Monday, July 24, 2023

Life in a Socket Set

I found these sets of small socket wrench heads on a shelf in our garage/workshop at Bull Mills.  They had been undisturbed for over a year and now some were sealed off with a firm cap deposited by insects.  The white material was chalk-like and firm but pulling each one out of the rubber holder revealed a variety of insect life both alive and now dead.

Removing a socket head from the rubber holder I was immediately faced with a larva coming out of its silken womb.  I found a different one, darker and larger in another wrench head.  They were very much alive and wanting to get away.  I chased both around on our kitchen counter top, (I married the right woman!) filming it with a handheld microscope while trying to keep it in focus on the computer screen.  You can see the chase in this video.


Next I opened several of the sealed chambers and found a variety of insects, all small.  There were more larvae in their pupal cases, fighting for freedom.  Other socket heads contained dead spiders with bodies less than a quarter inch long.  I couldn't tell if they were all the same species.

The best preserved spider shown here had a little life left, shown by an occasional twitch of a leg.  INaturalist couldn't venture a reasonable guess and it will remain a mystery.  

Finally there was a totally different spider in the last socket head I opened.  I lifted it onto my hand with a fine paint brush and its legs spread out in a natural pose.  You can see its size in comparison to my finger print.




The point of this is that there is a lot more life out there than we can ever know.  In the words of the philosopher Forest Gump in this clip, "Life is like a box of never know what you are going to get."

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Snake Month at Bull Mills

This has been snake month at our Bull Creek cabin.  We were having dinner there when we suddenly heard three loud "snaps" in 5 seconds.  Back in the closet with the water heater and well pump where pipes come up through the floor, we have frequent rodent visitors.  In this case though it was a 5 foot black rat snake that got caught in three rat traps.  Here it posed for pictures before moving to the barn where it will be hunting from now on.

Our next guests called us from across the creek reporting a snake with "Hershey Kisses" on the walk.   They had stepped  off the porch headed to the ATV but were stopped by the 24" copperhead curled up on the walk.  Ordinarily I would use my snake grabber to transplant it but in this case if I missed it would crawl back under the porch steps and our guests probably wouldn't come out the door from a week.  I was forced to execute it with a hoe.

After cleaning it

Not wanting it to die in vain, I cleaned it and prepared the skin for tanning.  The hoe had damaged the skin but the remaining hide will demonstrate the appearance for future visitors.  We tell the WOLF students about the "Hershey Kisses" you can see on their sides.  We also explain that "if you look down and see the "hour glass" you know that it is a copperhead and you are way too close!  We will see a lot more in the late summer when the cicadas emerge.  These look like an M&M to a copperhead as we discussed in this blog.


We get to see lots of other snakes each year.  Pygmy rattlesnakes are cute if you don't try to pet them.  This one was curled up on a rock crossing in the middle of the road and earned a free ride several hundred feet away in the woods.  We also have timber rattlesnakes like one that staked out the center of our driveway and defied me until I transplanted it a quarter mile away in the woods.  You can see it warning me here.


One of my favorites are the northern watersnakes.  We have had a lot of sightings this year including four gathered at one sitting on a downed sycamore.  They congregate in our swimming hole, frequently sunning themselves on the bank.  We have even found one on our deck 15 feet above the creek.  Our biggest one was over 5 feet long and was killed by a visitor who thought it was a cottonmouth, a species none of us have found on Bull Creek.  I saw the one below just starting to dine on a perch.  By the time I got back with a camera it was almost down the hatch.

Finally, it is important to know your snakes as one of our guests learned a few years ago.  After watching the watersnake swimming around with its head above water, he decided to catch it, not recognizing the whole body was on top of the water and it had little kisses on its side.  You can see the whole episode recorded by his friends who encouraged him to "go ahead, pick it up!" Watch it here in this 2 minute video.  It ended with $25,000 of antivenom and two days in the ICU.  The final lessons we tell the WOLF students:

  • Know your snakes
  • Don't let buddies get you to do dumb things.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Flying Ghost


Sitting on the deck above Bull Creek while staring into space I saw a tiny white thing slowly "flying" past.  I grabbed it by the tail and studied it for several minutes before I determined that it was lifeless and had been drifting in the still air.  Holding the tail with forceps, it seemed to sway in spite of the absence of wind like a little ghost.  

I took a lot of pictures and sent them to my insect guru, Chris Barnhart.  He identified it as a stonefly exuvium.  An exuvium is the cast off outer covering (exoskeleton) of an animal after moulting (think of a snake skin).  The body and the tail each measured 7 mm long.   

Stoneflies are in the order Plecoptera.  They live underwater as larvae for up to two years before crawling out of water and moulting into the winged adult.  As with many winged adult species of insects, this is the beginning of the end as they mate, lay eggs and die in a final burst of glory after fulfilling their biological imperative.

So how did this cast off skin manage to drift by me as I sat 15 feet above the bank where it would have emerged?  Although there was no discernible breeze, there must have been just enough air moving to carry it up and drift in by my face.

Stonefly nymph - Wikimedia

Here you can see an example of a stonefly nymph.  In its final stage it will develop the wings which will expand after its final molt just like a butterfly does.  You can see the brown skin on the exuvia that covered the nascent wings which wait patiently to expand as they come into the air.

After having achieved this moment of fame, I released it out on the deck and it drifted away, a silent traveler on a windless morning.  It like all life will be recycled, returning to the soil to feed the cycle of life like all species do eventually.



You can learn more about our Missouri stoneflies by Googling "stonefly MDC" - a trick that works for most of our plant and animal species.  (Or simply click on this link.)