leaving some leaf litter is an integral part of that process. So next time you feel inclined to get rid of those ‘pesky’ leaves, think about the butterflies, the moths, the bumblebees, and everything they do for us.
by Phyllis Stiles, Founder & Director Emerita of Bee City USA
Hiking boots? Check.
We were ready for our safari.
It was early August and summer was heating up. Our expedition would parallel a river, lush with radiant flora and active fauna. Being well equipped was crucial to enjoying and capturing the experience. We hoped to see some tigers, herds of furry feeders, and maybe even a zebra.
Would it be dangerous? Not really. How close could we get to the animals? If we approached slowly and quietly, within inches. The excitement was palpable as we closed the truck doors to enter the jungle rich in a diversity of native flowers—Wingstem, Monarda, Goldenrod, Joe Pye Weed, Great Blue Lobelia, Southern Sneezeweed, False Sunflower, Common Boneset, Fleabane, Black-eyed Susan, Clethra, Jewelweed, Ironweed…. About that same time, we saw luscious blackberries ready for the picking. We were entering the Wilma Dykeman Greenway along Asheville’s French Broad River next to New Belgium Brewing. With any luck we would see Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies, a Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly, and herds of hungry bees.
Within minutes, my companions, Florrie Funk and Martha Baskin, were snapping their cameras. There it was, a Tiger Swallowtail nectaring, with proboscis fully extended, on a Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) flower. Was it an Eastern (Papilio glaucus) or an Appalachian (Papilio appalachiensis)? The Eastern Tiger tends to be a slightly smaller, and has thicker vertical black stripes, more blue on its hindwing (lower wing), and a spotted yellow band on its forewing’s (upper wing’s) underside, compared with a solid broad band on the Appalachian Tiger. So ours must be an Eastern. Was it male or female? It’s harder to tell on the ventral (under) side of the wings, but the bluish area on the ventral hindwing has one row of orange spots—she must be a lady!
But it was the buzzing herds of bumble bees that would dominate our safari. There are only 48 species of bumble bees native to the United States. We identified our specimens by the color of their abdomens’ individual segments and the black and yellow patterns on their thoraxes.
Seduced by the New York Ironweed’s (Vernonia noveboracensis’) dense flower clusters, a majestic American Bumble Bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) was methodically working her way around the individual florets, following the nectar guides to the carbohydrate hidden deep inside. The band of yellow located only at the top of this bee’s thorax and the three yellow bands at the top of the abdomen convinced us this bee was the American bumble.
Flowers learned long ago to bury their treasure, forcing visitors to pick up pollen from their anthers along the way. By the looks of this lady’s pollen baskets, the technique is working! Male bees don’t have pollen carrying hairs since they don’t care for the young.
The common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens) were feasting nearby on the invasive exotic Porcelain Berry Vine. By the look of our model’s empty pollen baskets on her back legs, either she was all about the Porcelain Berry flowers’ sweet nectar, not its pollen, or “she” was a “he” with no need or means to gather pollen. Sadly, the pollinators are helping invasive species like Porcelain Berry and Japanese Knotweed thrive, and often outcompete our native plants. While bumble bees, like most generalist bees, can gather pollen and nectar from a wide variety of flowers, the specialist bees that comprise more than 25% of the world’s 20,000 bee species, don’t have that luxury. They have co-evolved with a limited number of native plant species to feed their young the pollen exclusively from that select group of plants.
The Partridge Peas (Chamaecrista fasciculata) were in full bloom, and the bumble bees knew it! We watched in awe as the bees latched their front legs to the annual flowers’ petals and inserted their proboscis into its center, just like an elephant guzzling water with its long trunk. If you turn up your volume and listen closely, you can hear the bees “buzz pollinating” the partridge pea, causing it to release its pollen.
Bumble bee buzz pollinating Partridge Pea by Phyllis Stiles
Herds of bumble bees covered the Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) in full bloom!
Bumble bees on Clethra by Florrie Funk
The other bee herd we saw on our safari was the ever-colorful sweat bees—the ones that sometimes land on our arms to gather our salty sweat. With legs covered in yellow pollen from a New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) and sporting that tell-tale black and white striped abdomen, this Furrow sweat bee (in the Halictus genus) seemed to be so cool, she had to wear shades. Try as we might, we were unable to really determine this gorgeous Furrow bee’s species.
Florrie got really excited when she filmed a Bicolored Striped Sweat Bee (Agapostemon viriscens) furiously collecting pollen from a False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) with her front legs and transferring it to her back legs to provision her nest for her young. These bees are known for banding together in communities of individual ground nests and sharing their guard bees.
