Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Cleanup Crew

About ten days ago, I went on a basic walkabout that ended up netting me a whole series of photos that I've had fun sharing.  This is the last of that series - and I apologize, in advance, for the indelicate subject matter.  I found it interesting, though, and it's certainly an important part of real life!

On my Sunday morning walkabout, I came across some indisputable evidence - once again - that we share our property with coyotes.  In the gateway between our Back 5 acres and the front area, I came across a significant pile of coyote scat.  (That's biological talk for poop.  It sounds much more professional to talk about scat, though.)

The scat seemed to be moving, which piqued my curiosity, so I looked at it a bit more closely.

In the center of the pile, almost completely hidden, was a large black beetle - a tumblebug, Canthon sp.  As I sat there waiting to get a good photo, I notice another area of the pile start to move and got glimpses of 2 more tumblebugs hard at work.  This was, unfortunately, the best photo I was able to get without disturbing them at their work.

Tumblebugs are dung beetles.  As their name (and locale) suggests, they get their nourishment from animal dung.  In the case of the tumblebugs, they form large balls of dung which they roll away from the original pile of scat and bury, laying an egg on each ball before sealing it into the ground.  The egg hatches and the tumblebug larva uses the dung as its food source to grow and mature.

Dung beetles are important decomposers.  Despite its "ick" factor, their lifestyle literally helps clean up the world and recycle "waste" nutrients.

As I tried to get photos of the tumblebugs, I couldn't help but notice that the coyote scat was full of grasshopper parts.  Note the grasshopper abdomen just above the tumblebug in the photo above, and the broken piece of grasshopper hind tibia to the right of the beetle.  One of the best ways to learn what a wild animal is eating is to examine their droppings.  This coyote was evidently gorging on grasshoppers, a fact that makes me particularly happy.  This coyote is welcome to come and eat as many grasshoppers as he or she wishes, every day, all day.

Also on this pile were several house-fly sized flies that, nonetheless, looked a little different from "normal" flies.

When I worked to identify them, I found out that they are flesh flies, Sarcophaga sp.  Many flesh flies are actually parasitic or predatory.  (The larvae of at least one species bores into grasshoppers and kills them as they eat.  Despite feeling rather bloodthirsty as I write this, I'm rather hoping that species of flesh fly is very active in my yard this year.)  The species I saw on this pile of coyote scat was evidently one of the flesh flies that, like the tumblebug, is a decomposer, propagating in animal droppings.

There was one other insect on this pile of scat, a very small, irridescent fly - or actually several of them.  I never could get a good enough photo to identify it at all.

The flesh fly is at the top of this photo, for scale.  The small, irridescent fly is on the underside of the...dropping.

This is as good a photo as I could get of the small fly, which isn't good enough for me to identify it without some good guess as to what I'm looking at.

As a final note, when I did another walkabout on Thursday morning, 4 days later, this is all that remained of the coyote scat.  If I hadn't know it was there from Sunday, I would have completely missed it.

Really, all that was left were a bunch of grasshopper parts, evidently pieces of exoskeleton that didn't have any nutritional value left, I guess.

Four days to go from a standard "dog pile" effect to a thin layer of grasshopper parts covering the ground.  That's a cleanup crew, in my mind!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mystery Treefrog - A Stowaway?

As I was walking around my yard and gardens yesterday morning, I happened to notice this odd, little blob of gray-green on a clump of Spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) that I've come to enjoy under my downspout.

Looking a little more closely, I realized that it was a treefrog.  So I took a photo, aiming for a side view so I could see its markings a little more clearly.

I've seen treefrogs like this before, so I didn't think much of it...

...until I tried to identify it this afternoon, so that I could include it in a post about yesterday's walkabout.  Things turned out to be a little more complicated than I expected.

None of the treefrog species were looking right when I compared my photos to the possibilities shown in the most recent Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas.  So I took down a nationwide reference I had, The Frogs and Toads of North America, thinking that this might be a more southern species that had expanded its range a bit north with all our recent heat and the mild winter.

Well, even in that reference, the only species that looks even remotely similar is the Pine Barrens Treefrog, Hyla andersonii.  My little treefrog wasn't "similar" to a Pine Barrens Treefrog, he was a dead ringer for one.  According to the range maps shown in the above book, this species is found in 3 rather limited locations in our country:  southern New Jersey, the coastal plains of the Carolinas, and an area in the panhandle of Florida.

