Archive for the ‘bugs’ Category

The Moth Post

June 18, 2012

I figured I could wait to visit the bathroom until after I went to the store for the tortillas.  It seemed wrong to ask my husband to go for them, in the interest of getting the dinner in the oven in a reasonable amount of time, since he would never find them but would instead return home to tell me that the Stop & Shop a half mile from our house doesn’t carry them. Aisle seven, by the way.

My light rig-UV light with a Mercury Vapor light attached to a tripod. The UV hangs from the top of the sheet.

After that I thought I better get out there and set up my new mothing rig while there was plenty of light to spare. Since it’s a new one, I could run into a few snags and I wanted to be able to see so I could sort them out. Emptying my bladder would have to wait.

I dashed to the store, finished the dinner and got started on that light set-up and it was all-systems-go by the time sundown came. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in renal failure yet, so I snapped some photos of a couple of moths I saw out by the front porch. Since I work as a mom, wife and naturalist I am, well, a whiz at putting off certain private functions in favor of activities that move the family ship of state forward. Somehow, moths have gotten be a feature on my “must do” list, seemingly ahead even of vital bodily functions. To say that I am a multi-tasker is putting it mildy.

But I am all excited about National Moth Week, a celebration of moths and biodiversity (July 23-29, 2012). It’s the first one ever, and since I discovered what fun “mothing” is, and how much there is to learn, I’ve been avidly trying to soak up as much as I can.  Moths are just beautiful-not at all the plain jane grey and brown things you find in old cereal. They come in every color of the rainbow and there are thousands more species than butterflies. In other countries like England there’s been an interest in moths for many years and there are numerous field guides about their native species. Here, the most recent (until this April) field guide to moths was a Peterson’s first issued in 1922.  The plates were black and white and in general all the moths looked the same.  You had, in my opinion, to be a genius to really identify anything, but some people did.

And now there is a terrific new field guide just published with beautiful plates and commentary.  Also published under the Peterson’s imprimatur, the authors are Seabrooke Leckie (who has a nifty blog The Marvelous in Nature on WordPress) and David Beadle. It’s great. So now anyone can figure out what those moths are that flutter against their back door at night.  And you can participate in National Moth Week. Really, anyone can do it. You don’t actually need any special equipment. Just leave an outside light on from dusk until you can’t stand it anymore and you have to go to bed. You may wish to dive in and get fancy lights-it’s up to you, and it is not only an important area of scientific inquiry, it’s fun!  You can photograph the moths, or just appreciate them. Or, you can go to one of hundreds of moth events that are being held all over the country. You can find out everything about this at the National Moth Week website, along with how-to’s if you want to start mothing on your own.  Take a look at http://nationalmothweek.org/ for more information.  Our moth event at Hill-Stead in Farmington, CT is this Friday, June 22 at 8:30.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Naturalist

Advertisements

Splendor in the Grass

September 20, 2011

There has been an Funnel Web Spider living in the corner of our bathroom windowsill this summer.  I call her Svetlana, after the one-legged health aid in the “Sopranos”. TV’s Svetlana had nerves of steel and dispensed truth from one side of her mouth while the other was clamped down on a cigarette.  It took me a while to settle on a name, but I decided that in spite of the disparity in the number of their legs they had much in common.

My husband wanted to close the window the other night.  I told him flat out no and explained that Svetlana wouldn’t be able to make it out of her little funnel (which she cleverly built into the channel of the window sill) if we closed the window. John is a champ, and has gotten used to a lot over the years, so he didn’t even bat an eye when I explained I was talking about a spider.  He has even learned to feign interest,bless him, and asked what kind of spider was going to mean wearing a sweater while he brushed his teeth.  When I said, “Funnel Web”, he whooped “Whoa!  Poisonous!  The SAS Survival Guide says they are one of the most poisonous spiders in the world!”  I knew I shouldn’t have gotten him that book for Christmas.  But Svetlana is a NORTH AMERICAN funnel web, not the Australian spider the SAS warns of.  That is not to say, however, that she hasn’t got her own little arsenal of survival tricks.

