We are still alive! How to protect pollinators in the slow season

Even when they look dry and “dead,” our green spaces are full of life. When we think about plants, for example, we can see that herbaceous perennials seem dry but they are actually just retreating underground, while annuals continue their life cycle by spending the winter as seeds in the ground. The same is true for other organisms that live in our green spaces: squirrels become less active, snakes retreat to sheltered spaces, and insects may overwinter as adults underground or in crevasses or as juveniles in their nests or chrysalises. Among these insects, there is a particular group that we seem to take a lot of effort to protect in season, but that we may then forget about in the fall and winter: our pollinators. In today’s post, I would like to talk about some specific ways that allow us to take care of our green spaces in the fall, all while continuing to support these organisms we worked so hard to support throughout the growing season.

Where are our pollinators in the winter?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators don’t disappear in the winter. Instead, they either migrate to warmer conditions (like monarchs do; check out this website to know where they are now!) or stick around and overwinter right here in protected spaces such as crevasses, underground nests, and within plant stems. If we have been enjoying supporting them throughout the season, it may be a good idea to continue to do so also throughout the winter. Let’s see some ways to do this.

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Get to know your local mantis

Carolina mantid
Carolina mantis adult female in early autumn. Notice how her wings don’t reach the end of her abdomen, as they would with our other local mantids. Photo: M. Talabac

Q:  I’ve heard that not all of our praying mantis types are native. They’re all good for garden pest control though, right, or are some bad instead?

A:  Maryland is currently home to five species of praying mantis, but only one is native, which is the Carolina mantis. The others are the European, Chinese, Narrow-winged, and Asian jumping mantids, with the latter being the most recent introduction. While non-native, the other mantids have more-or-less been integrated into our ecosystem for some time now, so they don’t necessarily need management or removal. Evidence of this includes the fact that insect-eating birds and other predators will readily consume them, and their eggs can also be parasitized by the tiny wasps that presumably evolved to have a relationship with our native mantis. In the grand scheme of things, other invasive species deserve more attention. Plus, at least they also eat various other non-native insect pests.

If you prefer to support native mantids found in your yard, make sure you’ve identified them correctly. Maryland Biodiversity Project has image galleries for each mantis species and provides a few ID tips for telling the difference between them, at least for adults and egg cases (called ootheca). Put “mantids” in the search box to see the species list.

Comparison of 5 mantis ootheca. The native Carolina mantis has a narrow gray ootheca.
Photo: Pawel Pieluszynski

Mantids are generalist predators, so can consume pest insects and beneficials like pollinators alike. They’re opportunists, nabbing anything they can subdue (including each other), so are neither universally good nor bad. Gardeners generally consider them helpers since they do consume pests, though we don’t know to what extent the non-native species may be depriving the native species of a food source due to competition. (Given how many other non-native insects exist in our area, I imagine this impact isn’t that significant, especially when compared to the greater problem of habitat loss and degradation.)

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension. Our horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round.

Bats!: The Garden Thyme Podcast

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It’s Spooky Season! In this month’s episode, we sit down with Leslie Sturges of the Bat Conservation & Rescue of Virginia to talk about bats. We chat about how much we love bats and why you should also. She tells us all about the types of bat you can find in Maryland (9:53), Whitenose syndrome (17:03), how bats rear their young (23:24), and echolocation (25:50). We also put some of the vampire and other bat myths to rest (40:30). 

We also have our: 

  • Native Plant of the Month – American Persimmon (51:15)
  • Bug of the Month – Twisted winged parasites (45:01) 
  • Garden Tips of the Month (58:25)

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

The good and the bad of carpenter bees: Can we get along?

Although we may love them with all our hearts, it is true that every one of our most beloved friends and family have sides that at times make us mad… and that’s no reason for us to love them less. I feel our relationship with pollinators and other beneficial insects is similar to that which we have with our loved ones: pollinators pollinate and play an important role in native plant reproduction and food production… and sometimes can become a nuisance if not properly managed. As for our loved ones, the fact that pollinators can become a nuisance shouldn’t stop us from supporting them; we just need to learn how to sustain our relationship while controlling its negative aspects. In today’s post we’ll talk about one pollinator in particular, with which our relationship can sometimes become complicated. Let’s talk about carpenter bees.

What are carpenter bees?

In our area, carpenter bees are large bees belonging to the bee genus Xylocopa. If you enjoy being outdoors, I am pretty sure you have already seen them. A very common species in our region is the eastern carpenter bee, which is about the size of a bumblebee, has a “dot” on its back and dark wings, and when exposed to the sun, has a shiny abdomen. These bees are very common in our area, and are very regular floral visitors of many ornamental and food-producing plants.

