Fixing the Lawn, Year 6

Six years ago I started a post with a photo showing what our front yard looked like before Julia and I did anything to it. For a few years now, I’ve been giving a slideshow in which I show that photo and then highlight some of the native plants and associated insect communities that have colonized the parts of our yard we’ve stopped mowing (or at least mow less often). At the end of the talk people sometimes say they wish I had included a photo showing what the whole yard looks like now. So this year I marked on the calendar that September 9 was the day in 2013 that I had taken several photos from various points in our yard, with the idea of replicating each photo on the same date. As it turned out Julia and I went to Nantucket for our annual leafminer survey last Wednesday, and we got back yesterday (the 9th) with just a little daylight to spare. So after we noted the damage from the remnants of Hurricane Dorian (mainly consisting of a fallen trellis in the middle of our front yard and a large fallen sumac at the southeast corner, which just missed damaging a small apple tree) and had our fill of the raspberries, beach plums, and other sweet fruits that had ripened in our absence, Julia began to deal with the overwhelming bounty of new cucumbers and tomatoes while I darted in and out of the house, checking the old photos on my computer screen and then taking new photos that matched their perspectives as closely as I could.

As you’ll see, the focus of our planting efforts has been providing food for ourselves, and in the interstitial spaces we’ve largely let nature take its course, apart from a network of mowed pathways (though recently we’ve been enhancing these areas by planting less common native perennials as opportunities arise.) The “before” shots don’t require much explanation, but I’ll point out the more prominent features in the “after” shots.

The first shot is from the northeast corner of the front yard:


Clockwise from lower left are a big patch of deertongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum); two plum trees; two sweet cherry trees; plantings along the front of the house including some spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, courtesy of Margaret Roach); a couple of strawberry patches largely obscured by wildflowers from a seed mix from Vermont Wildflower Farm that Julia scattered a few years ago; a clump of pawpaws that arose from seeds we planted in the spot where the snow always melts first; and a black cherry sapling (Prunus serotina) that our local red fox planted several years ago.

Now we’re looking southwest into the backyard from our driveway. In the late summer of 2013 we had made a tiny garden with some tomato and basil plants, visible at right behind our first little compost pile.


The site of our original tiny garden is now a productive asparagus patch, and there are rows of assorted raspberry varieties next to it and between it and the driveway. Beyond all that is our main vegetable garden and hoophouse, where we grow all manner of annual crops. (For finer details of this and various other goings on around our yard, you can check out Julia’s blog.) At far right is a peach tree that Danny Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm grew from a pit and then we rescued (along with a Chinese chestnut) when he dug it up to make way for a new greenhouse. And of course there is blooming goldenrod scattered here and there.

Now, that picture I included in the original “Fixing the Lawn” post, looking southeast from the driveway:


Here, from foreground to background, you can see the edge of our “presentable” garden of perennials that lines the entrance to the driveway, with plants mostly acquired from our mothers and our neighbor across the road; the same strawberry patches and plum and cherry trees as before; and our upper vegetable garden, including the grape trellis we built this spring (which did not blow down this weekend). Tucked among the plum and cherry trees are some blueberries, beach plums, and shadbushes, as well as quite a bit of milkweed (which we did not plant and which has been swarming with monarchs this year, along with various other insects that are equally dependent on milkweed and equally deserving of our appreciation).

The next view is from the southeast corner of the yard and shows (at right) the beautiful white ash that I still have regrets about having cut down. We wanted to install solar panels, and the roof wasn’t a good option because it faces east-west; where the ash tree stood was by far the most suitable spot for a pole-mounted system.


Here a patch of wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), which came from a few seeds we brought from Ohio, obscures much of what would otherwise be visible: several apple and pear trees, more asparagus, and a patchwork of goldenrod, asters, and assorted other native wildflowers. We’ve been especially excited to see blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) and wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) come up in this area—the former came up on its own and I originally thought the latter had too, but now I have a vague memory of sprinkling a few seeds there, possibly after I was done rearing some fly larvae that I’d found feeding in the fruits. A few sprigs of our currant and gooseberry bushes can be seen poking up at lower left, and at lower right is one of the numerous black raspberry bushes that have sprung up all over the yard.