Funnel Web spiders are sometimes called “grass” spiders, for their habit of making trampoline-like webs in the grass or shrubbery. If you look carefully you can sometimes see a little tunnel leading to who-knows-where in the grass or greens. This is where the spider usually waits for another bug to fall or fly into the web, whereupon the spider scurries out and bites the victim.  The insides of the victim liquify and the spider returns later and drinks him up.  The web doesn’t even have to be made of sticky silk to work perfectly.

Spiders can be quite pretty and FW’s are no exception.  They have stripey legs, and lines on their backs. There are usually eight eyes in rows of four over four which glitter if they catch the light properly. Of course, you can see all of this better and better as the spider molts its exoskeleton and gets progressively bigger, between four and twelve times in a summer, depending on the species.

Spiders are quite versatile, especially the Funnel Web.  This time of year the vegetation has lots of dew in the morning and when I walk in the meadow I can see many of their webs spread out on the grass like so much laundry drying, the shapes made visible by the moisture.  It’s fun but also a bit wicked to take a little branch and disturb the web ever so slightly so you can watch the spider dart out in the hope that a juicy meal has run afoul of her lines.

I made a little movie recently of some webs I found at Hill-Stead, and I added a few frames of Svetlana.  There’s a love scene  even though the whole thing only lasts four and a half minutes.  Don’t get too invested in the romance, though.  It ends badly for the fellow. Some spider brides kill the groom, wrap him up and eat him later. The couple in my movie are orb weavers, but unfortunately for male spiders, the habit is not confined to that species.

Get your popcorn, and I’ll see you on the trails.

Diane Tucker

Estate Naturalist

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

The Object of My Envy

March 19, 2010

It rained and rained last week. But it’s spring, and warm enough to ward off snow. So all we’ve had is submerged river banks, and some downed trees and branches. The ground is saturated, so worms flee to the surface to avoid drowning. Sadly, once up top it’s still wet and they die en mass out in the driveway. I once knew a naturalist who tried to save the drowning worms as she walked through a rainstorm, but to my thinking this is misguided. As far as I know, worms haven’t yet made it to the endangered species list, and dead ones make fine food for scavengers.

Children love worms. They love drowned worms that they can “save” by putting them in the grass, and they love the water-logged ones they find on the sidewalk because they can yell, “eeewwww!” and run away from them. Worms not experiencing a flood are also popular with kids. When I take groups around our grounds to look under bug boards, regardless of whatever else might be under there, the kids will shout, “a worm!”. There could be a rare specimen of some kind under the board, but nothing holds a candle to a worm. Mostly, kids want to hold them. If I’ve come across a mother lode of worms, I pass them out like peppermints to all the little cupped hands reaching toward me. This scene is repeated no matter how many bug boards have worms under them, and they pretty much all do. The pinnacle of worm discovery is finding worm “castings”, a polite way of saying worm poop. Nothing tops that. It really spices up a nature walk!

Charles Darwin thought so, too. He spent thirty-nine years studying the “lowly” worm. As a matter of fact, despite their choice in housing, worms are not in the least lowly. Like every single thing on this earth, worms are sensational once you get to know them. Just as we do, a worm needs air, food, an amenable temperature, and some moisture. If these elements are lacking, they up and wiggle away. Cold-blooded, these helpful though homely creatures bring fresh soil to the surface, mixing it with nitrogen they hold in the slime covering their bodies. For this gardeners prize them. The healthiest gardens are chock-full of worms. An acre of land can hold about a million, a goal for every home gardener.

If only people were more like worms! They are perhaps one of the most practical animals on earth, possessing not only the ability to reproduce (and that’s another story!), but also the ultimate party trick of self-regeneration. As children everywhere know, if you pull off a little section of a worm, you have two new worms! The replication is not completely fool-proof, depending on the species of worm and where the “disengagement” occurs on the body. It’s pretty easy to lose a tail, but not quite as easy to lose a head!

Oh, to remake oneself anew following slings and arrows of assault, to enjoy the endless approval of children, and the eager appreciation of those who tease life and beauty from the soil. I envy the worm.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Edit this entry.

