Posts Tagged Black Swallowtail caterpillar

Now you see them, now you don’t

It’s been a week of appearances and disappearances in my yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse and I were checking out our sad little creek, which has morphed into a series of shallow pools separated by sand bars, when we noticed this:

beaver3

That was a large branch of a buttonbush growing beside the creek. All the leafy goodness was removed recently by a beaver.

It quit halfway through this one.

It quit halfway through this one.

We figure it’s probably the work of a juvenile beaver recently expelled from its parents’ territory, because the only other damage we could find was to a stand of naturally occurring hazelnuts that grow downstream from the buttonbush about a hundred yards. If a pair or more of these rodents had moved in, we would be seeing much more damage. The other possibility is that a group has set up camp somewhere in the wetland beyond the creek, which is criss-crossed by a number of channels that eventually feed into our creek downstream of our property. However, if that were the case, I would have thought even our part of the creek would have higher water levels.

Note the striations from those mighty beaver teeth.

Note the striations from those mighty beaver teeth.

I’m hoping it was a juvenile just passing through. If I had a hundred acres, I’d happily share ten with beavers — that’s the average size of the impoundment they prefer to create. But I only have five acres, and they’re full of trees and shrubs that I planted with love and have labored and watched over for decades. So I’m hoping this one moved on after decimating the tastiest woodies it could easily access.

Caterpillars of black swallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel

Caterpillars of black swallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel

My bronze fennel and parsley plants were playing host to about three dozen caterpillars four days ago. They were growing fast, and I was looking forward to searching for their chrysalises when they were ready for that transformation. However, I think they were instead transformed into dinners for my local bird population. I’ve been grateful all summer for the steady work of bluebirds, wrens, gnatcatchers, and warblers as they prevented tomato hornworms from inflicting any serious damage to my tomatoes.

Fat, finalized, and apparently delicious

Fat, fennalized, and apparently delicious

But I should have realized that the same bright eyes that spotted the hornworms would eventually notice the swallowtail caterpillars. A few mornings ago when I came out to inspect their progress, I found one lone caterpillar on a fennel. Thinking it was too exposed there, I moved it to a parsley plant disguised by chive leaves. The birds must have been watching from the trees. My relocated caterpillar didn’t last the day.

This is a tough one for me, but if forced to choose between aiding the reproduction of a beautiful pollinator species and nurturing a healthy horde of insect-devouring feathered flying machines, I think the birds are doing my landscape more good than the swallowtails. Still, it was a jolt to see my fennels suddenly devoid of caterpillars.

Red-spotted purple butterfly

Red-spotted Purple butterfly

As if in compensation, Red-spotted Purple butterflies are suddenly back in my yard. This one was sipping the moist bed in my vegetable garden that I had enriched with compost and deeply watered before I planted it with spinach, lettuce, baby kale, and beet seeds. As of yesterday, germination was evident for all varieties. I see much transplanting and watering of small seedlings in my future.

The greens bed just after planting.

The greens bed just after planting.

I am gambling big time with direct-sowing these veggies, but I had the seed, I’m craving good spinach and lettuce, so I planted. A possible hurricane may get close enough next week to make temperatures soar, but odds are we won’t get any rain out of it. I’ll be lucky to keep the seedlings and the broccoli transplants I’ve added alive until more autumnal temperatures arrive. And if the rains don’t come soon, lack of water may finish them off. But even the faint chance of sweet fall broccoli, savory spinach, crisp lettuce, and maybe even more sugary red beets was more than I could pass on. As any vegetable gardener knows, once you’ve grown — and eaten — your own, it’s very hard to go back to the grocery store.

Soldier beetle enjoying a zinnia

Soldier beetle enjoying a zinnia

Another sign of summer’s waning is the appearance of increasing numbers of soldier beetles. They are mobbing my flowers almost more than the bees.

dragonfly

Sky dragons sporting an array of colors and patterns patrol the skies from dawn till well past sunset. Given their numbers this year, it’s a miracle I’ve seen any butterflies flitting about at all.

Autumn fruits are also coloring up on a wide array of shrubs and trees in my yard, but I’ll save those for another post. For now, I advise my fellow gardeners to keep close eyes on your charges during this transitional time of year. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly miss some of the comings and goings in your patch of green.

A motion-blurred male Spicebush Swallowtail attempts a dalliance with a female enjoying an annual salvia.

A motion-blurred male Spicebush Swallowtail attempts a dalliance with a female enjoying an annual salvia.

A note to my NC piedmont region readers:

I post a number of links of local interest on my Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Along with many extra photos of my yard and gardens, you’ll also find links to relevant local events and to articles of interest. Check it out, and if you like what you see, follow me there.