Near the southwest corner of the yard are the only other trees that existed when we moved in: a black cherry (left) and an old apple tree flanking the shed. At right is the chicken house Julia had built not long before I took the photo.


In addition to the goldenrod at left is a bunch of tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) that I encouraged to grow because of some leaf- and stem-mining flies I was hoping would show up—which they did. The tall fence around the chickens is as much to keep them safe from the foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, and bears as to keep the rest of our yard safe from the chickens. We do let them out from time to time, but only under supervision since they tend to make a bee line to the most precious plants and start scratching around them with wild abandon. If we pull up unwanted plants and want to make sure they die, all we have to do is throw them in with the chickens. Their enclosure was completely barren for a while, but last fall we transplanted a couple of forsythias in there and the chickens have left them alone. Also we threw in a particularly dense tangle of uprooted multiflora rose at some point, and although the chickens made sure the rose was dead, a lush patch of plants has now grown up through it that is safe from their scratching (including some dill that came in handy recently when there were no green leaves left on any of our intentionally planted dill). In front of the chicken house you can see a dense patch of native sunflowers (Helianthus decapetalus) that started from a few little sprigs we pulled up from the side of the road near my parents’ house to save them from getting mowed down by the highway department.

And finally, looking north from the chicken house:


I had to stand in the chickens’ enclosure for this one. This is one of our two largest remaining patches of lawn, kept open because of the clothesline that runs from the chicken enclosure to the house. At far left is part of a moist thicket of jewelweed and wild raspberries and blackberries; between that and the clothesline is a little clump of rapberries that I decided to let grow. Between this and the vegetable garden in the background is a sizable meadow, and along the south side of the house is a big patch of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) where we planted some tubers two years ago.

So this gives you some idea of the lay of the land, but hardly any sense of the diversity of wild flora and fauna living in our gardens and fruit and nut trees and the spaces between them. I have a list of 234 plants that I’ve identified (or we’ve planted) in our yard and adjacent woods, but I haven’t added to it in a while and there are certainly far more than that. I’ve done a better job keeping track of our sightings of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles; at this point I’ve tallied 128 species. I only have 675 invertebrates listed because I’ve never made a priority of that; if I had been out every night attracting insects with lights (instead of never, and if I were better at identifying them), the moths alone would probably number about that many. At some point I’d like to do some posts featuring various plants in the yard and the bugs that are associated with them, as I did for ragweed here. But for now, I’ll close with links to two videos that deliver the same message—advocating for replacing as much of your lawn as possible with native plants—in very different ways:

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Something you don’t see every day

Last week Julia and I conducted a survey for leaf-mining moths at Black Rock Forest in New York’s Hudson Highlands region. I think we identified around 70 species, but as is often the case with fieldwork, some of our most interesting sightings had nothing to do with what we were looking for. At one point, for instance, Julia said “something weird is happening…” or something along those lines, which prompted me to look up and see a large object buzzing past. I chased after it until it landed on a witch hazel overhead, and only then was I able to confirm my impression that it was a bald-faced hornet (Vespidae: Dolichovespula maculata) carrying some other kind of yellowjacket (Vespula sp.).


I include the grainy photo above only because it shows the yellowjacket while it was still intact; the hornet now proceeded to crunch audibly on the smaller wasp, yellow and black chitinous crumbs raining down, all the while hanging by a single rear leg. By holding my camera with my arms stretched overhead and squinting through the viewfinder, I was able to get some closer shots of this process.


After three minutes of constant chewing, it was down to just a portion of the thorax. This was the last photo I took, and we went our separate ways soon afterward.

