Monday, November 30, 2015

Frost Flowers

"Frost flower" in full bloom - Tonya Smith
By Tonya Smith* 
I know frost flowers have been around for a long time, but I'm only three years new to the discovery of them.  I have walked the same trail year round since 2003 and it wasn't until 2013 that I happened upon the frost flower gardens one morning after a hard freeze at the end of October.   Now I watch the weather closely in late Fall, so I can be sure not to miss a walk among nature's most delicate white flowers which disappear quickly with the rising sun's warmth. Nature giveth and nature taketh away. Probably a good thing as I had more than enough sticky seeds and burrs to pick off my clothing from laying on the ground to get the pictures.  Frost flowers are just one of the many things I am thankful for.
Tonya Smith
Their scientific name is Crystallofolia which was coined by Botanist Bob Harms from the University of Texas.  This is from Latin crystallus, ice, [itself from Greek κρυσταλλος; cf. κρυος 'frost']and folium leaf. These elegant formations have been given many names, metaphorical in nature, most commonly ‘frost flowers’ (or ribbons), a formation which is neither frost nor a flower. These common names, however, are easily confused with terms describing true frost from condensation on a cold surface as well as any picturesque ice formation.

These frost metaphors are of fairly recent origin, not current with 19th Century treatments of the subject (e.g., 'frost freak' was used by several scholars).  I thus propose folium, leaf, as a more appropriate metaphor, since like leaves these formations emerge laterally from the stem, and the enormous diversity of forms finds better matches with leaves than with flowers and ribbons — although this is perhaps less poetic. Perhaps more significantly, the physical process by which water moves to the ice formations is analogous to the transpiration that brings water from the roots to the leaves. My perspective is not new: German botanists in the 19th Century used the term 'Eisblatt' ('ice leaf')."

Frost flowers, also referred to as ice flowers, only appear on the stems of a limited number of species. The two most common in Missouri are Dittany and White Crownbeard**. Stinkweed (Pluchea camphorate) is a third but this plant is not widespread in Missouri.
Dittany - MDC Discover Nature field guide
Dittany (Cunila origanoides)

Sometimes called "wild oregano," dittany (like true oregano) is a member of the mint family and can be used as a culinary herb and in teas. Look for it on dry, wooded slopes in Ozark counties.
White Crownbeard- MDC Discover Nature field guide
Crownbeard (Verbesina virginica)
It’s called “white crownbeard” for the look of the flowers. “Wingstem” describes the narrow green “wings” running along the stem, especially on the lower half of the plant. It’s called “frostweed” for the strange and beautiful formations formed at the stem bases after a sudden hard frost.  Bob Harms with the University of Texas points out that the stem itself doesn't split. The epidermis ruptures along with the cortex and other tissues that seem tightly bonded to it.

There may be more opportunities for frost flowers as the temps have warmed back up and rain is returning adding more moisture, but it is not likely they will be as large or as numerous. If you missed them this year, keep watch for areas where the common White Crownbeard grows so you can visit this spot in the early morning of next year's first hard freeze.

* Photographs and text by Tonya Smith who is a member of our latest Master Naturalist class.
**   Some sources list yellow crownbeard as an occasional source of frost flowers but we have never found any on our plants over the years.

Editors note:

Late ice ribbon on Dittany - REK
Don't give up on late season frost flowers.  We found them on 40 mornings a few winters ago.  Late season "flowers" tend to occur low on the stem an produce more narrow ribbons like this picture.  They continue until a prolonged freeze kills the plant tissue down in the soil.   As perennials they will return next year.
Check out these resources for further information on frost flowers as well as the resources page:
Dr. James Carter references:
Frost Flowers
Ice or Frost Flowers?- James Carter
JR Carter at Illinois State/ice/diurnal/
Dr.Robert Harms
Other sources of frost flowers

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pigmy Backswimmer

Pygmy backswimmer with a ballpoint pen - REK
While looking at life in a pond at the WOLF school, the students noticed that some of the tiny black specks were actually swimming in the thick mat of duckweed. They started chasing them in a drop of water with a handheld microscope but photographing them proved elusive. It took me even longer to get these blurry images as they wiggled around on damp paper. This video of it swimming on a single drop of water shows it better.

