Friday, August 17, 2018

Monarch Caterpillars, Chrysallises, and Wasps: Sometimes Things Go Wrong

Two days ago, as I came back into the house after dumping my coffee grounds in the garden, I noticed a small black and white wasp sitting on top of something on the swamp milkweed.  Looking closer, I saw what I thought was a discolored monarch caterpillar, about the size of a 2nd or 3rd instar.  "Damn.  Oh, well, her babies have to eat, too," I thought to myself.

Of course I grabbed my camera to capture some photos, but it was early morning and the humidity was high, so I was only able to take a couple frames before the lens fogged up and became too opaque for me to continue.  By the time the lens cleared, the wasp with her payload had disappeared.

Well, my garden is definitely a place for nature to "do its thing", so I made no attempt to intervene.  In the late afternoon, I noticed what looked like the same female wasp working at the entrance to a hollow tube in my bee house which is above and behind the swamp milkweed.  Obviously that was where her nest was.

When I downloaded my photos, I was relieved to see that the caterpillar the little wasp had was NOT a monarch caterpillar.  If I had to guess, I'd say it was a cutworm of some sort, actually.  Much as I love insects, that's not a caterpillar I'm sorry to see feed some baby wasps.

Yesterday, when I went back out to take photos, the nest tube this little wasp was working on had been completely closed off.  It's the right hand tube near the center of this photo.  Inside it, I am sure that a wasp egg is developing into a larva that will use this hapless caterpillar to create the next generation of mason wasps.  As horrific as that seems in one sense, at the same time it seems pretty amazing.

I see these little wasps hunting in my gardens frequently.  It would be fascinating to know how many caterpillars they remove over the course of each growing season - and what species get "harvested".

In other caterpillar news, I was thrilled a few days ago to notice a monarch cat hanging upside down in the classic "J" position as it started the transition from caterpillar to pupa/chrysalis.  Because we've been watching Youtube videos about metamorphosis, I carefully pointed it out to our oldest grandson, Connor, who is 3.

We were both ecstatic to see that the caterpillar had completed its change the next morning...

...but by the following day, I began to suspect that something was seriously wrong.

Two days after it had formed, I removed the remnants of the chrysalis, as well as the leaf it was attached to, fearing for bacterial contamination.  It was probably too little, too late, but I figured it was worth a try to keep further contamination from spreading to other monarch caterpillars in the area.

Does anyone with more specialized knowledge of monarch/butterfly metamorphosis know more precisely what caused the demise of this pupating monarch?

Once again, as with bird nests, if I find it, I'm beginning to assume that the chrysalis/pupa is not likely to have a positive outcome.  Sometimes I have to be content with letting exciting events happen "off stage" in the garden.  If the result is more baby birds and more adult butterflies, then it's all good and my curiosity will just have to go unsatisfied.  Thank goodness for Youtube videos!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

BugGuide for the Win!

A big thank you and shout out to the folks at for their help in identifying so many of the little beasties that I see in my yard and gardens! 

Last week was a perfect case in point.  I saw a large black bee nectaring on swamp milkweed from my kitchen window and I grabbed the camera to get a few photographs.  This insect was new to me,  but it reminded me of a bee that had been recently talked about and shared in a Facebook group about pollinators.  So I looked up the two-spotted longhorned bee, the species in question, and it looked good...but maybe just a little different from what I was seeing. 

The abdominal spots were smaller in my individual than in many of the photos of the two-spotted longhorned bee in BugGuide and the long hairs on the legs of my individual were dark, not light, but otherwise it looked like a reasonably good match.  There are really a limited number of large black bees it could have been, excluding bumble bees, which this wasn't.  So I tentatively identified my photos and submitted them as an ID request.

Within a day, Dr. John Ascher had identified my specimen as a southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans), a species that I was totally unfamiliar with and had never even considered. I actually thought that the eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) was the only large carpenter bee in our area so I hadn't thought to look more closely at carpenter bees.

According to the brief research I did, there is not much known about the life cycle of the southern carpenter bee.  A fact sheet from the University of Florida reports that the only nests that have been reported were in small branches of Ligustrum (1958) and red maple (1975), about 1-1.5 m above the ground.  Apparently this species is NOT an economic problem, as the eastern carpenter bee can be.

