Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hard Choices: Heat, Drought, Grasshoppers and Blister Beetles

Last summer was difficult here.  53 days above 100.  No rain for weeks on end.  Hordes of grasshoppers devouring asparagus, blueberries, perennials and more.  No tomatoes because the temperatures were too high for them to set fruit.  Many plants dying because they couldn't handle the combined stress of the heat, drought, and grasshoppers.  No matter how much water we soaked plants with, it never seemed to be enough.

The photo to the right shows one of our althea shrubs last July, complete with its decoration of hungry 'hoppers.

We were hoping for better this year.  In one way, it will be better - the spring was so warm, so early, that we have a wonderful crop of tomatoes ripening, beating the normal July 4th deadline by weeks.

However, the temperatures this last week of June have been 103-105-107-106....  Today is scheduled to be 106, and the next 10 days are all forecast to be above 100, with no rain in sight.  The grasshoppers are even worse this year than last, too.  The asparagus is brown, the stems eaten by grasshoppers and then dessicated by heat and lack of rain.  Perennials are beginning to wilt. In this heat, there will be no new tomatoes being set on. 

Speaking of tomatoes, the blister beetles have begun ganging up on the tomato plants, eating the foliage steadily and inexorably.  Normally I would handpick them off each morning, drowning them in soapy water, to keep the tomatoes as healthy as possible, but it's been 2 years since we had significant numbers of blister beetles.  Two years in which the grasshopper populations have built up to ridiculous numbers, thanks in great part to the drought.

So here's the summary of our current situation:

1.  Blister beetles lay their eggs on grasshopper egg masses.  For every adult blister beetle you see, you aren't seeing about 25 grasshoppers that were eaten by that beetle as a larva.

2.  On the other hand, adult blister beetles eat plants.  Right now, they are beginning to enjoy our tomatoes, seemingly munching away with great gusto.

3.  The heat and the drought mean that the grasshoppers will continue to do amazingly well this year, while the tomatoes will not be setting fruit until the heat eases significantly.  The blister beetles represent one of the only natural checks on the grasshopper populations during these weather conditions.

4.  Conclusion:  If we want to have a chance of decreasing grasshopper populations around here (and since we won't have new tomatoes setting on in this heat anyway), I need to leave the blister beetles alone and let them munch away at the tomatoes.

But, oh, that is such a hard decision to make!  Our tomatoes are looking so wonderful this year - full and lush and green and loaded with fruit....

Sometimes letting nature take its course is truly painful.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Home Again

On Sunday afternoon, we got back from an 8 day trip out to Boston where we helped our son settle into his new abode and, more specifically, helped him change his new, empty house into a home.  Because he'd downsized a lot over the last few years (to increase his own mobility as he moved from apartment to apartment), he had almost no furniture, so we spent much of the week hitting antique stores, consignment galleries, garage (tag) sales, and estate/moving sales.  By the time we left, I like to think that we had made great strides in creating his new home.

Greg and I have established homes 11 times since we got married almost 36 years ago.  Just in the last year, I've helped both kids establish new homes.  This was the 6th time we've helped our daughter establish a new home and the 4th time we've helped our son establish a new home.  That's a lot of homemaking, any way you slice it.

The process has started me thinking a lot recently about what makes a house or apartment into a "home."

In 1926, H. L. Mencken wrote, "A home is not a mere transient shelter; its essence lies in its permanence, in its capacity for accretion and solidification, in its quality of representing, in all its details, the personalities of the people who live in it."

I like that image of a home representing the personality of the person who lives in it.  It probably explains, too, why so many of the "McMansions" that I go into at estate sales don't seem like homes to me:  the furniture and decorations are all new and shiny and fresh...but there's no personality to them.  No history.  No soul.  People bought a big, fancy house and put big, fancy furniture in it.  When it came time to move on, they left it all behind.  That's not a home.  That's a hotel.