I sent these pictures with apologies to Dr. David Bowles at Missouri State University who responded patiently "That is a pygmy backswimmer (Heteroptera, Pleidae, Neoplea striola). They are by no means rare, but often overlooked due to their small size. Nice find." * Kind words for a blurry picture. According to Dr. Andy Hamilton at, Neoplea striola is the only common member of the family Pleidae (pygmy backswimmers) in eastern North America.

Hanging just below the surface, watching its reflection  -  Lonny
As the name implies, these bugs hang upside down on the surface of the water, using their oar-like legs to swim. These predatory Hemiptera (true bugs) voraciously attack mosquito larvae while avoiding mosquito predators so they would seem to be a good choice to introduce for mosquito eradication. This was attempted in California but they found that N. striola requires cold overwintering conditions to reproduce according to

I had to go four levels in Google to find any more information about this insect that lacks a good press agent. describes its underwater hibernation in New England lakes, awakening only when the water temperature reaches 54 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring.  They have fine hairs which carry air when they dive, allowing them to reach deeper depths before the bubble collapses.  The bad news is the denser the hair, the less surface area the insect has to absorb the air.

Dorsal view - Lonny
None of this is important in our shallow pond.  I will have to measure the water temperature this winter to see how cold it gets, but it appears to have found a good home in this haven far from other ponds.  How it got this far into the forest, only its ancestors know.  

*  This blog depends regularly on the patience of expert friends reviewing blurry photographs.  Thanks to all of them for humoring us.

Update-June 12, 2017  
More from the Bug Lady

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pumpkin Extinction?

Thanksgiving overload - REK
One more thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving are the humans that saved pumpkins and squash from extinction.  An article in PNAS describes this close call and the role of both megafauna and their new biped enemies in saving them for us to eat.

Current science suggests that large fruits of the osage orange were spread following ingestion and defecation by megafauna.  Likewise the long bean pods of the Kentucky coffee tree and honeylocust contain hard shelled beans that require digestion to germinate, a perfect match for a mastodon or a 3 ton giant sloth.  Furthermore, the large honeylocust thorns may have evolved to protect against these giant mammals, as explained in Trees that Miss the Mammoths.

Cucurbita, large squash and pumpkins, were widespread in the New World and their seeds were found in mastodon dung as early as 30,000 years ago.  They grew in heavily browsed areas and were dependent on the dispersal of seeds by their mutualistic partners.  They contained cucurbitacins, some of the most bitter compounds found in plants.  The few remaining ancient species are distasteful to humans and existing mammals that have evolved more bitter taste receptor genes.  Without the megafauna browsing open spaces and dispersing their seed in dung, their survival was at risk.

Enter the humans who arrived around 13,500-14,500 years ago.  The bad news for Cucurbita was the extinction of megafauna with over hunting likely to have played a role.  The good news was human domestication of squash and gourds for food and containers dating as early as 10,000 years BPE led to the development of the pumpkin as we know it.  No precursor species is known to have survived.  See for more details.

We have now perfected a sweet tasting Cucurbita that we use in pies, coffee and even beer.  It is even tasty to deer and racoon.  Is that good or bad? depends on whether you have two legs or four.

Thanks for the tip from our personal dendrologist, Dr. Matt Kaproth.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Chasing the American Kestrel

By Becky Swearingen

I spent the summer chasing one of my favorite raptors, the American Kestrel. They lead me a merry chase for most of the summer until the last two weeks. I have found these birds to be very shy. When perched on a fence post or on a power line, about the time you get your camera ready to take a picture, they move to the next fence post or power line. About two weeks ago, though, I began to get lucky.

