Sunday, July 2, 2017

This Week in Anting: Black Lighting


Had the black light on almost every night this week and saw lots of Acorn Ant activity. 
 
Hundreds of males to at least three species showed up at the black light between the hours of 9:00pm and 10:30pm. They probably fly all night but I don't need to stay out that late.

I've come to learn that identifying queens in this genus should never be done at a glance because there are some oddities I've never seen before.

So in the video this is what I was calling Temnothorax longispinosus. The problem is online images of queens of the species show them as totally black! None of this yellow spots on the gaster or bands of color. The legs are correct though. At a glance without any magnification this ant looked totally black to m.

 Now compare that to this queen. This is most likely Temnothorax ambiguus, and there were a lot of these running around in the video. They were very much different than the larger black species in the photo above. The trouble is though now that I have them in test tube setups these two look identical to one another! So I either have two species with very similar looking queens or some of the colonies to one species were just dehydrated (perhaps nesting somewhere with a small entrance hole requiring queens to slim down to leave the nest?)...

This is a Temnothorax curvispinosus queen. It is basically what all of my queens now look like besides a slight detail.

 The name "curvispinosus" refers to their curved spines. Those little thorns you see on rear part of the thorax on Temnothorax ants. 


  The name T. ambiguus refers to how difficult they are to tell apart from T. curvispinosus. The one main difference is that their spines are not curved at all.

Monday, June 26, 2017

This Week in Anting 06/24/2017


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Spring/Summer Azure Caterpillars on New Jersey Tea

My New Jersey Tea plant, Ceanothus americanus, is full of Spring/Summer Azure caterpillars. Their strategy to not get eaten is to produce honeydew to entice ants into protecting them. In this case the ants are Camponotus subbarbatus (a.k.a. "The Slightly Bearded Carpenter Ant" a common name referring to the slightly hard to see small hairs on their cheeks that lots of other ants also have... and not the more obvious yellow bands very easily seen on queens and larger workers that's almost never seen on other ant species in their range.)

The caterpillars gain the pigment and to some extent the texture of whatever they happen to be eating. In this case it's the flowers. Doing this helps them blend in with the plant, however the gangs of ants constantly hanging around them gives them away.

The butterflies are common where they occur and fairly wide spread across the north east, but the need for ants along with host plants can make some members of this genus uncommon.

The Karner Blue Butterfly is likely endangered because not only do they require wild lupins as a host plant. They also need ants to protect them and bring them back into the nest. Once inside they turn carnivorous and begin consuming the ant's brood for food, all the while still producing sweet honeydew for the ants to feed on. This isn't that bad though as ants often consume their own eggs or feed larva to one another, and the caterpillar itself isn't much bigger than two or three adult ants.

Spring and Summer Azures aren't as finicky. They can be found on a wider array of plants and don't need to be brought into an ant nest at all. (During the winter, they may survive better underground inside of an ant's nest where they form a chrysalis but I'm not sure they do this.) 

Host plants include the New Jersey Tea, as seen above, some Dogwoods, Collinsia sp, and Spiraea salicifolia. I've also found them consuming the flowers to Sourwood trees. They always start on the flowers to these plants which tend to be soft and tender (and likely lack any defensive chemicals the plant might be producing in its leaves) before moving onto consuming the leaves themselves if they need to. They take on the color of the flowers they consume so they're usually pink on Spiraea salicifolia, and can be sort of purple on Collinsia sp. and then turn green when they start eating the leaves.



Flowers are a good place to start because there's often ants stealing nectar from them already. Oddly enough once the ants find the caterpillar and taste the honeydew they produce, they will stop stealing nectar from the flowers and focus entirely on tending them. The caterpillars will also produce noises like a queen ant would make. 

Another benefit of having ants around is they protect against parasitic wasps that try to jam eggs in them. Ones that get parasitized will hatch out as wasps instead of butterflies after the chrysalis phase.

The New Jersey Tea shrubs I own are now finished flowering and most of their blooms are falling fast. The caterpillars are now moving on to consuming the leaves. 

I'll be rearing a few indoors to ensure they survive. I'm curious to see if any wasps emerge.

