Sunday, June 29, 2008

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things....

As I went out to empty my coffee grounds this morning (a daily ritual, fertilizing the blueberries or the roses), several small things brought a smile to my face and contentment to my heart. I thought I'd share them....

After pouring the coffee grounds and water onto the waiting bush, I plucked a couple midnight blue berries, lightly frosted with white, and popped them into my mouth, enjoying the mellow explosion of rich flavor.

In the trees by the draw, I heard the throaty drumroll of the yellow-billed cuckoo's call.

Nearby, the mourning doves "hoo-hooed" velvetly and a cardinal "whitted" sweetly but insistently.

The breeze softly swept over my skin, lifting my hair slightly and coolly touching my cheeks.

As I knelt to nip a few small basil flower buds, I inhaled the tangy pungency with delight and noticed the early morning sunlight shining off the bright leaves with pleasure.

Gently righting a few tomato cages that had blown slightly akilter overnight, I brushed against the tomato leaves and felt their roughly cushioned texture while smelling their tart and potent fragrance.

As I left the vegetable garden area, I noticed a ripe strawberry peeking out from underneath the leaves along the edge of the bed. Picking it, I popped it into my mouth, finishing my morning foray with its bright sweetness on my tongue.

It's getting harder and harder to want to venture away from home, when I have so much pleasure right here around me daily.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Milkweed Insect Tribe, Part I

Because both milkweeds and the insects that inhabit them interest me so much, I tend to take a fair number of photos of all of them. I've shared some of my milkweed plant photos. Now I thought I'd share a few of my milkweed insect photos.

In this first section, I thought I would share photos of some of the insects that depend on milkweeds for all or part of their life cycle.

To the left, this handsome red beetle with white rings on its antennae is the milkweed longhorn beetle, Tetraopes femoratus.

To the right, this look-alike is the red milkweed beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus. Note that it doesn't have white rings on its antennae, and that the spots on its elytra (wing covers) are elongated rather than round. This pair of species takes careful observation to tell apart.

The genus name, Tetraopes, means "4 eyes" and refers to the fact that all beetles in this genus have their compound eyes divided into an upper and a lower eye by the base of their antennae. Effectively, then, they have four eyes. There are 13 Tetraopes species in the United States, and 24 overall in North America. Many of the species in this genus are host specific, meaning they utilize only one species (of milkweed, in this case) in their life cycle.

These two milkweed beetles lay their eggs on milkweed stems near the ground or just below the soil surface. The larvae bore into the stems to eat, and overwinter in the milkweed roots. In the spring the milkweed beetles pupate, emerging as adults in late spring to summer. Adults eat the leaves and flowers of milkweeds.

Another interesting milkweed inhabitant is this fuzzy orange caterpillar. (I hadn't realized there were other caterpillars besides monarchs that ate milkweeds.) It turns out that this guy is the larval form of a white moth with the rather impressive name of orange-margined dogbane moth, Cycnia tenera. These moths eat both milkweed and dogbane plants; interestingly, the caterpillar can be either white or orange, depending on the species it is eating. I've seen them primarily on green antelopehorn, Asclepias viridis. All of the caterpillars I've seen have been orange.

Of course the classic milkweed insect is the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. I've seen quite a few adults feeding at milkweed flowers this year, like this one on common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, but I've only seen one caterpillar so far. It was on green antelopehorn. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me, so I didn't get a photo. It was large and healthy, though, and probably just about ready to pupate.

The last of the milkweed-obligates that I've been able to photograph so far this year are the large milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus. Lately I've seen some of the bright red young, called nymphs, that have recently hatched. They tend to feed in groups, at least at this stage, like the ones I photographed feeding on this green antelopehorn leaf and seed pod.

I've been seeing the adults, like the one to the right on a green antelopehorn bloom, for quite some time now. They seemed to appear shortly after the green antelopehorn started blooming. Again, like almost all of the milkweed specific insects, they are marked with warning colors: black and (in this case) orange.

