Monday, April 21, 2014

Lousy Photos Still Have Their Value

Having set myself the task, last year, of documenting all of the plants and animals that I can identify on our 10 acres, I have found myself overwhelmed with photos in short order now that spring has arrived. 

It's MUCH easier to take photos of insects than it is to identify them.  Just in case you wondered.

It's also much easier to take photos of insects than it is to take GOOD photos of insects - good photos being defined as photos where you have a snowball's chance of actually identifying the insect in question based on what you are seeing on the screen in front of you.  I learned my basic insect identification skills the "good" old fashioned way, a.k.a. by capturing the insects and killing them, then identifying them at my leisure through the use of various magnifying devices and dichotomous keys.

I prefer trying to identify living insects in blurry photos, even if it means I won't get many of them actually identified.  I'm just not into killing living beings of any sort, if I can avoid it.  So here are a few of my so-so photos, some of which I've managed to identify and some of which are still mysteries to me....

The clove currant (Ribes odoratum) is in sweet, full and glorious bloom right now.  On Saturday, when I stopped by it, I noticed a dark hawk moth feeding.   The wings blurred rusty brown as the moth moved from bloom to bloom, while the heavy abdomen had a tuft at its end and was encircled by 2 bright yellow bands. I'd never seen this particular hawk moth before, so I tried to take its picture, thinking I could identify it more accurately if I had a good photo.  The blasted little beast was definitely camera shy and not very trusting of giant beings standing nearby with big black boxes stuck up near their face.  It tended to keep to the far side of the plants, rather than venturing out into the open near to me.

Thank heavens for digital.  Fifteen photos later, the moth flew away and I've not seen it since.  When I checked out those 15 shots to see what I'd managed to capture, sadly this was the BEST image of the lot.

As lousy as this photo is, I was still able to use it to identify my "dark" hawk moth as a Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis).  This species is supposedly one of the more commonly encountered day-flying moths, but I've never seen one before.  The larvae/ caterpillars, which are a type of hornworm, feed on grape, Ampelopsis, and Capsicum (bell and hot pepper) plants, all of which are frequent in our yard.

Looking around under one of our green ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), I noticed some small, gnat-like creatures flying.  When one came to rest within my sightline, I decided to snap its picture.  Then I noticed a second one nearby.  Snap.  Snap.  Snap.  These little creatures were about 1/4" or 3/8" long, colored gray and sitting on gray bark.  I have no idea why I thought I could get a good photo.  Here's what I managed to capture, 26 photos later, ....

I didn't think this silhouette would show me much at first, but when I zoomed in, I noticed that the "big" fly had a small fly caught underneath it, held in a classic "I'm eating you" sort of position.  When I showed it to Greg, he immediately thought the "big fly" was a robber fly of some sort.  I can go with that.

Another shot of the same individual accidentally captured a second "big fly" just above it on the bark. 

Do you see the 2 of them?  The one in the bottom right of the photo is the one shown in silhouette above; the second one is in the top left of the photo.  When I zoomed in on the second individual, it also seemed to have some sort of fly prey - with a yellow tipped abdomen - caught.
From the top, there's little evidence of "big fly #1" having prey captured beneath it, but the silhouette shot accidentally revealed the secret.

I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to try to submit these photos to Bug Guide or not - my feel is that they are not good enough for any sort of identification, but maybe I'll chance it anyway.  I do think these are tiny robber flies and I'd love to see if anyone can tell me any more about them.

Another lousy picture that nonetheless taught me something new about the creatures in our yard was this one, taken Saturday of some sort of critter on the underside of a small honeylocust branch....

When I took the photo, I thought the mess of moving legs was perhaps an emerging wheel bug.  As I took several more shots, I changed my mind to thinking I was looking at a brightly colored ant.  As I took the very last picture, something clicked and made me think, "Beetle?"  When I looked it up, sure enough, beetle was correct!  This is an Antlike Longhorned Beetle (Euderces pini).  The larvae of this beetle feed on dead wood in a variety of types of trees; the adults are typically seen nectaring at flowers.  The adults mimic ants and are notoriously hard to photograph because they never quit moving.  This is another insect that tops out around 3/8" long.  As lousy as my photos of this creature are (and this is the best of the lot), I feel lucky that I got a couple shots that allowed me to identify it at all.