Their chrysalis's are extremely tiny and can be made on something as small as a blade of grass. Rearing them myself will help ensure I don't run them over with the mower.

Monday, June 19, 2017

This Week in Anting: Exploring the Mt. Cuba Center


This week I got to explore the ants at the Mt. Cuba Center, a former DuPont estate located in Delaware. Today it's a ~600 acre native plant preserve of which about 45 have been turned walkable gardens.
PLEASE NOTE: this is not a place you would ever bring a shovel to dig for ants. It is an actual garden, you need to stay on the paths, there's no flipping logs or rocks or ripping the bark off of trees as is typically done when looking for ants, and of course this survey was done with permission. 

Samples collected are going to be shipped off to AntWeb.org, run out of the California Academy of Science, and School of Ants, a citizen science project based in Florida.

Most Common Species Found: Formica subsericea, Aphaenogaster rudis, Lasius alienus, Temnothorax curvipinosus, Solenopsis molesta, Camponotus chromaiodes, Camponotus pennsylvanicus, Camponotus americanus, Nylanderia flavipes, Tetramorium caespiteum

Unidentified species: Monomorium sp., Formica cf. pallidefulva, Nylanderia sp., Lasius cf. neoniger, (Might have collected Tapinoma sessile and a Myrmica sp. but unsure as of now.)

Ants Seen From Past Trips but not Collected: Prenolepis imparis, Dorymyrmex sp.

Observations: (1) With hundreds of colonies of Formica subsericea in their meadow one slave making species or Polyergus colony could seriously change the power dynamic of their meadow garden. The invasive Tetramorium caespitum had surprisingly uncommon.

(2) Digging into the soil and flipping logs especially in the wild woodland areas would likely yield additional species such as Lasius clavigar, Lasius interjectus, and Lasius umbratus. All three are subterranean aphid farmers that rarely come to the surface for food. Further diligence would likely produce species of Strumigenys and Proceratium as well.

(3) It's odd no Crematogaster species were found. Likewise none of the smaller Camponotus species were observed. Tapinoma sessile should have been more common too given the amount of leaf litter and dead wood used in the gardens, I'm not even certain it was collected or that I even saw it there. All three are notorious nectar thieves of flowers so it's strange to have not seen any of these.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

This Week in Anting (Myrmecochory)


This week Woodland Poppies and Bloodroot went to seed. Both plants have elaiosome on their seeds which entice ants into dispersing them.

Twinleaf also went to seed but none of my plants flowered at the same time as one another. Presumably the lack of crosspollination means the packets of elaiosome on the seeds are smaller, and they're already pretty tiny on these plants as it is. Pictured above is Crematogaster cerasi which isn't strong enough to physically lift the seeds. Even the seeds that fell out of the pod naturally from the wind blowing it around were practically unmoved.

So the focus was on the Bloodroot and the Woodland Poppy. Both have great big packets of elaiosome on their seeds. I would love to include Twinleaf one year but they're tricky; seedpods can seem ripe but the seeds inside might still be soft.

Bloodroot seeds are about the same size as Twinleaf, and the packets of elaiosome are huge by comparison.


Woodland Poppy seeds are smaller but also have tons of elaiosome on them, though they look different. Actually the seeds to this pod are just shy from being ripe as they're normally black colored, but these should be dark enough that they'll still grow.

The two main ant species attracted are the Odorous House Ant, Tapinoma sessile, and....

... Aphaenogaster rudis. This ant for the most part doesn't have a common name. In "A Field Guide to the Ants of New England" they're referred to as "The Rough Aphaenogaster" which refers to a rough spot on the thorax that set it apart from other Aphaenogaster. The problem here though is the genus name is in the common name so why bother? Also A. rudis has been found to be a HUGE species complex! I forget the exact number but I recall a study saying there was something like 8 or 16 nearly identical-looking species that all fall under the A. rudis blanket. Each one has a different number of chromosome in their DNA so you actually have to look at their blood to tell them apart. I don't have access to that kind of tech so for convenient sake they're all A. rudis, and to be honest they're all pretty similar to one another. I've found a few colonies before that have multiple queens and others that only have just one, some colonies seem to divide, but all pretty much nest in forests with colonies of ~2,000 ants.

