Monday, May 31, 2010

Ants on Fruit

About a week ago I set out a tray of rotting fruit hoping to get pictures of some Red Admirals and American Ladies during their migration north. Maybe the fruit isn't rotten enough because I haven't seen a single butterfly on the thing. Ants, however, seem to love the stuff.

A good example of size difference between Camponotus (bigger) and Formica (smaller).

A smaller Camponotus was also present and here one is tackling the leg to this great big C. castaneus major.

Smaller Camponotus (I haven't been able to ID yet,) on an orange.

The smaller Camponotus (left) next to the Formica (right). 

Some Crematogaster working a cave cricket I probably stepped on the night before.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Story of Hungry Ants

Ant: Oh boy I found me some termites on a piece of banana ... for some reason.

Ant: I'm gonna eat you. Gurrrr!

Ant: I'm gonna spray acid in you. Gurrrr!

Ant: I'm gonna feed you to mom.
Mom: Gurrrr!

Ant: Now let's all eat it!
Ants: Yum!

Mom: Needs a hint more acid to get the flavor just right.
Ants: Yay!


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Some Birding

There is something about the birds this year. I can't quite place what the change was but I'm seeing more of them, and it feels like I'm getting closer to them too. Pictured above was a sparrow that was particularly noisy chirping out a mating song, much louder than I expected a bird that size to sound and it didn't take off at all either.

At the feeder a gray/blue bird I haven't identified started showing up. Next to it is a red headed sparrow that I've been seeing more and more of lately. They just started coming to the feeder this year and I want to say it's all because we started using sunflower seeds.

Over the winter we had a flock of robins (they're social in the winter time) take over the yard for a day to use the pond. I'm happy to see a few still remember my yard and use the pond as a bath almost daily. What's odd is we've had the pond several years now and this is the first I've seen it happen. Perhaps they need to see another bird use it first.

A bird I hope to see this year as always is the gold finch. Unfortunately I'm having a hell of a time getting a patch of sunflowers started for them to use. There are some coming up here and there wildly but nothing like last year's patch or that gigantic one that came up. I do have other plant they're supposed to use growing, such as Cup Plant, Coneflower, Liatris, and a weedy thorn covered form of Thistle (that I want to get rid of).

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)

Behold the cup plant. It gets it's name from the fact it has cups where the stems touch the leaves. These collect water and probably help prevent insects such as ants from climbing up to the flowers and stealing nectar or certain herbivore insects doing what they do best.  

Getting past this defense is a simple hop away but it deters enough to make a difference. Other insects are thrilled to find their small pools of water. I want to say I've read something about frogs using them for tadpoles but I'm probably thinking of another plant from the tropics. Even so they are vernal pools of water, all be it shallow one, that are ideal for certain insects. The mosquito comes to mind but frankly I haven't seen any in the cups which is baffling.

This plant is not for everyone! Yes it gets 10' tall, has lots of tiny sunflower-like flowers, and produces seeds Goldfinches supposidly love. But this plant can also be invasive and it spreads by rhizomes to form a small clump. This is only the second year I've had this plant and it didn't flower that well last year. I'll be sure to post back how true this is. All the images I see of it online depict it as clumps in fields growing randomly but spread out from one another. I also see some butterflies and bees on the flowers too!

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Ok THESE are Galls. I'm 90% sure on all but the last one. Basically a wasp stings a plant to make it produce an odd growth to house it's children. They add interest to be honest.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Some Bugs

This is the best I could do with the Red Admiral migration. It's a shame it wouldn't open it's wings for me as they are very pretty.

Got about 100 pictures of this. At least the butterfly is in this one.

Started seeing Colorado Potato Beetles too. They eat potato plants. There is also the False Potato Beetle laying around which looks almost the exact same with an orange stripe down the middle.

The highlight really is that Mantises have hatched. Predators of good and bad bugs. The trouble is they're in the same boat as lady bugs are. Most of the eggs sold in stores are not a native species. Regardless though they have the benefit of arriving later in the year, grow with age while they slowly reduce in number. 

Spider Wasps are about doing their thing. Paralyzing specific types of spiders to lay their eggs in and bury in their burrows.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Attempting to Catch a Bee Swarm

Here is one of my beehives attempting to swarm. I know because they're THAT busy and the hive is in the shade. My hives aren't that productive. The bees begin swarming around the entrance waiting for the queen to emerge. Once she's out the swarm takes to the air and a cloud of bees fills the air. They don't go very far at first though.

