Sunday, August 31, 2014

Serendipity...Or Lives That Want To Be Shared?

Okay, this is a warning.  I am going to sound a little "Woo-woo" in this post.  I can't help that because sometimes that's just how I am.

So, with the appropriate warning out of the way, I have to confess that sometimes it seems as if certain animals consent to show themselves to me so that I can photograph them.  How else to explain the chance to photograph the fly attacking the hornworm last week? 

Or the funnel spider that sat at the entrance to its hole and just looked at me one morning last summer?   That's very unusual behavior for a funnel spider.

How about last week, when the scissor grinder cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) flew to the stem of a sunflower, about 5 feet from where I was weeding in the vegetable garden, and started to loudly sing away, making sure I had the chance to put his song and his appearance together. 

He even sat there singing while I stood up and photographed him!

Then there was the hanging thief robber fly (Diogmites sp.) that landed right in front of me to munch away on her wasp victim, while she dangled nonchalently from a single foot hanging onto the dry tip of an aster leaf.

Look how gently she seems to be cradling her prey.

I shouldn't forget the beautiful (and BIG) garter snake that posed prettily on the back path earlier this summer, obviously replete from a satisfying meal of (probably) cotton rat or baby rabbit. 

I walk the paths with 2 large German shepherds and I make little or no attempt to be quiet or to keep the dogs on heel.  That snake HAD to know we were coming!

Don't get me wrong - I am definitely not complaining.  I absolutely love getting glimpses into the lives of the animals that share our "little bit of Earth" with us.  It's a privilege and an honor to share their stories with a wider audience, too.

I'll leave you with one last animal story I was privileged to witness recently and with the related thought that it sparked in me.

I saw this David and Goliath story in my front garden just last week.  How in the world did that little crab spider manage to catch - and especially hold onto - that huge swallowtail butterfly?  The butterfly was obviously old - it's tattered wings hint of multiple adventures survived.  Was the butterfly just too old to have the energy to get away this time?  Or did it, somehow, know that its time was done and "consent" to become a meal for the little spider, passing along its energy to help the wheel of life spin just a little bit further around?

Do animals "consent" to be eaten and to become part of the food chain?  I've read that the Native Americans always used to say thanks to the animals they hunted for giving their lives to them for sustenance.  Was that a willing choice on the part of the animals?  Or was that simply an acknowledgement, on the part of the Native Americans, that they were taking the lives of other animals to support their own?

Of course I have no answers to my questions and I know that I'm being fanciful, especially in imagining the animals' desire to have their stories shared on the internet, but thanks for reading this and letting me indulge in whimsy from time to time.  I hope you'll always share the chance encounters you have with wildlife in your gardens - and the stories behind those encounters, too!

Double-banded Scoliid Wasp

Double-banded Scoliid Wasp.  Scolia bincincta.  What the heck is that?  Won't it sting me?  It looks menacing!

Well, it may look menacing because it's a big, black wasp, but the main animals that scoliid wasps menace are beetle larvae, especially beetle larvae in the ground.  You know, those things in your lawn called grubs?!

Every summer, Double-banded Scoliid Wasps are frequent visitors in my yard, especially to goldenrod and brown-eyed Susan blooms.  I doubt it's a coincidence that I rarely see June bugs any more, no matter what time of year it is.  Apparently, the female scoliid wasps dig down into the soil, sometimes following a grub's own tunnel, find the beetle grub, and then sting the grub to paralyze it.  The female often lays an egg on the grub then - but not always.  Even if the female doesn't lay an egg,  the grub will never recover from being paralyzed and therefore will never mature to reproduce.

Scoliid wasps, it naturally follows, are important predators on June bugs, May beetles, green June bugs, and even Japanese beetles! 

Meanwhile, the adult scoliid wasps feed on nectar and pollen, so they are frequently seen at flowers, which is where I almost always notice them.  Looking at the photo above, you can see the amount of pollen on this wasp.  Not surprisingly, scoliid wasps also act as pollinators, although they are not as efficient at that process as many of the native bees are.

According to, there are 20 species of scoliid wasps in the U.S., spread among 5 genera, so there's a good chance you, too, can have scoliid wasps in your yard and garden.  Insects in Kansas shows 3 different species, in 2 genera, but there are probably more in our state.