To New Beginnings

March 11, 2010

The pussy willows were in full bloom today, and life is waking up again throughout the estate. Today I even saw a butterfly -a tortoiseshell type, the earliest I’ve ever seen one.  A butterfly afficionado I know says it might be a record.  Along with Mourning Cloaks, tortoiseshell butterflies are seen in the earliest days of spring. I also spied jumping spiders in the meadow, and incredibly, a grasshopper. The Northern Water Snake that naps near the bridge down by the pump house is awake, and a turtle plopped into the water as I walked along the sunny side of the pond.  Bluebirds circle the newly-cleaned bird boxes. Skunk cabbage is well along now and woodcock are skulking in the woods surrounding the fields.  They rest and forage in the wet woods during the day and come out at dusk to do their bizarre dancing and calling.  Wood frogs are awake, too.

skunk cabbage

We’ll have cold, raw days yet before spring takes a real foothold, but the first sunny days of the season provide such relief even after an uneventful winter.  Today you could almost hear flowers pushing up earth and green shoots unfurling. Beginnings are so much fun.  First date, first dance, first day of school, first car, first love, first kiss, first flower, first caterpillar, first red-wing blackbirds, first phoebes. You might say that without endings, there wouldn’t be beginnings and in a limited sense this may be true.  Organically speaking, there is a cycle of birth and death that doesn’t vary.  But there are human beginnings that seemingly spring from nowhere, and, heaven knows, unforeseen conclusions. Beginnings are rarely bitter, even in plants this is true.  Dandelion salad, for example, is lovely when the leaves are small.

Circumstances and sentiment can all too often dictate endings, when bonds become in their own way overgrown and too big for the container. Last misunderstanding, last farewell, last regret.  At least nature’s endings are free of recrimination. The past melts away graciously and makes way for the new.  Last snowfall, first snowdrop.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Hope Springs Eternal

February 9, 2010

My mother had a saying for everything. Her speech was fashioned by the linguistic effects of verbally colorful Anglo/Irish parents, and from living in Guam after World War II soaking up the Southern and Western cadences of American servicemen. She spoke in a patchwork of literary references and colloquialisms, and until I began school I had no idea that not everyone spoke like that. She was full of song lyrics, too, and would break out singing if the words applied to the situation.  Some favorite expressions came from poetry, but I’m not sure to this day the derivation of many of those funny, perfect remarks.

A useful motherly comment was, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”.  This was for when you didn’t know what you were talking about. Another was “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, which she would say brightly if you asked for something and which meant, “we’ll see”.  It was oddly soothing and perhaps the simple addition of the word “hope” introduced a more positive flavor than the flat “we’ll see”, which every child knows is just a stalling tactic for an eventual “no”.

When the world is windy and frozen as it is in February, hope is a good arrow to keep in your quiver. I always give the same advice for cases of late winter doldrums, as I am nowhere near as clever as my mother.  I tell everyone who is down and dragging to get out and take a walk.  For starters, you need your sunlight and vitamin D to keep you on an even keel, and there’s nothing like some fresh air to improve your attitude.  And nothing reminds you more of hope springing within you than a look at a skunk cabbage as it begins poking through the frozen earth.  The only way to see that is to go for a walk in February or March!

Despite its repellant name, skunk cabbage is a wonderful thing.  One of the very earliest flowers, it has a remarkable determination to bloom.  If skunk cabbage competed in the Miss America contest, its “special talent”  (rather than baton twirling) would be its uncanny maintenance of an internally controlled heat from within, a sort of natural furnace. It runs approximately thirty-six degrees above the ambient temperature. This enables it to “burn” through frozen earth and even ice in an inexorable penetration of the surface of the ground.  As it breaches that surface and becomes visible it has a dramatic mottled purple hood called a spathe curled around an odd little flower that resembles nothing so much as a tiny morningstar (that round-headed medieval weapon with all the pointy things sticking out of it).  This is the spadix, and the little pointy things are the flowers.  You see this same configuration on many species of the lily family including calla lillies, peace lillies, jack-in-the pulpit and many others.  At the right point in early spring if you walk through a wetland carpeted with skunk cabbage, you might smell a sort of funkiness in the air. That smell draws little bees, flies and early bugs of every kind to come and nectar at the cabbage flowers, sustaining the insects and enabling them to get started on nests and procreation.  In a way, skunk cabbage is one of the mothers of spring itself, with its certain internal warmth giving way to the fecundity of an entire season.

