Wild Ideas: Summer wildflowers and their insect fans

Growing up in Virginia, I remember most July Fourths being horribly hot, damp or both. This year we got that weather before the event, in the form of Hurricane Arthur. Once the storm had passed through, we were blessed with a lovely holiday weekend, with moderate heat, a nice breeze and low humidity. Putting aside the plans I’d had to catch up on housework and gardening, I set out to see what was blooming in nearby meadows and along the roadsides.

Bumblebees are among the many pollinators enjoying the nectar or pollen of butterfly weed, a milkweed that is now in bloom in meadows throughout Rappahannock.Pam Owen
Bumblebees are among the many pollinators enjoying the nectar or pollen of butterfly weed, a milkweed that is now in bloom in meadows throughout Rappahannock.

Now that summer is here, our meadows are sporting a variety of bright yellow, orange, red, blue, purple and white blossoms set against a lush green backdrop. Although a wide variety of wildflowers bloom this time of year, some dominate most meadows, including several species of bright-yellow sunflowers, ox-eyed daisies and three species of fleabane with white blossoms with yellow centers, delicate white Queen Anne’s lace (a wild carrot) and common yarrow (which can also have yellow). I also found a few patches of purple coneflower, bright-orange butterfly weed and, along the edges of the forest, bright-red trumpet vine, a favorite of hummingbirds.

A coral hairstreak butterfly enjoys the nectar or pollen of butterfly weed.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A coral hairstreak butterfly enjoys the nectar or pollen of butterfly weed.

While I tried to focus on photographing the flowers, what really caught my interest were the many insects I found on them. Bees, wasps, flies (some of which mimic bees), beetles, butterflies and other invertebrates were enjoying the floral largesse. Essential to plant reproduction, these insects spread pollen from flower to flower as they feed on nectar or pollen. After having few berries and other wild fruits in some spots around the state last year, it’s good to see so many pollinators at work this year.

Of all the insect pollinators, the most common are bees and wasps, in the Hymenoptera order of insects. Although bumblebees of various species were plentiful this past weekend, they were outnumbered by sweat bees. Coming in colors ranging from bright metallic green to black with white or yellow stripes, I found these waspish, half-inch long bees on pretty much every species of flower.

Pollinators were not the only insects enjoying the blooms. Some were eating the foliage, and some were predators, laying in wait for other invertebrates to feed on. I found a silver-spotted skipper butterfly dining next to an assassin bug on one purple coneflower. Although well equipped with a needle-like mouthpart with which to stab and suck out the juices of its prey, the assassin bug didn’t seem much interested in tackling the much-larger butterfly.

Although an introduced plant, the common daylily has naturalized well and is now ubiquitous in Virginia along roadsides and in meadows and forest edges.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Although an introduced plant, the common daylily has naturalized well and is now ubiquitous in Virginia along roadsides and in meadows and forest edges.

Nearby in the same coneflower patch, which had been chewed up by the weather and insects, were a great spangled fritillary butterfly, a black-and-yellow lichen moth and many bees and wasps. With its leonine bright-gold fur and fierce face, my favorite among these bees was Bombus perplexus, commonly known as perplexing bumblebee.

One of my favorite wildflowers blooming this time of year is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a milkweed with gorgeous reddish-orange blossoms. The one I have growing in one of my tiny gardens has yet to bloom, but I found some in meadows in lower elevations.

Among the insects attracted to butterfly weed are monarch butterflies. Although it’s a rare treat to see a monarch here at all these days (see last week’s column on their decline), in one patch I did find a lovely little coral hairstreak butterfly. Mostly brownish-gray above, it has a row of bright red dots on the underside of its wings, another butterfly that’s mostly gray but with a row of oranges dots on the underside of its hind wing, near the outer edge.

A tiny metallic green sweat bee feeds on the nectar of common yarrow.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A tiny metallic green sweat bee feeds on the nectar of common yarrow.

This hairstreak is “particularly fond of butterfly weed in the east,” according to the Kaufman Focus Guides’ “Butterflies of North America.” Although the guide lists this hairstreak as “often common” in the East, I’d never seen or heard of one, and some experts I contacted also said they’d seen only a few of them in the years they’d been observing butterflies. Perhaps if we planted more butterfly weed.

Moving from meadow to roadside in my wildflower exploration, I found native phlox, ranging in color from light pink to deep magenta, and several ubiquitous introduced species: Crown vetch (pale pink to purple), cool-blue chicory and bright-orange common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva, also commonly known as orange daylily, tawny daylily or ditch lily). Although it is ubiquitous here, the common daylily is neither a true lily nor a native of Virginia. Daylilies, in the Xanthorrhoeaceae plant family, are from Eurasia.

Also not native is the white, pink and purple clover that is blooming in open areas. In my yard, clover blossoms are attracting hundreds of honeybees. Although these bees are another introduced species, they are critical to agriculture and under stress from many factors, so I was happy to see them.

While some of our native pollinators are drawn to the introduced wildflowers as much as the native ones, native plants generally offer better value to more native wildlife. For references on native plants and their wildlife uses, visit NighthawkCommunications.net, and click on the “Nature Resources” tab.

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 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.”