My dad told all kinds of fantastical stories when I was a kid, and I believed all of them. To this day, I can’t drive past a “Watch For Falling Rock” sign without thinking about the Native American hero named Falling Rock, who disappeared in the desert and was never seen again. If I had kids, I would tell them stories about dragonflies, something about how a magic spell of some sort turned big-eyed, prehistoric beasts into delicate winged creatures that really like water.
I’m not sure exactly when dragonflies started inhabiting our gardens. But these days, they are as nearly as ubiquitous as the butterflies and bees used to be just a handful of years ago. Perched on plants or flitting around from one place to another, the brightly colored creatures are as unreal as seahorses and endlessly interesting to watch. They’re also beneficial carnivores, capable of eating hundreds of mosquitos in a single day.
Attracting dragonflies to your yard is easier than you might think. The most crucial thing to provide is a water source, and even the simplest water feature will do. It’s also important to include a diverse mix of plants, trees and shrubs that can provide cover; offer places to mate and lay eggs; and draw in insects that hungry dragonflies can munch on. But before I go into more detail on how to invite them, here is a bit more that you might not know about these interesting creatures.
What Are Dragonflies?
Dragonflies really do have prehistoric roots. More than 300 million years ago, they were among the first winged insects to evolve. While today’s dragonflies have wingspans that range from about 2 to 5 inches, some dragonfly fossils have been found to have wingspans of more than two feet. That is frightening enough. But the thought becomes absolutely terrifying when you consider that the aquatic insects belong to the insect order Odonata, which is Greek for “toothed one,” referring to dragonflies’ serrated teeth. When they eat, dragonflies most often snatch flying insects in midair, tear them into bits, smush the bits into a ball and chow down.
Look closely and you’ll notice that dragonflies can look quite different from one another. That’s because the insect order Odonata also includes damselflies. Generally smaller than dragonflies, damselflies have slim bodies and eyes that are separated and somewhat protruding rather than flat and centered on their heads.
It’s easiest to tell the two relatives apart by looking at their wings when they’re resting on something, which damselflies do more often than dragonflies. Dragonflies rest with their wings flat and parallel to the ground while damselflies hold their wings pressed together over their backs, like a butterfly. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 dragonfly and damselfly species have been identified worldwide, and about 140 species can be found in Minnesota. Go here to learn more and see photos of some our state’s dragonflies and damselflies. To hone your dragonfly identification skills, check out Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones and Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Most dragonflies and damselflies need water throughout their entire lifecycle. Every species has its own requirements for things like water quality and the types of aquatic vegetation on which they prefer to lay their eggs—though they also lay eggs in the water. In their larval stages, when they are known as nymphs, the insects spend months, sometimes years, living underwater before emerging as adults.
Adding a pond to your landscape is sure to bring on the dragonflies. If you have the space and resources to do that, choose a spot that gets at least five hours of full sun in an area that’s somewhat sheltered from winds, especially from the north. If possible, create a pond with varied depths so there are shallow areas near the edges and a depth of at least two feet in the center. Larvae will be safer from predators like raccoons in the deeper parts of the pond. Because fish feed on nymphs and eggs, it’s best not to include them in ponds where you’d like to encourage dragonflies to breed.
Stock the pond with water-loving plants, including submerged plants for females to lay eggs on and tall emergent plants for nymphs to climb up when they’re ready to slough off their last larval exoskeleton and transform into flying adults. Adults will also use emergent plants when they stop to perch and scan for potential mates or food sources. There are several submerged plants (also called oxygenator plants) to choose from, but a few good options are: anacharis (Egeria densa), fanwort (Cabomba canadensis), hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) and wild celery (Vallisneria sp.).
A few emergent plants to consider are: corkscrew rush (Juncus effuses), dwarf horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides),dwarf papyrus (Cyperus isocladus), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) and parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquatic).
More Water Ideas
Don’t have room for or want a pond? How about a small rain garden or bog garden? Or maybe a water container garden made from a half whiskey barrel, galvanized tub or anything else that’s handy and can hold water will work well. Use the same plants mentioned above to create your container water garden, which should be located in a sunny spot. For detailed instructions on creating container water gardens, see my article on the subject in the May/June 2013 issue of Northern Gardener.
If all of that sounds like too much work, take the easy route and just add a water feature like a simple fountain. We created a few small fountains for our yard using inexpensive pond pump kits that we bought on sale at a local big-box store combined with a galvanized tub or livestock troughs. Be aware that pond kits don’t always come with filtration systems that are adequate enough to handle outdoor debris. So you may want to do what we did and buy an additional filter box that will filter the water before it enters the pump.
