As promised in our last blog post, Graceland Sustainability is back with more photos and facts about insects in the Lamoni area. Now we are highlighting the amazing and helpful arthropods we should see in the area soon, as spring continues to arrive with these recent rains.
As the trees, bushes and flowers blossom, the insects that rely on those blossoms for food will start to appear. Many of them are pollinators, meaning as they feed on nectar from the flowers, they also gather the pollen on their bodies and spread it around as they go from flower to flower. Pollinators aid many plants in reproducing and creating fruit, and some plants can’t do it without them, including many plants that we eat every day.
On Friday, April 14, Graceland Sustainability is hosting the Food Symposium, which is an all-day event (free to students!) featuring keynote speakers from multiple areas of expertise on sustainable food systems. Pollinating insects play a massive role in our food systems, so it only seems appropriate to give them the spotlight now.
Honeybee (Apis Mellifera)
Honeybees are the iconic, striped little insects we will see buzzing around once the weather warms up. The bees we see collecting nectar and pollen are actually sterile female “workers,” meaning they cannot reproduce (that is the queen’s job), but they defend the hive and collect the nectar needed to make honey.
Did you know that honey is actually regurgitated nectar with special, natural enzymes added by the bees to preserve it? The bees store the honey in wax combs to keep for eating over the winter, and that same bee food is what humans collect for its delicious sweetness.
Other than helping humans by creating one of the oldest natural sweeteners we know of, honeybees are important pollinators for native plants and commercial crops. Without them, many of our favorite fruits and vegetables would cease to exist, or their crop yields would greatly decline. Honeybees pollinate apples, peaches, watermelons, pumpkins, peppers, soybeans and much more. Some farmers place beehives in their orchards, because their crops would not be able to bear fruit at all without these little bugs spreading the pollen all around. For being such small creatures, honeybees play a priceless role in our ecosystems and food systems. They are incredible!
Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens)
It can be hard to tell a bumblebee apart from a honeybee, especially if you don’t like flying insects and don’t care to stick around to inspect them when you encounter them. But, if you are like me and find it soothing to watch a bee busying itself among flowers, there are some easy ways to tell the types of bees apart. Bumblebees are larger than honeybees, and they have very fluffy bodies. They also lack the distinct stripes that honeybees have, usually having a solid-colored abdomen, as this common eastern bumblebee does.
Bumblebees do not produce honey in the way that honeybees do, as they do not live in large hives. They live in small groups in underground nests, and they don’t build honeycombs. However, they are still very valuable pollinators like their cousins. The common eastern bumblebee pollinates tomatoes, cucumbers and blueberries, among other commercially grown produce. All that fluff on their bodies is great for collecting and distributing pollen as they fly from blossom to blossom.
Eastern Yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons)
Yellow jackets are not good pollinators, but their appearance is easily confused with our beneficial bee friends. I once heard that the reason Graceland’s mascot is the Yellowjacket is because this small species of wasp is commonly found in the landscaping surrounding the administration building. After living at Graceland for nearly four years, I can definitely say that even if that rumor isn’t 100 percent true, there are definitely a lot of yellow jackets living around the admin building, and they can be seen all over campus during the warm months.
It can be easy to confuse yellow jackets with bees. However, there are a few quick ways you can tell them apart, and it’s a good idea to recognize these differences, because bees are the “good guys” that pollinate, and you don’t want to mistakenly squash one of them (if you’re the bug-squashing type). Yellow jackets have a thinner abdomen than bees. They have a large, black head, thin wings, bright yellow legs and bright yellow stripes on their abdomens. The black stripes on their abdomen are jagged in appearance. All of the bees are plumper and, in my opinion, much gentler looking than any kind of wasp. It’s like bees are the kittens of the bug world, and wasps are the leopards, for lack of a better metaphor. Yellow jackets live in small nests underground or in small holes in trees or buildings.
Unlike bees, yellow jackets hunt insects but also chew on fruits for the juices, as many insects will do. In the fall, the crabapple trees between Briggs and the admin building were dropping a lot of fruit onto the sidewalks, which was smashed to a pulp by human feet. The yellow jackets gathered to feed on the fruit, which was definitely concerning to students as they walked to class.
