Inspiration — For All of Us

The field of ecology has deep roots among many scientists and developed significantly starting in the 18th and 19th centuries. The word itself, coined by German scientist Ernst Haeckel in 1866, derives from the Greek for "study of our house" (oikos=house; logos=study). By ecology, he wrote "we understand the comprehensive science of the relationships of the organism to its surrounding environment, [and] in the broader sense, all conditions of existence."

Understanding the interactions among species, and particularly the co-evolutionary relationships between animals and plants, is essential to appreciating the importance of native plants as the foundation for stable and healthy ecosystems. And it is tremendously fun! Enjoy these beautiful examples that give us a small glimpse into the complexity of life. They may inspire your landscape and stewardship work.

  • Eastern Calligrapher Fly on Virginia Mountain Mint.

    Eastern Calligrapher Fly Visits Virginia Mountain Mint

    The eastern calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus) is named for the intricate black striping on its abdomen—a pattern that very much resembles a small wasp or bee. Many syrphid flies use this kind of mimicry as a defense mechanism; being easily mistaken for an insect that has a stinger is a good way to ward off predators. A closer look reveals the truth—like all flies, syrphids have only one pair of wings, while wasps and bees always have two. Also known as hover flies, these insects visit open-faced flowers to feast on pollen and nectar. Here it visits beautiful Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Syrphids in the genus Toxomerus prey on aphids during their larval stage, making them particularly valuable insects to have in a garden.

    Photo © David Forsyth
  • Dicentra cucullaria with a bumblebee.

    Dutchman's Breeches Visited by Bumblebee

    Bumblebees are the most successful pollinators of Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), because they are among the few insects that have tongues long enough to reach the nectar in its uniquely shaped flower, making them more likely to pick up pollen during a visit. Dutchman's breeches flowers very early in the spring, just in time to feed and be pollinated by the bumblebee queen when she emerges from her winter rest.

    Photo © Carol Gracie
  • Scarlet tanager eating caterpillars on oak tree.

    A Scarlet Tanager Gleans for Insects at an Oak in Flower

    The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is one of our most stunning neo-tropical migrants. This male, exhibiting breeding season plumage, has found a caterpillar in this oak tree at the Arnold Arboretum. (Look closely at its beak.) Tanagers need large, unfragmented forests to breed, but while they are migrating can be seen stopping for vital food and rest in smaller urban and suburban landscapes.  Oaks are an important source of food for many birds because they host a wealth of insect life, including the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies)—more than any other genus of trees in the northeastern United States. If you want to support bird life in your garden, plant an oak tree!

    Location: Arnold Arboretum, Boston Massachusetts

    Photo © David Forsyth
  • Monarch butterfly at New England aster.

    Monarch Butterfly Visits New England Aster

    Like so many of our butterflies, adult Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) feed on nectar, and must be able to access a diverse mix of nectar-rich flowers to complete their life cycle. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is an excellent source of nectar and is particularly valuable to a range of pollinators because it blooms so late in the fall, often into mid-October, when relatively few other plants are in flower. Because fall is the time of year when Monarchs begin their migration back to Mexico where they cluster together in colonies to overwinter, these and other asters help power them through this incredible journey.

    Photo © Carol Gracie
  • Monarch butterfly caterpillar.

    The Beautiful Monarch Caterpillar on Butterflyweed

    The charismatic monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) is a joyful sight for any gardener. This one, in its fifth instar stage— the largest and most vividly colored— has undergone its final molting before it will form a chrysalis just three to five days later. Although monarch caterpillars spend nearly every waking moment of their larval stages eating milkweeds, including Asclepias tuberosa or butterflyweed as shown here, they often do not pupate on those plants. They are known to crawl a fair distance away and monarch chrysalises can be found in a surprising mix of places— hanging from a variety of other wildflowers, tree trunks, and even patio chairs.

    Location: A Cape Cod Garden

    Photo © Kristin Andres
  • Ant carrying a bloodroot seed.

    Ant Carrying a Bloodroot Seed

    The ant carrying this bloodroot seed back to its nest is collecting a very valuable food resource for its colony. The seeds of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) have a pale, fleshy structure attached to the outside, called an elaiosome, that is packed with oils, proteins, and other nutrients. Ants eat the elaiosomes and then discard the hard seeds, along with other debris, in their burrows— effectively planting the seed much further away from the parent plant than it would ever have traveled otherwise. Ant-assisted seed dispersal, called myrmecochory, is a strategy used by many woodland wildflowers, including trilliums, trout lilies, violets, and other species.

    Photo © Douglas Tallamy
  • Yellow-rumped warbler eating wax myrtle berry.

