When a landowner (city, village, park district, school, conservation agency) is considering converting their unused turf and developed areas into a healthy native landscape, often one of the primary goals is to help local pollinators. We want to turn these otherwise resource-poor, barren areas into habitats that can be used by our well-known pollinators such as butterflies and bumble bees. And when we do convert these areas, it works! Take some time during the growing season to look around these newly restored habitats, and you’ll see a variety of butterflies and bumble bees feeding on flowering plants. However, look a little closer and you’ll notice…..something else.
See, here’s the thing: butterflies and bees are absolutely attracted to native flowering plants, but so are many, many other insects. Some of these you may be familiar with, like the oleander aphids commonly found on milkweed stems, and others may be completely new to you, like the bulky, bearded robber flies hanging out on flowers, waiting to catch a meal. So, what are these insects, and what role do they play in the landscape? While this is a fairly loaded question, we can start examining these ‘other’ insects found in natural areas by categorizing them into different groups.
One of these groups could be considered communities of insects, which are groups of insects that often depend on a specific host plant. A great example of this that we see locally are milkweed communities. Often, the first insect that comes to mind when we plant milkweed is probably monarch butterflies. However, milkweed plants can host whole communities of other insects, which include the bright red and black milkweed bugs and milkweed beetles, the tiny yellow and orange oleander aphids, and the fuzzy caterpillars of the milkweed tussock moth. For some, it can be surprising to see all of these other insects utilizing the milkweed flowers, leaves, and seeds, when the original goal was to support monarchs, but remember that these beneficial insect communities depend on the plant just as much as the monarchs do.
A second group of these ‘other’ insects could be called ‘other pollinators.’ Thinking of butterflies and bees as pollinators is absolutely correct, as these two groups of insects are considered the most effective, and therefore most important, pollinators. But did you know that many other insects can act as pollinators? These ‘other pollinators’ include almost any other insect that uses, or even rests on, a native flowering plant. Some great examples are goldenrod soldier beetles that blend in with the yellow goldenrod flowers, hoverflies that pretend to look like bees, moths, midges, and even mosquitoes! All are attracted to native plants, and many are pollinators in their own small way.
A third group could be the predatory insects and arachnids, which are often some of the most obvious invertebrates in a natural landscape due to their large size and active behaviors. As predators, these animals don’t directly use the nectar and pollen from flowering plants, but still benefit from them and therefore will often be found in natural, restored areas. Some of the most striking spiders you’ll see are the orb weavers, like the yellow garden spider, which create vast webs between plants to catch insects attracted to the flowers. You can also catch a glimpse of the aforementioned robber flies, which are stocky, fuzzy, predatory flies. They will move from flower to flower, waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey, but also acting as pollinators as they move between flowers. Look closer at these flowers and you may even catch a glimpse of the well-camouflaged goldenrod crab spider, which blends in with the flower petals, waiting patiently for their next meal.
So keep your eyes open, look close, and as you restore your land to a beneficial natural landscape, you’ll begin to see butterflies, bees, and a whole lot of everything else! Are you a land manager, municipality, or park district looking for some guidance on how you can begin to support these local insects and invertebrates? Chat with us today and let’s get started!