Let’s find skipper butterflies in Maryland using iNaturalist!

A Silver-spotted Skippper on wild bergamont flowers in Maryland, observed recently by iNaturalist user Andy Wilson

I have been writing blog posts for Maryland Grows on a regular basis for a while. To do this, I usually meet with Christa, the blog manager, every 6 months and plan on the topics I will cover over the next few months. When we do this, we seek to cover the needs we see from readers, but sometimes the topics come to us as a result of our discussions. This is exactly what happened for today’s topic. Today, let me tell you the story of how this came to be, and at the same time show you a great free tool available at our (literal) fingertips!

The story

Picture myself and Christa on Zoom, planning dates and topics for the next few months. It is February and it is cold outside. We have been making our way through the upcoming months, thinking of what each one will look and feel like, and what will be growing and buzzing around in each of them. August comes. How is August in Maryland? What do we usually see around? What issues are common in green spaces in August?

I think of August and in my very pollination-biologist-biased way start thinking of the pollinators we see in August… And what comes to me is “butterflies!” I remember writing about butterflies in the past, so maybe butterflies are a bit redundant as a blog topic. However, I don’t remember writing about a specific group of butterflies called “skippers,” which are common in Maryland. So, sure, let’s write about skippers, but what skippers are around in August? As we discuss and try to narrow down the topic, I open this incredible tool I use very regularly to learn about local species, report observations I make, and do research in my lab. This magical incredible tool is called iNaturalist.

So, there I am, opening iNaturalist’s website, and doing a quick search to find out the most common and most abundant skippers we find in Maryland in August. I am doing this, and Christa is intrigued; what am I doing? How am I figuring this out? I decide to share my screen to show her what I’m doing. Christa is amazed. You can do all that with iNaturalist?! The world needs to know! So, there we have it. Our blog topic showed itself to us. Today’s blog will be about what iNaturalist is, how to use it, and what type of information we can share with and learn from it. I hope that this blog will motivate you to start using it as well, and, like me, every time learn something new about species here and elsewhere in the world.

iNaturalist; ever heard of it?

We live in the times of social networks, like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook… And as it turns out, social networks are really useful to science too! iNaturalist is one of those networks!

iNaturalist is a global social network that allows people to submit, find, and explore biodiversity observations from around the world. What does this mean? This means that through this network, every time a person observes an organism anywhere in the world, they can take a picture of it, upload it to iNaturalist, and then have the network help them identify what it is through its picture (using image recognition software), its location, its date, and the input of other members. This information is then stored in a public database, which can then be explored easily by anybody, including scientists, you, me, kids, conservation agencies, and more! At the end of the day and using all these data, the network can output maps and other information of any species ever added, allowing for the reported localities to be found, and, if the user wants to, visited to try to see the organism in question. Today, iNaturalist has over 5 million users worldwide, with over 109 billion observations of over 380,000 species!

OK. But how does iNaturalist work?

To explain this, let’s come back to my skippers story. I am talking to Christa and want to know what the most abundant skipper in Maryland may be, and whether it is present in August. To do this, I first go to the iNaturalist website (if on a computer; otherwise, I would open the app on my phone). This is what the page looks like.

Screen shot of the iNaturalist home page

Once I get to that page, I click on “Explore” on the top left, which will open a search box, where I can type “Skippers” under species, and “Maryland” under location.

screenshot of how to search on iNaturalist website

And here is where the fun starts. When I do this, I start accessing all the data that all people who ever submitted data have provided, allowing me as a citizen and as a potential blog writer to benefit from the power of what we call “citizen science”. But let’s come back to the story. At this point, I have my first list of results, which looks something like this:

Screen shot of iNaturalist page showing skippers in Maryland

Here, I can see that there are several thousand observations of skippers in Maryland and that 48 species are recorded. If I select “SPECIES” I can see each species, their names, and the number of observations submitted for each. And bingo! This is one of the things I was after! I now can know what are the likely most common species, since those that have been seen many times are likely also the most abundant and common. Here, three species are kind of at the top with over 2000 observations each: Sachems, Zabulon, and Silver-spotted skippers.

