Saturday, January 31, 2015

Potter Wasps

Have you ever run across a little mud pot, perfectly formed, about the size of a small marble, stuck to a twig or a rock or something else rather stationary?

If so, you've come across the nursery for a type of solitary wasp known as a potter wasp.  (A very appropriate name, if you ask me!)

These are great little insects to have living in your garden.  They are gentle wasps and will not sting unless you actually pick one up.  That pot?  Well, let me tell you about the life cycle of the potter wasp....

Adult potter wasps feed on flower nectar to provide themselves with the energy they need to perform their adult tasks. For a male potter wasp, this is pretty simple.  He needs to find female potters wasps and mate with them.

As a side note, in these photos the potter wasp (Eumenes fraternus) is nectaring at Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata), an annual wildflower that can be surprisingly attractive, although it tends to get a little leggy.

Life is a bit more complicated and definitely harder for female potter wasps, which are usually larger than the males.  A female not only has to find a male and mate, then she has to locate a suitable site to build her pots and ensure that the next generation has enough food and is safely protected enough to make it to adulthood.

To do this, the female potter wasp gathers mud in her mouth (some sources say she actually carries water to dry soil and mixes up the mud herself, mouthful by mouthful!) then flies to her selected site to put the mud in place.  It can take hundreds of flights to build each pot, so the pots are usually located fairly close to a source of appropriate building material.

Once the pot is built, the female begins looking for small caterpillars.  When she locates an appropriate caterpillar, she stings it with just enough venom to paralyze the caterpillar but not kill it, then drags it to the waiting pot, where she deposits it through the open mouth of the pot.  Depending on the size of the caterpillar(s), the female potter wasp may provision each pot with from one to 12 caterpillars!  Then the mother potter wasp lays a single egg and closes up the pot with more mud.

When the egg hatches, the larval wasp eats its way through all the nutritious food (a.k.a. paralyzed caterpillars) that Mom packed in.  When the larva is finished eating and growing, it changes into a pupa and undergoes more changes, finally emerging as an adult potter wasp.  The new adult potter wasp chews its way through the side wall of the pot, which is thinner than the neck, and flies away.

You can tell, then, whether the pot is being worked on (the neck of the pot will still be open), has a baby wasp inside it in either the egg, larval or pupal form (the pot will be sealed up tightly), or has successfully hatched out an adult wasp (there will be a hole chewed through the side of the pot.  One of the pots above, then, is fully provisioned and has an egg and paralyzed caterpillars in it, while the other pot has been constructed and the female has begun hunting for caterpillars with which to fill it.

Not surprisingly, the female will not start constructing a new pot until the one she's working on has been fully provisioned, the egg laid in it, and the neck opening has been sealed.

While wasps can strike fear in human hearts, the solitary wasps such as potter wasps and mud daubers are almost never aggressive.  After all, if a female solitary wasp gets killed, she has lost all ability to procreate.  Since a stinger is a modified egg-layer, a male wasp can never sting, no matter how scared or angry he gets.  It is only the social wasps, like paper wasps and yellow jackets and hornets, that have enough "extra" individuals that they can afford to aggressively defend their nests and risk losing their lives.

Since the baby potter wasps are completely "created" by eating paralyzed caterpillars, potter wasps are an important biological control of caterpillars in any natural community...and in your garden.  So next time you find a little round clay or mud pot or two or three, pause a minute to say thank you to the female potter wasp that built it and that helped make your garden healthier as she stocked the larder for her developing offspring.

Friday, January 30, 2015

So How Did a 1990 Prediction for 2010 Actually Work Out?

I've been cleaning out old files recently and I ran across an article from February 1, 1990, that I had pulled out of Family Circle magazine.  The article, by Sharon Begley, was about things we could do to "make a difference" and "save the Earth."   Along with 101 specific suggestions for individuals to take, there was a prediction of what life would be like in 2010.  I thought it was rather interesting to see how reality in 2015 compares with the prediction for 2010, actually made in 1990...

"7:30 A.M.:  After serving an organic breakfast to her 8-year-old son, Mark, Jessica scrapes the leftovers into the compost chute next to the sink and drops the empty glass juice-bottle into one of the five recycling bins stored in her kitchen closet.  She reminds Mark to throw his cloth napkin into the laundry hamper, then adds an apple to his school lunch box.  (Jessica doesn't mind the fruit's brown spot because it shows the apple hasn't been treated with pesticides.)  Time for school.  She applies No. 30 sunblock to herself and Mark.  (Because so many ultraviolet rays are reaching the earth through the thinning ozone layer, no one ventures outside without being well-protected.)  On her way out the door Jessica grabs the empty floor-cleaner jug and nail-polish bottle to return for refills. Then she unplugs the electric car, which has been recharging overnight, adjusts Mark's seat belt, and away they go."

