Monday, August 13, 2018

Paper Wasp Nest

When I started to check out a bluebird box last week I was greeted by a red wasp which nailed me in the abdomen through my T-shirt.  I got my revenge on the wasps with pyrethrin spray*(see below).  I cleaned out the wasp bodies, and removed the nest to study the babies.

These were red paper wasps, Polistes carolina, a species that that commonly builds nests in bird houses as well as under eaves and other concealed places around our houses. They form their nests using wood fibers which they chew and mix with saliva to create hexagonal cells for their young.  The larvae are protected by the adults in a complex society described in Wikipedia.

Larvae in cells

The nest is attached by a thin but tough pedicle and cells are arranged to orient the growing larvae head-down towards the ground.  "Paper wasps secrete a chemical which repels ants, which they spread around the base of the anchor to prevent the loss of eggs or brood." (Paper wasps).  As they grow the larvae will pupate, spinning a cocoon of silk which caps the chamber.

Larvae inside pupal cells
In this video I first exposed the nest to sunlight.  Since they are normally hanging upside down in a dark place, the larvae of different ages began to move randomly, trying to figure out what was going on.  I then opened a few sealed chambers, exposing larvae that hadn't had a chance to complete pupation.  They wiggled aimlessly and were incapable of purposeful movement like many other species' larvae.

While nursing the sting I had to remind myself that paper wasps have a beneficial role in the nature.  They are are important in controlling populations of other species that we consider pests such as hornworms and tent caterpillars.  They also feed on other insects such as the larvae of beetles, flies and moths.  They also feed on nectar and thus serve as pollinators. 

Pyrethrum Spray - Several sources such as recommended pyrethrum as a safe way to remove wasps from a birdhouse.  Pyrethrins are gradually replacing organophosphates and organochlorides as pesticides of choice, since these other compounds have been shown to have significant and persistent toxic effects to humans.
"Pyrethrum is a powerful, rapidly acting insecticide originally derived from the crushed dried flowers of the daisy Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium. Permethrin is a manmade synthetic pyrethroid. It does not repel insects, but instead works as a contact insecticide, causing nervous system toxicity, leading to death, or ‘knockdown’, of the insect. The chemical is effective against mosquitoes, flies, ticks, fleas, lice, and chiggers. Permethrin has low mammalian toxicity, is poorly absorbed by the skin, and is rapidly metabolized by skin and blood esterases." Travel Medicine 2013
There is a lot of research on Polistes species learning and memory, behavior, facial recognition, and even personality at this link.

Colorado State University Extension has extensive information on the European paper wasps now found throughout the US.  The life cycle is similar to our native Polistes species as described here.

"Nests are constructed of paper, produced from chewed wood fibers of weathered fences, porch decks and similar sites. Initially, a few hexagonal paper cells are formed and eggs laid in the cells. Upon hatch, the wasp larvae are fed crushed insects, usually caterpillars, that the overwintered queen discovers in foraging trips among nearby plants. When full grown the larvae then seal over the cell and pupate. Development of the wasps to the adult form is usually completed in 3 to 4 weeks after eggs are laid. The new wasps assist in colony activities of nest construction, foraging, and caring for young. The original queen increasingly remains restricted to the nest as new workers take over colony activities.
The colony continues to grow through the summer and may contain several dozen individuals by the end of summer. The nest is continuously expanded and reconstructed through the summer and may contain a hundred or more cells by fall. A few of the wasps produced later in summer are males and increasing numbers of the females become sexually mature at that same time. Mating occurs and the mated females are the surviving overwintering stage. Males and non-reproductive females do not survive winter and the nest is abandoned by late fall."

Friday, August 3, 2018

Singing Ants

I stopped along our road to checkout curled leaves on a young ash tree and once again found lots of ants crawling over the leaves to protect aphids inside and collect their honeydew.  After touching the leaves I saw the ants tapping their abdomens against the leaf repeatedly like a woodpecker in reverse.  I sent this video to James Trager for his interpretation.