Cool. I have a species selection now, but are they abundant in August? Let’s see that for Sachems and you can check the other ones yourself 😊. If I click on Sachems, the following opens up:

Screen shot from iNaturalist showing Sachem butterfly

This is the page that gives ALL information on Sachems. Here, I can see that skippers have been observed a lot and recently by specific people, but most importantly, I can see a little figure that shows when most observations happened, an indication of when the species is the most and least abundant throughout the year. If I filter this page by location (using the tool on the top right) and for MD, it seems that in August we are likely to see these skippers, but that we may see them more at the end of August than at the beginning of the month. So, maybe skippers are a good species to talk about.

But instead of telling that myself, let’s have iNaturalist tell you about it. How? Click on the “About” tab right below the picture! This is (the beginning of) what will appear:

screen shot of iNaturalist species info page

Want to know if the species is protected or rare here or elsewhere? Click on “Status” and you will have the most updated information!

Great, so now we can learn so much about the species. However, how do I find where to find it in Maryland? Simple! If you click on “Map”, a map of all observations will appear, with regions that have the most observations shown with boxes of darker color shades.

Screen shot from iNaturalist - map of Sachem species

This map can be zoomed into your town, neighborhood, or whatever region you would like to focus on, and, once you’re ready, you can even hover over the red boxes to select specific observations you may want to look at. Doing so will tell you where, when, and by whom the observation was made, and you will be able to see a picture of the observed organism. If one clicks on “View” on this observation, all its details will come up in a new window.

Screen shot from iNaturalist - observations of Sachem species
Screen shot from iNaturalist - observation of Sachem species butterfly in Maryland

Wow. I can have so much information here… including access to open access and lovely pictures of the species I am looking for (the small CC mark on the picture means that this picture is in the public domain).

And one more thing. Did you notice the green flag “Research Grade” that appears by the name? This flag indicates that the observation identification has been confirmed by many users, and for that reason can be trusted so much that it has a quality level that makes it appropriate for research purposes (these are the types of data we use in my lab). Isn’t that cool?

Anyways, a blog is supposed to be short and this one is getting long, so I will not go into how to submit observations to iNaturalist. However, know the following: you can do it from your phone or computer, and this is very easily explained in a couple of super neat and short how-to tutorials here.

Oh, and last but not least! iNaturalist is global! This means that you can submit and consult observations anywhere in the world. Are you on vacation and want to know what species are there? No problem, check the app and it will help you with that! Did you just move to a new place and wished you were more knowledgeable of the species in that new place? Great, iNaturalist can give you a hand with it!

I can speak about the wonders of this network for hours, but really the best way to realize it is by using it! So, go ahead and take a look at it and I hope you will find it as useful and easy-to-use as I do. And who knows, maybe after doing it, it will also inspire you to write about something you learned as it did for me and Christa! 😊

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

The more the merrier: community actions for pollinators

bumble bee on a purple coneflower

Besides it being the month when summer starts, June is a great month because it is when Pollinator Week happens! 😊

Tagging along with that week, in today’s post I want to talk about some actions you can take with(in) your community to help pollinators! Because, if we want to help pollinators, a very valid and effective way to amplify your actions is to get others on board! Here, a non-extensive list of ideas.

1. Become a Bee City

Ask your City or Campus to become a certified Bee City or Bee Campus USA. Bee Cities and Campuses are certifications that cities and campuses across the USA can obtain if they implement a series of actions (“commitments”) established by the Xerces Society. Once these actions are done, the City or Campus in question becomes certified as a pollinator-friendly space. The types of actions outlined are really activities that lead to increasing education on pollinators and pollination, to improving pollinator habitat on the institution’s land, to promoting actions in the way that the institution functions that may allow for increasing pollinator support (see here for city commitments and here for campus commitments). Becoming a Bee City or Campus is not hard, and most institutions say yes if their members ask. If you think this is something you would like your City and/or Campus to do, reach out to your representatives or leadership and get them on board! And to have an idea of what cities and campuses are already involved, take a look at the Bee City USA affiliates.

2. Organize a Pollinator Week Event

Pollinator Week is a National event organized by the Pollinator Partnership and includes many possible actions that lead to increasing pollinator survival and/or awareness. This year, Pollinator Week will be happening June 20-26. One can participate in activities already organized by others, or one can propose and host an activity! If you would like to get together with your community and organize an event, do it, and then submit it to the Pollinator Week event list! That way, others will know about it and will participate as well! To submit (or participate in) an event, go to the bottom of the Pollinator Partnership page.

Here are some activities happening in Maryland: bee hotel building workshop in College Park, MD, webinar in Greenbelt, MD, pollinator catch-and-release in Saint Leonard, MD, and several activities in Howard Co., MD.