    Yellow-rumped Warbler Eating Bayberry Fruit

    Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) are so strongly associated with shrubs in the genus Myrica (bayberries and wax-myrtles) that the eastern subspecies is called the Myrtle Warbler. Unique among warblers, it is able to digest the waxy covering on fat-rich myrtle berries, which are a vital fall and winter food source for them. The ability to eat northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, in the photo above) is the prime reason that these warblers can overwinter so far north in the coastal areas of New England, where bayberry is abundant, while most other warbler species spend the winter much further south. Yellow-rumped Warblers breed in the higher elevations of western Massachusetts in the summer, and can be found throughout coastal areas of the state during migration and in the winter. This female was photographed along the Rhode Island coast in October.

    Location: South Kingstown, Rhode Island

    Photo © Brooks Mathewson
  • Black-capped chickadee on cattail.

    Black-capped Chickadee on Cattail

    Cattails (Typha spp.) dominate many wetlands, forming dense stands that provide important habitat for nesting marsh birds, muskrats, and many other animals. They host several species of insects, including the larvae of the shy cosmet moth (Limnaecia phragmitella), which overwinter in cattail spikes, feeding on the thousands of tiny seeds that each plant produces. The ragged appearance of cattail spikes in winter is actually an indication of the presence of these larvae, which produce webs of silk that keep the fluffy seeds from blowing away, holding them in a matrix where the larvae can live and, come spring, weave their cocoons. This Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) may look like it has a mouthful of cattail seed, but is likely after the protein-rich larvae hidden amid the fluff. 

    Photo © David Forsyth
  • Potter Wasp on Common Milkweed

    Potter Wasp on Common Milkweed

    This potter wasp (Eumenes fraternus) is molding a nest out of mud on the edge of a common milkweed leaf (Asclepias syriaca). Once a nest is complete, a potter wasp will stock it with several paralyzed caterpillars, and lay a single egg that hangs on a thread from the opening of the nest. When the wasp larva hatches, it climbs up to feed on the caterpillars supplied by its parent. Potter wasps have no particular connection to milkweeds— they will attach nests to a variety of substrates from twigs to windowsills. However, milkweed flowers can be a valuable food source for adult wasps, which feed on nectar and pollen, and as a host of caterpillars that the wasp can hunt for its young. To learn more, check out Native Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens by Eric Grissell in Best Books.

    Location: Garden in Brockton, Massachusetts

    Photo © Karin Sanborn
  • Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

    Red Milkweed Beetle on Common Milkweed

    Although we typically associate milkweeds with monarch butterflies, there are several other species of insects that specialize on milkweed. The red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) lays its eggs in hollow grass stems near the base of common milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca). When the larvae hatch, they burrow into the roots of the milkweed and develop there. The adult beetles feed on milkweed leaves and flowers, and incorporate toxins from the plant into their bodies, which is advertised by their vibrant red color. These striking native beetles are not pests— their populations typically stay in balance and rarely cause problems for the milkweed plants they feed on.

    Location: Garden in Arlington, Massachusetts

    Photo © Janet Wilder
  • Wilson's Warbler eating a caterpillar.

    Wilson's Warbler Enjoying a Caterpillar

    Our native Amelanchier trees, also called shadbush, juneberry, or serviceberry, do double duty as a food source for birds. Their berries are much-loved by many avian species. Just as importantly, the caterpillars they host are essential bird food, especially in the spring— high in protein and full of good nutrition. This Wilson's Warbler is eating the caterpillar in mid-May, even before the Amelanchier berries ripen.

    Location: Urban garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Photo © Claudia Thompson
  • Eastern bluebird on staghorn sumac.

    Eastern Bluebird on Staghorn Sumac

    Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is an early succession shrub that colonizes open sites, old fields, roadsides, and forest clearings. Sumac has tremendous ecological value. Its flowers attract a variety of pollinators, and caterpillars, including the red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), eat sumac foliage. Its berries are an important food source for many species of birds like the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) that live in semi-open habitats where sumac is frequently found. The berries remain on branches into the winter and sometimes the spring, making sumac especially important during these times of food scarcity.

    Photo © David Forsyth
  • Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectaring at chokecherry.

    Tiger Swallowtail Visits Chokecherry in Bloom

    The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is one of the more common and easily recognizable butterflies in our region, with a wingspan that can reach 5 inches. Adults are frequent visitors to nectar-rich plants, especially large, composite flowers like Joe-Pye weed, milkweed, and buttonbush. Here, it is visiting chokecherry flowers (Prunus virginiana) for nectar. These native cherries are also quite important to tiger swallowtails as one of their preferred larval host plants. In fact, members of the genus Prunus are ecological powerhouses. They are larval hosts for 456 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies); their flowers are an excellent source of nectar and pollen for a range of insect pollinators; and their abundant berries feed birds in late summer.

