Goldenrod, a weed or a treasure?

Blue-winged wasp on goldenrod

Goldenrods are magnets for a wide variety of animal life. I am talking about the six-legged and eight-legged fauna, insects and spiders.

I enjoy leading walks in the fall to observe all the bounty of tiny wildlife buzzing, zipping along, and crawling and hiding in the goldenrod patch. I call this program “The goldenrod zoo”. My favorites are the pollinators; but I also like to point out the various kinds of galls and their amazing makers and residents.

Goldenrods used to be regarded as weeds in North America; many people still see them that way. Recently I heard a gardener, an organic gardener at that, who wants to eliminate them from her property. This made me think about the beneficial qualities of goldenrods, both to wildlife in general and to gardens in particular. So I started a list.

Round galls are produced in the stems of tall goldenrods by a species of flies (the goldenrod fly). Gail Eichelberger described the fly’s life cycle in “The Gall of That Goldenrod” in the sister blog, Beautiful Wildllife Garden. She also mentioned how the gall fly larvae can serve as food for chickadees and downy woodpeckers during the winter months. I will simply add that you can tell which of these two birds has opened each gall. Downies skillfully chisel a clean hole, while chickadees are sloppier, and destroy a good part of the gall to get to the prize.

Goldenrod round galls in winter. One of them has been opened by a chickadee

There are a few other types of galls, produced by moths or flies, many of these insects also provide food for birds.

Sweat bee Agapostemon

Sweat bee Augochloropsis

Let us take a look at the goldenrod flowers visitors. There are at least 380 species that visit just one species, the Canada goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis). Not all of them are pollinators and many visit other flowers besides goldenrod. But they all benefit from these flowers’ nectar and pollen.

Syrphid fly, a good aphid control

Feather-legged fly, Tachinidae

Here I am listing a few whose larvae feed on other insects, so they provide an important ecosystem service as biological controls.

Leaf-footed bug. Notice the tachinid fly eggs on its head

The larvae of some Syrphid flies feed on aphids.

Tachinid flies lay their eggs on other insects especially on stink bugs or related bugs which feed on plants.

Potter wasp

Wasps of many kinds are very abundant in the fall, so perhaps they are the most common visitors of goldenrod flowers. They include not just the more familiar and feared ones, hornets and yellow jackets, but also many solitary ones, which are less likely to sting. All of them catch insects or spiders to feed their larvae.

There is one in particular that has become a favorite of mine, the large and colorful blue-winged wasp, Scolia dubia. It is rather hairy and heavy-bodied, unlike most wasps. Its wings are supposedly blue, as the name suggests. But you need a little imagination, or the sunlight hitting them just right; otherwise they look smoky. The body is very dark blue-black, except for the last few segments of the abdomen which are reddish or orange with two bright large yellow spots.

The nice thing about this wasp is that its offspring feeds on the larvae of June beetles. The females spend a good deal of time searching the ground for beetle larvae and digging them out; this earns them their other common name: digger wasp. When a female wasp finds a grub, it paralyzes it. Then it digs a little deeper, builds a small chamber, and lays an egg on its victim. Gruesome, yes, but effective.

And here comes the best part: The blue-winged wasp has developed a taste for Japanese beetles and treats them the same way as June beetles. We all know that one of the most serious problems with introduced pests such as this is that they have left most of their enemies behind in the old country, so they can multiply unchecked. The USDA tried unsuccessfully to introduce some relatives of this wasp as biocontrols of the Japanese beetle. So it is wonderful to see that a native insect has become an enemy of the invasive pest.

Blue-winged wasp

Here’s to the blue-winged wasp and to the goldenrods that sustain it in the fall!

Photos by Beatriz Moisset

© 2011 – 2012, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Beatriz, I love rough and tumble goldenrod and watching all the visitors it draws to the garden. It’s fun to watch the action as bees and other critters stop by for a bit of pollen. Thank you for the info on how to determine if a Chickadee or Downy discovered the gall Fly. Really cool. gail
    Gail recently posted..If You Want To Visit My garden

  2. says

    Most interesting Beatriz. You always have such great information. Wish I had read this before I recently took a walk through a beautiful goldenrod field meadow. Thanks.

  3. says

    Beatriz, I love the goldenrod in the meadow. It has such a lovely look and all the pollinators it draws is such a wonderful bonus. I did not know that it drew in the digger wasp and will look for it so perhaps it can help control those awful Japanese beetles. Great post about this wonderful plant and its benefits.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Calm

  4. says

    Thanks, Beatriz, for this lovely explanation. It’s just what we need, to help shift our perceptions a bit at a time. I’ve always welcomed goldenrod in my meadow, but now I understand it so much better!

  5. Linda Lirette says

    We have to continue to educate folks about the benefits of goldenrod. Recently on CNN, I saw a doctor talking about ragweed, and he held up a goldenrod branch. I emailed CNN, but I doubt we’ll ever hear a correction.

  6. says

    Thanks for all the comments. It seems that we all agree that goldenrod has great esthetic as well as ecologic value. I was at Cape May, NJ, for a few days. After a bout of cold stormy weather it got nice and sunny; then the seaside goldenrods started buzzing with activity. I counted 29 species of flower visitors, including bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and beetles. The monarchs and buckeye butterflies took the cake, of course; but I like all the others, too.
    The seaside goldenrod is valued because it helps to stabilize the dunes and fight erosion.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Bees and vitamins

  7. says

    Interesting to know I was finding similar insects on my Rough-Leaved Goldenrod in Kentucky. I much appreciate your photographs and valuable information. I’m a beginner at insect identification and appreciate what you know and so generously share.

    Looking forward to reading “Bee Basics” which I ordered today.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Welcome to my website


  1. […] of lighter green against the bayberry. For bold color I added generous amounts of Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) in varying heights. Bluestem grasses (Andropogon spp.) help with contrast and dried seedheads from […]

  2. […] Goldenrod is a pollinator magnet! It provides much needed late season fuel for migrating insects like butterflies, and for bees stocking up energy stores for the winter. Turns out, in general, pollinators and beneficial insects prefer bright clusters of small flowers, like those of goldenrod, to single large flowers. […]

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