Saturday, March 13, 2010

True Signs of Spring

Well it's not quite the 20th yet but I'm reassured this mystical season I hear of called Spring is on it's way. We had a few days in the high 60's here but the reel feel seemed more like 70F. Ant lovers sure know what that means. Prenolepis imparis nuptial flights. And sure enough I see on someone found a few queens down in South Carolina. Up north where I am though and even in the mid-west colonies held back some. It's as if they could sense the rain storm, currently going on, and simply refused to fly. I imagen flights will resume once we get clear skies after this storm.

During the warm weather though I did a little digging in the compost pile and I found a family of shrews. These are little blind "rodents" (though I don't think that applies to shrews) that eat worms, grubs, and such mostly underground. I didn't expect to find anything living in my mulch pile other than the colony of Lasius claviger (citronella ants) that held their nuptial flight there last fall. So this was a surprise. I place a disk shaped flowerpot, open side down, over them and recovered it with soil. When the rain stops I'll hopefully find out they were moved elsewhere.

All of the soil I'm using this year to make a large mound for food crops. As in my last post I plan on making my yard have a more edible landscape. A nice mound garden in the yard growing assorted crops is right up that alley. I've laid down cardboard over the grass areas to screen out the invasive grasses. And I'll continue this theme until I have eliminated the back lawn completely. That said I was at Lowes earlier and bought an Edible Garden Pack, containing 225 plants for $20! Two types of Potatoes, Red Onion, Shallots, and Asparagus. Individually these would have been sold for $7 each so that was quite a deal. Also picked a few high bush blueberry varieties. I think it's funny some blueberry packets now have Nutritional Facts on the box the plant comes in. They're really selling this Antioxidants, living forever thing.

Returning inside I find an update on my colonies of Camponotus castaneus. For the longest time they were doing nothing at all. Well today I see the clutches of larva have broken dormancy. The larva purposely stopped developing in November but now that it's March they seem to have started back up. I can tell a few have increased in size which means I should focus on feeding the colonies protein again.

I didn't hibernate either colony, but for the past month their setups have been sitting half way on a heating pad. Temperatures changed from 68F to 75F. Not a lot and honestly I don't think it's what triggered the brood to grow either. A month of 75F should have woken the brood up quicker. If I find colonies out in the wild that have small instars as in this colony in April, THEN I'll say the incubation did it. But for now I'm going to say some sort of internal clock did it.

I like comparing ant colonies to beehives. Honey bees don't actually hibernate, they just all huddle together to maintain temperature over the brood. they feed off of their honey stores inside the nest. Beekeepers actually hate days above 50F during the winter because the bees begin wasting energy foraging. Applying this logic to some ant colonies; ones that don't need to hibernate such as Lasius queens seem to benefit from; we find that some species don't need to hibernate as long as the colony is still well fed over the winter. Unfortunately this idea varies greatly across all species.

Taking an idea from fruit tree, Apples, Pears, Peaches, Plums, and Nectarines, ets... all begin to flower after a certain number of cold hours. Meaning once winter hits an internal clock starts ticking away inside the plant telling it to immediately flower once time is up. Around me there is a very common type of Plum tree that some landscaper sold all over the county, and they're notorious for blooming a good month earlier than they should in our climate. Thus in the very likely even of a frost all of the flower buds die and no fruit is produced. This idea of cold hours can be applied to certain species of ants. For example if I'm right about the Camponotus castaneus brood. Though in the case of ants it's more than likely a case of genetics determining the internal clock of the brood. Purposely laying eggs that take another 4 months to develop will reduce the strain on food to the colony.

Another strategy exists though in plants. American Persimmon trees don't flower by cold hours, instead they simply flower after it's been cold. The difference here is you can take a tree from Florida, plant it in Main and it should flower perfectly once winter is all but over. It's a more direct response to hot and cold. I find certain species of Pheidole, Solenopsis, and probably everything tropical go by this strategy more. I had a great big colony of Solenopsis molesta (thief ants) going that I never hibernated. And I can say every Pheidole queen I've tried to hibernate has ended up dead. Both of these ants are found in temperate regions so it's likely hibernation isn't being represented properly to these ants.