Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Monarch on the Asters

Though not from the patch of Milkweed (the dark plant with lime green seed pods in the background) this Monarch flew in and spent the better half of the day on the Aster novae-angliae. This is a plant I'm loving more and more every day. I hope it becomes invasive and grows everywhere in the yard!

Usually when eating the wings are folded straight up. Every so often though they flex their wings outward as if to remind the birds they're poisonous. "Remember that awful orange insect you tried eating the other day that gave you vomit... yah what then?"

Taking pictures of Monarchs isn't exactly hard but if you move to fast or get to close they just take off and fly around the yard. Though they usually land on the same plant (or type of plant) they don't exactly land on the same spot. Meaning you have to start all over to get a good close up.

Off he goes. Actually he stuck around in the yard another three hours the lighting wasn't good enough for photography. The flash doesn't work with the macro feature on my camera for some reason.

The spots on the back rear wings indicate that this is a male. Though I don't see them in most of my photos. This makes me wonder if I didn't have two Monarchs passing by as I took a break. If so it kind of ruins the story told in this post but who can complain about more Monarchs?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lasius Ants in North America

Lasius is such a diverse genus of ants. These are small/medium sized ants about 3mm to 6mm. "Ants of North America," lists 33 species in back of the book. Species in this genus have been divided into 4 groups, niger, flavus, umbratus, and claviger. The niger group (pronounced nyjer!) boasts big healthy looking queens that have enough stored food to start colonies on their own. In the ant world this isn't saying much, queens in assorted ant genera do it all the time. But in the Lasius group it's worth pointing out.

Here is a Lasius (niger) neoniger queen with two darkly colored workers. Queens in the flavus group are also capable of starting colonies on their own. Species in the flavus group tend to be smaller and more orange/brown in color. Workers in the flavus group also tend to be orange in color.

In order to talk about the umbratus and claviger groups one has to learn how colonies are founded first. Overpopulation and limited nesting space has driven queen ants to sometimes band together and tolerate one another's presence until the first workers are born. This saves the queen ant the trouble of killing the other 40 or so queen ants who've all decided to start a colony under the same rock. The result is a massive colony that suddenly appears some weeks later.

But there is an issue here. With so many queen ants in the colony, the next generation of reproductives won't have enough food to start colonies of their own. So after the first workers are born an internal power struggle occurs. Workers will slowly kill off queen ants in the colony. As they begin foraging other small colonies might be discovered. These are either killed immediately or integrated into the new colony. Eventually though all but one queen is left the new colony and she becomes the primary egg layer. (Occasionally the last queen standing may die of her injuries too.)

This system has lead to a number of evolutions. Firstly queens that band together tend to be more successful becuase they produce more workers then the starting colonies around them and are better able to deal with stronger colonies that have been around longer. There are two flaws though.

1) Queens aren't picky about what species of Lasius queen they start a nest with. Pictured above are two queens of Lasius neoniger and one queen of Lasius alienus stating a colony. The L. neoniger queens tend to be much better parents and care for the eggs when disturbed.

2) The first workers of the colony don't always choose the strongest queen to be the primary egg layer. Simply saving your energy and appearing to be the best queen is more important than actually being the best choice. It's this that umbratus and claviger species take advantage of.

Both claviger and umbratus queens tend to be slimmer, they don't have as much stored food in their abdomen, and they require an existing colony of Lasius to start a nest. Queens in the claviger and umbratus groups are social parasites of species in the niger group.

Having to successfully sneak into a colony and replace it's queen without the workers getting wise is a tricky business. Over millions of years these social parasites have learned a number of tricks. Playing dead to be brought in the nest as food, sneaking in the nest before the workers have started favoring and killing queens, spraying citronella odors to confuse workers, and out right badging in the colony entrance are just a few methods observed over the years. Even with such a variety of methods to employ success is still very low.

Ants rarely give up though and social parasites also employ the oldest trick in the ant book, overwhelming numbers. Social Parasitic species of Lasius out number their hosts 10 to 1. Their nuptial flights are 10 times bigger. Every year a colony of Lasius claviger completely covers my front steps in flying ants.