Tapinoma sessile are either incapable or unwilling to transport Bloodroot seeds.

The seeds overall are too large and bulky for them to lift so they spent the whole time just nibbling at the elaiosome.

They started to bite pieces off and carrying them back to the nest bit by bit. At no point did they actually move the seeds other than to accidentally jostle one or two of them free of the pod.

Aphaenogaster rudis on the other hand was more than happy to haul the seeds off.

They would latch hold of the elaiosome and drag them back to the nest that way.

With Woodland Poppy, I was amazed to see Tapinoma sessile workers actually carrying them back to the nest. Most of their time was spent on removing the elaiosome from the seeds within the pod but several of the workers actually did disperse them... the colony is nesting in a soliar light but they're still dispersing them.
 
This is a native ant species so it's not too surprising to see them dispersing a native plant species but there is still a problem. The Odorous House Ant is often the little black ant seen running around your bathroom and kitchen counter. They nest opportunistically in mulch, under tree bark, and in man made structures. So they're not the best ant to be dispersing seeds because they can end up in the walls of your home, in foundation bricks, or under loose bark, but also in the mulch of your garden, and in flower pots. So it's the flip of the coin as to whether they end up in a spot they can grow. 

Aphaenogaster rudis is better at the task. 

 They're generalist scavengers more in the habit of bringing food items back to the nest.

 They nest under logs, in leaf litter, or along clumps of grass.

At no point during my observations did I witness any try to remove the elaiosome from the seeds outside of the nest. Actually shortly after bringing them into the nest the seeds were quickly discarded out to the colony's midden (trash) pile which was hidden among leaf litter.

Midden piles are where ants put their garbage. Old insect carcasses, dead workers, spent cocoons, general roughage and things to be discarded all get piled up here. In deserts of the South West they're very noticeable around ant nests but here in the forests of the North Eastern United States they're often hidden under leaf litter.

Overall were it not for the ants dispersing these seeds they wouldn't have gotten very far. New plants would try to germinate just inches away from the old ones and the patch would move at a snails pace and only on the rarest of occasions would they travel up hill. Thanks to the ants carrying the seeds off, even if they're dropped or discarded shortly after, new populations of these plants can spring up to 24' away, potentially more if colonies fight over them or raid the midden piles of other colonies they often do for dead ants.    

Other ants that also showed:
Prenolepis imparis - single worker that did not recruit other nest mates.
Nylanderia flavipes - even smaller than Tapinoma sessile in size. Barely able to remove elaiosome. did not disperse seeds.
Temnothorax curvispinosus - even smaller than Nylanderia flavipes. Incapable of recruiting nest mates as they don't use chemical trails.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Some Flower in the Garden

Rhododendron austrinum 'Millie Mac' is finally flowering. I've had this shrub in my garden for a few years now and it finally decided to send out some blooms. R. austrinum is a southern species but that shouldn't have been a problem because the nursery I bought it from is north of me and they have fields of it! A lot went into preventing this shrub from flowering sooner. It probably needs more sun but also wasn't that good of a plant to begin with.

I bought it on a garden tour form a wholesale nursery. Basically we were given a tour of a farm and allowed to pick out plants as we went along. I had my heart set on this particular cultivar and picked out the very best one there. However, a women who was also on the tour didn't know what to buy so I talked her into trying this one a try. Well, she picked the very worst one imaginable! There were dead branches in the thing, it was an irregular shape, and frankly I think it should have been thrown in the compost. Well the tour ended with us all eating lunch at a different facility and she left before I did... and took my plant... probably on accident. To be fair, I have no way of know if the plant I picked out would have fared better. It probably is a lighting issue because it's 5' tall now and only now decided to flower.

A single Trillium cf. erectum. I'm told this is actually what the flowers look like on young plants of this species... I'm not at all confident but the only other option is Trillium sulcatum. The problem is T. erectum should have much longer petals so it looks more like T. sulcatum, but T. sulcatum is supposed to be a much taller plant with more robust leaves.... you see my problem. In the past I had thought this was T. vaseyi but apparently they always have the flower hanging down under the leaves, so I can at least rule that one out.

