Category Archives: Conservation

For the love of insects

This blog post is written by Kelly Tindall, the top entomologist in our household. The title of this blog post is also the title of an excellent book by Thomas Eisner.

The first photo posted by Margaret Balfour - the poor parsley is being decimated by no less than eight Papilio polyxenes caterpillars!

The first photo posted by Margaret Balfour – the poor parsley is being eaten by no less than eight Papilio polyxenes caterpillars!

A friend posted a picture of a parsley plant covered by swallowtail larvae on Facebook with the following caption “Eek! These evil creepy crawly creatures have eaten all my Italian parsley! Need to debug my garden apparently…”. Of course I replied that it was cool and explained to her who they were and what it represented, i.e., a beautiful crop of butterflies!

Few people approach gardening (flower beds and food) like Kent and I do. We garden for insects (check out the recent post about all the beneficial insects in our garden)! For whatever reason, people love to enjoy butterflies, but miss the fact that the caterpillars have to feed on something to grow and develop into the adult stage – the butterfly. With that in mind, consider what insects you would enjoy in your yard and plant their host plants. For instance, if you like monarch butterflies – plant some milkweeds.

So the next time you find a bunch of caterpillars on your flowers, be like my friend Margaret, and celebrate them – take one for the team and let have what they are feeding on! And if you are really lucky you may find a chrysalis that you can bring in and watch the butterfly emerge!

The second photo posted by Margaret shows total parsley destruction by the caterpillars - how cool is that?

The second photo posted by Margaret shows total parsley destruction by the caterpillars – how cool is that?

By the way, in case you are curious as to what happened with Margaret’s parsley…she said, “I decided to love, not hate, my swallowtail caterpillars”, and she looked at her garden as a “butterfly hatchery”. Unfortunately, her parsley it was decimated, but as one of her friends commented – “nobody actually eats the parsley anyway!”

Butterfly and vehicle interactions

As a cyclist, it is common to encounter animals that have been struck and killed by cars along roads. It appears the frequency with which these encounters are made is influenced by traffic volume, traffic speed, and quality of roadside habitat. While a big, bloated deer or reeking skunk will attract the attention of the most unaware road users – the carnage is not limited to mammals. Striking insects with a car is inconsequential to a motorist and it is not until the carnage has reached epic proportions that the motorist takes note and the windshield wipers will be engaged. Otherwise insect collisions are meaningless to most motorists.

Butterflies can be a common part of the roadside insect milieu. McKenna et al. (2001) estimated that 20 MILLION Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) were killed in one week on the Illinois road network.

Recently, while out on my bicycle, I noted a dark swallowtail dead on the shoulder along highway 45E south of Martin, TN. The Lepidoptera fauna from this part of Tennessee is

30 June 2013, highway 45E, Weakley County, Tennessee

30 June 2013, highway 45E, Weakley County, Tennessee

poorly known, so I doubled back and documented the insect with my cell phone. This photograph was submitted to BAMONA, and provided documentation of Papilio troilus in Weakley County. The simple documentation of species within an area is the first step in conserving species.

The riders in the Tour de France are probably not looking for dead insects along roadways as they ramble through the French countryside and I would hate to see the peloton crash because a leader saw a cool roadkill butterfly (like Parnassius apollo). However, the Tour de France does go through some spectacular habitats and this year’s tour has had quite a few crashes already…

Keep your eyes open and be safe!

The plight of the Monarch butterfly

Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly is an iconic North American migratory insect that has exacting requirements of the environment. I was discussing butterflies with my friends Milus and Wanda Wallace recently and Milus pointed out how few adult monarchs he has seen so far this year AND that he has seen zero monarch caterpillars on milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae). 2013 had the lowest population of overwintering monarchs ever recorded. An NPR news report blames this on herbicide tolerant GMO crops and drought creating a severe loss of habitat (milkweeds) in the midwest.

S,o for the past couple weeks, I have been examining every milkweed patch I come across. I have found no monarch caterpillars, pupae, or eggs – even though I am living someplace new this seems abnormal. However, I doubt NPR has the correct cause(s). While habitat loss has no doubt impacted the monarch just like it has impacted most wildlife, there are other insects that are milkweed specialists that I am finding on the milkweeds I have examined. Milkweeds and milkweed habitats have not become so rare in the landscape that Tetraopes tetropthalmus and Oncopeltus fasciatus are absent. Perhaps the loss of monarchs has more to do with the difficulties of long distance migration and overwintering than it does midwestern milkweeds and milkweed habitats.