Easily a couple thousand queens pour out of each colony and continue to do so for day. Queens land after mating and begin their task of taking over a colony. Once completed, the host workers will take care of the parasitic queen's brood and slowly the colony changes it's colors.

In a matter of 12 or so weeks the entire workforce is now that of parasitic species.

The host species simply dies out. Though the queens need assistance to start a colony, her workers are more then capable of taking it from here.

Underground root aphids prevent the need for foraging on the surface. Umbratus, claviger (and I want to say flavus but I'm not certain,) forage almost exclusively underground. They emerge above ground only during their mating season.

The honeydew from the aphids is nutritious enough to feed the whole colony. The occasional dead worm also makes it's way into the mix though.

Cocoons are incubated near the surface under stones or logs.

The only real difference between umbratus and claviger group species is that claviger is known for producing the citronella odor. Gardeners are probably most familiar with it. Accidentally digging up part of a colony fills the air with a sweet lemony scent.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Backyard Bird Secrets for Every Season

"Backyard Bird Secrets for Every Season"
by Sally Roth.

The information in this book is arranged by changing seasons. This works well for the avid bird watcher as it follows the migration of most birds quite well. Topics such as building bird houses, what and how to feed, and when it's time to cut back those plants are found in seasons when it's most appropriate. This format doesn't always work well though.

Early on in the book she warns about Bear Attacks. It's good to get this topic out there early but readers might be lead to assume Spring is the only time to worry as they're not mentioned anywhere else. Other topics like opossums (possums?) and cats attacking birds at the feeder are placed in chapter on summer. Maybe these are the months when such attacks are most common but maybe it would have been better to take these out of the four seasons format and simply list them in their own Good to Know chapter.

The book opens with the author telling us about herself. She talks about her son and neighbors and stories almost to the point where she becomes a character in her own book. Not exactly a bad thing, one gets the vibe of a sweet grandmotherly women who always has her binoculars poised out the window. The rest of the book has shorter stories that feel optional to read and thank god for that. These personal stores have are written in a wordy fashion. It's not unreadable but could have been summarized better. This is only annoying at the very start of the book though and things flow much more nicely for the rest of the book.

When not telling us about herself she offers up superb advice. Having bird houses up and ready by the time Daffodils are blooming is one such fact and she explains why. I built a bird house myself earlier this year over the summer, and I wondered why nothing moved in it. Apparently all the cavity nesting birds that would have moved in were already well established in other locations. One has to put the bird houses up early to get the first few birds that migrate up. What's more she goes into detail about which birds are highly social (bird house hotel) all the way to highly territorial (males fight to the death).

It's here that we "sort of learn" how to build a bird house. Exact measurement would have been nice but she explains aren't necessary. Instead we're told, small, medium, and large but we're not given anything to reference what these sizes really mean. For some birds she offers general measurements for walls and height so young birds don't fall out too soon. I guess this is okay but I would have liked something better.

For each season there is a chapter devoted to plants which beneficial plants. Most of the plants featured are native and I'm happy to see she specifies "native to your region." Some non-natives are mentioned too but as far as I can tell she mentions nothing invasive. Other chapters are devoted to highlighting 3 types of birds that really summaries the season. She features maybe 5 to 7 plants for each type of bird. Some like ground cover or need fruit and nectar. Generally if your plants offer a lot of caterpillars, seeds, fruit, cover, and nesting your yard is good for the birds. Plant care is kept to a minimum but she mentions a great tip that a lot of gardeners don't do. DON'T CLEAN UP YOUR GARDEN! All those dead plant stems still have seeds on them and they poke up above the snow during the winter. In some cases there are even overwintering caterpillars that have curled up a leaf right on the dead plant. It annoys me that people do this. You don't need to clean up your garden until March of next year and it's great that she points this out.

She talks a good deal on each bird, it's habits, how it approaches the feeder, what foods they like best, and where they're most likely to nest. Identifying some of them to species level is better left for another book but some types are easy to pick out. She even mentions the benefits to having an array of birds around. For instance some birds eat their half their weight in insects a day, and some even specialize in eating aphids. All good to know.