The eastern carpenter bee (left), a native to the mid-Atlantic, has a shiny abdomen, while bumblebees (right) have fuzzy and hairy abdomens. Photos: J. Gallagher, Wikimedia: R. Hodnett.

Because they are about the same size as bumblebees, carpenter bees are often confused with them. To differentiate them, a look at their abdomen will quickly allow us to know who’s who; carpenter bees have shiny abdomens, while bumblebees have very fuzzy and hairy abdomens.

The life cycle of a carpenter bees

It’s not random that carpenter bees are called that way. Their life cycle is tightly linked to wood, in which females dig holes to build their nests. Carpenter bees have impressive mandibles that they can use to chew soft wood to dig galleries in it. Although they may seem impressive, these are peaceful bees that sting only if physically and aggressively disturbed. In the spring, males of these bees establish and defend their territories, a strategy that will win them a female to mate with. During this defense, they “chase away” other males but also people who may be close to what they consider their spaces. These males are harmless, however, since they have no stingers and thus can’t sting.

the life cycle of carpenter bees from spring to fall
Life cycle of a carpenter bee. Photo: NC State Extension.

The life cycle of these bees goes hand-in-hand with the season. In the early spring the hibernating adults emerge, mate, and the females build their nests in the wood. These nests consist of galleries, at the end of which the females lay eggs and store food (nectar and pollen) for the developing larva. The larvae develop throughout the spring and summer, and by the end of the summer emerge as adults. These adults are the carpenter bees we usually see flying in the early fall. Once the weather starts becoming chillier, at the beginning of the winter, these adults return to some of the cavities and overwinter there, emerging the following spring, to restart the cycle.

Why can carpenter bees become a nuisance?

As we saw above, carpenter bees nest in wood. If a house or any structure is built of wood, they may pick it to build their nests. When this happens, these bees have the potential to affect the integrity of our wooden buildings. So, we see that while these bees are very important pollinators native to our region, this particular aspect is the one that can be problematic in our relationship with them. The good news is that there are solutions for this!

a carpenter bee seeks a nest side in wood
Carpenter bees nest in wood, which sometimes can be a part of human buildings. Knowing how to proactively protect wooden structures is the best way to manage this helpful native pollinator, while protecting our buildings. Photo: H. Jacoba.

If there are no nests yet in the wood

The best solution is of course not the reactive, but the proactive one. If we have important wood structures that we don’t want to see occupied by these bees, the best we can do is first to use hardwood (which these bees tend to dislike) and/or to treat the wood. The treatment consists in painting or varnishing the wood, which will deter the adults from nesting in it. A very good treatment is coating the wood with almond oil in the spring, which will deter the bees from choosing that section to nest.

Another proactive action that can be taken along with wood staining is to distract the bees from the wood that we want to protect. To do this, one can use pieces of wood that one may not be interested in keeping, and displaying them in other parts of the open spaces so that females choose to nest in those surfaces instead of in the wood we want to protect. Besides protecting the wood, this also allows us to support these important native pollinators from our region, all while reducing the potential negative impacts on our buildings.

If bees are already established in the wood

If carpenter bees are already established, there are several options. First, if the number of nests is really low, and if the structure can be removed and replaced, then this should be done and the new wood structure should be stained to protect it. If possible, the piece of wood that is removed can then be placed elsewhere in the green spaces around the property, which will provide nesting resources for this pollinator, and will simultaneously protect the house and support native pollinators.

carpenter bees flying around holes in old wood
Carpenter bees can sometimes establish many nests in structural materials. If this affects the integrity of the building, more extreme actions may be needed. Photo: JoeyZ51.

If the piece of wood can’t be removed and, in particular, if the nests appear to jeopardize the integrity of the building, a more radical action should be taken. In that case, the use of insecticides can be considered. If this path is taken, it is important to not perform insecticide applications without proper knowledge, meaning that this should be done by an expert applicator. This point is really important, because non-targeted and improper insecticide treatments can lead to a lower efficiency of the treatment on the carpenter bees, and the death of other non-target beneficial insects (e.g., other bees, beneficial pest control insects, etc.) that may become in contact with the treated region.

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!

Crapemyrtle woes

An infestation of Crapemyrtle Bark Scale on a crapemyrtle trunk. Sooty mold is darkening some of the outer bark layers. Photo: Jim Robbins, Univ. of Ark. CES, Bugwood.org

Q:  My crapemyrtle has white stuff on the bark that I’ve never noticed before, though the foliage looks unaffected, if a bit dull lately. I thought these plants were pretty pest-free, so what might this be?

