Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Spring Ephemerals

Harbinger of Spring - Erigenia bulbosa

"True Rue"
This first warming period is when the spring ephemeral wildflowers wake up.   The Harbinger of Spring is the first up, a week or more before the rest.  They are so tiny that we have to get low and concentrate to find them in the leaf litter of winter, their leaves struggling to reach the light.

Next up usually are the Rue Anemones, false and true.  The "True Rue," Thalictrum thalictroides, has 4-8 petals while the false, Enemion biternatum, has five and tends to grow in clusters.  

Spring ephemerals have developed a strategy to survive along our shaded lane.  With the first warmth of Spring, they pop out before the trees leaf out and block the sun from the forest floor.  After gathering energy from the sun in a few weeks, many of these species their leaves and flowers.  They are perennials that survive the rest of the year as underground modified stems such as rhizomes and bulbs.

Common Flower Fly - Syrphus ribesii
Out early to greet these early blossoms was this Common Syrphid Fly,  Syrphus ribesii.  It was hovering above, then dropping down to the petals for a few seconds before darting to the next one. 

Another name for it is a hoverfly.  The "common" in its name refers to its range in the US, across Europe and scattered reports in China and South America.  Not only does it pollinate but its larvae feed on aphids, an added bonus. Its aposematic colors suggest it could sting, just a big bluff from a little 10 mm fly.

Bloodroot - Sanguinaria canadensis

One of our favorite ephemerals is the Bloodroot, nestled here in the thick dry leaves.  Its leaves and roots have bright red sap that can stain your fingers.  Pictures of the sap and the story of how it is planted by ants are in this previous blog.

Wake Robin - Trillium sessile
Read no further.  Finish up your work and get out into nature this glorious spring but keep your eyes focused on the ground.


Monday, March 29, 2021

Moss on the Rocks

Woodland Stonecrop on a moss covered rock

Warming weather and spring rains brings the rocks to life along Bull Creek.  Beneath the rock ledges, the mosses awaken from their winter slumber.  Wikipedia calls them  "small, non-vascular flowerless plants that typically form dense green clumps or mats," hardly a flattering description.  Up close after a shower they are much more, providing beauty and a home for insects and plants on boulders and rotting logs.  Here we see the delicate leaves of the woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) growing on what would otherwise be just a rock.  In the words of Wikipedia:

"It has white flowers, blooming April to May. This shade-tolerant species is often found in the forest understory, although it can also grow in sunnier locations when sufficient moisture is present. Its common name of "stonecrop" evokes its ability to thrive atop boulders, where its succulent leaves help it to retain moisture in shallow soil. It adapts well to garden use."

Woodland Stonecrop flowers - Wikipedia
It is able to grow on these rocks because of the moss.  In the words of The Beatles   "I get by with a little help of my friends," I too need a lot of help, in this case from bryophytologist, Nels Holmberg.  He identified this green cover as Common Tree-skirt Moss, Anomodon attenuatus.   Illinois Wildflowers says:

"The dense mats of foliage provide cover for small insects and other invertebrates. The foliage of Common Tree-skirt Moss was often used as construction material for the nests of the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea). Because of this kind of activity, songbirds may be responsible, in part, for spreading this moss from one tree or area to another, as it rarely produces spore-bearing capsules."

The minature garden of lichen above is growing in a field of moss.  Nancy Schanda described these for us in the past.  "These are Pixie Cup lichens, Cladonia sp, which are found growing on soil and mosses and look very much like goblets for wee folk. These lichens display two of the main growth forms that are used to help identify lichens - squamulose and fruticose."

Glossy moss

The moss with capsules, each on the tip of a seta is most likely glossy moss, Entodon seductrix. Some birds use this as nesting material. In our bluebird boxes, finding this is a sign of a chickadee nest.

Chickadee eggs - click to enlarge
As Spring is sprung, no glossy moss is safe from the birds.  The good news is that carrying the strands spreads the spores, a free ride to a new location and maybe a lonely rock.

For a good and quick overview of moss, lichen and liverworts, check out this link.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Bees in the Ground


Patty Hatcher sent me this short video of these bees that were coming up from underground.  With my vast bee experience I identified them as ground-nesting bees.  (Well maybe half-vast).  I sent two screen shots from the video to INaturalist and came up with the best possible first guess as an Orange-legged Furrow Bee, Halictus rubicundus.

With the internet resources available, half the fun is in the chase.  There will likely be  bee enthusiasts (word of the day - apiologists) who will respond, and then there is Bugguide.  Hosted by the University of Iowa, it is a collection of entomologists who volunteer to identify bugs.   This submission will be reviewed by experts who will come up with a species or say that the photo isn't clear enough to ID it.

For now, I am going with H. rubicundus.  Wikipedia describes it as a common sweat bee.  It arrived in North America in one of the "invasions that likely occurred via the Bering land bridge at times of low sea level during the Pleistocene epoch."  They can be solitary or eusocial (a single female or caste produces the offspring and nonreproductive individuals cooperate in caring for the young.)  The article has lots of information on their life style.

