December 20, 2014
The Christmas season has gotten me in the mood to talk about things hanging on trees. Un-natural tree ornaments abound in the form of Christmas tree decorations inside and gaudy light creations draped on yard trees outside. We don’t do the yard light thing at our place, but we do tend to put quite a few atypical ornaments on our Christmas tree. I am constantly reminded on how unusual some of them are. For those raised within the low oxygen atmosphere of our family they make perfect sense but for those “outside” this tradition they invoke odd questions. For instance, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t have a few squirrel chewed walnuts or miniature muskrat skinning boards (decorated as Santa) hanging on their tree.
This year, my son-in-law had the audacity to ask my why we had a badminton birdie as an ornament. My silent reaction was one of slight shock – as in “and you ask this why?” Fortunately I recovered in time to explain that, first of all, this was a vintage badminton birdie of the type that used real chicken feathers as opposed to the modern plastic fringed examples, but seeing that was equally inexplicable I went on to explain that it looked like a shooting star – or the Star of Bethlehem. That worked.
In nature, ornaments of all types are evident. Like the birdie they require some explanation to achieve appreciation. Oak Bullet Galls and Bagworm cases are two good examples.
Rough Bullet Galls are the creations of a tiny big-butted wasp labeled with the tongue-twisting name of Disholcaspis quercusmamma (a species name literally meaning “oak tits”). They afflict Burr Oak Trees. The galls are clustered, woody, and acorn-like with pointed tips. Some trees are covered with these structures and retain them for years. Most of the winter galls are punctured by a neat little hole indicating that the adult insects have successfully pupated and emerged.
The simple version of the gall wasp story is that they chew their way out in October or November, seek out the winter buds, and lay their eggs on them. The larvae emerge the following spring and their activity stimulates the tree to form a new gall which grows larger over the course of the summer. The more detailed version of the story is slightly odder. Wasps emerging in the fall are all female. These gals produce their eggs without the benefit of male intervention (a horrid thought if you are a male reader).
The final details of this story have only recently been uncovered by researchers. Apparently they’ve discovered an alternate generation in which both males and females are produced. These sexual forms issue from little galls, mate, and proceed to lay their eggs in the usual fashion. So, you see, Oak Tit galls offer much more than their initial appearance would suggest.
Bagworms offer yet another ornament with a story. Winter bagworm bags fall into two categories: empty ones, with pupa casings sticking out, and those containing egg clusters. I present a single example here which I can confidently say was built by a male Bagworm. The bag itself was constructed out of cedar scales by the developing larva as it fed upon the leaves and this structure served as a mobile retreat until late last summer. At that point the creature secured the thing to a branch with stout silk lashings, reversed direction to face downward, and split its skin to form a pupa.
Look carefully at the lower end of this bag and you’ll see the empty skin of the old pupae sticking out. The resident emerged sometime in September or Early October and sought out a female.
Female bagworms never leave their bag immediately after pupation due to the fact that they are wingless. In fact, they are among the ugliest of natural females with no eyes, no working legs, and no functional mouthparts. Grub like and pale, they have an odd fringe of glossy “fur” around the terminus of their ample bottom which adds absolutely nothing to their appeal. Male Bagworms locate the females and mate with them through the opening at the bottom of the bag. They never actually see their mates and this is probably for the betterment of bagworm fertility (no jokes about bag ladies here). The impregnated female eventually lays her load of eggs inside the bag and dies. Usually she crawls out and drops to ground to complete her unglamorous life.
Two natural ornaments, two fascinating life stories that would make even an antique badminton birdie blush.
December 14, 2014
The best time to write about ice is early in the winter season when it is still a novelty. It loses much of its magic “fairydust” quality by mid-season and becomes downright evil by the time January is laid to rest. In short, ice rhymes with nice in December and with lice in February. Ice also photographs better early in the season before the rest of the landscape becomes coated with whiteness and all waters become solid. This perception is purely personal, I suspect, but don’t expect that many folks would disagree with me.
There is no deadlier combination than an amateur digital photographer and a frigid December day. Such a mix leads to multiple useless “Art Shots” suitable only for computer screen backgrounds and postings by amateur nature photographers. Thus, I explain the images attached to this chapter of Naturespeak.
