Welcome to our fourth year of Backyard Blogging! At the start of 2018, I started posting photos of all the insects I was seeing in my yard. It’s a small space, and yet there was a lot of action. All I had to do was look. Insects eating plants, and each other. Caterpillars growing and making chrysalides, and pollinators on flowers. And on and on.
Over time, I started paying attention to the plants in the yard. I plant native to attract these insects, but also, a variety of weeds pop up. I started identifying them- the natives, a few naturalized nonnatives with some wildlife value, and of course the ones I had to pull. And then of course, insects are the foundation of the food web. They take the energy that plants take from the sun, and make it available to other animals- birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
What we’ll see on this page is that, for one thing, the insects in your yard are a surprisingly diverse lot. And even more when you plant to attract them. We’ll also see the seasonality of a yard, and the many interactions between plants and animals. It’s as busy an ecosystem as any I cover for the Ecology Blog
The 2021 Backyard Blog will work the same was as in 2018. I’ll add new posts over time to the top of the page, so that the days will appear in reverse order.
January 9, 2021
At the right in this photo, we see what appears to be a hole dug by an insect. Again, bare ground and fallen leaves are critical habitat for insects.
January 4, 2021
I dutifully cut back our nonnative milkweed in October, and it’s finally starting to grow new leaves. And just as soon as it did, we have milkweed aphids. In another part of the yard, we have native aquatic milkweed, which doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter. Those plants don’t have aphids, though that may have something to do with the milkweed assassin nymph I found on a neighboring plant.
I may be in the minority here, but I do love the look of flowers gone to seed. It’s as much a part of winter as robins and mistletoe.
January 3, 2021
Flocks of robins are still flying around the neighborhood, even if they’re not raiding our trees in the same large numbers as New Years Eve and Day. I can’t help but notice how many berries are still on the trees. Was this an especially productive year for the cherry laurels? Pollinators flocked to their many flowers in May, and now I’m noticing more migratory birds on them in the winter. Was 2020 a good year for these trees, or am I finally noticing their ecological value?
January 1, 2021
On the last day of 2020, flocks of robins and cedar waxwings feasted on cherry laurel berries over our yard. The flocks have been hopping around the neighborhood, with robins making an appearance for a little while in the morning.
With insects scarcer in the winter months, berry producing trees like cherry laurels and hollies provide food for both our resident birds, and winter migrants like robins and cedar waxwings. Native vines like Virginia creeper and even poison ivy produce fruit eaten by birds as well. And then there’s mistletoe, which grows as a hemiparasite in trees, and fruits when those trees are leafless.
The mistletoe above is in our pecan tree. When robins visit our yard, I look to see if they’re eating any of those white berries (or any of the leaf footed bug nymphs I saw on the chunk of mistletoe that fell onto the driveway). They like to hang out there, anyhow.
On the warmer winter days, I’ve been seeing wasps flying in the yard. I disturbed this mason wasp’s rest to take a photo. It was so still, like some of the bees and moths I’ve seen walking about as temperatures dropped in the fall. Many of those animals were dying, their offspring spending the colder months as larvae or pupae in leaf litter, or in the soil. Wasps seem to be a little hardier.
So what is hiding in the leaf litter?
Speaking of larvae, pupae, and leaf litter, I found a few things when cleaning leaves out of a raised bed. I do like to let leaves alone in a lot of the yard. If I like seeing ground nesting bees, and much of the diversity of insect life I that enjoy, they need this habitat. But I do clean leaves out of raised beds with seedlings. Many animals that eat fallen leaves- snails, slugs, and roly-polies- will eat seedlings as well.
Clearing leaves, I find a lot of slugs and snails I move to other parts of the yard. But there are other interesting things as well.
So many moths have similar looking caterpillars and chrysalides. I wonder if this one started high up in a tree and fell to the ground.
Gall wasps make so many different types of galls. Galls are structures made by this type of wasp, which injects a chemical into a leaf or branch when it lays eggs. The chemical creates a structure for the gall wasp larvae, which, depending on the species, can be perfectly round and translucent, or look like an acorn, or be pink and fuzzy.
From what I could tell when comparing species on iNaturalist, and confirmed by one other user, this is a gall midge gall. Gall midges are flies, but they do the same kind of thing as gall wasps. This is a close up of the structure we see in the first leaf photo above.
Anyhow, this is the life I found under some leaves after a few minutes of searching. Pretty Cool!
Taking a closer look at some fallen branches
And while picking up branches, I found a couple more overwintering moth pupae.
Apps and Citizen Science mentioned in the Backyard Blog
Identify plants, animals, lichens, and fungi in your yard. Other users correct your identifications if you’re wrong, and even if they don’t, it can be a good springboard to further research.
Instant identification, and it doesn’t record your location. This is a good option for kids with phones.
Enter information about monarch caterpillars in your yard, and help researchers get a sense of the health of the monarch population that year, and how and when they’re migrating.
Record the number of pollinators visiting your flowers, and help researchers map pollinator activity across the country.