By the way, if this wasp still looks dangerous to you, this is another of the myriad of solitary bees and wasps that won't sting you unless you physically try to hold them in your hand or accidentally step or fall on them.  Scoliid wasps are not aggressive towards humans.

Scoliid wasps are wonderful natural predators.  I hope you discover a species or two of these beautiful animals sharing your garden too!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Fly and the Caterpillar: Not a Love Story

As I was doing a quick look-see in the vegetable garden yesterday, I heard a fly buzzing.  Why a buzzing fly caught my attention, I really can't tell you, but it did.  Perhaps it was because the noise was coming from the top of a tomato plant, which isn't normally fly country.  Anyway, I stopped to see what was going on.

At first I didn't see anything, then a movement attracted my attention.  Was that a smallish horn worm? 

I kept looking, finally able to see the outline of the caterpillar against the underside of one of the tomato leaves tucked in a ways.  Suddenly I saw a quick, dark movement and the caterpillar thrashed wildly.  What was going on???

As I watched, it became obvious that a fly was attacking the hornworm.  Every time the fly circled around and came near, the hornworm would move.... Trying to defend itself?  Trying to attack the fly?  Trying to keep the fly from landing?  I couldn't really see what was going on, but I took a series of photos, hoping to capture something with my lens that my eyes couldn't see.

Here are the best shots from the encounter...

The hornworm when I first saw it.

The first view of the fly.

Another "fly by" by the fly.  (Look carefully - you can see the fly's legs above the caterpillar;  the body of the fly is mostly hidden by the tomato stem.)

The fly comes back for another go-around.

And another attack - Fly attack #4...

This one lasted a little longer and the fly seemed to land on the caterpillar's body, despite the hornworm's thrashing and attempts to defend itself.

Fly attack #5.....  (You can just see the eyes of the fly coming into focus to the left of and slightly below the caterpillar.)

Fly attack #6...

Now there's fluid on the back of the caterpillar;  the fly has definitely made contact.

Still the fly comes back again....

But this seems to be the end of the attack.  A drop of "blood" on the back of the caterpillar remains, but the buzzing fly is gone.

According to my camera's time stamp, all of these photos were taken within a 2 minute window.  I don't know how long the attack had been going on when I chanced upon it.  Still, overall, the action didn't last that long.

I am assuming that the fly was a female and that she laid at least one egg in the caterpillar.  Judging from the fly's hairy abdomen that I could see in the photos, this was probably a tachinid fly.  If that's the case, the hornworm will go back to eating as if nothing has happened, but when it goes to pupate, the fly larva that has grown inside it will take over and kill the developing moth.  The hornworm pupa will actually only produce one or more fly pupae, which will, in their turn, produce more tachinid flies to carry on the cycle.

I knew that tachinid flies were parasitoids of caterpillars, but this is the first time I've actually witnessed the interaction between the caterpillar and the fly.  I see many, many tachinid flies in the garden, especially in the fall when they are feeding at my asters, so I knew this sort of event had to be occurring.  Adult tachinid flies are pollen and nectar feeders...and good pollinators.  Hornworms, while I think they are cool and interesting, are pests on tomato plants.  This is natural predator control at its most basic.

Life is not particularly gentle, but it tends to balance itself when allowed to do so.  Sometimes the variety of feeding strategies truly boggles my mind.   What predatory insects have you seen in YOUR garden lately?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Insect Music: Cicada Songs

When I posted my cicada photo on Bug Guide, for help with identification, I was also given links to pages that have recordings of cicada songs.  For example, there is the page called "Cicadas of the United States and Canada East of the 100th Meridian".  (Note:  I can't get links to work properly in this part of the post, for some unknown reason, but you can type the title into a Google search and the site will show up at the top of the list.) 

Like birds, each different species of cicada has a different song to help it locate a mate of the proper species.  Apparently it is sometimes easier to identify a cicada from its song than from its appearance...for humans, if not for cicadas. 

It's amazing!  When I go outside now, I feel like I'm experiencing an entirely new layer of awareness.  Suddenly, my mind tunes into the specific rhythm and tone of the cicada songs I'm hearing, on top of the familiar bird songs, the visual beauty of the leaves and flowers, and the feel of the wind on my skin.  I'm astounded at how much richer my outdoor experience has suddenly become!