My December day, and resulting shots, issued from the banks of the Red Cedar River in Williamston, MI. I’m not sure how I ended up there, but it had something to do with a car and a half day to kill. There might have been a talking Chipmunk involved, but I can’t fully recall the details. The temperature was hovering in the low twenties and the earth was covered with a carpet of heavy frost. Even the trailside garbage looked attractive ornamented as it was with hoar frost, but I chose more photogenic subjects. A small South American monkey could have taken these shots, but no diminutive forest primate is capable of describing them properly. A talking Chipmunk could, but that is beside the point.
Another side effect of art photography is the use of overly poetic descriptions. As you can see I was intrigued by the shoreline ice which sent steely blue bayonets marching out to conquer the yet unfrozen water of the river. You see, that is what happens. Here are a few shots of shore ice and I am talking about bayonets. Sad, isn’t it? One must suffer for his art.
Sun is the enemy of frost. As the morning waned, old Sol was rising and melting the work of old Jack (frost). Shadows tried in vain to shield the morning ice from the warming rays but without hope of success. Of course, vain means without hope of succeeding and it was totally unnecessary for me to have said it in the same sentence but art required of me to do it. You must read this and feel the suffering of art as represented by repetitious sentences. Yes, repetitious sentences that repeat over and over like frost forming and dying day after day repeatedly.
Frost shadows hang onto the perimeters of the real shadows until they eventually lose the race and are vaporized. You can see this phenomenon dramatically depicted in a series I call my “Bottom Edge of a Chicken Wire Frost Shadow on a River Board Walk in December” set. I like the temporary nature of frost shadows. It’s too bad I caved into my South American monkey instincts and made them permanent.
My last shot is the least remarkable in terms of artiness, but I post it here because of what it represents. It is an effort to salvage some sense of scientific value to this blog. You see large fuzzy green Mullein leaves remain fuzzy and green throughout the winter months. Part of their resilience stems from the fact that they never indulge in art photography, but their fuzziness also has a role. Liquid water cannot freeze directly on the leaves because it is held above the surface by velvety hairs. Here you can see frozen beads of so ice suspended on a Mullein leaf. And you’ll notice that the ice beads have hoar frost attached to them – ice on ice. Nice.
Come to think of it, South American Monkeys have soft short hair too. I suppose they could also avoid freezing just like Mullein leaves do but they’d have to keep still and close to the ground in order to pull it off. Come to think of it, a minor monkey lying still on the winter ground and covered with hoar frost is called a dead monkey, so we’d better get off this line of narrative and put this one to bed. Art has reared its head high enough for now. Sleep well my digital camera; your human will take you on another adventure soon.
December 7, 2014
I’ve addressed the personal life of my backyard maple tree several times over the years. The Red Maple stands within clear view from the house and is situated directly opposite the back door. Sadly, the tree is slowly dying from within. It is riddled with cavities and rains down dead branches with every passing wind storm. Someday it may take out a corner of my ramshackle back porch if the wind spirits deem it so. Even so, I appreciate it too much to have it removed. Not yet. Even in slow decline it is full of life.
Some of the life present in, on, and around the tree are present only because the thing is in decline. A regular stream of woodpeckers, from tiny Downies to medium Red-bellies freely peck away at the dead branches to retrieve grubs. Large laughing Flickers hop about the base to lap up carpenter ants. Upside-down Nuthatches probe bark crannies from above and right-side up Brown Creepers investigate them from below.
Huge Horntail Sawflies show up from time to time to deposit their eggs deep into the wood. The hatching larvae spend several years tunneling through the trunk on their way to eventual maturity – spreading fungus as they go. The adults appear to be armed with a formidable horn off the end of their abdomen. They are not wasps, however, and this is not a stinger. It is only an ornament. The well-named horntails will assume a menacing pose and flaunt this pseudo-stinger in the air if threatened. It’s a good act and one certain to deter all but the most determined of predators and timid people.
One large cavity located in the main trunk has hosted a parade of alternating tenants over the past five years. The first major occupation, beginning about five years ago, was a family of Red Squirrels. This active little gang enlivened the tree with a half dozen little squirrelets which poured into and out of the cavity all summer long. The tenants enlarged the entrance to suit their needs and brazenly stole cardboard and paper from my shed (trashing it in the process) to fill it.