"It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,
A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam
Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,
An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.
It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be,
How much yer chairs an' tables cost, how great yer luxury;
It ain't home t' ye, though it be the palace of a king,
Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything."
      - Edgar Albert Guest (1916)

The above is the first stanza of the poem "Home" by Edgar Guest.   The poem (and the poet) have been both beloved and mocked for decades.  Despite the hokey grammar, I find that I resonate with the ideas in the poem, especially with the line, "It ain't home t'ye...Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything."

This sentiment jibes with the feeling I get when we move - a new place doesn't become "home" until we get "our stuff" delivered and start getting it unpacked and put away.  I begin to feel like I'm home when we sleep in our own beds, when we eat at our own kitchen table, and when we can browse our own book shelves to find something interesting to look through.  Maybe that identification of home with the furniture and other items in it is somehow specific to me because I've moved so many times in my life.  Perhaps if I'd grown up in the same house all my life, my concept of home would be more tied to the building or to the land or to the community, rather than to our "stuff." 

T.S. Eliot wrote, "Home is where one starts from."  I would add, "And home is where one feels relaxed and sheltered in returning."  As the old song says, "Be it ever so humble, There's no place like home!"

What makes "home" to you?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Successful Fledging!!!

With 3 cats frequenting the yard around our home, this spring I've watched the frantic activity in the nest pot on the breezeway with both interest and concern.  Would the Carolina wrens possibly be able to fledge their young without losing one or all to the cats?

The answer is a strongly probable YES!  Last Saturday Greg was watering the garden during the late afternoon and went out to move the hose.  As he stepped out the front door he suddenly stopped and whispered, "Get your camera!"

I had no idea what had caught his attention, but I followed his instructions immediately.  As I carefully stepped out onto the front porch, he softly said, "There!  In the aromatic aster by the path.  A fledgling wren...."

I took a photo, although all I could see was a small, brownish mass.  As I slowly edged to the right, a little more of the young bird came into focus.  Definitely one of the Carolinas.

As I watched and shot a couple photos, the young bird couldn't stand the suspense any more and fluttered to the base of the Bradford pear, about 20' away.  Both Greg and I were scanning the garden bed, porch and breezeway for signs of a cat, but all seemed quiet.  I moved quietly to try to get another photo, but I was moving too much for Little Wren and it frantically flew/scrabbled...

... up to the lowest crotch of the Bradford pear, where it blended into the bark of the tree and rested a bit.

Then it seemed to decide that it needed to go higher into the tree.  Rather than flying, it tried to climb the righthand trunk....

Actually, come to think of it, the little bird did more than try to climb the trunk.  It wasn't pretty, but little fledgling succeeded in climbing up it!  I lost sight of the fledgling in the tree canopy.

Meanwhile Greg noticed another fledgling, also in the Bradford pear, that I never actually set eyes on.  Mom and Dad were frantically flying around, sounding the danger alert and trying to distract us.

After Fledgling No. 1 disappeared up into the Bradford pear, unable to see Fledgling No. 2, I checked out the nest pot next to the porch roof - I'd been  hearing some cheeps still coming from its vicinity.  Sure enough, there was a less adventuresome fledgling still snuggled down into the doorway of the nest, watching all the uproar going on below and not quite ready to leave the security of the only family home it had ever known.

We decided that we'd interrupted things quite enough already, so we went back inside the house to check on the cats, leaving the wrens to their important business.  TJ and Bella were sound asleep inside, escaping the heat of the day.  Ranger was sprawled on the back deck in the shade, also napping in the afternoon warmth.  All of the cats were so used to the wrens sounding the alarm whenever they were around that they paid no attention to the alarm being sounded now....

We were able to keep TJ and Bella inside the house until dark.  Ranger meandered around a bit but, as far as we can tell, all of the young wrens managed to fledge successfully.  Certainly we've found no piles of feathers anywhere, and we can hear the wrens calling each other in the trees along the creek on the north side of our property.  (At least we're telling ourselves they are "our" wrens.)  The nest pot is quiet.

