Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pollinator Friendly Gardening

Nearly everyone is familiar with butterfly and pollinator-friendly gardening nowadays with all the news about declines in honeybee and monarch butterfly populations. In my “Spring Planting in the Gardens” blog from June 2015, I mentioned one of our garden beds had been converted into a pollinator-friendly bed. Recently, I found evidence of pollinators and insect visitors making it their temporary home.

Inside the folded over brown leaf is the pupa of
an unknown insect undergoing metamorphosis
The pupa inside this nest has elaborately
wrapped the leaves around each other
Note the silk floss holding the
leaves together

I’m not sure exactly which adult insect is going to emerge from the cocoon-like nests featured in the photos above, but it is exciting that they have shown up in our pollinator-friendly bed to complete part of their life cycle. The plant in the first photo is a Jamaican endemic, Portlandia proctori and the Florida native Bahama coffee, Psychotria ligustrifolia, is featured in the second and third photos. Hopefully, we will have more flowers open up to provide nectar for the adults once they emerge.

Meanwhile, in another part of the garden...
While inspecting our key lime tree for presence of Asian citrus psyllid, the vector for citrus greening disease, I noticed three large bird droppings that were moving around! These were not bird droppings at all but the larval stage (caterpillars) of the Giant swallowtail butterfly. As I watched them happily munching away at the key lime leaves an adult swallowtail butterfly flew overhead and began laying more eggs on various other leaves.
During my first observation there were three 2nd instar caterpillars but today, two weeks later, there is only one remaining after several exhaustive searches. Apparently, Giant swallowtail caterpillars are cannibalistic and will eat each other during encounters! I'm not sure if that happened or if a bird found itself a meal but the remaining caterpillar looks to be about a 4th instar and must be close to pupating. Our key lime is fine as the caterpillars did not eat very many leaves but citrus farmers find them a pest and call them "Orange dogs".

Giant swallowtail caterpillar - 2nd or 3rd instar
Adult Giant swallowtail butterfly checking out the key lime tree

4th instar of the Giant swallowtail larva
It is amazing how much is going on around us in the natural world that we tune out and miss by being engrossed in our human routines. Here in the Keys, it is pretty hard to avoid nature as it surrounds us in the hardwood hammock, mangrove forest and marine environments. After a week of late-season rain this month, the increase in fresh water caused a chain reaction: plants flushed out new leaves while insect eggs hatched so the young larvae could eat the fresh leaves and those larvae then turned into butterflies and began laying eggs again until the next cycle.

By gardening for pollinators with nectar plants for adults and host plants for caterpillars, you can bring the natural world right into your yard or patio. Butterfly watching is delightful for people of all ages but especially children. It is also beneficial to your local butterfly species as you will provide them with food. If you plant it, they will come!

Emily B. Magnaghi
Associate Director

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