Not Just An Insect

Out of curiosity, and because it’s something I do periodically, I’ve spent the last four days stalking our gardens. Mind you, I do not have a green thumb and just about any volunteer is welcome to bloom, especially if it will attract pollinators.

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iWhat I’ve discovered is that in sunshine and rain, the place is alive with action from Honeybees and Gnats . . .

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to Paper Wasps,

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and even several Great Black Wasps, their smoky black wings shining with blue iridescence as they frantically seek nourishment and defend territories (including letting this particular human know that she’s not welcome at the party by aggressively flying at her).

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Bumblebees were also full of buzz and bluster and it was they who reminded me of one important fact.

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The color of the storage baskets on their hind legs depends upon the color of the pollen grains in the plants they’ve visited.

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There were millions of other insects, well, maybe not millions, but hundreds at least, flying and sipping and buzzing and hovering and crawling and even canoodling, the latter being mainly Ambush Bugs with the darker and smaller male atop the female.

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And then, because I was looking, I discovered an insect in the process of being wrapped for a meal intended for later consumption. I’ve long been fascinated by Ambush Bugs and Assasin Bugs and this, the Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia. What’s not to love? She’s an orb weaver, meaning she spins a complex circular web, in this case among tall plants, that features spokes which are non-sticky that she uses to walk upon, and round wheels that are sticky to capture prey. The web is the size of a platter. A large platter. And . . . every night she consumes the entire thing and rebuilds a new one for the next day. In the process of consuming the threads, she can take advantage of any little insects like mosquitoes that get caught in the stickiness, but it’s the bigger insects that she prefers to eat.

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Do you see the rather conspicuous zigzaggy line down the middle of the web? That’s called the stabilimentum and may have several purposes: providing stability; attracting insects with the multiple threads like an ultraviolet runway such as the colorful lines and dots on plants; or perhaps announcing to birds that they shouldn’t fly through the web. Whatever the reason, it’s in the center of the stabilimentum that the spider hangs in suspension, waiting for the dinner bell to announce ring.

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Though she has eight eyes, her vision is poor. But . . . her hairy legs may also help in the detection that a meal has arrived, perhaps signaling sound and smell, plus she can sense the vibrations.

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Once captured, she injects a venom (that is harmless to us bipeds) to immobilize her subject and then begins to spin a sac around it.

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Remember, I’ve been watching her for four days, while she’s hanging upside down playing the waiting game and showing off her egg-shaped abdomen with its asymmetrical yellow markings on the carapace (much like a turtle’s shell) to her silver-haired head.

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Some days I felt like she might just be Charlotte, writing a message only Wilbur could interpret.

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And one day she surprised me by turning right-side up. It was then that I was offered a closer look at those little bumps on her head that serve as eyes. And the pedipalps, those two little hairy appendages sticking up on her head that work like sensory organs.

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An hour or so after finding her upright, when I checked again, I thought she’d gone missing. Instead, I discovered she’d climbed to the top of one of the plants upon which she’d spun her web.

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Perhaps she was surveying the area as she waved her front legs, looking about her domain.

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A day later, a new web, and another meal packaged, and slowly my buzzers were being consumed. But, she also likes grasshoppers and crickets and the garden is full of them.

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And then this morning dawned, with T.S. Henri in the offing and a few raindrops upon a broken web announcing the storm’s intended arrival. Wait. The web–it had holes but had not been entirely consumed. That wasn’t all, yesterday’s meal also hadn’t been consumed. And the spider was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and down and all around and couldn’t find her. Had she meant to save the meal, waiting for her venom to pre-digest it by liquifying the internal organs and in flew something larger than her and dinner went uneaten? Had our time together come to an end just like that?

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I wasn’t going to let the issue go, and so I continued to search, and guess who I found about three feet away upon a new web?

Even more exciting was the discovery that I can see her from the kitchen window AND, the view is of her underside so I can actually see her brown spinnerets at the end of her abdomen and maybe I’ll get to watch her capture a meal.

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Well, so I thought, but two hours later, when I next looked, I realized I’d missed the action and she’d already securely wrapped her latest victim–all that was still visible was a leg.

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Though the prey may be one, this is NOT just another insect in the midst of my quest. Actually, it’s not an insect at all for spiders are arachnids, with eight legs versus an insect’s six. She may be scary big, as well as carnivorous, but she is beneficial to the garden as she helps control insect populations, including some pests.

And how do I know she is a she? Her male counterpart I’ve yet to meet, but he’s much smaller and all brown, unlike her beautiful coloration.

There’s more to this story I’m sure and I look forward to learning more about her as I try to interpret the messages she leaves. If you have a chance, go out and stalk your gardens and be wowed by what you find.

Mondate Blues

Ah rain. We need rain. I love rain. Our weary land that was so parched in June is suddenly refreshed by rain. And our plans are changed by rain, but that’s okay because it provides opportunities for us to consider other trails than those intended.

And so it was that we headed onto a local community forest this morning between rain drops.

The trail, terrain, plants, and weather gave us the sense of wandering in Scotland. Or perhaps that was wishful thinking.

As we explored, our hopes lifted as hang clouds decorated the backdrop behind erratic boulders.

