September marks the end of the summer in New England, and at EwA, the beginning of that month also brings a little bit of sadness. Fieldwork in the Lusitania meadow feels different after our interns left us at the end of August to return to their busy university life. But we are happy for what we have accomplished together the past 3 months, with the promise to keep them informed of the life stories of the many critters that reside at Fresh Pond. And as ‘September at Lusitania’ is concerned, we said that we would uncover the stories of goldenrods and of their visitors. Here are a few of those stories.
Claire is the founder of Earthwise Aware, which focuses on bringing biodiversity knowledge, ecological ethics, and environmental leadership to the heart of communities, and in the daily life of people. She strongly believes that individually and altogether we can be ethically & ecologically engaged–whoever we are, whatever we do, and wherever we are.
Ethical Nature conservation is not circumstantial, it is a mindset that you acquire which then turns into a way of life. Once on that path, a great many rewards for us becomes obvious. And the satisfaction out of practicing good ethics is almost addictive. There is no looking back...
Her favorite words: “Earthwise Aware as A Way of Life”
EwA citizen scientists and interns survey the Lusitania meadow 📍 for arthropods every single week during the warm seasons. This gives us the opportunity to get to know the meadow intimately. Each week highlights different relationships between the plants and their visitors—fascinating stories unfold. This almanac is a wonderful means to share with our communities what we observe and record at Lusitania over the course of the year.
📅 Once a month, we open EwA documentation sessions to the public. Check Eventbrite and come experience with us the magic of this wonderful meadow—an oasis in the middle of a very busy city.
At this time of the year, the weather transitions from hot and sticky to cool and refreshing. The back and forth between those two ‘states’ is often sudden during the month. One day, you feel as if living under the tropics, the day after you grab a light sweater before heading to the field. At Lusitania, the leaves of a few birches and a couple of tupelos are starting to ‘turn’ yellow. The meadow is changing too. The many herbaceous plants that flowered in the summer are now wilted or dried. Plant other than those we got familiar with the past few weeks are about to take over. Days and nights are reaching equal length. The average temperature rests around 18°C (or 64°F), that is 10 degrees (°C) cooler than in August. Humidity is moderate-to-high and usually remains around 78%. It rains less than in August, although this year was unusually dry. That drought stressed the meadow. The visual signs are the large dry patches on the edge. Out of reach of the public, the inside of the meadow tells the same story: there’s no water, not even in the tiny wetland📍 on its western side.
The insect life at the end of August is busy but a little less than a few weeks ago. Then in September, it bursts again as the various species of Goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, and American asters are flowering, giving another energy boost to all living there.
Focusing on the goldenrods (Solidago), these are the yellow plumelike flowers that stand tall over the meadow and that you can see when getting to the meadow from the entrance across Wheeler street📍
Goldenrod is a genus comprised of about 100 to 120 species of flowering plants in the Aster family, Asteraceae. They are mostly native to North America, including Mexico. It can very hard to distinguish among some of its species. At the meadow, it is likely that we have patches of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia), and even Tall goldenrod (Solidago gigantea).
🌿 Goldenrod—Myths and Medicinal Usage
Goldenrod genus denomination Solidago comes from Latin and means to make ‘whole’ or ‘healthy’.
Goldenrod was once used in medicine. Yet, it now has an ill-founded reputation. Contrary to what is said, goldenrod does not cause hay fever in humans. This allergic reaction to pollen is the doing of ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), another herbaceous plant that can often be found growing in the same area as goldenrod. Ragweed blooms at about the same time as goldenrod and is pollinated by wind. Its pollen air-floats and sticks to the other plants around, goldenrod included. Actually, the pollen of goldenrod is too heavy to fall far from the plant itself, and the plant is pollinated by insects (not by wind).
What is the goldenrod good for? It is said that Goldenrod can be used to reduce pain and swelling (inflammation), and as a diuretic to increase urine flow and to stop muscle spasms.
Goldenrods bloom late summer and fall. They have bright sweet-smelling composite yellow flowers. The flowers provide nectar to many insects, nectar that gets transformed by bees into a strong tasting dark amber honey. The goldenrod flowers produce relatively little nectar compared to many other flowers. But what they lack in nectar abundance they make up for with pollen. The abundant pollen that they produce enables late broods for bees.
It has been said that no other flower can attract as many insects as a goldenrod. And indeed, if you step at Lusitania in September, the goldenrod is true to its legend! Come closer and you will notice that something is happening in all portions of the plant.
Honeybees, Bumblebees as well as long-horned beetles and soldier beetles, such as the Locust longhorn borer beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) below, collect the nectar and pollen of the flower. These beetles are easily recognizable by their long flattened oval bodies and long thick antennas that often measure at least one half the length of the beetle’s bodies.