This was the main clump of Trillium grandiflorum last week.

And here are some other Trillium grandiflorum plants a few days ago. They have pretty much faded now. Though the pink is pretty, it doesn't hold up to rain fall. The petals turn almost transparent and melt away.

Still though, they are quite pretty.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mt. Cuba Center 2017 Wildflower Celebration

I was once again delighted to visit the Mt. Cuba Center for their annual Wildflower Celebration. This is an event I look forward to every year. Their gardens are probably 50 years old and their woodland plant collection is top notch. However I've learned that this doesn't always guarantee for a good show.

Plants are triggered to flower from a lot of different things. Some are slowed down dramatically by the cold or rain, while others don't care at all. Lots of little factors can throw off the blooming of certain species. So this can all vary form year to year.

Often by the time the Mt. Cuba Center has their Wildflower Celebration plants like Hepatica, Twinleaf, Trout Lily (both white and yellow), Snow Trillium, and Trillium pusillum have all finished flowering. This year, though, these were all flowering, but most of the non Trillium ephemerals hadn't opened as much. Often the forest floor to their woodland gardens are covered by a mixture of Virginia Bluebells, Fernleaf Phacelia, and Woodland Poppy, which all spread almost thuggish in the gardens there.   

A few years back all the stars aligned and pretty much every spring ephemeral was in full flower. The Snow Trilliums, Twinleaf, and both Trout Lilies were all bloom in good number along with vast carpets of Phacelia, Bluebells, and Poppies to the point that the forest floor could not be seen. Creeping Phlox, Foam Flower, Bluets, Ragwort, multiple species of Spring Beauty, a variety of trees including Redbud, Witch Hazel, and Dogwoods were all in full bloom as well. And this wasn't just a few patches here and there as it often is; it was everywhere! This was also the year I saw Wild Camassia there, a native bulb no one seems to recall planting and have either died out or been removed from the gardens since. I have an awful picture of them somewhere so I know I'm not crazy but none of the gardeners there seem to recall the species ever having been planted. (It was likely removed because Camassia is more of a midwestern plant).  

This year's display wasn't as grand as that golden year. It's important to remember this isn't a flower show where plants are grown and timed in green houses and planted at the moment of perfection. These are plants left to grow in the ground all year so their flowering is largely effected by the weather. I would never say it was a disappointment to go. There are always tons of wildflowers in bloom just not in abundance throughout the gardens. And as always it's worth going for the Trilliums alone. 

So here are a few highlights that I enjoyed seeing.
Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis. Also available in white.

And Red! I've always found it odd how plants with colors in the name often aren't that color. I don't know what cultivar this is but it's certainly a centerpiece. Beside it is a Dogwood, Cornus florida. It's  a good combination but I feel like the red version Cornus rubra, or Native Wisteria Vine (not grown on the tree!) would make for a better pop of color.

Cornus florida have deceptive flowers. All the flowers in this photo actually aren't open yet. Those greed buds in the center here are actually the flower which will have tube-shaped petals. Surrounding them are white colored bracts, which are modified leaves designed to draw attention to the flowers instead of photosynthesize. 

Rhododendron vaseyi. Normally I don't go for Rhododendrons but this one was a cute color. They're very sparse with flowers compared to other species though. Normally I gush over Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, and their bright orange flowers but I don't think any were flowering there yet.

Fernleaf Phacelia, Phacelia bipinnatifida. The Mt. Cuba Center is where I first learned about this plant and I've wanted it ever since. Who knew an aggressive spreading, biannual, that's swarming with pollinators, and turns forest floors into cloudy carpets of purple would be such a tough sell to the nursery industry. No one sells this species except for one awful nursery online that only sells it in bare root form, and the occasional native plant sale. I have to drive all the way to Delaware to a place just down the street from the Mt. Cuba Center to buy this plant and hope and pray that it reseeds itself in my yard. Please someone, just sell the seeds to this plant online.

This was an awful year for Bluets too!

I won't pretend to know anything about growing these or how they manage the moss patch at the Mt. Cuba Center. But in years past the whole moss patch was glowing thick with Houstonia caerulea. This year it was mostly just this one sliver of the patch in flower.

