Written by Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion Horticulture Director

Most of us have seen the black and white footage of teenage fans screaming for the Beatles, but there are very few people who are fans of U beetles, even though these insects are so important to our ecosystems. What would it take for people to call themselves “Beetles Fans”? I’m here to make a case for one of our most common and charismatic pollinating beetles, the Colorado soldier beetle.

Colorado soldier beetles are about 1 centimeter long, with a narrow body and long, thread-like antennae. A distinguishing characteristic of most beetles is that their 2nd pair of wings, instead of helping with flight, has become protective armor called an “elytra”. The elytra of Colorado soldier beetles is softer compared to other beetles, so another common name for these insects is “leatherwings”. Colorado soldier beetles are hard to miss with bold black and golden orange markings, which may vary according to body size and whether the beetle is male or female.

These bright colors serve as a warning to spiders and other potential predators. Soldier beetles secrete irritating chemicals that make them unpalatable. Bright colors advertise the danger, like a stop sign or caution tape. But that’s about the only sort of danger associated with these insects; they prefer to “make love, not war”. If you find one soldier beetle, you will probably find at least one more, usually attached in the act of mating. Pollen-eating beetles are usually called “mess and soil” pollinators for the slight damage they inflict on male parts of flowering plants, but I call Colorado soldier beetles “date and mate” pollinators, because they don’t let reproduction get in the way of a good meal. Perhaps it’s the insect equivalent of “dinner and a movie”. Anyway, the plants need them for their own reproduction, so who can judge?

Once they’ve mated, the female soldier beetle lays eggs on the soil surface, under sheltering debris. The shy grubs hatch soon after and eat small insects until the cold season. Eventually, they will pupate in the soil, then emerge as adults in mid to late summer, just in time for the bloom season of their favorite plants, such as goldenrod and rabbitbrush.

This species of soldier beetle is found primarily in grasslands on the plains; there are other species that are more common at higher elevations. As more people plant native plant gardens along the Front Range, these beetles are able to live peaceably among us in urban areas, as the true ambassadors of “flower power”. If you’d like to see more Colorado soldier beetles in your own landscape, you can plant more late-season blooming plants, such as dwarf rabbitbrush. Avoiding landscaping fabric and leaving last year’s debris in your garden also provides the perfect conditions for soldier beetle larvae, allowing the generations to continue. Then you too can join the Beetle Fan Club and appreciate these unsung local pollinators!

Want to learn more about pollinators and how to help them? Contact Butterfly Pavilion’s horticulture department at habitat@butterflies.org!

If you see this pollinator or others around Baseline, take a picture and upload it to Baseline’s iNaturalist page. By doing so, you can be a citizen scientist and help track the diversity and volume of pollinators at Baseline.

Written by Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion Horticulture Director

If I were to come up to you and say, “I’m planting a garden that attracts flies!”, what would you do? Would you back away slowly from me? Envision a trash dump? Flies are usually perceived as dirty, annoying insects, but there are over 16,000 species of flies in North America, and many of them perform important services for us. After bees, flies are the most significant pollinators of crops and native plants. (And, yes, I’m saying that even though I work for Butterfly Pavilion!).

Flies don’t sting like bees or ingest defensive toxic chemicals like butterflies, so how do they defend themselves? If you are a drone fly, you adopt the look and behavior of something scarier, in this case, a honeybee. You probably have seen drone flies in your garden without even realizing it – they are about the same size and shape of honeybees but have only 1 pair of clear wings instead of 2. Another good way to tell these two insects apart is to look at the eyes. Drone fly eyes cover much more of the head, and in the case of males, meet in the middle. Like honeybees, drone flies are adaptable in terms of habitat and may be spotted in grasslands, wetlands, urban gardens and roadsides across western North America. They are most active in the late spring through summer, but a few may survive into the early fall if the weather is mild enough.

These flies not only look like honeybees, but they produce a “buzzing” sound to fool potential predators as well. However, drone flies are also called “hover flies”, and their flight is quite distinctive – more like tiny helicopters than airplanes. The female’s first meal when she emerges in the spring is protein-rich pollen – this will give her the resources she needs to produce and lay eggs. From then on, they visit a wide variety of flowers for nectar, but especially members of the sunflower and carrot families. That means you are likely to see them on black-eyed Susans, zinnias, yarrow, fennel, and dill. Plentiful nectar fuels them in the search for mates and a good egg-laying spot.

