Vacant Lots as Habitat for Insects

Urban areas are increasingly being studied for their potential to help conserve biodiversity and provide habitat for numerous plants and animals. Despite the harsh conditions of the built environment, organisms of all kinds are able to survive in our cities, and as we find ways to make these spaces more hospitable for them, cities actually have great potential for species conservation, even for species that are rare, threatened, or specialized. One obvious way to accomplish this is to manage our yards, parks, and gardens as habitat, such as planting flower strips for pollinators. Another way, perhaps overlooked at times, is to manage and maintain vacant lots as habitat. Every urban area has some degree of vacant land that for one reason or another has not been developed, or that once was developed but has since been bulldozed or abandoned. Spontaneous vegetation quickly moves in to occupy these sites, and while some may see them as eyesores, their potential for providing habitat for an untold number of plants and animals is substantial.

In cities that are growing – like Boise, Idaho – vacant and abandoned lots are disappearing quickly as development strives to keep up with population growth. My first Weeds of Boise post took place at an abandoned Pizza Hut, which has since been demolished and is now the future site of a large building (see photo below). This is happening all over the city – the City of Trees is looking more like the City of Cranes these days. On the other hand, cities that are shrinking due to economic downturn, loss of industry, and other factors, have an increasing number of vacant lots, which offers the opportunity not only to maintain these lots as habitat, but also to carry out research that will help us understand how these locations can be best managed for species conservation.

Abandoned Pizza Hut Lot Now Under Construction

Cleveland, Ohio is one example of a “shrinking city.” Due to significant population decline, Cleveland has a growing number of vacant lots, many of which are maintained by the City of Cleveland Land Bank. For researchers at The Ohio State University, all of this vacant land presents an opportunity to study, among other things, urban biodiversity. Hence, the Cleveland Pocket Prairie Project was born. By assigning different management treatments to groups of vacant lots and observing the differences between each treatment, researchers can help determine the best strategies for managing vacant lots, particularly when it comes to biological conservation. One of the major focuses of the Cleveland Pocket Prairie Project is to determine how vacant land can provide habitat for insects and other arthropods.

In a study published in Sustainability (2018), researchers in Cleveland compared the species richness and abundance of bees found on vacant lots to those found on urban farms. Bee collections were made three times a year over a three year period. Of the more 2733 bees collected, researchers identified 98 total species representing 5 different families. The vast majority of the species were native to the area. Significantly more bees were found in vacant lots compared to urban farms. In both vacant lots and urban farms, the total number of ground nesting bees decreased as the proportion of impervious surfaces near the study sites increased. Plants that received the most bee visits on the urban farms during the study period were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), and squash (Cucurbita pepo); while the top three plants with the most bee visits on vacant lots were red clover (Trifolium pratense), white clover (Trifolium repens), and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

ground nesting bee (photo credit: Sierra Laverty)

Bee communities differed between vacant lots and urban farms: 29 of the 98 total species were seen only in vacant lots, while 14 species were seen only at urban farms. Most of the bees collected in this study were ground nesting species, and researchers suspect the reason more bees were found on vacant lots compared to urban farms is that farms experience frequent soil disturbance in the form of tillage, weeding, mulching, and irrigation, while vacant lots generally do not. The researchers conclude that their study “adds to the growing body of literature advocating for the maintenance of minimally-managed vacant lot habitats as a conservation resource.” Vacant land that is “surrounded locally by high concentrations of impervious surface,” however, may not be the most suitable location to carry out conservation efforts.

In a study published in Urban Ecosystems (2020), researchers in Cleveland looked at the species richness and abundance of lady beetles in vacant lots. They were particularly interested in the potential that vacant lots may have in providing habitat for lady beetles that are native to the region. The study consisted of 32 vacant lots, each assigned one of four habitat treatments: control (seeded with turfgrass and mowed monthly), meadow (seeded with turfgrass and mowed annually), low-diversity prairie (seeded with three species of prairie grasses and four species of native prairie forbs), and high-diversity prairie (seeded with three species of prairie grasses and sixteen species of native prairie forbs). The two prairie treatments were mown annually. The majority of the nearly 3000 lady beetles captured across all of the plots over a two-year study period were exotic (introduced) species. Sixteen species total were collected: four exotic and twelve native.

The researchers predicted that the lots seeded with prairie plants native to the region would support a higher abundance of native lady beetles than those composed of turfgrass, especially those that are frequently mown. Surprisingly, a similar abundance and species richness of both native and exotic lady beetles were found across all treatments. What appeared to be important for native lady beetle abundance were vegetation features like bloom abundance, height, and biomass. The surrounding environment also matters. As the researchers put it, “vacant lots embedded in landscapes dominated by impervious surface and with a high degree of habitat isolation were less suitable habitats” – a similar conclusion to that made in the bee study.

Brachiacantha ursina (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / NY State IPM Program at Cornell University)

The most abundant native lady beetle collected in the study was the ursine spurleg lady beetle (Brachiacantha ursina). The larvae of this beetle “infiltrate the nests of Lasius ants,” which is “one of the most common genera of ants found in urban environments.” Researchers posit that the abundance of B. ursina reflects the habitat preferences of ants in the Lasius genus. Several species of lady beetles native to the region are experiencing significant population declines, and the researchers were disappointed to find that none of the most rare species were collected during their study period. However, it was promising to find that “pollen and nectar provided by both seeded native and naturally occurring weedy plants” appeared to be important food sources for native lady beetles.