Jessica - check.  Our daughter's name.
Organic breakfast - check.  She tries to eat organically whenever possible (and so do we).  So eating organically is possible...but hardly something a preponderance of people try to do.
Compost chute in the house?!  Fantasy.  Both we and Jess do compost, but we scrape stuff into a compost crock that we carry out to the compost pile when it gets full.  No automatic composters in the basement.

Glass juice bottle?  Fantasy.  It's all plastic packaging these days.
5 recycling bins?  Thankfully we've moved beyond that and have single stream recycling now!  (Although we do have to pay extra for it.)

Cloth napkin?  Check.  I've been doing that for decades now...and Jess does as well.
No grandkids yet, though, so I don't know about school lunches.  I suspect Jess wouldn't be fixing any;  she'd be paying for school lunches.

Mandatory No. 30 sunblock?  Mixed.  Sun screen is available in SPF 30 and even higher.  (Was it available in SPF 30 in 1990?  I don't remember.)
HAVING to use No. 30 sunblock every time we go outside because of a thinning ozone layer?  Not even.  YEAH!  Something we acted upon and partially solved!  Because the nations got together and banned CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), the ozone layer is doing better than predicted, especially compared to predictions back several decades ago.  Yes, it is recommended that we wear sun screen, but we don't have to be paranoid about wearing it every minute we are outside.

Empty floor-cleaner and nail-polish bottles that get refilled?  Ah, no.

An electric car?  Yup.  Jess and Kyle actually have one! And we have 2 Prii.  At least, culturally, we have higher mileage vehicle options available, although not that many people, percentage wise, are using them.

Going further.....

"As Mom always said, "Waste not, want not."  Those words of wisdom will again be the rule for our famlies to follow 20 years from now when we'll have made significant changes in every aspect of our lives - from how we eat and keep warm to how we shop and drive - to insure that our world becomes, and remains, environmentally sound."

Well, THAT didn't happen.  In fact, we waste a lot more now (and a lot more waste is being done consciously), from driving Hummers and big SUVs just to make the point that we can to buying amazing amounts of new clothing to changing our furniture out on a whim so that we can keep our homes looking up to date to buying new electronics every couple years. 

"Reforms are already under way.  As required by environmental legislation expected to pass Congress this year, utilities will cut emissions of sulfur dioxide 40% by the year 2000 in order to reduce acid rain.  Factories may have to capture toxic fumes before they escape up smokestacks.  Newspapers may be required to print on recycled paper to preserve virgin timber.  Few of us will notice." 

Well, I can honestly say that I don't know whether those initiatives went through.  Newspapers are dying, although they have been printed on recycled paper with biodegradable inks for a long time now.  Sulfur dioxide emissions cut by 40%?  I don't know.  Capturing toxic fumes before they go up smokestacks?  I don't know.  Even though I'm pretty environmentally aware, I have to admit to being part of the great masses who haven't noticed about whether these specific things passed.  Certainly many similar regulations did pass...and now many of these regulations are being revoked in the name of "freedom".

"...other new laws will hit close to home.  Gasoline-powered lawn mowers and lighter fluid for outdoor grills may be banned by 2010 because of the air pollution they generate;  instead, we'll plant drought-tolerant ground-covers that don't need mowing and ignite our charcoal with electric starters."

No.  Not even close.  I don't think they've even worked to make gasoline-powered lawn mowers more energy efficient and less polluting than they were in 1990.  Most of us use propane grills now instead of charcoal grills, with or without using lighter fluid.  (Is that an improvement or not?  I honestly don't know.)   And drought-tolerant ground-covers?  Ha!  People are putting more chemicals than ever on their lawns, they've put in irrigation systems to keep them watered, and many folks now hire services to keep their lawns mowed perfectly.  Yeah, we've gone backwards in most of these areas.

"Because almost all of our nation's landfills will be full by the mid-1990's (more than two-thirds have closed since the late 1970's), many throwaway conveniences of today may of necessity be banned by 2010.  Say goodbye to disposable razors, plastic microwave-food trays and plastic utensils and cups.  Overpackaged products like single-serving cereal boxes wrapped in plastic, and laundry products in elaborate plastic bottles, will also become distant memories.  Instead, we will buy one big jug of detergent, then purchase concentrated refills in pouches.  Rather than discarding an empty nail-polish bottle, we will carry it back to the store and get a refill.  Paper products will come in just one color - brown - but they will be dioxin-free."