But the absolute best thing about this book has to be the stunning pictures. Almost every page in this book has a brilliant picture or two of some of the most colorful birds in the country. I thought Bluebirds and Goldfinches were pretty; I've never seen a yellow Warbler, the orange of an Oriole or the warm browns of a Cedar Waxwing before. The photographers for this book even make the common brown Sparrows look amazing. They make me wonder why Hummingbirds are so prized by gardeners. This book is almost worth buying for the pictures alone. In the back there's a full page crediting probably more than 50 photographers.

Speaking as someone who's only starting out with birds I can say it's a good book to have. I wasn't able to bring myself to finish it though, but the thing is I plan to follow what I've read. This is one of those books where it's only interesting if you have the plants and are seeing those birds. Maybe when I get more Fall interest I'll finish reading those chapters and give Winter a try.

Asters Bees and Skippers

A closeup of an Aster novae-angliae flower. I can see why bees and butterflies would be attracted to these. The flower petals are so softly colored they might as well be made of silk.

Swarms of skippers have been dancing around these plants. Over the winter I'm making it a goal to learn more about these butterflies. Currently I don't even know what the caterpillar looks like or what host plants they use. Clearly I'm doing something right though.

In past years we only had brown species of these. But as I've introduced more native plants I've found the color pallet has expanded to orange. Like THIS one. Maybe I'm just attracted to colorful things.

Every time I see swarms of skippers I never fail to see a few pairs engage in their mating ritual; a game of follow the leader.

Aster novi-belgii is an Aster I found out front of an ACME (grocery store) and they were 2 for $10 and covered in bees!

Honey Bees and great big Carpenter Bees soon found them once I got home. By the next they they were covered. I'm really learning to like Asters with "nov" in the name.

I've also noticed most of the asters that get pollination have their flowers change color after pollination.

An added bonus to all these asters, especially when you let them grow on their own. I've scared so many birds hidden in the Aster thicket this year. I want to say they have to be eating the seeds. My Summer blooming Aster (which I forget the name of, sorry) never really got any attention from pollinators but is getting some bird attention now.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Textures and Tetramorium

Earlier today (while taking pictures) I lifted up a log that immediately snapped and successfully pissed off a colony of Tetramorium species E (formerly caespitum).

There's something about ants running around on different textures that I find artistic. I'll have to play around with this in the future.

The bulk of the nest was under the log. The ants were simply using it to incubate the brood.

Ants of Madagascar

Brian Fisher briefly talks about Amblyopone and Mystrium.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Shopping for Asters is tricky business. This is one of those huge genera with enough species in it to keep any taxonomies busy for years. To make matters worse they're sold in the middle of a sea mums. Chrysanthemums, Guhhhh the name strikes fear in the hearts of gardeners the world over. People buy them for fall color. Plants sold right in front of the grocery store must be good right? hehe. People do all sorts of stupid things with these plants. They'll hollow out a pumpkin and put the mum in the top so their jack-o'-lantern looks like it has hair. (Usually a sign of what houses to avoid on Halloween.) Most people though seem to throw them out when they're done. Let's do the math for a moment.

A perennial massively produced to the point where some garden centers sell nothing but Mums and Pumpkins year after year. You can buy them at the grocery store, big box stores, and I remember slamming the door on a girl scout holding one once or twice. Come next year where the hell did they all go? The one thing people aren't doing with this plant seems to be putting it in the ground!

Worst yet almost all of them aren't pollinated. They're just clumps of flower petals with nothing to offer. So that's why I tend to stick with Asters which tend to have more nectar and pollen to offer. Even then though that's no guarantee you'll attract anything special to your yard. And these are the ones I like the most.

Aster novae-angliae is a fall blooming aster that's already getting lots of attention. Hardly any of the flowers have opened and I see bees already clinging to it. It's a monster of a plant too. All those store bought Asters and Mums are cut down in July so they grow in a dome shape. Asters naturally grow in messy somewhat random points and space their flowers out more. I've herd you'll get more flowers if you force the doming form but I don't think that's true at all. Sure the flowers are more spread out but once this plant gets going it will look fabulous all the same.