I presumably didn't think anything of seeing this little tree frog, because we lived down in Mobile, Alabama, for 6 years and have visited my brother in Pensacola, Florida, many times during that time and since then.  I must have seen this species at some point, or even many times, while we lived and/or visited down there.

But, we don't live down there now - and we haven't lived in the area for over 6 years.  Why am I seeing it in my yard, here and now?  Well, we haven't been to or received visitors from either New Jersey or the Carolinas in years and years...but, we WERE down visiting our daughter in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, at the end of May.  We didn't bring back any plant material or anything that I can think of that might have harbored a stowaway...except for our car itself.

The only explanation I can think of is that this little tree frog chose to sleep under our car, parked in front of Jess's home, when morning came on the day we were due to drive back to Kansas.  He must have been somewhere on the underside of our car (perhaps in a wheel well?) and came with us all the way back from Florida to Clearwater, Kansas.  That was a 17 hour drive, involving an overnight stay at a hotel - but here he is.

I haven't seen him since I took the photo although, truthfully, I haven't looked very hard.  Even I am not enough of a WEE (wild-eyed environmentalist) to drive him back to Florida, if I were to find him.  Nor can I imagine that he'd do too well being sent through the mail or by UPS.  I can't imagine that he'll survive the winter here.  Even if he does, there will be no mate to discover conjugal happiness with.  And even if, by chance, both Mr. and Mrs. Pine Barrens Treefrog made the trip together, I really can't imagine that the prairies of south central Kansas will provide a suitable habitat for this species to get established.

So I'm not too worried that I've unleashed biological Armageddon here.

However, this does highlight a very real problem that does occur with distressing frequency:  when we travel, insects and other small animals stowaway in our vehicles or anything else that accompanies us.  Serious pests can be  - and have been - accidentally brought into an area because of unintentional stowaways.  Right now plant people here in Kansas are keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of emerald ash borer, a small wood-boring beetle that kills basically all ash trees.  These beetles were unintentionally introduced from Asia into southeast Michigan in 2002 and have spread widely from there.  They were sighted in Johnson County, Kansas, just a couple months ago. 

Many other examples of biological stowaways creating big time havoc are well known:  zebra mussels, Dutch elm disease, and Japanese beetles, to name just a few.

We certainly didn't plan on bringing back any stowaways - and if I hadn't tried to identify this little treefrog, I would be blissfully unaware that we actually did - but that didn't keep it from happening.  I guess the moral here is to be careful and try not to translocate any wildlife when you travel...although that's obviously no guarantee that it won't happen anyway.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Walkabout Treasures: Beauty in the Beast(s) - Part 4

It's no wonder that I never get half the topics posted on my blog that I'd like to put up.  I've written 3 posts already, but I still haven't covered everything that I saw on ONE walkabout last Sunday morning!  Add to that the fact that I went on another walkabout this morning, and I'll never catch up!

Of course, if I don't get busy writing, I'll never catch up anyway....

For some reason, one particular species of dragonfly was out last Sunday morning.  I took photos of 4 different individual dragonflies:  I knew that two of them were the same, but the other two individuals looked different to me.  It turns out that all four of them were the same species, despite how dissimilar they were.

The species I was seeing is the widow skimmer, Libellula luctuosa.  The basic widow skimmer is typified by the female, with yellow "racing stripes" that join together on the thorax, and brown wing patches next to its body....

The young male looks much like her, with the addition of some bluish white clouding in the middle of its wings, like the individual below....

As the males age, their wings get more and more of the bluish white clouding in their clear areas, while their body starts getting whiter too.  This guy was definitely an oldster, in dragonfly terms.

Despite the lack of yellow stripes anywhere, this is the same species as the two individuals above.

I haven't blogged about it yet, but I've been seeing more injured or disabled insects this year than I normally do.  While I was walking through the draw, looking at the giant ragweed (which is simply alive with different insects), I came across this wheelbug.  I don't know if his wing abnormality is due to an injury or is due to something that went wrong as he matured and shed his exoskeleton.

Whatever has caused this abnormality, I can't imagine he is as capable of flying as normal wheelbugs.  Can he hunt well?  Who knows, but I doubt he hunts as well as he would if he wasn't dealing with his problematic wing.