As you can tell, I've got a LO-O-O-ONG way to go before I get very decent at taking good insect photos, but I do have fun and I learn a lot, even at the level of (in)competence that I have attained.  The natural world seems more wondrous every day.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Garden Drama 2014: Jumping Spider vs. Blue Orchard Mason Bee

Yesterday I noticed that my blue orchard mason bees were active already - a few were flying around the bee nest that I have in my garden.  This morning, I decided to try to get some pictures...and I was lucky enough to witness my first "garden drama" of 2014!

Shortly after I started looking at the nest box closely, I noticed a little jumping spider hanging around the top of the box.  I tried to get a couple photos, but I had the wrong lens, so I went inside and changed lenses, coming back to see what I could find to photograph.

I returned to my spot, about 3 feet in front of the bee nest, and almost immediately noticed an orchard bee checking out a couple tubes near the top.  The spider noticed the bee, too, coming to the front of the tube it was currently hiding in.

The bee seemed oblivious to the spider.  It came out of one tube and flew to the tube immediately adjacent to the spider's tube, going deep into the tube as soon as it landed.  The spider and I both waited until the bee came backing out.

Instead of sensing danger and flying away, the bee hung around the entrance to the tube for precious seconds, seeming just to look around.

The spider moved in closer...

and closer...

...and suddenly pounced!  The bee had waited too long.

Despite being held firmly in the spider's embrace, the bee struggled for an amazingly long time.  I had thought that spider venom would be injected immediately and that the bee would die relatively rapidly, but the bee kept on moving for minute after minute after long minute.

Meanwhile, the spider was patient and just held on.  After a while, it pulled the bee up to the upper edge of the tube where the bee had been exploring.

Eventually the spider pulled the bee into the crevice between the tubes and the outer edge of the bee nest.

When the only thing still visible was the face of the doomed bee, another orchard bee flew in to the area just on the other side of the spider's tube. 

Shortly after the new bee moved out of sight, the doomed bee seemed to finally quit all struggle.  It quickly disappeared totally from sight, pulled to the back of the nest box.

I pretty sure the bees are blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria), but I don't really know for sure.  Some guides suggest ordering the blue orchard mason bees to release when you put up a new nest box, but I trusted that there would be native bees interested in utilizing the new nesting sites I was providing.  I was correct, and the bee nest box began to be occupied during the first spring that I put it up.  I've submitted the photos of my exciting drama to Bug Guide for verification of the species of bee.  Hopefully they'll be able to help me with the identification of the little jumping spider as well.

As fascinating as it was to witness this fatal encounter, I feel guilty.  I meant to replace the old orchard bee nest box with a fresh one last year, but I never got around to ordering a new box.  I've read that parasites build up in the old nest boxes, so they should be replaced every 2 years.  Not only was the spider living in the nest box and able to harvest at least one orchard bee, but as I looked at the photos closely, I noticed small round dots on the bee's thorax that I'm afraid are mites of some sort - parasites.

So this evening I ordered TWO new nest boxes, so I can put one up as soon as it arrives and have a second one in reserve.  I'm hoping I'm not too late.  Blue orchard mason bees have a single generation each year.  They emerge early in the growing season, nectaring at apple, plum, cherry, and other early blossoms.

In nature, female blue orchard mason bees make their nests in hollow stems or twigs.  With mud, a female will build a wall across the hollow space and then she will pack in a mixture of pollen and nectar.  When she judges that she has enough stored to raise one new bee to adulthood, she lays a single egg on the provisions, closes the cell off with another mud wall, and then begins to provision another cell.  The females are able to determine the sex of the egg they lay by whether they fertilize the egg or not - female eggs (fertilized) are laid deep in the stem, with male eggs (unfertilized) closer to the entrances.  That way, if the nests are discovered and a cell or two are broken into, it is males that are sacrificed.  One male can fertilize more than one female.  On the other hand, the females only lay about 2-3 dozen eggs each, so each female is important to the survival of the species.