Another Aster I have grows like a weed on our property. I don't mind this at all and let it grow as it likes. I probably have hundreds of these plants out in the yard. But it's only the ones growing in full sun that are swarm with attention. Honey Bees, Bumblebees, Mason Wasps, and Digger Bees as well a cloud of other pollinators all dance around them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bugbane Pollination Results

If only the common name Cat's Tail wasn't already taken. Bugbane, Cimicifuga racemosa, has started blooming pretty good. The picture above is a few weeks old but this is blooming good, it's fragrant and my dreams of this being a good nectar source are completely dashed.

What the hell are these things? Crane flies? These pretty little mosquitoes don't seem to suck your blood so that's a plus at least. (Maybe there's blood inside the plant?)

Actually they're have been identified as Toxorhynchites rutilus according to I read they're a male and a predator to mosquitoes.

A couple of sweat bees and a bumblebee or two use it regularly too. But the over all pollinator seems to be tiny fruit flies to small for me to photograph accurately.

So the search is still on for a full shade plant that gets a lot of bee activity. So far though Clethra alnifolia is the only one that comes to mind.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ants and Sunflowers

Sure the blooms are all but spent and the seeds are all but eaten, but sunflowers still have a lot to offer. Most of the hard stems (some of which are several inches thick) have snapped or split open thanks to squirrels climbing up to eat all the seeds. A swarm of Goldfinches certainly didn't help with that either. One morning my mom opened the blind to find more than 50 of those birds all over our sunflower patch. They're right up against the window so all of them took to the air immediately and we were treated to a big flash of yellow taking off.

With so many damaged plants sap is spilling out onto the ground and getting a lot of attention. Prenolepis imparis, The Winter Ant, was one of many species stocking up on the sweet sugary food. Sugars store better and are vital to a colonies survival over the winter.

There's a friendly foraging war going on as some individual sunflowers are better producers than others. Wasps and flies are darting around licking everywhere. But the ants are more interested in the sap to deal with them.

At some times of the day a common Formica species has control of what I believe is the hot spot of the sap flow. But there's no real conflict over the resource.

Even when a caterpillar crawls out from within the hollow stem the ants pay it no mind. They bite at it in an aggressive stance and send it on it's way rather than eating it. Formica colonies currently have no brood in the nest, as they don't keep brood over the winter. The larvae are used to digest solid foods so the ants have no use for caterpillars at this time.

Workers gorge themselves to the point where their abdomens become transparent.

Tapinoma sessile, The Odorous House Ant, was also present but not a lot. Because they don't have what I would call a true replete caste workers can only carry small amounts of food.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Scoliid Wasp

Well the Internet got fixed a little bit faster than I expected. Apparently my phone companies tech support doesn't know they're open on weekends. So here's what I haven't been able to post about.

The Scoliid Wasp, Scolia dubia, is a natural control of the imported Japanese Beetles and others. They burrow through infested lawns searching for grubs to inject eggs into. They rarely if ever sting too. So they're an over all beneficial wasp and pretty to look at from the right angle.

When not seeking out grubs adults gorge on nectar from lots of different plants. Usually ones with lots of tiny flowers such as Goldenrod, Clethra alnifolia, and Sedum. As with many solitary bees though they're only active for a short while; in this case about August to September so keep your eye open.

I want to say I've seen other species around though. One was a much smaller wasp but the abdomen had to be twice as long as the rest of the body. Which was funny to see.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I’m Not Dead

Hi everyone. I’m still blogging. Last week my internet went out so i’m taking another short break. Should be a week or so. I’m doing this on my phone now. Until then, bye.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pheidole pilifera

My current colony of Pheidole pilifera testing the limits of the macro feature on my camera. Here they're collecting sugar water. (Liquids are hazardous to creatures their size so it's important to feed liquids absorbed into something.) A lot of people are put off by their size but others love the fact they have a major caste. The big headed ants (also the common name) are a caste of ant normally used to store food and crush seeds. While I'm not confident enough to feed these ants seeds, I'm more than happy to give them sugar water. Seeds that aren't crushed usually start to grow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Butterfly Farming

Though the Monarchs have all but migrated their caterpillars are still roaming about the milkweed nibbling on large leaves. Several have already formed a chrysalis and I want to say one's already hatched and taken off. I walked out one day to find a brightly colored Monarch sunbathing on the milkweed and then struggled to fly though it's wings were in perfect condition. After a short flight it landed low on one of our trees. This is exactly what I saw in Monarch who've hatched in past years. Monarch chrysalises are very hard to find. They blend in perfectly with the foliage to most milkweed plants.