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Some more flies 4 U

When I finished my previous post, I checked my email and discovered that my third paper with Owen Lonsdale has just been published*. In it we describe another ten new species of agromyzid flies, which brings our total to 49 (not counting those Owen has described on his own or with Sonja Scheffer). Not all of these are species I “discovered”; two of the latest batch were reared by Mike Palmer in Oregon and Oklahoma, and two by John van der Linden in Iowa (including Melanagromyza vanderlindeni, a stem borer in Joe-pye weed). Today I’ll quickly introduce you to the other six, in the order I found them.

Ophiomyia antennariae is a leafminer of plantain-leaved pussytoes (Asteraceae: Antennaria plantaginifolia). Julia and I found the mines at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve in northwestern Alabama in April 2013, during our only Southeastern leafminer expedition to date. Similar mines found elsewhere in the US have proven to be the work of O. coniceps, and even one of the females I reared from Cane Creek Canyon seems to be that species. The mines of the two species don’t seem to be reliably distinguishable, and the adults are pretty darn similar too; in fact, the reason O. antennariae didn’t make it into our first paper is that I was trying to convince Owen that the two are the same species, but he finally prevailed.


At the Connecticut BioBlitz in June 2016, Julia and I found a leaf mine on black raspberry (Rosaceae: Rubus occidentalis) that was a little different from the usual linear ones made by Agromyza vockerothi. Unlike the mines of that species, this one had the frass in two distinct rows at the beginning and widened to an irregular blotch at the end (though it could well have been a purely linear mine that was simply highly contorted toward the end). Also unlike A. vockerothi, I had to wait a whole year for the adult fly to emerge. When Owen told me he needed a name for this new species, Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” popped into my head, so I decided to call it Agromyza princei.


Early in 2017, Julia and I drove to southern California to see the super bloom. We explored some canyons in Arizona on the way there and back, in both cases finding agromyzid leaf mines on a shrub called Wright’s silktassel (Garryaceae: Garrya wrightii). Then we spent a day at Ann and Bruce Hendrickson’s ranch in Edwards County, Texas, where we found what seemed to be the same mines on eggleaf silktassel (G. ovata). Adults from both hosts did in fact prove to be the same species, so the type series of Liriomyza garryae includes specimens from both Arizona and Texas.


Right in the Hendricksons’ yard, we found mines on three different species of wild sage (Lamiaceae: Salvia spp.), all of which turned out to be the work of another new fly species, Phytomyza salviarum. Owen determined this to be a close relative of P. verbenae, a leafminer of western vervain (Verbenaceae: Verbena lasiostachys) that we described in our first paper.


I’d been wondering about the linear mines in the phlox (Polemoniaceae: Phlox paniculata) in my mother’s garden for five years before I finally managed to rear a single adult in July 2017. It’s always possible that linear agromyzid mines on an unusual host are the work of a generalist species like Liriomyza sativae or L. trifolii, but I have yet to encounter either of these in New England, and the adults I rear here always turn out to be something more interesting. Unfortunately I never saw the unique holotype of Liriomyza phloxiphaga alive, but I reared a bunch of adults from woodland phlox (P. divaricata) in Iowa this summer and got photos of them; maybe they will turn out to be the same species.


Two years ago this month, Julia and I met up with Noah Charney and his family at Noah’s mother’s house in Nashville to witness the full solar eclipse. One of my favorite parts of that experience was when I realized that the katydids were in full chorus at the height of the eclipse, and then listened as they seamlessly turned back into cicadas as the sun reemerged. It was also neat how the the light coming through the tiny gaps between the tree leaves caused a million little crescents to appear in the shadows on the ground.


Anyway, just around the corner from Noah’s mother’s house, we spotted some whitish blotch mines in a little patch of hairy leafcup (Asteraceae: Smallanthus uvedalius). These were apparently the same mines that Spencer & Steyskal (1986) discussed as “Unidentified mine No. 9” in their manual of US Agromyzidae, but the adults I reared are the only known specimens of Calycomyza smallanthi.


