Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Ant Chat: Stealing Nectar from Milkweed


I realized I haven't posted in a while and I have some new editing software that I wanted to test out, so I made a video.

Asclepias sullivantii or Prairie Milkweed or Sullivan's Milkweed as it's known. This species is so timid compared to Common Milkweed, A. syriaca.

Common Milkweed form a lead tap root that every few inches sends out diagonally upward pointing roots that upon reaching the surface produces a new stem away from the main stem. This process repeats though for every new stem produced and the starting stem keeps on making them every few inches. So you can have a 6' deep root with dozens of these upward stems going back to the surface in all directions. And, especially in full sun settings, this can create a patch of Common Milkweed that's really not appropriate for most garden settings.

Sullivan's Milkweed doesn't do that. So you get a plant that looks fairly similar but isn't anywhere near as aggressive in a garden setting. My one complaint with it might be that it's too slow growing. Last year I only got one flower, one single flower, on the whole plant all because Monarchs had laid eggs on it and it the caterpillars ate them.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, aka Fragrant Milkweed. Really most Milkweeds are fragrant but only at certain times of the day. This one though, right when the afternoon shade hits it, it smells like warm cupcakes right out of the oven, covered in honey. It's great. It's commonly sold at nurseries and has a number of cultivars. Sadly it's a short lived perennial lasting about 5 years, but it's pretty easy to grow from seed outdoors.

Asclepias purpurascens, Purple Milkweed. This species is not for everyone but by all means if you know a grower and have other species to fall back on give it a try. Basically this species likes some drainage in the soil, hates having its roots exposed, and might just randomly die if it's put in the wrong place. They're a little finicky. I've planted this all over my yard and most of them don't last long, but a few hold outs tell me the plant likely doesn't have a tap root. I don't think they're as drought tolerant as other milkweeds either. But the flowers are some of the prettiest in the genus. 

Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Weed. This is the most garden friendly of the bunch. It's one of the first native plants to really show the industry what native plants can do. There was a drought in the midwest and people noticed their gardens looked pretty dead but then looked out in the fields and roadside ditches and saw this plant still green and covered in bright orange flowers. While it's true this and many native plants are drought tolerant they also benefit from some watering in a garden setting. 

Also featured in this episode was Rudbekia hirta, the Black-eyed Susan. It's not flowering yet but I see them covered in aphids right near the flowers. This has never hurt their population and in fact they seem to be doing better than a hybrid I bought that didn't get any aphids. That's not to say aphids are beneficial, though having ants crawling all over the plant might have stopped some of the damage insect herbivores were causing, but more likely the hybrid cultivar was just selected for it's beauty and not its resistance to any of its natural pests.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bloopers in Beekeeping

So I haven't kept honeybees now for the past 4 years. It was a fun hobby that barely paid for itself and created a love hate relationship with my neighbors. My neighbors behind us would get buzzed now and then when mowing the lawn, which is an experience that's always scary when it happens to a non-beekeeper. The same neighbors though know I have a bee suit and whenever paper wasps or yellow jackets made a nest around their home, I'm usually the one they called.

Well this past spring a swarm of bees landed on the borough hall and the police who are still friends with my dad gave him a call. He went and caught it and surprised me one day, placing the hive in a spot that I've since planted a garden... so I told him it had to move. Also because I haven't kept bees for 4 years I've actually been trying to get rid of our beekeeping stuff, so we don't really have the basic tools anymore.

We scrounged together enough stuff to get the job done. There's a spot along the side of our house that will be better for a beehive. We wait for nightfall, load them on a cart and carefully haul the hive around the house. We have to take the long way because the spot is technically out front and there isn't a gate on that side of the house. It's dark as we move them down the driveway, along the front sidewalk because other gardens block a more immediate path across the front lawn. Moments later we make it around the house and put them in the new spot. 

The next day comes and I realize that somehow I completely forgot that you can't just move a beehive. Foraging bees only imprint where the hive is during the first orientation flight they take. This tells them where "home" is, and they will only do it if the hive is moved a few miles from the previous location and they don't recognize any landmarks in their flight. Basically we didn't' move them far enough from the old spot. So all of the bees that went out to forage that morning went back to the old location in the backyard where the hive was yesterday. Hundreds of bees were just flying around this one spot not quite sure where to land. Eventually they took up residence in an old hive box I was going to throw away.