After a lull in the squirrel action the following year, a colony of honeybees established themselves in the hole. They re-altered the hole to fit their needs. By applying thick layer of resinous “bee glue” (propolis) around the edges, they narrowed the opening according to the honeybee pattern book. Inside they constructed intricate hanging combs, according to the same book, and filled them with eggs, stores of honey, and pollen.
The colony thrived into the following autumn but was stopped cold – literally – by the intensity of last winter. It appears that they were doing fine as of mid-season, but the prolonged and intense cold was too much for them to handle and the entire colony died.
After a summer of vacancy, Red Squirrels moved back into the cavity this past fall. I doubt they were the original squirrels, but probably the offspring with a nostalgic opinion of cavity life. Pieces of the old bee comb began appearing on the ground at the base of the tree as the squirrels cleaned up the mess. Most of the old combs were simply cast out whole. Starvation drove the bees to completely empty the combs so there wasn’t even enough honey remaining for a squirrel tongue to probe. One of the pieces revealed the beautiful freeform design typical of a wild hive unconstrained by frames and supers.
Chewing away most of the old bee glue, the squirrels further altered the cavity to meet the requirements outlined in their design book. So, it looks like the Reds will once again rule the maple tree hole this winter. Out with the old and in with the renew.
November 30, 2014
I spotted a group of Wild Turkeys sneaking about the back woods of a Grand Rapids condo complex on Thanksgiving Day. Although they are totally unaware of the significance of the day and its deadly consequences, they somehow looked more worried than usual. That, of course, is purely a figment of human imagination. As a responsible naturalist, I suppose I should go on with this thread and discuss the importance of the turkey in human culture etc. etc. but I am not feeling responsible at this moment (perhaps it is the dose of triptipaine, or triptoknick-nack, or whatever you call it, that comes from a thanksgiving turkey meal).No, I feel like talking about turkey poo.
There were several specimens of the kind lying about the place for examination. Unlike their creators, these subjects sat very still for their portraits. As even marginal wild Turkey enthusiasts will tell you, the sex of an individual depositor determines the shape of its deposit. In other words, hen poo is different from gobbler poo. Gobbler and Jake (young males) droppings are “J” shaped while Hen or Jenny (young females) droppings tend to be spiral or just plain piled.
Unfortunately this is not an exact science and it leads to some interesting descriptions when discussed. For instance, male poo is also labeled as “walking cane” or “straight” shaped and females as “curly cued.” One website gets it a_ _ -backwards and attributes the “J” terds to the females. While it appears to be a fact that there is some sexual differentiation in Turkey feces, there is enough gray area between curly cue and j-shaped to create confusion. Diet also determines appearance. A bird eating lots of fruits and green plants will lay down a shapeless poo pile that would make any diarrhea ridden yip-yap dog proud. A good “fun fact” needs to be black and white, but nature rarely allows this. So, in this case it is best to use phrases such as “tend to be” to cover your own a_ _.
It is even funnier to track down some of the explanations offered to explain the difference between gobbler and hen poo. I offer these as someone who does not truly know himself, but is smart enough not to attempt one. One published account basically claims than hens have bigger butts – stretched out from egg-laying -and this creates less constriction and thus looser lay-downs. Given that hens don’t deposit their eggs through their poop chute, this is a problematic theory at best. Some claim that the gals wait longer between “deposit events” and therefore make larger creations when they do doo. The males, on the other hand, just let it go whenever and wherever they feel the need. They also claim that the males perform a little dance when finishing off their pooping event – like putting that final swirl on a soft-serve cone.
Again, allow me to state that I don’t really know anything in this fecal matter, but I would suggest that the latter explanation is wrong because turkey droppings, like all bird droppings, are pee-poop packets. Bird droppings are both No. 1 and No. 2 combined into a neat (or not so neat) package. The white part of the dropping (the uric acid or pee part of the dropping) comes out first as far as I know. This is the part that creates the curl when present. Unfortunately for the “dancing gobbler” school this means that a final twist of the rear would create a curl in the solid, darker portion of the poo – not the white portion. If slow motion photography shows a gobbler doing the dance during the initial, rather than the final, phase of deposition, then I will stand corrected in this matter.