    Photo © David Forsyth
  • Screech Owl nesting in an urban street tree.

    Eastern Screech Owl Nesting in an Urban Street Tree

    The small Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) can be quite cosmopolitan and is found, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "wherever there are trees.” They nest in holes and cavities abandoned by woodpeckers or otherwise formed in decaying trees. Unfortunately for these owls, we leave them little standing dead wood in our suburbs and parklands. They are thus forced to improvise; screech owls have been found holed up in mail boxes and wooden crates. The one pictured above was happily ensconced in a dying Norway maple on a busy street with traffic whizzing past, so well camouflaged that passers-by might never spot it. The next time a tree in your landscape comes to the end of its life, consider leaving it in place for a while. Owls, woodpeckers, and the multitude of insects that thrive in decaying wood will thank you!

    Location: Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Photo © Claudia Thompson
  • Common yellowthroat warbler in Quaking aspen.

    Common Yellowthroat Warbler in Quaking Aspen

    The Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) is one of the most widespread and numerous warblers in North America. It is known for its distinctive call, and the black ‘outlaw’ mask of adult males that is so visible here. These birds prefer habitat full of dense vegetation, and are often found in wetland thickets where they are well protected as they glean for insects on the ground. This yellowthroat is perched on quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), a tree with a vast native range in North America— from Alaska to mountaintops of the west, and throughout the northeast. It is a fast-growing, early succession tree that prefers a cool climate and thrives after disturbances like wildfires. It is also an ecological powerhouse, supporting the larvae of nearly 100 species of moths.

    Photo © Brooks Mathewson
  • Cedar Waxwing eating an Amelanchier berry.

    Cedar Waxwing Enjoying an Amelanchier Berry

    If you plant Amelanchier trees in your landscape, chances are that they will be visited by Cedar Waxwings in the spring. Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) absolutely love Amelanchier fruit, which ripens each year in June, giving these trees one of their common names, juneberry. Waxwings are social birds and often arrive in a flock, filling the air with their high-pitched calls. And if they leave any berries behind for you, give them a try. Serviceberries (referencing another one of this tree's common names) are very tasty and nutritious to humans as well.

    Photo © Brooks Mathewson
  • Dragonfly perched on a native dogwood tree.

    Prince Baskettail Dragonfly Perches in an Urban Garden

    The prince baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca princeps) is a fairly large species, recognizable by its distinctive wing markings. Like all dragonflies, it spends its entire life in or around a body of water where it can breed. It is a predator and as an adult it hunts on the wing, snatching insects like flies right from the air. In its aquatic larval form it will eat plankton, other insect larvae, and even tadpoles. Because of this, dragonflies play an important role in controlling the populations of pests like mosquitoes. Prince baskettails need to perch at night, typically hanging under twigs until dawn, when the warmth of the sun heats their wing muscles enough that they can start to fly. This individual was found in a small tree on an urban street, reminding us that supporting such complex life cycles can happen in more places than we commonly expect.

    Location: Urban garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Photo © Claudia Thompson
  • Great Black wasp in Asclepias incarnata

    Great Black Wasp on Swamp Milkweed

    In spite of the “swamp” in its name, Asclepias incarnata can thrive in conventional garden soils. A clumping perennial with rose-colored flowers, it also has tremendous ecological value. Milkweeds are best known as the host plants for the larvae of the monarch butterfly, but they also support many other insects, including the great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus). This native wasp is a solitary species that nests in the ground and feeds its larvae live insect prey, especially katydids. The adults primarily eat nectar and prefer species with shallow flowers like milkweeds. These wasps are important pollinators of both common and swamp milkweed, and, like all predators, play a vital role in keeping nearby insect communities in balance.

    Location: Urban garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Photo © Claudia Thompson
  • White-throated sparrow eating mountain ash berries.

    White-throated Sparrow Eating Mountain Ash Berries

    The American mountain ash (Sorbus americana) is a tree of cool moist areas, often found at mid-elevations in southern New England. Its brilliant red berries are poisonous to humans but eagerly devoured by many bird species late in the fall, when the berries hang on to the tree after the leaves have fallen. This white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) was traveling south from its summer breeding habitat in a Canadian forest to overwinter in the continental United States, and making a vital re-fueling stop along the way.

    Location: Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire

    Photo © David Forsyth