A few more noisy, little, rusty brown bundles of energy have joined the big world here in south central Kansas.  They will definitely help to keep nature balanced.  I can't help but smile as I think about them.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

White Prairie Clover - Hitched to Many Things

I think I may actually get it done!  Before the next Monday morning rolls around, I may actually get all the blog posts done from my one hour walkabout last Monday morning! 

Besides the black eyed Susans that I talked about in my last post, another newly blooming perennial that was in full glory last Monday was the white prairie clover, Dalea candida.  While I find white prairie clover very easy to overlook among the grasses, prairie coneflower, black-eyed Susans, and other larger, more colorful plants of the prairie, the insects obviously don't agree with me.  This unassuming little prairie native is crowded with six-legged life while it's in bloom.

On the left hand bloom, notice the reddish brown scarab beetle and a pair of mating gray beetles (weevils?).  A sphecid wasp is flying in to join them.  (The white prairie clover blossoms are the cylindrical flowers that start blooming at the bottom and progressively open moving up to the top, often giving them a green cone effect early on.  Behind the white prairie clover blossoms in this photo is a fading yarrow flower head.)

Here a tiphiid wasp and an eastern tailed blue seem to equally divide the single white prairie clover blossom.

Separating the insects out helps us to see them a bit better.

Here is a scarab beetle, in the same beetle family that contains dung beetles, rose chafers, and June bugs.  The larvae of these beetles are the small white grubs you find in your lawns.

This mating pair of beetles look like weevils to me, although the photo is blurry enough that I can't see them well enough to identify them for sure.

Called a sphecid wasp (Prionyx atratus), this black wasp with a hairy head and thorax paralyzes grasshoppers to fill its nest with food for its larvae.  I am VERY glad to see these guys this summer.  We have grasshoppers everywhere this year.

With its long banded abdomen, this five banded tiphiid wasp (Myzinum quinquecinctum) is very distinctive.  While the adults feed at flowers, the larvae are parasites of small white (scarab) beetle grubs.  Legs of the adult male wasps are yellow;  legs of the adult female wasps are reddish.

There are many species of small butterflies whose gray underwings are speckled with black, white and orange.  The upper wings of these "gossamer winged butterflies," as the group is called, can be markedly different in color, ranging from bright orangish copper through duller grays to iridescent blues, but it's often hard to see the upper wing surfaces, as the butterflies usually sit with their wings closed.  At the back end of the hind wings, many of these little butterflies have a combination of a small pair of tails which look quite similar to small antennae and relatively large orange dots resembling eyes.  This pattern of markings helps confuse potential predators into aiming for the wrong end of the butterfly.

Known by the small tails - which you can't see well on this individual - and two bright orange spots set closely together at the hind edge of the rear wings, this little butterfly feeding at the white prairie clover is an eastern tailed blue (Cupido comyntas).  The caterpillars of this generalist feed on many plants in the pea and bean family.  Not surprisingly, they are quite common.  Almost all of the small gossamer wings that I saw last Monday were eastern tailed blues.

I did, however, notice a pair of slightly larger, gossamer winged butterflies at one point.  This is a gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus), another generalist whose caterpillars feed on over 50 species of plants.  Look closely to notice the difference in the markings between these two common species.  The small tails are showing nicely on this individual and illustrate well how they, combined with the flashy orange spots, could fool a predator into attacking the back end of this butterfly, allowing it to fly away relatively unscathed.

So, overall, what did I see last Monday?  A series of interrelationships through space and time, the very complexity of which helps keep the prairie in balance through changing seasons and a range of weather.  Just in this post, for example, ....   The tiphiid wasps help balance the populations of the scarab beetles.  The sphecid wasp helps balance the populations of the grasshoppers.  All but the grasshoppers help pollinate the white prairie clover.  If the weevils are the beetle I think they are, their larvae eat grass roots and help provide space for the forbs like white prairie clover to grow.  The blues and hairstreaks feed on many plants as caterpillars and help pollinate many plants as adults. 