I do believe that I’ve irresponsibly beaten this topic into the ground sufficiently to cut it off with a little dance step myself. I can not claim that the turkeys I photographed had anything to do with these droppings because they were old examples and because the birds in question were hens. I leave you with two poo portraits which I would claim to be male deposits – one due to its straightness and the other to its J-hook. Either way, however, this is good sh_ _.
November 23, 2014
One of the un-expected sights of late fall, framed within the background of burnt umber oak leaves and the lemon yellow Tamaracks of Northern Michigan, are baby snapping turtles. Such a thing really shouldn’t be unexpected, however. It is true that most baby snappers emerge in late summer and early fall, but a substantial number don’t surface until very late in the season. Some, in fact, overwinter inside their eggs and hatch the following spring.
I guess it’s all about counting backwards. It takes 11-12 weeks of incubation to produce a hatchling turtle. Snapping Turtles females do not attend to their eggs after they are laid so the incubating is performed by Ma Nature and the warmth of her soil. The peak time for adult snappers to lay their eggs is in June (at least in Southern Michigan), but individuals will lay their clutches throughout the summer. Those depositing their eggs in the latter part of August are responsible for the late autumn crop of young snappers. Those who opt to choose later dates (if a wild animal can be said to “opt”) will produce either frozen little turtles or spring babies.
On two consecutive late fall weekends up north, I encountered hatchling snappers. One was lingering in the shallows right at my dock on Dollar Lake and the other was traversing across a sandy hill, headed for the water, in Alpena. Hatchlings like this are distinctive due to their finely sculpted little shells – still soft and pliable at this stage – and their extremely long tails. No other native turtle comes close in the tail length department. I’m guessing this was evolution’s way of making up for the embarrassing lack of bottom shell on this species.
All hatchling turtles have a belly button – an umbilical scar indicating where the egg yolk was formally attached. This scar eventually disappears as the scutes of the plastron (lower shell) converge on the growing turtle. In other words, adult turtles do not have belly buttons but babies do – which could make for an interesting true/false question if you wish to trick someone or simply want to be an intolerable pain in the asterisk (just ask “do turtles have belly buttons?” A “No” or “Yes” answer would be equally wrong without explanation). My backyard turtlelet, as well as the sandhill individual, had fresh umbilical scars. They were both about the size of the egg from which they had recently escaped, which was about 1 inch in diameter. Most importantly they both still retained their egg tooth.
Take a good look at my pictures and you’ll notice the egg tooth as a whitish bump located just under their pig-like noses. It gleams like a date night pimple. This temporary structure is believed to assist the emerging turtle to cut open the leathery skin of the shell when hatching. Made of keratin (the same material that constitutes the tough body scales) the egg tooth drops off soon after the hatchling enters the big world.
Both of these little fellows are to be celebrated because they have successfully beat the odds so far. Sometimes nearly 90% of a yearly crop of snapper eggs are destroyed by raccoons, skunks, and other nest predators. Hatching is only one of the hurdles that a baby turtle has to clear on the way to adulthood. Since their parents can lay eggs as far as a mile from water, their young must undertake a dangerous overland trip to the nearest water. Crows, foxes, coyotes and all manner of beasts will eat tender young turtles. Even in the “safety” of the water large fish, herons, and even muskrats will feed on the turtles as long as they remain small and their shell soft. Once passing through this initial gauntlet, the rest of a snapper’s life is relatively free of trouble save for automobiles and turtle trappers. At this point they have the potential to turn the predation tables around, although they actually tend toward the herbivorous side of the scale.
My Dollar Lake snapperlet had reached the water on its own by the time I found it. I returned it to the water after subjecting the patient beast to a series of fashion shots. My Alpena hatchling was walking over a patch of open sand and was about as exposed as a turtle could be. The surrounding sand was littered with turtle shell pieces which had been scattered over the surface by nest robbing raccoons. I could not resist posing a fake hatching picture, shown below, before I was finished. Call it artistic license. The actual egg shell remains below the surface within the old nest.
Just to set your mind at ease, I did deliver the creature down a substantial hill to the river before leaving. I’ve no doubt that the next time we meet this belly-buttoned Snapper will be more than happy to bite the hand that once helped it. I would expect nothing less.