Okay, almost none of this has occurred.  Dioxin-free paper products?  I think that has occurred, because I haven't heard about dioxin in ages.  Otherwise, almost everything is the same or worse than it was 1990.  More single serving foods.  More plastic trays and utensils.  More disposable everything.

The major divergence between predicted 2010 and real 2015 continues for the next several sections....

"...virtually all household waste will be recyclable, reusable or compostable..."   Ah, ... no.

"The need to make less trash will become the driving force of the 21st-century marketplace."  We're moving into the world of farce with this one.

"Farmers too will do their part, and trade in carcinogenic pesticides for such organic remedies as microorganisms and flowers that exude pest-killing chemicals. ...No longer will pesticides running off farmlands pollute [our rivers and lakes]."  Cue the maniacal laugh of irony.  (At least there IS a growing farmers' market sector developing, much of which is organic.)

But then the divergence starts to get smaller again....

"Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) will be outlawed because they are responsible for our thinning ozone layer (a band of gas about 15 miles up that blocks skin-cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from the sun).  This will mean that egg cartons and trays in meat packages will be made of recycled paper and not foam.  We'll also do without typewriter correction fluid and liquid spot remover, which contain ozone-depleting chlorine.  To insulate our homes, we will use cellulose foam from recycled wood fiber rather than blown plastic foam.  Our home air conditioners will operate on a new, costly chemical that will make staying cool on the road an expensive luxury."

Yup.  We nailed this one, although thankfully the "new, costly chemical" for automobile air conditioners wasn't as prohibitively expensive as feared.

"We'll be sacrificing other frills as well to slow the greenhouse effect (the gradual warming of the planet caused by carbon dioxide released when oil, natural gas, wood and coal are burned).  To conserve energy and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, we will install super-efficient three-pane windows with special coatings and fillings of krypton and argon gas that collect more heat during the day than leaks out at night.  We will screw in compact-fluorescent lightbulbs that give off the same amount of light as 60-watt incandescents but use only 18 watts of power."

Well, we have much more efficient windows than we did in 1990 and we utilize compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, too.  So, good forward motion in these areas.

"Thirty percent of the electricity we'll use to run our energy-efficient appliances in 2010 will be drawn from solar and wind power.  To collect sunshine, 1% of our nation's land -a total area about half the size of Arizona - will be covered by solar panels."

Well, we have much more energy efficient appliances than we did in 1990, but we don't get 30% of our electricity from solar and wind yet.  On the plus side, 5 years past the predicted day, we're finally moving in the right direction with both these renewable, carbon free, energy sources.

"Even our cars will plug into the sun.  (Methanol and natural gas may serve as transitional fuels in the 1990's, but since both contribute to the greenhouse effect, they will not suffice for long.)  "We don't have electric cars today because we haven't developed a battery powerful enough to let a car go more than 50 miles or so on a charge," says Dick Klimisch, Ph.D., executive director of environmental activities at General Motors.  "By 2010 we might." "

Only now, in 2015, is battery technology starting to move forward.  It took an auto industry outsider, Tesla, to move us forward in that regard.  Unless the currently cheap gas prices derail the research and new technology, our fleet mileage should be increasing significantly in the next decade or so.

The article concludes with a paragraph that still rings true, if you adjust the decades a bit.  (We keep hoping we'll avoid the pain...but, as most of us know deep inside, usually you have to just go through the painful times to come out okay on the other side.)

"Yet for all we do, we can't reverse some of the abuse we've waged on this earth.  There is no way to stop chemicals already emitted from eating away at the ozone layer.  Greenhouse gases already aloft will warm the world, so storms like last year's Hurricane Hugo will be more intense, as will torrid summers like the sweltering one of 1988.  "No matter what we do," say EDF's Oppenheimer, "we're in for about a decade of acid rain, serious air pollution, additional warming and ozone depletion."  But if we can survive the 1990's, the 21st century might be livable. We can shape the future, IF we start today."

Oh, we're shaping the future, all right.  For the most part, we're too scared of moving through the necessary pain to shape the future in a way we'll be happy about in the next 20 years.  What will 2035 bring?

Friday, January 02, 2015

Another Wasp Player in the Garden

I'm starting the process of going through the photos from 2014, the ones that I didn't have time to edit or identify during gardening season.  There are SOOO many to go through!  And most of them are of insects.

Anyway, luckily I don't have many insect photos from January, February, or March. So I'm already on April.

I have to laugh.  You'll probably recognize the first insect I needed to identify, since it commonly comes to porch lights in spring time.  I took this photo on April 21st.  The greenery is Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana).

