Nature Blog Network

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

To Bee or Not to Bee

Bee on golden currant
Nature provided us a natural controlled experiment in our Springfield backyard. Several years ago, Barb planted a small native golden currant in it.  The shrub is growing beside an established forsythia, a common non-native ornamental.

Golden currant on left next to forsythia

Last week we noticed bees buzzing around the deck.  They were all over the golden currant, slurping up its nectar while totally ignoring the larger blossoms of the forsythia.  Just like us, bees and other pollinators have their food preferences and they have never developed a taste for many of our exotic plantings.

Golden currant
Golden currant's, Ribes odoratum, blossoms may be slightly smaller than forsythia, but they make up for it with colorful red petals encircled by yellow sepals.  It is also known as clove currant for its strong sweet clove-like odor which is detectable several feet away, hence the species name odoratum.  It is typically found in southern Missouri on exposed high rocky limestone bluffs above the Current and White Rivers.  The fruits which are full of seeds were eaten by settlers and and natives.

Golden Currant
Golden currant is available from the MDC's George O. White Nursery in Licking.  Because of its decorative value, it has been cultivated and now has escaped in some states to the east. 

"One man's ceiling is another man's floor." - Paul Simon

At first glance this would seem to be a desirable spreading species, colorful, fragrant and supporting pollinators.  So why is it banned to some degree in 14 Eastern states?  When growing in these regions as an exotic species, it is an alternate host of white pine blister rust fungus, a disease which doesn't affect our native short-leaf pine trees in Missouri.

Like the cedar apple rust gall we see in Missouri, white pine blister rust fungus Cronartium ribicola, has a complex life cycle requiring two separate types of host plants.  It is an invasive from either Europe or Asia, visiting the US around 1900 and liking the naive species of pines it found here.  Before attacking pines, it requires currants and gooseberries to support its earlier stage.  The significant damage it does to susceptible pine species has led to the golden currant bans.

So is golden currant a good or bad choice for decorative planting?  As usual, when faced with good-bad decisions, the answer is "it depends."  For Missouri where it is native and beneficial it is a great plant.  The key is in the phrase you are seeing all over Missouri, "Grow Native."

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Price of Deer Farms

Goliath on the farm - note ear tag
There has been a lot of press lately on the dangers of farm raised deer.  The News-Leader's USA Today had a full page story discussing the problem.  This is a billion-dollar industry with fenced-in hunting of deer bred for large deformed antlers that would make Boone and Crockett if found in nature.  You could look at this as either a fantastic trophy or a bizarre hunt in a zoo full of deformed deer.

Aside from ethical concerns, just what is the problem?  These deer are frequently shipped across state lines to promote the gigantic racks by cross-breeding.  In doing so the captive breeding facilities can spread tuberculosis to cattle, deer lice, and now possibly chronic wasting disease (CWD).  Of interest, the rise in CWD directly coincides with the growth of this industry and the shipping across state lines.

Is this really a problem?  Those in the captive breeding industry say no, citing their control measures and the impossibility of tracking CWD with certainty.  On the other hand, deer do escape the compounds, mixing in with the native populations and as the industry says, tracking CWD is impossible.

The current issue is whether we should allow the interstate shipment of these farm raised deer.  Ironically, while much of the science is pushing for restricting the practice, there are bills before the Missouri Senate and House of Representatives to transfer the control of captive cervids (deer and elk) from the Missouri Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture, even though the griculture department has testified against such a move.

The story of Goliath above is a must read, found at this link.  I would say from the frequent handling he has had by humans and the dull look in his eye that you could successfully hunt him with a pocket knife.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grapevine Moth

Dorsal view - note feathery moth antennae- Click to enlarge
As we were working up a little sweat planting seedling trees on a 55 degree day, there were some small black flying critters flitting around recklessly.  One landed on John Mihalevich, probably fueling up on salt, and stayed a second too long.  It ended up chilling out temporarily in our refrigerator in a baggie on top of the butter dish.

Ventral - view of underside
Its feathery antennae indicated it was a moth.  The forewing was jet black with a fuzz like velvet.  There was a distinctive white patch on the forewing but when it spread its wings a bright red-orange hindwing patch was exposed.  Once bagged so I could see the underside, the hindwing patch was easily seen.