A:  We’ve had a lot of inquiries about this lately. Your plant has Crapemyrtle Bark Scale (CMBS), a non-native insect pest that was discovered in Texas in 2004 and confirmed in Maryland in 2020. Incidentally, crapemyrtles also can host Crapemyrtle Aphid, and it’s possible for the two to be infesting a plant simultaneously; their impacts on the plant are similar.

While CMBS could potentially feed on other host plants, so far they seem to strongly prefer crapemyrtle. The aphid sticks to crapemyrtle. Both secrete honeydew, the sugar-water waste common to sap-feeding insects, which is dulling the leaf appearance and probably cultivating a bit of sooty mold.

Since mid-Atlantic gardeners have embraced crapemyrtle to such an extreme that it’s everywhere you look, that’s a big buffet enabling this pest proliferation. We really need to diversify our landscapes.

Scale insects lead relatively sedentary lives, generally only moving about to any notable degree as newborns, appropriately called crawlers. After roaming to find a feeding site, crawlers settle down and stay put, using their straw-like mouthparts to feed on plant juices. Layers of protective wax, in this case felt-like and white, cover their bodies as they mature. For our purposes, this also means they are harder to treat with contact-type insecticides like oils or soaps because that shell prevents the pesticide from reaching them. Crawlers, running around shell-less for that brief window of time, are the most vulnerable life stage any treatment should focus on.

The problem is, this pest is so new to our area that we are still collecting data on when those crawlers appear. Insect development is dependent on temperature, so while we can make predictions based on how CMBS behaves to our south, we’re still refining our knowledge for Maryland. Complicating matters is the likelihood of several generations per year, and they might overlap.

For such a tiny thing with limited mobility, you may wonder how it got there in the first place. Like plant mites, crawlers can blow around on the wind, and might also disperse by hitching a ride on other animals, like birds. CMBS arrived in our area the way many plant pests do – accidental introduction on plants with undetected infestations shipped-in from out of the area.

Management of an established scale population, usually booming by the time we notice them, takes time. Don’t expect one or two treatments to resolve the issue quickly, and you’ll probably need to employ the services of a certified pesticide applicator. Manually scrubbing scale off while not wounding bark is difficult and not highly effective, given the nooks and crannies they can wedge themselves into that you cannot reach.

Not only should certified applicators treat trees too high to reach, but they will have more effective equipment and the ability to apply chemicals the general public cannot due to the Maryland pollinator protection law. Overlapping the use of more than one type of pesticide may be needed, and re-treatment might occur for over a year. Dead scale won’t fall off right away, though treatments for scale will probably suppress aphids at the same time.

While we usually suggest trying other methods to suppress pests, once scale are numerous, there is little recourse than resorting to pesticide treatment. Certain species of lady beetle larvae will consume these scale and could knock-down their numbers somewhat, so avoiding contact-type pesticide use or enthusiastic scale-squishing attempts does at least spare them. Drastically cutting back a large crapemyrtle is not recommended since that can ruin its branching structure, though you could try it with dwarf shrubby varieties since otherwise-healthy plants should regrow over future seasons. With proper application timing to avoid impacts on scale predators and other insects (something well-trained pesticide applicators and pest scouts know how to do), treatments can be done with minimal risk to the biodiversity in your landscape. Or…just plant something different and rely on other plant species to provide summer color.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Goldenrods & asters: Important fall flowers for pollinators

With the fall very clearly upon us, we tend to think more about falling leaves than flowers. Indeed, the big flower boom is ending, with all early-season flowers well past flowering. However, fall is a very important season for many pollinators, which still require food and shelter in preparation for the winter. In this blog, I would like to take a little bit of time to go over the importance of fall resources for pollinators, and what you can do to make sure they are available in your green spaces.

Why is fall special in nature?

The end of summer/fall is a special time for many organisms in our temperate regions. This is usually the last chance these organisms have to gather energy and resources to get ready for the winter. In the case of pollinators that are active during this period, the fall is key for collecting sufficient pollen (=food) for their nests, and for finding appropriate overwintering spaces for the adults and/or the offspring (take a look at this post to learn more about this), all of which will impact survival until the following year/season. If we want to help these pollinators, making sure that these resources are available is the best we can do!

Providing food for pollinators in the fall

Several native plants in our area flower in the fall and act as wonderful resources of pollen and nectar (and more!) for our late-summer/fall pollinators. These plants are easy to grow and once established provide abundant (nutritional) resources for our local insects.

