Celebrate our Pollinators This Week (and Every Week!)

Celebrate our Pollinators This Week (and Every Week!)

For the 13th year we celebrate National Pollinator Week June 22-28 to bring awareness to the importance of our pollinators and the challenges they face. This is an opportunity to learn about ways to protect pollinators in our own landscapes. Every one of us can make a difference.

When we hear the word ‘pollinator’ most of us immediately think of honeybees. They are very important but there are so many other creatures that are important pollinators:

  • Native bees – Florida alone has over 300 species of bees
  • Hummingbirds – their long beaks can reach into long, tubular blooms
  • Bats – they pollinate over 500 plants including banana, mango, and agave (used to make tequila)
  • Beetles – considered to be a messy and minor pollinator; they pollinate the native paw paw
  • Butterflies – a minor pollinator as most have long legs that keep them perched above the pollen
  • Flies – pollinators of a variety of native plants

According to the USDA, 75% of flowering plants and about 35% of food crops around the globe rely on these animals for pollination. Without pollination, these plants would not reproduce or provide us food.

So, what can the average person do to make a difference?

  • Plant what bees and butterflies love!
  • Avoid using any insecticide unless it is absolutely necessary. Predators like assassin bugs, dragonflies and birds help to keep pests in check. Our songbirds rely on protein-rich insects (especially caterpillars) to feed their growing babies.
  • Don’t treat areas where pollinators are visiting the flowers, whether in the lawn or the landscape beds.
  • If you need to apply an insecticide to the lawn, mow first to remove the blooms from any weeds. Always follow the label instructions carefully.
  • Avoid using a systemic insecticide on plants that bloom and attract pollinators. The insecticide can remain in plants for a long time.

Happy gardening during National Pollinator Week!

For more information:

Pollinator Partnership: Pollinator Week Activities

US Fish & Wildlife Pollinator Site

Native Insect Pollinators of the Southeastern United States brochure

Purdue University: Protecting Pollinators in Home Lawns and Landscapes

Minimizing Honey Bee Exposure to Pesticides

Assassins of the Garden

Assassins of the Garden

Wheel bugs have large beaks and a distinctive semicircular crest on their backs resembling a cogwheel. Photo by Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org.

Wheel bugs have large beaks and a distinctive semicircular crest on their backs resembling a cogwheel. Photo by Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org.

As a gardener, the summer is the season you might feel it takes knightly status to grow fruits and vegetables. You put on your metaphorical armor, hold up your shield, and draw your sword to battle the stink bugs, squash vine borers, armyworms, green peach aphids, and more.

In these instances, it may feel like nothing in nature is on your side. But alas, there are a few insects out there that carry their own defenses. One of them is the ferocious assassin bug. These insects are predacious, loaded with powerful curved beaks called proboscises that pierce their unsuspecting prey. Once pierced, the assassin bug injects a toxin that liquefies the muscles and tissues of the prey. It then sucks out the liquefied tissue, killing its host.

Although milkweed assassin bugs vary in appearance worldwide, those found in the United States are distinctly orange and black. Photo by Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org.

Although milkweed assassin bugs vary in appearance worldwide, those found in the United States are distinctly orange and black. Photo by Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org.

Assassin bugs feed on a wide range of insects, including many types of caterpillars, stinkbugs, aphids, flies, beetles, and even mosquitoes.

While assassin bugs are our garden allies, be mindful, as their injection does pack quite the punch! Fortunately, although a “bite” from an assassin bug is painful, they do not generally require medical attention. But do seek medical attention if it causes any type of allergic reaction such as swelling, itching, hives, or difficulty breathing.

There are nearly 3,000 known assassin bug species, including many in Florida. Common species you may come across in your Florida garden are the wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) and the milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes). Give them their space but know that they are on your side.

Learn more about wheel bugs and milkweed assassin bugs at the UF/IFAS Featured Creatures website:

Odd Looking Caterpillar Becomes Beautiful Swallowtail Butterfly

Odd Looking Caterpillar Becomes Beautiful Swallowtail Butterfly

One of the things to do while stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, is to look for caterpillars and butterflies in your landscape. I’ve noticed giant swallowtail butterflies (Papilio cresphontes) a little early this year. The giant swallowtail is one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies in our area. Its larval stage is known as the orangedog caterpillar. This unusual name comes from the fact that it feeds on young foliage of citrus trees.