Was this an earth shattering identification?  No.  But the only other way I know to really identify many of the insects I photograph, including this one, would be to catch them and kill them, then look at them under magnification, using keys.  While that is certainly the classic way to deal with insect identification, I am gardening on less than 0.4 acre in the middle of a suburban development where new assaults seem to occur daily against the wildlife present.  Trees and shrubs are cut down and replaced with chemical-soaked lawn.  What flowers there are come from the big box stores which, around here, means they are full of neonic pesticides.  There are far more non-native plants than natives in everyone's yards, providing little food for native insects and other animals.  Often I only see one individual of a species in my yard - and, if I collected it to identify it, I might have just kept that species from keeping a toehold around here.  For example, I have not, to my knowledge, seen a southern carpenter bee here in the 3 years we've lived here - and I haven't seen another one since I saw this individual a week ago.

Why do I find it so important to know what the various insects are in my yard and gardens?  I ask myself that question on a pretty regular basis, wondering if I'm wasting everyone's time, including my own.  Then I identify a new species and learn about it, finding out that I have...

... a wasp species (Prionyx parkeri) that controls short-horned grasshopper populations and pollinates flowers...

... or a fly species, tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus), that parasitizes carpenter bees and balances their populations...

... or yet another syrphid fly whose larvae eats aphids.  (The syrphid fly larva is the large, brown and white blob on the milkweed stem, surrounded by its food, oleander aphids.)

The complex web of relationships in even my basic little gardens truly astounds me, and I learn so much by identifying the different species and researching a bit about their life cycles and feeding habits.   I try to share that information with others, too, hoping to encourage fellow gardeners to just relax and let Mother Nature keep the balance in their yards instead of pulling out the poisons to "keep everything under control".

In fact, thanks in great part to the insect identification help I've received from BugGuide, I've come to think that human "control" is highly over-rated and much more likely to do harm than good, especially in a garden.  What insects are YOU seeing in your garden, and what are you learning about the balance of nature all around you?  Have you dared to go chemical free yet?

Milkweed Signals?

Watching for caterpillars as closely as I've been doing this summer, I noticed an odd phenomenon on the milkweeds about a week ago.

As of August 5th, last Sunday, I had not seen a single milkweed bug, large or small, on any of my milkweed plants this summer.  At midday, I was out in the backyard, photographing insects and flowers like the swamp milkweed above, when I noticed something reddish flying in the middle of the backyard. 

Chasing it down, I saw that it was a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) which had landed on a small yaupon bush (Ilex vomitoria).  Note:  I apologize for the quality of this photo, but it's the only one I took at the time.

The next morning, August 6th, when I got up, there were probably a dozen large milkweed bugs on my swamp milkweed plants, primarily on the blooms.  Many were in the process of creating the next generation of large milkweed bugs.

In the space of 24 hours, my yard went from absolutely no milkweed bugs to a single large milkweed bug to a dozen or more large milkweed bugs.  The numbers have continued to increase over the week.

Where did they all come from?  No one else I see around the neighborhood has milkweed plants and there is little "wild space" nearby.

What brought them all in at essentially the same time?  The swamp milkweed had been blooming for over a week at that point, the tropical milkweed for weeks, and the butterfly milkweed for months, so why August 5th-6th?  Why that day specifically?

I have no answers to these questions, but it's a fascinating little mystery to me.  Sometimes it seems like the more I learn, the less I know.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Tolerate the Uglies!!!

After carefully watching my larval plants for several months (which felt like years!), I'm finally seeing caterpillars on them. 

There are monarch caterpillars on the milkweed,

black swallowtail caterpillars on the parsley,

gulf fritillary caterpillars on the maypop vines,

and - based on the foliage - probably phaon crescent caterpillars on the fogfruit. 

YEAH!!! My plants are starting to get ugly!  They are making butterflies!!!

As much as I love seeing the caterpillars, though, I find that I do cringe at how ragged my plants start to look at this point of the summer.  Not only is the heat taking a toll, the plants are so large that any dry spells can cause wilting and brown edges, even partial leaf drop.  By the time the caterpillars show up and start eating the leaves, the plants can start looking like I should yank them out of the garden at the first possible moment.

Of course I don't pull them out.  I chose and planted these plants especially as butterfly food.  Why would I pull them out just as they are starting to actually produce butterflies?  Even if I do "mentally hear" my neighbors gossiping about how ragged my garden is looking these days.