Place your container where you want it, put the pump in the bottom of the container and use a rock or brick to hold the cord in place. Next, drape the cord over the edge of the container and use another rock to secure it on the ground before directing it toward a power source. Fill the tub with water, flip the switch and your gurgling fountain becomes a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies. Adding plants will hasten their appearance, but it isn’t necessary. Basically, if you have a water feature, they will come.
Plants for Every Purpose
The plants that you choose for your landscape are nearly as important as the water you provide. Dragons and damsels will use ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees planted within a few feet of a water source as perching sites and to help them hide from predators like birds and spiders. Flat rocks placed around the edge of a pond, water container or fountain will become places to rest and bask in the sun. And although midges and mosquitos make up the bulk of their diet, you’ll see more of these meat-eating beauties if you plant flowering perennials that entice beetles, wasps, moths and other small flying insects that become their prey. (Yes that does include some bees and butterflies.)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), black snakeroot (Actea racemosa), blanket flower (Gaillardia), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), catmint (Nepeta), coneflower (Echinacea), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Helenium, Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), Liatris, Phlox, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), speedwell (Veronica), Salvia, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) and yarrow (Achillea filipendula) are all great choices.
Ensuring A Safe Haven
Like bees and butterflies, dragonfly and damselfly populations around the world are in decline in part due to pesticides. Studies have shown that the widely used neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, is particularly toxic to the aquatic insects, as well as other water-dwelling species. So if you want to attract dragons and damsels, do your best to steer clear of pesticides and other chemicals that may be harmful. And if you’ve got one of those bug zapper things to help control mosquitos, put it away because it will zap the dragonflies too. Don’t worry. In a very short time, those hungry little carnivores will thank you by keeping mosquitos in check all on their own.
A version of this article appeared in the 2014 September/October issue of Northern Gardener magazine.
I generally try to avoid writing a lot about the same issue for fear of boring people to death or seeming like a nutter who can’t stop ranting about one thing or another. In the case of neonicotinoid pesticides, though, I’ve received so many calls and emails on this topic since I started writing about it a few months back, I feel like updates are wanted and needed. So I’m going to go with that feeling and tell you more about what I’ve learned lately in hopes that this will help answer some questions you may have now that you’ve likely learned more about this issue too.
First, here’s a quick recap for those who don’t yet know about neonicotinoids. Neonics, as they are often called, are a class of pesticides that have been linked to the decline of bees, particularly honeybees, over the last decade. Because they are safer for humans than some other pesticides, neonics have become widely used in the nursery trade as a pre-treatment for annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. They are also found in many of the common pest control products gardeners buy off the shelf and use every day for everything from Japanese beetles to emerald ash borer. (Neonic pesticides include: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.)
Now that studies have shown that small amounts of neonics can harm bees feeding on the pollen and nectar of treated plants while larger doses can kill, more and more gardeners are making it a point to stop using products that contain neonics and to shop for plants that haven’t been treated with the pesticides. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have called, visited and emailed garden centers and nurseries locally and nationally asking about the use of neonics.
Stories vary widely with some places eagerly sharing their plans to discontinue their own use of neonics and to seek out suppliers who will do the same. But I’ve also heard reports of a fair amount of denial and defensiveness. What you need to know is that it isn’t enough for a retailer to say THEY are not using neonics any longer on the plants that they grow. You also need to know whether the plants they get from outside suppliers are neonic free. Getting that information will take willingness and time on the part of the nursery and from what I’m hearing, it’s clear that not everyone is putting in the effort.Read More»
I just want to take a minute to update my recent post, “In Search of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees.” I’ve now had the chance to talk with Bachman’s CEO, Dale Bachman, as well as John Daniels, Bachman’s vice president of production, about how the company is dealing with neonicotinoids (neonics), a class of pesticides that is harming bees.
As of 2014, while various entities continue to research the role neonicotinoids play in the decline of bees, Bachman’s has decided to take the “precautionary step” of removing all neonicotinoid products for home use from their shelves. That includes imidacloprid, a popular neonicotinoid pesticide used for all sorts of things like rose and lawn care, as well as to protect trees from emerald ash borer. (Of course, homeowners can still buy these products elsewhere and hire professionals who use imidacloprid to treat ash trees.)
They have also stopped using neonics in the production of Bachman’s-grown nursery stock and outdoor plants, which means most of their shrub roses and perennials will be neonic-free along with some annuals. As for plants from other suppliers, they are currently talking with vendors about discontinuing the use of neonics and Dale and John says the outcome may cause them to rethink some of their suppliers. Even as they said that, though, they stressed that the neonics issue is much more complicated than it may seem — a fact that becomes more and more clear to me as I interview people on this topic.
For example, in many instances neonics and other pesticides are used in compliance with regulations regarding moving plants and the potentially invasive pests they may harbor across state lines. In the case of large-scale suppliers, discontinuing the use of neonics will mean switching to other pesticides that will come with their own problems and consequences. For now, shoppers looking for neonic-free plants at Bachman’s should seek out a salesperson for help locating plants the company has grown since implementing their new policy.