Both studies indicate that vacant lots can be important locations for habitat conservation in urban areas, particularly when they are part of a larger collection of greenspaces. In combination with managing our yards, parks, and urban farms as quality habitat for plants and animals, conserving vacant lots that consist of diverse vegetation (both planted and spontaneous) can help support insect populations within our cities.

2020: Year in Review

This past year was certainly not the year that any of us hoped it would be. We all know why, so there’s no reason to get into it here. Point being, posts on Awkward Botany were a bit fewer and further between in 2020. My day job kept me busier than usual, and my motivation to do much else was pretty much zapped. Regardless, I’m still pleased with what I was able to put out into the world. I’m particularly excited about my new Weeds of Boise project, in which I attempt to catalog the wild urban flora of my hometown. Expect more of that in 2021.

Certainly the biggest news of 2020 is that Sierra (a.k.a. Idaho Plant Doctor) and I bought a house! We started looking in earnest late last summer and weren’t having much luck. Just as we were considering putting our dreams on hold for a bit, we came across a little house in a neighborhood we love. The house was perfect for us, with a big pollinator garden out front and a series of garden boxes in various locations around the property, along with a nice chicken coop (five chickens included!). It was a tiny urban farm looking for new owners, and we were the chosen ones! I like to think that we bought a garden, and it came with a house. This year will be a year of discovery as we watch the yard come to life and fulfill our dream of having a garden of our own. We will definitely keep you posted.

But that’s not all. On the 1st of January, Sierra and I got married in a tiny ceremony in our new backyard. We had planned on getting married in the fall of 2020, but the pandemic quickly put those plans to rest. Now, with a place of our own and a desire to put a tough year behind us, we started the new year off on a positive note. With a number of precautions in place, we were able to celebrate the start of our new lives together with some of our close friends and family. Despite it being the middle of winter, the weather was perfect for our little outdoor gathering. The love and generosity we were shown from so many people that weekend is something we will never forget. 

two nerds getting married

What follows are the usual items found in a Year in Review post – ways you can follow Awkward Botany on social media, links to donate monetarily to Awkward Botany (no pressure), and posts from 2020 that are part of new and ongoing series of posts. New in 2021 is the Awkward Botany Bookshop. Bookshop is a site that makes it possible to purchase books online and support local bookstores in the process. When you buy books through Awkward Botany’s page, we receive a small percentage of the sale, which helps us continue to put out more of the plant nerdy content you’ve come to expect. There is a small selection of books in the store now, and I’ll continue to add more, so check back often. If there are books you’d like me to add to the store, please let me know. 

Follow Awkward Botany on Social Media:

Donate to Awkward Botany:

A Selection of Awkward Botany Posts from 2020

Botany in Popular Culture

Zine and Book Reviews

Weeds of Boise

Tea Time

Podcast Reviews

Awkward Botanical Sketches

Winter Trees and Shrubs

Selections from the Boise Biophilia Archives

For a little over a year now, I’ve been doing a tiny radio show with a friend of mine named Casey O’leary. The show is called Boise Biophilia and airs weekly on Radio Boise. On the show we each take about a minute to talk about something biology or ecology related that listeners in our local area can relate to. Our goal is to encourage listeners to get outside and explore the natural world. It’s fascinating after all! After the shows air, I post them on our website and Soundcloud page for all to hear.

We are not professional broadcasters by any means. Heck, I’m not a huge fan of talking in general, much less when a microphone is involved and a recording is being made. But Casey and I both love spreading the word about nerdy nature topics, and Casey’s enthusiasm for the project helps keep me involved. We’ve recorded nearly 70 episodes so far and are thrilled to know that they are out there in the world for people to experience. What follows is a sampling of some of the episodes we have recorded over the last 16 months. Some of our topics and comments are inside baseball for people living in the Treasure Valley, but there’s plenty there for outsiders to enjoy as well.

Something you will surely note upon your first listen is the scattering of interesting sound effects and off the wall edits in each of the episodes. Those come thanks to Speedy of Radio Boise who helps us edit our show. Without Speedy, the show wouldn’t be nearly as fun to listen to, so we are grateful for the work he does.

Boise Biophilia logo designed by Sierra Laverty

In this episode, Casey and I explore the world of leaf litter. Where do all the leaves go after they fall? Who are the players involved in decomposition, and what are they up to out there?

 

In this episode, Casey gets into our region’s complicated system of water rights, while I dive into something equally complex and intense – life inside of a sagebrush gall.

 

In this episode, I talk about dead bees and other insects trapped and dangling from milkweed flowers, and Casey discusses goatheads (a.k.a. puncture vine or Tribulus terrestris) in honor of Boise’s nascent summer celebration, Goathead Fest.

 

As much as I love plants, I have to admit that some of our best episodes are insect themed. Their lives are so dramatic, and this episode illustrates that.

 

The insect drama continues in this episode in which I describe how ant lions capture and consume their prey. Since we recorded this around Halloween, Casey offers a particularly spooky bit about garlic.

 

If you follow Awkward Botany, you know that one of my favorite topics is weeds. In this episode, I cover tumbleweeds, an iconic western weed that has been known to do some real damage. Casey introduces us to Canada geese, which are similar to weeds in their, at times, overabundance and ability to spawn strong opinions in the people they share space with.

 

In this episode, I explain the phenomenon of marcescence, and Casey gives some great advice about growing onions from seed.

 

And finally, in the spring you can’t get by without talking about bulbs at some point. This episode is an introduction to geophytes. Casey breaks down the basics, while I list some specific geophytes native to our Boise Foothills.