Honestly, couldn't these plants be a little NEATER and PRETTIER while they go through this stage of their life cycle?!

My own phrase for this is "Tolerate the uglies!"  Benjamin Vogt of Monarch Gardens shares the same concept with his phrase of "Redefine pretty."  In a world saturated with television ads showing happy, beautiful people in manicured yards that don't have a single tattered leaf or brown spot in the lawn, it feels subversive to allow caterpillars to actually eat the leaves on your plants.  Seriously, shouldn't this be done behind closed doors, people?!

To be even more subversive, this summer I've noticed that my monarch caterpillars seemed to purposefully deflower the milkweed they are feeding upon. 

First, mama monarch laid quite a few eggs underneath flower bud clusters, so the caterpillars have been eating the flowers and buds from the moment they hatched.

Secondly, as the caterpillars reached one of their later, larger instars, I noticed that 3 of them had cut the stem of the entire flower cluster partway through, resulting in the entire bloom head hanging upside down and dying.  Seriously, what's up with that?!  The only thing I can figure out is that, evolutionarily, this decreases the chances of parasites being attracted to the plant for nectar and thereby finding the caterpillar(s) nearby to host their offspring on.  I've never heard of this as a "thing" before, though, so I don't know if my imagination is just running away with me - or if, maybe, I'm on to something.  Any monarch researchers out there that might want to look into this idea?

Along the same lines, is it coincidence that the eggs were laid shortly after the buds started opening and the plants started blooming?  Evolutionarily, could it be that so many eggs were laid on these newly opening flower buds to decrease the overall numbers of blooms, decreasing the seed production, and thus moving the plant energies into leaf production, thereby providing more food for more baby monarchs?

Or is this egg placement just a way to hide the caterpillars until they get a little bigger and less attractive to wasps and other caterpillar parasites who might not care that they don't taste good?  See how well that monarch caterpillar is hidden?

Can you see it now???

How about now?  Pretty safe hiding place, isn't it?

WHY the timing and placement for egg laying?  Coincidence or evolutionary plan?  Inquiring minds want to know.

While I contemplate these possibilities, I meander my garden enjoying the new life chomping hungrily on my plants and try not to cringe at the blooms being cut short and the leaves disappearing in the process.  Life is a balance - and never more so than in a garden.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

A Recent Cast of Characters in My Gardens: Pollinators and Predators

With the initiation of several days of rain, it seems like a good time to share a few garden photos from the plethora I've taken over the last few weeks.  Since I'm obsessed with pollinators and other wildlife, that's what I'll generally be showing you!

Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchella) brings in a lot of insect activity.  I have several pots of gaillardia on our back patio, as well as a few plants along the street by our mailbox.  Not surprisingly, most of my photos are from the plants I see most often - the ones near my back door.

This is a lousy photo, but I wanted to share the single bumble bee (Bombus sp.) I've seen in my gardens so far this summer.  Gaillardia is the ONLY flower I've seen her on so far.

A female monarch (Danaus plexippus) finally visited the yard for several days last week and she left several eggs behind.  Here's she's ovipositing on a swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) I planted a couple months ago.  I'm a "survival of the fittest" biologist, so I don't collect the eggs and raise the caterpillars inside;  I'm waiting to see if I see any caterpillars - this photo was taken on the 28th, so there should be a couple tiny babies out there munching away, but I haven't gone looking yet.  (Update:  my grandson and I went out in the rain this afternoon and found at least 3 tiny new monarch caterpillars!  Yeah!)

Ms. Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) here isn't a pollinator, but I love welcoming her and her relatives into the yard.  Every mosquito this mosquito hawk eats is a mosquito that doesn't bite me! Aren't her eyes particularly gorgeous?  The body of the male blue dasher is a beautiful powdery blue, but I've been seeing almost exclusively females lately.

This green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) seems to have decided that the outside corner of our gutter near the bright lights of the kitchen window makes a perfect home.  Over the past week, I've been seeing her (him?) frequently within just a few inches of this location.   Note:  nothing like a closeup photo to let you know the house badly needs a power washing!

Out front, the newly planted sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) has excited a lot of pollinator interest.  I shared the potter wasp and the 4 spotted scarab hunter wasp I've seen nectaring here in my recent post;  this is a carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides) who also has seemed to enjoy the blooms. 