Swarms land close to the parent hive at first. They do this to, first off make sure they have a queen, workers make the final decision if they're going with that queen or staying with the old hive, and they make sure they have enough food stores to make this new hive happen. In this case they're landing on my neighbor's house. My neighbors were so Cool about this though, thank god! Lots of people get angry and kill sitting swarms of bees. I've even herd of cases where neighbors are okay with swarms but their neighbors aren't and go ahead and "take care of that bee problem for yah."

Hanging swarms are ones where the bees are out in the open and they will move on. In the mean time call you local county office and request a beekeeper, tell them you have $100 hanging in a tree for them. Referring to the bees of course. Here is where some odd etiquette happens. The beekeeper is up 1 hive from this which is easily worth $100 by itself. They remove it for the home owner but should the home owner be charged money for this? It's polite to give gas money so that's $5 about but it's so small why bother. I suppose the home owner should pay money if they have demands, such as not damaging a tree, or removing a swarm because it's in the way of business or an event.

But then we have the Huge Spectacle Swarm. The one where police have roped off a bush, shut down two lanes of traffic, and the local news media has shown up. Here the beekeeper is regarded as a hero usually and that's their reward, minus some asshole being quoted in the local paper as "Beekeeper's Swarm Run Amuck."

So it's better to not let swarms happen or control them as you see fit. Splitting Hives is always an option but they don't always work. Even after dividing the hive they may still swarm. Thankfully there are a few products on the market to help catch swarms.

Bee Charm and Swarm Lore, which are probably variations of Lemon Grass Oil, all attract Honey Bees and help gain favor over a swarming hive. Vials of scent or creams placed inside a swarm catching box. 

These can be setup around the yard and potentially attract some bees. The sweet fragrance that fills the box helps make up for the failings of the potential spot. Bees are picky.

Scout bees fly around the box and check it out. 1 or 2 bees though isn't a good sign at all. When you start seeing more than 40 checking out a box though that's when you know a swarm is on it's way. This is particularly helpful when you have swarms high up in the trees. 

The normal method to get a swarm (yes there's one in this picture) that high up involves taking a frame of brood from the old nest, throwing a rope up to them, and shimmying the frame up to them. The nurse bees take care of the brood and the whole thing snow balls. The hive can then be lowered down and safely caught. Some of us though can't throw that high.

So there's the problem. They do sell a bucket on the end of an expendable poll which is also good for this situation but that's not an option either. Cutting the limb isn't an option either for the swarm this high.

So we assumed the swarm catchers would work. Unfortunately they didn't and once again my hives are supporting the feral bee population (wild hives). They took off for the woods somewhere.

It turns out that swarm catching products such as Lemon Grass Oil slowly lose their potency. All our chemicals were from last year. But boy when these things are fresh do they work great! Last year we couldn't keep the swarms out of the thing! So these products do work but only when they're fresh.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Earlie Prairie Transition

Prairie plants always grow in full sun, but most will tolerate partial shade. Because they're not competing with the tree line filling in above them, they tend to come up later in the year. Pictured above are, Milkweed (foreground) and Goldenrod (back left) Joe Pye Weed (back middle) and a Sedum with blue leaves. Not a whole lot of flowers but there is a variety of nectar souses happening here. Prairie plants are excellent at attracting pollinators and are usually low growing enough that they put the pollinators at eye level.

The Coreopsis I got from the Mt. Cuba Center's Wildflower celebration this year just started blooming. I have this species already planted in the garden and it's a much bigger plant than this. But it hasn't flowered yet. I see other Tickseeds (Coreopsis sp.) blooming along the rail road here with much larger flowers to them.

The local community garden has a few planted to attract pollinators too.

We're still in the transitional period though so there's still a few trees blooming in the woods. Mountain Laurel blooms with odd umbrella shaped flowers. They're very unique looking and angular with fleshy tips or nubs behind each flower petal.

Rhododendron calendulaceum, Flame Azalea, I don't know what or where the word "Azalea" comes from. The genus name is Rhododendron but people call them Azaleas sometimes. Oh well. The Flame Azalea is one of the most underused landscaping jewels ever. This is native to the eastern US. Like all our native Rhododendrons they're deciduous. Supposedly they're pollinated by hummingbirds but this is rarely seen even among bird watchers. Butterflies are more likely the pollinator here but very few of the large ones are about this early. I have seen bees work them but the anthers on this thing are way the hell out from the flower. It's actually not good for bees to work this plant because the nectar is poisonous to humans and that's bad for the honey business. It takes a lot to see the effect from your average jar of honey though. Such an even is rare.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Passion Flowers

Passionflowers are the more complex looking Clematis vine of choice. Unlike Clematis, these can go on to produce Passion Fruit. The trouble is where am Passionflowers are annuals. I tried getting our native Passiflora incarnata, Maypop, established last year but it died. Some plants are self incomparable and have to pollinate with another passionflower, though it can be any variety even a clone of the same plant. Other plants are self compatable. I don't know which needs which, that's why I bought two.