Not far away from the distressed wheelbug, and looking just about as perfect as a grasshopper can look, this pretty green grasshopper was hanging onto a large sedge stem in the draw.  It looks a lot like the sunflower grasshopper I shared on my last blog post, but as I looked a little more carefully at it, I realized that it's not actually quite the same.  This green grasshopper has brown eyes, rather than black, and it has black and white markings on the side of its thorax - making it a snakeweed grasshopper, Hesperotettix viridis.

Reading about this species told me that it primarily feeds on broom snakeweed...which is fine, except that I don't recall identifying anything known as snakeweed on our property.

So I looked up broom snakeweed, Gutierrezia sarothrae.  It's known as an increaser in overgrazed pastures because it is unpalatable to livestock (and actually toxic to cattle and sheep).  I still don't recognize it from our property, but it's entirely possible that there is some in the area somewhere.

Oh, rather humorously, the snakeweed grasshopper is actually considered beneficial because of its preference for eating this "weedy" plant!

Just as I thought I'd seen about all the interesting insects I was going to see along the path in the draw, I came across this preying mantis nymph.

Last fall I found an egg laden female mantis not too far from where I found this little guy on Sunday - I wonder if this is her offspring!

As I came back out of the draw, I found another grasshopper that caught my eye because it was so dark.  In fact, I caught myself wondering if it was dying of some sort of infection - except that it acted perfectly healthy.  So I took a photo and looked it up.

I probably wouldn't have shared this grasshopper with you, except that I love its name!  Meet the prairie boopie grasshopper, Boopedon gracile....

"Boopie" is evidently a simple shortening of its genus, but I love the name anyway!  This is the male - the female is larger and colored green and brown; based on photos, she's nowhere near as exotic looking as the male.

Although I took several dozen more photos after I came out of the draw, I'm only going to share one more of them here.  I haven't tried to identify this little cutie, although I think it's a very young katydid (longhorned grasshopper) nymph of some sort.  The dried bud it's sitting on is lanceleaf coreopsis bud, to give you a sense of scale.

I love the exotic appearance of this tiny baby; it seems way too fragile to survive on its own, but survive it apparently does.

I have at least one more thing to share with you from last Sunday's walkabout, but it deserves it's own post, so that will be next on my agenda...assuming no intervening rant swells up that I just have to get off my chest!  While you are anxiously awaiting (LOL!), enjoy your garden - and happy insect hunting!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Walkabout Treasures: Beauty in the Beast(s) - Part 3

The next stop on my walkabout was the volunteer sunflower that I have been keeping an eye on for several days now.  I posted about it a few days ago;  it's been interesting to see how it changes.

Far from becoming less attractive to other species, this sunflower blossom seems to have more visitors each time I check on it, even if it isn't as pretty to the human eye as it was when it first opened.  As I walked up, I first noticed a trio of insects sitting on the top of the flower:  a seven-spotted ladybug beetle, and two grasshoppers....

The brown grasshopper is a nymph (not an adult - note the lack of wings) and, if I don't miss my guess, the tiny red spot just under the tip of his pronotum (the shield-like structure over the back of his neck) is a red mite, hitching a ride and probably a meal.  Even insects get the equivalent of ticks!  Just think, too, how big that grasshopper seems to that mite!

The second grasshopper, a green one, is a species I hadn't noticed before this year.  I've been seeing a lot of these classy grasshoppers around recently, though.

When I looked it up, this is known as a sunflower grasshopper, a showy grasshopper or a western green grasshopper...among other common names.  The scientific name is Hesperotettix speciosus.  I like its soft green coloring, its white "freckles" and its pink highlights.  If I've got to have grasshoppers around, at least this one is pretty.

The seven-spotted ladybug beetle, Coccinella septempunctata, is actually a European ladybug that was introduced to the U.S. several times between 1956 and 1973 to fight aphids.  It wasn't until 1973 that a population finally established itself here.  Now it has spread throughout North America and is quite common.

When I bent over to look into the face of the sunflower, I felt like I'd really hit the jackpot - 5 little metallic bees, a crab spider, and a yellow-spotted buprestid beetle!

Can you see them all?