Or, to quote John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

What are the natural interrelationships in your yard and garden?

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Bounteous Black Susan Feast

Last Monday when I did my big walkabout, I noticed that the black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, had started blooming.  These cheerful yellow, daisy-like flowers with their dark purplish brown centers are short-lived perennials that are often used as garden plants as well.

Best of all, black-eyed Susans are native here!  Which means they form a meaningful and important part of the chain of life, hosting insects and other creatures, who in turn provide food for animals further up the food chain.  The following are some of the insects that I saw on the black-eyed Susans last Monday, one hour out of one day.  There were certainly more to be seen, but I'm only including those with moderately clear photographs.

To save space and keep me safe from carpal tunnel syndrome, I will abbreviate the name of the plant to bes (black-eyed Susan) and the name of the flower to besb (as in black-eyed Susan bloom) for the rest of this post.  I'm italicizing the abbreviations just so that you know I haven't made a typo, not because this is a scientific name or convention of any sort.

The very first clump of bes that I came upon was underneath the (sadly) empty martin house directly behind the courtyard.  There was one fading besb in the grouping, a couple fully open blooms, and many buds either just beginning to open or promising future flowers.  Those first few besb yielded...

...a fly with spotted wings and a beetle that I think may be a softwinged flower beetle (Family: Melyridae), as discussed in my friend Professor Roush's recent (and amusing) post on the same.  According to my Insects in Kansas book, melyrid beetles are actually carnivorous, an alternate way of saying they are predators.

Even the one fading besb in that first group was hosting an ant, 2 beetles that may or may not be melyrids, and another mystery insect that fell off when I tried to get a better view of it.

The next photo I have of a besb shows a pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) nectaring on it, as well as two distinctly different species of beetles.  The right hand beetle may be another of the melyrids, but the left hand beetle is not, looking more like a weevil in a different shot, but like some flat, broad unknown in this photograph.

Even this small, rather malformed besb was providing nectar to a male common checkered-skipper (Pyrgus communis).  The female of this skipper species looks similar, but is distinctly darker in color.  As caterpillars, common checkered-skippers feed on mallow family plants, including hollyhock and poppymallow.

An orange sulfur (Colias eurytheme) found this fresh besb to his liking...

...while a short distance away, this eight spotted flower-loving longhorn (Typocerus octonotatus) was not about to leave its besb, even with a giant human peering at it through a big black eye.  (And, yes, eight spotted flower-loving longhorn is the official common name for this beetle!  Quite a mouthful, isn't it?!)  This species of longhorned beetle feeds on native grasses in its larval stage, so it's most commonly seen on prairies.

And, much as I hate to end on a blurry note, the final besb that I photographed last Monday had both a solitary bee and another beetle on it, even though this bloom, again, seemed well past visual prime.

So the final tally for different species of insects on black-eyed Susan on that one hour walkabout was 3 different kinds of butterflies and/or skippers (pearl crescent, common checkered-skipper, and orange sulfur), at least 3 different species of beetles, a fly, an ant, a mystery insect and a solitary bee.  That I noticed and was able to photograph with varying degrees of clarity.

Hardly extraordinary...yet good to see.  These days, the beauty of flowers seems somehow incomplete to me without insects actively providing extra movement, richness, and a deep sense of their imbeddedness in the local ecosystem. 

An Early June Walkabout - Part 3

Are you ready?  I'm refreshed and set to hit the trail again.  Hopefully I can finish documenting this one walkabout before an entire week has passed by.  (Now I understand how I've managed to get so many cool photos stored with so few blog posts written about them.)  Hmmm.  A one hour walkabout that takes a week to write about.  This definitely isn't a productive ratio!