I first ran into a cooperative Kestrel at Providence Prairie after spending time with the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society wandering around prairies looking for sparrows. At the end of the day, I decided to swing by Providence Prairie in Dade County just to see what was around. I have seen Kestrels here before, but they usually lead me around the perimeter going from pole to pole. This day, I saw a Kestrel on a fence post and inched closer and closer to try to get a shot and it, as usual, took to the wing landing on another fence post. This time, however, when I got to where it was, it stayed and I finally got a shot off.

Then the fun began as the Kestrel began hunting for insects in the prairie. It eventually came up with what I believe is a Katydid, landing on a nearby power line. Kestrels are the smallest raptors in the United States.  They often hunt by surveying their surroundings from a pole or fence post, which is what this one was doing.

Northern Mockingbird and Kestrel sharing a wire
To give a nice idea of size, a Northern Mockingbird lighted next to it for a few minutes and I got a shot of the two of them side-by-side.  This Kestrel was in the same location the next day and seemed to have decided the crazy lady with the camera was not a threat. In fact, it found me rather interesting.

I was very happy with my encounter with the Kestrel and with the opportunity to watch it hunt and to photograph this beautiful bird. The next weekend I decided to head to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie in St. Clair County to see what was happening and what I did I find, but another very cooperative Kestrel. This one did something the previous Kestrel did not do, though. It hunted by hovering and striking its prey. This is a common way for Kestrels to hunt, but I had not gotten to see the behavior up close before. Lighting was not great, so getting this action in a picture was a bit challenging.

Kestrel hovering on the hunt
`My patience paid off, though, when the Kestrel caught a mouse.

Airborne mouse - the seating is like American Airlines out of Springfield, tight and painful.
And in the flash of an eye (or a camera shutter), transferred it to its mouth. You can just see the tail hanging down below its wing.

Dinner on the fly
My final shot before leaving this lovely bird to its dinner was a second catch it made after hovering over the prairie, catching its prey and landing on an old stump. Not sure what it has, but it is possibly a ground squirrel.

Kestrel with ground squirrel?
It was a pleasure to get to observe these raptors up close and personal. I know where both of these two hunt and I’ll be back to spend more time visiting them and, hopefully, getting more shots of them in their environment. I have found that no matter where I go in Missouri or what time of year it is, something interesting is always happening.

I was speechless to get this great set of pictures from our new Master Naturalist, Becky Swearingen.  OK, for those who know me, speechless is unlikely, more like blown away.  There will be more from our great new class over the next year.

Monday, November 16, 2015


Wahoo seed capsules - Jennifer Ailor
From Jennifer Ailor

One of the most delightful native ornamental trees is the eastern wahoo, Euonymus atropurpureus, of the Celastraceae family. By type, it's actually a shrub. Its dark purple blossoms open in June, and in October/November they appear as delicate rosy red fruits dangling beneath the leaves or bare branches. Quite a show until the birds get them.

Wahoo fruit -
Mine is shrub size growing under oaks and a walnut, but according to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, they also grow in full sun and can be found in open woods and thickets, near streams and on wooded slopes. They typically reach 10 feet. You can read more about the wahoo at

My wahoo, in mid-November, is still looking quite lovely. You can purchase your own from Missouri Wildflower Nursery, from online nurseries and from selected local nurseries listed at You won't find them at a Lowe's or Home Depot garden center.

Editor's notes:
They are also available at the source of the above photo.

The fruit is in a pink four-lobed capsule that opens up to display the bright red seeds.  This has been called Hearts Bursting with Love.  This name is ironic as the fruit is actually poisonous to humans.  Fortunately, many birds eat it without harm, then flying off to transplant the seed.

The common name is also fun, emitted as a loud "Waa-hoo!" 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Water Fleas

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. 

