Monday, May 21, 2007

Invertebrate Neighbors

One of the things that I most enjoy about gardening and living out in the country is the wildlife with which I get to share my life and the yard. I've gotten way behind the power curve in sharing photos of some of these creatures, but I'll try to catch up a little today.

Early May has been a busy time in the yard. I went out to get the paper early in the morning on my birthday (May 3) and found this imposing edifice which had been constructed in the middle of the driveway overnight. If you look very closely, you can see the reddish brown ants who are still busily working on it. I put the dandelion bloom in the picture for scale, but the photo still doesn't do their castle walls justice: these walls were about 1 1/2" high and cliff-like in their design. By later that day, the hill was gone..or at least flattened into an ordinary and unrecognizable state. The fleeting nature of even impressive architecture....

Milkweeds have always fascinated me, in part because of the invertebrate communities that thrive in and on them. Currently the milkweed in bloom in our yard is green antelopehorn, Asclepias viridis. It's not a colorful bloom, but it fascinates me...and definitely attracts quite a few insects as well.

In the Back of Beyond, I found this caterpillar also enjoying life on green antelopehorn. It's obviously not a monarch caterpillar, but my guidebooks are still packed and I have no way to identify it right now. At any rate, it's an interesting and rather pretty beastie.

About a week ago, I was in the right place at the right time and was able to catch this hawkmoth feeding on dandelions in the front yard. The dandelions have been especially "productive" this spring: I saw the first, tattered monarchs nectaring at them in late April. The monarchs have been continuing to enjoy their bounty, as have numerous swallowtails and other butterflies.

Dandelions are not necessarily my favorite plant, but I have to admire the lacy, mathematical perfection of their seedheads and the bright sunny freshness of their blossoms. When I add their obvious benefit as an early source of nectar, I think the balance tips in their favor.

Single species grass lawns are so monotonous anyway. How much more exciting a yard is with the bright color and life of dandelions!


Paul D. said...

Nice pictures..I took some photos of the same milkweed at Clinton Lake today. The ants are interesting. Did you notice any with large heads? May seem an odd question but I think your ants are in the genus Pheidole which has a soldier caste. That type of entrance is pretty characteristic of the Pheidole I have seen around here.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks. I'm sorry but I have to admit that I don't remember whether there were any soldiers or not. I will watch to see if any other, similar colony mounds get built and look a little more closely next time.

How unusual is it for ant species to have soldier castes? Is it normal to be able to identify ants by genus (at least partially) based upon caste structure of the colony?

Gaia Gardener: said...

I saw another similar colony yesterday morning...and now realize why I didn't remember seeing any soldiers. The ants are so small that it's hard for me to make them out without magnification.