The deep velvet black of this bee's body and the iridescent blue-black of its wings are just stunning.  I wonder if this is the species that has been harvesting circles of dogwood leaves to make their nest cells waterproof?

Another little green treefrog was tucked away inside a Flyr's nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia), hoping against hope that I didn't actually see him as I looked around.  I let him pretend that I hadn't noticed him.....

With the spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) beginning to bloom, I'm starting to see a little more activity in that section of the garden, including this small green anole (Anolis carolinensis).  I'm still not seeing many insects attracted to the spotted beebalm blossoms, but I did see a hummingbird feeding - even though I didn't have my camera with me so I could visually share with you.

Back to the anole for a moment, I've been seeing many tiny little green anoles for the last several weeks, which just makes me smile.  Obviously it's been a good year for anole love!

Another recent dragonfly visitor was the great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans), who perched on top of the poles in our tomato pots for a while - and was lucky enough (and good enough) to capture a passing moth shortly after I took the top photo.  Those big, black-spotted blue eyes aren't just for show!

Out front, enjoying the turkey tangle fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), there's been the phaon crescent (Phyciodes phaon), nectaring - and possibly laying eggs, since fogfruit is their larval plant.  Note:  I don't know if this individual is a male or female.

The fogfruit has also attracted many other insects, including a female blue dasher dragonfly, a carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee, several  different species of wasps, bees, and flies.  In fact, the fogfruit is active enough that it's probably worth a post just by itself.  I just wish it looked a little more "gardeny"....

Anoles have been out in the front gardens as well as in the back.  Here was one haunting a summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) blossom.  Sometimes I wonder if I don't see huge numbers of pollinators because I DO see lots and lots of predators around the blooms - and I'm sure it's not a coincidence that they are hanging out there!

Speaking of predators, whether nymphs (like this one) or adults, I'm seeing quite a few milkweed assassin bugs (Zelus longipes) this summer.  I thought they were so-named because they were part of the milkweed community, but recent reading suggests their name comes from their coloration.  I've certainly seen them on many, many plants, not just on milkweed.

The clustered mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) in the back yard has brought in quite a few unusual (for my garden) pollinators.  Besides several wasp species, there is this grapeleaf skeletonizer moth (Harrisina americana) which has both a common name and a color pattern that make it a perfect Halloween animal.

Believe it or not, this small, colorful, Halloween themed moth, also nectaring on the mountain mint, is from the a group of moths known as bird dropping moths.  Yes, that's an actual common name for moths in the subfamily Acontiinae .  This moth goes by the hard-to-remember name of black-dotted spragueia moth (Spragueia onagrus)  and is an animal I've never seen before in my life.  Kudos to the helpful folks at for helping me identify this one!

Lacewing larvae, looking for all the world like prehistoric monsters or like some less glittery version of Tamatoa, the Crab, on Moana, are hard to see unless you look closely, but they are great allies in garden pest control.  This photo is blurry (the entire "mound" is barely 1/4" across and I wasn't using a tripod) but, if you look carefully, you can see the huge jaws under the front edge as well as a wing from one of its dinners right above the jaws.

In all, this lineup of characters from my garden highlights 6 garden predators (green anole, green treefrog, milkweed assassin bug, lacewing larva, blue dasher dragonfly, great blue skimmer dragonfly) and 6 pollinators (monarch, bumblebee, carpenter-mimic  leaf-cutter bee, phaon crescent butterfly, grapevine skeletonizer moth, and black-spotted spragueia moth).  During the 10 days that I photographed these animals, I saw many other animals, too.  Some, like the 5 species of wasps that I talked about in my last post, I've shared with you.  Others, like bluebirds, cardinals, bluejays, gray squirrels, chickadees, tufted titmice, house finch, mockingbirds, red-shouldered hawk, brown skinks, southern toads, and Eastern box turtle, I haven't shared.

How can anyone be happy with a statically "pretty" landscape, when a garden filled with wildlife changes minute by minute?!  I love the surprise of going out into my yard and meeting a new insect neighbor.  I love the pleasure of looking at a flower cluster and realizing that I'm looking into the eyes of a little lizard or camouflaged frog.  Each new animal I see adds a layer of richness to the world around me that delights and soothes me.  What an honor to be sharing my yard and gardens with all these other forms of life here on Earth.