  - University of Florida
He tells me that these are carpenter ants and they are communicating with their neighbors with sounds called stridulation. It turns out that they can make a lot of sounds but not in our hearing frequency, as discussed in Shhh, the Ants Are Talking!  Watching closely I can now see that the abdomen isn't actually touching the leaf.  Wild About Ants describes how the sound is made this way:
"On one segment of the gaster there is a patch of tiny ridges like a file. On the petiole is a curved ridge called a scraper. The ant produces a squeaking sound when she rubs them together, which known as stridulation. You can produce a sound in a similar way by rubbing a craft stick across a comb."
We don't know exactly what message the ants were sending. They may be communicating food sources, danger of possible predators or even "Smile for the old guy with the camera." What ever it was, the stridulation frequency increased when I disturbed a branch.

Inside the curled leaf
Frequently you will see an ant crawl inside one of the curled up leaves, probably for a honeydew snack. You can see what goes on inside the leaf in this video as there are multiple generations crawling over each other while feeding on leaf juice. The sight is enough to give a gardener the hives.

One week later I could see the aphid colony was thriving under the protection of the ants.  Since they deliver 3-4 live birth babies a day with no predators their population had outgrown the leaf curls and were now covering lots of leaves and petioles out in plain site.  As I was taking this photograph, my arm brushed a branch and the ants gave me a personal dose of their predator protection.  After those little ant jaws penetrated my skin I thought I heard her stridulating, bragging about the unmentionable words she made me say.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Badger Lodging

On school field trips we are frequently asked, "What lives in that hole." A better question might be "what doesn't."  A mammal hole may be built as a private residence but most likely will turn into an Airbnb over time.  Our own Richard Hermann documented the guests at a lodging on his land.
"It was mid-May, looking for invasive plants, when I came across this newly dug burrow. I was guessing /wishing I had found a fox den. I set my game camera up to discover who's residence this might be. I had left the camera there for about 2 weeks undisturbed. The first pictures showed a ground hog using the den. Then, an armadillo was going in and out of it. I was amazed as to how many animals were checking out this den, raccoons came by, deer, coyote, opossum and then, a badger!
Of my badger pictures only one was a day time picture, all the others were night time. The badger only stayed about 6 days in this den. I didn't know if it was my activity that had caused him/her to leave so I stopped trying to get more pictures. I found out since then that they often just use a den for a little while and then move on."
Nocturnal portrait of Richard's badger
Richard contacted Rhonda Rimer of MDC about the range of badgers in Missouri.  Her reply:
"The sightings go back into some of the historic records. The earliest record I have is from 1940. I have about 35 records between 1940-1975. However, there was no formal reporting system at that time, so these records have been drawn from books or other historic documents. The data I shared with you by no means represent all known sightings. Even with more recent records, these are just ones that MDC knows about or have been reported to us."

Badgers are primarily a mammal of open country, favoring prairies and open woodlands. They are more common in northwestern Missouri over the southern woodlands as seen in this map. They were probably never common in Missouri and "by 1900 had practically disappeared from the state."*  It is still listed as a species of concern in Missouri and was protected here until 1960 when a limited trapping season was opened.

Badgers tend to move a lot, and frequently have a lot of lodgings to choose from.  Some are dug while capturing a ground squirrel, one of their favorite meals, and then it becomes another lodge.  Digging a new hole is no big chore for a badger who can dig faster than we can with a shovel.  Their front claws excavate dirt that slides under their flat belly to the back claws which can throw dirt as far as five feet away!*  At that rate, a ground squirrel doesn't have much of a chance.

Badgers are strictly carnivores with their usual prey being ground squirrels, gophers and mice in season.  They also will eat rabbits, ground nesting birds and their eggs, insects in late summer and the occasional hibernating rattlesnake which is eaten except for the head!  Larger prey is occasionally dragged down into a burrow to be eaten at leisure.

Coyotes are their main predator but they have a complex relationship.  More frequently they may hunt cooperatively and they have even been seen playing together.**   Hawks also have been known to follow a badger on the prowl.