The body was thick and fuzzy when seen in side view.  I didn't notice another detail until I enlarged the side view photograph.  When viewed with the right angle of light, the edges of the forewing had an almost metalic shine.

Side View
This little moth with a wingspan around one inch is a grapevine epimensis,  Psychomorpha epimenisIt is a day-flying moth which at first glance I could have mistaken for a butterfly except there are no small black butterflies in Missouri.  It had only been listed in BAMONA in Greene County (by Kevin Firth) and Columbia.  With abundant grapevine host plants it isn't rare but since it doesn't come to lights it probably isn't captured often.

This moth nectars on plum, redbud and cherry, which reminds us of the importance of early blooming flowers to these small creatures.  They fly only from late March to mid May in Missouri, mating, laying their eggs on grapevines and then die.  Their larvae will hatch, grow and then pupate and over-winter in wood or dense moss.

The caterpillar is a beauty, captured by fellow Master Naturalist David Dawson of the Meramec Hills Chapter.  It forms a shelter by rolling up the lower edge of a grape leaf and tying it up with silk.  Many other species do this and finding rolled or folded up leaves to inspect is a good game for young and old.

The scientific description is much more detailed than mine, but mentions that no other species resembles it.  You will have to forgive my photography as the pictures were taken through the baggie so I could report its presence in Christian County to BAMONA.  Once it was out of the bag for a more formal portrait, it warmed up quickly like most small moths and butterflies and flew away before I could get another picture.

Bob Moul
Bob Moul
More of the late Bob Moul's beautiful photographs are at this Pbase site.
There is a detailed description of P. epimenis at this link.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Butterfly Season

As the temperatures gradually rise we are seeing the awakening of butterflies.  We have been seeing the goatweed leafwings and mourning cloaks occasionally throughout the winter and now they are everywhere.  The adults survive the winter by hiding under lose bark, emerging occasionally to collect tree sap.  Lately we are seeing a few tiger and zebra swallowtails that have emerged from their cozy winter chrysalis.

Zebra Swallowtail - Chris Barnhart
The zebra swallowtails, Protographium_marcellus, are flying low and rapidly, never appearing to land.  I don't know where they get all their energy this time of year as they are nectar feeders.  The flowers in bloom are tiny wildflowers and tree blossoms such as serviceberry that lack the landing space for the butterfly's feet.  In spite of this there are many flirting pairs and at least one has been successful.

Early pawpaw flowers
As we passed a pawpaw grove, I noticed the first signs of flower buds starting to open.  This is always a dicey time for the future fruit as a sudden frost will turn them all black and there will be few pawpaw to collect in the late summer.  I have noticed that the flower buds appear over a period of several weeks and some late ones may emerge after a freeze.

Checking a number of trees I found a few leaf buds opening and then felt the sudden thrill of discovery.  There, on a tiny unfolding leaf, sat a glistening pale green egg of a zebra swallowtail.
A female zebra swallowtail very carefully lays an individual egg on the underside of a leaf.  It seems to know that its offspring don't play well together so it lays only one egg per leaf.  When the zebra caterpillar emerges, it eats the egg case for energy, and then may eat neighboring eggs if they are available.  Since the only likely species on a pawpaw are zebras, it doesn't pay to invest the energy in eggs that will not survive.  It is interesting to contemplate how this trait evolved.

Additional thoughts on April 14th:
Tonight as the front has moved through the temperature is forecast to drop to 25 degrees, likely to kill both the pawpaw flowers and the egg we have been following to record its turn to orange in several days.  While being the first bud or egg may give the organism a head start, it comes with a price.  The zebras are like to continue laying eggs.  Whether the pawpaw produces more flower buds is the next question and I am guessing that we won't have pawpaw fruit again this year. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Serving Serviceberry

Serviceberries are blooming, the first of the cascade of flowering trees to be followed by dogwood and redbuds.  We consider them Mother Nature's answer to the plague of callery (aka Bradford) pear trees.  The flowers are small and delicate, a wisp of color among the oaks and hickories which are just awakening.  They whisper the promise of spring rather than shouting like a Bradford pear.