With such an early start in the growth season each year, it would seem likely that the blue orchard mason bees would raise more than one brood annually, but that's not what happens.  The females keep gathering provisions and laying eggs, cell by cell, until the day they die, which is generally in late spring to early summer.  There is no retirement plan...and no backup plan either.

Meanwhile, deep in the well-provisioned, mud cells, the next generation begins.  Like all bees and wasps, blue orchard mason bees undergo complete metamorphosis: egg to larva to pupa to adult.   The egg hatches fairly soon after it is laid, and the tiny larva begins to eat the stores of pollen and nectar that its mother gathered for it.  By late summer, the larva will have eaten all of its food and grown tremendously, going through multiple growth stages known as instars.  When it reaches the proper stage of growth towards the end of summer, it will pupate.  Then, by late fall, the adult will hatch from its pupal cocoon, still snug within its mud cell.  It is the adult that hibernates over winter, safely hidden away, until the temperatures warm up enough in the spring to signal time for emergence.

It seems like a miracle to me that year after year, generation after generation, the blue orchard mason bees survive and reproduce.  With only one generation each year, it would only take one really bad year, where survival was impossible, to wipe out the population of this gentle and hard-working little bee.  Thank goodness that hasn't happened.  I hope it never does.

Meanwhile, I'm very glad to have these gentle, busy little bees in my garden.  May the (food) source be with them!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thoughts Provoked By Trash

As I walked down the driveway last week, I saw some trash caught along the fenceline.  It irritated me a bit, but it's a part of modern life.  I picked it up, stuck it in my pocket, and headed back inside.

When I fished the trash out to throw it away, though, something made me look at it a little more closely - and for a brief moment I got really mad.  Seriously - have we become so crunched for time (or simply lazy) and so consumerized that it is necessary to buy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches premade and pre-packaged???  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?  Really?

This rates right up there with buying tap water by the (plastic) bottle, for over $1 each.  Come on, folks, just turn the tap on and fill a bottle up for free!  Save the plastic.  Save money.  Avoid some extra chemicals leaching into your water from the plastic.  Then slap some peanut butter and jelly on 2 slices of bread.  Cut the crust off if you've encouraged your kids to be picky about such things.  I haven't priced it all out, but I can almost guarantee making the sandwiches yourself will be cheaper than buying commercial, pre-made pb & j's.

When we've gotten to the point where we're too busy or stretched too thin to get ourselves a glass of water from the faucet or to make our children a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we're too busy.  Something's got to give.

It takes 2 people to earn a living these days.  If even 2 people can.  Working 40 hours each, 50 hours each, 60 hours each.  Working hard, because we'd never want to be seen as slackers and because we have no choice.  Performing "internships" for free so that we can get experience, then not getting hired because the next unpaid intern is waiting, anxious to work for "experience."  Working 2 jobs at 35 hours each so that the companies don't have to pay benefits - we're "part-timers" working 70 hours each week but not "worth" health insurance or paid time off or sick leave.  When these horrible hours have their inevitable result and our bodies rebel, we become one of the "slackers", too sick to keep working.  If our health insurance comes from our employer, we're really screwed.  Too sick to work, but no health insurance if we're not working...and no work to get money to pay for health insurance.

We're not machines.  Any of us.  We're human beings, with good points and with faults, with weaknesses and with strengths.  Some of us are kind and some of us aren't.  Some of us naturally work harder than others.  Some of us are smarter than others.  Some of us are more social or less social than others.  Caring - or not.  Artistic - or not.  Creative - or not.  Neat - or not.  One way or another, there's much more to human life and human worth than paid labor.  And it's time for us - all of us - to remember that.  We need to be treated as living humans, to treat each other as worthwhile humans, and to treat ourselves with love and compassion.   We need to take our lives and our world back.  One way...or another.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Signs of Spring

The boys and I took a walk this morning, our first in several weeks.  We saw 2 major signs that spring is almost here, but I'm not sure which surprised me most on this sunny February 21st....