And birds like this handsome Field Sparrow sang and gathered food, presumably for nestlings.

In the mix, Catbirds meowed.

But what mattered most to me were the insects and I expected so many, but was disappointed by so few. I did spy this Band Net-Winged Beetle on a Spirea, its bright coloration shouting a footnote of its offensive taste to predators.

Similar in Halloween costume color choices was the Small Milkweed Beetle, its main plant source a week or two past, but note the heart on its back–a sign of forever love. Interestingly, Small Milkweed Beetles help gardeners enjoy the milkweed plant and the butterflies that are attracted to them without having to worry that milkweed may overtake the garden.

To keep the party going, a Blue and Red Checkered Beetle happened onto the scene. Checkered Beetles occur where there’s a large supply of nectar and pollen.

Of course, with all this goodness, there has to be at least one in hiding–in this case a Goldenrod Crab Spider on a Bristly Sarsaparilla.

We spied him as we walked out with a sandwich from Eaton Village Store on our minds, and then again as we hiked in for a second time and then finally out again.

Upon our return, though it had poured as we ate, the rain abated and Ossipee Lake made itself visible.

It was on that second visit that I finally noted a honeybee working frantically to fill its honey pots.

So did small skippers such as this Dun Skipper upon the early blossom of Joe Pye Weed, his proboscis probing the not yet opened flowers.

With the rain abating, the Pye Weed soon became a plant of choice. Among its guests was a Great Spangled Fritillary all decked out in stripes, dots, and commas.

Because the flower hadn’t fully opened, the Fritillary’s proboscis curled in true butterfly behavior.

Suddenly, or so it seemed as the temp slightly rose, pollinators came out of hiding, including a Silver Spotted Skipper, its spot shouting its name.

Toward the end of our adventure, my heart rejoiced with the spot of a Green Lacewing, one of the subtle offerings in the wooded landscape.

It was just such a landscape that appealed to us today and we tossed all other trail choices into the pot for future expeditions. If you know my guy, you know what is to come.

Little fruit morsels became the object of his attention.

You and I know them as Low-bush Blueberries.

He knows them as the source of his Blueberry Greed.

All in all, he filled a couple of bags (and I helped! a little bit, that is). I have to say that I was amazed by the sight of all the little blue fruits for so few seemed the pollinators of the day. What I’ve shared with you was it. Literally. In number.

Yesterday my friend Joe Scott, an avid birder, shared this information with me from a New Hampshire Bird Listserve:

“The absence of insects obviously impacts insectivorous bird species. In Knight Hill Nature Park in New London, [NH] for the last two weeks, there have been 27 fully blooming butterfly weed plants, hundreds of common milkweed plants and two pollinator apartment blocks, but no insects! Oh, on any given day, perhaps one or two butterflies and half a dozen bumble bees. Ten years ago, at this time of year, these plants would be covered with butterflies, bees and other insects, as many as 20 species of butterflies and 10 species of bees.”

Today’s Mondate Blues represents those who don’t like the rain, or my guy and his blueberry greed, or the lack of pollinators or my color of choice. I’m just happy that we got out there and found so many sources of goodness on this wet day.

Summer Solstice Sweetness

My dear friend Carissa sent me an e-mail about this week being Pollinator Week and challenged me to write about it. Her inspiration came from an e-mail she’d received from Natureworks Horticultural Services in Northford, Connecticut–part of our old stomping grounds as babes, toddlers, tweens and teens. (She grew up in Northford, while I grew up on the other side of the tracks in North Branford–two distinct villages that formed one town.)

Part of the message included this passage: “Happy Pollinator Week. There really is a week for that? You betcha. Pollinators are vital to life on this planet. And, at Natureworks, we are teaching our customers to protect and help pollinators every single day. It all starts with an organic garden. It includes planting lots of pollinator-friendly flowers. It continues with the way you manage your landscape and the way your community manages their public spaces. Pollinators are in decline around the world. We need to take this seriously. Let me just say . . .  we have the plants for that!

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And then another friend, Pam, invited me to join her on a mini-hike to Foss Mountain today in Eaton, New Hampshire, and it all came full circle. To travel here with Pam was an incredible opportunity because she had some personal experience with the property and shared the local lore, including a story about a peddler who long ago repeatedly traveled a road that crosses the mountain and apparently spent some time canoodling with another man’s woman. And then, on one of those journeys, the peddler vanished into thin air–never to be seen or heard from again.

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Pam’s brother and sister-in-law had previously owned the land we were about to explore, but it’s now owned by the Town of Eaton and is protected in perpetuity by the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust. The property is managed by the Eaton Conservation Commission, which maintains the trail and blueberry fields.

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The blueberry fields were really a sign of early succession following a 150+ year history as pasture land. According to information posted on one of the three kiosks, there was a description of the farming heritage that included along the timeline the decade that the fields reverted to blueberries, juniper and gray birch, and the man who oversaw the blueberry crop–Frank French.

At some point along that timeline, the Brooks family homesteaded there, but not much was known about them. Pam and I wandered about the remaining cellar hole as we tried to interpret the scene, but didn’t quite understand all that we saw. (We sure wished our friend Janet had been able to join us and add her understanding of such historical sites.)

