Monitoring gardens and spreading the message

I looked at your photos Pollinator Web link. what a treat to see some great pictures!

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What a lovely conversation.

  1. Yes, I do. I walk the yard daily (about 1 acre) for 15 minutes, sometimes twice. In good weather, I sit outside, always with camera & binos. For what I’ve found, you can check out my Yard Survey project here:
    https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=any&project_id=my-yard-survey&verifiable=any
  2. I don’t actively promote monitoring diversity, although I do spread a message related to the future of the earth’s ecosystem. (please DM me if interested).
    In my rural area, people live surrounded by nature. Many of the older ones know it intimately. Use search for “becksnyc” for my comments on the kind of expertise that matters to me here:
    https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-expert/19521/48
    I’ve always been interested in the natural world, though I’ve lived in cities for much of my adult life. The pandemic lockdown & personal circumstances have made it possible for me to “go deep” into my surroundings. It’s been a memorable few years, a gift to me & my family.
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You might be surprised. The fact that you are getting volunteer plants indicates that your neighborhood isn’t a complete concrete wasteland, and where plants are, insects usually aren’t far behind.

When I joined iNat, one of my goals was to keep track of the organisms visiting or living on my balcony. The area I’m in is a bit greener than what you describe, but it is still an urban, densely populated area. I thought initially that I would be lucky to get maybe 50 species. Now, 9 months, later, I’m at around 180 leaf taxa, so well over 3 times that, even without accounting for as-yet-unidentified species hiding at higher taxonomic levels. Mind you, I really have been documenting everything – including the aphids and spider mites and grubs I find in the soil. And working from home part of the time due to the pandemic has allowed for more regular daytime monitoring than would otherwise be possible.

But what this project has taught me is that once you start looking, there’s a surprising amount of life even in apparently barren spots. Over time there will be more, if you’re providing habitat that allows creatures to come and stay. I’m sure if I had tried to conduct such a survey 5 years ago, shortly after I moved in, the result would have been very different.

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Great findings for such a tiny, elevated spot!
I checked your observations and would suggest to have an eye on phytoparasitic fungi, like mildew and rusts - these are generally host specific and thus often can be IDed on species level. And some mildew-eaters (22-spot ladybird) already showed up.
Also, have a close look at your compost - I had one indoors for some time, and even there a large variety of arthropods showed up.
You can also leave some overripe fruit outside to attract flies and moths.

I love this project, even if it was only temporary until construction on the next concrete edifice began. There’s a heap of dirt/garden waste/leftover construction materials in an empty lot here which quickly became one of my favorite observation spots, because it’s so fascinating to watch the bare rocks and soil being settled by a succession of ruderal plants. It seems to be wonderful habitat for the bees, too – I saw several oligolectic or otherwise not especially common bee species there – and I’m honestly a bit worried because I don’t know what the plans are for that space, and I fear that at some point someone will come in with an excavator and destroy all that habitat.

One of the researchers at my workplace is interested in what he calls “the nearby” as a space where people engage in everyday activities to restore the social fabric. While he’s more concerned with social issues rather than ecosystems, I like this way of framing how individual efforts to (for example) create a pollinator garden don’t take place in a hermetically sealed context – it is always deeply embedded in a larger nearby space, with organisms (human and otherwise) constantly entering and leaving and interacting. The spontaneous “Lehrpfad” seems like a great illustration of this.

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Yes, I’m sure I haven’t yet exhaustively documented everything that is to be found on my balcony. I have to leave something for next year, after all ;) I still have a pile of “miscellaneous” photos that I am working through, so it is likely there are at least a few new species amongst them.

You’re right that I have been somewhat neglectful of organisms not capable of locomotion. There is probably some gardener bias here – I am accustomed to thinking about mildew/rust as something to be eliminated, so it requires a bit of reorienting to see it as something I should photograph for iNat instead of (or in addition to) mourning the fact that it ruined my chervil crop. I suspect there is likely also some moss and maybe a few lichens I could add.

I have in fact been documenting the inhabitants of my compost box, though it has proved a bit more stressful than anticipated, as it turns out that a number of Steatoda spiders have decided that it is an ideal place to set up their webs. I knew I had them on my balcony and I also know that they are harmless and eat the gnats and so forth, but they trigger a deeply engrained “danger!” response that is hard to recalibrate – they are just too similar in both appearance and habits to the black widows that are endemic where I grew up.

For the very small stuff, I’m still grappling with the limitations of my equipment (which consists of a cell-phone camera and a couple of clip-on macro lenses) and my lack of experience/skill as a photographer, though the latter has definitely improved in the last several months. There are nevertheless a number of organisms I haven’t documented because I haven’t managed to get decent IDable photos. I have so far been completely unsuccessful at getting usable photos of the fruit flies that have been hanging out in my kitchen, for example. Ditto mostly for the various gnats living in the soil. I’ve been somewhat more successful with the springtails (they at least can’t fly away).

I suppose I haven’t addressed the “spreading the message” part of the thread title. One thing that I love about the area I am living in is that so many of the balconies face streetwards, so I can look out and see all the other apartments whose occupants have planters filled with flowers hanging over the railing, and the next block over there are a couple of people who seem to be as determined as I am to use every inch (sorry: centimeter) of available space to grow things. So there is also wordless communication – seeing what others are doing and being inspired by their example – that I think should not be underrated, even if one never directly interacts with these people.

In terms of creation of habitat, there are some obvious limitations to a space of just a few square meters. Most of the species I’ve documented are highly synanthropic, and I simply can’t create the sort of conditions that would support, for example, a population of some of the more specialized bee species. I’m gradually trying to add more appropriate pollen plants, but providing patches of open earth of a character that would meet the requirements of many of the ground-nesting bees isn’t particularly feasible. I do provide tubes for the cavity-nesting bees, but this was actually in response to finding them already nesting in the ends of my bamboo trellis or in flower pots. And I have some branches of slightly rotten wood for the carpenter bees; this has probably also created habitat for a variety of beetles and bugs.

I’m a bit selective about what information I share in conversations with others. I love talking about “my” bees and their varied behaviors (ca. 30 species, at least 5 of which nest here). But with less nature-friendly acquaintances I might not mention the compost bin, or the periodic ant colonies, or the fact that I have documented 20+ spider species, about half of which likely represent breeding populations. (I’m not sure, for example, how well this information would go over with my landlord or the neighbor who has the balcony below mine.)

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Yeah but many of those volunteer plants are invasive species and many of them likely came hidden in the dirt as seeds from who knows where. There are green areas and natural weedy spaces around but most of them are far away from my yard and insects don’t come because my yard does not offer proper conditions for them to live.

Congrats! It’s always pretty satisfying to exceed our expectations.