I recognized it as an ichneumon wasp, but I didn't know much more than that.  I've seen many, many of these over the years.  None have ever acted aggressively; I don't know if they are capable of stinging or not, but since they are wasps, I don't push the matter.  Anyway, I still don't know a lot more about them, but the little I learned tonight made me laugh - is EVERY insect I learn about a predator?!

Anyway, this beastie is a short-tailed ichneumon wasp, Ophion sp.  Their larvae are caterpillar parasites - one larva per caterpillar.  The caterpillar does not survive the encounter.

So, in the future, if you see one or more at your porch lights, you should rejoice.  This is natural pest control at its finest!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Beginning the 2015 Yard List

Do you keep a yard list of the birds you see each year?

We do.  We've found it's a fun way to keep our eyes peeled for the unusual visitor, and it's also good for remembering the cool stuff we've seen in prior years.  Sadly, it's all too easy to forget the occasional visitors, but they can provide a real spark, both when you first observe them and, later, when you remember seeing them.

We didn't do a very good job of observing birds in 2014 - but, then, we were much more focused on Florida than usual!  As of right now, I only have a tally of 53 species for last year, which is the lowest number of species I've recorded since we moved in. As I go through my photos, though, I suspect I may be able to identify one or two more species to add to the list.  For now, in 2014, we saw 53 species.

That said, the lazuli bunting last May was a yard record.  Truthfully, though, I'd forgotten I'd seen it until I saw the photos again....

Compiled over the 8 years we've lived here, our overall yard list is now up to 121 species.  I don't think that's half bad for 10 acres in the middle of the country!

Of course, part of the fun of keeping an annual yard list is the chance to start fresh each January 1.  It's 2:13 p.m. as I write this.  Today, so far, I've tallied 20 species for our 2015 list - all of them observed from inside the house, since I'm feeling cocoonish.

So far, we have many of the normal feeder birds:  cardinals, blue jays, house sparrows, house finch, goldfinch, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, starlings, chickadees, tufted titmice, slate colored juncos....

Then we have the birds that are normal to us, but may be less familiar in other areas of the country.

Harris sparrows lead the list here.  Apparently they are quite rare in many areas of the country, but here they are a common, winter feeder bird.  All 3 birds in the photo above are Harris sparrows.  We generally have 30 or 40 coming in every day.

White-crowned sparrows (adult, on the left) are also very common for us, both mature and immature individuals.  As with the Harris sparrows (on right), we generally have 30 or so feeding in the backyard each day.

Some years we have pine siskins with us during the winter, and this year appears to be one of those years.  Pine siskins are a northern bird; they only move south when they need better food supplies.  They are rather like goldfinch cousins, eating much the same menu and being about the same size.

Another winter bird that I don't see all that regularly is the spotted towhee, shown here on the left.  By the way, the "old" name was rufous-sided towhee, which was quite descriptive and somehow more appropriate.  Towhees are a bird I tend to see because I notice that something is throwing up leaf debris everywhere - they are vigorous foragers in the leaf litter and really get their heart and soul into the search!

Not all birds come in for seed or suet.  This mockingbird visits several times a day, simply to take a drink of water from one of our heated birdbaths.

Then there are the cute, rusty Carolina wrens.  I love Carolina wrens, with their jaunty tails and their quick, restless motions.  They have a HUGE voice, which is thankfully quite musical, and a similarly sized persona.  We have a pair that seems to stick around all year, although I don't always see them consistently during the winter.  They will take suet and seed, and they also frequently take a quick sip of water or two.  The picture above is from this morning.

Rather surprisingly for the beginning of January, I have a male and a female brown-headed cowbird hanging around, and half a dozen red-winged blackbirds, too.  Most of the redwings I'm seeing are male, but there is a female or two coming in as well.  The first several years we were here, I don't remember having either of these species hanging on through the winter.  Neither is here now in large numbers, but it still surprises me to have any cowbirds or red-winged blackbirds hanging around, rather than having them headed south with their flockmates.

This morning Greg noticed that one of the male redwings has a maloccluded beak, leaving the mandibles to grow way too long.  I've seen worse and this individual appears to be coping just fine, but I have to wonder if a bird like this ever finds a mate and reproduces.

My final bird of the morning, species #20, was a majestic, red-tailed hawk that sailed over the yard and landed in one of the big trees in the draw.  No photo of this one, I'm afraid - I didn't think fast enough.   Each winter we have a pair of redtails in the area, and each year I hope that they'll nest in our yard, but so far they haven't.  Hope springs eternal...I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

So that's the start of my 2015 yard bird list!  Do you put out feeders?  What birds do you notice foraging in and around your gardens?  Just think of all the dormant insects they are eating - and all the fertilizer they are depositing!  What are you waiting for?!