Here are some of the various cicadas that I have identified in our yard.  If you go to the above page with its cicada songs, you can hear the different song for each of these species.  (Sorry, I tried to link each song below the photo, but a couple links worked and the rest didn't.  It seemed less confusing to just send you directly to the page itself, which is very easy to navigate, than to have some functional links and some dysfunctional ones.)  

Shown above, the bush cicada, Tibicen dorsatus, that I talked about in my last post, has a long, loud monotonous drone.

On the other hand, another cicada that I see fairly frequently, the superb prairie cicada, Tibicen superbus, has a song that is generally quieter, interspersed with louder rattles that almost give a wave-like feeling to the sound. I find that the song of this cicada is one of those iconic sounds that transports me outside to a hot summer day, no matter what time of year it is!

I don't have a photo of the next species, but when I went out early yesterday morning to take the trash out to the curb, the scissor grinder, Tibicen pruinosus, was calling from the honey locust hedge.  Here is what it sounded like (and probably looked like, if I had been able to see it!)  Note:  this is not my recording.
A fourth cicada species that I've found in the yard is the Plains Dog-Day Cicada, Tibicen auriferus, (shown above in a somewhat unusual color pattern).  The Plains Dog-Day Cicada's song has the pitch of a metallic buzz saw to my ear.

The fifth species that I've identified, so far, is the Whitened Dog-Day Cicada, Tibicen dealbatus. To me, it's song sounds like 2 insects combined into one body:  a droning cicada and a cricket, fighting it out inside the cicada's abdomen.

As a side note, in cicadas, only the males sing.  Unlike grasshoppers or crickets, male cicadas do not stridulate, or rub various parts of their body together to produce their song.  Instead, male cicadas have paired membranous structures in their abdomens called tymbals, which vibrate rapidly, the sound resonating within the body of the cicada.  Some cicadas sing so loudly that their song could cause damage to the human ear if the insect were singing right beside it. 

It's going to be an interesting challenge now to see how many different cicadas I can learn to identify from their calls!  It'll be fun to match up photos with calls as well, helping me to determine just exactly which different species I'm sharing our land with.  The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Bush Cicada: A 2+" Sign That I'm On the Right Track

According to the reading I've done, restoring prairie is very much an art.  In fact, it's as much or more of an art than it is a science.  For example, the steps you should take depend, first of all, on whether you are starting with a plowed field or an overgrazed pasture.  Even with that determined, the process is highly experimental.  After all, for over a century we've been far more concerned with breaking up prairie lands, to plant crops, than we've been concerned with restoring agricultural lands to prairie.

It's almost always easier to destroy something than it is to create it...or to re-create it.

Therefore, even the very first step of restoration was in doubt when I decided I wanted to try to return tallgrass prairie to our 10 acre "homestead", with its 5 acres of overgrazed pasture.  Should I plow up the existing vegetation and/or use Roundup to kill it all off before planting prairie seeds?  The seed I used would supposedly establish more readily that way.  Or should I try to overseed into the existing vegetation? 

I didn't see a lot of vegetation that was worth saving during that first summer we lived here.  The Back Five was filled with redcedars, western ragweed, Baldwin's ironweed, poverty grass, brome, green antelopehorn, and a little bit of yarrow - hardly an inspiring mix.  My instincts, however, told me that plowing it all up or applying Roundup would set the return of the prairie back a lot.

"Following my gut" (to quote Gibbs on NCIS), I started the next year with a spring burn.  I reasoned that it wouldn't hurt and it might help me see if there were other, more desirable, plants being hidden by their assertive neighbors.  It took us two tries, but we did get the Back Five burned that second spring.  Over the summer I watched it carefully to see what showed up.  Fresh growth took several weeks to begin emerging, as that spring turned out to be cold and dry, but eventually the temperatures started to rise and the rains to fall.

What a difference a burn makes!  Oh, there was still a lot of "garbage" vegetation, but I also found white prairie clover, a couple lead plants, wild alfalfa, dotted gayfeather, and (best of all) FIVE spring ladies' tresses.  There was no way that I was going to plow up or Roundup that 5 acres!