In doing a little research, I learned that some of the northern dwelling large milkweed bugs actually migrate south far enough to overwinter as adults. Any adults or nymphs left far enough north to freeze during the winter will die. In the spring, the remaining adults start moving north again. Thus, the farther north you live, the later in the summer it will be before you see this species. I don't know whether the first adults I see here each spring spent the winter locally or moved up from more southern areas.

It takes the large milkweed bug nymphs about 40 days (and 5 molts) to reach adulthood. Only adults have wings, therefore only adults can fly. Both the nymphs and adults have the defensive habit of dropping to the ground if they are disturbed, which can make it hard to look at them closely. They'll remain still on the ground for several minutes, appearing dead, which is another defensive behavior, since many predators prefer to eat living animals.

In my next milkweed insect post, I'll show some of the other insects I've observed feeding at milkweeds. It's an interesting potpourri.

A Multitude of Milkweeds

For some reason, I'm enamored with milkweeds. It probably started with their cachet as food for the caterpillars of monarch butterflies. All schoolkids learn about monarchs, I think, and most learn to love them. I know I did.

Then I discovered that milkweeds host an entire community of milkweed-specific insects, adapted to eat their poisonous tissues. Because these insects feed on milkweeds, they taste terrible and may even be poisonous in their own right. This means that few animals want to eat them. Not surprisingly, the milkweed eaters boldly advertise their untasty status with bright colors.

The final building block in my love affair with milkweeds was discovering how many of them have extremely fragrant flowers. I'm talking the kind of fragrance you drink in from several feet away, wondering, "What's that lovely smell?" Add in cool seed pods, pretty blooms in many species, and what's not to love?

So it's been fun to discover that we have several species of milkweeds on our property.

The first milkweed species we found was green antelopehorn, Asclepias viridis. Its flowers are neither showy nor fragrant, but the plants possess a certain quiet appeal nonetheless. They increase in overgrazed pastures. We have a lot of them.

Next I realized that we had a plant or two of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Ironically, I've discovered that this species is the least common of the milkweeds that occur on our 10 acres. One of the taller, upright milkweeds, common milkweed has large, pretty pink pom-poms of fragrant flowers. Personally I think it would be a lot more popular with a less "common" common name.

I identified both of these 2 species shortly after we moved in. The third species was visible last year, but I didn't look at it closely enough to realize that it was different from the common milkweed. It's growing on the west banks of the draw in a small, loose colony of about 20 individual plants. (At least I think they're individuals. I haven't uprooted any to see if they are connected by underground rhizomes.) Another upright, pink, fragrant bloomer, it's known as showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. Its blooms are composed of fewer flowers than those of common milkweed, and they look "spikier". The leaves also tend to be held a little more upright than those of common milkweed.

About 20 feet away from the showy milkweed colony, back up on flatter land, I noticed a group of upright milkweeds this spring that didn't bloom as soon as the nearby showy milkweed or the further away common milkweed. Sure enough, when they did bloom they were a 4th species called smooth or Sullivan's milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii. Again they are pink and fragrant, but their odor is different, reminding me of cloves. Note that their flowers are not as "spiky" as the showy milkweed's, and their stem is smooth.

Backing up a bit, a month or so ago as the green antelopehorn was starting to bloom, I noticed a few scattered, smaller individual stems of what looked like milkweed, but it wasn't blooming. I marked several of them with orange flags and I've been monitoring them to see what they are. About 2 weeks ago, they started to bloom with odd little clumps of greenish-white flowers. Shown here to the right, the flower is on the lower left, the buds are on the right. I'd never noticed any milkweeds like these before but, in looking them up, I've learned that they are called green milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora. Chalk up another species that "magically appeared" after burning.