So.... we just had to load the hive back onto the cart and take it for its nightly walk around the house hoping the neighbors don't realize what we're doing. They're back in the starting location now and we put the box all the foraging bees settled into on top so everyone should be happy now.

The hive still has to move though so the plan is to leave the hive on the cart and just move it a few feet each night until we make it to the fence. Then one night they'll just be on the other side of it and back to the new spot where I want them put. Fingers crossed it all goes to plan.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Murder Hornets!!! Old News Goes Viral

I guess everyone is so sick about hearing Covic-19 news that they forgot the Asian Murder Hornet thing HAPPENED LAST YEAR. In fact, as far as I know, as of the publishing of this article, no hives or individuals have been found in the U.S. or Canada in 2020. Now it's still early in the year, so that could easily change. But until it does every article going viral at the moment is just fear mongering or responding to fear mongering.  

So here's the issue, lots of these articles are titled something like Asian Murder Hornets Discovered In US For First Time. They are all published within the past week or so but also quote a few people who encountered them last year... So this is actually old news that no one really cared about ~8 months ago. Then they usually play up how just how dangerous these Asian MURDER Hornets are, OMG!!! And there's this implication that they're going to be everywhere by the end of the year.

What's lacking though is anything current. Their hives are annual, growing to a great size by the autumn months and dying out completely from lack of food. It's only through a new generation of queens that survive the winter that they species survives each year. So if they are in the U.S. and Canada still, their hives currently aren't that big. And even if surveys don't come up with anything this year, no one can really say with confidence that they're not here until about 5 years of no sightings. They might be establishing someplace outside of where the surveys are taking place, they might not be doing that great here, they might be able to make it out of the traps being setup, lots of issues could be going on.

Articles from colleges and scientific outlets are adding damage control to the theme. The U.S. and Canada already several native Hornets, Yellow Jackets, European Hornets (which are a problem in themselves), Cicada Killers, and even Bumblebees that the general public is more than likely going to assume are Asian Murder Hornets thanks to sensationalist articles.

Again this is all because a total of ~4 hives were found in 2 locations. I actually couldn't find a good source on this because one article included someone finding all of their honeybees dead and just assumed it was them. There was no information given as to what destroyed this hive or even what condition it was in. 

Assuming they are found and do establish, it will be quite a few years before they make it to the east coast. The new queens each year are only going to fly X amount of miles each year so their range is going to slowly expand unless they tuck themselves away in fire wood or something that's being transported, for example.

Some people have contacted me saying they're are worried about what they can do to help Beekeepers defend against them. Honestly we're not quite there yet. But their fear mostly comes from a clip from a National Geographic documentary that's often linked with these articles. It shows these hornets destroying a hive of Honeybees.

Well here's the thing with that; throughout Europe and Asia, there are Beekeepers. And there are hives of Honeybees that are bred to have a defense against these hornets. They actually ball up around the scout hornet marking their nest and cook it with heat generated from their wing muscles until it's dead. Alternatively a small strip of metal screen the hornets can't fit through stapled over the entrance also works. It's like a $5 fix. Somehow that didn't make it into the documentary though. 

As for the threat of a hornet nest (Asian, European, or Native) posing a threat to people... there is a whole industry of exterminators and several well stocked shelves of pesticides at your local hardware, garden center, and in most grocery stores that can take care of that.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Winter Ant Queen on Trillium

 One of my favorite ant species to photograph are Prenolepis imparis, the Winter Ant. Their queens are beautifully colored, they fly early in the year along side a lot of our earliest native wildflower and sometimes the two "blooms" line up. That's not the case here, but I'm glad to say I didn't have to stage this photo; I walked out in my garden one day and saw it happening.

This is a patch of Trilliums in the garden that mostly divided this year. It's fairly shady and just under our deck. And it was fairly cold in that spot as opposed to locations in the sun.


One of the main factors I look for when going out to spot P. imparis queens is a day with temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the bare minimum temperature queens of this species need in order to leave the nest. One degree lower and they won't take off, though you may see one or two who have been warmed by the sun taking flight.

I'm at a point in my obsessive plant habit where I have Trilliums now dividing into large clumps and spreading a lot by seed. Lots of other plants too are filling in in places around the garden so chances like this are becoming more common without me having to stage them.