Tetraopes tetraopthalmus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Tetraopes tetraopthalmus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Hopefully, this year I will find monarchs, it will make me sad if I do not. Even though I think NPR has it wrong, Kelly has planted a few species of milkweed seeds and we are in the process of giving our home a native plant make over. Consider spots in your yard where you can enjoy a small milkweed patch(es). There is no doubt that there is much less habitat today than in the past. Your small milkweed patch can make a difference for monarchs and also attract some very interesting creatures for you to

Oncopeltus fasciatus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Oncopeltus fasciatus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

enjoy in your yard.













The epic battle of the Liriope

While I can’t say I always enjoy gardening, I can say I enjoy being in a beautiful garden. At

Liriope muscari - a.k.a. monkey grass or border grass.

Liriope muscari – a.k.a. monkey grass or border grass.

our current home (in Tennessee), the previous owners seemed to think we live in the southeast – OF ASIA! The Lagerstroemia indica (crepe myrtle), that the previous owner aggressively pruned into a neither tree nor shrub-like form, has a bird nest in it (Turdus migratorius – American robin) so I will let them go a while. The Nandina domestica (shrub things) will be gone soon, but before I remove them there is the little matter of a

The thick root mass of this mature Liriope laughs at my shovel...

The thick root mass of this mature Liriope laughs at my shovel…

hundred or so linear feet of Liriope muscari (monkey grass) that has got to go. The Liriope is anchored to the earth by a formidable, impervious root system. To make matters worse the previous owners seemed to think a layer black plastic 4-6″ below the surface was a good idea. IT IS NOT! Where the Liriope has penetrated below the plastic it makes abundant little root/bulblet structures that promise if I don’t get them all I will still have Liriope to deal with later.

So, I dig up as small of chunks of Liriope as I can – these typically weigh between 50 and 100 lbs. I then proceed to separate the soil and black plastic from the roots and then go back through the soil to make certain all bulblets are removed. It is a slow tedious process, but I will prevail!

While undoing the previous landscaping is a lot of work, I am looking forward to the native plants that will soon grace the front

You had better find every one of these little guys!

You had better find every one of these little guys!

of our home. Some beds will be full sun and have prairie/glade plants like Rudbeckia and Echinacea. Some will be more like shady forest understory with Lobelia and Phlox. All beds will support more wildlife than the current landscaping and will reflect where we live in beautiful northwest Tennessee.

It isn’t that I hate southeast Asia, but I would like our home to reflect the beauty of where we live. Based on my experience, gardening with natives is slightly more difficult than garden with slightly invasive species from southeast Asia (or elsewhere). The reward comes from when a rare butterfly or cool longhorned beetle shows up in your yard. North American wildlife is in trouble, and native plants are the beginning of making things better. Doug Tallamy’s book: Bringing Nature Home presents a complete argument for native gardening. So pick up a shovel and replace one invasive plant with a native this summer! Be the change you want to see.

Restoration Park

Yesterday, I had the privilege of going for a run  at Restoration

map of the park - sorry about the vandalism, it isn't a perfect world... even in West Monroe, LA.

map of the park – sorry about the vandalism, it isn’t a perfect world… even in West Monroe, LA.

Park in West Monroe, Louisiana. Restoration Park is a perfect example of many restoration paradigms. It reflects that restoration and conservation are human (not natural) processes and as such must reflect human values. The park also demonstrates that a win-win-win is better than a win-win situation.

The park is located at the site of an old mining operation. Mined out, the area became a defacto dump where all sorts of illegal dumping took place. In 1989, the city of West Monroe bought the property with plans of developing a storm water detention basin. Well they ended up building a storm water detention basin, that also provides a green space, that also provides an awesome running trail, that also provides a bit of green beauty in a commercial district.

The running trail is a roughly 1 mile loop that allows a detour across the detention basin on a wooden board walk. Yesterday the water lilies and Tradscantia were in bloom and the wood ducks were whistling as I ran past. I got a good work out and got a good nature fix – while the storm waters from the rains the day before were being processed by ol’ Mom Nature. WIN – WIN – WIN! Hooray for West Monroe!

Net Control

This comic is about something near and dear to my heart. I have been many places where the mere possession of a net can get you unwanted ‘special attention’ from law enforcement/ park staff. I have done insect surveys where even the ‘catch and release’ use of a net was not allowed, but people were allowed to kill insects at their campsite – just not for purposes of study. That is the shame, hands-on study of botany, bryology, insects, and other wildlife is how most people become hooked on nature. If we are going to create a caring, nature-empathetic citizenry; we need more, not less, contact with nature.

net control