 I've tried to grow these too and they're tough to establish. The roots are extremely tiny and prone to drying out or rotting away or getting eaten. Everyone who sells them gives me conflicting reports. Dry shade, full sun, damp moss but only on a hill with well drained soil? It's confusing.

I'm reasonably sure the Mt. Cuba Center occasionally harvests the plants from the patch to use elsewhere in the garden. I've started seeing them growing in patches along the pond and in other moss rich parts of the garden. 

Yellow Lady Slipper, Cypripedium pubescens. One of our rare native orchids. Well, more uncommon. They tend to only grow where trees have fallen in the woods and certain types of beneficial fungi have taken root first.

Wild Geranium, Geranium maculatum

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica. Both the typical blue form that is so common and a very rare red form. Normally these start to open up red and quickly change to blue when they fully open. The flowers stay that way a few days before falling off. With the red form though the flowers never turn blue.

The Mt. Cuba Center also has a white form which has spread a bit since I first saw it there. The red form is still just that single stalk but the white here were pushing out a dozen or more.

Both fall in comparison to the blue which I've seen dominated the forest floor in years past.

Turkey Corn, Dicentra eximia.

Iris spp.

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum. While I don't always see this plant blooming at the Mt. Cuba Center every year, when I do see them I normally see it flowering in large patches. This year though this one plant was the only one I noticed... odd. 

Trout Lilies are notorious for not flowering though. They spend too much time spreading by horizontal roots to form new bulbs. Each bulb then works on sending roots deeper in the ground but they only flower after reaching a certain depth, which can take forever. The result is a huge patch of leaves but no flowers every year. I'm told though that planting them in pots or adding stones a few inches under the bulbs will help stress the plant into putting its energy into flowering. I have yet to try this trick out. 

Swamp Pink, Helonias bullata. This is an endangered species I'm happy to see they still have there. On some years they have a dozen or so plants all blooming around the ponds but this year I only noticed this one. 

Some nurseries have found out how to germinate this species in captivity and are making it commercially available. I've tried to grow it in my gardens though but found it too finicky to survive here. I suspect it's not drought tolerant at all and requires constant moisture year round which I wasn't able to give them. 

Trillium grandiflorum.

After flowering for just shy of a week the flowers turn pink and eventually go full magenta before they finish flowering. 

When grown in mass they put on quite a show. All the white flowers look great growing together and then a week later you're treated to all the varying shades pink, red, magenta and so on.

The Mt. Cuba Center has a whole garden featuring hybrids and unusual cultivars. Here is a red form of T. grandiflorum. Instead of opening white they open up red and stay that way the whole time they're flowering.

Same plants but in slightly different light.

Trillium erectum is normally red as seen in the background here. This clump though was mostly a white form of the plant.

Trillium simile has always been a favorite of mine. The dark center sets it apart from the similar looking Trillium flexipies. I've been meaning to commission this flower into a piece of jewelry; a button or pendant perhaps?

Here they are growing in mass. Sadly unlike T. grandiflorum I think the petals just fall off instead of change color. 

Trillium pusillum. Normally this one is finished flowering by the time the Wildflower Celebration is held each year. Even this one is past its prime. They do open white but turn pink before the petals fall off.

Despite having all the fun qualities of T. grandiflorum this plant doesn't create such a sweeping effect. They're much smaller plants and the flowers are no where near as large.

Oddly enough after the petals fall off the three leaves just underneath give the effect that they have green petals.

Twisted Trillium, Trillium stamineum.

This is a fun one that's really easy to identify because the petals twist around.

I've been wanting to grow this in my garden for a number of years but no one seems to sell it online.

The Mt. Cuba Center makes growing this plant look easy because they seem to have a lot of it. Just down the road there's a farm that holds a native plant sale every year and I've seen plants provided by the Mt. Cuba Center sold there before. There was a sign for this species there but sadly they were sold out by the time I noticed it.

Trillium lancifolium. I've seen commercially available before but not often. It gets its name from the petals being so erect up into the air like a series of lances aimed up high.

Trillium oostingii. An odd species I only ever see there.

They had tons more Trilliums and variations there of growing in their gardens but I wasn't able to photograph it all as I've done on years past.