Orangedog caterpillar. Photo credit: Donald Hall, University of Florida

The orangedog caterpillar is mostly brown with some white blotches, resembling bird droppings more than a caterpillar. When disturbed, it may try to scare you off by extruding two orange horns that produce a pungent odor hard to wash off.

I’ve had some minor feeding on citrus trees in my landscape from orangedog caterpillars. But I tolerate them. I’m not growing the citrus to sell. Sure the caterpillars eat a few leaves but my citrus trees have thousands of leaves. New leaves eventually replace the eaten ones. I leave the caterpillars alone. They eat a few leaves, develop into chrysalises and then emerge as beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies. The whole experience is a great life lesson for my two teenagers. And, we get to enjoy beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies flying around in our landscape and still get plenty of fruit from the citrus trees. It is a win, win, win.

In some cases, the caterpillars can cause widespread defoliation of citrus. A few orangedog caterpillars can defoliate small, potted citrus trees. Where you cannot tolerate their feeding habits, remove them from the plant. But consider relocating the caterpillars to another area. In addition to citrus, the orangedog caterpillars will use the herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and rue (Ruta graveolens) as a food source. Some butterfly gardens plant citrus trees to provide food for orangedog caterpillars so that they will have giant swallowtail butterflies. So you could plan ahead and grow some fennel, rue or find a butterfly garden in your area for the purpose of relocating the larvae.

Yellow giant swallowtail butterfly on pink flowers of garden phlox

Yellow giant swallowtail butterfly on pink garden phlox flowers. Photo credit: Larry Williams

The adult butterflies feed on nectar from many flowers, including azalea, bougainvillea, Japanese honeysuckle, goldenrod, dame’s rocket, bouncing Bet and swamp milkweed. Some plants in this list might be invasive.

Keep in mind that mature citrus trees can easily withstand the loss of a few leaves. If you find and allow a few orangedog caterpillars to feed on a few leaves of a mature citrus tree in your landscape, you and your neighbors might get to enjoy the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.

More information on the giant swallowtail butterfly is available online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in134.

Small Mounds of Soil Caused by Ground-Dwelling Bees

Small Mounds of Soil Caused by Ground-Dwelling Bees

Ground-dwelling bees get a lot of attention in late winter and spring as they create large numbers of small mounds in local lawns and landscapes.

Many people become concerned as they see these bees hovering close to the ground out in their lawns and landscapes. But these bees are interesting, docile, beneficial and are unlikely to sting.

These bees are known as andrenid bees or mining bees. Andrenid bees are solitary. As the name implies, they live alone. However, they may nest in close proximity to one another but they do not form a colony or hive. They produce individual mounds with a small entrance hole. The bees are approximately ½ inch in length with a black body.

Richard Sprenkel, retired UF/IFAS Entomologist, explains their biology in today’s article.

“After mating in late winter and early spring, the female selects a site that has dry, loose soil with sparse vegetation. She excavates a vertical shaft in the soil that is approximately the diameter of a pencil and up to eighteen inches deep. Off of the main shaft, the female will construct several brood chambers that she lines with a waterproof material. The female bee provisions each brood chamber with pollen and nectar on which she lays an egg. The pollen and nectar sustain the larva until fall when the overwintering adult is formed. Early the following spring, adult bees emerge from the ground to begin the cycle again. There is one generation per year.”

The small mound of soil that is excavated from each burrow brings additional attention to the activity of the bees. As males continue to hover in the area of the burrows looking for unmated females, the bees appear more menacing than they actually are. Andrenid bees have a tendency to concentrate their nests in a relatively small area. The openings to the underground burrows may be no more than three to four inches apart.

The threat of being stung by these bees is usually highly overrated. The males cannot sting and the females are docile and not likely to sting unless stepped on, handled or threatened. While entrances to the tunnels and excavated soil may appear disruptive to the lawn, they usually are not damaging. It may appear that the grass is thin because of the bees but it is more likely that the bees are in the area because the grass was already thin. Control is usually not necessary. Because the andrenid bees forage to gather pollen and nectar, they are actually beneficial. They serve as pollinators this time of the year.