Take a deep breath. Buying plants at places that many of us like to shop is going to take more work and patience than usual if we want to help bees. If you start to feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, remember that we are part of the problem. Gardeners have come to expect perfect plants on store shelves, so every entity in the plant supply chain has done everything in its power to kill every bug and wipe out every disease imaginable to make us happy. Moving away from chemical treatments that harm people, pollinators and the planet will be costly and difficult for those who care enough to do so. And we’re going to need to learn to live with more mites, aphids and other things than we’re used to. Who’s in?
In the midst of the worst winter—ever—it’s hard to think about flowers, I know. But this time of year, I normally order a few plants for spring delivery from catalogs and I’m having to spend a lot more time on that than usual because I want to make sure that the flowers I’m ordering aren’t going to kill the bees that visit my gardens. By now you’ve probably heard that many of the pollinator-friendly plants and flowers that we’ve been filling our gardens with over the last few years may actually be harming, and even killing, bees. The culprit, many scientists and researchers believe, are neonicotinoid pesticides. Widely used in lawn fertilizers and on crops and nursery plants, neonicotinoids (commonly called neonics) came on the market in the 1990s and are chemically related to nicotine.
Marketed as safer for humans than other pesticides, neonics are now thought to be at least in part responsible for declining bee populations all over the world. Let me explain why. Like all systemic pesticides, neonics are absorbed by plants after being applied to the leaves, seeds or even soil. When bees and other pollinators feed on the leaves, flowers and pollen of plants treated with neonics, they ingest a “dose” of the insecticide.
Though the makers of these pesticides contend that the amount ingested by insects, including bees, is not enough to kill them, entomologists who study bees believe otherwise. Neonicotinoids are neuroactive, meaning they block connections in the brain. Over the last several years, studies have shown that even after ingesting small amounts of neonics, bees can become confused to the point of being unable to identify food sources. Some even forget how to find their way back to the hive. Over time, without food from the hive’s forages, colonies starve and collapse.
Vera Krischik, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the effects of insecticide on bees for several years. She has found that large doses of neonics can kill bees, sometimes moments after they feed on a treated plant. Where are they getting these large doses of neonicotinoid pesticides? Possibly, my garden, I hate to say; or maybe yours, or your neighbor’s. That’s because it is legal to treat ornamental plants with much higher levels of neonicotinoids than are acceptable for use on agricultural crops like corn and soybeans. And because pre-treatment of nursery plants is so common these days, it’s very likely that most of us have brought home some of these plants in the last few years without realizing the harm they could be doing.
What Can Gardeners Do?
So what can we do now? Well, that’s going to take a bit of work on our part. Concern over whether neonicotinoids are harming bees is not new, and Krischik is just one of many researchers across the country. and the world, who have spoken out about the problem. As a result, some European countries have restricted or banned some neonicotinoids.
But, as is usually the case, our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has opted to take a wait-and-see approach and has decided to look at the insecticide as part of a standard registration review. That could take years—years that bees don’t have. Though it is good news that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources seem to have taken the issue more seriously since the start of the year.
For now, fellow gardeners, help must come from us, so we need to do all we can to keep neonics out of our gardens. That means growing some of our plants ourselves using seeds collected from plants we know to be untreated or purchased from retailers who don’t sell pre-treated seeds such as Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Renee’s Garden Seeds.
Shopping for plants will be trickier and in some cases, more expensive. Home Depot and Lowes may offer lower prices on ornamental plants, but so far Home Depot has indicated that they plan to continue selling plants treated with neonics until they can work with suppliers to find an alternative insecticide. I don’t know about Lowes, but I imagine that selling far fewer plants to gardeners who won’t buy anything treated with neonics might speed talks up a bit.
Before buying plants from any seller, ask them whether they use neonics or buy plants treated with them. To help, I made some calls for this article to see how various growers and garden centers are dealing with this issue. Glacial Ridge Growers in Glenwood, Minnesota, sells native plants free of neonics. Bachman’s, Gertens and Menards didn’t return calls before my deadline, so you’ll need to ask them yourselves. Mother Earth Gardens says they don’t sell any flowering, edible or fruiting plants treated with neonics, though they do carry a few non-flowering trees that have been treated with the pesticides.
Scott Endres, co-owner of Minneapolis’ Tangletown Gardens, told me that though he can’t guarantee that every single plant they sell is neonic-free, almost every single plant is neonic-free because they grow the majority of them themselves and know exactly how they are produced. When they do buy something they want to carry but don’t grow, he says they buy from reputable growers they trust, so consumers can feel confident buying plants from them. Scott also said that he thinks it’s “awesome” that more and more gardeners are insisting on plants grown “with organic principles that support a sustainable product and the earth.” He believes that people’s awareness is already creating demand that is pushing companies to think more closely about their practices. I couldn’t agree more.