The yellow spotted buprestid beetle is on the left, right by the petals....

the crab spider at about 2 o'clock, actually on one of the petals....

and the 5 metallic bees are scattered across the center, feeding on nectar and pollen.  Here are 3 of them, magnified a bit to be easier to see....

A total of 10 insects utilizing one 4" flower!  Talk about a garden that's alive!  My garden will never win the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but I'd rather have my hole-filled (holy!) leaves and somewhat tattered, but well used, blooms than all the picture perfect "glory" that can be beamed at me through glamorous magazine photos any day.

Anyway, enough of that!  On to the next stop on our walkabout....

Walkabout Treasures: Beauty in the Beast(s) - Part 2

Having gotten my little tantrum out of my system in my last post, let me get back to sharing some of the enjoyable discoveries from my walkabout earlier this week....

My next stop on my walkabout was at a group of flowers that has become my favorite photographic site recently:  the little clump of Echinacea purpurea in my front garden bed.  I think I have 3 plants in this clump, none of them very big yet, but I only planted 2 of them.  The third has come up from seed.  I love volunteers!

Right now, this is one of the plants that is looking the best in my gardens, so it's both photogenic and attracting most of the pollinators.  Since the blooms are relatively tall (maybe 30"), I also don't have to bend down very much to get good closeups, which makes my photographic sessions much easier on my knees and back!

This bloom had two interesting visitors:  a syrphid fly and a yellow-spotted buprestid beetle (Acmaeodera sp.).  This is the first year I've had so many of these buprestid beetles around - they are probably hatching out from all the dead wood which has resulted from several years of heat and drought.

I'm not sure what I should be looking for to get the identification of these Acmaeodera beetles down to the species level.  Looking on Bug Guide, their markings appear to be rather variable, even within each species.  Anyone with insight into this issue - I would certainly appreciate your input!

The syrphid fly was one of the more willing models I've had from this rather flighty group of insects!  Often I find that syrphids are shy and fly off as soon as I get close, but this one stuck around and even posed a bit for the camera, lifting its abdomen up several times so I could be sure to get the full effect of its glamorous coloring!

I found myself focusing on the shiny thorax of this little bee look-a-like, rather than on its eyes.  I wonder if that is part of the advantage of its body pattern?

I've put two very similar photos in here, one next to the other, because they each show something just a little different about this fly.  In the top photo, the abdomen and a little cream colored body part just behind the wings show up more clearly.  That little cream colored "lollipop on a stick" is actually called a haltere and it is the remnant of a fly's 2nd pair of wings.  It's used to help maintain equilibrium as the insect flies.  The fact that flies only have one pair of wings instead of the more normal two pairs of wings is a defining characteristic of this group of insects, and it separates them from similar looking wasps or bees.

In the bottom photo, the wing venation, thorax and head are a little more in focus. Many insect species are separated out from each other on the basis of wing venation, so having a photograph that shows the venation clearly is really nice.  Looking at the head, we can see two other "fly" characteristics that are typical:  the large eyes that take up a significant portion of the head, and the short, paddle-like antennae.  The eyes of bees and wasps are usually proportionally much smaller than fly eyes and their antennae are usually longer, more linear, and with a single bend, not paddle-like at all.

(Have I said yet how much I'm enjoying my new macro lens?  If not, let me mention it here - for the record.  It was a wonderful Christmas present from my dear husband!  I'm still learning how to use it appropriately, which may take quite a while since I'm such a technophobe.)

Getting back to business, syrphid flies are great aphid predators in their larval stage, so it's always nice to see them nectaring at my flowers.  Where the parents nectar, I figure the larvae will be found nearby.  I must say, though, that I've never actually found a syrphid fly larva in person; maybe that's just because I haven't looked hard enough.  Knowing that I have a lot of insect predators in the yard, I don't waste a lot of time looking for aphids, so I'm not likely to see the things that are eating them.

This particular syphrid fly is a species called the common oblique syrphid fly, Allograpta obliqua...I think.  Bug Guide is a wonderful site!

Well, that's enough for this stop.  I'll close this post out and get ready to take you to the next stop on our walkabout.....

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

HotLine Questions: Searching for a Magical Potion

Sometimes people really depress me.

Each summer I volunteer to staff our Extension HotLine for one afternoon a week.  When it's good, it's very, very good, but when its bad, it's depressing.