While Patty and I wait for conformation or denial, the internet can "bee" a source of education and entertainment about ground-nesting bees.  Seventy percent of known bee species are ground nesters according to the Xerces Society.  While a lot of on-line chatter is about eliminating them as a danger, they are valuable as pollinators and can use our help in lawn and garden maintenance.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Mating Black Rat Snakes

Mort Shurtz sent me these pictures of mating black snakes in a tree. "About twenty feet from our deck my son Jay noticed two blacksnakes in some form of endearment in a maple tree."  Like any dedicated Master Naturalist, he ran for a camera and soon had "five voyeurs gawking at these two mating snakes."

The Western Rat Snake, Pantherophis obsoletus, known locally as the Black Rat Snake goes by many different common names across the country.  Its official common name (if there can be such) was recently changed to Texas Rat Snake although they are predominately north and east of Texas (see my recent diatribe).

Black Rat Snakes are one of the largest native snakes in North America, growing up to 8 feet long.  They are talented climbers of trees, rocks and seemingly any structure.  We watched a five foot specimen scale the exterior wall of our Bull Mills house and crawl into a fissure that we couldn't even see from below.  We had evicted it twice before because of its unsanitary habits, such as leaving shed skins in the closet and dropping white powdery excreta on the living room floor.

Although young snakes are vulnerable to a number of predators such as foxes, skunks and raccoons, the adults are most threatened by humans, victims of either tires or fear.  They respond to danger by shaking their tail and spreading a foul musk, and they will give you a non-toxic bite if you try to pick one up.

They are constrictors, progressively tightening coils around their prey with each exhalation until the victim is smothered.  Their prime prey are rodents although they will eat other small mammals, birds and their eggs.  Mort's snakes probably met on a dinner date, headed to the bird house seen in the video below.

Males wait for females in a territory which they defend from other males.  They find females by benefit of pheromones, mating for minutes to hours with the male sometimes holding on to the female with his mouth so she won't get away.  The female later produces 6-24 eggs from which the young will emerge.  One of the significant threats to their eggs is the burying beetle, (Nirtophorous pustulatus).  "The adult beetles lay their eggs in the snake eggs and the beetle larvae feed on the developing snake embryos."*

*  From Pennsylvania State University,  which has a detailed account of their reproduction.

More Black Rat Snake pictures and video are at this site
Various rat snake species information is at Animal Diversity Web  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wheel Bug Eggs

Tonya Smith sent me this photograph of a hackberry trunk with additional signs of life in the center.  She identified this as a cluster of wheel bug eggs, Arilus cristatus. 









 You can see closeup that Tonya's egg case is empty, probably from last spring's hatch.  Wheel bugs have one generation a year and over winter as eggs, the adults dying off in the cold.  The University of Florida Featured Creatures describes the eggs here:

"Eggs resemble miniature brown bottles with white stoppers. They are 3.7 mm long and are laid on end, side by side, in a compact hexagonal cluster of 42 to 182 eggs. The cluster is glued together and covered by gummy cement that may protect the eggs from foul weather, parasites, and predators. Egg clusters are typically found at a height of 4 feet or below on tree trunks and limbs, shrubs, and miscellaneous objects."

First instar - REK
Later instar - Wikipedia

The eggs are 2mm in diameter and the newborn must be flexible and really squished in there.  A later instar to the right shows a good size comparison.  The nymphs frequently will feed on their siblings so a quick getaway is important.

We discussed mating wheel bugs last September in this blog.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Free Garden Help

Carolina Mantis hatchlings
Kelly McGowan suggests looking garden helpers this time of year.  Preying mantis egg cases, called an ootheca, start as soft and foamy but quickly dry to a stiff papery case.  This time of year before leaf out they are more visible, glued to bare branches which can be trimmed off and put in your garden.  When the young emerge, they will spread out and patrol for a variety of pests.  They have to make a quick getaway and hide to avoid being eaten by their siblings.

Chinese Mantis - Wikipedia

The largest and most common species I find are non-native Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) with the next largest being the native Carolina.  Chinese are larger and vary in color from overall green to brown with a distinctive green lateral stripe on the borders of the front wings.  The Carolina are tan to brown and 2/3rds the size but big enough to get the job done.  

Like the Ozark Bald Knobbers of history, they may also get some innocent victims ranging from butterflies to the rare hummingbird but in your vegetable garden they are more likely to encounter pests like the invasive brown marmorated stink bug.  You can watch a Chinese Mantis devour one all the way and finish by picking its teeth in this Youtube.  Earlier this year we discussed their sexual cannibalism in this blog.

Finally, if you come upon one of these large mantids you can indulge your inner 5th grader and keep them as a pet in an aquarium.  They are quiet and odorless and feed on a wide variety of insects.  My favorite is offering it a grasshopper with tweezers.  It will hesitate, then strike like lightening, chewing all but the legs. We naturalists know how to have fun!