Life in a Cubic Foot of My Lawn

Late last March, I noticed some neatly cut goldenrod stems in my lawn. Or I should say, what used to be my lawn; five years earlier, it was a “proper” lawn (shown here), but it is now more of a meadow, interspersed with young fruit trees, berry bushes, strawberry and asparagus patches, vegetable gardens, and so forth. Anyway, you can see three of the cut stems in this photo:


And a closer look at one here:


I felt like I should know who was leaving this distinctive sign, but I was drawing a blank, and I didn’t find the answer in my book. So I split one of the stems open and found it filled with frass, with a tunnel leading to the base and into the roots.


Since the tunnel was plugged with frass at the top of what remained of the stem, I guessed that the larva (or maybe pupa) of the insect responsible was overwintering in the roots. So toward the end of April, I dug up a chunk of my lawn including a few of these cut stems and put it in a clear garbage bag in the front hallway, where I could watch to see what emerged.


The above photo was taken about a month later, the day the bugs in question finally started to emerge. But a whole bunch of things appeared in the bag before then:

A couple of young sac spiders (Clubionidae: Clubiona)…


…a case-bearing moth larva (Coleophoridae)presumably a species of the Coleophora duplicis complex. I often see these larvae in the fall, feeding in goldenrod seedheads while wearing portable cases cleverly disguised with pieces of the flowers. If I’m right that this is one of those, the flower bits have mostly worn away, leaving the bare silken core of the case…


…a nymph of a leafhopper in the genus Agallia (Cicadellidae)…


…a sheet-web weaver (Linyphiidae: Linyphiinae). This is the group that includes the “filmy dome spider” and “bowl and doily spider”, but I’m not sure exactly who this one is [Edit, Dec. 2021: Rich Bradley says it’s very likely Helophora insignis]…


Zenodosus sanguineus (Cleridae), a “checkered beetle” that is normally found under bark, where it feeds on bark beetles…


…lots of these fancy little humpbacked springtails (Entomobryidae: Lepidocyrtus paradoxus), which are a common sight in my yard…


…also a good number of these woodlice: Philoscia muscorum (Philosciidae), a species introduced from Europe…


…a handsomely antlered little parasitoid wasp (Eulophidae: Eulophini), possibly one of the species I regularly rear from leafminers…


…several of these weevils in the genus Tychius (Curculionidae), presumably one of the European species that feeds on clover seeds…


…a clear-winged little delphacid planthopper…


…a so-called “pleasing fungus beetle,” Cryptophilus obliteratus (Erotylidae)—according to BugGuide this is an Asian species that has been in Europe since 1982 and hasn’t yet been officially documented in North America (guess I should have saved the specimen; oh well)…


…a tiny tube-tailed thrips (Phlaeothripidae: Bolothrips bicolor)…


…the strawberry bud weevil (Curculionidae: Anthonomus signatus), or a close relative…


…a great many dark-winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae), probably of several species, but I’ll just show two examples here…


…a couple of these platygastrid wasps, which are parasitoids of gall midges…


…at least three of these little red cobweb spiders (Theridiidae: Thymoites unimaculatus)…


…a dance fly (Empididae)…


…an agromyzid fly in the genus Melanagromyza—a stem or root borer or possibly a flower feeder, very likely from the goldenrod. Given the probable host association, it would have been worth saving this one to be identified to species, had it not been an unidentifiable female…


…the wee six-legged larva of a whirligig mite (Anystidae)…


…plenty of “cornfield ants” (Formicidae: Lasius neoniger)…


…some adult Agallia leafhoppers—maybe the same species as the nymph that appeared earlier…


…a tachinid fly in the genus Graphogaster—a parasitoid of what most people call “microlepidoptera” but which to me are medium-sized moths (Depressariidae, Gelechiidae, Scythrididae, Tortricidae)…


…several shiny green soldier flies (Stratiomyidae: Actina viridis)…


…the stilt bug Berytinus minor (Berytidae), a clover-sucking bug from Europe…


…some manner of moth caterpillar—your guess is as good as mine…


…a dark-banded owlet (Erebidae: Phalaenophana pyramusalis) that lost some of its scales in the bag—this is one of the “litter moths,” whose caterpillars feed on dead leaves…


…several of these Asian broad-nosed weevils (Curculionidae: Myosides seriehispidus)…


Asagena americana (Theridiidae), another cobweb spider…


…a good old-fashioned non-Lyme-disease-carrying dog tick (Ixodidae: Dermacentor variabilis)—one of our chickens eagerly eats these out of my hand, and that was the fate of this one…


Tetramesa (Eurytomidae), a wasp that forms galls in grass stems…


…a figitid wasp, which Matt Buffington tells me is in the tribe Ganaspini (Eucoilinae)—either Ganaspis (a parasitoid of fruit flies, Drosophilidae) or Hexacola (a parasitoid of shore flies, Ephydridae)…


…a nymph of a leafhopper in the genus Aphrodes—probably a grass feeder…


…a sweet little jumping spider (Salticidae)…


…a wolf spider in the genus Trochosa (Lycosidae)…


…and the rust fly Psila collaris (Psilidae), who I long ago photographed slurping bird poop.


Now, if you’ve stuck with me through that whole month’s worth of incidental bugs, you, like me, get to be rewarded with a look at what was responsible for those neatly cut goldenrod stems that prompted me to dig up that little chunk of my lawn in the first place:


A plume moth! Three of them emerged, in fact—one for each of the cut stems. I consulted the plume moth specialist, Debbie Matthews, and she told me they belonged to one of two Hellinsia species (Pterophoridae). Examination of genitalia is needed to distinguish the adults, but she told me that if I had a male of H. glenni I could recognize it without dissection by teasing out an appendage from near the tip of its abdomen and seeing that it had a goose-head shape at the end.

