Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cicada Killer Wasp

I recently had an entertaining encounter with a Cicada Killer, Sphecius speciosus, our largest native wasp.  The females of this species construct burrows in the soil into which they place a cicada to act as a food source for their developing larvae.  I typically begin to see signs of burrowing activity around the first of August.

This individual provided me with some fine photo opportunities.  Using both corn leaves and the ground as perches, a watchful male spent the morning in the garden on the lookout for female Cicada Killers.  Several chases ensued, with one resulting in a pair of wasps in a love embrace spiraling into the sky.

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The video shows the wasp constantly scanning its surroundings.  Body twitches and wing fluttering show its readiness to instantly take off after any passing female.

The Cicada Killer presents a fearsome image, but it is actually not at all aggressive.  Males are incapable of stinging, so this guy is completely harmless.  Females, which are capable of stinging, save that sting for their preferred prey.  A person would have to work hard to make one of these wasps sting, and that sting would be classified as justifiable self defense.

Female Cicada Killers build their burrows in areas of exposed soil.  Around here, they seem to prefer my shallow soiled, south facing front lawn, which typically shows bare ground in August as the lawn grasses enter summer dormancy. 

This is my favorite wasp species.  Many people have asked me how to get rid of these wasps.  I usually respond that the wasps are not a problem, so people should enjoy them.  When people say the wasp burrows are ruining their lawns, I reply that it must have been a poor lawn to begin with, otherwise the wasps would never have been attracted there.  When they accuse the wasps of attacking, I point out that a close fly-by does not constitute an attack.  I’ve never had to respond to any comments beyond that, because by that point, people have given up hope of getting any really practical advice from me.

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In this video, the wasp has just had a close encounter with a passing Cicada Killer.  His body movements seem to display a heightened level of excitement.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nodding Wild Onion Project

After eight years of trying, it appears that I’m finally learning how to raise captive Nodding Wild Onions, Allium cernuum.  It’s a good thing too, because the last of the wild plants disappeared from Blue Jay Barrens three years ago.  The onions in this pot represent the offspring of six plants taken from the wild and relocated into my prairie garden.  That left only a dozen plants growing in their original location, a site that was too shady for the plants to produce flowers.  You can read about the original relocation by clicking HERE.

The plants in this pot appear to be doing their best to break through the chicken wire barrier and reclaim their positions as wild plants.  There are more onion flowers this year than I’ve had in total over the last seven years.

This spring, I took a few young plants from the pot and relocated them to one of the native plant beds in my vegetable garden.  All of those plants have grown wonderfully.  They are currently sharing the bed with Spider Milkweed, Leavenworthia uniflora, and Draba cuneifolia.  I think the species in that mix should work well together.

Nodding Wild Onions produce lovely blooms that attract a wide variety of insects.  Here we have a beetle, a fly and a bunch of ants.

The most common pollinators this year are small green Sweat Bees.

Butterflies are not frequent visitors of the onion flowers, but there are sometimes exceptions.  This Olive Hairstreak spent close to five minutes exploring the onion flowers.  The Olive Hairstreak spring brood was quite successful this year.  The second brood is now coming on more strongly than I have seen in many years.

Early onion flowers are already producing seed pods.  I should have ample seed to increase my captive population of plants, as well as scatter some seed out into suitable wild sites.  It’s taken longer than I had originally thought, but I’m now becoming optimistic that this project could be successful.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Skunk Family

I’ve had a family of Striped Skunks foraging in the yard the past few nights. They usually disappear each morning before it gets light enough to take decent photographs, but thick clouds ahead of an approaching storm front caused them to hang around the yard a little bit later than usual yesterday morning. Young skunks tend to bunch up, sometimes making it difficult to determine how many animals you are dealing with.  This looks very much like a pair of adult skunks.

In this case it’s actually one mother skunk, the one to the left with fur exhibiting a yellow stain, and three youngsters.

Mother stopped for a bit of grooming and the kids crowded in close beside her.

Within seconds they pretty much had her pinned to the ground. They appeared to just want to stay close to Mom. I didn’t see any trying to nurse. Their size suggests that they should be weaned or nearly so.

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Here’s a short video of skunk mother and child interaction.

They’re at that age where they are beginning to make short explorations on their own.

An unchaperoned excursion away from Mother is short-lived.

They quickly return to the security of the adult. The proportion of black fur to white fur is highly variable on striped skunks. Many of the Blue Jay Barrens specimens exhibit extensive white coloration on the backs and tails.

Finally, the family moved on. The thump and clatter I heard shortly after they left the yard told me that they were taking refuge in an old hay baler sitting below the barn. The family will disband soon and the youngsters will head out to find their own territories, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing them from time to time.

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In this video, the skunk family heads down the trail in such a close formation they appear to be a single animal.  That is until one pops out of line.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Milkweed Catches Moth

In my last post I explained that milkweed pollination depended on an insect, or other flower visiting animal, snagging a pollen cluster, called a pollinium, from one flower and moving it to another flower.  Insects catch their legs on the thickened terminus of two pollinia bearing tethers and pull the pollen body from a slit in the flower.  The process is often a failure for both the flower and the pollinator.

This is a beautiful Reversed Haploa Moth.  I rarely get the opportunity to take my time photographing winged subjects before they disappear, but his moth wasn’t about to leave its perch.

I was originally attracted to the location by a frantically gyrating moth.  This often indicates that a pradator has grabbed hold and is trying to subdue its prey. 

Following a bout of fluttering, the moth would hang motionless from the flower.  A close examination of the situation showed no predator in evidence.  It appeared that one of the moth’s legs was caught by the milkweed flower.

This was exactly the case.  In the process of pulling free a pair of pollinia, the moth’s foot either caught on the pollinia tether or was directly caught in the flower slit.  The moth did not have the strength necessary to pull itself free.  This is a fairly common scenario that usually ends with the insect dying on the flower, or more typically, falling easy prey to some predator.

After capturing a few of the interesting poses presented by the moth, I pulled its leg loose from the trap and set it free. 

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A short video for those who may never have witnessed the frantic gyrations of a trapped moth.  That foot must be really struck to hold fast against all of that exertion.