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.
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.
Some aster family members, like dandelions (Taraxacum species), only have ray flowers.
Others have only disk flowers, like 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.
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.
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.
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.
The fly below is masquerading as a small wasp, hoping to elude predators. It’s larvae consume aphids, another benefit from this diminutive creature!
Moths and butterflies also use New England Aster flowers as a convenient energy drink.
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?
Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. 2007.