That’s it for this installment, but never fear, still more descriptions of new fly species are already in progress!

* Eiseman, Charles S. and Owen Lonsdale. 2019. New state and host records for Agromyzidae (Diptera) in the United States, with the description of ten new species. Zootaxa 4661: 1–39.

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Micro Fiber Art

I’m mainly writing this post because of one picture I wanted to share, but first I’ll provide a little context. In the moth genus Bucculatrix, most species start out life as leafminers, forming short linear mines. Bucculatrix locuples is typical in this respect, but is the only species known to feed on alders (Betulaceae: Alnus spp.). Here are vacated mines of two larvae (the one on the right is a little harder to discern because of brown splotches caused by an unrelated injury to the leaf):


After making these initial mines, larvae of most Bucculatrix species exit and spend the rest of their lives feeding on the leaf externally. Here again, B. locuples is no different:


And like its relatives, externally feeding larvae of B. locuples periodically spin flat, oval cocoons in which to molt. At first, the molting cocoons of B. locuples are white as in other species…


…but older larvae spin yellow molting cocoons:


Mature larvae of Bucculatrix species spin an elaborate, elongate cocoon in which to pupate; this is typically white and longitudinally ribbed. Before spinning this, some species first erect a ring of white silken pillars around the future cocoon site; the purpose of this fence is apparently to deter marauding ants, though I find it difficult to picture how it could be effective. In B. locuples, both the ribbed cocoon and the silk fence are made of dark brown silk, and I imagine the yellow tint to the final molting cocoon has something to do with the transition in the type of silk the larva is producing. I have always had a hard time photographing these fence-encircled cocoons due to the limited depth of field in macro lenses (and I’m too busy to bother with focus stacking), but the particular individual I was rearing this month spun its cocoon in a corner at the bottom of its vial (rather than on a flat surface as is typical), so that the pillars were bent toward each other and I was able to get a photo that gives a decent look at what’s going on:


So that’s all I wanted to show you. Oh, and today the moth emerged; it’s the first adult of B. locuples I’ve seen.


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On Monday I spotted these little eggshells on a tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) plant growing under the black cherry (Prunus serotina) tree in my yard:


There aren’t many insect eggs I would identify to species with confidence, but these brown-rimmed hockey pucks were without a doubt deposited by a polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus). This makes four giant silk moth (Saturniidae) species I have now found in my yard. Our first winter here (January 2014), I noted an old parasitized Callosamia promethea cocoon within ten feet of the spot where I found a caterpillar last week; one night in June 2018, an Actias luna adult came fluttering to the bathroom window; and this past winter I found a Hyalophora cecropia cocoon on a trellis in the middle of our front yard (I had previously found a caterpillar munching on birch leaves in the woods behind our house).

All of these are exciting to find in the yard, not just because they are big, fancy moths, but because giant silk moths have been in decline for decades. A major reason for this decline seems to be the parasitoid fly Compsilura concinnata (Tachinidae), a European species that was introduced to North America in 1906 to control gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar). Like many early biological control efforts, this was not well thought out; C. concinnata is an extreme generalist and is known to attack over 200 other insect species (it also isn’t particularly effective against gypsy moths).

On a related note, on Tuesday I found this group of eggshells while Julia and I were harvesting some dill in the garden:


These belong to another import, the multicolored Asian lady beetle (Coccinellidae: Harmonia axyridis). I know this not because the eggs are so distinctive but because the little hatchlings were crawling all over the leaves within a few inches of the eggshells. Here’s one of them chomping an aphid, as it was brought here to do:


Unfortunately, this is another generalist that eats not only all sorts of aphids, scale insects, thrips, and mites, but also eggs of butterflies and moths. In addition to annoying people by invading their houses in large numbers in the winter, this species has also largely displaced our native ladybugs. When this one landed on the lawnmower yesterday…


…I assumed it was one of those native species, but darn it, it turns out to be another European import, the fourteen-spotted lady beetle (Propylea quatuordecimpunctata). When I first saw it it was just beginning to munch on an aphid, but by the time I had run inside, switched lenses, replaced the flash batteries, and run back out with the camera, the aphid had been reduced to a little ball of mush with an antenna sticking out.

