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Hope for the Monarch, and a Great Golden Digger Wasp

Sunday, August 24, 2014


The summer of 2013 was one of the saddest ones I've ever lived through, if you're talking about butterflies. All that summer, I saw exactly four monarchs, and no caterpillars. 

I am elated to report that 2014 is a different story. I've seen 25 monarchs this season so far. They're still scarce enough for me to count and treasure and try to photograph every one. I couldn't bear the thought that this magnificent butterfly might vanish from our meadows. I remember seeing endless streams of them along the Connecticut shoreline in September, all heading for Mexico. I hope to see that again someday.

This gorgeous male (identified by the thickened vein, second from bottom on his hindwing) was nectaring on narrow-leaved mountain mint in Harrisville, WV, not far from my beloved North Bend State Park. 


That thickened vein translates to a little black dot, which is a scent gland, on the upper surface of his hindwing. 


For whatever reason I've seen many more males than females this year. Male again (see the thickening?)

The monarch was a serendipitous add-on. I left North Bend first, and David and Mary Jane followed. I was driving along Rte. 16 when my eye was arrested by a stand of rose gentian so thick and fine I squealed! I pulled off and waited for David and Mary Jane to catch up. Flagged them down and introduced them to my favorite wildflower. It was new to them. New no more. Now they'll look for it wherever they go. A little gift I could give them, for turning me on to North Bend. I'll never be able to repay that giant present.


We wandered in the meadow, bending down to bury our noses in its delicate perfume.


A particularly nice combo with Queen Anne's lace. This is the best QUAL year I can remember. Best rose gentian year, too.


And enjoying the gentian and monarchs, I noticed this spectacular wasp, more than an inch long. It took me a little while with The Google, calling up images with tagwords like "orange black spider wasp" and finally "spider wasp Queen Anne's lace" to finally find an image that matched it. That led me to digger wasps, and I finally figured out what I had. It's a different kind of 21st century field guide I've got in my laptop. Leafing through it is kind of like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but eventually I get there. Having a little knowledge aforehand helps immensely.


Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus, nectaring on Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint. A nectar feeder as an adult, the GGDW feeds its young on more proteinaceous stuff. This wasp makes vertical tunnels in sandy soil, into which she drags crickets and katydids that she has stung and paralyzed. There are several chambers at the bottom of her tunnel, a paralyzed insect deposited in each one. She lays an egg on each immobilized insect, and in the grand manner of parasitic fly and wasp larvae, the grubs eat around the hapless victim's vital organs until the very last minute, when the wasp grub is ready to pupate, thus keeping its food source fresh for the duration. Eating its host alive, as it were. Eeesh! Insects are the coolest, the most macabre, the most terrible and wonderful things on the planet. I find this sleek, peaceful fighter jet of a wasp captivating. Now I look for it on wildflowers, where it sips nectar, belying its katydid-paralyzing nature.


You beautiful thing, you make my heart sing. 

Beauty: my #1 motivator. Sharing it: #2.
You're welcome!

17 comments:

I've not seen any Monarchs yet, but have both Tropical and Swamp Milkweed just waiting patiently... Sure hope they can bounce back, too. xo

I'm very glad to hear you've been seeing monarchs. Sad to say I have not seen one yet here this summer. Our hayfields were cut fairly early and there are lots of nice fresh milkweed plants just waiting (and there were quite a few left around the edges). I'll keep watching... maybe they will still come. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos!

I'm up near the Canadian border in NY and have not seen one this year.
I can remember droves of them flitting all over our yard in New Hampshire, a spectacular event.

We also had yesterday a GIANT insect, almost like your wasp. At first we thought it was a hummingbird as it hovered over the giant zinnias sucking up the nectar. I will look closer today when it visits to see if it is the same. Those colorful giant zinnias, my husband's favorite flower, are a real critter magnet!

4 monarchs and no larvae so far for me...have swaths of tropical asclepias and a bounty of roadside asclepias right up the street. In your old stomping grounds Julie; coastal SE CT.

I've seen five monarchs this year and most were in Pennsylvania. I used to see clouds of them when they hit the migratory bottleneck of Long Beach Island, NJ. You might also try Bug Guide http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740

I never see monarchs at PFHQ , but we do have giant cicada killer wasps that do the digging thang.

Wow, I saw one of these GGDW for the first time yesterday, at my hummingbird feeder along with fire ants. Had to move it a bit.
It came back later for nectar along with the yellow jackets. the hummingbirds join in too. Not together of course.

Tammy in Al.

Posted by Anonymous August 24, 2014 at 6:37 AM

I saw my first monarch on July 2 and I too have been seeing more males than females. I raised caterpillars last year and had 71 hatchings in the month of August. I will be lucky to have one third of that amount this August. I am crossing my fingers that the ones I am now releasing will mate and leave me a large number of caterpillars to raise in September and October. Lori

Posted by Anonymous August 24, 2014 at 7:34 AM

I've only seen one so far. I've planted and encouraged a big patch of milk weed every year around our native plant pond and back fields, but not much happening :-(.

Wowee! Good one! Another good one.xom

Posted by Anonymous August 24, 2014 at 1:04 PM

We live in N.E. Ohio and have been "growing" monarchs in our gardens for the past 10 years or so. Last year was not very productive but this year has been better. We did not see very many monarchs, maybe just 3 or so, but have seen 20 caterpillars grow. We found 3 dead caterpillars, don't know what killed them. I have been hooked on them since I first found a chrysalis in our garden and didn't know what it was. We visited North Bend this year, just for a couple of hours, but we intend to go back. It was a beautiful area.

I planted 6 swamp milkweed plugs earlier this Spring. So far I've seen and photographed 5 Monarch caterpillars. I've seen about twice as many Monarch butterflies. How do they find the newly planted milkweed so fast?

Down here in Tampa we are very fortunate to have had many, many Monarchs this year. We even raised them in our laundry room over the winter as the caterpillars just kept appearing! Nothing like having potted milkweed all over your washer and dryer. Just saw two Monarchs and a Swallowtail yesterday in our yard. Also found two caterpillars munching away that appear to be just a few days away from spinning...

Great post!I just heard a fascinating podcast from Radio Lab on parasites. One of the segments is on parasitic wasps! Have a listen :)

http://www.radiolab.org/story/91689-parasites/

We live in N.E. Ohio. We have been growing Monarchs since I found the first chrysalis in our garden some years ago. Last year was a bad year for us also, but this year is different. We have had a couple Monarchs but we have seen at least 20 caterpillars from those. So it has been a successful year so far for us. North Bend State Park is a great place to visit.

Your photos are lovely. We plant flowers and shrubs that butterflies and hummingbirds love. I am glad you are seeing lots of butterflies this year.

I also saw my first Great Golden Digger Wasp at Blacklick Metro Park in Columbus this past week. It is a strikingly beautiful insect, so I thought I would be able to identify it quite easily. Unfortunately the field guide I checked did not show the splendor of those iridescent purplish-blue wings. Fortunately the naturalist remembered your recent blog post and voila - there was my ID. The one I saw was busy working its way up and down the stems of a milkweed plant.

Posted by Lynn Solomon August 31, 2014 at 7:42 PM
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