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!

Celebrate National Moth Week

A moth feeding on nectar of a purple  verbena flower
Hummingbird Clearwing. Photo: M. Talabac

The last full week of July is National Moth Week, and I encourage everyone to take a closer look at the vast diversity of moths that fill our natural world. Butterflies and moths belong to the same insect group, but moths far outnumber butterflies in species diversity. Since many moths have muted colors or fly at night, we’re largely unaware of this bounty. Let’s take a whirlwind appreciation tour of the group to illustrate the amazing, bizarre, and quirky features of this major insect order.

Moth adults come in all shapes and sizes, and like butterflies, wings are their most prominent feature. There are “micro-moths” whose wingspans are less than an inch, and giant “silk moths” up to 6 inches, making them the largest moths in North America. (Our native silk moths are not closely related to true silk moths, but they got the name because people thought they could be farmed for silk.) The wings of some moths look like mere slivers, seemingly insufficient for flight, while others are tucked around their body so they look fairly cylindrical. Some lay so flat at rest with their wings spread that you’d swear they were two-dimensional.

Some species unabashedly bear flashy colors and patterns in broad daylight because they’re chemically defended, often using substances the caterpillars ingested from their host plant, similar to how Monarch butterflies use milkweed toxins. Giant Leopard Moths, white with bold black leopard spots and a metallic blue abdomen, can exude golden droplets of a distasteful substance from their shoulders when disturbed. Wasp-mimicking species use warning colors to gain protection – few predators want to risk a sting – while other species use a different tactic and pretend to be inedible objects, like lichen, twigs, dead leaves, or even bird droppings.

Other moths hide vivid wing colors until prodded, their forewings camouflaged and covering their body at rest. When disturbed, they flash their colorful hind wings or expose eyespots that stare back at the predator. These bright patterns or eye-like designs startle a predator into rethinking an attack, making the moth appear too big to prey upon or giving it time to flee.

For seemingly defenseless creatures (no stinger, no jaws, no horns or sharp projections, and a soft body), adult moths use some clever strategies for survival. Great camouflage is the baseline strategy, but some moths can hear ultrasound produced by hunting bats. When the flying moth hears a bat homing in on it, the moth drops out of the sky and disappears from the bat’s radar. Milkweed Tussock Moth adults actually click back ultrasonically at a pursuing bat as a warning about their distaste, in case the bat ate others like it and regretted it.

It can be surprisingly hard for our dexterous fingers to pick up moths and densely-bristled caterpillars, so you can imagine other animals without hands have an even harder time if their strike isn’t spot-on. As with butterflies, wing scales can be slippery and may shed as the wings are grabbed, allowing the moth to slip away and escape.

Blooms that attract moths tend to be white or pale in color, or pink, dull red, or purple, and often have a strong, sweet scent, especially at night. As with butterflies, they prefer bloom shapes or clusters of flowers that provide a “landing platform” where they can sit and sip nectar, though some moths will hover while feeding instead. The sphinx moth group, which includes clearwings and the adults of hornworms, are the classic examples of “did I just see a small hummingbird?” At rest, they have a silhouette more like a fighter jet.

Moth caterpillars have a dazzling array of colors, patterns, and shapes. A few are spiny and have skin-irritating properties, like the cute Saddleback caterpillar that looks like a brown terrier wearing a neon-green blankie. I have been stung multiple times over the years by accidentally brushing up against them when handling plants because they’re inconspicuous when sheltering underneath leaves. It sure smarts for a few minutes, but I still think they’re beautiful and adorable.

Some caterpillars resemble a walking toupee or dust bunny, like the flannel moth caterpillars (another no-touch group), or a fringed carpet that blurs their body outline. Slug caterpillars include species whose body fringe looks made of spun glass (as one species is so-named) while the Monkey Slug looks like some sort of faceless alien Muppet with a fun hairdo and a herky-jerky gait. (Don’t touch that one either.)

Slug family caterpillars also include featureless speed bumps, with no discernable head or legs unless flipped over. (No slime on these slugs though, thankfully.) Maybe they’re trying to mimic leaf galls, though it’s an odd choice to me if so, since galls can be attacked by parasitoid wasps or foraging birds. Some giant silk moth caterpillars have colorful knobs on their body or spiny horns that look like they belong in a punk-rock band. (With a name like Hickory Horned Devil, you can’t go wrong.) The caterpillars of other moth families have multi-hued patterns, detailed stripes, marbling, zigzagging squiggles, or big eyespots above their heads that mimic a snake staring you in the face.

Inchworms are aptly named because their slender, long bodies inch along in a loping gait. Many disguise themselves like leaf stems or twigs when not feeding by standing on their hind legs ramrod-straight and freezing like a living statue performer. (This family’s name is Geometridae, which means “earth-measurer.” And they do, once inch at a time.) One family member, the Camouflaged Looper caterpillar, decorates itself with bits of leaf or petal that it’s eating, becoming a walking parade float of flair. As it matures and eats new things, its costume changes.

brown and black moth with orange marks on its body
Tobacco Hornworm

While a minor handful of moth caterpillars are home or garden pests or ravenously gregarious feeders, the great majority do not cause us humans any trouble. Plenty of caterpillars and adult moths alike feed hungry birds, bats, beneficial wasps, predatory bugs, and other organisms that help keep our ecosystem in balance. With over 2,500 moth species documented in Maryland to date, you could make a long-term hobby out of cataloging all the species found in the smallest of yards. (A good gateway to developing an interest in all of the other wondrous insects you’ll encounter in the process!)

Want to explore more about moths? Check out the National Moth Week website for tips on finding moths, activities for kids, and more.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. All photos in this post are hers. Read more by Miri.

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.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading