Friday, August 30, 2013

A Hanging Thief Enjoys Dinner

Just walking around my yard and photographing the things that I notice is teaching me so much these days.  I often don't realize what I'm seeing until I get inside, download the photos, and take a closer look.  This post describes a case in point....

As I was looking over the asters in my front garden one evening in late July (and wishing this species bloomed before late September!), I noticed an odd insect "knot" down in a dark recess of leaves and stems.  As I tried to get a little closer to figure out what I was actually seeing, the "insect knot" flew a foot or two sideways, into an area with much better light, resolving itself into a robber fly with something in its grasp.  I dutifully took a couple photos, then moved on to find other interesting subjects around the yard.

On my way back into the house, about 30 minutes later, I snapped another photo or two, then went inside to upload my treasures and examine them more closely.

I was quite surprised to see the robber fly had actually captured a paper wasp and was holding onto it while hanging from an aster leaf with one foot.  The wasp seemed easily as large, and probably heavier, than the robber fly. This seemed a little odd, so I went back out to take another look.  Almost an entire hour had elapsed since I first saw the robber fly, but it was still in the same place, with the wasp still in its grasp and still hanging from one leg.  I took another series of photos, but I was losing my light, so I went back inside and started to research.

It turns out that this wasn't just an individual, acrobatic robber fly with a taste for precarious eating experiences.  This was a type of robber fly known as a hanging thief, so named precisely because the entire genus, Diogmites, eats their prey this way, dangling from one leg.  Furthermore, hanging thieves (I LOVE this name) regularly eat wasps and bees, often catching and eating insects as much as twice as large as themselves.  The only downside that I could find to their bizarre eating preferences was a tendency to snack on honeybees, especially if honeybees were the predominant Hymenopterans around.  Needless to say, in this sort of situation, beekeepers wouldn't be particularly fond of hanging thieves that were hanging around.

Like all robber flies, hanging thieves have piercing mouthparts.  Once they capture their prey, they inject saliva, filled with digestive enzymes, into the unfortunate insect, let the saliva liquify the insides of said insect, and suck their juicy meal back out.

This final photo is focused on the prey, the wasp, rather than on the predator, the robber fly.  

This unfortunate wasp was a paper nest wasp, Polistes metricus.  I have no idea where the nest is, but there should be plenty of siblings to help keep the nest well provisioned and thus to produce next year's queens.  In general, paper nest wasps apparently prey primarily on caterpillars, which they chew up and feed to their larvae back at the nest.  The adults eat nectar and are commonly found on flowers.  As far as I can tell, the front of my victim's face is rusty brown, signifying that it is a female.  The face of males is yellow and their antennae also curl at the tips;  males cannot sting, as the stinger is a modified ovipositor (egg-layer).

The balance of nature is a complex thing.  The caterpillars eat the plants.  The paper nest wasps eat both the plants (nectar) and the caterpillars.  The hanging thieves eat the paper nest wasps.  Hanging thieves lay their eggs in the ground.  It's not known for sure what their larvae eat, but they are presumed to be predaceous on other soil invertebrates.

Have you seen any hanging thieves around your garden?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Unexpected Visitor: Rufous Hummingbird

Well, I think my computer is back up and running....  Three weeks after getting a new computer, the hard drive crashed.  While it was under warranty, that still necessitated sending it back to the Toshiba factory, which kept it for three interminable weeks.  Once we got it back, it's taken almost a week to restore the programs and files, then get my photos back up.  There's been so much going on in the yard that it's been tough to be without my technical sidekick.  Sharing these happenings just isn't the same without photos to illustrate what I'm seeing.

However, as if to celebrate the return of my computer to reasonable use again, I've had an unexpected visitor in my back yard for about 48 hours now:  a very territorial, very brightly colored, adult, male rufous hummingbird!

This is NOT a usual visitor in this area, to my knowledge, so I wasn't sure I was believing my eyes at first.  But adult male rufous hummingbirds are nothing if not distinctive, so I was soon quite sure of my identification.  As you can see, I've even been able to catch a couple photos of my wanderer - albeit fuzzy photos because I took them from inside the kitchen.

We are well out of the normal range for a rufous, but they are known to be explorers and are probably the most common out-of-range hummingbirds sighted across the United States.  Generally, they breed in western Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S, then winter down in Mexico, along the west coast.

However, it's believed that rufous hummingbirds are starting to develop a secondary wintering site in southern Florida and along the Gulf perhaps this guy is on his way to the "new wintering hotspot"!

Whatever his final destination is going to be, I'm glad that he chose to stop at our animal "bed & breakfast" for a while.  It's been a lot of fun to watch him and steal a few photos now and then.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Time For A Makeover!

I've been reluctant to share many garden photos - with plants emphasized - because, quite frankly, after 2 1/2 years of drought, my gardens are looking pretty sad.  We've received a nice amount of rain in the last couple weeks, however, and so I'm looking to revamp what's left and corral it into some sort of shape.

Because they've bloomed superbly despite the drought and a major spider mite/lacebug infection each summer when the weather gets hot and dry, I've let my aromatic asters take over the front garden beds.  I need to thin them down and provide some space for a few other plants, though.

All of these first few photos were taken yesterday in the late afternoon.

Here is the pathway through my main front flower bed, leading from the driveway to the front door.

Looking from the edge of the driveway, just a step or two into the lawn area, this is the view of the same front flower bed.  Despite my rather disjointed attempts to break up the "wall of green" effect with a clump of giant coneflowers (Rudbeckia maxima) and some grasses, it still seems like the green-shrub-mounds of the aromatic aster are prevailing.

From the front porch/breezeway, looking over the garden to the tall grass, I can frame in some color right now, but it's still primarily "mounds of green" in its effect.

And, yes, I know that the poor eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) by the front door, a victim of redbud leafrollers for the second year in a row, looks awful.  It will either make it or not.  If it doesn't I'll replace it with an Oklahoma redbud.  I have one in the back yard and its shiny leaves seem much more resistant to this irritant.

The island bed in the front yard swale needs plenty of work, too.  Limbing up the Shumard oak a bit will help, although I'm leaving the lower limbs on right now to help give it plenty of energy to grow quickly.  Having the buffalo grass fill in will help too., simply by giving the bed a "finished frame" around it.  The small 'Dream of Beauty' aromatic asters in front have had their leaves basically bleached by the lacebugs, but will still bloom mightily and come back even more widely next year.  They need to be reduced in spread in the spring, I think.

I've purchased another switch grass to plant behind the aromatic asters on the right, to provide some balance.

Not everything is negative or "not working" in the garden.  I had the best bloom I've ever had on my butterfly milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) this spring.  (The photo below was taken on June 14 in the front flower bed.)

I've learned that lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) does very well in my garden, not only returning strongly, but also doing just a bit of reseeding.  This is the island bed in the swale, in mid June.

I love this pairing of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Letterman's ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii) for its foliage contrast.

Species Echinacea, in general, have been doing well for me but, like so many other gardeners, I'm finding that the cultivars are tending to wimp out.  For example, here is the yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa) earlier in the summer.

Even though, technically, that's a species from much further east, it is still robust and beautiful, getting better each year.

The nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum) looks better every year.

The fameflower (Talinum calycinum) is absolutely wonderful and requires nothing but admiration.

And I've got one Gaillardia that acts more like an annual than a perennial in its bloom pattern, but that has returned several years in a row now.  I cannot, however, remember what cultivar it is!  (This photo was taken on June 15, in the front flower bed.)

So, overall, my plan is to go with what's worked best for me over the last few years with the exception of the aromatic asters, which need to be reduced in number and impact. more Echinacea cultivars but more plants of the straight Echinacea species, more lanceleaf coreopsis, add in some species black-eyed Susans, put in more fameflower along sunny edges, move the wild bergamot out from the shade and into the full sun...and pray for more evenly distributed rain, at least for some years!

I welcome any and all suggestions...except, perhaps, to pull it all out and start over!  I'm not THAT unhappy with it...yet!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Spiders in Paradise

I've been seeing a lot of spiders in the last few weeks and many of them are new to me.  Spiders are wonderful predators in the garden, especially of insects, so I'm always happy to see them.  Of course, spiders also become prey for other animals, such as certain wasp species, as I talked about in a recent blog post.  The balance of a healthy garden community is a wonderful web of interrelationships!

For the most part, I have no idea how to identify spiders beyond the basics:  jumping spider, orb weaver, crab spider, and so forth.  So I'll share what I know - or think I know - about each spider and see if anyone can add any information for me!

Before I start, though, does anyone have a reference on spiders that they would recommend? has some information on spiders, as does Insects in Kansas, but I'm looking for a reference that would really concentrate on telling the different spider families apart, plus maybe identify some of the more common and widespread species.  I'd also like it to be primarily North American based, so that I don't get led astray with species that I wouldn't find around here.

Anyway, here are some of my "catches", in no particular order.

I think this Argiope spider (identified by the thicker zig-zag pattern in the web, known as a stabilimentum) is perhaps a young black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia), those huge spiders often seen in late summer and autumn in vegetable and flower gardens, while it's still too young to have developed its adult coloring.  According to the site, this more centralized stabilimentum pattern is typical of the juveniles of this species.  (The little white packet hanging below the spider is an insect, wrapped up for eating.)

Later the stabilimentum is woven in a linear pattern in this species, as shown in this web made by a slightly larger and more mature black and gold garden spider.

While the more mature black and gold garden spider was found in the vegetable garden, the juvenile black and yellow garden spider was on giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) in the draw, as was this next spider, a mother with her eggs and new spiderlings.

I have no idea what group to put this spider and her babies into.  Truthfully, I didn't really realize what I was looking at until I got back inside and downloaded the photos.  I just saw some lumps of spider silk attached to the upper surface of a leaf, with a small spider by them, and took a couple photos.  I was actually surprised to see that the little yellow lumps were spiderlings, presumably freshly hatched.

When I went back 4 days later and took another photo, Mom and the babies were gone, but at least one of the egg sacs was open that hadn't been open in the earlier photos, so I'm thinking even more spiderlings hatched after my first photos.  I'm also thinking that the cream colored, thicker strands to the left of the egg sacs may be some sort of fungus, but it's just a guess.

One group of spiders that I've had great fun seeing in the draw, among the giant ragweed plants, have been the jumping spiders.  These guys are incredibly alert and seemingly curious - they will turn to look at me for a bit until I stay too long or get too close, then they almost magically disappear over the edge of a leaf or down the stem.  This tan guy was just minding his own business when I took my first photo...

but he almost immediately realized I was looking at him and turned his head up to look at me.  I managed to get 3 more photos before he got nervous and disappeared.

This darker brown cutie was content to stare back at me until I started moving in a bit closer.  Then he, too, was gone in a flash.

I've seen several primarily black jumping spiders in the ragweed, with red or orange coloring on their abdomens.  I don't know if these are all different species, or different sexes and/or ages of the same species.  Here is the individual with the least amount of red/orange on the abdomen...

...and a bit of metallic blue-green on its mandibles, briefly visible in this side shot I was able to capture.

There were several other black jumping spiders with red on their abdomen, scurrying away from me so that I never could get a good shot of their face, but I think they were all the same species as this magnificent individual....

...who looked like he/she wanted to challenge me to a fight!  Notice how enlarged those extended front legs are.  Surely that will help me identify this spider down to the species level....

One last jumping that I've seen recently was this little guy hanging out on my Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus ).  Here he/she is, peering at me to see if I was dangerous or not!

Of course there have been crab spiders in the flowers, too, like this one, hiding in a sunflower, with brown markings on its abdomen...

...and this white one that was on a purple coneflower...

...and this yellow one, without brown abdominal markings, on a Gaillardia bloom.

I have no idea if these are all the same species, or different species, and I have no good idea of how I'd go about deciding that.  So, for now, I'm (barely) content to just label them all as crab spiders.

I hope you're seeing some spiders in your gardens too.  They are a great sign that your gardens are healthy.  Those spiders will work 24/7 to make sure that your gardens stay that way!