Which surprises you the most?

The crocuses in full bloom in the courtyard...

...or the garter snake that I found stretched out, sunning, on the path through the draw?

The garter snake definitely votes for him- (or her-?) self!

Basically most of the rest of the discoveries the boys and I made today were more typical of mid-February.  There were wheel bug egg clusters along the undersides of almost every honeylocust branch I examined, and a few clusters on the green ash, redbud, and Amur maple branches.  There was even a lone cluster of wheel bug eggs on the Bradford pear.

Judging from the number of clusters I saw, it should be a jackpot year for wheel bugs!

The eggs look like little urns, all clustered together in their geometric pattern, awaiting the uncapping that will come with warmer weather.  They make me smile every time I notice a new cluster.

Late last summer, I found a little mantis egg cluster in one of the honeylocusts.

I looked for it again today...and found it, looking much more desolate but somehow impregnable.

Near the compost piles, where I had 5 different black and yellow garden spiders feeding off the plentiful insects last summer, I found 6 egg sacs stalwartly holding steady against the winter weather.  This sac was easy to see, hanging from the pallet that forms one side of the cluster of compost piles.

These two egg sacs were a little more camouflaged, nestled in the chainlink fence among remains of last summer's grass and weeds.

Speaking of remains, I heard the coyotes singing to our west last night and wondered if they were in the Back 5.  As the boys and I walked around that area this morning, I saw something that looked a little odd....

Getting closer, I realized it was the carcass of a possum that had obviously been providing a meal for somebody.

The coyotes were eating last night, I presume.

Coming back to the house, I stopped to see if I could get a reasonable shot of one of the rabbit trails that cross the path periodically.  I first noticed this particular trail shortly after we moved in, over 7 years ago now.  It still looks much the same and travels almost exactly the same route as it did when I first saw it.

I've tried to photograph this trail before, but today's photo (which I took from a much lower angle) is probably my favorite so far.  For the first time, I was able to capture the true sense of the trail through the grass.  I wonder how many years the rabbits have been traveling along this same path?

The days go by and the seasons cycle onward.  It's winter now, but obviously spring will be here before we realize.

The seasons go by and the years cycle onward.  Individual rabbits are born, travel that trail, and die.  This land has seen many people come and go; in recent decades, it has been owned by different people.  They come, they watch over the land, and then they move on or die.  We are the owners who have come most recently and we are now traveling the trails here and watching over the plants and animals who share the land with us.

The seasons cycle on....

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pieces and Parts of Our Gardens...and Our World

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, 'What good is it?' " 
                                                                    ...Aldo Leopold

This quote, which I noted in my Facebook feed the other day, caught my eye.  It made me remember old jokes in the 1970's about "useless" research being funded by the government - things like the mating habits of crayfish.  Why would anyone care about that, let alone plunk down good money to support that sort of foolish, nonsensical research?!

Well, I care.  I cared then, simply because I loved animals, and now I care even more, because I realize how little I know about the plants and animals around me and about how they interact with each other.

Most importantly, all of us should care.  As a society, WE KNOW SO blasted LITTLE ABOUT THE NATURAL WORLD OF WHICH WE ARE BUT ONE PART.  What conditions DO crayfish/crawdads require to reproduce?  How about pollinating insects?  How about natural predatory insects?  What harm will we do if we do away with this species?  or that one?

You're a gardener.  Here's a quick test for you:  How many natural predators of insects can you identify?

It's okay.  Take your time.  I'm patiently waiting  - and humming the Jeopardy tune - while you make your tally.....

I'm guessing you thought of ladybugs,...

praying mantises,...

and, if you're really thinking, maybe flycatchers.

Well, did you think of all the various different types of spiders - garden spiders, crab spiders, grass spiders, funnel spiders, hunting spiders and so forth?  They eat oodles of insects every day.

How about all the different kinds of birds?  Almost all birds feed their young exclusively insects as they grow, even if the species eats seeds when it reaches adulthood.