Richard's badger spent six nights in the den, a long term stay, as most sources report that they move every few days or even daily. He must have been a very good host.
*     The Wild Mammals of Missouri, Schwartz and Schwartz.
**   Wikipedia on Badgers 
For detailed information, see Peterson Guide Behavior of North American Mammals

Monday, July 30, 2018

Incredible Journey Ant

We were looking at a pair of well worn moth wings on the deck when an ant picked one up and started across the deck.  Soon another ant picked up the remaining wing and followed roughly in the same direction.  I followed them with this video for 5 minutes as they crossed 12 feet of the deck, and crossed 20 spaces between the boards, some openings twice their length, that looked like chasms to me, but apparently not to the ants.

A mouthful of wing
The moth wings measured 21 mm and by comparing the photographs the ant was at most 4 mm long.  The ants carried the wings in their jaws, mostly in front lifting them just above the deck surface.  Occasionally they turned around to drag them, usually when encountering lots of cedar leaves. They traveled toward a rotting cedar pole attached to the deck.
Bridging the gap
The spaces between the boards measured between 5-10mm and while some were stuffed with dried red cedar leaves, most were open, presenting a challenge to the 4mm ant.  The usual strategy was to put the wing across the opening, then holding it in its mouth, stretch across the chasm to get a front leg across.  This happened in a split second as the ant considered its options.  When it reached the edge of the deck it then carried the wing head first down a 5 foot tall cedar pole and into the duff.

Consider the physics of this trip.  The ant carrying a wing 5 times its length in front of it, in its jaws!  Suppose for a minute that the wing is 20% of the ant's weight.  That would be like me carrying a 30 pound door 28 feet long in front of me, holding it above the deck surface.  Oh, and don't forget it is carrying it in its jaws!  That makes my mouth hurt.  Now it is time to see the video.
Chris Barnhart identified the moth wings as Anisota, likely A. stigma, or maybe A. virginiensis.   I will go with the spiny oakworm moth - Anisote stigma, as we have been finding them by the deck light the last month.  The caterpillars eat oak leaves while the adult moths don't eat, only breed, lay eggs on oak and then die.  Many of our porch light moths are following pheromone scents and are drawn to the light, after having completed their biological mission.

I sent the photographs to James Trager who said that the ants appear to be Aphenogaster lamellidens.
"A native to the Southeastern United States, this ant species plays an important role in the forest ecosystem as a generalist predator, hunting and scavenging other insects and arthropods. Ants in this genus are also important for actively dispersing plant seeds. Many plants on the forest floor benefit from this behavior, and encourage ants to gather their seeds by providing attractive and nutritious food bodies just for ants. Aphaenogaster lamellidens can commonly be found nesting in logs within wooded areas, but colonies can thrive in captivity as well, making them a useful species for laboratory study or ant farm hobbyists. Colonies of Aphaenogaster lamellidens can be fairly large, with up to several thousand workers. "  Dr. Lisa Taylor
We have wild ginger and bloodroot growing near by that have seeds with elaiosomes that ants plant for us.  As to why, James said, "They will eat the wing muscle remnants off the wing base, then discard the rest."  Like the chicken hot wing craze, there isn't much meat but apparently it was worth the trip.  Quite likely there was a noisy celebration when they brought their treasure into the  nest but we never heard it up on the deck.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bluebirds of Happiness

Kathleen's bluebird - Chris Meyer
We spend most of our time on Bull Creek where we have a trail of 15 bluebird houses scattered along the field edges.  We see bluebirds throughout the nesting season while maintaining the boxes.  Barb was talking with Kathleen Graves Birdsong recently about her experiences of living with bluebirds in an urban neighborhood and passionately caring for them..  We asked her to share her story in the blog.
"I have enjoyed watching birds since I took a bird watching course in college. When we moved onto 10 acres of open woodland in southwest Springfield I saw the usual birds - robins, cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, titmice. But I would see a flash of blue as early as February - a bluebird.

We had tons of birds and hawks, even though we were surrounded by subdivisions. I put bird seed on the north side of the house, which was rapidly devoured, but no bluebirds.  I put an eastern bluebird house on the south side of the house close to my front door, but again no bluebirds.  I knew the bird house needed to have an opening for bluebirds so other birds did not get in and damage their eggs or chicks - starlings are the worst in my opinion. I also found it was best to place a bird house near a softer spot so if they fall out, they are not injured.