Other frequent visitors are butterflies, wasps, and smaller insects such as syrphid flies. Syrphid flies–also called flower flies (as the one pictured above)– sometimes resemble bees with yellow and black striped bodies, but their single pair of wings, their forward fronted eyes, and the way they fly and hover give them away. Their mimicry of wasps and bees helps them ward off predators. Those flies may be the most important pollinators of goldenrod.
Look at the banner of this almanac. The wasp that you see is a yellowjacket. When I spotted it, it was resting immobile, maybe even dead. Even when I grabbed the flower to get a closer look, it did not move a bit. It is only when I processed the photo later that day that I realized that there was something else going on there. Look in the background on the left of the wasp. Within the golden tufts of the plant, an insect is perfectly camouflaged in yellow, pale green, and brown markings. It waited there for an unsuspecting victim – often a bee or a butterfly. This time it was this handsome medium-sized yellowjacket. At this very moment, the bug is injecting an enzyme into the body of the wasp to liquefies the internal organs of its prey so that it can feed on it by sucking it dry. Life on goldenrod can be tough! The predator is a Jagged ambush bug (Genus Phymata), a member of the family of Assassin bugs. Here is another shot at one below (left). Odd-looking and fascinating, right?
Another ambush predator is the Goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia), which moves sideways in a crab-like fashion among the flowers of the goldenrod, its 2 claws spread out in front ready to strike. It is a fascinating spider that can adjust its color to better match the color of the flower it hides in. Like the Ambush bug, it stays camouflaged and catches by surprise the visitors of the wildflower. In the photo on the right above, can you spot the spider? Actually, is that all there is? Or, is there another now-familiar face hiding within that goldenrod too?
🖍️ Nature Activity » Bug Stalking
Next time that you visit a meadow, bring a camping stool, a notebook or sketchpad, and your favorite pencil(s). Single out a plant (a goldenrod for instance!). Sit in front of it and observe the life on and around it for 10 minutes or so. Count and describe all the insects and spiders that land on, feed, and hide in that plant (under a leaf, among the flowers of an inflorescence).
With an estimated 91,000 described species of insects in the U.S., it is likely that you won’t know the species’ name. It is not important really. Is that a bee, a wasp, a hopper of a sort? Is it a spider? Then, does it spin a web or rather sits and wait for preys to pass by? Just describe what you see with your own words, that is all that matters.
Try to sketch a few of them. Diagramming is also an excellent way to record information. Add numbers to your sketch: count of individuals, estimates of length and width. Find similarities and differences between 2 look-alike insects that are exploring that plant. Give it a try!
There are so many other stories to share about the many inhabitants and visitors of this insect-heaven wildflower, but I’ll leave that for another month…
Storing for Winter
Alongside the insects and spiders of the meadow, birds and mammals are preparing for the winter as well. We often overlook squirrels, but it is fascinating to get to know their nut collecting and caching habits. They are really facetious clever guys! Among them all, the biggest species in our area is the Eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).
In September, they collect and cache nuts that they defend aggressively against invaders. Up to 25% of their nuts get stolen by other squirrels. It is a tough competition out there, and the ones who can amass enough nuts for enduring the long New England winter will increase their chance to make it through. So, they evolved to engage in deceiving caching. Pause for a moment and observe them around the meadow, look down on the path and on the woodland floor. You will soon see that those endearing rodents dig holes that they fill and then cover with leaves. Then they move to another location and dig again but without placing any nut in any of those caches until one hole becomes the chosen cache. In areas of high squirrel population density, our friends move their cache about every 3 days.
This year will be extra hard for our friends. Last year’s oak mega mast–a season of unusual high production of fruits that happen pseudo-cyclicly–led to a boom of baby squirrels. This year, the oaks have not been that bountiful, and with a harsh drought stressing them further, oaks have decided to abort their acorn production (notice the many unripe acorns that dropped this summer). This means that the squirrels that made it that far into the season are going to have a very hard time surviving the winter. I am not into interfering with nature, but with a drought that is essentially the result of our human activity, I feel that maybe this winter I should help a little and replenish more frequently those bird feeders that they raid so eagerly…
Of course, there is plenty more to see at Fresh Pond at this time of the year. Check the trees and up in the sky. You will likely see our usual September avian residents and a few migrants on their way to auspicious winter lands. Among those are the American goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor)–all preparing for rougher times.
Enjoy your visit. 📅 Join our monthly Fresh Pond Wildlife Documentation Walk. Share your findings with us (you can comment below)! We will be back next month with a new slice of life in the meadow.
EwA Useful Links
📖 The Book of Swamp & Bog: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands (1995) by John Eastman (Author), Amelia Hansen (Illustrator)
September, 4th 2020 | by Claire O’Neill
The photos in this article are visual records that the EwA team collects at our various study sites, including at Fresh Pond. Click on any picture, and you will land on the record and its owner (records shown in this article are from Claire O’Neill and Laura Costello. Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). See EwA’s biodiversity occurrence records specific to this place in the EwA at Fresh Pond iNaturalist project.
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