I am severely allergic to bee venom, so I’ve always been careful when gardening to stay out of the flower beds during the times of day when bees are most active. Sadly, that’s been easy to do this year because there are no bees in my garden, save for some tiny, tiny bees that my grandma used to call “sweat bees.” There are no honeybees or bumblebees, just a lot of large scary-looking brown wasps that, like cockroaches, look as though they could survive an apocalypse.
Perhaps we are on the brink of one now. As gardeners, we see changes in nature up close in ways that others don’t. I can tell you (and I’m sure you have plenty of stories, too) that seven years ago our gardens were filled with bees and butterflies. In that short time, both have all but disappeared. Many of the gardeners I know are saying the same thing and, without exception, our talks reflect a growing mix of sadness and worry about the future. It’s one thing to read an article about how vital pollinators are to food production and quite another to walk out the back door to find normally bountiful tomato, cucumber and squash plants nearly devoid of fruit. Leaves for dinner again, anyone?
If you have ever thought about getting into beekeeping, now is the time to start. Ordinances vary by city and state, but in Minneapolis, beekeeping has been legal since 2009 and it really took off this year in May when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance making it easier for urban beekeepers to get permits. Ever since then, more and more bee boxes have been buzzing on rooftops across the city, including some at high-profile locales such as Minneapolis City Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Weisman Art Museum.
Under the new ordinance, would-be beekeepers still need to get permission from the city to keep bees. But hives can now be installed on rooftops taller than one story without approval from neighboring property owners. This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that required beekeepers to get permission from 80 percent of the neighbors within 250 feet. (To put that in perspective, in densely packed downtown, that could mean having to collect over 100 signatures.)
Honeybees are not aggressive, and backyard hives can be managed safely by trained homeowners. But rooftops are an attractive option for urban bees and their keepers because bees tend to fly up and out when exiting their boxes, lessening interaction with people down below, says Becky Masterman, who co-coordinates the Bee Squad with fellow beekeeper Jody Gerdts. Started by University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak in 2010, the Bee Squad (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/) aims to help foster healthy bee communities in the Twin Cities through education, training and data collection on the health of urban colonies.
Citizen beekeepers to the rescue
The Bee Squad’s most high-profile program is called Hive to Bottle, which allows homeowners and organizations to keep bees without having to install and manage the hives themselves if they would prefer not to. Hives at City Hall, the Weisman and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are all taken care of by the Bee Squad. Those who want to manage their own hives can receive at-home training from a Bee Squad mentor through the Home Apiary Help program. Or, for a lesser fee, homeowners can attend training sessions at the Mentoring Apiary on the University’s St. Paul campus. (Additional information on both programs can be found here: (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/beekeepers/index.htm.)
If you’re asking yourself whether you really need training to keep bees, the answer is yes. Masterman explains: “Keeping bees is really hard. It is both an art and a science, and there is no way to learn to do it right from a book or a weekend class. It really helps to have somebody next to you watching and guiding you as you learn.” So, for the sake of the bees, and yourself and your neighbors, please take the time to understand what you’re doing before rushing into beekeeping.
We ripped out our lawn over the last few years, and we don’t miss it one bit. Sparse and full of creeping Charlie and other weeds, it was ugly even before our dog Lily peed all over it and killed off spots one by one. I do realize, though, that a lot of people like turf grass and, even if they don’t, they’re not keen on ripping all of it up to put in gardens that they have to care for.
But what to do about all of those weeds? The truth is, if grass gets enough sun and is kept well-watered (about an inch each week); mowed to a slightly higher height of about 3 inches, which helps shade out weeds; and fertilized even once each year, it will grow fairly well and suffer few weed and disease problems. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the difference these simple things can make, so they hire lawn care services to come and keep their yards looking good.
Having observed these services in action all over my neighborhood, I have to say, the results aren’t so hot. Trucks show up, guys jump out, and they promptly mow the grass right down to the nub. Then, they douse the scalped grass with all kinds of chemicals, including herbicides that usually contain 2,4-D. Popular because it’s cheap and easy to use, 2,4-D was concocted by scientists during World War II. It was one of the components of Agent Orange. And it is effective when it comes to killing things like clover, thistle and creeping Charlie, but it has remained controversial since it was released for public use in 1946.
Though the EPA says there is not enough data to conclude that the herbicide may pose some cancer risk, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 2,4-D as being a substance that may cause cancer in humans. Studies are divided on both sides with many scientists being of the opinion that 2,4-D may be carcinogenic, particularly in the case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even when these chemicals have dried, there is debate about when it is safe to come in contact with grass that has been treated with the herbicide. (You know how often you see those signs warning people and pets to stay off the grass until dry.)Read More»