Today, it was bad.  First of all were the summary sheets, detailing the questions that other staffers have taken over the last several days and summarizing the answers they provided.  We always read those at the start of our shift to get a feel for "what's going on out there" in gardening land.  (Generally each session is staffed by 3-5 volunteers at a time.  I am lucky enough to work with 4 other excellent volunteers.)

One of the big questions that our local HotLine has been fielding recently is, "What do I do about those great, big wasps I keep seeing in my back yard?"

The reasonable answer, to me, is to identify those wasps (cicada killers) for the caller and then to describe what they're doing (the males are guarding the nesting grounds to get a chance to mate; the females are digging nesting holes, catching cicadas, dragging them back to their nests, and laying eggs on them).  The male wasps can't sting, because they lack the requisite equipment, and the female wasps won't sting because then they'll probably be killed and therefore be unable to make any more baby wasps.  If, however, you do something really stupid like try to catch a female or step on one, the females can give a very painful sting.  So it's best to just leave them alone.  In a couple weeks time, this year's life cycle will be finished and you won't see any cicada killers around again until next July.  There's no need to spray anything to kill them unless you absolutely have no choice - say a young child with an allergy to bee stings.  Just leave them alone and they'll leave you alone.

Over the course of the next year, if you don't want the cicada killers back again, you can plant a groundcover, or put down thick leaf or wood mulch, to cover the bare soil that attracts these large wasps.

Otherwise, relax and watch them.  They're an important part of the balance of nature - a predator preying on a plant-eating insect.  It's a real eye-opener to watch the poor females struggling to pull a paralyzed cicada 2 or 3 times bigger than themselves back to their nesting hole.  (Where ARE those guys when you need them?  Oh, flying around looking for another female to hit on!)

However, that wasn't the answer given to all the callers that had called in with this question over the last 2 days.  No, until our crew got in this afternoon, callers were told to spray wasp killer down the holes.  Period.  No further life cycle explanation.  No discussion of alternatives.  No understanding of their role in the ecosystem.  Just kill the things with insecticide.

Then there were the snake questions.  The answer given to those was to use a liquid repellant product to "keep the snakes out".  No explanation about the fact that the vast majority of snakes are nonpoisonous and provide great rodent control around the yard.  No reassurance that the snakes are more scared of you than you are of them.  No suggestion that if you leave them alone, you'll probably never see them again.  And, most importantly, no explanation that said liquid repellant probably won't work anyway.

The big excitement for the day was when a woman brought in a snake she had killed 2 days ago, put in a plastic bag, evidently left outside in the heat, and then brought in for "identification" to be sure it wasn't poisonous.  When the sack was opened up, it sure poisoned the air, but the snake itself had not been poisonous.  The snake was black with a cream belly;  I didn't see it, but my cohorts thought it was a watersnake.  Why had it been necessary to kill it?

(As an aside, I was working a plant sale in Mobile about 10 years ago when 2 young men came up to me to ask if I wanted them to kill the rattlesnake they'd just found.  I said no, thank you, but asked them to take me to see the snake.  If it was poisonous, I wanted to warn the other workers.  The young men excitedly agreed.  When they pointed out their vicious viper, it was a red-sided garter snake.)

Killing is a huge theme among the callers into HotLine.  Another call today was from a woman with holes in her rose leaves.  We asked if she'd seen what was causing the holes.  No, she never went outside, but she wanted something to spray on the roses to kill whatever it was.  Why did she care if her roses had holes in the leaves when she never went outside to look at them?

A couple weeks ago, we got a call asking if the ladybugs that were all over the caller's tree were eating it...and what should she spray to kill them?  Nothing should be sprayed, we reassured her.  The ladybugs weren't eating her tree, they were presumably eating the insects that were eating her tree.  Leave them alone;  it'll be fine.

(Which reminds me of a neighbor down in Mobile:  she found 2 - TWO - caterpillars on her 50' tall oak tree and proceeded to spray as high as she could with as potent an insecticide as she could find to "save" her tree.)

"I have weeds in my lawn.  What can I spray to kill them?"

"My grass isn't as full as I think it should be.  What should I spray to kill the grubs I obviously have?"

"X is wrong.  What Y (a.k.a. what toxic chemical) should I spray to fix it?"

Sometimes I feel like telling the caller to tear up every living plant they have and put in AstroTurf and plastic plants instead.  It's obvious that they just want plastic "perfection."

This insistence on visual perfection on the part of John Q. Public, no matter what the biological cost, tells me that we have a major problem in this country:  our science classes are failing to teach people the basic information they need to successfully and safely live in our world, especially if they are home owners or do any yard care.  Fifty or eighty years ago, schools could assume that children were learning about the natural world while playing outdoors and working with their parents in the garden.  That no longer happens. The only place people seem to get information on lawn and garden care these days is from TV pesticide and fertilizer commercials - "Other than a honey bee, which will sting you, the only good bug is a dead bug" and "Every yard around the world should look like England in the spring, all year 'round" and "Oh, but this product will kill every living animal it touches, yet it's perfectly safe for your children to play on!"

On average, our yards seem to have become biologically sterile, chemically toxic "picture frames" for our houses.   Why in the world would anyone want to save life on our planet if they are convinced that almost all life outside is scary and evil and just needs to be killed off with some magic chemical potion?

We have seen the enemy, and it is us.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Walkabout Treasures: Beauty in the Beast(s) - Part One

With no particular intention in mind, but with camera in hand, I did an hour's walkabout yesterday morning just to see what I could see.  Although I didn't feel like I'd found anything of particular interest while I was walking, when I came back in and downloaded the photos, I decided that a lot of a little had added up to something almost substantial.

What that something is, I have no clue.  Maybe you'll be able to tell me.

I started off noticing this tiny, but bright, shiny flea beetle on (the seasonal remains of) my Smoky Hills resinous skullcap, Scutellaria resinosa 'Smoky Hills'.  This beetle may look big in the photo, but it's probably less than 0.5" in real life.

While resinous skullcap plants are small, topping out at about 12" X 12", they are knock-your-socks-off gorgeous in the spring, covered with beautiful small purple flowers.  The kindest thing I can say about them right now is that they are tired...and still small, so that their flea-bitten foliage sort of fades away visually in the garden, at least when it isn't being magnified into ginormous proportions by a macro lens.

The shiny flea beetle feeds only on Scutellaria, so no one needs to worry about the state of my neighbors' bean plants.  I have only seen one adult and one larva before, and that was several years ago - the last time I had a few skullcaps in my flower beds.  Those two plants got accidentally destroyed when we had our front walkway put in, changing it from a mulched  path to a more permanent flagstone surface.  This time I only saw this one adult.  It amazes me, though, that the shiny flea beetles show up here when I plant skullcaps - I would have sworn that there wasn't a skullcap besides mine for miles around.

Not too far away, the grasshoppers are continuing to feast on my altheas.

I shot a couple sad pictures to document the damage they are doing, which includes stripping the bark from all the new growth this year, before my attention was captured by a much more interesting subject.  Easily visible on the remnants of my wild asparagus (thank you, again, to the grasshoppers for the visibility factor), it was a beautiful, bright green cicada that was kind enough to pose for a photo or two before flying away. 

Note that impressive, dark brown, straw-like mouthpart/beak held under its thorax, between its front legs!  It parallels the larger, light brown straw of the asparagus stem, angling down in front of the cicada.

Last night, in my marathon session on, I learned that this is a superb dog-day cicada.  Not an okay dog-day cicada, mind you, but a SUPERB dog-day cicada.  Tibicen superbus, in Latin speak, so that its superb quality has even been immortalized in its scientific name!  "Tibicen" apparently means "flute-player" or "piper" in Latin, a fact which makes me smile.

Speaking of my green flute player, one of the Bug Guide pages linked to this collection of cicada songs, which includes a recording of the song of the superb dog-day cicada.  I am intrigued by the fact that each species of cicada has a different song - I'd love to learn to identify which species is singing when I hear them!

The superb dog-day cicada is one of the group considered annual cicadas, due to the fact that members of the species emerge every summer.  Interestingly, though, it seems that most of these "annual cicadas" actually have life cycles that are several years long, with overlapping broods emerging each summer.  Individually, each egg hatches from the tree twig where it was laid and the tiny new nymph drops to the ground, living for up to 3 years underground, growing while drinking sap from various perennial and woody plant roots.  You'll be relieved to know that cicadas, despite their numbers, are not known to cause any particular damage to the plants they feed on.

When it is ready for its final transformation into adulthood, the cicada nymph emerges from the soil (generally at night) and climbs a tree or other plant stem, hangs on and breaks out of its nymphal shell.  The winged adult emerges.  You can find those empty cicada shells clinging to plants and even house surfaces all over the place right now.  For example, later on my walkabout I found this shell clinging to a grass stem about a foot above the ground. 

Since I paid attention and found at least 6 species of cicadas in our yard several summers ago, I have no idea which of the various cicada species this shell is from, but odds are it's not the shell of my green friend above.  If you look really closely in this frontal view, you can see the crack down the back where the exoskeleton split apart and the adult pulled itself out.

In the cicada world, it is the adult male that does most of the singing as he tries to attract a mate.  As I listen to them proclaim, I feel bad for the conundrum of their final few days:  the males must sing to attract a mate, but they are also being hunted by cicada killer wasps to become baby wasp food.  Even for "simple" animals, life isn't simple. 

Unlike some insects with long nymphal stages and relatively short adult lives, adult cicadas do feed, taking both sap and water during their brief time above ground.  Once they mate and the female lays her eggs, though, their time is done.  Before long, I'll be finding cicada bodies lying on the ground after these summer chorus singers complete their life cycle and simply wear out.

I'm going to pause here and continue sharing my walkabout discoveries in another post.  I figure that 3 discoveries in one post is plenty for now!


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Do You Ever Wonder?

Three days ago, I took a photo of this newly blooming sunflower that had come up by the corner of our house.  Something had already eaten holes in many of the plant's leaves, but it was still healthy and I was glad I hadn't pulled it out as a "weed".

A volunteer, the plant is probably from bird seed but, perhaps, from a seed that came into the yard in mulch, or on a muddy shoe, or carried in by a bird.  After I took the photo, I was struck by how light yellow the center was, since I usually think of "wild" sunflowers as having dark brown centers.

So when I booted up my photo program this morning and saw the photo staring at me again, I ran outside to snap a shot of the same sunflower, curious to see how it looked today, 3 days later.  The center has definitely darkened as it has aged, and the bloom now droops, instead of holding its face up to the sky.

It's still beautiful, but what really caught my eye this morning was the little green metallic bee that was busily feeding on the nectar and the pollen that the sunflower was producing.  I stooped to get below the flower a bit and zoomed in a little closer....

As I watched the little bee busily foraging and eating, I found myself wondering what life would be like lived on this scale all the time?

What would it be like to root around and get covered in pollen grains as you sipped nectar from each individual floret?  To see a sunflower as large as a house, each floret as big as a small barrel?  To have the center of a sunflower look like a deep cave you would fall into? 

To fly from blossom to blossom, only Earth-bound when you land on each flower or when you land on your nest to provision it for your children, whom you'll never see?

Yes, what would it be like to spend all your waking hours working on a home, complete with food, for children you'll never meet...or even see?  Talk about living on faith!

The world around me, even the world in my own backyard, never fails to amaze me.  What a complex and interwoven series of lives "life" truly is!


Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Bathroom Etiquette" for Crab Spiders

Okay, forgive me for this one - but I had never seen it before and I find it interesting, despite feeling like a 3rd grader as I share it.

Yesterday I took a lot of photos of the insects that were visiting my Echinacea, since they're in full bloom and not much else is going on right now.  As I photographed, I kept an eye on this little crab spider, wondering what it was going to capture, if anything.  Multiple skippers and small butterflies visited the flower it was guarding, but I didn't see it attack anything, although it was obviously in hunting position.

Shortly after I took this picture, I noticed the spider move.  It seemed to be changing positions to the other side of the flower, so I snapped a quick photo.

Right after I snapped the photo, the spider quickly deposited a drop of white liquid that fell onto the petal below it...

...and then started moving right back to its original position.  Spider urine?  Spider feces?  Byproduct of some sort?  I have no idea.

The crab spider went back to almost exactly the same spot it had been settled into a few moments before and resumed its hunting posture.  The entire "adjustment" took just a few seconds.

Six minutes later, the crab spider was still in its hunting posture in its favored location on the bloom...but the drop of white liquid had disappeared.  Evaporation?  Something had lapped it up and I somehow missed it?  I was still in the same spot, photographing other insects on other blooms. The liquid fell off the petal? I don't think that last possibility occurred, because there was nothing on the leaf below, which the white drop would have had to land on.