And lo, tucked in there among its fur was the goose head!


The other species in question, Hellinsia kellicottii, is also a goldenrod borer. Does its larva produce these same neatly cut stumps? I’m not sure. The answer may or may not be in the literature somewhere, but for now I’m happy to be able to say approximately who is responsible when I encounter this distinctive feeding sign.

Edit: Oh yeah, I now remember that I asked Debbie that question, and she said: “Not always. You can look for piles of frass coming out of a hole about an inch from ground level in the fall. Probably not easy to find after overwintering.” Which I guess means, yes, sometimes. For what it’s worth, John van der Linden investigated the same stumps in Iowa the previous spring and also came up with H. glenni. I had seen his post on BugGuide six months before I noticed the stumps in my own yard, and that was what I was not quite managing to remember when I had the feeling that I should already know the answer to this riddle.

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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30 Responses to Life in a Cubic Foot of My Lawn

  1. lifelessons says:

    Wow! This is so impressive. I can’t imagine the hours and days it took you to do the research and compile this report. Amazing photographs. Nothing could be a better example of my recent fascination with the intricacies of nature and the human body as one example of the interaction of each part to create the whole. That you would find so many different varieties of insect life in one cubic foot of matter from your lawn is incredible. (Incredible as in wondrously surprising, not as in unable to be believed.) How in the world did you get these fabulous photographs?

  2. Judy says:

    You are a fascinating creature yourself. I should know since I’ve been observing you for about 40 years. This takes the cake!

  3. Shelley Hamel says:

    You ask if we ‘stuck with you’ as we breathlessly scrolled through all 36 creatures until the 37th rolled into view and stared us down? How could we not! You’re a mystery writer, and we just had to find out who-dun-it. Thank you for making science fun.

  4. Emily says:

    Great story and photos! Thanks so much for sharing. I will be on the lookout for signs of these stem-boring moths.

  5. dvaunhowe says:

    I guess all I can say is ‘thank you!’ Well, I could add 1-3 exclamations per image. I think my life has been changed.

  6. John Snell says:

    A delight, as always, but particularly so as the snow here in Vermont is now/still a couple feet deep and nearly all the remains of summer gardens are below the snow. No doubt the subnivian layer is as full of life as your bag of “weeds.” Many thanks.

  7. rcannon992 says:

    Great piece illustrating the biodiversity in our (your!) backyards!

  8. Susannah Anderson says:

    Wow! I’ve been lamenting the loss of our insect population, and here you are with a treasure trove! I will try your trick of bagging a chunk of lawn and watching it. Maybe something will turn up.

  9. Barry Cottam says:

    What a revelation, Charley, another excellent piece of work! Someone once said most insects are either over our heads or beneath our feet – you’ve certainly proved the latter! Can’t wait to dig up some chunks of goldenrod and other weeds… Thanks too for mentioning Debbie Matthews. Looking her up led to some great new-to-me resources.

  10. Win Rogers says:

    Many thanks, yet again. Highlight of my week.

  11. M. M. Moore says:

    Fascinating !!! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Bravo Charley. I was looking at the golden rod tips thinking ” Oh, looks like a twig pruner, girdler, or Hickory Spiral Borer.” Thanks for sharing all your wonderful photos and investigations.

  13. Jay Smith says:

    Wonderful work Charley, I think have a blister from scrolling up and down checking out all of the images. Would love to see a post about how you achieve all those sharp images.

  14. Karen Arnett says:

    This is wonderful! One being called a cornfield ant made me wonder : do you think the insect composition in your soil is based in part upon the former use of the land? And how persistent or changeable is the particular mix of insects over time as the overlaying flora changes and the use of the soil? Not that I would expect you to have an answer to that question; just curious. I was surprised that there were several alien species. How did they migrate to your plot of soil?

  15. Virginia says:

    This is the best post! What a treasure trove!

  16. Moni Hayne says:

    Charley…this blog showed the tremendous diversity of just one plant root ball!! Just absolutely amazing!! It is the epitome of what Doug Tallamy and Sara Stein (Noah’s Garden book) have been preaching for years!!

  17. Sara Kathleen Moore says:

    Fascinating! In the first picture the plume moth close-up looks like an owl from the way it is holding its antennae!

  18. Stuart Tingley says:

    Scrolling through this posting was like going on an hour-long African safari without the leaving the comfort of my living room. Zero carbon footprint! Thanks, Charley.

  19. Pat says:

    So inspiring! Just what I need when my resolve falters and I am tempted to cave in, conform, and do the mow-and-blow thing like all my neighbors. Biodiversity will overcome!

  20. Cindy says:

    Wow! Just wow. Thank you.

  21. stephe59 says:

    Delightful post, Charley!

  22. Anonymous says:

    Really enjoyed this one! Thanks Charley!

  23. Bob says:

    Excellent presentation. Identifying all those creatures must have been a monumental endeavor. Congratulations on your perseverance. You inspired me to look more closely at life in my backyard. Thank you for sharing!

  24. CCB says:

    This was the first time I read your blog. So much fun information! Thank you. And tomorrow I will go out and examine last year’s goldenrod stems.

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  27. Mary Alpern says:

    This is wonderful but I wish you had offered us some sense of scale.

  28. Janice says:

    Fascinating! Love the bugs, spiders, wasps, moths, the nymph, etc.

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