Bicolored Agapostemon Sweat Bee by Florrie Funk
Green Metallic Sweat Bees were slurping nectar from the orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) all along the greenway. Although hummingbirds frequent Jewelweed too, we weren’t lucky enough to see them on this safari. Jewelweed is especially at home near rivers and streams since it can tolerate flooding. When its seed pods ripen, they explode, giving the plant its nickname, Touch-Me-Not.
We were really excited to see the bees’ ancestors, the wasps, nectaring on Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and Goldenrod. They tend to hover around 18 inches off the ground when not burrowed in their solitary sandy nests and don’t sting people like social wasps do. Sand wasps feed house flies, deer flies, mosquitoes and brown marmorated stink bugs to their young! A single, developing sand wasp larva may eat two dozen flies.
Sadly, we never saw the elusive Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus). There must not be any Pawpaw trees, its caterpillar host plant, nearby. But that just means we’ll have to plan another safari soon!
Written by Phyllis Stiles
When my calendar said March 20, I knew it was the Spring Equinox. But plants and animals, especially pollinators, would feel it in their bones--if they had any bones. As days grow longer and our collective cells experience the sun’s warmth, the sap rises in trees, herbaceous plants find their stems lengthening, leaves form, blossoms unfurl, and seeds sequestered in the dark send out root hairs and reach to the sky with new life.
Like a finely tuned orchestra with each instrument playing its part, species fulfill their destinies. Thanks to dedicated scientists like Jarrod Fowler and Sam Droege and many others, we are learning much more about the bee mothers who won’t collect just any old pollen for their offspring. (On the other hand, they’ll take nectar wherever they can get it.) These pollen specialists make up about one quarter of the world’s 20,000 species of bees. Flower pollen is a bee’s only source of protein. Without it their larvae will not develop into healthy adults.
Redbud trees and blueberry bushes bloom early in the spring which makes Southeastern blueberry bees happy. They are often mistaken for bumble bees, but if you see a mother collecting pollen from redbud or blueberry flowers and, if her pollen is loosely spread around her back legs rather than neatly balled up like pollen on a honey or bumble bee’s back leg, you have probably seen a Southeastern blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa).
Smaller than bumble bees, Osmia virga bees also specialize on blueberry flowers and conveniently clue us in with their blue-green color and no striping on their rounded abdomen. Like leafcutter bees, Osmia bees transport pollen under their bellies. Because these mamas build cells for their young out of clay, they are known as mason bees.
I was taught that you are the company you keep. These specialist bees have really taken that maxim to heart by keeping company with the flowers that will make their babies thrive. Sadly, due to pesticides, climate change, and habitat loss—including the special native plants they rely on to raise the next generation, nearly 60% of pollen specialist bees are considered rare and declining.
Asheville GreenWorks’ Bee City USA program is encouraging everyone to choose pesticide-free native plants for their landscapes to sustain as many bee species and other pollinators as possible in our mountains. At more than 500 species, we are proud that North Carolina has the most bee diversity of any Southern state! If you plant their preferred species, they will come, and you need not worry about any of these solitary bees stinging you. They don’t have large nests to defend like honey and bumble bees.
Visit Asheville GreenWorks’ website to download newly updated lists of pollinator-friendly native perennials, shrubs, trees, vines, and grasses along with a list of local sources for each plant. Not only do we live in a botanical garden of Eden, we are lucky to have many nurseries growing and selling native plants without pesticides that would harm pollinators. Join Asheville GreenWorks’ E-News list and like our Facebook page to receive announcements of native plant sales around the region as well as opportunities to plant and certify pollinator gardens.
Phyllis Stiles is an Asheville GreenWorks board member and founder and director emerita of the national Bee City USA® program. Bee City USA merged with the Xerces Society for invertebrate Conservation in 2018. Asheville GreenWorks leads the Bee City USA-Asheville affiliate.
By Jillian Wolf, Legacy Landscapes, Bee City USA - Asheville Leadership Committee
As colder weather and our first hard frosts open up the landscape to bare bones, it’s the perfect time to prepare for next year’s growing season. Save those leaves!
Prepping for next season begins with supporting our pollinators and other beneficial insects through winter. If we work too hard at cleaning up, they will suffer. Manicured lawns and pristine beds that must be artificially maintained create an artificial environment in which “the good guys” fail to thrive, in particular, the native bees critical to our ecology. It’s a look that we’ve grown to revere, but that is changing. Natural “habitats” are trending!