If you are unfortunate enough to get stung by a wasp or bee, it’s good to keep in mind that honeybees can sting only once before they die, but bumblebees and wasps, like yellow jackets, can sting as many times as they want. Yikes! To avoid being stung, just make sure you aren’t swatting at them or bothering them, and you should be alright. Bees are actually quite docile and likely to leave you alone. However, in my experience, wasps are just jerks sometimes, so if you do get stung by one for a minor offence, such as existing … my condolences!
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus Plexippus)
Monarch butterflies are some of the most fascinating insects found in North America. Over the late summer and fall, millions of monarchs make a mass migration down to Mexico, some of them travelling up to 3,000 miles over several generations. The caterpillars are white, black and yellow striped, and feed exclusively on plants in the milkweed family. Once they change into their pupa state, known as a chrysalis, they appear bright green with little studs of gold. After several days, the orange, black and white colors of the adult butterfly will show through the chrysalis, and the butterfly will hatch out, ready to migrate and/or repeat the life cycle again.
The bright colors of the monarch caterpillar and butterfly indicate to predators that they are poisonous to eat, and this actually comes from the poisonous milkweed that they feed on early in life. Female monarchs have thick, black webbing on their wings, while the males have thinner lines and a dark, black spot visible on the webbing of their hind wings. Since there is no spot present on her hind wings, this butterfly I saw on the disc golf course is a female!
Common Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia Coenia)
The common buckeye is a butterfly found in the southern United States and as far south as Mexico. They can be seen in Iowa during the spring and summer as some of the adults migrate north, sometimes all the way to southern Canada. The caterpillars of this species have spines and little blue spots, but their spines are not venomous. The larvae mostly feed on members of the plantain and snapdragon family, while the adults feed off the nectar of various plants such as aster, gumweed, chicory, peppermint and dogbane.
I found this caterpillar crawling along the sidewalk beside the Cheville Chapel, and I was impressed with its colors, but I was even more impressed with the adult butterfly that I found fluttering around the same area not too long after.
Orange Sulfur Butterfly (Colias Eurytheme)
These little butterflies are found everywhere in the United States except for the Florida peninsula. The male butterflies range from yellow to orange, while the females are typically pale yellow or white, like the one pictured. This female orange sulfur was seen flitting around Founders Lake.
The caterpillars of the orange sulfur are considered pests in the agriculture industry, as some of their host plants include alfalfa, legumes and clover. The caterpillars can do big damage to alfalfa crops. Even so, the fully-grown butterflies still pollinate native Iowan plants, as well as our gardens, as they feed on nectar from plants such as dandelion, milkweed, aster and goldenrod. The larvae also make great food for birds and other insect-eating animals.
All butterflies play an important role in our ecosystems as larvae and as adults, despite their potential to do damage to human crops as hungry caterpillars.
There are many other butterfly and bee species present in the Midwest that do us a massive favor by pollinating our crops and gardens. Other animals that may pollinate plants as they feed on nectar include some species of moths, beetles, flies and even hummingbirds! We can preserve the lives of these amazing creatures and preserve the health of our landscapes and food systems by growing flowering plants that encourage pollinators to stop by, and by making sure we preserve native landscapes, as well, where these native species naturally live.
The Graceland Sustainability program sometimes assists in controlled burns of land that has been taken over by invasive plants, in the hopes of allowing native grasses and flowers to break through and thrive. When our wild ecosystems grow in the way they are supposed to, so do our native animals, from the tiny honeybee to the white-tailed deer.
When Sustainability grows produce in the hoop house and Persall orchard, we also minimize the amount of pesticide we use, as pesticides have the potential to harm these beneficial insects along with the ones we want to eliminate. If you want to help preserve the insects highlighted in this blog post, don’t be shy about planting flowering plants in your yard, and don’t pull up every weed you see. Those pesky dandelions that pop up in the spring are excellent food sources for pollinators.
Doing a simple search online to find out which native flowers are best to plant in your yard to attract bees and butterflies is a good way to support them! If we all work together to take steps such as these in our own lives, we can make Lamoni a perfect place for pollinators to live and thrive. The bees and butterflies would love it, and we love them for all they do, so don’t be afraid to show it!
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