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Diggin' In: Fall brings yellow crownbeard and its loyal soldier beetle

September 22, 2014

Yellow crownbeard is easy to spot in the autumn sun — just look for flower clusters that look like ragged yellow mops.

The native perennial thrives in woodlands, meadows and fields and along roadsides, as well as in home gardens, from Maryland south to Florida and Texas. Known scientifically as Verbesina occidentalis, the plant is commonly seen throughout Virginia and North Carolina.

"The plant is prolific and long blooming, adding a mass of golden color to the late fall garden," says Helen Hamilton, author of "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain" at (http://wildflowersofvirginia.com ).

Hamilton notes,."It is somewhat unkempt and needs some space since it can grow to 9 feet tall."

There are two other species of Verbesina — wingstem (V. alternifolia), and white crownbeard (V. virginica).

These plants are all members of the aster family, with usually sterile ray flowers and a central disk packed with tiny flowers, just like sunflowers and asters. Many insects probe the fused flower petals for nectar and pollen. The disk flowers of Verbesina are fewer and loosely arranged and seem to be particularly attractive to soldier beetles, often seen mating even while the female is eating.

Soldier beetles are beneficial in the home garden since both the adults and the larvae are predatory and feed on other insects, according to Hamilton. The adults eat aphids, caterpillars, grasshopper eggs, mites and other small pests. They feed on nectar and pollen in late summer and early fall plants, but do not damage foliage.

Colored bright yellow to red with brown or black wings and trim, the beetles are reminiscent of British uniforms, which is why they are commonly called soldier beetles. The black-and-yellow coloration, somewhat resembling wasps, may protect them for predation by birds, and they secrete a chemical that makes them distasteful. They are also called "leatherwings" for their soft, cloth-like wing covers.

"They resemble lightning bugs but cannot produce flashes of light in the late June evening." Hamilton says.

Like all beetles, soldier beetles go through a complete metamorphosis — proceeding through egg, larval, papal and adult stages, she adds.

In late summer, females deposit eggs in moist soil or in leaf litter. They soon hatch into larvae and overwinter in that form. In the spring, the larvae hatch and prey on insect eggs, larvae, worms, slugs, snails, and other small organisms in leaf litter, plant debris, loose soil, and other areas of high humidity.

The larvae are long, slender and worm-like with indentations in each body segment. They are dark brown or gray and appear velvety because of tiny dense bristles all over. Larvae overwinter in damp soil or debris or under loose bark. In the fall, they may seek to migrate indoors, seeking a protected place for the winter; if you see them in your house, just sweep them up and discard outdoors. Weather stripping and caulking can be used to seal openings they may use.

In early summer, the larvae pupate and emerge as adults in late July, which is the first time gardeners will see these beneficial insects — larvae and pupae are rarely seen. The adults are active through August and September, feeding on nectar and pollen in fall garden plants and preying on aphids, which have been parasitized by wasps, mealy bugs, and other garden insects.

"There is a rich and important community at the soil level where the soldier beetle larvae live and feed," says Hamilton.

"To help soldier beetles and other beneficial insects survive, provide them with perennial plantings with undisturbed, mulched soil, and add organic materials as needed."

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