Monday, August 31, 2015

Orange Coneflower Visitors

Summer 2015 has produced some wonderful displays of single species flower patches.  Masses of Indian Hemp, Milkweed, Purple Coneflower and Monarda all developed attractive displays that drew in a multitude of insects and other animal species.  Now the patches of Orange Coneflower are drawing all of the attention.  Visitors to the Orange Coneflower blooms are usually the most impressive of the season.  I spent about 15 minutes observing visitors to a single 20 square foot patch of Orange Coneflower and was not disappointed with the diversity I witnessed.

Some visitors are attracted by the prospect of making a meal of nectar or pollen.  Orange Coneflower does not typically attract large butterflies, but some of the smaller species are known to visit.  The Pearl Crescent was looking particularly crisp and clean.

I saw two Horace’s Duskywings visiting the patch.  One was looking rather battered, but this one was appeared fresh.

I wasn’t sure this was really a living micromoth until it flew off at the prod of a finger.  At a glance the tiny moths often appear to be just a random bit of chaff.

This is a species of Eristalis fly.  Look at the pollen on those legs and body.  This guy is certainly no slouch when it comes to pollination.  Larvae of this species are aquatic, commonly being referred to as rat-tailed maggots.  Frequent heavy rains through the summer have provided plenty of breeding grounds for these flies.

Tiny solitary bees are everywhere this year.  I’ve found them on every species of flower I’ve examined.  They also like to ride along on me and drink sweat while I’m working.

The slightly smaller black bees have also been quite numerous.  They seem to carry pollen on every part of their body.

There were also many that I was unable to identify.

As usual, Soldier Beetles abound.  They move randomly among the flower heads feeding on pollen and flower parts.

There was an interesting encounter between weevils and a small ant.  The ant bit repeatedly at the weevils, but limited its aggression to the weevil’s wing covers.  The weevils continued with their activities, apparently unaware of the ant.

A variety of caterpillars were feeding on the flowers.  I wonder how long a light green looper can sit atop a dark flower disk without attracting the attention of some predator.

One of my favorite caterpillars is the camouflage looper.  With miscellaneous bits of plant material glued to its body, the looper looks more like a plant deformity than a living animal.

This camouflage looper is only lightly adorned, so the actual body of the looper is visible.  This species is frustrating to photograph because even in the best of shots it doesn’t really look like a caterpillar.

Some caterpillars spend their time hidden in the flower head.  Expelled frass is the only evidence that a living creature lurks inside.

Splitting the seed head reveals this little guy feeding among the developing seeds.

Placed on a new seed head, the caterpillar quickly burrows to safety.

This small Tachinid species may be getting a meal from the flower or it could be searching for an insect to act as host for its young.  Large patches of flowers are like a watering hole in the desert.  Animals come to feed on the flowers and predators wait to feed on the flower visitors.

Several small Braconid Wasps were searching the flower heads for possible hosts to receive the wasp’s eggs.  The wasp can reach its ovipositor deep into the seed head to deposit an egg on a hidden caterpillar.

The petals surrounding the flower head are a tasty treat for some insects.

Grasshoppers often feed on the petals.

Leaf Hoppers, such as this Tylozygus species, feed on the plant juices.  Sometimes its hard to tell whether an insect on a plant is actually using that plant as a food source or if that’s just where the insect happened to come to rest.

A flower perch is an ideal location for a young Gray Treefrog to await its next meal.  The treefrogs have taken advantage of the unusual number of breeding sites created by the exceptionally rainy summer.  Little frogs are everywhere.

Abnormalities of the flower structure often indicate the presence of some animal visitor.

A crab spider has joined the tips of two petals together to form a shelter.

Crab spiders are a common feature of the flower heads.  Some display coloration that helps them blend with the dark central disk.

Others blend with the yellow petals.

Many species of spider hang around the flowers.  Some don’t match color at all, but their posture still allows them to appear to be a natural blemish on the plant.
Ambush Bugs sit ready to grab insects with the curved pinchers of their front legs.  A strangely motionless insect sitting on or dangling from a flower is often in the grip of an Ambush Bug.

The predatory Damsel Bug probes for insects within the flower seed head.

This Spiny Assassin Bug nymph assumes the standard position beside the flower head as it awaits the arrival of a meal.

A highly colorful, though unexpectedly cryptic, Sycamore Assassin Bug nymph prowls the flowers in search of prey.

A large Robber Fly uses the flower as a perch from which to watch for flying insects passing by.  The Robber Fly will catch its prey in the air and return to the perch to feed.  With my allotted time expired, I moved on to complete my scheduled work for the afternoon.  Not a bad tally of interesting animals from 15 minutes of observation, and these are just the ones I captured with my camera.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Neat Little Ant Byer

The Allegheny Mound Builder Ants, Formica exsectoides, are famous for the large earth mounds created as a home for their colony.  What typically go unnoticed are the numerous less imposing structures created by the ants to be used as temporary quarters for their foraging activities.  One such construction is seen at the base of this small Tuliptree.

