Speaking of Nature: A rumble with a bumble

  • bumblebee vs butterfly = An eastern bumblebee comes in for a landing on a brown knapweed flower and dislodges a pearl crescent butterfly. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 9/4/2022 2:04:00 PM
Modified: 9/4/2022 2:00:12 PM

I don’t know how things sit from your perspective, but it feels like this has been a particularly long summer. When the temperatures are added in I can then change my assessment to a long, hot summer. And then, of course, there is the drought. Different parts of Massachusetts have experienced different amounts of rainfall during the summer, but I know that my hometown of Amherst has been particularly hard hit by a lack of rain. Any time a storm approached I would look at the radar map with hope, only to see the clouds split. One bunch might head to Greenfield, another might head for Springfield and Amherst would be left dry as a bone.

Before this long hot summer officially began we flirted with the idea of a No-Mow May. The idea was to give the pollinators a break by refraining from mowing, which had the effect of keeping as many flowering plants in bloom as possible. This particular cultural experiment fit in with my own mowing philosophy quite nicely, so keeping the flowers in play for the pollinating insects was easy. After June passed by I mowed parts of my lawn a couple times, but I had no idea that my mower would go quiet after that.

I haven’t mowed my lawn since June. I’ll admit that it looks a bit shaggy, but that is not because the grasses have grown much. Instead it is because the wildflowers that grow among the grasses have been allowed to send up their flower stems and cover my yard with spindly little flowers. Most of these seem to be yellow hawkweed flowers, but there are plenty of other species rounding out the mix. Each one of those flowers represents an oasis of food and moisture for the bees, flies and butterflies that visit them, so I am content to leave them unmowed.

A couple weeks ago I visited a local state park (I won’t name the park because I don’t want anyone to feel criticized) and I found conditions quite similar to those in my yard. The grasses were short and dry, but among them there were thousands of slender stems topped with small yellow flowers. Insects were buzzing among these flowers, but at the far end of the lawn I saw a worker on a mower who was starting the process of mowing. It didn’t take long for every one of those flowers to disappear.

But I did come across a patch of ground that hadn’t been mowed at any time during the summer. There were flowers of many varieties, but the ones that stood out the most were knapweed flowers (probably brown knapweed). This was a patch of short vegetation surrounded by tall forest trees that looks like it is mowed often enough to remain tree-free, but in this particular year it has been left alone. The effect of this “neglect” was immediately obvious.

There were insects of all sorts buzzing around this refuge of flowers. Great spangled fritillaries, eastern tiger swallowtails, pearl crescents, cabbage whites (all species of butterflies), honey bees, eastern bumblebees, and a wide variety of flies were all buzzing among the blossoms in energized ecstasy. Then, above them all, there were some large dragonflies that seemed to be occupied with casually chasing one another in between sudden darting lunges at prey items that were too small for me to pick up on. This patch of flowers was about half the size of the “footprint” of one of our homes, but it was brimming with life.

I spent about an hour standing at the edges of this patch of flowers as I waited for the different insects to strike perfect poses. At one point I had a small butterfly called a pearl crescent that was being particularly cooperative and I was snapping photos just as an eastern bumblebee arrived. It may be unfair to use the word “lumbering” to describe her flight, but she arrived like a cannonball and didn’t seem to care who else might be feeding. I was very lucky to capture the moment of her arrival as it coincided with the abrupt departure of the little butterfly. The need for food was so great that this patch of flowers probably needed an air traffic control tower to keep track of all the action. Each flower played host to one sort of drama or another for the entire time that I was there.

The weather is finally starting to show signs of cooling down and there have even been a few rain events in the past week, but we are still experiencing sever drought conditions in our area. So, I am wondering if you might consider a No-Mow September? Perhaps a Low-Mow September might resonate with you a little more comfortably, but in either model we could allow some of the flowering plants in our lawns to remain untouched long enough to flower. We would save gasoline, save time and allow the small wild insects to have a bonanza of food and moisture right in our own yards. We would also set up perfect conditions for sitting out in a lawn chair with a cool drink where we can observe the riot of activity that an abundance of free food might trigger among the butterflies.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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