Did you list wasps?  Most young wasps grow up on a diet of insects or spiders, too.

Are toads on your list?  They're completely carnivorous, eating primarily insects.

Frogs are completely carnivorous, too.

Garter snakes manage to chow down on quite a few insects as they prowl along the ground.

If you've listened to one of my talks, you know that one of my favorite insect predators is the wheel bug.  In my gardens, wheel bugs probably eat more insects than praying mantises and ladybugs combined.

Flower flies.  In this species of syrphid fly, for example, every adult you see nectaring at a flower ate an average of 250 aphids to reach adulthood.

The list goes on and on and on and on.  Blister beetle grubs feed on grasshopper eggs.  Coyotes eat insects as part of their varied diet; their pups often practice hunting on grasshoppers.  Even my German shepherds can't get enough cicadas every summer - talk about a buzzy, tasty, crunchy dog treat!

The quote with which I began this post is taken from a much longer paragraph in Aldo Leopold's Round River essay:
The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
We treat many parts of our world as if they were totally unimportant, killing plants and animals indiscriminately, feeling a flush of power as we prove that WE are dominant.

Sooner rather than later, to use another classic metaphor, we are going to loosen and throw away the last remaining bolt that was holding our aircraft together. 

But we're gardeners, you and I.  We know that we are not dominant over nature - nature manages to humble us time and time again, year after year.  Still, each spring, we feel the thrill of nurturing life.  That's part of the challenge of gardening.  So, as gardeners, let's take a pledge to learn about the natural world around us, so that we can share our knowledge with others.  In doing so, we'll help to repair the web of life to which we belong, hopefully saving the last few bolts from loosening and even tightening many more in their proper places so that they keep our world together, functional, and flying.

There's another quote, this one by John Muir, that seems appropriate to close with:  "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."  It's OUR world.  Let's take care of it.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Texture in the Prairie Garden: Ferny

I love ferns.  They delight me deeply.  However, ferns and south central Kansas don't really go together, at least not without a major input of water and/or very, very special and protected conditions.  I'm not willing to provide the first and I don't have the second, but I can still have some ferny components to my gardens by utilizing a few other plants that are hardy (and native) here.


One of my favorite ferny plants is red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  To tell the truth, I've never actually heard this species called red columbine, but that's what the USDA site says the official common name is.  I just usually call it native columbine...which, of course, creates problems because there are many other native columbine species out there!  So, I'll see if I can't start getting used to the official common name.

Red columbine is native to the east half of the United States and Canada and it grows well in shade.  It is a short lived perennial, but reseeds pleasantly, so there are usually young plants coming on as the older individuals fade away.   Red columbine is a touch unusual in that it blooms a soft red with yellow highlights at a time of year when it seems like most other flowers are blooming blue and white and pink, but somehow red columbine just seems to work almost anywhere you plant it.

Some years the leaves of columbine sport even lacier patterns after the columbine leaf miners get to work.  Leaf miners are larval insects that grow by eating out the plant cells living between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves.  The leaf surfaces protect the growing larvae, but you can see the pattern of tunnels they form as they grow and eat.  I've always actually rather liked the patterns leaf miners form, but some people get all upset and consider the leaves "disfigured."  I've seen a few remnants of columbine leaf miners on a few leaves over the past 6 years, but there have never been enough for me to consider them a real problem.

I don't have any personal photos of leaf miners on columbine (did I mention that this hasn't really been a problem for me?), but here is a photo of leaf miners on an unknown plant in the draw, several years ago....

If you feel bound and determined to have perfect leaves - or if the population of leaf miners is just too overwhelming - you can always pick off the affected leaves and dispose of them in the trash or burn them.  On the other hand, remember that predator species take some time to catch up with prey species.  Enjoy the lacy patterns of the leaf miners' tunnels and trust that their numbers will come down in a year or two.

Oh, by the way, leaf mining is a characteristic strategy of several different types of generally tiny insects, ranging from wasps to flies to beetles to moths to sawflies.  Columbine leaf miners are tiny flies.  I have no idea what insect was causing the leaf miner tunnels on the leaves in the photo above....