**** Photo Credited to UF / IFAS Extension Jackson County courtesy of Josh Thompson****

Attract Wildlife with Landscape Imperfections

Attract Wildlife with Landscape Imperfections

Landscape activities have already begun in our Panhandle counties with cleanup, mulching, raking, and pruning.  Our mild temperatures and days with sunshine spur us to jump into our landscape preparations for the spring growing season.

This year before you send all your debris to the compost pile or patch up thinning turf areas, consider that some landscape imperfections may actually be good for local wildlife.

We all know how important it is to plant nectar attracting plants for bees but there are other easy practices that can help promote more native bees in local landscapes.  There are some solitary native bee pollinators that will raise young in hollow stems of plants.  Instead of cutting all your old perennial  or small fruit stems back to the ground, let some stay as a home to a native pollinating bee.  This does not have to detract from the look of the landscape but can be on plants in the background of a border garden or even hidden within the regrowth of a multi stemmed plants.  Plants that are especially attractive to native bees have a pithy or hollow stems such as blackberry, elderberry, and winged sumac.

The hollow stems of upright blackberries can be home to solitary bees. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Another favorite site for solitary bees is in the ground.  These ground nesting solitary bees should not be compared to yellow jacket wasps.  Solitary bees are not aggressive.  Mining or digger bees need some bare soil surfaces in order to excavate small tunnels for raising a few young.  Maybe you have an area that does not need a complete cover of turf but is fine with a mixture of turf and ‘wildflowers’.  A few open spaces, especially in late winter and early spring will be very attractive to solitary bees.

Beneficial solitary bee mounds in the ground of a winter centipedegrass lawn area. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

One of our fastest disappearing homes for wildlife are natural cavities.  In residential sites, we often prune or remove limbs or trees that are declining or have died.  If the plant or tree is not a hazard, why not leave it to be a home for cavity nesting birds and mammals.  If the dying tree is large, have a professional remove hazard pieces but leave a trunk about 10-15 feet tall for the animals to make a home.  You may then get to enjoy the sites and/or sounds of woodpeckers, bluebirds, owls, flying squirrels, and chickadees.

Air Potato Vines and Leaf Beetles

Air Potato Vines and Leaf Beetles

Several Extension offices in the Panhandle are collecting air potato bulbils for National Invasive Species Week. Photo credit: Esther Mudge, Escambia County

The non-native invasive air potato vine (Discorea bulbifera) has wound its way throughout Florida, from pine forests and creek floodplains to backyards. Their heart-shaped leaves are most noticeable in the spring and fall, where they can take over large areas, not unlike their fellow invasive vine, kudzu. In the fall, the plant produces a potato-like tuber called a bulbil, which grows above ground on the vine. The bulbils drop in the winter and then produce new vines the following spring.

The vine’s growth has been uncontrolled or kept back by herbicide for years, until researchers discovered a biological control insect known as the air potato leaf beetle (Liloceris cheni). In the vine’s native Nepal and China, the beetle controls growth by surviving on the leaves of the air potato, its sole food source. After extensive study, the USDA approved the use of these beetles in Florida to control the air potato vine population here. UF IFAS Extension offices statewide have participated in these beetle release programs, providing thousands of beetles to homeowners and property owners seeking to manage the invasive vine using a chemical-free technique. Left alone, air potato vines can smother full-sized trees, blocking the sunlight and causing them to collapse under the weight of the intertwined vines.

From 2012-2015, beetles were able to reduce air potato vine coverage and bulbil density by 25-70% (depending on location and density of beetle population). The active beetle-production phase of a UF IFAS grant has ended, but researchers are committed to the goal of reducing this nuisance species statewide.

To assist with this process, several Extension offices in the Panhandle are sponsoring a bulbil collection during National Invasive Species Week (NISAW, February 23-29).  This effort will serve two important roles: to remove bulbils from the natural environment and to provide a seed source for university researchers seeking to grow air potato vine in a controlled environment, sustaining a continued population of air potato beetles for distribution.

For more information on Air Potato Vines and Leaf Beetles, visit https://bcrcl.ifas.ufl.edu/airpotatobiologicalcontrol.shtml or contact your local County Extension office.