A Goldenrod Safari

By Anita Sanchez

A hun­gry preda­tor crawls through a leafy jun­gle. Slow cau­tious move­ments make no sound. The well-cam­ou­flaged preda­tor waits, motion­less. Pow­er­ful forelegs stretch wide to grab its unwary prey.

Beware the gold­en­rod jungle!

A sin­gle gold­en­rod plant is a com­plex habi­tat, the leaves, stems, and flow­ers pro­vid­ing food and shel­ter for a bewil­der­ing vari­ety of strange, hid­den crea­tures. Spi­ders, insects of all shapes and sizes, even birds use the gold­en­rod plant as a hunt­ing ground. Tiny dra­mas of life and death play out every summer’s day.

Since so many insects come to feast on high-ener­gy gold­en­rod nec­tar, the flow­ers are a per­fect place to hide if you want to catch bugs for din­ner. Lit­tle crab spi­ders can change col­or — they’re white on Queen Anne’s lace, green on leaves, and turn yel­low to match gold­en­rod flow­ers. Crab spi­ders don’t spin webs, they hide in the blos­soms with forelegs out­stretched. They’ll wait for hours or days with­out mov­ing, until a nec­tar-sip­ping bug comes with­in reach.

Ambush bugs are fero­cious preda­tors that can cap­ture prey ten times their size. They lurk just beneath the gold­en petals, like sharks beneath the water. When an insect leg or tongue comes close, the ambush bug strikes! Like spi­ders, the ambush bug doesn’t eat its prey — its long beak pokes a hole in its vic­tim and sucks out the juices.

Jagged holes in gold­en­rod leaves show where bee­tles and cater­pil­lars have been munch­ing. Or you might see a nar­row line, like some­one scrib­bled on the leaf with a white pen­cil. Tiny insect lar­vae called leaf min­ers chew their way through the leaf, leav­ing a wan­der­ing trail behind them. Larg­er bugs like pray­ing man­tis­es and walk­ing sticks prowl the gold­en jun­gle, as well as dozens of species of birds like spar­rows and chickadees.

By the way, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, gold­en­rod does not cause hay fever. The poor inno­cent plant has been wrong­ful­ly impli­cat­ed in a crime it did not, and nev­er will, com­mit. Gold­en­rod pollen is not car­ried on the wind. Gold­en­rod flow­ers are bright yel­low in order to attract bees and oth­er insects, which pick up the pollen and car­ry it from plant to plant. Gold­en­rod pollen does not blow long dis­tances on the breeze, it’s too heavy. Rag­weed, an incon­spic­u­ous plant which coin­ci­den­tal­ly blooms about the same time of year as gold­en­rod, has green­ish, tiny flow­ers that insects nev­er notice – the plant relies on the wind to car­ry its bil­lions of pollen grains far and wide.

Each species of gold­en­rod hosts its own unique food web. There are more than a hun­dred gold­en­rod (Sol­ida­go) species: sweet gold­en­rod, ear­ly gold­en­rod, lance-leaved gold­en­rod, sea­side gold­en­rod, bog gold­en­rod… Try­ing to iden­ti­fy them is a botanist’s night­mare, but insects like the Gold­en­rod Gall Fly (Eurosta sol­idagi­nis) man­age it eas­i­ly. Spe­cial chem­i­cal recep­tors, like taste buds in the insect’s feet, reveal which species is which. Gall flies pre­fer to lay eggs on Cana­da gold­en­rod (Sol­ida­go canaden­sis), although they’ll also use oth­er kinds.

If you feel a round bump on a gold­en­rod stalk, you’ve found a ball gall — the snug home of the gall fly lar­va. In spring, a female gall fly lays a sin­gle egg inside the gold­en­rod stem. The egg hatch­es and the lar­va begins to eat the plant. The insect’s sali­va con­tains growth hor­mones which cause the stem to swell and cre­ate a weath­er­proof home around the lar­va. The lit­tle insect spends many cozy months inside the gall, sur­round­ed by food.

But the lar­va isn’t always safe in its round home. Wasps can pierce the gall with a long ovipos­i­tor (egg-lay­ing tube) and lay eggs inside the gall. When the eggs hatch, the young wasps will feed on the gall fly. Or some­times, wood­peck­ers and chick­adees will peck a hole into the gall to devour the tasty larvae.

Preda­tors and prey. Life and death. All are woven togeth­er in the gold­en­rod jungle.

Summer 2017

Volume 35 , Number 3

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