                              -Nursery rhyme 

The WOLF school has been exploring life in a few drops of pond water.  While trying to photograph some tiny pond pygmy backswimmers flitting around in a single drop, I came across these indistinct creatures.  I could tell they were alive by the motion in their body in the video, but I could not make out any distinct features with my crude equipment.  I sent the video to Dr. David Bowles who identified them as water fleas of the Cladocera order of crustaceans.

Dorsal view - Click to enlarge
There is nothing to see at first glance to suggest that this is related to the noble order that includes lobsters, shrimp and crayfish.  There are over 600 species plus many more that haven't been identified for reasons I can understand, looking at our specimen.  The first evidence of life I saw was when it defecated in this video.  Be watching carefully at the 20 second mark.

It has a translucent carapace covering all but the small head, showing all the internal organs.  The green dots are eggs, something it produces usually on its own (parthenogenesis) except when under harsh conditions when it reverts to sexual reproduction as described in the Kansas Naturalist.  I can make out its single compound eye, mounted above the beak-like rostrum like a early prototype of a Cyclops.

From the Kansas Naturalist
Aside from its monocular vision, water fleas have several other interesting features.  It has two pair of antennae, the first having tiny olfactory hairs.  The second pair are well muscled and are used for swimming, its sole method of propulsion.  Its legs are covered with fine hairs which strain food particles such as phytoplankton, bacteria and organic detritus. 

As a herbivore, water fleas are at the very base of the food chain, the first consumers as well as some of the smallest prey of the tiny pygmy back swimmers we have been studying.  ..... and so ad infinitum.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Upside Down Goose

Upside down goose with right-side up head.- Dailymail.UK
Lisa Berger caught us asleep at the blog yesterday.  Wednesday I mislabeled an insect picture as "dorsal" while it was obviously ventral with its legs up in the air.  After making the correction, I was trying find a witty response to her email when I came across this fantastic fact.  Geese will on occasion fly upside down!

The Dailymail.UK had this posting about a technique called "whiffling"
that geese use to slow down for landing in a high wind.  The picture above shows an upside-down goose with its head turned 180 degrees.  If you still don't get it, (I had a hard time at first) check out this video.  This turns the phrase "dumb as a goose" on its head, so to speak.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Monarch Parasitoid

Monarch parasitoid from WOLF School
Ready to pupate at WOLF school
In front of the 5th grade WOLF School a few weeks ago we found a few Monarch caterpillars in their final instar, crawling on the late season butterfly milkweed while preparing to pupate.  The students came out and quickly also found aphids, small and large milkweed bugs and a milkweed beetle.  They checked the plants daily, bringing in the chrysalis to follow the developments.

While several of the Monarchs emerged, one chrysalis shriveled and tiny black insects emerged, a mere 3 mm in length.  The students kept the container covered with plastic wrap until we could collect them.  By microscopic photographs we were able to identify the parasites and here begins the tale of the Chalcidid wasps.

These are not the wasps I knew as a child.  For one thing they are tiny, 2.5 to 9 mm long, (0.1 to 0.34 inches for those allergic to the metric system).  They don't build nests or dig holes for their young but instead place their eggs on the larvae of lepidoptera or diptera (true flies), or less commonly other insect species.  Their larvae develop within the victim, their birth announcing the death of their host.

Ventral view of parasitoid wasp
Less than 10% of Monarch eggs produce a living adult butterfly.  When the caterpillar leaves its egg, it turns and eats the remainder of the egg, and sometimes eats a nearby Monarch egg.  Spiders, assassin bugs, lacewing larvae, birds and others attack the young larvae.  Parasites ranging from viruses and bacteria to nematodes and mites threaten their health by growing in them.  And then there are the parasitoids.  These are flies and wasps that lay their eggs on or in the larva where their larvae digest the caterpillar emerging from their victim as adults or even a pupa.

Chalcididae wasps are common parasitoids of other species.  However in the case of Monarchs they may also directly attack the pupa.  According to, "Tiny wasps from the family Chalcididae unsuccessfully penetrate the pupa casing therefore leaving a small hole.  The pupa begins to turn dark and dies."