Finally, when I was out trying to get a decent photograph of the green milkweed, I noticed a singleton plant with much finer leaves and slightly different flowers. The flowers were still greenish-white, but they weren't as pendulous as those of the green milkweed. The overall effect of the plant was daintier, if taller. This turned out to be narrow-leaved milkweed, Asclepias stenophylla. As closeups of its flowers show, it's probably the least showy of them all (although the green milkweed is a close second), but I'm still glad to find it on our prairie.

I'm still waiting for the prom queen of the milkweeds, the orange-flowered butterfly milkweed or Asclepias tuberosa, to show up, but so far I haven't seen any sign of it. No luck finding swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, or the endangered Mead's milkweed, Asclepias meadii, either. (Not that I think there's the slightest chance of finding the latter on this property, but one can always dream!!!) There are a few other species that are possibilities, but meanwhile I'm enjoying my embarrassment of milkweed riches with the 6 species I have found.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Guardian

For several weeks now our front yard has had a guardian. From morning until night, we have a winged gray troubadour loudly proclaiming his dominion through songs broadcast nonstop from the uppermost tip of the dead cottonwood or from the top of the chimney/antenna.

I'm sure he has a nest in the yard, but I've rather superstitiously avoided searching for it, as my track record on nests is abysmal. (If I can find a nest, it seems that shortly thereafter, so can a predator of some sort.)

Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll see a fledgling mockingbird or two in the area. Then I'll know that all of this serenading was not in vain. Meanwhile, we're enjoying the daily concert and smiling broadly while we listen. You just have to admire the guy's endurance and vocal range.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Snowball Effect of Successful Gardening

Why is it that success in one thing often leads to some further problem that has to be solved? My latest run-in with this conundrum has to do with finally learning how to produce fruits and vegetables reasonably successfully in our garden.

For years I "gardened" as a biologist. If biodiversity was good, as I was taught in biology classes, then it made sense to me that leaving weeds in the garden would create more biodiversity among the vegetables and thus minimize pest problems. The problem insects would have a harder time finding the food crops and it would be harder for disease to move directly from one plant to the next.

Needless to say, it didn't quite work out that way. (Yes, you true gardeners can quit laughing and rolling your eyes now!) The insects and diseases had no problem finding my poor garden plants, which were probably sending out major distress signals from being overcrowded and outcompeted. Crops, such as they were, tended to be small...if the plants even lived long enough to produce anything.

Slowly (sometimes I'm REALLY dense), I learned that removing competition from weeds was not just a good thing, but an absolutely necessary thing. Eventually I even learned that mulching kept weeds down with a minimum of effort on my part. In fact, mulching even kept the roots cooler and moister so I didn't have to water as much. Watering regularly, if rain wasn't coming consistently, was a good thing too.

I'm finally learning how to harness biological principles to garden successfully. Besides weeding, mulching, and watering regularly, I still garden organically. When black blister beetles attacked my tomatoes last year, I picked them off by hand each morning and dropped them in soapy water to kill them. I removed all of the squash bug egg clusters I could find, as well as giving the adult squash bugs and their nymphs the same treatment as the blister beetles. We use raised beds, lots of composted horse manure and shredded leaves by the wheelbarrowful. It's not a perfect system, but it works for us.

In fact, it's working well enough that we're now producing reasonable amounts of the fruits and vegetables we were aiming for. And that's where the new problem has arisen: I find that I'm not very good at using my produce when it's ready to be used. "Spinach tonight? Oh, I'm too tired to make dinner. Let's just eat leftovers." By the time I'm in the mood to make the fresh spinach salad, the leaves are big and old and bitter.

I'm better at utilizing our fruit crops. After all, left in a bowl on the counter, the blueberries make a great snack every time I walk through the kitchen. Strawberries worked that way, too. The peas just haven't got the same snack appeal, though.

I'm getting better, but it's a slow process of changing how I plan and fix dinner, as well as how I garden. Who knew that growing a few edibles would lead to such self examination and changes in my lifestyle? Before I know it, it's going to be time to try chickens again!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kansas - Land of Feast or Famine

It's been raining here. A lot. Not enough to cause major flooding concerns as in Iowa, thank heavens, but more than enough to saturate the soil.