Pollinator Week, June 20-26, 2022 logo

3. Ask your city to host a No-Mow Month in early-spring

Early-spring pollinators emerge usually when very few plants are flowering, meaning that the early spring is a critical time for these pollinators. In human-occupied landscapes like cities or suburban areas, a lot of the landscape is occupied by lawns, which can provide some flowers early in the spring. No-Mow Month (usually April or May, depending on the city’s conditions) is an action that seeks to allow the availability of the early flowers in lawns so that local pollinators can survive during the early spring. Once other plants in the landscape start flowering (usually at the end of April in most of Maryland), the lawn can be mowed with this not negatively affecting pollinators.

It is important to note that this action is based on voluntary participation, meaning that participants opt-in (instead of being mandated to do it). This action has been shown to be effective in increasing pollinator diversity and abundance in regions where it is implemented, and is not associated with excessive lawn growth because it occurs so early in the season. Further, it can be strengthened with native plantings, which can boost its effects and also support local landscapers during the reduced-mow month. Localities where the action has been implemented tend to have high adoption rates, increased nature awareness, and willingness to further support biodiversity around homesteads, with no- to very-reduced vermin occurrence.

This action usually requires some temporal amendments to City Code (e.g., to ensure that participants will not be penalized if their lawns surpass the maximum allowed height during the no-mow month) so it needs approval by City Councils. Although this may sound really complicated, it is not, and several Cities in Maryland have implemented this program very successfully during the month of April (see here for College Park, MD, and here for Greenbelt, MD), following Appleton, WI’s trailblazing action. If you think this is something you would like to implement in your community, get in touch with these cities’ Bee City USA committees so they can share their expertise, and then contact your representatives to ask them to adopt this action where you live!

No Mow April Collage Park sign

4. Ask your community to establish pollinator-friendly plants and nesting resources

Communities can also support pollinators through the way they decide to landscape their land. Requesting your community leadership to implement pollinator-friendly gardens and offer nesting resources for pollinators (e.g., bee hotels, create small wild spaces) is a really good way to help pollinators at a larger scale. To do this, you can get in touch with you City/Town Horticulturist and/or Public Works people, and request this. If you would like to implement this in your neighborhood and on private land, you can coordinate with your neighbors and create plots of native plants or small nesting areas in everybody’s green spaces. A very effective way to do this in Maryland is by establishing a neighborhood Green Team. If you would like to know about how to do this, take a look at this page of recommended native plants and this list of native plants that do well in our area.

Chart listing easy-to-grow native plants that support pollinators

5. Ask you city/town/neighborhood to adopt an IPM plan

Although we tend to think about helping pollinators only by planting flowers and maybe creating nesting spaces, pollinators also can be helped by the way we manage our landscapes. For example, herbicides and pesticides can be sometimes very harmful to pollinators, or cutting plants at certain times of the year can really negatively affect them. Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, or changing the way we manage our own private land is one possibility. However, cities, towns, neighborhoods, schools, and campuses also manage their public lands! For that reason, they can also implement actions to manage spaces in ways that support pollinators.

chart explaining Integrated Pest Management in 5 steps

A very good way to institutionalize this is by requesting these institution to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans. IPM is a way of controlling pests and increasing “beneficial” organisms in a given space by means that reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. These plans establish a framework that allows institutions to still control pests and diseases, while reducing the negative impacts on biodiversity that some conventional practices have. These plans can be very general or very specific, and if your institution does not have one, it may be time to ask them to implement one! To do this, get in touch with your institutional horticulturist or your government representative. Here are some examples: city, campus and school district plans.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Bees to look out for: leaf-cutter bees!

Spring is well-established and many flowers have already started to bloom. In my garden, I have seen several sizes and shapes of insects visiting flowers, going from small flower flies to butterflies, to very tiny and shiny, fuzzy large, and very large bees. And with all these flying organisms starting to come around us, I thought today would be a really good time to introduce you to some really cool bees that are very common in our area: the leaf-cutter bees!

What are leaf-cutter bees?

As its name suggests, these are solitary bees known to cut leaves (now you may be thinking, “duh, I could have guessed that without a blog post”, but bear with me!). These bees belong to a very large family of bees called Megachilidae, which is present on all continents except Antarctica and well-represented in our region.