  Pteromalid Wasp -  Marci Hess
There is good evidence that Chalcidid wasp are Monarch parasitoids,  In our case, we know that there were multiple tiny wasps which emerged from the chrysalis.  Wasp identification is difficult under the best of circumstances, and my photographs fall far below this, failing to show the wing vein patterns and other details.  We will just have to be satisfied with the identification as a Chalcidid wasp.

Monday, November 9, 2015

House of Straw

Grass-carrying wasp nest - Chris Barnhart.
Little pigs aren't the only animals that build their house out of straw.  Chris Barnhart spotted this grass sticking out of a carpenter bee hole in the fascia of our cabin and taught me about grass-carrying wasps.

Isodontia - Robert Lord Zimlich
This is a nest of the Isodontia wasp species.  They use grass, or sometimes inner fibrous bark or Spanish moss to line cavities in trees, other species' nests and even house window edges, sealing a chamber which holds their brood of several larvae.  Their eggs are provisioned with paralyzed crickets or occasionally grasshoppers, usually picking the small ones for ease of transport.  Their prey will remain alive but immobile (think zombies) as they are consumed, fresh food without the freezing.

Generally benign, they are capable of stinging if handled although few of us would be tempted to grab a wasp, with or without straw.  You can watch them in action on this video by Dick Walton.

Isodontia mexicana - Styrulus EOL CC
One of the grass-carrying wasps has reversed the direction of the Columbian Exchange that brought us so many benefits and invasive species from Europe.  Isodontia mexicana has accidentally been introduced to France and is spreading across Europe, lacking natural predators.  Apparently French insects aren't aware of the three little pigs and the techniques of blowing the grass out.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Sluggish Moth Larva

Aside from falling leaves, this time of year doesn't provide a lot of color.  This light green spot stood out in contrast to the bare branches of small trees in the woodland timber stand improvement opening.  The flattened shape is distinctive, the physique that only another slug moth could love.

This is a Crowned Slug Moth caterpillar, Isa textula.  It feeds on elms, hickories, lindens, maples, oaks, Prunus species plus shrubs that are plentiful in our oak-hickory forest.  Viewed from the side, it looks like it was run over by a fat squirrel.  Its movement is sluggish even when prodded with a twig.  It depends on its hollow stinging hairs filled with a toxin for defense against predators and aging naturalists.  These spines called setae are described as "urticating," meaning that they cause an itching or stinging if you brush up against them.

Although lots of caterpillars have setae, not all are hollow or contain toxins.  The very appearance of spines probably deters many predators and if you come across them in nature it is probably better to use no touch techniques for collecting them unless you know the species.  An example of harmless setae is on the woolly bear described recently.

Crowned Slug Moth -  Jon Rapp
Southern Flannel Moth - Jon Rapp

Many of the moths arising from urticating caterpillars are common but so nondescript that you would not give them a second glance at your porch light.  The Crowned Slug Moth is no exception.  On the other hand a close inspection can reveal a lot of personality if not beauty.

Consider this Southern Flannel Moth above, Megalopyge opercularis, photographed by our friend, Missouri photographer Jon Rapp.  It has a furry coat on its wings that could start a major protest by PETA.  Its caterpillar below even has its own name, the derogatory title Puss Caterpillar.  Despite its soft and fluffy appearance, its hairs can sting you so do not pet it.  Read Jon's comments here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Flower Fly

November can be a last gasp for the strange creatures that prowl the glades and fields, hunting insects with a camera before the frost drives them into winter mode.  Becky Swearingen and I are some of those, and she shared some of her catch with me.

Click to enlarge
Above is an insect that would have the ordinary kid crying out "bee."  At first glance it is a rather convincing mimic of a yellowjacket whose aggressive nature keeps me at a distance.   You will notice that the wings are held outward, unlike the pose of a yellowjacket which holds its wings along its back.