Goldenrods

This group (Solidago spp.) consists of many species which flower in the late summer/fall. These plants are perennials that will create patches once established in an area. For this reason, they are easy to grow, although for this very same reason may usually require a bit of containment, since otherwise, they will easily spread everywhere. If the latter is a problem, plants can be grown in pots, where the containment issue is more easily resolved.

These plants support a large community of many different types of bees (many of which are specialists that can use only specific types of pollen and can be rare), as well as butterflies, flies, and wasps. In fact, more than any other herbaceous plant studied by Fowler/Droege, goldenrod (species in the genus Solidago) supported the most specialist bees (39 species). Importantly, because these plants create tall hollow stems, they can also act as nesting resources for stem-nesting bees. This way, these plants are great fall resources for many of our pollinators.

flowering goldenrod mixed with other asteraceae flowers
Goldenrods develop numerous flowers that provide support to a very large number and diversity of pollinators. In this picture, goldenrods stand out of a background of other yellow Asteraceae in a home garden. Photo: A. Espíndola

Two easy-to-grow species that one can find in several native nurseries are the tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Both species have long stems that end with many yellow inflorescences. Both of them flower in the late summer and fall and can be easily grown in green spaces, especially drier sites that are exposed to the sun. As said before, although these plants are great pollinator magnets and resources, they tend to spread readily, so, unless that is wanted, they require some control once they start spreading in an area.

Asters

Asters are another group of plants native to our region that acts as a great pollinator resource in the fall. These plants are also perennials and can be small or become shrub-like, depending on the species. Unlike the goldenrods we were talking about just above, these plants tend to display a larger variety of floral coloration, with flowers going from white, to pink, and purple, depending on the species. Like goldenrods, these plants provide both food and nesting sites to many pollinators. Their flowers attract a very large variety of pollinators (bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, wasps) during a time when there is little else to feed on. The flowers of these plants are also known to support specialist and often rare bees, which depend strongly on its pollen for survival, as well as many butterflies, including Monarchs. Their stems are also great sites for stem-nesting bees. Finally, their leaves support the larvae of many local butterflies.

purple flowers of new england aster and a monarch butterfly
New England asters can be obtained from native plant nurseries and are able to support a very large diversity of pollinators, including rare and specialist bees, as well as adults and larvae of many butterflies. In this picture, we can see a Monarch adult feeding on the characteristic purple/blue flowers. Photo: Glenn Marsh

A lovely species that can be grown in our green spaces and provides hundreds of blue/purple flowers is the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). This perennial herbaceous plant can be obtained from nurseries and will grow three to six feet tall in the summer (but it can be cut back in mid-summer if you want to keep it shorter). The plant requires at least some sun and does well in a variety of soils we find in Maryland. I love watching the lovely cute flowers, and all the activity they attract. This is really one of my personal fall garden highlights!

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!

Biological pest control: parasitoids

¿Hablas español? Aquí esta una traducción: Control biológico de plagas: los parasitoides

Parasitoids are natural enemies of pests that, like predators (ladybugs and flower flies) can help us keep pest populations at bay or eliminate them from our gardens.

Parasitoid or parasite? Let’s learn the difference between these terms

Before saying more about this group of natural enemies, let me tell you that it is very common to confuse the term “parasitoid” with the term “parasite.” Parasites and parasitoids have in common the need for a host for their development. The difference between the two types of organisms is that parasitoids kill their host to complete their life cycle. That is, the parasite can live at the expense of the host without having to kill it, while the parasitoid ends up killing its host upon completion of its life cycle. Parasites are generally known to be annoying and even transmit diseases to animals, plants, and humans, while parasitoids are beneficial insects, as they help us control pests.

What is a parasitoid?

Parasitoids are insects that insert their eggs into the body or egg of another insect (host) in order to complete their life cycle. Parasitoids go through complete metamorphosis, four different stages of development: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. To finish their development, the parasitoids must feed on their host, and the females first deposit their eggs in their host. As soon as the parasitoid egg hatches, the larvae begin to devour the tissues of their host. Once the larvae reach a certain size, they become pupae, after which the adult emerges, killing the host.

Parasitoids can be classified according to their oviposition (egg-laying) behavior. Endoparasitoids are the parasitoids that lay their eggs inside the body or egg of their host. In contrast, ectoparasitoids oviposit on top of the body of their host, that is, on the surface of their body. To see these fascinating creatures in action you can, watch a video of endoparasitoids and one of ectoparasitoid activity.

Life cycle of an ectoparasitoid (adapted from Presa-Barra et al 2020)

life cycle steps of an ectoparasitoid

Life cycle of an endoparasitoid (adapted from Presa-Barra et al 2020)

life cycle steps of an endoparasitoid
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