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No Need to Beg for Beggarticks
by Ginny Stibolt

Two polka-dotted wasp moths gather nectar from the Bidens alba flowers.

The polka-dot wasp moths* love beggarticks.

In our meadows and some of our wilder gardens, beggarticks (Bidens alba) have run rampant with all the rain we've had here in north Florida and the butterflies are loving it.  Photos don't begin to capture the busy buzzyness around these native plants.  

This member of the daisy family, Asteraceae, is a great addition to your butterfly garden because it takes care of itself-some even consider it a weed.  I've pulled more than a few of them myself, but I always make sure to leave plenty in the meadows for the butterflies and other pollinators.  The ones I leave are located away from paths so we won't end up with too many of their stickery seeds attached to our clothes.  My mother used to call them stick-tights.

Beggarticks grow in any type of soil and will occupy most any open space in your landscape, but they do best in the sun.  Once the summer gets hot, they grow quickly here in northern Florida and often sprawl across and over the tops of more sedate plants.  Where the stems touch the soil, roots will form for more anchor points and provide additional sources for moisture.  You probably have it in your landscape, but if not, find someone who does and she'll be happy to give you some seeds or plants.  You won't have to beg.  It's unlikely that you'll find any for sale since it's so prolific all by itself.  You're more likely to find ways to get rid of it.  While it's native here and cannot, by definition, be listed as invasive, in other countries beggarticks have become a big problem.

Butterfly Gardens

Gulf frittilary butterflies snub the scarlet milkweed for beggarticks.  Photo by Stibolt.

If you build a good butterfly garden, they will come.  The first thing to do is to stop using all pesticides. Then you provide nectar sources (like beggarticks) for the adult butterflies, food for the larvae (caterpillars), shallow puddles or mud flats, and places for shelter.  When you work to attract butterflies, you'll be supporting populations of other beneficial insects because most butterfly nectar sources also attract other pollinators.  Additional insect habitat in your neighborhood's ecosystem also supports insect-eating birds, lizards, frogs, toads, and bats. In turn, they help to control garden pests. Your extension agent calls this integrated pest management, or IPM. It's a balance.

Since beggarticks are the nectar source of choice for many of our butterflies and moths, they can be an important addition to your butterfly garden.  Gulf fritillary butterflies (as shown in this photo) snub my scarlet milkweed, which I bought, and visit the beggarticks instead.  The monarchs still visit the milkweed, but I saw them on the beggarticks, too.  In about 15 minutes on a recent sunny afternoon, I counted six different species of butterflies and several types of bees on the beggarticks.  Since this plant is so weedy, it needs to be managed.  I've cut it back with hedge clippers to keep it away from other plants and to maintain pathways in the meadows.  It fills in nicely after it's been trimmed.  

For more information on butterfly gardens see the resources section below.  

Beggarticks Are Important in Other Ways

Bidens alba with 2 hooks on each seed.  Photo by Stibolt

In addition to butterfly gardens, beggarticks have been important in at least two other ways: one was inspiration; the other for food.

In 1941 the idea for Velcro occurred to George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, when he examined the beggarticks and burdock seeds that stuck in his dog's fur. He observed how well the little hooks on the seeds stuck to loops of fabric and fur and thought about the possibility of binding two materials reversibly in a similar fashion.  He developed the hook and loop fastener and submitted his idea for patent in 1951. De Mestral named his invention "Velcro" after the French words velours, or 'velvet', and crochet, or 'hook'.

Plus the small seedlings are edible either raw in salads or cooked with other greens.

So open your mind and see beggarticks in a new light.  They are not just weeds anymore, but a valuable and ridiculously easy to grow butterfly magnet. 

 

Mating polka dotted wasp moths.  Photo by Stibolt
* Oh Those Stylish Polka-dot Wasp Moths (Syntomeida epilais)

With their iridescent gunmetal blue coloring punctuated by white dots and a bright red tip on their abdomens, these insects may look dangerous, but they're not.  They are day-flying moths native to south Florida and the Caribbean Islands.  The female polka-dot wasp moth emits ultra sonic sounds to attract a mate, not the scented pheromones like most other moths and butterflies.  When the male comes within a few feet he'll start clicking as well.  

These days, the larvae feed mostly on the poisonous oleander shrubs (Nerium oleander), so they are also called the oleander moth.  Because of the toxic larval food and their warning coloration, most predators will not eat them.  Before the Spanish imported the oleanders, researchers think that the devil's potato (Echites umbellata) used to be the main host plant for the caterpillar.  Both plants are in the dogbane family or Apocynaceae.  Sometimes the larvae are found on other members of the dogbane family, but they mostly use oleander as their host plant and have increased their range with the plantings of this Mediterranean shrub.  Groups of these ravenous caterpillars can strip bare an entire shrub in a matter of a day or two.  Except for California, the polka-dot wasp moth is now found wherever there are oleanders in the Americas.  We don't have any oleanders in our yard, but looking at the large population of wasp moths this year, our neighbors' oleanders must have taken a beating earlier in the season.

Resources:

· The Florida Native Plant Society's website lists native plants by county and whether they are butterfly garden plants--either nectar or larval. www.fnps.org  
· Learn more about Integrated Pest Management at University of Florida's IPM website: http://ipm.ifas.ufl.edu/ 
· My articles on Backyard Habitat and Meadow Management have additional information on creating butterfly-friendly spaces.
· For information about Velcro: www.swissinfo.org/eng/search/detail/How_a_Swiss_invention_hooked_the_
world.html?siteSect=881&sid=7402384&cKey=1167927120000
.


Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in planting zone 8/9. She's wrote, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," published by University Press of Florida that was released in 2009. Now she's written "Organic Methods for Growing Vegetables in Florida" with Melissa Contreras in Miami that was also published by University Press of Floridia in 2013. You may contact her or read more of her articles posted on her website: www.greengardeningmatters.com.

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