Looks like it's 6 ants past the hour. Passionflowers in all their complexity try to be ant proof by coating the back of their flowers with sticky goo. Clearly it doesn't work for all ants, and twining vines tend to accidentally tough their own flowers essentially building a bridge for the ants to get across.

They go for the nectar and small amounts of extra floral sap laying around.

The culprit here is Tapinoma sessile, the odorous house ant. I have to say I see this ant on more flowers that are supposidly protected against ants more than any other. They're clearly skilled at getting around little hazards in the name of food.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Prairie Time!

Today I saw the first of my prairie plants starting to bloom. That got me thinking I should really use the photos of plants I haven't really highlighted yet.

Tradescantia virginiana, aka Spiderwort (I think the species name is correct) has been blooming since the start of May.

The plant itself is onion like in appearance with clusters of flowers coming up in much the same way. Some plants I've noticed only bloom in the early morning and close up for the afternoon. A meadow with this plant can change color in a matter of hours as all the flowers close up and their showy violets, blues, and purples disappear until tomorrow. Though pretty to look at I understand they can be hard to get rid of.

(Ignoring the ant) Golden Alexander, Zizia aurea is a more showy and flower-full cousin in the Carrot Family. Normally people plant parsley or carrots when turning to this family because they're useful plants. Golden Alexander is strictly an ornamental. Anything in the carrot family though doubles as a host plant for the Black Swallowtail.

I'm sure there are lots of prairie plants that bloomed way earlier in the year. I probably don't have them though. Actually right now there hasn't been much flowering. In the early spring most of the woodland wildflowers bloom and almost nothing that grows in the full sun prairie areas.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Red Admiral and Painted Lady Migration

Image from the Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site. I hope they don't mind me using it but these butterflies are so darn hard to photograph. For those of you not in the know, we are in the middle of the Red Admiral and Painted Lady Butterfly Migration. This is one of the lesser know migrations and with good reason. They all fly so fast that people barely notice them. Heaven help you if you're trying to get a picture of one, because unless you have the right conditions they're not stopping for anything.

The range of host plants includes assorted nettles, mallow, which might refer to hibiscus, and pussytoe (aka cudweed). None of which are very commonly used in the garden except for the hibiscus. Nettle is just a weed and often covered in spines, and just pussytoe is overlooked mostly but makes a nice ground cover. 

Adults feed on a range of nectar, rotting fruit, and patches of sand where they sometimes gather and sunbath. Supposedly all of these butterflies have it in them to over winter in the adult stage. The survival rate though isn't that great so when temperatures warm up the southern populations suddenly have to repopulate most of the northern hemisphere. Lots of websites say these butterflies have flare ups ever 7 to 11 years... but I've herd people say that's kind of a myth. There is some truth to it but it's not set in stone that every so many years comes the big migration. They have good years; they have bad years; and some years they have massive populations. It doesn't really fall in any measurable pattern.

Personally I've been seeing tons of Red Admirals darting through my yard. Dozens of them pass by every hour. The thing is they do it so fast I can't take pictures of them. So this has inspired me to set out a tray of rotting fruit. I think that would be the better way to go because they're a little picky about what types of flowers they go to. Their most popular plant of choice blooming right now is the nonnative Butterfly Bush which mimics the odor of a rotting tray of fruit anyhow. Coneflowers are another one they like but those are nowhere near blooming.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Benefits of Wasps

For the past few weeks I've been noticing an ever increasing number of wasps hovering through the garden. Mostly they're going after small caterpillars that have been nibbling on the Violets. Here it's hard to make out but this wasp is chewing up it's catch into a squishy ball of mush to make it easier to carry.

The general rule about wasp nests is if they're not bothering you, leave them there. Tolerate them for as long as you can, and they'll remove almost all of the pests in your gardens. This is bad for a butterfly garden but great for every other type.

Wasps and Hornets are mostly predatory. Chewed up pest insects they catch are fed right to the larva.

They don't alway make their nests in the right spot though. If you can catch it early on it's simple enough to dislodge a young queen's nest before she gets to far along. Usually she'll hang around it for a few hours before giving up and moving on to another nesting spot. This should be done as quickly as possible.

If they do become a problem though I can say small nests of paper wasps (the ones that don't get big and are only 40 wasps at most,) are easy to take care of. Larger hives such as yellow jackets, and bald faced hornets should be handled with care. Call a pest control agent if you don't feel up to it. Most sprays like Raid are great at firing the poison at such speeds that most of the wasps are completely blown away and taken out by the poison before they're able to fly. Again thought, this is a last resort.