Then I spoke with someone at Wild Birds Unlimited and began my education. Bluebirds do not eat seed. They LOVE mealworms which must be kept in the fridge in a dormant state. Also, my bird house needed to be farther from my house and the feeder I put mealworms in every morning had to be a short distance away.  They suggested that I train my bluebirds every day by feeding at the same time and I needed to let them know I was coming. I began to whistle "Shoo Fly" at feeding time. They also need water to drink so I put in a birdbath.  Being busy I feed at about 7 AM, starting in February or March, whistling on the way. The thing is, they are waiting for me along with robins and cardinals. They battle for the worms and on occasion a blue jay joins in the fight.  I was amazed at how aggressive the pretty little bluebirds could be, diving into other birds.

Last year I had two nestings of eggs which is common for bluebirds, spring and late summer.  When it is rainy, stormy, or in the winter, I did not see them as often. (When they are not nesting, these birds roam the countryside in small flocks. *)  Usually in February I will see them first.  Sadly, I just moved from the 10 acres to down size since my children are grown.  I live in a neighborhood but still have trees and lots of open space so soon I will start again. Wild Birds suggested I walk from my 10 acres to new home, which is not too far away, whistling "Shoo Fly," but my new neighbors would think I was crazy. I did try to educate the new owners of the 10 acres about my bluebirds and I hope they care enough to take care of them. It only took me 10 years to figure all this out!"
Bluebirds went through a bad spell in our country.  They were one of the cavity nesting species common across eastern North America before "us" invaded and became US.  Back in the day dead trees stayed up, filled with cavities created by tree decay or woodpeckers, providing secondary cavity nesters like bluebirds (means they cannot create their own cavities) with mass housing.  The European invasion first brought axes and saws clearing land for crops, felling dead trees and creating a housing shortage.

House Sparrow - Wikipedia
Then in the early 1850s "we" settlers imported  house sparrows (HOSP), aka English sparrows as a novelty.  At first they didn't naturalize or thrive but as they were propagated as a fad over 20 years they spread across the country.  In the 1870s the novelty began to wear off, leading to the "sparrow war" of words among ornithologists reaching a peak in 1878.  By then HOSP were spreading across the country like feathered feral hogs.  See HOSP site.

Invasive starlings and HOSP are aggressive birds known to destroy the nests, eggs, and nestlings of other birds, especially bluebirds.  See Mort Shurtz' story.  Ongoing deforestation and other habitat destruction also contributed to the decline of bluebird populations in the early 20th century.  Populations are now increasing due to education and the spread of bluebird boxes.  Invasive HOSP and starlings are fair game for nest destruction as they are not covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that protects all native birds except designated game bird species.

Chickadee nest in box
Our bluebird experiences are somewhat different than in urban areas.  Bluebird houses need frequent inspection to clean out abandoned nests and remove wasp nests.  Frequently we find a welcome nest of a chickadee.  They are identified by the moss they use and by the white speckled eggs.  We enjoy their progress and it is illegal to interfere with their nests.

The first sign of bluebird nesting is the accumulation of grass that is then hollowed out quickly.  After several more days we start to see beautiful blue eggs appear a day or two apart until there are five or rarely six.

Then the brooding by the female begins.  When we inspect the box she will usually flush like a quail with a flapping that startles me every time.  On other occasions she will tenaciously sit on the eggs even when we open the box to inspect.  Those times she will never look at us or acknowledge our presence.

The fun really begins when the chicks first hatch.  Naked and bald except for some fluff on top of their heads that doesn't resemble feathers, they initially aren't disturbed by our presence.  Their eyes are closed tightly and there is no movement at all.  By the next day they are responding to any disturbance with gaping mouths, demanding food.  Watch their demands in this video.

Over the next week the only change will be the gradual covering with feathers.  As their eyes open they don't seem to see us as intruders, rather as another potential source of food.  By now both parents are busy collecting crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and beetles for their young.  I suspect Kathleen's mealworms would be like M&Ms to them but our country birds likely have coarser fare.

