Seeking Native Plants: It Just Got Easier

When I moved to my new home two years ago, I recognized some of the plants in the yard. Out back, wild grape and Virginia Creeper climbed the trees in the small wooded area. A familiar green carpet of Periwinkle spread out under the biggest trees. Out front, my childhood friend, Lily of the Valley, filled every nook and cranny not taken up by the Hydrangea and ferns. But my ability to memorize has never been great. Even the identity of the scrawny tree that just started blooming this week at the border of the lawn might have eluded me except for a tool friends recommended – SEEK by the folks at iNaturalist.

I downloaded this free ID app on my phone April 22nd, and since then I have used it to identify twenty-two plants in my yard. Some I knew, but got more information about, like the Periwinkle, which is Lesser Periwinkle, Vinca Minor. Some I’ve probably seen for years but never sorted out just what they were, like the Cukooflower, Cardamine pratensis. Some I might never have identified using my guide books, like Hedwig’s Fringeleaf Moss, Hedwigia ciliate.

I have a goal to maximize the number of native plants in my yard, and SEEK is a big help with that project: using the app, I can quickly find out whether the plant is a native or not. Here’s a list of natives I’ve been able to identify so far: Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana; Wild Strawberry, Fragaria vesca; Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia; Green False Hellebore, Veratrum viride (photo); Hedwig’s Fringeleaf Moss, Hedwigia ciliate.

SEEK has great pedigree: iNaturalist is a joint Initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. The app is a great addition to my collection of go-to guides, but it hasn’t replaced my books. Every time I pick up a guide book, I wind up browsing past my starting point and I always learn something I wasn’t expecting – that’s a pleasure I won’t abandon.

It is great, though, to get a quick possible ID with SEEK. I’m really happy to have discovered this tool, and I’m equally glad to pass this recommendation on to you! In case you missed it, here is the link again: SEEK ID Tool

On the Path to Learning about Wild Bees

I’ve been interested in insects for a long time. As a kid I worried over the ladybugs in the attic and whether they’d survive the winter up there. I rescued as many bugs as I could from the surface of our swimming pool. I dropped crumbs for ants and watched them investigate and haul away the treasure. But it wasn’t until years later, when I took a photo of a beetle that was stranded at the bottom of an empty water glass, that I began to get hooked on figuring out exactly what I was looking at. I had some insect guides on hand – more because I love guidebooks than because I loved insects, I admit – and took a look.

I discovered that what was circling the bottom of the glass was an America Carrion beetle, Necrophila americana. These beetles actually bury the small carcasses they come across for food for their offspring. When I paired the attractive beetle with its name and its burial and parental skills, I was hooked. I bought more guides and worked along on IDs in an entirely haphazard way. But in 2013, I discovered the Iowa State University site, BugGuide.Net. and posted my first photo to their ID Request page. That first posting of a caterpillar, the Dagger Moth Acronicta americana, looks pretty humble, but it was exciting for me.

The moth I posted later that month, the Tiger Moth, Apantesis parthenice, is a little showier.

I’ve been learning a lot from trying to figure out what things are before I post them, although I’m not nearly good enough to help out with the ID request part of the site. I’ve started binders of the critters I photograph. When I get an ID, I print out information about the critter and add it, with a photo or two, to the binders. I have about 200 critters with at least a partial id, and many are identified at the species level.

Overtime, I realized that my collection of identified photos was building along the lines of True Bugs and Beetles. Although I’ve spent happy hours taking photos of bees as they feed on flowers, I haven’t spent the time to tell one bee from another.

Thistle visitor

For one thing, some of the insects that I thought were bees out in the field turned out to be, when I looked at the photographs, not bees at all, but flies.

Bee? No, Drone Fly

At this point, I have only two bees in my collection of photographs, both of them are Sweat bees: the Augochlora pura (Pure Green-Sweat bee) pictured at the top of the post, and Agapostemon virescens (BiColored Striped Sweat bee).

My bee deficiency is about to change. Yesterday I took part in the first of seven sessions of The Bee Short Course for Community Scientists: Building wild bee conservation skills together. This webinar series has been developed by the Ohio State University Department of Entomology and The Chadwick Arboretum and Learning Gardens. I connected with this effort first through an interest in The U.S. National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination Network (RCN). Here’s a link that describes their work: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/science/native-bees-census.html

The first session is titled “Bee Botany.” I was surprised that most of the time was devoted to flower anatomy, but I shouldn’t have been. After all, bees and flowers depend on each other for essentials of life: food and reproduction. The presenter, Randy Mitchell of the University of Akron, is an engaging speaker – even in an online session, his delight in studying the relationship between bees and flowers is obvious. He mentioned several sources of information that sounded promising. As I take a look at them, I’ll share them here.