I found one other eggshell in my yard this week, and it was not a welcome sight: When I went to check on the promethea caterpillar on the cherry tree, it was looking a little sickly:


See that little white egg?


It’s a tachinid fly egg, which means there is a fly larva—likely Compsilura concinnata—feeding inside the caterpillar. Oh well; at least I know a few giant silk moths are somehow surviving to adulthood to produce the eggs and caterpillars I’m finding in my yard.

(A huge “thank you” to Sam Jaffe of The Caterpillar Lab, who made this post possible by generously lending me his macro lens while mine are being repaired!)

…Added the next morning: I just woke up thinking, “Wait a minute—Compsilura concinnata larviposits!” Females of that species insert larvae directly into their hosts, so this is the egg of some other (presumably native) tachinid. Although it doesn’t change the fact that this caterpillar is likely doomed, this makes me less disappointed to have seen the egg. I’d even be excited if it turned out to be a fly that specializes in giant silk moths, but I just checked the Host-Parasite Catalog of North American Tachinidae (Arnaud 1978), and the half dozen species recorded from Callosamia promethea are all generalists that could just as easily have settled for some run-of-the-mill caterpillar.

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Sharing the Fruit Trees

Periodically I am asked how to get rid of some bug or another. If I am giving a public talk, I want to reply, “have you not been paying attention to anything I’ve said for the past hour?” If the question comes in the form of a comment on this blog, I have to wonder what possessed the person, rather than asking any of the innumerable extension entomologists or pest control specialists out there, to instead ask the author of a website dedicated to celebrating the natural history of insects—it says “Bringing glory to Earth’s small and neglected creatures” right there at the top, for crying out loud.

For future reference, here is the sum total of my experience dealing with insect pests: When Japanese beetles are abundant in my yard, I walk around with a bowl of water (with a drop of soap added to break up the surface tension), knock them into it, and give them to my chickens. When cabbage white caterpillars are abundant on the broccoli or some other Brassica, I pluck them off and give them to the chickens. When the Pegomya leaf-mining flies show up on the spinach or chard, I try to eat the leaves before the eggs hatch or the larvae get too big; if I miss some, those leaves go to the chickens. That’s pretty much it.

Today I was delighted to find larvae of the beetle Baliosus nervosus mining the leaves of our cherry, plum, and medlar trees—all of these were previously undocumented hosts for this species, and the beetles confined their damage to less than one leaf per tree. I was mildly concerned when I saw this mass of tiny caterpillars on one of the plum trees:


I believe these are young larvae of Schizura concinna (Notodontidae), which I found four years ago on the neighboring cherry tree:


August 16, 2015


August 22, 2015

The next year I found some nearly mature ones busily defoliating our young persimmon tree:


September 4, 2016

These caterpillars are hungry and numerous, so they’re not the best thing to have on a fruit tree, but I don’t hold anything against them. Today, as before, I plucked the leaf they were on and moved them to a wild black cherry tree at the edge of the yard, which they can munch to their hearts’ content as far as I’m concerned. There, they were greeted by another caterpillar…


…which appears to be Acronicta radcliffei (Noctuidae). Also on that black cherry tree was this Callosamia promethea caterpillar:


(It was actually hanging head-down, but I rotated this photo 90 degrees to better fit the format of the blog.) Bigger (than 1 cm) moths are not my forte, and I confess to having initially mistaken this for a young cercopia. While I was out documenting the charismatic megafauna on my fruit trees, I figured I might as well get a shot of this caterpillar I’d spotted earlier in the day on the medlar:


This is another notodontid, Schizura unicornis, and it is quite dead—perched atop a logpile of cocoons spun by the microgastrine braconid wasp larvae that until recently were feeding inside it. Look closely and you’ll see that the side of its abdomen is riddled with their exit holes.