November 15, 2014
A few weeks ago I spotted a minor buck – a meager example of a four pointer (actually a three and a half pointer) – approach a small herd of does in a field south of West Branch, MI. The sun was setting and the fellow obviously had high hopes for a wild party night. The big bucks were elsewhere and he was performing a bit of Cervid Carpe Diem. Unfortunately, the gals were not about to allow him to seize their day, or night, for that matter. One by one they scooted away as he approached.
My intention here is not to document the exploits of a frustrated buck and risk embarrassing him back at the dork buck club. Rather, I’d like to focus on one aspect of his behavior called the Flehmen response. Our minor buck frequently stopped to smell the “Eau de Doe” in order to determine the reproductive status of the females surrounding him. He lifted his head up, curled his upper lip into what could be described as an open-mouthed sneer, and held that pose for extended period. He was processing the air-borne pheromones which charged the air with sexual energy.
It is not enough to just sniff the air through the nostrils to detect pheromones. The Flehman response allows for a direct shot of scent laden air to enter the vomeronasal organ (aka Jacobson’s Organ) located between the upper palette and the nasal opening. The nostril openings are closed during this action and the air stream enters via a pair of openings located on the roof of the mouth just behind the lips. Sensory endings in the Jacobson’s Organ are quick to read the phermonal message and relay the information to the buck’s brain. It conveys either a green light or a stop sign for the buck’s aspirations.
All manner of mammals, from cats to horses, perform the Flehman response. In fact, if you have a few minutes and are looking for a laugh, just Google the term “flehman” and you will get a flood of ridiculous smiling horse pictures. A flehmening buck lacks the upper row of front teeth found on horses, so their appearance is slightly less cheesy looking but presents an equaling interesting picture.
October 18, 2014
The natural world is ripe with imitation. It is the ultimate form of flattery (and self-preservation) to look like something else – especially if that something else is inedible. Take a dry leaf, for example. Only a low life decomposer would even consider a dead leaf as food, so many insects wear a dead leaf costume in order to convince hungry predators to overlook them. Moths are especially prone to this disguise tactic because the structure of their wings lends itself well to such fakery.
On a day when brown windblown leaves were tousling about, I spotted this Geometer Moth clinging to the rough bark of a Red Maple. The adult form of twig-imitating “inchworms,” geometer moths extend this youthful deception to become grown up leaves.
It might seem that such a disguise fails when it is exposed against the dark background of a tree trunk. After all, I spotted the thing from a dozen feet away. But, then again, it had such a good leaf look that I doubt that even a savvy predator would discern this from the millions of other leaves blowing about. This individual had the additional effects of age to enhance its outfit. Multiple tears – not part of the original wing design – gave it the truly authentic worn look of a crackled October leaf.
Because the tears are not genetic parts of the camouflage look, this moth will not pass on these traits to the next generation. Probably the result of a short life of heavy use, they will likely insure that this critter will survive its full short life before succumbing to a natural death from the chills of autumn.
October 13, 2014
Much of the life of Funnel Weaver Spiders involves a waiting game. Instead of pursuing prey like wolf spiders or animated jumping spiders, they spin flat sheet webs and wait for insect prey to walk across the surface. The killer waits inside a special side chamber (the “funnel”) until signaled to emerge by the vibrations generated from tiny feet crossing the web. A quick dash, followed by a fatal bite secures the prey and renders it a meal. When the mating urge is felt, the males abandon their web and go courting – fully realizing in their instinctive little brains that this risky behavior is necessary for the propagation of the species. Ah, the things they will do for love.
Female Funnel Weaver spiders wait within their liars until prospective mates come a knocking. For a male of the species this is a tricky prospect because knocking at any funnel weaver’s door is tantamount to inviting yourself for dinner – as in YOU being the dinner. When that doorway frames a hungry female, about a third larger than you, the danger is even greater. Although no self-respecting spider would admit it, the empty carcasses of dead insects lining the path certainly don’t inspire confidence. So, before he can get down to business, the suitor must convince the female that he is not a meal but a mate.
He will dance about and wave his legs to signal manly intentions. Pedipalps – specialized male appendages to either side of the jaws – are moved to and fro like an airline worker guiding a landed jet to its gate. All this is intended to convince the potential Mrs. that he is a virile eight-legger and not a six-legged juice box. Once convinced, the female will allow her suitor to advance and begin his masculine task. To say the least spider foreplay is a creepy affair, but that which follows is fascinatingly boring.
