Saturday, April 26, 2014

Lace Bugs

On the Bull Mills botany field trip last Saturday, led by Justin Thomas* someone noticed some tiny spots on the underside of buckeye leaves on one tree.  With a hand lens we could make out tiny winged insects but no further details.  Occasional buckeyes along the drive had similar infestations although there was not apparent damage to the leaves at present.

I showed enlarged macro photographs to Dr. Chris Barnhart who identified them as lace bugs.  I began thumbing through page after page of lace bug pictures in - there are over 2,000 species world wide - with no luck.  Finally in a moment of biological brilliance, I Googled "buckeye lace bug" and immediately found identical pictures of our insect ... a "buckeye lace bug."  Who knew!?

Lace bugs are tiny insects (2–10 millimetres or 0.08–0.39 inches) in the family Tingidae.  They are Hemiptera, defined by their specialized mouth parts used for sucking out plant juices.  Our buckeye lace bugs measured 3.5 mm in length.

Dense collection of lace bugs
The buckeye lace bug, Corythucha aesculi is a North American native which co-evolved with the native buckeyes.   It was first reported on yellow buckeyes by William Stehr in 1938, appropriately enough in Ohio.  They overwinter under the bark of oaks and other trees, emerging after a few warm days to swarm on the emerging buckeye buds.  They will feed on the same leaves through their life cycle, raising their offspring and eventually their grandchildren on the same tree.

Copulation occurs soon after emerging and a few days later they begin laying their eggs on the underside of leaves.  Stehr found that the females produced an average of 178 eggs apiece.  There are two broods a year, the spring group being more successful as the leaves are healthier and juicier and there are fewer predators around.  The summer brood will produce the adults that overwinter under nearby bark of other trees as the buckeye bark doesn't provide adequate shelter.  How they find a host tree the next year is unknown.
From  the original paper by William Stehr
Unless they are on the only buckeye in your yard, they don't cause significant problems in nature.  As usual, the thousands of eggs will produce hundreds of early instars, most of which won't survive.  Many will feed birds and a wide variety of insects, especially ladybugs.  And the cycle goes on.  Lets hear it for the humble, odd looking, often overlooked lace bug.  The world would be a less interesting place without them.

*  Justin Thomas and his wife Dana are experienced field botanists and together form the Institute of Botanical Training which provides field-based botanical services and comprehensive workshops for persons seeking on-the-job plant identification skills.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Buckeye, Red and White

Ohio Buckeye
Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra, is the first tree to open its leaves in spring.  Last week you could find them easily among competing species that were still thinking about opening their buds.  Buckeye leaves are palmate with 5 finely toothed leaflets, rarely 7.  If you crush the leaves, they release a strong foul odor, leading to its common name, "fetid buckeye."  The seed capsule which matures in August is rough and somewhat spiky.
In mid-August we always trek the valley to collect the buckeye's nut-like fruit.  The trees are easy to spot then as they are the first species to lose their leaves.  After a few weeks, the capsule splits open revealing one or two nuts inside.  According to folklore, the buckeye resembles the eye of a deer and carrying one brings good luck (so they say).  Rub the nut along the side of your nose and it will develop a nice oiled sheen. They can also be strung like beads once dried.  The bark and seeds are poisonous, containing tannins and a narcotic glucoside.  Gray squirrels will occasionally eat them and survive, which is no surprise to those of us who have seen them eat the painted siding of our house.

Buckeye - eye of a buck

Ohio Buckeye
Red Buckeye

Another member of the horsechestnut family (Hippocastanaceae) is the red buckeye, Aesculus pavia.   It is generally smaller and more bush-like and as you have guessed, it has red flowers.   Beautiful, upright clusters of dark-red tubular flowers, each cluster 4 to 7 inches long, appear in the spring.   We have only one at Bull Mills as opposed to hundreds of Ohio buckeye.  How it got here, struggling to survive in a rocky drainage, is a mystery.

For More Details go to:
Ohio buckeye - illinoiswildflowers,
Red buckeye - illinoiswildflowers,

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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

True or not Rue?