The larvae of the drone fly are aquatic, so favorite egg-laying spots will be shallow pools, ponds and ditches, especially if there’s some decaying organic material nearby. No one said that child-rearing was pretty! The larvae have a breathing tube from their posterior end and are often called the glamorous name of “rat-tailed maggots”. They extend these appendages to the water surface and can be found in different depths of the water depending on time of day and food availability. Once they are ready to metamorphosize, they’ll find a drier spot in the soil and pupate for 8-10 days. There may be 2-3 generations of these pollinators in a year, with the final generation of the year overwintering as an adult fly.

Because of their amphibious lifestyle, water quality is especially important for the health of these pollinators. Avoiding chemical use will prevent polluting runoff that can endanger hover fly babies. Participating in stewardship projects that restore wetlands will also ensure that these animals always have plenty of places to raise their young. In your own garden, maximizing native plant diversity creates the niches that these shy and unassuming pollinators need to live. Plants with flat clusters of white or yellow flowers are especially attractive to hover flies. You may have thought that you never wanted to help a fly, but our gardens and farms depend upon them. Maybe you’ll be the first on your block to plant a habitat for drone flies?

Want to learn more about pollinators and how to help them? Contact Butterfly Pavilion’s horticulture department at habitat@butterflies.org!

Written by Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion Horticulture Director

One of my favorite harbingers of spring is the golden currant bush (Ribes aureum). In April and May, this native shrub blooms with clove-scented golden flowers that attract many pollinators. One of the pollinators it feeds is our Hunt’s bumble bee (Bombus huntii), or as I like to call it, our “red-butt bee”. Bumble bees are a large (both in body size and diversity) group of native bees, with over 250 species worldwide. They are graceful, yet bulky fliers, and the loud buzzing you hear when you see one flying gives these bees their Latin name – “Bombus” means “a buzzing sound”.

Hunt’s bumble bees can be found throughout western North America, from Manitoba to Mexico, and its population is currently stable, although there is some evidence that it is declining like many of our native bees. Here in Colorado, this species is one of our most frequently spotted. Hunt’s bumble bee is distinctive with a yellow face and 2 red-orange bands on its abdomen. They are smaller than some of our other common urban bumbles, but have a long enough tongue to drink nectar from a variety of flowers. Their fuzzy bodies are the perfect pollen-catchers, and you can often see them dusted in pollen while carrying even more pollen on their thighs.

This time of the year, you may be lucky enough to spot the queen, who is almost an inch long. She’s the only one in her colony that overwinters, so she has to find enough food to not only keep herself going but to provision her future children. Since she might fly over a mile to find the perfect nesting site, that means visiting a lot of flowers to fuel up! Once she finds a safe place, she digs a burrow or re-uses another animal’s den to begin her family. Bumble bee colonies range in size from 50 to 400 individuals, but once her first worker daughters hatch, they will assist by building cells and gathering pollen and nectar. They are much smaller than their queen mother, almost by half, and you can see them from late spring until frost. Males are only present for a brief time, long enough to go on patrol for another queen to mate with.

Many bumble bee species are tough enough to live at high elevations and cold temperatures, but our Hunt’s bumble bee prefers the prairies and desert scrub at 6500 feet or lower. They also love gardens and are attracted to a wide range of flowering plants, including penstemons, columbines, bee balm, sunflowers, goldenrod and wild roses. Bumble bees are one of the few pollinators that can help you with pollinating your tomatoes and peppers. They have a special way of hanging on to flowers and emitting a special “buzz” that helps the flower to release its pollen – this is called “sonication”, the use of vibrations to effectively fertilize the female parts of the flower.

If you like these “flying teddy bears” as much as I do, there are many ways you can help them. Making sure you have plants in your gardens that bloom from spring to fall ensures they have the calories they need to carry out their life cycle. Another important thing to consider is leaving some areas without landscape fabric so that queens can start their nests. Finally, if you keep honey bees or know anyone who does, making sure the hives are healthy and have plenty of forage helps bumble bees like Hunt’s bumble bee. Hunt’s bumble bee is susceptible to some of the same viruses that affect honey bees, so healthy honey bees mean healthy “red-butt bees”, too.

After a long winter, is there anything better than sitting in the warm sun in the garden and enjoying the fragrance of flowers and the humming of the bees? Now you can relax, knowing that what you are hearing is the sign of a healthy environment and a fruitful summer to come.

Want to learn more about pollinators and how to help them? Contact Butterfly Pavilion’s horticulture department at habitat@butterflies.org!