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Mountain Mint Pollinators (What Time is it in Nature)

July 11, 2015

Last week’s What Time is it in Nature discussed Mountain Mint, a plant that you can find in Prairie Ridge’s Nature Neighborhood Garden.  This week, let’s explore some of the amazing diversity of pollinators that make use of nectar while the plant is in bloom!

When many people think of pollinators, they automatically think of butterflies.  Butterflies make up a part of the pollinators you’ll see on Mountain Mint, including Common Buckeyes, Gray Hairstreaks, and Red-banded Hairstreaks.  This Juniper Hairstreak is a less commonly observed butterfly on our Mountain Mint, but is quite beautiful:

Juniper Hairstreak butterfly

Photo by Chris Goforth

It’s not quite as obvious from this photo as it might be, but the hairstreaks get their name from a thin, fragile tail that protrudes off each of their hind wings.  They tend to have the sort of general body shape of this butterfly as well, though the color patterns vary considerably from species to species.

While many people think first of butterflies when they hear the word “pollinator,” other people will think of bees.  Honey Bees are not native to the US and were imported from Europe soon after Europeans started colonizing North America, but you’ll find them on many of our native plants, including Mountain Mint.  However, these bees are much more commonly spotted on the plant in our garden:

bumble bee

Photo by Chris Goforth

Bumble bees are large bees that form small colonies underground.  You will see them flying from flower to flower, gathering nectar and pollen similarly to Honey Bees, though many species are quite a bit larger than the average Honey Bee.  Bumble bees are important pollinators for many native plants and are the focus of several native pollinator conservation efforts and citizen science projects.

Bees are often seen on flowers, but their wasp relatives can be even more abundant on Mountain Mint.  Take this spider-hunting wasp:

spider hunting wasp

Photo by Chris Goforth

Spider-hunting wasps get their name from a behavior they exhibit during reproduction.  A female wasp will sting a spider to paralyze it, bury it, and lay one or more eggs on the spider.  When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae have fresh meat to eat as they grow.  This may seem gruesome, but it’s an important part of nature that helps keep spider populations in check.  And, while the larvae may be carnivorous, the adults are not.  They feed primarily on nectar, and you will see many of them sipping nectar from the tiny flowers on the Mountain Mint.

This wasp has similar reproductive requirements:

Scoliid wasp

Photo by Chris Goforth

Scoliid wasps are also considered parasites because they paralyze prey for their larvae to feed on after hatching.  However, scoliid wasp larvae feed on the larvae of scarab beetles rather then spiders.  Adult females will dig into the ground to find a beetle grub before stinging it and laying her eggs.  Like the spider-hunting wasps, the adults feed primarily on nectar and you can see them feeding on nearly any flowering plant at Prairie Ridge in the summer, including Mountain Mint.

Butterflies, bees, and wasps are all commonly spotted pollinators, but let’s not forget some of the other groups of insects!  This gorgeous fly can sometimes be found feeding at the flowers of Mountain Mint:

Tachinid fly

Photo by Chris Goforth

Tachinid flies are parasites like the spider-hunting wasps and scoliid wasps, though their specific host species varies by the fly species.  The adults often feed on nectar and help spread pollen around for a variety of plants.

The Mountain Mint is positively abuzz recently as the flowers bloom and produce nectar.  Be sure to visit the Nature Neighborhood Garden on your next visit to Prairie Ridge.  One quick look is all it takes to spot a dozen or more species of butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, and beetles – well worth a trip out to see it!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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