But onward.  As I was bent over, photographing one of many wildflower blossoms I've shared with you so far, I noticed a little movement nearby in the mowed grasses of the trail.  Looking down, I caught a glimpse of this handsome guy and managed to snap a picture before it scurried off.  I know very little about spiders, but I like what I know.  One of these days I'll get the books out and see if I can learn to identify them better.

Looking up from the anonymous prairie hunting spider, my eye was caught by this small yellow flower swaying gracefully on a thin stalk about 18" above the ground.  This is a new-to-my-Back-5 species, an annual, called grooved flax (Linum sulcatum).  I found a very small area of them, maybe 6 total plants in all, scattered in a 6' diameter rough circle.  I have to assume these annuals I'm seeing suddenly show up after several years are from seeds long dormant in the soil, as I've not scattered any prairie hay or introduced any mixed seed or even walked much of anywhere that I might have tracked such seed in on my shoes.

The somewhat disturbing news about this newcomer to my Back 5 is that the Kansas Wildflowers site says, "All parts of flax can be toxic, but the leaves and seeds are especially so. Sheep are particularly susceptible."  Note that this warning applies to flax in general, it says "can be toxic" and...I have a hard time seeing how such a wispy plant could be eaten in sufficient quantities to really cause a problem, at least as it is currently appearing in my pasture.  I'll definitely have to keep an eye on it, though.

The next photographic opportunity wasn't long to appear.  A buzzing sound moved around me, motion caught my eye, and just as I focused in on the culprit, the buzzing ceased and the insect responsible for all the furor landed on a grass stem nearby.  Sometimes I just think that certain animals want to have their photos taken.  This robber fly certainly fit that bill.  Robber flies are fierce predators that are very alert and fly rapidly.  If I went out specifically to photograph robber flies, I doubt I would catch any sitting still long enough and near enough for me to actually catch their image, but this one almost seemed to be posing for me.  I'm not sure what the exact species is, but this is a fairly large fly, about 1" in length.  I love its red eyes; another robber fly species that I've seen out back looks very similar but has green eyes - together, they form a grinch-like pair, Christmas colors, but a very un-Christmas like personality!

At the very back of our property, we have nice, expanding patches of white prairie clover (Dalea candida).  I like this plant more and more each year.  It's not showy.  You'd never notice it from the highway, traveling 70 mph, because it isn't colorful enough or the blooms big enough to stand out.  But it's a nitrogen fixer and the insects love its quiet blossoms.  White prairie clover is another prairie plant I'll probably do a separate post on, but this photo will perhaps tell you of its importance to the native insect life....

That's 3 butterflies and a tiphiid wasp all nectaring on a single white prairie clover flower!

We don't generally think of Kansas as having cactus, but buried in the prairie there are a few native cactus species that thrive.  Scattered across our 10 acres, we've got several patches of plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza).  For obvious reasons, I tend to stay clear of it, but the blooms are actually gorgeous.  The fruit is well known as a base for jelly (although I've never tried it) and, not surprisingly, wildlife eats the fruit and spreads the seed.  Most of the photos of the blossoms show them as pure yellow, but ours all have this deep orange center to them.

After our first burn in 2008, we started having a legume come up that I soon identified as wild alfalfa (Psoralidium tenuiflorum).  It's a very pretty plant, but another that doesn't photograph well, being loose and small enough in structure that the eye picks up the details in person, but the camera doesn't capture them well in images.  Although a perennial, as the plant completes its annual cycle in late summer, the above ground portion dries out and the stem breaks off at the ground level, freeing the plant to blow in the prairie winds as a tumbleweed, scattering its seed widely.  The pretty little butterfly nectaring on it in this photo below is the eastern tailed blue (Cupido comyntas), which is everywhere on flowers around here right now.