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Recent Arrivals

Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Although summer heat and drought continue unabated, the quality of sunlight at dawn and dusk has changed. First, dawn is coming later, dusk earlier. But also the angle of the light is changing. Now the sun’s rays spend more time slanting through the trees, golden arrows that spotlight lichen-covered bark, a bit of mossy ground, or a bright cardinal posing on a branch.

Fortex bean trellis

Fortex bean trellis

Both pole and bush beans are losing leaves to time and fungus, but still their growing tips actively push out new shoots and flowers. I’m doling out water to them from the shallow well about every third day, and picking tasty beans about as often. It’s been a good year for the beans.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

The tomatoes are also still producing, albeit much less enthusiastically. As usual, Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes win the prize for prolonged productivity. If I could give them more water, I’m sure they would produce even more heavily, but a handful of fruits every other day is more than enough to quell our tomato hankerings.

Broccoli tent

Broccoli tent

Last weekend at the local farmers’ market, a gentleman was selling vigorous seedlings of a number of broccoli, chard, and collard varieties. I never get around to starting fall crops in time, because my little greenhouse is too hot this time of year. I couldn’t resist the healthy broccoli babies. I got 6 Packman — a southern standard in these parts — and 6 Arcadia — a variety I’ve never tried that is supposed to be very cold-resistant, thereby extending the broccoli season into late fall — theoretically, anyway. We love fall broccoli at my house, because the frosts seem to sweeten them, but there’s a fine line between frost and freeze, and you can’t always predict when that line will be crossed.

Enter my little tent above. Yesterday, I planted my broccoli babies, mulched them with compost, and watered them very, very thoroughly. I draped spun garden fabric over metal hoops to enclose the plants completely. Right now, that’s mainly to keep out the cabbage moths that love to lay their eggs on broccoli, resulting in green loopers chomping the plants to stubs. As cooler temperatures arrive, the tent will protect the plants from frost damage; sometimes it even deflects the first few freezes. I leave one side loosely tacked down so that I can lift it easily for watering, because even though the fabric does let water through, much does bounce off. And the rains continue to avoid my house anyway. We are so very dry here that it hurts me to walk around the yard and see all my suffering, wilting green friends.

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

The Writing Spider whose web was draped parallel to the tomato trellis relocated herself. Now she has anchored her home to the trellis on one side and a tall basil plant on the other, stretching across a garden path to optimize her chances of catching unwary fliers. I think it’s working for her, as you can see.

Sunflower multiplicity

Sunflower multiplicity

Of the five sunflowers (Sunflower ‘Birds and Bees’ from Renee’s Garden) that managed to grow for me this dry summer season, four produced single large flowers on top of their stalks, while this one, which bloomed last, produced multiple, smaller heads. The pollinators seem to feel that size doesn’t matter.

Black swallowtail caterpillars

Black swallowtail caterpillars

A few insect species that I normally see by June have only just recently appeared in my garden this year. Case in point: Black Swallowtails and their caterpillars. Finally, the bronze fennel I plant especially for their caterpillars to dine on is covered in these colorful, voracious critters.

Carolina mantis

Carolina mantis

After only seeing the Chinese mantises all summer, I was quite relieved to spot this native Carolina Mantis staked out on my Autumn Daffodil daylily in the front garden. They are much smaller and differently colored. This one did not like being photographed and kept jumping about, hence the slightly blurred photos.

Waiting for unwary pollinators

Waiting for unwary pollinators

That’s the tip of a daylily petal, so you can see how relatively small this one was. I don’t think it was full-grown, but this species never attains the size of the Chinese mantises that often displace them from their preferred habitats.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail

The most abundant dark swallowtail butterfly in my yard is the Spicebush Swallowtail, probably because the shrub for which it is named grows all over my yard. Finally yesterday I spotted my first Pipevine Swallowtail. The shimmery blue of their hind wings is unmistakeable, but it is very hard to get a decent photo of them, because they drink nectar while hovering — just like hummingbirds. In photo after photo, I end up with motion-blurred wings.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

I planted some native pipevines two years ago in the hopes of attracting more of these beauties. I suspect the drought may have damaged them; I’ve been afraid to look, because I just don’t have any water for them.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

This dragonfly showed up a few days ago and posed on one of my ornamental grasses. I’ve never seen dragonfly wings edged in gold before.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer's waning.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer’s waning.

Tall Formosa Lilies lean from the weight of their enormous white trumpets. Their sugary fragrance perfumes the humid morning air.

Finally!

Finally!