A tiny bit of ordinary life observed.   A tiny mystery remaining.  What tiny, extraordinary ordinariness have you observed in your garden lately?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Wasp Version of Baby Bottles

Well, I'm the first to admit that caring for a child is difficult, especially during infancy, but if you think hauling around a diaper bag, stroller, and baby bottles is bad, just be glad you aren't a wasp mother, working to provide food for her growing youngster(s)!

I lucked out yesterday and captured this sequence of a female wasp pulling a spider she had caught, then paralyzed with her sting.  She is taking the spider back to her nest - it's baby food, wasp style.

Note that the wasp is roughly an inch long.  To my eye, the spider is as big as she is.  Although these photos are rather colorless and filled with lots of empty space, I wanted to give you a sense of how far she was dragging her burden.  (Realize, too, that I missed the first 10' or so, across the flat surface of the breezeway, as I ran inside to get the camera.)

At this point, Mama Wasp is dragging the spider back to her nest, where she will add it to another spider or two or three, then lay an egg on them and close up the cell.  The spider isn't dead, just paralyzed, so it and the others will stay there in the cell, perfectly "fresh" despite hot summer temperatures, until the egg hatches and the young wasp larva starts eating.  Each cell in the nest is provisioned with just enough spiders to rear one young wasp.

As Mama Wasp got to the edge of the breezeway, she dropped her catch to go ahead and scout the drop-off out.

Coming back, she picked up the spider and drew it to the edge. 

It went over the edge easily, but she lost her grasp on it and seemed to temporarily lose it, evidently not noting where it landed.  (It was caught in a gap between the top wooden step and the side of the breezeway.)

For several minutes, Mama Wasp wandered around - up onto the flat surface of the breezeway, down the side of the concrete,...

...onto the mulch down below, back up and around, onto the step, until finally she figured out where the spider was and grasped it again.

At one point, she and the spider fell off the edge of the wooden step into the space below the steps.  It didn't seem to faze her.  Mama Wasp just gathered the spider up more firmly and tried to figure a way out.  She didn't end up finding the shortest or easiest way, but she did work her way out.

Now she had a vertical to climb, carrying her bounty with her.  She worked her way across the surface....

...until she came to a place where she could get a better footing.

Up she and the spider went...

...over the little ledge, and into the crevice where her nest was evidently waiting.

A few final tugs, and Mama Wasp and her baby food were hidden from view.

Ever since we've lived in this house (6 years now), we've noticed wasps flying around these steps to the back yard during the summer.  They've never been aggressive and we've never really figured out where they were coming from.  We've pulled the wooden steps away, but seen no sign of any wasp nests.  I've looked in the mulch, searching for ground entrances.  No holes anywhere.  The answer was solved yesterday by Mama Wasp - the nests are between the two layers of concrete forming the foundation and the breezeway surface.  I am guessing that the wasps we see flying around the area are males, waiting to fertilize the females as they emerge from their crevice.

Looking at, I am pretty sure that these wasps are spider wasps of the genus TachypompilusThe information on this genus states that they are primarily found in open country (we qualify) and that they are often found nesting around (old) building foundations or in rock piles.  Again, the habitat fits quite well.

These are "solitary" wasps, like mud daubers.  The males have no stingers (which are modified egg-layers), so they can't sting.  The females are too busy making nests, provisioning them, and laying eggs to bother with stinging.  Typical of solitary bees and wasps, you seriously have to pick up a female or make her fear for her life to get her to sting you.  She just wants to avoid any situation where her likelihood of dying increases, because as soon as she dies, her chances of reproducing are gone.

As a last comment, I found it interesting how Mama Wasp carried her paralyzed spider up the foundation wall:  she backed up the entire way, and she appeared to be dragging it by holding on to one of its pedipalps (longish, arm-like mouth parts that spiders have in addition to their 8 legs).

It never ceases to amaze me how much I can still learn around my garden, when I keep  my eyes open and my camera ready.  The internet is an incredible resource as well - how ever did we manage to learn new information back in the days when every identification depended upon a preserved specimen and a visit to the local library, at the very least?!

Sometimes even I, the Luddite at heart, can appreciate modern technology!