Milkweed was one of the first things I planted in my native plant garden and it has been very influential. Though I'd planted it past it's flowering time Monarchs still used it and one happened to make chrysalis in plane sight. Two weeks to the day we found it I watched a Monarch emerge. To this day I've thought what a shame it is that I haven't been able to find any "good" plants for this sort of thing. If you have 4 healthy plants of Milkweed you're almost guaranteed to have a Monarch hatch out in your yard.

Live Butterfly Garden

So I found a product that I will be buying and try out. The thing is timing needs to be done carefully. It's a bit to late in the year to be raising butterflies. Even saving the product for the early spring can be risky. To get the most out of this product I feel it would be best to grow them in the kit first and have them ready to release out in a garden full of host plants. The trouble is their caterpillars naturally feed on flower petals (or in this case "rays") to flowers found in the Aster family. After doing some reading I can't find any Aster family plants that flower in the spring. Thankfully though I may have found the answer.

Another plant Painted Ladies are said to use is our native Pussytoe. It's an odd sort of plant that I'm not familiar with, but it's growing on me the more I read about it. It's a wind pollinator (we won't hold that against it,) that forms colonies. They have separate male and female flowers that oddly enough tend to all produce either one sex or the other depending what "colony" they're in. Perhaps they reproduce by runners and slowly spread? Antennaria plantaginifolia is the taller of the two and could make a nice early blooming perennial beside Daffodils or Tulips. Antennaria neglecta is much much shorter and could easily be planted in the lawn beside Crocuses.

Once these two plants are established it could be simple enough to open the lid of the butterfly kit and turn it over onto the pussytoe before letting them go. Assuming you have a healthy mix of males and females they might lay eggs and hopefully produce a second batch of butterflies. Or an early snack for a hungry bird, worth trying all the same.

The Labor Day Ant

Lasius neoniger is a very common North American ant. It's called The Labor Day ant because their mating season starts from mid August and continues into late September. Though not found everywhere, the places where they do occur they tend to be very abundant almost to the point of being invasive. They tend to nest in open fields or along forest edges. Nuptial flights are held in the late afternoon just before the sun goes down. All this can spell disaster for out door barbecues and gatherings nation wide.

Colonies release thousands of winged males and new queens into the air all at once. For many parts of the country Labor Day falls on the peak of their mating season. Thankfully the main swarm usually takes place high up in the air but having the swarm over head doesn't necessarily spare anyone. Once the flight begins alates will be taking off and landing for hours. Taking off usually stops at sundown but that still leaves hundreds of them in the air. They're drawn to lights once night falls. And this all starts up again on the next day, weather permitting of course.

The other thing Lasius neoniger is know for is ruining the sport of golf. See Here Because they like to nest in open fields golf courses are perfect nesting spots. These ants like to make small mounts too and they make putting areas look messy.

Lasius neoniger isn't entirely to blame though as dozens of other Lasius species are also flying. Other genera are doing this too but most get their flights out of the way in the early morning. Lasius alienus (pictured above) is the forest dwelling counterpart to L. neoniger. Note the legs are more yellow, and the abdomen lacks the velvety sheen of hairs. Neither of these traits are consistent because they can hybridize. L. alienus just tends to nest in dead wood or a combination of wood and dirt.

Not the best picture in the world, but L. neoniger is on the left, L. alienus is on the right. The other issue to look for is behavior. L. neoniger make for much better parents and attentively guard brood even when disturbed. L. alienus queens I've found when disturbed will run around frantically. Another interesting point is the queens pictured above were nesting in the same test tube tending the same batch of workers. Lasius queens seem to tolerate one another even when they are not the same species.

Lasius flavus is the other common one flying now. Queens are much smaller then the other two and tend to be a hard to describe brown-orange color that in the right lighting I swear looks green. Unlike the other two they have orange workers instead of black. But they shouldn't be confused with parasitic species that have just started flying in Canada. I'll save them for another post.