And because it's in my yard I don't have to venture far to find it... though this image isn't a good example of that. She's just moved onto a stick that pushed up one of the Trillium leaves.

While it's great that this happened by chance, it wasn't the best location to have happened. The low lighting meant I should have been using a different camera with a flash on it. I took about 70 photos and only the 7 here were really worth showing. They're nice photos but not the best I've taken of the species.

Here's a shot from last year for example, in a different location with better natural lighting and with the same camera.

The queen was sort of cooperating because it was too cold for her to take off. The whole time I'm taking images though I was thinking, 'Man wouldn't this be better if she was on a flower that was open.'

I did soon after took her to a Trillium sessile that was blooming (and smelled amazing!) but the added sunlight was enough to warm her and she took off shortly after this photo was taken.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Some Early Bloomers


 Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, came up in the front garden again. I'm particularly proud of this patch because they're entirely grown from seeds I bought online. I believe it was Prairie Moon Nursery. They took two years to germinate. I dam near weeded out the very tiny first year leaves which are about the size of a quarter and barely an inch off the ground. The following year though they started making full sized plants and even had flowers!

The late winter days when they flower are often met with seasonal winds that topple other flowers that might be blooming. We have crocuses in our lawn for example and the wins flattened the flowering stems to several patches thus the flowers were destroyed. With Bloodroot though the first leaf forms gripping hold of the flower stem for added support, making wind damage less likely to happen. Eventually the flower fades and a seed pod forms which becomes heavy and falls out of the way for the leaf to take center stage. The seed pod lays on the ground or pretty close to it by the time the seeds are mature. Elaiosome on the seeds entices ants to carry them off and start new colonies of bloodroot elsewhere.



 Twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla, is another late winter/early spring bloomer. However it seems to embrace the fact that it's flowering at a horrible time of year. Blooms last anywhere from 8 hours to 4 good day and often the petals fall off simply by touching it.

By good days I mean it's warm enough for them to have opened. On bad days they have enough sense to close up so those days don't seem to count with their internal counter.

The name Twinleaf comes from their leaf formation which look like a set of elephant ears.

Later on the flowers turn into acorn-shaped structures that are supposed to spill open but more commonly break open and allow ants access before they get to that point. I often see ants going in and removing the elaiosome packets from the seeds without ever moving them.
 Trout Lily. It's been so long that I put these in the ground I forget if the yellow or the white one. Regardless, these mostly form colonies of plants that produce single leaves sticking up all over the place. I'm told individuals that have two leaves coming out of the same hole "might" flower which would be nice. After a decade of growing these it would be good to finally see one bloom.



 Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica, is a beautiful little lawn weed. There is quite a bit of diversity with this "species" which is more than likely a complex waiting to be unraveled. Basically it's been noticed that the length, width, and vanes on the leaves vary in populations as well as the flower shape and color... you know all the basic things that define different species.

The population I have going all have narrow grass-like leaves, and white flowers with pink vanes that slowly darken up to magenta as time goes on. And this is fairly typical for this species. There is a form in NJ that has yellow flowers though.

 Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica. When I went to the Mt. Cuba Center the first time I heard one of the gardeners complaining about how weedy this plant was and what a pain it is to rip a clump of them out... A few years ago I bought a whole flat of these and put them all over the yard. Thus far they've spread a bit but not to the levels of Goldenrod or Monarda that I was expecting them to be. They don't seem to be reseeding either so hopefully that changes too.

This is another one with lots of mutations in the wild that aren't offered commercially. Some only have pink flowers, only white flowers, some hue purple or various shades of light blue; all of which have been photographed by random hikers on the internet but have yet to fall in the hands of a grower to propagate them for commercial sale. This is partly why I'm hoping my plants reseed and chance upon a prized mutation to disperse to friends or put in the hands of growers. 

 Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium raptans, is a different story. This is one I didn't see to much of at The Mt. Cuba Center so I thought it would be fairly innocent to grow. Well same story, I bought a flat of it and planted it all over the yard. I've found it's a bit more tolerant of dryer sites and does seem to be producing seedlings in these dryer sites. The established plants though are spreading out quite a bit from the tiny plugs they were just two years ago. They're doing wonderful things growing up into nooks of tree roots around the trunk but are quickly going to become a ground cover in a few years if left alone. I'll update and talk about this plant some more in coming weeks.