Early on after buying this property, I discovered a few plants in the Back 5 that convinced me it had never been plowed, even though it had obviously been grazed to within an inch of its life.  One of these plants was a single, reasonably good sized leadplant (Amorpha canescens).  I've since discovered 2 or 3 more little leadplants, although I don't know if they are newly established from seed or old ones just finally gaining enough size back to be visible again after the years of grazing pressure.  Another of the nitrogen-fixing legumes found on the prairie, leadplant has very pretty foliage.  Its flowers are an electric blue, but rather small, so they are not as showy as I would wish.  The blue (butterfly) busily nectaring on the left spike of bloom is amazing to me.  When I looked at it closely, I'm not sure that I understand how it can still be flying.  Life obviously hasn't been easy for this individual.

Another native annual that has begun blooming recently is plains coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria.  I see this bright, sunshiny wildflower in roadside ditches and, occasionally, in crop fields as well.  This is one of the natives that can become a crop "weed," using the definition of weed as a "plant out of place."  Most native prairie plants are perennials and, as such, don't become big enough or well enough established in one growing season to become a big nuisance in crop fields.  For me it's not a weed, I simply enjoy its bright presence whenever I see it - and I wish it was more widely available in selected horticultural varieties as a garden plant.

Crossing back into the Cedar Grove, I saw a common wood nymph (Cercyonis pegala) buried in the grass near the path.  Wood nymphs' larval food is grass, so it's possible that this individual is newly emerged.  It certainly looks bright and fresh and newly minted.

There were other flowers blooming:  green antelopehorn still had some blossoms, purple poppymallow shone forth in places, two more species of small milkweeds had greenish-white blooms, and yellow sweet clover was pulled in the few instances I saw it, but these were the brightest newbies to the summer's palate that I noticed last Monday.  Hope you've enjoyed sharing the walkabout with the boys and me.  We've certainly had fun showing off what's living in this little slice of Earth we're stewarding for the time being.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

An Early June Walkabout, Part 2

As I've been thinking about writing this second installment of my walkabout 2 days ago, I've also been trying to figure out why I think it's special and worth writing about.  Just a little over an hour out back walking, with 2 large dogs disturbing everything around.  Sixteen different wildflowers blooming that I remember (none of which I planted or even seeded in).  Six different butterfly or skipper species that I photographed.  Beetles.  Wasps.  Flies.  Spiders. 

Compared with my first walks over the same territory 5 years ago, this is a cornucopia of plant and animal life.  We've done little except let the plants grow and burn twice.  Oh, and we mow a new path each year, have seeded a few wildflowers in (but have only seen compass plant germinate and grow for sure), and have pulled up a lot of yellow sweet clover.   The recuperative power is impressive...but not boundless. 

But back to the recent walkabout....

Leaving the Cedar Grove, the boys and I wandered into the Back 5 Acres.  The path was full of a small, grayish green, rather dainty plant that I knew I'd seen before but couldn't remember.  It had dainty, pinkish white, pea shaped flowers...looking it up, I've re-identified this pleasant prairie species as prairie trefoil (Lotus unifoliolatus), an annual with seeds that quail apparently enjoy eating.  (Maybe its presence explains, in part, why I've been hearing bobwhites call almost every time I walk out back!)

Green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis) was everywhere, still with a few blooms here and there, but mainly sporting lots of ripening pods.  A couple pods had even split open and were already releasing their fluffy contents to the winds.  This pod had extra contents:  a gaggle (what would be the correct group term?) of small milkweed bugs (Lygeaus kalmii) having a rather risque party, from the looks of it.  Adults eat flower nectar and may eat milkweed seeds;  if times are lean, they have even been known to scavenge and become predacious.

Just down the path from the milkweed pod milkweed bug pad was a milkweed pod that had been sliced in half by the mower several weeks ago but had not shriveled and died.  This let me see the structure of the pod walls in a semi-mature pod, which I thought was rather interesting.  It reminds me of bird bones or of roof trusses.