Normally, saturated soil wouldn't be that big a deal. But right now the wheat has ripened and, for the second year in a row, the farmers can't get into the fields to harvest it. If the rain stops for a few days, they may be all right overall, but some of the wheat is beginning to turn from beautiful golden to sickly grayish brown. My heart just cries as I look at those fields.

My heart cries, too, as I think of the farmers having to stand and watch and wait, unable to do anything else for now but pray and keep their fingers crossed.

It's a reminder, once again, that the prairie is a hard environment. Even when it's "soft" with rain, the prairie often runs to extremes that test the endurance of man, beast and plant. Last year, for example, after raining like this for months during the spring and the first part of the summer, the rain suddenly quit in early July and there was no rain at all for over 2 months. At the same time the temperatures went from 70's and 80's to the upper 90's and stayed there for most of the dry spell.

I'm loath to wish for the rain to stop in Kansas. (I always keep in mind to be careful what I ask for, especially around here.) That said, I hope for the farmers' sake that the rain slows down for a while to allow them to harvest the crop they've so carefully planted and tended.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"I Found [a] Thrill...."

We (well, to be perfectly honest, HE) did it! We managed to get a decent crop of blueberries in south central Kansas. It's actually even better than most of the crops of blueberries we managed to produce in Mobile, land of acid soil and blueberry plants.
Shortly after we moved here last year, Prairiewolf decided that one thing he really missed from Mobile was blueberries. So he researched and learned of a way that we might be able to manage to grow them here on the prairie.
Essentially he made a series of mini-bogs by digging out large (24-30" wide, 12" deep) holes and replacing the soil with peat moss. We found blueberries at the Wichita Lawn & Garden Show last spring, compliments of a company from Missouri, and eventually got them planted.
Prairiewolf fertilized them a few times with fertilizer for acid-loving plants, I've religiously anointed them with coffee grounds for most of the past year, and we've both worked hard to supplement any lack of rainwater and keep them well hydrated.
Out of 6 plants, we lost one (which we replaced with a box store substitute this spring), had one struggle but make it, and had 4 that have done very well. For anyone else trying this, start with larger plants - the two that had problems were both #1's; all 3 of the larger #2's did fine.
This week we literally started reaping the benefits of our labors. The plants are still small, so we're getting handfuls, not bowlfuls, but we're relishing every bite.
How long will they continue to do well in a land they're not really adapted for? Who knows? We just plan to enjoy them for as long as they're able to put up with us!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Documenting "Monet Season" Before It Draws to an End

As I'm getting to know this new homestead of ours, I'm starting to identify mini-seasons on it - seasons within seasons, as it were.

These aren't real seasons, of course, but they're subsets of seasons based on groups of plants that bloom together, changing light and color conditions, and, above all, time swiftly moving by.

Last spring I fell in love with a soft, warm time of year that, in my private moments, I call the Monet season. It's characterized by young fresh foliage highlighted by blooms of soft blues and yellows and whites, with occasional pops of magenta. The weather tends to be balmy (at least in my memory!). Before it completely fades out this year, I'd like to commemorate it by posting a few photos.

The first photo, seen here to the right, is my attempt to capture the overall feel. As a side note, I find it's hard to capture the landscapes of this season - the photos tend to wash out. My eyes are evidently drawn to pick up the blues and light yellows...but the camera isn't! It doesn't help that many of these flowers don't fully open until the sun is relatively high in the sky, and that the same flowers close by mid to late afternoon. If you've ever done any flower photography, you know that mid-day is an absolutely horrible time to get photos; the lighting is too harsh.

At this time of year, much of the blue is supplied by spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.), seen in closeup in this photo to the left. Spiderwort gets its common name by its mucilaginous sap - when you break the stem and slowly pull it apart, the sap spins out thinly like a spider web. Of course another colorful, if not terribly complimentary, common name for this group of plants is cowslobbers, based on the massive amounts saliva coming from the mouths of cattle as they eat it - also caused by that viscous sap. Whatever you call it, the blue of its flowers is truly heavenly, reflecting the powder blue of the sky on sunny, late spring mornings.