This pile of cedar needles contains tunnels and galleries used by the ants who are gathering food in the Tuliptree.  These strutures are sometimes called byers, an old English term referring to a small log and stick structure built to shelter livestock.  Pile of sticks is an apt description of the shelter built by the ants.

Here’s what attracted the ants.  That lump beneath the lower branch is a Tuliptree Scale.  Click HERE to read an earlier post about the scale insects.  As a byproduct of their meal of tree sap, the scales produce a sugary liquid known as honeydew.  The ants cannot resist the sweet treat.

The ant in the upper right is about to collect a freshly secreted drop of honeydew.  As long as honeydew is being produced, the ants will stick close to the scale insects.

Other ants work to maintain the byre.  This one is hauling a cedar needle up to the top of the pile.  Once the ants abandon their temporary shelter, the cedar needles will quickly settle down to a shallowly raised ring around the base of the tree. 

This type of ant byer is quite common at Blue Jay Barrens.  The unusual thing about this particular structure is the fact that it is in the open where it can be easily viewed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a nice byer uncluttered by adjacent vegetation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New Location for a Rare Plant

I was heading out to do some work on the property line fence yesterday, when I stumbled across a pair of Crested Coral-root Orchids, Hexalectris spicata, in full bloom.  The stumbling part was nearly a reality.  I was coming down a steep slope with a heavy cedar fence post balanced on my shoulder when I was forced to perform some fancy footwork to avoid stepping on this delicate plant.  The fence job had to wait for a while as I took time out to admire this lovely flower.

The exciting thing about the find was the fact that I had never before found this species growing in this location.  Finding new locations for rare plants is almost as exciting as finding a new species of rare plant.  The flower stalks are located near the lower half of a west facing slope on a steep limestone knob.  Click HERE for information about the Crested Coral-root and information on what I thought was the only location for the species at Blue Jay Barrens.

As on the other site, these flower stalks are emerging in the root zone of a Chinquapin Oak.  However, this oak is probably not over 40 years old, much younger than the trees at the other site.  This could mean that the plant is a fairly recent arrival to this spot.

Both stalks are quite tall and straight.  Deer love these plants and will eat the flower stalk right down to the ground.  I hope these last long enough to produce seeds.

Flower buds are still developing, meaning that the flowers will be around for another week or two.  Fortunately, I have several more days work to accomplish in that general area, so I should be able to enjoy these blooms as long as they last.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Potato Dandelion Harvest and Redistribution

My container grown Potato Dandelions, Krigia dandelion, yielded a record crop of tubers this year.  The half pound of tubers contained in this cereal bowl all came from a pot with an eight inch inside diameter.  My calculations estimated six tubers produced for every square inch of soil surface.

Total harvest for the year was 1.2 pounds of tubers.  I calculated that the average tuber weight was 0.78 grams.  That means there were about 700 tubers produced this year.

Tuber size ranged from about one inch down to one tenth of an inch.  The larger tubers will sprout multiple shoots next spring, while the smaller will yield only one shoot each.

Into the eight inch pot, I planted five large tubers and four small.  This equals what I put into the pot last August, and that multiplied into nearly 300 in the course of a single growing season.  I hope these do as well.

I’ve dedicated a couple more containers to Potato Dandelion production.  This pot has a 23 inch inside diameter, giving it eight times the growing room of the smaller pot.  That means it has the potential of producing nearly four pounds of tubers.  I would find that truly remarkable.

As I did last year, I planted the extra tubers into suitable locations in the woods.   Since I had more tubers to work with than I had anticipated, I planted about half of the tubers in areas away from the planned ridge top.  I moved down the hill and began planting at the edge of the tree line just above the barrens openings.  I made scattered plantings from there on up to the ridge top.

I chose planting sites that had friable soil, had little competing plant growth, were away from major animal pathways, and had a high probability of receiving plenty of early spring sunlight.

Once a site was selected, I cleared away the surface litter in a 10-12 inch long swath across the slope.

I then used the pointed end of an old two prong weeding hoe to dig twin grooves about 2 inches deep.  Into the grooves I planted 16 to 20 tubers.  For those who might misconstrue the condition of the tool as a sign of neglect on my part, be advised that I found the hoe half buried in the yard about a year after we moved here.  A thick layer of concrete on the head and lower portion of the handle suggested that the tool had been used for mixing concrete prior to its disposal.  The tool is in much better shape now than it was the day I found it.

Next, I returned the removed soil and firmed it into place.

Finally, I replaced the original surface litter.  You can’t even tell that anything had been done here.

In the vicinity of the plants that performed so well after last year’s tuber planting, I planted three small blocks of tubers.  These blocks were located near easily identifiable features that will make it easy for me to monitor their progress.  Hopefully, next spring will begin with Potato Dandelion flowers scattered through the woods.