Maximizing ‘Minibeast’ Diversity in Your Yard

Maximizing ‘minibeast’ diversity in your yard. Like it’s relatives, this thick-headed fly with the rather daunting name of Physocephala marginata, is most likely a parasitoid of bees; however, the host has not yet been discovered for this species. A lot remains to be learned about even common insects and an observant naturalist can contribute by watching their gardens and sharing their sightings. Thick-headed fly adults often ambush their hosts at flowers and lay a single egg on them. The larva burrows into the bee abdomen and feeds on all of the non-essential bits, maintaining a living lardour and only killing the bee when it is ready to pupate. They pupate in the dead host and the adult typically emerges the following summer.

The Parry Sound Nature Club met on November 16 at the West Parry Sound District Museum. It was good to see such a great turnout, despite the questionable weather that evening. The guest speaker for the evening was Dr. Jeff Skevington, an Entomologist and Research Scientist with the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa. He is also an active Ontario Naturalist, an avid birder and enjoys gardening in his own naturalized yard, which was the topic of his presentation to our club – Naturalizing Your Yard to Maximize ‘Minibeast’ Diversity.Wildlife corridors are a vital part of the ecosystem, allowing plant, insect, animal and bird species to maintain the home ranges they require. Overdevelopment of natural areas and the resulting loss of habitat is detrimental to overall biodiversity. Even in urban and suburban areas, naturalized gardens can help restore the natural corridors disrupted by development.

There are some basic ‘rules’ that Jeff suggested be adhered to. First of all, don’t use any pesticides. Native species, once established, will find a balance with native predators and ‘pests’. One should also focus on cultivating plants from seed, and if digging up native plants to move them, do so only from roadsides or other areas where they would otherwise be doomed anyway. Thirdly, try to use only, or mostly, native species. One’s own definition of ‘native’ however, can vary. Plants may be regionally, or provincially native, or native to a certain habitat type such as grassland, woodland or wetland. When preparing to choose plants for a native garden, first assess the habitat type that is dominant in your yard and choose plants that prefer that type of habitat for a greater chance of success. It will likely also make it easier to source plants.

When choosing plants, go for ones of varying heights for a layering effect. Try to maximize diversity with many kinds of plants growing together. Most people plant mostly nectar producing plant species, but these only attract certain types of insects at certain life stages. Try to include plants that are food/habitat sources for immature insects as well. Creating thickets, hedges and lots of edge habitat will also maximize the diversity of creatures attracted.

It is beneficial to include or maintain natural features such as dead trees and water. Don’t be too quick to cut down a dead tree (unless, of course, it is a danger) as they can attract many different insects, which in turn attract birds, and it can be a den or nesting site as well. Even once a tree falls to the ground, it becomes a whole new type of habitat for other creatures including bugs, salamanders and fungi. Small ponds, streams and even puddles can be great for attracting insects and birds as well. Swallowtail butterflies, for example, love to hang out at shallow puddles to obtain minerals. Butterfly feeders can be fun, too – just try putting out some old banana or other fruit and see what it attracts!

There are really no pest species in a natural garden. Insects that may feed on a certain plant are in turn fed upon by something else. The trick is to adjust our view of what is “normal” for a garden. Take pleasure in the vast diversity of insects rather than trying to maintain a total absence of bugs in a garden! Look beyond (or underneath) the flowers and foliage to the smaller creatures that live on plants in your garden.

Establishing a native or naturalized garden can be a daunting task, but Jeff suggests doing just a small part at a time. Experiment with various plants to see what does well, and go with what is easiest to grow!

Even Jeff admits that there may be some potential issues with a naturalized yard. Neighbours may have objections to someone getting rid of a well-manicured lawn to put in what some see as “weeds”. The best thing here is to maintain your garden properly – do not just let your lawn go wild! Even a ‘natural’ garden needs maintenance. Some wildlife that is attracted to your new naturalized yard, such as deer, bears, raccoons, etc. may be seen as a pest to others.

Jeff then went on to describe some of the wonderful insects that may be attracted to a garden of native plants. Butterflies are a favourite insect to try to attract with flowering, nectar-producing plants.

Be careful when raking, however, as even the leaf litter left on the ground is important to the life cycle of fritillaries.
Butterflies use very specific plants during different stages of their life cycle, so various species can be attracted with particular plants.

Butterflies are less than one per cent of the insect species that inhabit a garden – the other 99 per cent are just as interesting and fascinating, if you care to look for them.

Jeff’s passion and enthusiasm for the various types of flies that are the core of his field of study and research was very evident. He described some of species that he studies. Flower flies often look like bees or wasps but they only have two wings instead of four, and they do not sting. The adults are pollinators, and the larval stages of many species eat aphids and other smaller bugs. Big-Headed flies are very common, but also very small. They hover very well and attack leafhoppers and their relatives as well as spittlebugs. In the family of Bristle Flies (also known as tachinids), many species have not even been described yet as there are over 10,000 species in existence. Thick-headed flies are parasitoids that attack bees and wasps. Robber flies are the “hawks” of the insect world – they are generalist predators that eat other insects. These various groups of flies are really only the tip of the insect iceberg – the diversity to be found in a natural garden can be staggering. Identification of insects can be intimidating and difficult, but there are resources out there to help, especially online. Bugguide.net is a great place to start, as well as the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification for keys to sorting out insects. Canacoll.org is the website of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes. As well, there are numerous books available on the subject, and Jeff will soon be publishing a field guide to help with identification of Flower Flies, to hopefully be followed by field guides for other groups of flies.

The Nature Club is grateful to Dr. Skevington for making the trek from Ottawa to speak to our group. I’m sure folks will be looking up plant and seed sources over the winter and eagerly awaiting the spring to start working on their own naturalized gardens! Jeff’s own garden and his enthusiasm for creating it and enjoying the diversity it brings is truly inspirational.

The Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for Saturday, Dec, 17 (Dec. 18 if the weather is poor on Dec.17) and is being organized by Steph Romaniuk and Jim Gardner. To participate, please contact either Steph (705-774-9527) or Jim (705-389-1133) for details. There is no regular meeting for the Nature Club in December, but mark Wednesday, Jan. 18 on your calendar when Everett Hanna, a Ph.D candidate at University of Western Ontario, will speak on the “Migratory Behaviour of Sandhill Cranes”. He is conducting radio telemetry to help determine the current range of the eastern population of these interesting birds. The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the West Parry Sound District Museum – please “lug-a-mug” for refreshments.

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