I’ll close with this somewhat fuzzy shot. The point here is that I managed to get two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in one photo. For most of the summer, even this common species has been sparse. Finally, in the last week, they are everywhere, drifting from blooming abelia to bright lantana to Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower. Finally, I am having to walk carefully to avoid colliding with these floating lovelies.

It’s been a long, dry summer, and we’ve more to go before autumn arrives. It lifts my spirits to see these recent arrivals. Better late than never, as the saying goes.

Now if we can just persuade that tropical system out in the Atlantic Ocean to send its moisture — but not its winds — our way, that would be a fine ending for this season, and a great opener for the next.

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Garden Clean-Up Bonuses

Black Swallowtail caterpillar

Decades of vegetable gardening in the Piedmont of North Carolina have taught me the value of post-growing-season clean-up. Our warm and muggy climate offers many opportunities for harmful insects and diseases to make themselves at home. And in the last decade, I’ve noticed that climate change has made our winters much less reliably cold. Prolonged cold spells, say, two weeks when the highs never top 45 degrees Farenheit, and nightly lows lingering in the teens and twenties just don’t seem to happen anymore.

Without those long cold spells to kill overwintering insects and diseases, my best weapon against them is garden clean-up. So as soon as I can manage after our first killing freeze, I remove every speck of dead vegetable plant and annual flowers and herbs from the vegetable garden area. I am not sufficiently dedicated in my composting techniques to be certain it gets hot enough to kill loitering diseases on my dead veggie leaves, so I bag them up and take them to the dump. It’s the only way I can be sure the bad guys don’t gain an easy foothold in my garden.

I’ve found that it’s best to do this as soon as possible, so that any evils lurking among browned tomato vines and limp cucumber leaves are removed before they multiply. It’s hard on my aging hands and back to laboriously cut off every strip of tomato tie attached to the trellis. And my nose inevitably gets sneezy as dried bits of vegetable matter released from yanked stems float on the breezes and all over me. But the effort is worth a few aches. I’ve seen what happens when I wait until spring to remove the remains of the previous year’s garden. Disease and bug problems are always much worse.

Here’s a shot of a piece of the garden with its cleaned trellises:

Fewer places left for pest diseases and insects to hide

The white flowers are the Sweet-Alyssums-that-would-not-die. That’s what I’m calling these “annuals” that I grew from seed last spring. Pollinators are enjoying them on warm days. The deep green plants are crimson clover, which I sowed about six weeks ago. They serve as a winter cover crop on my beds.

In addition to fall clean-up, I also rotate crops to reduce pest problems. You should never grow members of the same plant family in the same spot two years in succession because it allows disease and insect pests of those families to prosper at the expense of your crops. The Solanaceae family is the trickiest. That includes peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes; they all share genes and pests. Likewise, you must be mindful not to plant cucumbers, melons, gourds, and pumpkins in the same area two years in a row, since they all belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. Ditto for beans and peas (Leguminosae).

I’ve been working for the last couple of weeks to cut, pull, and bag all the dead vegetable matter and their ties. Wonder Spouse helped me with the taller parts of the trellises that I can’t reach — thanks, Big Guy. Yesterday while I was finishing up, I found the caterpillar in the above photo dining on one of my Bronze Fennels. I had noticed that my fennels were looking chewed on, but I hadn’t spotted the culprit until yesterday.

I confess I was surprised to find a Black Swallowtail caterpillar still alive and eating my plants. But I was also delighted; I plant Bronze Fennel in my garden specifically for these caterpillars. Black Swallowtail larvae dine on members of the carrot family, including Queen Anne’s Lace, parsley, carrots, dill, and fennel. They also like the herb rue.  During the growing season when I find one of these caterpillars chewing on a dill or parsley plant, I relocate them to the fennel. This way I can maintain plenty of my favorite herbs and also get to enjoy the beauty of the butterflies when these caterpillars metamorphose.

My favorite caterpillar reference (Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner) says that Black Swallowtails are increasingly rare in the northeastern part of the US, because fields and agricultural lands have largely been replaced by concrete and forest. Members of the carrot plant family don’t generally grow in such places, so there are no food plants for this butterfly.

I’m happy to report that this species is a common visitor of flowers in my summer gardens, and I’m happy to ensure their food supply by offering up Bronze Fennels for their consumption. I suspect the caterpillar in the above photo is about to morph into its chrysalis form for overwintering. I found one of its siblings already metamorphosed, tucked against a rusty trellis stake nearby here:

Black Swallowtail chrysalis

Sweet dreams, garden friends. May your winter musings make next year’s growing season the most richly vibrant one yet.

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