Pot Luck: A Wildlife Ecosystem in the Middle of a City?

By Mary Knierim, EMGV

The second installment of our series “Pot Luck: Adventures in Urban Container Gardening

Images Credit: Mary Knierim

A group of Durham County Master Gardeners recently partnered with a local business to create an urban garden with the purpose of teaching the community about container gardening. The Cocoa Cinnamon coffee shop at the intersection of Geer Street and Foster Street is close to downtown in a commercial district populated by bars, restaurants, apartment buildings, and offices. The very challenging location is exposed to full sun and surrounded by concrete and asphalt. Temperatures can range from colder in the winter to much hotter in the summer than our Zone 7b status typically suggests. Additionally, there is a large noisy building site across the street. The garden is planted in a variety of medium to large-sized metal containers on the street-side perimeter of the property. Some permanent year-round interest in the form of shrubs, grasses and perennials were planted in the fall of 2021. In the spring of 2022, more perennials and annuals were added. The plants are a mixture of native and non-native species. 1

As a photographer, I am always looking for a new project to tackle. As part of the team that worked on the project, I had photographed the Cocoa Cinnamon container garden in its various stages of planting and documented the work that was put into creating it. I then became curious about what kind of insects and wildlife might inhabit the space. Selfishly, I also wanted to improve some of my photography techniques. So one day I went to the garden. I walked around looking to see what was there.  Immediately, I saw quite a variety of bees. A lot of patience is required for nature photography, and so I ordered a coffee and sat and watched. Occasionally, I would get up and walk around the different containers. As I spent time observing,  I began to see tiny little insects as well as bees and butterflies. I photographed whatever I could see (or barely see – a magnifying glass would have been handy). When I got home I began to research what I had found.  After only two visits I have documented many insects, including all sorts of flies, beetles, bees, and butterflies. Lots of questions have emerged: Are these all native insects?  What is their function in relation to plants and other insects? Are they beneficial to our local area and the general ecosystem of the garden? Below is a list of common and Latin names of the insects (sometimes incomplete) and some brief information. Not surprisingly I found quite a few insects that were pests, but it is good to know what is in the garden in case some intervention is needed. You never know if the antidote to your problem also is residing in the garden.  For example, lady beetles feed on aphids. 

Interestingly, as the containers surround the patio seating area at the coffee shop, no one has reportedly been bothered at all by the insects. In fact many customers are rather pleased to see so many insects are attracted to the garden.

As we become more aware of how important insects and wildlife are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, we hope to inspire folks to incorporate plants into their outdoor spaces. Maybe you would like to go out in your garden with a magnifying glass (or jeweler’s loupe) and discover a whole other world?

Since I only started this project in July, I probably missed some insects that are more prevalent in late spring/early summer. I hope to keep up with this project over the coming months. 

Note:  I have labeled this a wildlife garden as I hope to find other critters and perhaps some birds feeding on the sunflower seeds.

To see all the photos of insects in this urban oasis, go to the site listed below. Visitors will be able to view the gallery now through November 30, 2022.



Insect List 2022

Image Credit: Mary Kniernim

Common Bumble Bee (Bombas impatiens) Found widely across the eastern United States. An important pollinator for crops, feeds on a variety of flowers and trees. Nests underground.

Delta Flower Beetle (Scarab Trigonopeltastes delta) Native to the eastern United States.

Leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) Approximately 1/4” long, garden pest. They transmit Pierce’s Disease (commonly known as leaf scorch).

Fruit Fly (Tephritidae sp.) A pair of fruit flies. Larvae feed in or one soft-bodied fruits.

Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae) Common in gardens. Feeds on plants in the mustard (Brassicaceae) family.

Long-legged fly (Dolichopodidae sp.) 0.1-0.15″ beneficial insect.  Adults are predators of small insects such as aphids.

Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.) Solitary bees like this are also a great pollinators.

Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata) Found throughout the United States.  Beneficial in the garden for eating aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, spider mites, and more.

Silver Spotted Skipper Butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) Very common pollinator in the United States. Prefers blue, red, pink and purple flowers never yellow.  Caterpillars feed on soybean crops.

Cocklebur weevil (Rhodobaenus quinqubpunctatus) Feeds on stem tissue of sunflowers, ragweed and cockleburs.  Not a significant threat to plants.

Horace’s Dusky Wing Butterfly (Erynnis horatius) Eastern United States. Found on dogbane, buttonbush, sneezeweed, goldenrod, peppermint, boneset and winter cress.

Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) Eastern United States. A large solitary wasp. Beneficial for hunting dog-day cicadas which damage trees.

True Bug (Hemiptera order; genus and species unknown) Several species of true bugs live in North Carolina, including stink bugs. All have piercing and sucking mouthparts. Some are predatory insects.

Flea Beetle (Phyllotreta sp.)

Agricultural pest that feeds on leafy greens. Seen here on sweet potato vine but not a sweet potato flea beetle.

Fly (Diptera order; genus and species unknown)

Mason Bee (Hoplitis sp.) United States native bee. Solitary. Carry pollen on their backs. Excellent pollinators.

Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) Moth that mimics a bumblebee. Also known as hummingbird moth. Eastern United States. Pollinator garden insect.  

Blue-winged wasp (Scolia bubia) Beneficial insect. Two yellow spots on abdomen and blue-black wings. Predator of green June beetle larvae. Kills by stinging and laying eggs in the larvae (grubs). Upon hatching, young wasps cannibalize the grubs. 2

Pigweed Flea Beetle (Disonycha glabrata) Found in Eastern United States.  0.1-.28″ in size.  Feeds on pigweed and amaranth. Found at Cocoa Cinnamon on purple love grass.

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) Common garden butterfly.



1–To read more about the establishment of the urban container garden in downtown Durham, NC, see the first blog post in our series “Pot Luck: Adventures in Urban Container Gardening.” https://wp.me/p2nIr1-2jZ

2–This type of insect, whose larvae live as parasites that eventually kill their hosts (usually other insects), is known as a parasitoid.


Resources and Additional Reading

North Carolina State University Extension has an incredibly extensive website on insects featuring photos, fact sheets, identification guides, entomology terms, and information on environmental stewardship.


Check out Texas A&M University/Texas AgriLife Extension’s thorough guide to photographing insects. This presentation includes basic lighting and composition techniques all the way up to sophisticated information on advanced photography including shutter speeds and equipment options.


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