The green antelopehorn wasn't done showing me things yet.  I started noticing that many of these plants had mature short-horned grasshoppers on them;  these two stayed still long enough for me to snap their picture.  When I enlarged it, I noticed that they had a shy friend - note the antennae sticking up from the tip of the pod!  Obviously grasshoppers don't find milkweed sap all that disgusting, based on the damage being done to the pods of grasshopper-laden green antelopehorn.

This abundant milkweed species had one last interesting inhabitant to share with me:  baby bugs.  This cluster of green antelopehorn pods was hosting another bug gaggle, this time of nymphs (young) of the large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus).  With very similar looks, life cycle, and eating habits, it's easy to mix the two species of milkweed bugs up, especially in the nymph stages.  There's just a slightly different pattern of black behind their head.  If you look closely, you can see that several of these nymphs have their beaks (the official name for their strawlike mouthparts) stuck into the pod.  These beaks consist of 2 tubes: one tube is used to insert saliva into the food material and the other tube sucks back up the mix of saliva and, in this case, plant juices.

Nectar seemed to be the appeal of the yellow coneflowers, Ratibida columnifera, that I started seeing about halfway through the Back 5.  I saw numerous beetles, a few flies, and several butterflies partaking of this treat - this particular bloom is hosting a female common checkered-skipper, (Pyrgus communis).  Common checkered-skippers actually overwinter as full grown caterpillars;  thus, a particularly hard winter can result in a sharp decline in numbers the following spring and summer.  Certainly I'm seeing plenty this year!

Well, my eyes are getting tired and my thoughts are turning towards a good night's sleep.  How about if we continue this walkabout sometime tomorrow?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

An Early June Walkabout, Part 1

Yesterday morning the boys and I "suited up" and went for a stroll around the Back 5.  It was our first time out in over a week and I noticed several flowers blooming that must have just recently opened, as well as a myriad of insect pollinators visiting just about every flower they could find.

It was the blooms and insects that caught my eye, so I have few photos of large expanses.  In a future post, I think I'm going to go into more detail on a couple specific flower species, highlighting the variety of pollinators I saw visiting them, but I thought a relatively quick overview might be enjoyable.  (I have enough photos from yesterday to fuel a week's worth of posts!  Not, of course, that I'll get them all written, because by the end of a week, I'll have found something else I'm more interested in sharing.)

I had barely gotten out of the courtyard before I noticed something new:  the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) has started blooming.  Almost every bloom I saw had at least one insect visiting it - so this is one species I'm going to try to talk about in more depth later.

About 10 steps later, I stopped to take a photo of this prairie petunia bloom.  I love this little plant.  Its scientific name, Ruellia humilis, makes me think "Humble Ruellia," and it seems to have a vibe that reminds me of violets, although the two species are not related at all.  Doing a quick Google search, I was amused by all the common names:  wild petunia, hairy wild petunia, fringeleaf wild petunia, plains petunia, zigzag ruellia, low ruellia, hairy ruellia, and various combinations of all of the above.  Thank goodness for scientific names!

This is not actually a petunia, but the bloom must have reminded the early settlers of petunias when they named it.  I've noticed more and more of this plant coming in as I've let the grassy areas grow up.  It's a great little perennial and blooms off and on all summer long.  Several of the internet sites said it does well in gardens (and will handle part shade), so I'm going to try collecting some seed this summer and see if I can get it started in the courtyard.  The dry shade there is such a challenge.

Oh, one last comment on prairie petunia - it is incredibly hard to photograph well for me.  The color is a beautiful soft purple that usually seems to bleach out in a picture.  I'm particularly excited about this photo, as it's one of the closest to the true color of the bloom that I've been able to get.

Back to the walkabout, as I crossed the draw, I noticed something white lying on top of the 2' tall giant ragweed growing up about 20' off the path.  Making my way over, I found this beautiful, fluffy feather...perhaps from a heron?  I've seen a great blue flying around lately.  I love how the feather was lying on top of the plants, totally supported, well above the ground.