Rue anemone just opening - Mark Bower
Rue anemone in full bloom- REK
Mark Bower sent Barb pictures of this beautiful little flower that is scattered in the wooded areas along Bull Creek. It far outnumbers other wildflowers at this time of year. It is a rue anemone.  The trick is to separate it from false rue anemone which is also common in this area.

"True" rue anemone has 5-10 sepals which look like petals and can be either pink or white and has a whorl of bracts which look like leaves below the flower head and the true basal leaves will appear after it starts flowering.   False rue is always white, has 5 sepals which look like petals and three-lobed compound leaves which come off the stem.

Rue - note bracts on base of flower head
Both species occur mainly at the base of wooded slopes and bottom land. Rue tends to grow solitary plants on drier sites and open woods while false rue often forms colonies and prefers moist areas.

Mark's plant has 6 sepals and the whorl of bracts off the flower head rather than the stem and therefore is the true rue.  According to Dennison in Missouri Wild Flowers, "they are possibly the longest flowering species of early spring."  Or as Barb says, "Aren't they sweet?"
White trout lily, Erythronium albidum - Mark Bower
Mark's trout lily or dogtooth violet reminds us that it is time to get out and get low.  Most of the spring ephemeral wildflowers are tiny and fighting to get above the leaf litter.  Getting pictures like these means getting down on the ground but it is worth it and the ticks seem to enjoy it as well.

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, blooms for only one day - REK

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Golden Eagle

Golden eagle- REK

After a recent trapping of 11 feral hogs by hog trapping friends working with USDA and MDC, we had scattered gut piles in a narrow hayfield in the middle of the forest.  I put a game camera on it to see what would come in, hoping to get a picture of a coyote or bobcat.  What I got were eagles!

Turkey vulture warming up

Initially there were 12 turkey vultures that alternated shifts with 20 plus crows throughout the day.  In the early morning hours the vultures frequently had their wings spread out like they do on our barn to warm up.  I could not find any reference to mantling behavior to protect their finds and suspect that they were just cold.

Immature golden eagle

Then at 7:19 PM I "struck gold."  In spite of the setting sun and the 38 degree temperature, an immature golden eagle arrived and looked things over for several minutes.  The following morning it returned at 7:53 AM and hung around for 12 minutes, possibly discouraged by the 13 degree temperature.

There was more excitement to come.  At 2:29 PM a bald eagle arrived, scattering many of the crows.  It only stayed around for 3 minutes, possibly turned off by the lack of anything but stinking guts.  This served to remind me that Benjamin Franklin opposed the selection of the bald eagle for the official seal as he considered it cowardly.  He favored the turkey.  The golden eagle might have been a better selection but bald eagles were more more commonly seen by the early settlers and were considered the American eagle.
"(The turkey) is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”  (I have personally attested to the valor of a turkey in the attack mode in Turkeys Gone Wild.)

The next afternoon a hawk arrived to join the vultures, but by then little was left but the intestinal contents and it quickly left.  It was interesting that its arrival didn't intimidate the crows.  I suspect that by this time even they had no interest in defending piles of intestinal content.

Hawk among the crows.

Now I am not a "birder" although I play one on the blog occasionally, so I first thought this was an immature bald eagle.  I referred this picture to Jeff Cantrell and a number of very patient GOAS* friends with expertise and they universally pounced on this as an immature golden eagle.

How big a deal is it to see a golden eagle along Bull Creek?  Their usual territory is west of Missouri, from Mexico through California up into Canada.  Furthermore, a small grassland in the middle of a forested region isn't their usual territory. says "Golden Eagles live in open and semi-open country featuring native vegetation across most of the Northern Hemisphere. They avoid developed areas and uninterrupted stretches of forest."  As Jeff Cantrell wrote me, "That golden eagle is quite a find, for if it was Barton or Vernon County up it would be considered a great find and “uncommon,” and farther east and in more wooded hills it is really rare."

Based on my "years of golden eagle experience," if you want to see one, let me recommend hog guts.  Good for eagles and good for the land.  Organized hog hunting is discouraged, but if you see a feral hog, shoot it.  No permit is needed except for a valid permit when out hunting in deer and turkey season.  More importantly report any sightings immediately to the contacts listed below.  If you shoot a hog you may kill one but the rest scatter.  Trapping is much more effective than hunting and you might end up with some great pork.