My mother wouldn’t have touched a skunk cabbage with a ten-foot pole.  I’m pretty sure she never even saw one.  But, as a mother, she knew all about warmth, perseverance, and hope. It is remarkable at every level how our personalities are reflected in the natural world around us, though we often miss the connection. Mothers, of course, do not have a monopoly on the excellent qualities they share with the skunk cabbage, nor indeed, does every mother have them.  But there is no separating the characteristics of animals and plants from our own.  The world is a continuum.

It turns out actually, that hope DOES spring eternal for many people, and needs to.  Optimistic thoughts stimulate the amygdala, a powerful area of the brain that affects emotion.  It is biologically important to have a positive outlook.  Not everything in life will turn out perfectly, but if you thought things would always go badly, you’d never do anything.  So go out and take a walk.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Be It Ever So Humble

December 9, 2009

Colors and Texture of the Paper Wasp Nest

It is always instructive to go without.  Restrict fats, salt, sugar and you learn how food really tastes.  Eat lobster without drawn butter and find lobster unadorned is sublime!  Before, all was butter.  Now, lobster has something new.  It’s called flavor.

Similarly in late fall, when it first seems that nature is null without its greenery,  we can adjust to the absence of leaves and see what has happened all around, disguised under a mantle of foliage.  There has been, literally, a beehive of activity going on under our noses! I like to pride myself, a little, on my small ability to “bird by ear”.  That is to say I sometimes can identify birds by their songs.  I pick up some regulars that way, and maybe narrow down others to an identifiable point.  Another good test is looking at nests built in trees and shrubs.  I like this method very much, because I don’t have to do it on the fly.  It is a lot easier when the subject isn’t moving.

It’s lovely to have the leisure really to look carefully at something.  I don’t always, I confess, know what I am looking at.  But armed with a good field guide and unlimited time, I can usually arrive at an educated guess. So I like nests.  You can see so many in December’s empty branches, I often feel ashamed that I didn’t realize so many different birds were around.

Oriole Nest

The easiest to spot seem to be oriole’s nests.  Swinging above, they look to me like ladies’ purses of yesteryear, not really big enough to hold much but inexplicably capacious nonetheless.  If you are lucky enough to notice one during breeding season, and you settle down for a nice look-see, you might get a view of an oriole parent returning to the nest to feed babies.  These parents are clever. They set down in a nearby tree, hopping closer by degrees until they all at once pop into the pendulous nest which barely seems big enough to hold one bird, let alone a clutch of straining babies and an adult! Built of spiders’ webs, lichen and seemingly a lot of good luck, the nest bulges under the strain but holds up manfully time after time.

And it isn’t only birds. Hornets are busy all spring and summer, creating huge elliptical nests that look like they are made from grey paper. We call the bugs paper wasps, hornets and other names. Made from tree pulp and a sort of spit, the nest  seems like real paper – after all paper is water and pulp. But what these insects do with it is nothing short of a miracle, perhaps more of a miracle than the things people sometimes do with paper.   

The hornet queen snuggles down for the winter somewhere dry like a wall or under some moss.  When spring arrives, she searches out a good place for a nest. Hollow trees and high branches are favored locations.  She creates a sturdy link t0 hold the nest to the branch or cavity.  Then she builds “cells”-tiny little chambers, in a row and lays eggs in them.  The first comb will have between five and ten cells.  A little less than a week later, the babies hatch and the queen feeds them constantly so they will grow quickly, turning first into little cocoons, then into grown hornets.  These new “workers” are all female, and they snap into action instantly building new combs and attaching them to the original.  Over the course of the summer the nest grows fatter with exponentially developing new cells and hornets until summer’s apex of warmth and light, when production begins to fall off. The elliptical shape forms as each new row of cells made is just a little smaller than the one before.

Egg-Filled Cells

I suppose the reason I like looking at nests is that they are homes.  Who doesn’t enjoy a surreptitious look around someone’s house, picking up snatches of information about their habits and tastes?  It may be,  and I think it is, one of the reasons people find Hill-Stead so fascinating.  A  favorite childhood pastime for me involved walking my dog after dark, looking into the homes of people with their lights on so I could imagine I lived there and what that might be like.  I checked out decor, and if I could see people, watched to see if they looked happy or not.