As I continued through the draw, I found myself going through a pocket of grasshoppers.  The grasshopper nymphs are incredibly abundant this year - not surprising, given how huge a population of grasshoppers we had last fall.  Some areas seem even fuller than other areas, though, and the large clump of panicled aster in the draw seemed to be sporting 2 or more grasshoppers per stem, rather like living (although not particularly attractive) flowers.  I can only hope we get enough rain for the plants to outgrow all the upcoming grasshopper damage...or that some predators are growing up, too, to take advantage of all this extra protein being produced in the yard.

Beyond the draw, I came through my main patch of smooth milkweed and looked carefully at many of the plants, hoping for a monarch caterpillar or two.  Alas, I didn't find any of those yesterday, but I did delight in the relatively large number of blooms this area is sporting this year.  I seem to find monarch caterpillars on these plants quite often in the late summer and fall, though, so I'm just thinking they are tastier then, if not quite as attractive.

I took one of my only landscape shots at this point, so you can see what this area just beyond the draw (but before the Back 5 Acres) looks like.  Nicknamed the Cedar Grove, we haven't burned it since moving in because of the proximity to the wooded area of the draw and because of the large number of big cedars in it.  So far we've been too nervous about containing the fire in this section.  There is a lot of brome and Bermuda grass here, but also a nice big patch of prairie rose, and the highest number of Baptisia plants (both blue and cream).  It's an area with an odd mix of "sacred and profane."

This is a good spot to break, so I think I'll continue sharing my walkabout in a second post to keep this one from becoming as long as a book.  More later.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Redbud Leafroller

The other day, I noticed that the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) in the front garden was looking rather ratty.  When I looked a little closer, I saw that the edges of many of the leaves were rolled over and secured with what looked like thick, white thread.  Many of those rolled over areas had turned brown and looked dried out.

With great imagination, I googled "redbud leafroller," figuring I had a reasonable chance of figuring out what was doing the damage by describing the problem.  I love it when names of insects are descriptive!  It turns out that the damage I was seeing was being done by the caterpillar of a relatively small black and white moth known as the...(wait for it!)...redbud leafroller!  For those of you Latin speakers, this creature is also known as Fascista cercerisella.

Looking over the leaves to see which ones looked most interesting to photograph, I noticed this little black and white striped caterpillar hard at work, securing its hideout.  Not only is the adult moth black and white, the caterpillar is too.  In fact, the caterpillar is even snazzier than its adult moth, in my humble opinion. 

Once the leaf has been folded over, the hungry, eye-catching caterpillar will eat the top layer away, leaving the bottom layer of the leaf to eventually turn brown and die.

The few sites that discussed this organism (beyond showing photos of the moth and caterpillar) described which chemical to spray the tree foliage with to "control" it.  No where did I read that the leafroller could kill the tree, although I did read one site which noted the leaves would fall off if the infestation was severe enough.  Knowing that most trees can easily survive at least one complete defoliation, this didn't sound too horrible to me.  By the way, redbud is the only tree that this insect feeds on, so there's no need to fear it moving to trees of other species.

Looking over the other two redbuds in my yard, the worst infestation is definitely on the triple trunk tree in the front garden where I originally noticed it.  This doesn't really surprise me, because that tree is not doing all that well in general - as is pretty typical, the most stressed tree is showing the worst damage.

The seedling eastern redbud in the back courtyard has a few leaves showing damage, but the only reason I even noticed it on that little tree is that I was photographing a two-lined spittle bug resting on one of its leaves, which happened to be one of the few leaves affected.

The Oklahoma redbud in the corner of the courtyard has no leafroller damage on it at all, as of this morning.

Given that this insect is specific to redbuds and is only severely infesting one, already compromised, tree out of the three redbuds in the immediate area, I am not going to do anything.  I'm curious to see what happens and, if it's significant, I'll update my blog to let everyone know what I've learned the "hard" way.

Out of curiosity, is anyone else seeing redbud leafrollers on their eastern redbuds this year?