New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

As the temperatures cool and the changing color of the leaves intensifies, plants in the Aster (Asteraceae) family continue to offer a bright display and food for flower visitors.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with a flower fly (Eristalis transversa) and sweat bee (Agapostemom species)

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with a flower fly (Eristalis transversa) and sweat bee (Agapostemom species)

The Aster family is also called the composite family, because of the arrangement of their flowers. What looks to us like a single flower is actually a cluster of many flowers, often of two different types: ray flowers, which look like petals, and small tubular disk flowers in the center of the display.

Tricolored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) feeding on New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Tricolored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) feeding on New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Some aster family members, like dandelions (Taraxacum species), only have ray flowers.

Eastern-Tailed Blue butterfly drinking nectar from dandelion

Eastern-Tailed Blue butterfly drinking nectar from dandelion

Others have only disk flowers, like Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).

Zabulon Skipper nectaring from Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Zabulon Skipper nectaring from Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

In the case of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), the ray flowers’ function is primarily to add to the attraction of the floral display to entice potential pollinators to visit the flowers.  It’s the tiny disk flowers at the center of each flower cluster that offer the reward of nectar and pollen.

Tricolored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) feeding on New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Tricolored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) feeding on New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Even on cool, blustery days, Bumble Bees, like the Tricolored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) in the photo above, forage for food. The hair on their bodies helps to keep them warm, and is a good vehicle to pick up pollen from one flower and transfer it to another.

Sweat Bees are still active in autumn, fueled by the nectar aster family members offer.

Sweat bee (Halictid family)

Sweat bee (Halictid family)

Sweat bee (Agapostemom species) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Sweat bee (Agapostemom species) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Sweat bee (Agapostemom species) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Sweat bee (Agapostemom species) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Bees are not the only flower visitors at this time of year. Flies are second only to bees in their importance as pollinators.  Some species can be seen throughout fall.

Flower fly (Eristalis transversa) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Flower fly (Eristalis transversa) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Many fly species have evolved to look like bees or wasps in an effort to frighten off potential predators, but if you look carefully you can see the short antennae and very large eyes that almost meet in the center of their faces that are typical of flies.

Flower fly (Eristalis arbustorum) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Flower fly (Eristalis arbustorum) feeding from New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

The fly below is masquerading as a small wasp, hoping to elude predators.  It’s larvae consume aphids, another benefit from this diminutive creature!

Flower fly (Sphaerophoria contigua) on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Flower fly (Sphaerophoria contigua) on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Flower fly (Sphaerophoria contigua) on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Flower fly (Sphaerophoria contigua) on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Moths and butterflies also use New England Aster flowers as a convenient energy drink.

Common Looper Moth (Autographa biloba) feeding on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Common Looper Moth (Autographa biloba) feeding on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Despite their name, New England Asters are native throughout much of the United States and several Canadian provinces. They grow along roadsides and in meadows, and make a great addition to a sunny garden with average to moist soil, even tolerating clay soil.

Take a look at the New England Asters in the photo below. How many visitors can you find on these flowers?

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with flower visitors. How many can you find?

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with flower visitors. How many can you find?

 

Related posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Resources

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

USDA Plant Database

Missouri Botanical Garden

Illinois Wildflowers

 

11 thoughts on “New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

  1. Mary Anne,
    Thank you for your excellent and informative article as well as your,
    as always, beautiful and artistic photographs.
    Best,
    Michael O’Brien
    Valley Head, AL

  2. Mary Anne beautiful, I was doing some sketching and was looking for some kind of bugs to add to the sketch and your bees on the asters are so beautiful and so close up I will add them to sketches… thanks,kate

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Dear Maryanne,’
    The moth, butterflies and bees remind me I need to add the aster to my native garden. Thanks for the enrichment.
    Patricia

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