I witnessed this drama taking place in my yard last week. A sizable female weaver (see first photo), who had maintained a funnel bridging the gap between an old barrel hoop and the siding of the house, received a late afternoon visitor. He ably subdued her into taking a passive legs-up pose but never let his guard down during the process which followed. While still slowly waving one of his pedipalps in the air he carefully engaged the other on her tender undersides.
The tips of the pedipalps are saucerlike with the inner surface of each sporting a black coiled organ called an embolus. They are maneuvered down to the female’s genital opening and the tip of the embolus inserted within. Then, the male pumps his semen into the female .To carry the airline analogy one step further, this process is more like fueling a jet and just about as exciting. One big difference here is that the process takes many hours (six hours or more in some cases!). And that, my dear readers, is not a spectator sport. I left to watch some corn growing across the road.
The male made his escape by nightfall (at least he was gone by the time I checked back much later). He will live to inseminate several more females before dying with a smile on his eight-eyed face. Females will also mate with several more males if they are given the opportunity. In the case of my yard spider, she retreated to the space under the siding and never appeared again. This could have been her third suitor for all I know. Unseen under the shingle, she would have laid several lens-shaped egg sacs containing 50-200 eggs which will pass the winter.
When the young emerge in the spring they will likely scamper over the desiccated remains of their mother who died peacefully in place after laying her eggs. There is much creepiness in the spider world but then again it is all about perspective isn’t it?
September 15, 2014
Second nature: something that should be natural and easy to do –such as a short piece on a small subject based upon a few moments of nature observation. Get it? Second, as in part of a minute, and…never mind.
You may recall my blog from a couple of installments ago in which I told the riveting details of my encounter with a Leafy Spurge Sphinx (a new species in Michigan). O.K., so it wasn’t riveting – I merely picked the thing up as it was crossing a Northern Michigan road. The only riveting part was when a truck nearly ran it over before I could nab it. At the time of writing I mentioned that I would await the coming pupal stage of this beast as the next point of interest in this story. Well, he has finally “taken the plunge” and I am duty-bound to bring you up to date.
Safe within the confines of its high-tech enclosure (a coffee cup partially filled with sandy soil) the caterpillar shed his colorful skin and converted to an intricately patterned pupa. It tunneled down about an inch and created a chamber whose walls were held together with a loose mat of silk before performing the transformation.
The pupa retains the caterpillar’s horn and spiracles (breathing holes), but otherwise displays – via outlines on the exterior of the casing – the new look it will have as a sleek adult. Large compound eyes sit opposite on a well-defined head. A long tongue has replaced the chewing mouthparts. Destined for sipping nectar from tubular flowers, the tongue appears down the center along with the two linear antennae. Both are framed between the leading edges of the folded mini-wings. The sixteen legs of youth have been reduced to six and they are neatly aligned with the tongue and antennae.
Inside this simple casing a remarkable transformation is occurring. The muscles of old are dissolved and re-created to serve powerful wings, tongue, and legs. Evidence that the abdominal muscles are already functioning, the creature wiggles freely when handled. This, of course, makes for riveting footage (see here) but we’ll have to wait until next spring before the final exciting chapter in this metamorphosis takes place. This thing is more moth now than caterpillar – straight and peaceful (unlike Darth Vader).
On the subject of non-caterpillars, Dogwood Sawfly larvae (see above) are chewing away at the refugee Gray Dogwood sapling next to my house. Although they look very caterpillar-like they are very not (odd wording, I know, but I’m sticking with it). Sawflies are closely related to bees and wasps and the adult stages bear this out. The larvae are plant eaters that live and eat like caterpillars and therefore have adapted like traits and appearances. There are a few distinctions that separate them from moth/butterfly (let’s call them lepidopteron) larvae, however.
Sawfly larvae have a solid head capsule with two prominent eyes, whereas lepidopterans typically have three sets of tiny eyes and a divided head capsule. The leps have only four sets of fleshy legs in the center of their body and the sawflies have six or more pair. Even though some caterpillars are colonial, Sawflies are always colony feeders so you rarely find just one.
Members of the family have the unusual habit of raising their hind ends when disturbed – as if to say “my butt to you.” The Dogwood sawflies take this to such an extreme that they actually curl up like miniature cinnamon rolls. Younger stages of this species, such as these examples, are covered with a waxy down.