Lots of gardeners in the deep south don't like spiderworts because they tend to escape easily into lawns there. They may do that here in Kansas, too, but I'll take that risk to have their fresh beauty shining through the newly green prairie grasses.

A little of the blue is supplied, when I'm lucky, by blue wildindigo (Baptisia australis var. minor), one of the queens of prairie wildflowers, as far as I'm concerned. Not only is its color magnificent, displayed in 18" spikes of vivid flowers, it fixes nitrogen and thus helps enrich the soil. It's definitely a "decreaser", a plant that tends to disappear from the prairie when it's subjected to agricultural grazing. Thus I feel lucky to have discovered 6 plants so far on our 10 acres. With care and luck, I hope to increase that number...significantly. I'm not sure I could ever have too much blue wildindigo mixed among my grasses.

Switching hues, the soft yellows of Monet season are often supplied by two dandelion look-alikes. The first, false tuber dandelion (Pyrrhopappus grandiflorus), even has a basal rosette of leaves that looks like dandelion leaves! When it blooms, however, it's obvious that it's a different flower from the common dandelion as it's much taller and softer yellow. It also has the virtue, in my eyes, of being native. Here a bee is helping itself to some pollen while helping out the flower by fertilizing it.

The other frequent yellow "pseudo-dandelion" on our property is known as western salsify or goat's beard (Tragopogon dubius). This species was introduced from Eurasia and, while it's not native, it's not very aggressive either so I don't mind having it around. In fact, one of it's most enjoyable features for me is its huge seedheads, again like dandelion seedballs, but on steroids and with a geometric bent.

As the season closes on this group of flowers and the mild weather that tends to accompany them, different, more vibrant wildflowers are starting to bloom and a new mini-season is coming together. Temperatures are rising and the sun's rays are getting hotter and higher. Plants are putting on spurts of growth and insects are appearing everywhere. I'll be blogging about those, too, but right now I want to bid a fond farewell, for this year, to the Monet season and its soft pleasantness. I'll be looking forward to experiencing its balmy warmth and blue and yellow beauty next spring.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's Chigger Time Again!

There was a faint hope in my heart that, after 6 years away from Kansas, my body's extreme over-reaction to chiggers would have faded. So each warm day that went by without my finding any chigger bites after a walk-about was cause for hope. Alas, that hope is gone. Yesterday, June 10th, was official "Beginning of Chigger Season" day on our homestead this year.

On the plus side, my body's reaction to the bite(s) I received appear to be a little muted. So far.

So, in my normal attempt to find something good (or at least interesting) in a seemingly negative animal or situation, I did some web research on chiggers today.

The first article I came across, a fact sheet (HYG-2100-98) from Ohio State University's Extension system, started out with a statement that I loved. It encapsulates so much! "Probably no creature on earth can cause as much torment for its size than the tiny chigger."

Okay, I certainly can't disagree with that. But I was looking for some fun, interesting or positive facts. Here's what I came up with....

The chiggers that we know and "love" are the newly hatched larval stage of a tiny mite from the genus Trombicula. Mites are closely related to ticks. The adult chigger mite, actually called a harvest mite, is small (about 1/20 of an inch long); the newly hatched larva is microscopic (1/150 - 1/120 of an inch). This newly hatched larva is the ONLY stage of this animal's lifespan that is parasitic.

In fact, the older nymphs and the adults eat tiny insects and the eggs of arthropods, including mosquito eggs. That could actually qualify them as beneficial to humans, in one of nature's ironic twists.

Another interesting piece of information that I learned is that we are rather accidental hosts for chiggers. In fact, our allergic reaction occurs precisely for this reason! Actually, chiggers are primarily on the prowl for reptiles, such as snakes and turtles, and birds. These animals do not respond with allergic reactions to chigger bites.

