So here are all these milkweed bugs clustered on a showy milkweed leaf, Asclepias speciosa. It's early morning and the red bugs are a real eye opener.
They're seed eaters, but as Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology says: "They are opportunistic and generalists." They not only eat seeds, but monarch eggs and larvae, as well as the oleander aphids that infest the milkweed.
But wait, one of these is not like the other.
A lady beetle, aka ladybug, photobombs the scene. It sleeps with them and eats (aphids) with them. They are sharing the same food source: oleander aphids.
Let's hear it for biocontrol.
You've seen lady beetles, aka ladybugs, preying on aphids.
But have you seen an assassin bug attack a spotted cucumber beetle?
How about a crab spider munching on a stink bug?
All biocontrol, part of integrated pest management (IPM).
If you access the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website or more specifically, this page, you'll learn that "Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a process you can use to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. IPM can be used to manage all kinds of pests anywhere–in urban, agricultural, and wildland or natural areas."
Or, UC IPM's more in-depth definition:
"IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment."
Think of biocontrol as beneficial: "Biological control is the beneficial action of predators, parasites, pathogens, and competitors in controlling pests and their damage. Biological control provided by these living organisms (collectively called "natural enemies") is especially important for reducing the numbers of pest insects and mites, but biological control agents can also contribute to the control of weed, pathogen, nematode or vertebrate pests."--UC IPM
Yesterday we witnessed an incredible case of biocontrol in action.
At Bodega Bay's Doran Regional Park, Sonoma County, we spotted a great blue heron stepping stealthily through a thatch of ice plant in the Jetty campground. It was 6:30 in the morning. As campers slept in their recreational vehicles a few feet away, the great blue heron just kept stepping silently through the ice plant. One step. Another step. And another.
And then it happened. Its long sharp beak speared a rodent. Yes, they eat rodents. It crunched the body from head to toe, breaking the bones, and then swallowed it whole.
Not a pretty picture, but a simple case of biocontrol, compliments of a hungry heron.
A pollinator garden is a study in diversity--and of inclusion and exclusion.
The residents, the immigrants, the fly-bys, the crawlers, the wigglers, the jumpers. The big, bad and bugly. The prey and the predators. The vegetarians and carnivores.
The nectar-rich flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees and butterflies. And right near them are the predators: the praying mantids, dragonflies and assassin bugs.
The assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, are ambush predators. They resemble human assassins (or at least those on the movie screen!): long narrow neck, beady eyes, and sturdy body. When they ambush a predator, they stab it with their rostrum, inject venom, and suck out the juices. Or as UC Berkeley entomologists Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue write in their book, California Insects, "The victims, which include all kinds of insects, are snatched by quick movements of the forelegs, and immediately subdued by a powerful venom injected through the beak."
Such was the case with the assassin bug, Zelus renardii, this week. We watched one lie in wait on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); we watched another dine on an unidentifiable prey on a milkweed blossom; and we watched yet another stab a lady beetle (aka lady bug) on a leaf.
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
A little drama in the mustard patch...
A honey bee is foraging head-first in the mustard. She's collecting nectar and pollen. She does not see the lady beetle, aka ladybug, thrust head-first above her.
The honey bee is dusted with yellow pollen. The ladybug, not so much.
The bee moves closer. The ladybug does not move.
If there were any conversations between the two beneficial insects, it might go like this:
Honey Bee: "Hi, ladybug. Let's share the mustard, okay? You take the aphids--I don't eat aphids--and I'll take the nectar and pollen. Is that all right with you?"
The ladybug does not move. She neither sees nor hears her buzzing companion.
The honey creeps closer.
Honey Bee, louder: "I said, is that okay, ladybug? I'm here for the nectar and pollen! I don't want your aphids!"
Ladybug, mumbling: "Aphids? Don't even think about eating my aphids. Buzz off, will ya?"
The honey bee buzzes off--to find more nectar and pollen.
The drama ends as quickly as it begins.
Another day in the mustard patch.
See those red spots on your milkweed seed pods?
Lady beetles (aka ladybugs or "garden heroes") are feasting on aphids.
And they're having a ball.
We've been watching the critters on our milkweed, Gomphocarpus physocarpus, for the last couple of months. The plant is a favorite among monarch butterflies, florists and interior decorators. This is the host plant of the monarchs; caterpillars eat only milkweed. It's also a "hostess" plant; florists add them to their floral bouquets and interior decorators grace their holiday tables with them. In fact, interior decorator Allison Domonoske of South Carolina transformed the White House Thanksgiving tablescape with moss, driftwood, pine cones, little white pumpkins and what she called "balloon-plant milkweed: large, green, ball-like flowers."
That was them!
We call them "lime green ball-like pods, covered with tiny spiny hairs"--or you could call them "spiky seed pods," as the Washington Post did. At any rate, they're often used for decorating.
Hmm, a forest green Douglas Fir Christmas tree adorned with lime green spiky seed pods? With red bows amid the green boughs? Gomphocarpus physocarpus to the rescue!
According to the Master Gardener Program, "the name physocarpa comes from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. It has a plethora of common names including balloon plant, balloon cotton-bush, balloon milkweed, bishop's balls, elephant balls, hairy balls, monkey balls, swan plant, and many others." It's also known as goose plant, giant swan milkweed, family jewels, Oscar, and by its former botanical name, Asclepias physocarpa.
It's a tall, spectacular plant that can reach a height of an NBA All-Star. Last summer monarch butterflies laid their eggs on it, lady beetles kept the aphids off it, and praying mantids kept everything off, including bees, butterflies and beetles.
If you have some growing in your garden, think holiday decorations...minus the red lady beetles, the First Ladies of the Garden, and their prey.