This large flower fly will sometimes hover in front of you, buzzing loudly as if "delivering the news."  It is said to be good luck if it perches on your finger, although I would say that attempting that is more an indicator of entomological skill or bravery.

The Syrphidae family are a large group, commonly called hover flies, flower flies or sweat bees.  Smaller versions commonly hang annoyingly on a glass or can of soda, mistaking our drink for theirs.  They feed mainly on nectar and pollen while their larvae frequently feed on aphids, a welcome visitor to our gardens.

Becky's  flower flies might be the common Virginia flower fly, a.k.a. yellowjacket hover fly, Milesia virginiensisThe back seems to lack yellow bars and the abdomen has more cupped black bars and there are a lot of candidates, so we are waiting the opinion of Bugguide.

Rapid Bugguide response.  ID as Toxomerus marginatus

Monday, November 2, 2015

November Phenology- 2015

Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

Asian ladybeetle - Wikipedia
You know it is November when the Asian ladybeetles, Harmonia axyridi, form swarms and they head in as unwelcome house guests for the winter.  Unlike the sweet ladybugs of my childhood, this invasive species starts gathering in hordes in October,  planning to survive the winter in any shelter they can find.  They are attracted to light or shiny surfaces, especially on warm afternoons after a cold spell announces the oncoming winter.

They were imported into the US multiple times from the 1960's on because of their appetite for aphids.  They never really thrived until the first large infestations were reported in 1988, possibly as an accidental import through New Orleans.  Since then they have really gotten the hang of coexisting with humans.  Their foul odor and the habit of taking little bites of us makes them the #1 invasive species of fall.

Because of their annoying habit of nipping on our skin, swatting them is a natural reaction.  This leaves a foul odor on your skin from a yellow defensive chemical that they secrete from their legs.  The yellow stain starts appearing as dots around the house even after they have disappeared into the nooks and crannies.

Available in a number of patterns -
Although our invaders are uniform in appearance, this species can be highly variable with a choice of colors and the number and placement of their markings.  The males tend to be smaller and have fewer markings.  Like most invasive species, they have some predictable traits.  They live up to 3 years during which they have multiple broods each year.   They have few natural predators in their new found land, just a few parasites that are rarely lethal.

November Phenological Phenomona  
Click to enlarge- REK
Studying the biological world's timing of natural events can give us hints of what to look for in November.  Squirrels are stashing acorns in competition with turkey, deer and larger mammals.  Today I captured video of this fat ground hog, Marmota monax, porking out on the acorns just a few feet off of our deck.  Although I was filming inside our darkened cabin, it detected a slight movement of the camera and went into a defensive freeze, then took off over the bluff toward home. It has been feasting because it will lose 1/3 to 1/2 its weight during hibernation.

Bear-broken branches litter the ground.
Bear claw marks on white oak
Bears have been climbing our white oak trees, breaking branches as they harvest green acorns.  Female black bears are storing fat to feed the young born during the winter and will be denning soon.  What a great system, delivering their cubs in their den and sleeping through most of the early nursing without having to get up at night!

Other November things to look for:
  • Polistes red wasps are patrolling the house, looking for a crack to nest in for the winter.
  • The  cricket chorus is slowing down.  The last voice to be heard is Jay's jumping bush cricket whose brief buzzing call announces the beginning of winter. 
  • Stick insects are now clinging to the sides of our house.  After spending the summer feeding on the leaves high in the trees, the wind, falling leaves and temperatures are dropping them to the ground where they optimistically start climbing up again.
  • Time to get the bird feeders ready.  The best of the berries are already starting to disappear and available insects are becoming rare so birds need alternate food sources, especially high energy sources like peanut butter/seed wads and suet cakes.  If you have bears around your neighborhood, you may want to wait a few weeks until they den.
  • With the leaves off the trees it is a good time to look for squirrel dreys, bird nests and even a trophy hornet nest to harvest before winter breaks it down.