Like most solitary bees, the female of leaf-cutter bees builds nests with small brood cells, in each of which a food provision is left and one egg laid. And this is where the “leaf-cutter” name comes from. When building their nests, many of these females line their brood cells with specific materials, in particular plant tissues. In fact, many of the species are known to cut leaves and/or petals to line their nests, using them to stabilize the brood cells, and likely to provide protection to the larva and the food provisions. In a fascinating way, it is suspected that these bees are able to exploit the antimicrobial effects of certain compounds present in these flowers and leaves, indirectly using them to protect their offspring until they finish their development in the nests.

If you ever saw neat and relatively large holes that seem to suddenly pop up on certain plants in your green spaces, it is very likely that they were made by some of these bees that may be nesting close to you! If you keep an eye out on those plants, it is very likely that you will end up seeing these busy bees carefully cutting, then rolling, and finally flying away with the neat plant circles!

Female leaf-cutter bee cutting a leaf
Leafcutter bee nest and brood cells made with leaf pieces
Megachilids are known for cutting leaves that they use to line the brood cells of their nest. Note that here the nest is in a soil mound and each brood cell is completely covered with leaves but capped and separate from the neighboring cells. In this nest, each cell contains one egg. Photo: E. Soh.
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What are local ecotype plants and why do they matter to pollinators?

With the planting season upon us, many of us are starting to think about what flowers may be the best for our gardens and pollinators. We may have started to look into floral mixes or even flower starts, but probably there are too many choices and now we’re overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. In previous posts, we talked about the importance of diverse floral choices and how appropriate native species are when choosing plants for pollinators. There is, however, an extra twist that is becoming more mainstream in this story and today I want to talk about it. Let’s chat about local ecotypes, what they are, what they contribute, and how to get them (and how to not get them).

What are local ecotypes?

In a few words, local ecotypes are native plant species that have a genetic background typical for the local region and adapted to it. I know, there were a lot of technical words in that sentence, so let me break it down to make it easier to understand.

Like all organisms, plants have lineages that reflect their ancestry. In the same way that we as humans are genetically more closely related to members of our own family than to those of other families, plant populations are also more closely related to other plants of the same species that live close to them. From a genetic point of view, this means that plants that come from regions close to each other will tend to have more similar genetic characteristics than those from regions far apart from each other. This genetic makeup specific to a given region is what we call broadly a local genotype.

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Helping pollinators in small green spaces

Spring is almost almost aaaaaalmost here, and if you’re like me, you have already started visualizing what flowers will grow where and what pollinators you’ll need to keep an eye out for. Unlike in other posts, where we talked about how to help pollinators in large spaces, today we’ll talk about how to help them in very small yards, balconies, porches, or other small spaces.

small garden in front of a town home
Having a small yard is no reason to not help pollinators. Small yards can be great spaces to support them! Photo: G. Cripezzi.

Small yards

If you have access to a small yard, plenty of opportunities are available! Of course, you will not be able to plant lots of large plants, but that doesn’t mean you cannot plant anything. When offered little space, you can use not just the horizontal, but also the vertical space. While it is possible to cover the ground with a mix of perennials and annuals, there are also possibilities of installing trellises on which flowering vines can grow.

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Planning your garden to support specialized pollinators

Looking out my window, as the ground is covered with snow and I am getting ready for another snowstorm coming tonight, it seems ironic that I have been spending many hours these days ordering seeds and planning my garden. While I am thankful that the winter brings some rest to the soil in my garden, planning this season brings me happy memories of the scents and buzzes in my yard during the growing days… which reminds me that I should also plan for my little buzzing pollinator friends when I plan what to grow this season. In today’s blog, I want to chat about how we can plan for many types of pollinators, with a special focus on planning for specialists and not just for generalist pollinators.

Specialist pollinators – never heard of them?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators visit plants to feed on nectar and/or to collect pollen to feed themselves or their offspring. However, pollen is not just there for pollinators to feed on; pollen is central to plant reproduction, so plants tend to make it both attractive to pollinators but hard to digest. For this reason, and in order to be able to properly digest the pollen, pollinators are often specialized in their pollen choices. This is because being able to digest the compounds that plants add to their pollen to make them hard to eat requires some level of adaptation, which often involves a trade-off with the ability to eat anything. There are, of course, many levels of specialization, and, while many pollinators feed on many plant families, others are more specialized than that, and feed on only specific plant genera or even species! For us gardeners, this means that if we want to support many different pollinators, we need to make sure that we are also providing for those very specialized pollinators as well!