There are approximately 20 species in the Amelanchier genus, many of which confuse even the experts, as the trees tend to hybridize. Our local species is the downy serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea.  They have almost as many common names as there are species, including sarvis or sarviseberry, Juneberry and shad bush. According to Wildman Steve Brill:
"The shrub is called the juneberry because the fruit ripens in June. It's also called serviceberry because it blooms in mid-April, when long-delayed religious services were held throughout 19th century New England, as snow covered roads became accessible again. But not everyone was religious, and others would just as soon go fishing, especially when the first run of shad migrated upstream from the ocean, heralded by the blooming shadbush."

Mark Bower sent me these pictures with a note that you can eat the berries. 
The MDC page states that their berries can be sweet and great for baking and snacking.  Certainly wildlife enjoys them as 35 species of birds devour them at a time when few fruits are available and over a dozen mammals eat the fruit or the tender young leaves when little else has sprouted.

Wasp nectaring on serviceberry
Although the blossoms are small, they are an important nectar source for emerging bees, flies and other insects.  As the wasp that was nectaring on the daffodil bouquet on our dining table at the creek would tell you, there aren't a lot of natural nectar sources out there yet.  Unfortunately I didn't take a picture but then Mark sent me one taken fresh on his hill.

We saw this very distinctive bark on a November mycological survey at Mark Bower's land above Bull Creek.  Frances Main identified the photograph as serviceberry with its distinctive young smooth bark turning into darker gray with shallow grooves and long ridges.  I think I will be able to recognize it even when I can no longer remember the name of Allan What's-his-name.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spring at Last

Glade cress- Linda Ellis
I am finally pronouncing it spring.  Time to put up the firewood and start getting into the woods.  It was officially spring as indicated by the vernal equinox on March 20th, the day when the sun is at zenith over the Equator.  The date was first officially proclaimed as March 25 by Julius Caesar, but who is going to argue with an emperor?  Last week I thought that spring would never come, but now it has reached 70 degrees and April showers are passing through.

Glade Cress
I am ignoring Julius and going with Linda Ellis who proclaims the arrival of spring botanically.  She sent this picture of a glade cress, Leavenworthia uniflora, her first spring find while out hiking on her glade a few weeks ago.  It grows mostly in the Ozarks and has a very short growing season in March.  The single flower head is oversized compared to its dramatically long stalk as seen in this photograph.

Linda found a trout lily, Erythronium americanum, that same day.  It is another March bloomer, two green leaves usually with dull purple blotches support a single long stalked flower with lanceolate (lance-like) yellow petals.  Hers were on a glade which receives the sun's warmth far earlier than our deep valley where we still hadn't seen the leaves come up for another week.  Finally they have proclaimed spring in the valley.

Trout lily- Mark Bower
Traditionally, trout lily bulbs and leaves were eaten, either raw or cooked. The plant was also used in folk medicine to heal ulcers, as a mild emetic and antibiotic before those existed.  It was also used as a folk contraceptive.  After several unplanned children, this might have led the "folk" to the saying "hope is not a method."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

First Reported Bluebird Twins

If you ever doubted the value of some mundane sounding citizen science projects, this story from Cornell Lab E-news is for you.   Gerald Clark, a retiree who spends time enjoying birds in his backyard, was monitoring the nests of Eastern Bluebirds in Pennsylvania.  A member of Project NestWatch he reported 3 normal eggs beside one large one in his bluebird box.  A few days later he had 5 chicks.  This is the first documented occurrence of bluebird twins!

With the frequent finding of double yolked eggs, I would not have thought it would be that rare, but apparently twins among wild birds are very rare.  It turns out that the odds in wild birds are one in a billion.  An article in CitizenSci describes the reasons for the rarity of twins in the wild.  The twins are crowded in and one has to be able to pip the shell to hatch.  In addition, both have to have access to the air cell where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged through pores in the shell.

This citizen science finding was published in  PeerJ, a peer reviewed journal.  Details and pictures are at  All citizen science begins by being aware of the opportunities and reporting findings.  Like the Christmas Bird Count and Project Monarch, getting involved is simple.  Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's NestWatch at this link.

Thanks to Becky Erickson of MONPS (Missouri Native Plant Society) for the lead.