These little fellows will lose that downiness and take on a smooth stark black and yellow skin as they approach their last stage of larvalhood. Like the sphinx moth they will burrow under the ground and overwinter as a pupa. Both the Spurge Sphinx and Dogwood Saw Fly will spend the winter as un-caterpillars: one as a “never was” and the other as a “used-to-be”.
August 17, 2014
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I’m pretty sure that women don’t like the phrase “honey-do” list. It universally implies a litany of “bothersome” husband oriented tasks, assigned by an “overbearing” wife, nearly always involving tools, sweat, and “easy” weekend projects such as replacing a patio and building a new one. I am not here to argue the merits of this phrase, or lack-of same, because I am one of those husband type people looking at his 35th…er, 36th year of marriage and would like to celebrate our 37th. No, I am here to present another type of honey-do list which is performed exclusively by, and pretty much only for, females. There are no delicate issues to dance around on this one. I’m talking about aphid farming, ya’ll.
Many species of ant engage in livestock farming. The activity is performed exclusively by the female workers for the purpose of maintaining and harvesting Honey Dew for what is basically an all female colony (the male drones only enter the scene later). The gang of black ants living in my…excuse me, our (sorry honey) yard at Dollar Lake are so engaged in this pastoral pursuit. Their pasture consists of a small bushy Balm of Gilead tree about ten feet from their door and about 50 feet from ours.
The cattle in this farm setting are aphids, aka plant lice. These sucking insects feed on the sugary plant sap. Because this fluid is low in essential Nitrogen, they must consume a whole lot of it in order to gain the essential amount of this chemical. This means that much of the sugar is excreted as waste – aka sweet pee or honey dew.
The sweet-loving ants harvest this crop in the manner of a dairy farmer milking his/her herd, although the details differ. Individuals will approach the hinder end of a fat little plant louse and tap it with their antennae. The aphid is thus prompted to produce a juicy bead of honey dew in response. This nectar the ant eagerly drinks and eventually transfers to other ants in the colony.
The ants are, for lack of a better name, Black Ants. I must resort to this generic description because I do not know the exact species. Of course I did not name the aphid species, but no one seems to care about that. Unfortunately, most folks don’t ask about ant types either. This is not a good thing, but I must not be hypocritical here. Except for Carpenter ants, Wood ants, and Auntie Em, my knowledge of ant species has remained fixed since a child. Back then there were only two ants in the world; black ants and red ants. One fought the other and that was that. Given that there are well over 12,000 species of ants in the world I suppose I could be forgiven for passing over this part of the discussion for the sake of the presenting the bigger picture.
This basic aphid/ant interaction certainly benefits the ants. At times it may seem like a one-sided interaction because a few of the aphids occasionally serve as meals on wheels. Just like human dairy farmers who regularly send some of their animals to slaughter, ant farmers eat a few of their aphid charges from time to time. The aphid colony, in spite of these occasional individual sacrifices, do ultimately benefit from this arrangement. Beyond performing the obvious waste disposal service (preventing fungus formation in certain cases) the ants serve as shepherds. They vigorously protect their precious aphids from wandering predators such as ladybug larvae and wasps. In other words, more aphids survive under antcare than without. Since both sides benefit, this type of plus-plus interaction is called mutualism (or symbiosis if you prefer).
I stand on the shoulders of others – or under their feet – when it comes to explaining the realities of aphid farming. I can claim little more than observing big insects surrounding clusters of tiny weak ones. Researchers have spent long hours investigating this phenomenon. One of the more fascinating aspects, involving the use of chemicals agents, was investigated by a team from Imperial College London, Royal Holloway University, and the University of Reading. Not only do some ants keep their charges in line by physically moving and herding aphids, but they also lay down chemicals with their feet that act as invisible fences. Aphids attempting to cross over these chemical fences were observed to significantly slow down as if they were treading on fly paper. There is also some evidence that other “semiochemicals” exuded by the ants prevent mature aphids from sprouting wings and flying away (which is how aphid colonies spread).
Such a complex interaction, taking place but a few yards from my door, is worthy of much more discussion but I must end it for now. You see I have a few honeyd….er, things that I must attend to.
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