Wild Ideas: The world of insects just outside

With more than 900,000 known species, insects comprise approximately 80 percent of the world’s species of organisms, which makes them the most diverse group, according to Encyclopedia Smithsonian (si.edu). Being a huge fan of these little critters, I just have to walk around my yard on any given day to see species that are new to me.

The perplexing bumblebee is one of many bee species that feed on purple coneflower, helping to pollinate it in the process. Photo by Pam Owen.
The perplexing bumblebee is one of many bee species that feed on purple coneflower, helping to pollinate it in the process. Photo by Pam Owen.

With the former vegetable garden next to my house mostly left to go wild, it’s now a forest of pokeberry, fleabane and other native plants that attract insects, particularly pollinators. Purple coneflowers that were planted at the lower edge attract the greatest diversity of species there.

Behind my house, I’ve turned a former incinerator ring into a garden of mostly herbs and native wildflowers. Native phlox that had been part of a garden there years ago has reestablished itself, and I added in some coneflowers and a couple of butterfly-weed plants, although the latter are getting a slow start.

Earlier in the summer, when only nasturtiums were blooming in the herb garden, some really interesting bugs were hunting on them, primarily predatory wheel bugs in various instars (life stages). While a few other insects were hanging around, a wider assortment showed up when the coneflowers started to bloom. I’ve been doing my best to document them with the limited camera equipment I have. (See the photos below and more on my blog, Wild Ideas in the Blue Ridge.)

There are so many bugs and beetles in various instars among the flowers in the gardens that I’ve been using a website, BugGuide.net, to help with identification. The subtle differences among many species can be daunting, so I often take advantage of the website’s option of uploading photos for experts to identify. I usually get a response within a few hours (often within minutes) for fairly common species; less-common species or those that are very similar to others can take longer.

Looking like its namesake, this hummingbird moth is particularly fond of native phlox, into which it’s dipping its tongue. Primarily nocturnal, it will also show up at dusk, on cloudy days and even in full daylight. Photo by Pam Owen.
Looking like its namesake, this hummingbird moth is particularly fond of native phlox, into which it’s dipping its tongue. Primarily nocturnal, it will also show up at dusk, on cloudy days and even in full daylight. Photo by Pam Owen.

In one case, I thought a tiny bug was a lady beetle, but the one reply I got back was that it was more likely a stink bug nymph. I couldn’t find it in a pocket-sized guide I’ve found useful lately – “Field Guide to Stink Bugs of Agricultural Importance in the Upper Southern Region and Mid-Atlantic States” (available from the Virginia Cooperative Extension) – so I’m still waiting for the BugGuide experts to nail down the identification. Once a species’ identity is verified, the photo of it is added to the website’s extensive photo database to help in future identification efforts.

The bees that are coming to the gardens are mostly common eastern bumble bees and carpenter bees, but I’ve also been seeing a lot of another species, the perplexing bumble bee, which is new to me. This lovely, medium-sized bee is covered all over with the bright yellow fuzz that only appears in patches on its cousins. The week before I had found a twice-stabbed stink bug – also new to me, but in the stink-bug field guide.

The coneflowers are now fading, but the phlox is in full bloom, attracting even more insect interest, particularly Lepidoptera. At any given time during the day, a half-dozen or more butterflies are feeding on it. Most are common species, including eastern tiger and spicebush swallowtails, silver-spotted skippers, cabbage whites, eastern tailed-blues, eastern commas and great spangled fritillaries, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by two moths that have been showing up. Both are clearwings, so named because part of their wing membrane is clear. In the sphinx moth family, they mimic other insects. One, the snowberry clearwing, is the size and coloring of a bumble bee; the other, the hummingbird clearwing, is larger and looks like a hummingbird.

While I can identify most common butterfly species, and sphinx moths are usually distinct enough to sort out, other moths can be a real challenge. There are many more species of them than butterflies, and great similarity among them. Although BugGuide offers help with identifying these, I usually go to Butterflies and Moths of North America, which has identification tools and also offers the option of uploading photos for experts to identify. Recently I sent a photo of a grayish but pretty little moth I found on the wall of my house, which was identified as the bent-line carpet moth.

This wheel bug nymph, although less than half an inch, is lethal to its insect prey. Like others in the assassin-bug family, it stabs its prey to death with its long, sharp proboscis. Photo by Pam Owen.
This wheel bug nymph, although less than half an inch, is lethal to its insect prey. Like others in the assassin-bug family, it stabs its prey to death with its long, sharp proboscis. Photo by Pam Owen.

Interesting insects are also showing up outside the gardens. Early in July I’d been seeing scores of what looked from a distance like bumble bees hovering low over the yard. I couldn’t figure out why they’d be cruising where there were no flowers, so I finally caught up to one to see what was going on. It turned out to be a female green June bug. One after another, these bugs were landing on the ground and digging in to bury their eggs.

Goldenrod in another small garden and around the forest edge should bloom soon, and there are plenty of other wildflowers still to go. Each will attract its own set of insects, so I’m keeping my camera handy.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 278 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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