Bountiful Bugs

Mountain Bluebird_ChicoBasinRanch-CO_LAH_1248-001The bulldozers are at it again. Another swath of short-grass prairie is being turned into houses. I can’t complain—I live in such a house. A mere three years ago, birds and bunnies made their home in what is now my yard. The voles and cottontails are still here and thriving, largely at the expense of my landscaping. The birds—assorted sparrows, hawks, Say’s Phoebes, Horned Larks, Scaled Quail, and Killdeer—decided to go elsewhere.

Now I’m trying to lure them back by replacing what nature has lost. Instead of the typical neighborhood rocks-and-grass “zero-scape,” we’ve included shrubs and trees that offer wildlife food and shelter. Native shrubs such as three-leaf sumac, manzanita, Boulder raspberry, buffaloberry, and chokecherry all offer berry-like fruit. Our roadside oak will one day provide acorns, the limber pines have seed-filled cones. Seeds come from native grasses and flowers, too, while dwarf conifers and dense shrubs offer a place to hide from predators and the weather. My nectar garden feeds hummingbirds and other pollinators. Feeders offer additional seeds and suet, and my heated birdbath is a year-round source of water.

That’s all well and good, but what the birds really want, especially now as they’re gearing up to lay eggs and rear young, are insects—especially caterpillars and other larvae. So I’ve also selected plants that attract bugs.

Cimbex americana_Sawfly_IdahoFalls_LAH_5291Wait! Attract insects to a garden? Am I out of my mind? Won’t they eat my plants? Well, yes, some leaves may be munched, but the vast majority of insects aren’t serious pests, and plants can sustain quite a bit of insect chomping before they suffer—or we even notice. We have to decide—can we hold the spray, and tolerate some gnawed leaf edges, knowing that nearly all songbirds feed insects to their young? Larvae are such a rich source of fat and protein that even birds that don’t normally eat bugs will make an exception at this time of year.

Monarch Butterfly_FCNC_LAH_5630It’s this effort to provide insects for the birds that has led me to fill our yard with native plants. I’m not a purist—I’ve included some favorite exotics too—but natives will simply have more bugs. That’s because most insects are specialists; they complete their life cycle on a specific type of plant. (A well-known example is Monarch butterflies’ need for milkweed.)

I have a small yard, so I want to choose plants that will give me the most bugs. Next time you’re out hiking, keep an eye out for insects. What species are they on? To get you started, here are some insect-attracting plants that do well in Colorado.

Research shows that oaks are home to over 500 species of caterpillar alone, not to mention all the other bugs. Our HOA required us to plant an English Oak as our street tree. I hope it lives up to its reputation as an insect magnet. We also have Gambel’s oaks growing in the open space adjacent to our lot. Maybe that’s why the local birds hang out there!

Populus_Cottonwood_FCNC-CO_LAH_3560American elm, hackberry, willow, aspen, and cottonwood also attract abundant bugs. Remember to consider your growing conditions before choosing one of these. Aspen do best at elevations over 8,000 feet. Cottonwoods (left) are big and thirsty trees, and their branches tend to come crashing down. Willows also prefer damp soil, which is why we see them growing along streams.

Many plants offer more than one type of food. Ponderosas and other native conifers harbor a surprising assortment of insects, as well as providing seeds and shelter.My fruiting chokecherry and sumacs also harbor plenty of bugs, although I’ve never noticed any damage to the leaves.

Swallowtail caterpillar_BCNC_LAH_2041-1Sunflowers—Black-eyed Susans in particular—are insect magnets as well as prolific seed-producers. Goldenrod and rabbitbrush attract butterflies with their late-season sulphur-yellow flowers, while other insects prowl the foliage. Swallowtail larvae dine on members of the parsley family (right); even non-native lovage will do. And I’ve already mentioned milkweed and monarchs.

Spotted Towhee_BosquedelApacheNWR-NM_LAH_6546Being a bit messy will increase the insect population. Leaf litter harbors all sorts of creepy-crawlies, as towhees and other sparrows can tell you. Stop deadheading in time for the seeds to ripen, and then leave the seedheads for fall/winter interest. And of course, avoid the pesticides. Your pests are a bird’s banquet!

For us bird lovers, there is another benefit to having lots of insects around. Many bird species—warblers and swallows, for example—do not eat normally seeds and therefore aren’t attracted to feeders. Happily, they will come to visit if our yards are full of bugs.

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