You can begin by leaving anything alone that is still flowering. Changing weather can be challenging for some species, and fall flowers provide needed nutrition. It’s also important to leave plenty of spent plants standing, as stem-nesting bees need them to continue their life cycle. Stems, branches, canes and reeds provide a variety of accommodations, which is why it’s best to cut your “winter garden” down in late spring. If you must cut now, bundle! Nesting material can be gathered and tied together to hang on a fence or hide in a bush, preferably where there is some weather protection – or just loosely pile it up somewhere safe. For bees and beetles seeking luxury housing, leave downed trees where they fall or incorporate dead logs in the landscape. Ground nesting bees need support as they are some of the first pollinators to spread their magic in the garden each spring. A grassy area kept very short or bare spots in the garden are ideal, especially if they are south-facing.
Recognizing that many of us do love our lawns (for aesthetics or recreation), can we talk about leaves as they turn color and cover our yards? Lawns, of course, will die if the leaves are not raked away, our first clue that leaves are amazing weed blockers! They also provide critical insect habitat. Leaves provide insulation for butterflies and moths (many butterfly chrysalids and moth cocoons look just like leaves!), and in the compost pile they add to a safe haven for hibernating bee queens and other beneficials like earthworms (and redworms, the kings of composting). And oh that compost! Everything from growing your favorite native to sequestering carbon in the fight against climate change starts with the soil. We have our job cut out for us here in Western North Carolina, largely dealing with dense red clay that’s either cracking dry or rotting wet. Fortunately, amendments and weed control go hand in hand, and this is where your leaves come in really handy.
Want to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides? (Remember, organic controls can kill good guys too!) Fall preparation in the garden requires a bit of forethought but soon moves into second-nature status with practice. In addition to collecting leaves (yours, or your neighbors if you don’t have any), you’ll want to save cardboard. It’s plentiful at recycling centers and in retail dumpsters, but saving your own saves time. Cardboard is useful for covering large areas like a vegetable garden, or your lawn if you’re wanting to extend your beds. For grass, if you dig up and flip the turf first, it will hinder regrowth and provide green mulch for beneficial excavators. Newspapers are also a great way to go. If you are preparing landscaped areas, you can work with ¼” thick stacks of newspaper around established plants.
If weed blocking is your focus, start with those treasured leaves. Whole leaves will mat down in layers to prevent the emergence of weeds and can last through up to two seasons depending on how thick you lay them down. Cover the leaves with cardboard and then compost or mulch. Compost is preferred as it feeds the soil better and is light enough to allow insect activity. If your goal is to create healthy soil as quickly as possible, you can lay the cardboard down first with leaf mulch (chopped up leaves) on top. Leaf mulch breaks down over winter to amend the soil in a single season, blocking weeds during that time. Don’t worry about whether or not leaves are acidic. It’s all good.
A note about man-made bee houses and hotels: they are great educational tools because they allow us to observe nesting bees; however, sometimes they do more harm than good. If made of unsuitable materials and sold with no word about or access for cleaning them, they can harbor pests, disease, mold, and fungus. They also tend to unnaturally aggregate multiple species, at the very least creating a juicy target for predators. Constructed appropriately, they can be useful in gardens too small to otherwise provide habitat.
Gardening in partnership with your garden ecology supports the environment we all depend upon. Pollinators are as critical to maintaining wild areas as they are for pollinating our food (1/3 of everything we eat!). Other beneficial insects prey upon garden pests we’re in the habit of treating with pesticides. The “lasagna method” of weed control described here not only keeps weeds at bay, conserves water and feeds the soil, it attracts the good guys. Nature isn’t as messy as we make it out to be. In our pursuit of a garden aesthetic handed down to us by European royals in the 1700’s, we’ve forgotten to smell anything but the roses. Times have changed and celebrating nature is now not just desirable, but critically important. To help your neighbors understand why you’re going wild in your garden, consider applying for the Pollinator Garden Certification from Asheville GreenWorks’ Bee City USA program. It’s easy! It includes a metal yard sign that not only explains your motives but educates people who are unaware of how important pollinators are.
Fall is the perfect time to plant perennials, shrubs and trees. Recommended species lists and the local nurseries that sell them are available on the Asheville GreenWorks website along with many other useful resources. Get to know more about our native plants and how to utilize them, plant plenty of native flowers, and enjoy!
Pollination Education with FEAST at Vance Elementary School
Mary Summers is an Environmental Consultant with [email protected] She reconnects you and your land to nature by showing you how to save time, money, improve aesthetics and increase psychological wellbeing using techniques on your property that have a positive impact on the environment. She can be reached through her website: natureathome.us