It’s just as well that the things I wanted to photograph today were on the large side, because this morning I sent my beloved MP-E 65mm macro lens off to the Canon Factory Service Center to be repaired. This was actually my second MP-E 65, which I’d bought as a backup when the first one developed the same problem, but apparently I’d never gotten around to sending the first one off to be repaired, so I actually sent both lenses off today. Hopefully I don’t come across anything tiny that needs photographing in the next couple of weeks, because I don’t think a third $1000 lens is in the cards for me.

One of the last things I was able to photograph before my backup macro lens gave up the ghost was this 1-mm entedonine eulophid wasp (Horismenus fraternus, I believe), which coincidentally also came from a caterpillar on a rosaceous fruit tree:


On Saturday afternoon, on my way home from teaching a week-long course on leafminers at the Eagle Hill Institute in Maine, I stopped at Mt. Wachusett in eastern Massachusetts to lead an insect walk at a BioBlitz event. The walk ended in an old orchard, where we found several species of leafminers on the apple trees, including underside tentiform mines like this one…


…made by a species of Phyllonorycter, likely blancardella. I collected a few mines to try and rear adult moths, and on Tuesday the wasp emerged from one of them. Yesterday after I had photographed the wasp, I located the mine that had an exit hole and opened it up to see what other evidence the wasp had left behind. I discovered that rather than being a primary parasitoid of the moth larva, this wasp had emerged from the cocoon of a microgastrine braconid wasp (in the genus Pholetesor, I believe), the larva of which was what had actually done in the leafminer.

Here’s a view of the braconid cocoon inside the Phyllonorycter leaf mine, with the eulophid’s exit hole toward the left end:


Had the braconid not been parasitized by the eulophid, here’s what would have emerged from that cocoon:


And had the moth larva not been parasitized by the braconid, here’s what would have emerged from the leaf mine:




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Complete leafminer guide now available!

This weekend I finished the first edition of my Leafminers of North America e-book—1857 pages long (plus a 54-page table of contents, 20-page glossary, and 68-page bibliography), and illustrated with thousands of color photographs. To purchase it or learn more about it, you can click this image of the cover.

Although the book is a “complete” guide in terms of including all previously published information about North American leaf mines—heavily supplemented with previously unpublished observations—I have, as expected, continued to find new things to add on an almost daily basis. Just last week, my third paper with Owen Lonsdale was accepted for publication; it will describe another ten new species of agromyzid flies. And just yesterday, I went on a successful mission to collect more larvae of this Calycomyza species, which appears only in early June, has only been found at a single location, and is so far known only from unidentifiable females (but almost certainly represents another new species):


As a bonus, on my way to look for that species, I discovered two new larval hosts for the adorable Orchestes pallicornis (Curculionidae).


So I already have plans to complete an updated second edition of Leafminers of North America by the end of 2020. My current thought is that I will release the first installment in January, so that I’ll have time to finish up a number of papers as well as get started on a brand new project: a hostplant-based guide to North American sawfly larvae (only 37 of which are leafminers, out of about 1000 species).


I will of course be posting more about that project as it gets underway. In the meantime, anyone who has purchased the full first edition of Leafminers of North America before the end of July 2019 (when I will be teaching my week-long leafminer course at the Eagle Hill Institute in Maine) will receive a free subscription to the second edition.

And for those who just want to contribute to my ongoing efforts to uncover natural history mysteries and share my findings with the world, there is always the “Make a Donation” button at the top of the right sidebar. If everyone reading this chipped in the same amount I do every year to keep this blog ad-free ($30), I could do this full-time! Thank you for reading, whether or not you are able to make a financial contribution.

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