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We continued on the short journey upward, passing through a pleasant White and Red Pine forest along a well-defined trail with switchbacks to help eliminate erosion.

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Suddenly, the natural community changed and we entered an open area where White-throated Sparrows serenaded us with their “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” song. Sheep Laurel surprised us with its bright pink flowers, but . . . we spied no pollinators.

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We also discovered a cinquefoil growing abundantly among the rocks, and though it had a few pollinators, it was just that–only a few.

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Now allow me to interrupt with an explanation of the common name for this cinquefoil or Sibbaldiopsis tridentata: it’s known as Three-toothed (tridentata) for the three teeth at the tip of each leaflet. Do you see them?

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Though we only saw a few pollinators among the cinquefoil, the abundance of blueberries suggested a lot of previous action. A few blueberries had already ripened. We conducted a taste test and suggest you totally avoid Foss Mountain this summer for we certainly couldn’t taste the sunshine in those little blue morsels. (And my nose just grew longer–Pinocchio-style.)

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As we reached the summit, we shifted our attention from flowers and pollinators to the 360˚ view that surrounded us.

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In every direction . . .

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we relished the sight . . .

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of blueberry plants . . .

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and mountains–including the Ossipee, Belknap and Presidential ranges.

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After a lunch break in the middle of this longest day, we started down and made more discoveries–including the sweet flowers of Blue-eyed Grass and its fruits indicating it had been pollinated.

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And nearby on a Red Clover . . .

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a bumblebee sought nectar while simultaneously filling its pollen sacs.

But in the whole scheme of things, we saw few pollinators and wondered–what’s up? This is an organic field and public space, as Carissa’s contact at Natureworks encouraged. And yet . . . Pam and I weren’t able to answer all our questions today.

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But . . . as we looked upon the abundant blueberry crop before us on this first day of summer, we gave thanks for those who had protected the land and those who had performed the mighty act of pollination despite adversity and we looked forward to the sweetness that will follow this Summer Solstice.

What’s So Special About Bee Balm?

I have childhood memories of ugly red bee balm plants surrounding a maple tree in our front yard. In addition to being ugly, what really bothered me about this flower was the smell. The scent tickled my nose in an unpleasant manner and gave me an instant headache.

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And then I grew up. Well, I suppose that’s questionable, but what did happen is I came to appreciate the showy flower and aromatic scent. (Funny thing is, an infusion of crushed, boiled bee balm flowers apparently treats headaches–I should have used it to treat the very symptom it caused. It has many other medicinal uses as well.)

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This summer, like others, I waited in anticipation.

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Even before it bloomed, its leafy bracts showcased a fluid beauty.

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And those leaves set at right angles to the square stem offered a crossroads where color and texture met.

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Finally . . .

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with the aid of raindrops

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and sunshine, the bracts pulled away and revealed star-capped tubes nestled within.

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Ever so slowly, flowers began to emerge.

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With a hat reminiscent of a jester, they crowned the plant.

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Stamens projected from the tubular upper lip, while below, three slender lips provided a landing pad for visiting insects seeking nectar-filled sweetness.

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Like me, the pollinators’ eyes shone brightly

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as they sought

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fulfillment.

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I’ve spent many moments starring–in awe and wonder–at the structure, simple yet complex, and all of its idiosyncrasies.

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And I know I’m not the only female who stops by to soak in the glory of this old-fashioned perennial.

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What’s so special about bee balm? Everything.

P.S. This one is for you, Jinny Mae, because you, too, are special.

 

Buzzin’ ‘Bout

 Air traffic control to Flight 233. Over.

Flight 233 approaching runway. Over.

Runway lights are on, Flight 233. Have a safe landing. Over.

OK, so I have no idea what a conversation between air traffic control and a pilot really is, but I do know that some plants have runways to guide pollinators. And by the way–233 on a phone=BEE.

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Have you ever seen a more beautiful runway than the one on an iris?

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With their banner, wings and keels, the pea-like structure of the lupine is different, but . . .

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it’s a favorite for a variety of pollinators.

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A nip of nectar

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and a dash of pollen

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makes for a happy bumblebee and a happy flower. The bee’s orange pollen basket is almost full.

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Some wildflowers don’t need pollination to produce viable seeds, but when a visitor drops by for a sip, some pollen will attach to its fuzzy body and be transported to the next plant.

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Notice the hairiness below the flower of the orange hawkweed–I’ve read that that’s an attempt to keep slow moving insects, like ants, from coming in for a treat–they prefer flying insects. Rather picky.

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Though chive blossoms consist of numerous flowers that are perfect, in that they each have both male and female parts, they can’t self-pollinate because the stamen sheds pollen before the pistil is ready.

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Thus, they depend on flying pollinators to deal with the timing issue.

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Like the hobblebush I mentioned in earlier posts, the daisy consists of a ray of white sterile flowers surrounding a disk of yellow fertile flowers.

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It had just opened today, but already is attracting attention.

So many different guiding lights. Thanks for buzzin’ ’bout with me on this nectar flight.