My Heart Pines

Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine.

Needing a fresh-air break mid-day, I ventured into our woodlot, where part of a fertile fern clinging to a dead tree branch about five feet above the ground garnered my attention. How did it end up on the tree, I wondered. Given that I’d been picking up branches from last night’s gale-force winds, I suspected it had somehow been torn from the rest of the frond and blew onto the branch. Maybe.

Below it, perched in a more stable manner, was a half eaten pine cone and this time my interpretation was much clearer for frequently I’ve been scolded by a Red Squirrel on this trail. He must have been dining on a branch above, out of danger’s way, and for some reason I don’t know, let the cone slip from his front paws where it fell and landed between a branch stub and piece of bark that was partly dislodged from the tree.

A glimpse at the base and I was 98% certain my story was correct for a large midden or refuse pile of cone scales and cobs removed by Red in order to consume two tiny seeds located inside each scale decorated the forest floor.

Because I circled the tree to further examine the midden, and because it was raining, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my next find, but the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Plus I love the rainbow colors.

With great patience, I watched the drops drip onto the froth and realized that if I counted to twelve I might get to see a drop just before it let go.

And could almost capture its journey.

As if that wasn’t enough to make my day, I was stepping away from the tree when I discovered a hickory nut on the edge of the midden. One of the manners in which a Red Squirrel opens a hickory nut is to split it in half. Notice the grooves along the edge created by the squirrel’s incisors.

By this time, I was hungry and maybe a wee bit damp, and ready to follow the path home, but . . . a sudden look at the tree’s bark, and I spied life.

The life of a slug is interesting and not to be rushed. No longer was I.

For almost an hour I watched four slugs as they moved at their own slow pace into and out of the furrows of the pine. These terrestrial gastropods (gastro=stomach; pod=foot) create a layer of mucus that they secrete so that the “foot” under almost the entire length of their bodies can move rather smoothly.

Their heads include two sets of tentacles that they can retract (and grow back should they lose one). The upper tentacles are light sensitive and have eyespots at the tip of the stalks. They also use these to smell.

The lower tentacles are for feeling and tasting.

And then there’s the mouth, that funky-looking line to the left of the tentacles in this photo. The radula is a tongue-like organ covered with thousands of raspy tooth-like protrusions–the better to scrape or brush particles from the surface of a tree or plant.

Here’s another cool fact about snails; they are hermaphrodites, meaning each one has both male and female sex organs.

As my snails headed in each and every direction, I at last pulled away, though I did stop to examine other trees on my way home, but found nothing else to look at. 😉 Or at least, nothing else to report.

An hour or more later, I slipped out the door again, curious to check on the action upon that one pine. The fern had blown to the ground. The cone was still lodged between the branch stub and bark. The rain had slowed and froth diminished, though remnants of it remained. The hickory nut had disappeared. And I could only find one slug who was making its way to the safety of its underground habitat.

But . . . because I went back, I spotted an Assassin Bug.

For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Goldenrod Gala

As many of you know, I’ve never been a party girl, much preferring to hide in the wings and be the wallflower at the edge of the crowd, but when the invite arrived today, how could I resist?

It didn’t give an actual location, but by the photo I suspected I knew where in the yard would I meet my friends.

Immediately upon entering, I wished I’d waited a bit for the Ambush Bugs had already discovered each other and chose the corner I preferred as their hide-away spot in which to mate. Really, shouldn’t they have gotten a room?

At last, however, I discovered others who like me were solo for the party, this being a Mason Wasp. His eye was on the bar and nectar was the drink of choice.

While I inquired about something to sip upon, into the middle of the space danced a pair of Thread-waisted Wasps. She seemed rather oblivious to his advances.

They maneuvered this way . . .

and that. No matter which way they swayed, he clung on.

At times I wondered if she really appreciated his clingy mannersim.

At best, she seemed to tolerate him. But never did she let him get any closer.

For over an hour, we all watched from the edges as they sashayed back and forth across the dance floor. Maybe he clung so close because he hoped to get lucky in the near future, or maybe they’d already finished canoodling and he wanted to make sure that it was eggs he’d fertilized that she laid, much the way male dragonflies hold on until the female of their intentions do the same.