Over the years, in addition to regularly clearing out wasp nests out of our boxes we have had several other interesting cavity nesters.  A downy woodpecker once created its own side entrance as a winter haven.  This spring's cleaning of boxes exposed a fulvous harvest mouse that had climbed the steel T-post to install its own nest.

You can learn more about building and maintaining your own boxes on Sialis, and is the go to site for all everything Bluebird including what to do with apparently orphan birds found out of their nest.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tadpole Legs

You may recall that we commented in Linda Bower's leeches video that the tadpoles only had hind legs. I always assumed that the front legs would start as little buds, growing larger slowly like the hind legs do. It turns out that they do, but hidden inside the gills. Notice above the bump below and behind the eye. That is the front leg awaiting its debut.  So how does a tadpole become a frog?

"Look Ma, no hands!"
"As a tadpole matures, it most commonly metamorphosizes by gradually growing limbs (usually the back legs first, followed by the front legs) and then (most commonly in the case of frogs) outwardly absorbing its tail by apoptosis. Lungs develop around the time of leg development, and tadpoles late in development will often be found near the surface of the water, where they breathe air. During the final stages of external metamorphosis, the tadpole's mouth changes from a small, enclosed mouth at the front of the head to a large mouth the same width as the head. The intestines shorten to accommodate the new diet. Most tadpoles are herbivorous, subsisting on algae and plants." Wikipedia

Front leg peeking out of gill opening
The front legs develop internally inside the gill pocket of the tadpole’s body. They don't emerge until the tadpole is almost ready to make its frog/toad debut and leave the water.  The seemingly obvious reason used to be that the delay in emergence was because the front legs would obviously slow the tadpole's swimming speed, making it more vulnerable to predators.  Recent research published in Functional Ecology has proven the common explanation wrong.
Three legs and a leg lump in the gills
This article in the Telegraph summarizes the findings.

As seen in Linda's video, front legs rarely erupted simultaneously.  Generally one leg appeared five or six hours before the other. So for a short spell the tadpoles were swimming around with three legs which common sense would say might prevent the tadpole from swimming straight.  Wrong, they swam as straight as those with two or four legs.

Right elbow out but the "fingers" still in the gills.
But of course the little legs dangling down would surely slow them down.  Wrong! They tested tadpoles having two, three or four legs to see the effect on how fast tadpoles could swim. They measured the escape or “burst speed” -  how fast a tadpole set off when startled by a jet of air from a pipette. "Tadpoles swam faster with four legs than with two. They even swam faster with three legs than with two."

Now watch in Linda's video and pay special attention starting at 2:24 and you will see the front leg on the right emerge and start functioning.

"Free at last. Time to suck up my tail and eat meat!" *
 *  Stay tuned as tadpoles complete their transition to frogdom.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Linda's Leeches

Our resident videographer, Linda Bower, has been into leeches lately.  The ones seen here are Placobdella picta, a species that specializes on juvenile amphibians.  Her two months of filming has captured their movements and especially their interesting association with tadpoles. The ones seen here in this video are on spring peeper and gray tree frog tadpoles. A time lapse shows blood moving in the leech. Note the young leech attached to the glass from 1:54 to 2:25 minutes. The white dots swimming around are mostly ostracods.

Linda has been communicating with Malcolm McCallum who has researched P. picta  and their association with tadpoles described in this paper.  P. picta is known to parasitize 12 amphibian species including salamanders, frogs and the American toad.  They find their future host by detecting vibrations from the swimming amphibians.

There is speculation that this species may be an important regulator of tadpole populations. Many frogs return to the waters where their own eggs were deposited. They are a known vector for several blood-parasites and may play an important role in amphibian declines.

This video has closeups of the leeches which have not attached to a tadpole.  It includes views of  "hanging out," "walking," reacting to copepods, and the inevitable guts moving and eliminating waste. At 3:22, the leech goes inside of an air bubble and then back into the water, which is very cool to watch.

Notice you only see hind legs on the tadpole.  More on that soon.