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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The little things that run the world

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
An eclipse of Clemens Tube Moths

The moths were trying to battle their way into the house outside the glass storm door.  Dozens of non-descript brown patterned moths about one inch in size, attracted to the kitchen lights, moved in frenzied jerks along the transparent window.  Pictures were sent to our Oklahoma Master Naturalist lepidopterist/moth expert.  

Yes, they were at his house as well.  Clemens’ Grass Tubeworm moths.  The moth larvae make silk-lined tubes in the soil where they eat the roots of red and white clovers. After overwintering in the tubes, they continue to eat until it is time to spin a cocoon, also done in the tubes.  Adults emerge late spring through summer.  This was an eclipse (group) of moths at my door.  What is a group of butterflies?  Kaleidoscope.

The name Clemens is often found as part of the species name in moths.  James Brackenridge Clemens (1825-1867), graduate of University of Pennsylvania and physician by education and profession, was an American pioneer in entomology. He was especially good at raising and keeping detailed notes on microlepidoptera, small moths with wingspans less than .80 inch.  The leaf miner, bagworm and fall tent worm moths are in this category.  All my favorites!  

Clemens once stated: “I stand on the shores of science, gazing at the immensity before me.  The Tortricidae is the most difficult and least interesting family in the order Lepidoptera.”  The Tortrixs are leafroller moths.  He has a point.

Finished the NOVA series with “Making North America: Human”. We’re screwed.   If humans don’t demolish the earth first, the Cascadia Fault along the coastline of the Pacific northwest could become active and send a huge tsunami inland.  Don’t worry.  My volcanologist friend is watching the Yellowstone Caldera as it continues to bulge.  The first super-eruption was two million years ago, followed

by the next event .7 million years later and the last eruption happened 640,000 years ago.  Time for another?  Regardless, geologists think the Earth’s continents will reunite in a new supercontinent about 250 million years from now.  Great.  We can drive to Europe.

A cheerful book “The End of Everything” has a well-written review about the end of the universe.  Will it collapse inward, blowing up the stars?  Will expansion become so fast the stars, planets and space are torn apart?  Will the universe continue spreading at its current rate until everything becomes the same cold temperature? What if a bubble forms, zipping through the universe at the speed of light, destroying everything in its path?  Could happen anytime.  

This is why I love biology.  It has beginnings and endings.  Life and death. Take Charlotte 2020 for example.  She lived, she mated, she threw a fit when I tossed a lemon leaf onto her web and had to scurry around to secure it, and now she is gone.  It happened during the night.  Bat?  Bird?  Only remnants of her zigzag web remain.  A real shame since she was such a vibrant colorful arachnid in the prime of life.

We can’t do much about the powers of the universe, but we can do something about nature, which is rapidly disappearing species by species.  August 1st 2020 edition of Science News features an article by Senior Research Fellow Aleksander Rankovic. “How much nature needs protecting?” He “hopes the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a wake-up call about the importance of keeping wild environments intact, as recent research links deforestation to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, in humans.”

Naturalist and biologist E.O. Wilson, born 1929, said insects are “the little things that run the world.” When Wilson was 7 years old, he blinded himself in the eye with a fishing hook.  Although the pain was terrible, he continued to fish.  Months later his other eye’s vision became fuzzy as a cataract formed.  When the lens was removed, he was left with incredible close vision of 20/10.  He could see the hairs on insects.  This ability led him to specialize in myrmecology, the study of ants.  Wilson is an avid supporter of the natural world.  

And that world will begin her recovery as the number and size of parks and protected areas are increased, but….. realize 61% of all land is in private hands. Your hands to be exact.  Doug Tallamy touts the formation of the “Homegrown National Park.”  Repurpose our lawns and lands to create natural corridors.  Bring nature home.  

Our living world needs to be rebuilt and preserved. Even the birds are disappearing.  Birds eat spiders, caterpillars and grasshoppers.  My Wildscape # 32 has birds and few grasshoppers.  

Start now. Leave your house and travel the country roads.  Look!  Nature is still here.  She’s preparing for fall and winter.  Flowers in all colors and sizes.  Here are some local plants with the smallest of blooms.

Snow on the Mountain

Snow on the Mountain (Euphorbia marginata).  In the same family as the Poinsettia, this native spurge has tiny 3/8th inch flowers surrounded by white bracts. Snow is a late summer nectar plant for butterflies and other insects.  It may have irritating sap but doves eat the seeds with no problem.

Mares Tail in bloom

Along the fences wave Horseweed or Mare’s Tail (Erigeron canadensis). Earlier in the season the aster family relatives hid in the grass as green stems with narrow lance-shaped leaves. In autumn these natives burst into many branched flower heads. Flies, bees and butterflies are attracted to the little 1/3rd inch flowers.  This was the very first plant to develop resistance to glyphosate (Roundup) twenty years ago and has continued to develop resistance to other herbicides used on soybeans and corn.  Buy organic.

Common Boneset

Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) flowers late August into September. The floral clusters of this aster family member (each flower 1/4th inch) attract numerous natural plant enemies (better than pesticides) as well as moths, butterflies, sweat, digger, carpenter and bumble bees.  

Rangy Velvety Gaura (Oenothera curtiflora) can tower over 9 feet in height, but has the smallest of Gaura flowers (1/5th inch in size) all lined up like little pink flags along the stem tops.  In the Evening Primrose family, the blooms are cross-pollinated by moths and bees that don’t have a fear of heights.

Frogfruit in flower

Look down to find Fogfruit/Turkey Tangle Fogfruit/Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora).  A member of the verbena family, this 3” to 6” tall mat-forming native grows mainly in the southern half of the US.  Light lavender flowers are ¼ inch across.  The easy-to-grow groundcover and turf substitute is a fantastic caterpillar food source for the Buckeye, White Peacock and Phaeon Crescent butterflies.  Good nectar source for pollinators.

No matter the size, plant a patch of native plants.  Your health may depend on it.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.