So, now that we're on the topic of actual chigger bites, I learned a little bit about the actual "bite" process itself. Chiggers do not burrow into our skin. They do not suck our blood. What a chigger does is insert its mouthparts into a skin pore or hair follicle, especially in an area of thin skin or tight clothing. The next step is to inject salivary juices containing potent digestive enzymes into our skin, literally liquefying some of our skin cells. Finally the chigger sucks up the liquid that results. Surrounding tissues harden in an attempt to block off the intrusion, and a straw-like structure is formed through which the chigger continues to alternately inject digestive enzymes and suck out liquified skin cell contents.

It is our body's reaction to the digestive enzymes and the hardened "straw" (called a stylostome) that creates the inflammation response and itchiness. In our country, there is no known disease transmitted by chigger bites. However, secondary infections due to wounds created by scratching are not infrequent.

It takes about 4 days for a chigger to fully feed. Once done, it falls off and changes into the next life stage, the nymph. As mentioned earlier, no other stage in the chigger's life feeds on us or on any other vertebrate.

The chigger stays on the skin's surface the entire time that it feeds and, thus, it is unlikely to complete its meal before being removed because it's been scratched off or scrubbed off in a bath or shower. If it hasn't completed its big first meal, the chigger that is removed from the skin dies. It is unable to reattach or to go on to it's next life stage.

Although it seems like chiggers prefer "biting" women and children to men, the actual difference in bites is due to the thinner skin that women and children have in comparison to men.

And one last piece of information that I find amazing.... In Missouri Department of Conservation's article "Chiggers!", they have calculated a chigger's journey to locate a suitable eating site by comparing it to a human journey:

"The chiggers that annoy people have long legs and can move rapidly. They are capable of getting all over a person's body in just a few minutes. The long trek from a victim's shoe to the belt line (a favorite point of attack) is a climb that take about 15 minutes but is more than 5000 times the chiggers's tiny length. That's about the same as a human scaling a large mountain-and on an empty stomach."

I don't know about you, but I have to have some respect for an animal that's willing to make that kind of journey just to eat a little take-out.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

To See Takes Time

I have been warring within myself over whether or not I "should" be taking the time to do a walk-about each day. To really do it justice, I need to spend about 90 minutes, give or take a half hour.

This isn't exercise, because I move much too slowly. "Saunter and pause, saunter and stop, stand still while watching, saunter again" is a relatively accurate description of my pace on these jaunts.

My purpose, besides getting outside, is two-fold: 1) to see what's happening in our yard, and 2) to exercise Becker (whose pace is more like "run and sniff, jog and sniff some more, lie down in the shade if she's being stupid and stopping in the sun, get up and run again to catch up").

Ninety minutes a day is a chunk of time. It seems almost sinful to spend that amount of time without making money or cleaning the house or paying bills or, at least, toning my body.

However, I ran across a quote from Georgia O'Keeffe recently that makes me feel better about my choice to use my time this way, "Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't time - and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time."

"...[T]o see takes time like to have a friend takes time." She's right. It takes time for me to go slowly through our yard, looking, ready to see new events or animals or serendipitous moments, photographing some of them to share with others. And it takes time to really be a friend, too. Time to talk on the phone, meet for lunch, help in an emergency, get together to shop, visit after you've moved apart from each other.

None of which makes money or advances careers or cleans the house, but all of which sure enrich my life.

There's more to a rich life than money. I have to remind myself of that over and over again, with the pressure of our culture sounding the constant refrain to "make money, spend money, show off your wealth, then you'll be happy." I know that's a lie, but a lie repeated often enough becomes perceived as the truth, to rephrase a quote that some other famous person made.

So now I'll arm myself with O'Keeffe's quote and, when the pressure to "be more productive" with my time starts eating at me, I'll quietly repeat its wisdom to I call to Becker and we start on our daily walk-about.