Meanwhile, back in the corner, the Ambush Bugs began to separate as he climbed down off of her. And below them, another insect that might become their choice at the buffet table lingered.

Finding a stem all its own upon which to practice its own dance steps was a Locust Borer decked out in fancy dress clothes.

Also dressed to the nines was a Flesh Fly wearing gray pin stripes.

As the party continued, I soon realized that the Mason Wasp was a tease.

Or so it seemed as its antennae played with a shy Crab Spider waiting under the buffet for a morsel upon which to dine.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the spider–who was certain it was about to score, only to discover it had been outsmarted. But that’s the way it is in these social affairs as a variety of personalities come together to greet each other and yet satisfy their own needs.

At last the hour had chimed and it was time for all of us to depart. As I stepped through the doorway, a final greeting was bestowed . . . by an Assassin Bug Nymph completely camouflaged by the flower’s greenery.

With that, my visit to the two-hour Goldenrod Gala was completed and I gave thanks for the invite to such a pop-up event. A social gathering of my type, indeed.

Golden Rulers

In late summer/early fall, a variety of goldenrods shower gardens and fields with their sunshiny flowers.

Unfortunately, they’ve been wrongly blamed as the culprits of hay fever, but by the abundance of pollinating insects that visit them daily, it’s clear that they are insect rather than wind pollinated. (Ragweeds and other hay-fever causing species are wind pollinated.)

And so today, as I have for the past few weeks, I spent time focusing on those pollinating visitors and others who find goldenrods attractive for different reasons. Take a look.

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What first caught my eye was a bee that dangled upside down. And then I spied the green legs of an assassin bug. What? Yup, an assassin bug.  I believe this one is a nymph. Regardless of age, here’s the scoop: Assassin bugs are proficient at capturing and feeding on a wide variety of prey. Though they are good for the garden, they also sometimes choose the wrong species like this bee. The unsuspecting prey is captured with a quick stab of the bug’s curved proboscis or straw-like mouthpart. Once I saw this, I continued to return for a couple of hours, so stay tuned.

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Fortunately, there were other honeybees on the job of pollinating the flowers.

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Mighty bumblebees also filled their sacs to the brim.

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A.B. Take 2–do you see the proboscis stuck into the first bee’s thorax? It fed by sucking out the fluids.

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Back to the other visitors. One of my favorites was the hover fly. I’m always humbled by its coloration.

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And then there were the wasps.

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Their almost hairless bodies provided contrast beside the bees.

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A.B. Take 3–The A.B. turned the bee and it appeared that its proboscis became coated with pollen, which would make sense.

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Meanwhile, a jumping spider waited patiently for its own prey to come into sight. I felt like all eyes were on me as we came face to face. Thankfully, it didn’t jump and grab me with its jaws.

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Another with a poisonous bite is the crab spider. This one was more active that most that I’ve seen. Usually, they sit and wait, then catch their prey, bite it and again, suck it dry. And while it looks huge in this picture, it is really quite small–about pencil eraser size.

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A third spider species used the goldenrod’s stem and leaves to weave its own structure. It seemed to be more successful than the others at finding a meal.

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A.B. Take 4–Check out A.B.’s tiny red eyes. And its camouflage–no wonder the poor bee never saw it.

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Not every visitor to the goldenrod knew about camouflage. I don’t know who this is, but saw it on a nearby orange echinacea yesterday. Its mauve color certainly shouted for attention among the yellow sea.

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A different caterpillar did a better job of blending in–do you see it?

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A.B. Take 5–An hour later and the A.B. was still sucking.

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At the same time, another predator hid among the flowers–an ambush bug.

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This species is otherworldly at best.

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And talented. The ambush bug waits patiently and then snatches prey with its knife-like pincers. All but the outer shell of the prey is consumed. I swear this guy was smiling. Maybe he’d enjoyed a feast and I’d missed it.

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A.B. Take 6–About two hours after I’d first observed it, I returned and couldn’t find the bee. Then I noticed a motionless body on a flower branch below. Apparently A.B. had sucked all the life out of it and then let it go.

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A.B. The Final Take–It had finished taking and went in search of another victim.

What I know for sure: While goldenrod may rule the late garden, it is also ruled by many in a bug-eat-bug world. All of it is worth a wonder.