So I decided to overseed.  Over the last 5 years, I've scattered seed, usually in the mowed trails, and I've watched for more hidden gems to emerge from the seed bank in the soil.  As with most natural systems, progress has seemed slow.  Prairie plants put down roots first, significant leaves next, and flowers - the most visible sign that a plant has established - last of all.  It can takes years before a newly establishing perennial or grass plant blooms, which means that it can take years before you know that your seeding has been successful.  Overseeding is especially slow, since far fewer of the seeds will be able to outcompete the already established plants on the site.  Severe heat and drought over the last several years have further impeded any progress.  Finally, though, I feel like the prairie is beginning to peek out through the overgrazed pasture it's been hiding under....

The poverty grass has become a much smaller component of the flora in the last 7 years.  Whereas it used to be impossible to walk through the Back Five without getting many of its painful seeds in my socks, these days I have to search the area for a while to find any obvious stands of it.

There are swaths of tall dropseed now and well established patches of side-oats grama.   The dotted gayfeather has spread from a scant dozen plants in one, well confined area to dozens of plants, scattered in several large, beautiful patches throughout the Back Five.  Whorled milkweed has started to form graceful colonies from single plants that were easy to overlook at first.

Meadowlarks nest each summer.  I've seen a jackrabbit several times, and coyotes regularly leave signs that they, too, are enjoying the area.

Compass plants have shown up, as well.  While I scattered some seed four or five years ago, several of the first plants that I noticed, a year or two later, were already large enough that I suspect they were actually holdovers which had survived the many years of pasturage.   Now there are a couple dozen compass plants;  6 of them put up flower spikes this year.

Which leads me to my latest promising sign of the return of the tallgrass prairie.  Last Thursday, on my latest walkabout, I photographed, among many other plants and animals, a large cicada making itself at home on the compass plant flower stalk above.  Large cicadas aren't unusual around here, so I almost didn't take this individual's photo, but having one so nicely posed on the compass plant stalk was a little different, so I spent the few extra electrons and minutes to record the image.

Over the weekend, I edited my photos and decided, somewhat on a whim, to send this image in to Bug Guide to see which cicada species this individual actually represented.  Some insects I seem to be able to identify without too much trouble.  Others, like cicadas, I have yet to learn enough about to reliably name.  Every other large cicada image I've sent in to Bug Guide has turned out to be Tibicen auriferus, the Plains Dog-Day Cicada, in one color variant or another.  This one didn't look like that, but I'd been fooled before.

This morning I received my answer from the Entomology Gods:  my large cicada is a Bush Cicada, Tibicen dorsatus

Why am I doing a happy dance?  Why does it matter to me which species of cicada this is?

Well, I'm probably over-reacting here, but on the Bug Guide information page about the Bush Cicada, it states, "A beautiful species that now exists in scattered isolates across much of its former range. Although listed as "secure" (i.e. "not threatened/endangered"), many populations, particularly those isolated in more developed areas, should be monitored and conserved."  I take that to mean that the species is on the decline, overall, and my little 5 acres of restoring prairie may be helping it to maintain a slightly healthier population.

Helping a potentially declining species to retain a healthier population is one of the big reasons why I garden, and definitely why I garden the way I do.   In a nutshell.  Or in a cicada cast, as the case may be.

Oh, my Bush Cicada?  Another common name for it is Splendid Prairie Cicada...and I think that's a perfectly splendid name.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Uncommon Little Beauty: Olive Juniper Hairstreak Butterfly

These small winged beauties won't catch your eye from across the garden, but close up they are one of the prettiest butterflies I've ever seen.  The first year we lived here, I saw one but I haven't found another in the seven years since...until two days ago when I caught a brief glimpse of one in the vegetable garden, on the other side of a large clump of brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba.  What butterfly am I talking about?  The olive juniper hairstreak butterfly, Callophrys gryneus.

This one didn't stay around for very long, but luckily I had my camera with me and I was able to grab a couple quick photos before it disappeared.

After I did a little research, I realized why it's so hard to find these cuties:  they don't nectar at flowers very often and their larval food plant is juniper.  Around here that means Eastern Redcedar, Juniperus virginiana.  Juniper hairstreaks are rarely found far from one.  In fact, one of the more reliable ways to see this butterfly is apparently to shake cedar trees and look for the males to fly.

Hmmm.  I haven't shaken any redcedars lately.  No wonder I haven't seen many juniper hairstreaks.  Have you ever seen this little beauty in your yard?