Luckily for us, the floral choices and pollen specialization is known to some extent for Maryland and Eastern USA bees (see this site to learn more). For this reason, we know that many specialized bees in our region are also rare or uncommon… another reason to try to provide resources for them!

Who are pollen specialists in our region?

Many known pollen specialist bees in our region belong to bee genera Andrena, Colletes, Osmia, and Melissodes, which have many species considered rare or uncommon in Maryland and Mid-Atlantic.

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How do pollinators find plants and flowers?

As we know, pollinators help plants spread their pollen among flowers, and many plants do indeed need them to be able to reproduce and set seeds. We also know that by planting flowers and providing nesting habitats, we can help pollinators’ populations and thus assist with plant pollination. However, how do pollinators find plants? In this post, we will talk about that topic, which can help us become even better at helping pollinators and the plants they pollinate.

The big picture – pollinators need to be in the area

In order for pollinators to find plants, pollinators need to be present in the general region. In fact, although the vast majority of pollinators can move and travel from place to place, all of them have limitations on the distance they are able to travel. For example, hummingbirds can travel for miles (in Maryland, they are migratory), while large bees are able to travel relatively large distances for an insect (~500m-1km), and smaller insects will not be able to travel that far. This means that if, say, we lived in the middle of a very developed area with very few pollinator-friendly resources (few flowers, lots of cement, no green areas, etc.), planting a pollinator garden will attract few pollinators at first. This is due to the fact that it is likely that few pollinators are present in that area, and thus it will take a while for certain groups to arrive and establish in our garden.

It is for this reason that many communities tend to try to establish joint pollinator-friendly actions, and encourage many people in the region to participate (e.g., becoming Bee City USA-certified, creating “pollinator highways or corridors”). By increasing the regional number of pollinator-friendly resources, the whole region becomes more pollinator-diverse, and any supplementary action is more likely to improve pollinator support. As we talked about in a previous post, if you are interested in promoting pollinator-friendly habitat on your property, it may be a great idea to talk to your neighbors or your City, and see if others may also want to participate. In terms of pollinator-friendly activities, the saying “the more, the merrier” is very much true!

pollinator habitat sign in a garden
Pollinator-friendly actions are very effective when they are coordinated across regions. Photo: A. Kokai.

The local picture – different pollinators prefer different plants

As we mentioned in other posts, not all pollinators are made equal, and this is also true in terms of what plants will be found by what pollinators. For example, hummingbirds tend to visit tubular and reddish flowers, while syrphids prefer open flowers, and bees tend to visit flowers that they can access with their mouth parts (see this post to learn more). 

These floral preferences are due to the different pollinators’ abilities to see different colors, the presence of specific attractive floral scents in different plant species, and the ability of different pollinators with different body and mouth part shapes to handle and feed on flowers, and the matching of pollinator presence and flowering time. The practical consequence of this is that if we want to help many different pollinators find their preferred plants, it is necessary to grow different types of plants in our green spaces. By doing this, we would always provide resources that will be preferred to at least one pollinator, and by providing different types of resources, we can make sure that many different types of pollinators are supported by our plants. In order to do this, there are different floral mixes that exist that allow us to plant diverse floral resources appropriate for our region, which lets us build a diverse and welcoming floral bed for many pollinators.

Planting diverse floral resources will attract many different types of pollinators. Photo: C. Celley/USFWS.

The super-local picture – pollinators need to see the plant to access it

This will sound silly, but pollinators need to be able to have access to the plant to find it. For example, if a plant is not clearly displayed or hidden by many other plants or structures, it will be hard for pollinators to find it… even if the pollinator is present in the area and the plant in question is a preferred plant. This means that for us to help pollinators, we need to make sure that our plants are findable by the pollinators. Picking appropriate parts of our green spaces to plant our pollinator-friendly plants is thus key! For example, plants that require full sun to grow should be planted in those conditions and not under the shade of other plants or behind structures.

To know what these specific conditions are, there exist several resources (for example, see this useful and simple resource (PDF) published by the City of College Park, MD). These resources allow us to pick the best growing spot for our plants, making them easily findable by their pollinator friends.

Finally, pollinators are more likely to find plants if there are several of them! This is particularly true for smaller herbs, which may not display many flowers. By increasing the number of plants planted in an area we are also making the plant species more easily findable to the pollinators.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí. Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!