Spanish needles:

This is a recommendation that is not for the faint of heart...or the heat intolerant, probably.  Spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) is usually considered a weed, and I totally understand why.  It's an annual native plant with absolutely gorgeous young foliage.  It is native across much of the United States.  The flowers are  bright yellow, but insignificant, and they rapidly turn to seeds that are...vicious in their desire to hitch a ride to a new location.

This is one of those plants that turned up on its own in one of my flower beds.  I noticed several small plants growing and let them be, so that I could see what they would turn into.  I loved them!  That is, I loved them until they got to the end of their life cycle and rapidly went from ferny and green and dried out and airy porcupines that I could swear shoot their quills.  Spanish needles has definitely mastered, "How do I conquer new worlds?"   In fact, it gets an A+ on that test question.

So, why do I recommend Spanish needles?  Because it's so pretty, of course.  BUT, I highly recommend pulling almost all of the plants out the second you see the first little bright yellow flower.  Yes, that little spot of yellow is the fully open, blooming flower.  You'll actually have to keep a rather close eye on the plants to be sure you don't miss them.

The seeds won't be far behind the first flowers, and the ugly phase has absolutely no redeeming value.  Based on my photographs, you will need to plan on pulling Spanish needles out around the end of July, when it is generally quite hot, so be prepared.  On the plus side, they generally pull out quite easily, so it shouldn't take too long.

If you decide that you, too, enjoy these little guys, you'll want to leave a couple in unobtrusive places so they can go ahead and go to seed.  Just don't leave them to go to seed anywhere that you or your dogs walk past, or you'll be picking the seeds out of fur and jeans and socks for several weeks.

Common Yarrow:

There is absolutely nothing common about common yarrow, in my opinion.  The leaves of the basal rosette, which overwinters, are the closest thing to ferns that I have in my yard.  In fact, they almost outfern real ferns.  And they are tough as nails.

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is "...cosmopolitan throughout the Northern Hemisphere", according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database.   They state that the A. millefolium that is considered native in North America is actually "...a complex of both native and introduced plants and their hybrids."

There are cultivars of common yarrow, too.  (In fact, you could consider the "native" species a cultivar, at this point in time.)  Terracotta, to give an example of one of the commercially available cultivars, is extremely attractive, and there are many, many more cultivars in a wide range of colors.  Even knowing about the colorful cultivars, though, I like the regular, common white, which grows wild all around our property.  It combines beautifully with many other flowers in the spring, and its dried seed heads bring a pleasant texture all their own to the summer and winter grasslands.  (The dried seedheads are popular in dried flower arrangements, as well.)

Here is common yarrow intermixed with spiderwort....

Catclaw Sensitive Briar:

As a child, do you remember touching mimosa leaves and watching in amazement as they folded close in response?  I do.  I thought that was just amazing.  Well, we have a prairie mimosa that does the same thing and, to boot, it has the most gorgeous little miniature, bright pink pom-pom flowers that you could ever want.  Catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa nuttallii, a.k.a. Mimosa quadrivalvis var. nuttallii) is native to the central portion of our country.  It's a vine with small prickles on its stems - hence the name "briar" in the name - that can trail 2-4', but the plants never gets more than about 12" high.

Despite the prickles on the stems, cattle love this plant for its high protein content and they preferentially graze it.  Because of this preference, you are more likely to see catclaw sensitive briar along roadsides than in pastures.

I don't currently have catclaw sensitive briar in my gardens, but I do have a couple plants on the property.  I think it would make an interesting addition to an informal bed as a "stitcher", winding throughout the other plants and providing some unity throughout the bed(s).  If you have grandchildren, now or in your future, I think this is a plant that would really catch their attention, based on my childhood memories.  Has anyone ever used catclaw sensitive briar in their garden?  If so, I'd love to hear how it worked out for you.

For the moment, this wraps up my suggestions for bold, fine, and ferny textures in the prairie garden.  I'm sure that I will find more species to share with you over the years.  Gardening sure keeps us learning and changing, doesn't it?!