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Activity thrives in a patch of goldenrods

A red admiral butterfly takes nectar from a goldenrod on a September day.1 / 3
A bumblebee visits a goldenrod. They often cling to the undersides of the flowers and stay all night. (Photos by Larry Weber)2 / 3
A flower fly sits on a goldenrod. This is one of many flies that mimic bees.3 / 3

The day is clear and the afternoon is warm. I'm going out to pick blackberries in a favorite patch l've discovered. I wait until the afternoon for this berry-gathering so that the morning dew has dissipated and I am able to pick without getting too wet. It's a bit of a walk to get to this growth of blackberries and I need to go through a woods and a field to reach the desired site.

The woods is shady and cool. My slow walk becomes slower as I pause to see the new growth of mushrooms, a regular late-summer addition to this scene. I stop to look in the trees as some warbler species are passing by. Here, too, I see migrant thrushes and hear persistent red-eyed vireos and wood peewees.

Going through the field means that I need to pass by an expanse of goldenrods. Thanks to the rainfall and warmth of this season, these late-summer flowers are thriving. This patch of goldenrods I am going through is made up of plants that are 3-4 feet tall and all seem to be in bloom now. Nearly all are Canada goldenrods (Solidago canadensis), and I also see some tall goldenrods (Solidago altissima).

But it is what is on these plants that makes me come to a complete halt and postpone the berry-picking for a while.

The whole patch is alive with buzzing and moving of insects. Most are easy to see. As I stand among the goldenrods, I watch the large bumblebees as they buzz about collecting nectar and pollen. I note three kinds, large black and yellow ones, those with dark rings on the abdomen and some with orange bands. I think all are busy and oblivious of me.

Smaller honey bees and leafcutter bees are here, too. And there are plenty of lookalikes. Nearby the bees are robber flies, syrphid flies and flower flies that all are mimicking bees. Looking like bees, they are more likely to be left alone, which is what they want. Wasps and hornets of several species are on the flowers, too, and I note paper wasps, yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets, also with mimics. Many of these insects are predators but they are here for nectar and pollen meals at this time.

Other flies, including crane flies and even some mosquitoes, are on the goldenrods. Ants crawl on the stems and a close look reveals that they are taking care of the abundant tiny aphids in return for a sweet-tasting liquid. The list goes on as I discover red ladybugs, black blister beetles and yellow-black goldenrod soldier beetles. A lacewing is light green and delicate. A few butterflies, a white-black white admiral and red-black red admiral, are large and colorful. A monarch pauses on its southbound flight to feed. And a diminutive eastern tailed-blue basks in the sun.

We are likely to think of moths as flying at night, but a couple of day-flying ones are on the yellow blossoms as well, as are their caterpillars. A brown stink bug is here with its cousin, an assassin bug. Both let me know that with all these insects, other predators are likely to be hunting. Dragonflies and damselflies are basking while on the lookout to snatch insect meals. And where there is a chance to catch bugs, there will be spiders.

With the dew gone, it is harder to find their webs, but I do see a couple of orb webs and funnel webs among the plants. A close look at the flowers reveals some non-web-making spiders. Both jumping spiders and crab spiders seek available food in the florets. Jumpers actively pursue their prey while the sedentary crabs sit among plant leaves and blossoms and wait for insects to come by. Some crab spiders are yellow in the flowers, others are brown. Both appear to be successful in catching insects. The jumping spiders need to work harder to garner meals.

My berry-picking has been delayed for a substantial amount of time as I watch the dramas in the goldenrods, but I finally move on. The blackberries that I visit have plentiful juicy berries and I quickly fill my container. The afternoon has become evening as I take the return trip. Again, I go through the goldenrods.

Many of the same insects and spiders are still here, but I note a couple of others. Katydids, grasshoppers and a tree cricket are all calling, scratching out tunes in the cooling evening. Movements on the flowers show me that other critters are here, too. I watch a gray tree frog (in its green phase) and a nearby spring peeper move through the plants looking for meals. These frogs frequently climb in late summer.

This is only one of many regional goldenrod patches in bloom now in early September. These native flowers are a delight to see and a delight to walk in and watch.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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