In adulthood, I seem to have transferred this little diversion toward natural history.  But the feeling is the same, the subjects no less interesting, and one no less intricate than the other, just different.  Nature’s role is less tortured than that of man.  Insects, animals, birds’ nests, are simply what they were meant to be. Only humans thrash around questioning our roles in the universe. It may be that too many analytical skills are a disadvantage.  When you’ve flailed about too much it’s good, if you can, to go home.   Be it woven nest, split-level house, or moss-covered hidey-hole, we all need to get out of the elements from time to time and rest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Assassins

November 25, 2009

Oh, assassin bug, assassin bug,

you really are so dreamy

It’s hard to say which one is best

Harpactor or reduviinae,

A “helping” sort, you remind me of a spider,

You eat the bugs folks can’t abide,

Like crunchy, six-legged sliders!

An arachnid’s an “assassin” too, but not like you,

She doesn’t try to hide it,

Sitting in her silken web, or daintily astride it.

One day it came, the final price delivered,

For grim offence to prior-eaten bugs,

Snared in a spider’s web you quivered.

Assassin bug, oh naive victim.

I watched your end, regrets.

She wrapped you up to hide you,

And when time came to slake her thirst,

She neatly liquified you!

The photographs were taken recently on Hill-Stead’s sunny west wall.  The encounter between this bug and the spider didn’t turn out well from the assassin bug’s point of view.  Apparently size really doesn’t matter.

The assassin bug is an insect (six legs) known for creeping stealthily toward a victim-and pouncing!  They move very slowly until the last moment.  Assassin bugs can jump as well as fly, making them a formidable predator.  Assassins are considered to be a “beneficial insect”, eating bugs that destroy crops and otherwise annoy humans.  The assassin bug falls into the category of “true bugs”-hemiptera.  Further, they are known to be part of a large group of bugs with cone-shaped heads, which mask a sharp beak that delivers a painful bite.  They’ll bite humans as well as their usual prey, sometimes causing a severe reaction.  Assassin bugs occur the world over, and can sometimes take down prey that is much bigger than itself.  The females of the species make better hunters as they need the protein to procreate and to sustain offspring.  After immobilizing a victim, they inject a venom that breaks down the organs of the unfortunate prey. Ironically in view of the photos above, this is precisely how a spider operates, the difference being that the spider waits for prey and the assassin bug pursues it directly.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Heading Home

September 21, 2009

It’s hard to quell an urge to run away.  Sometimes you just want to get up and go.  The trouble is,  you can lose your reason for leaving the further away you get.  The departure unfocuses and redefines you, a paradox of being human. 

The Green Darner Dragonfly is unencumbered by such metaphysical consideration.  He gets up and goes in style!  A  large, flashy insect with a green back, his blue belly looks purple when the dragonfly is cold.   Green Darners are hard to miss, particularly so when they form swarms  and head south in early autumn.

The Common Green Darner is one of just a few varieties of migratory dragonflies.  Insect migration is still largely a biological mystery, and only recently have dragonfly travels been studied.  What is known is that dragonflies migrate similarly to birds.  Or rather, that  birds migrate like dragonflies, since dragonflies predate birds by 140 million years.  Like birds, it takes a couple of days of cool weather to inspire the bugs to move, and they do so in groups that sometimes number in the thousands.  Sue Sturtevant and Cindy Cormier saw a terrific example of that one day last week as hundreds of green darners zoomed through the kitchen garden while they were having a meeting on the back porch.  When I stopped by, the yard was teeming with flashing wings and aerial acrobatics.

Dragonflies use some of the same guides for navigation as birds, and in 1955 a hawk watcher named Frank Nicoletti observed that American Kestrels (a small and beautiful falcon) often migrate in groups along with the dragonflies.  The kestrels use the dragonflies as travel snacks along the way, snatching them out of the sky for a quick meal.

There is still much to learn about the dragonfly odyssey.  For example, the darner that flies south this fall will not return here in the spring.  Instead, his progeny will make the trip, leaving him to procreate down south for another year.  Thereafter, that same darner may come north again, switching  places with his offspring.  What controls that  bi-annual trade-off is unknown.  How do they know when to stay and when to go, and how to get there?   

We begin to see that humans are not alone in yearning for a place of belonging.  Migration is not homesickness, rather it seems to be an inexorable tug towards an indigenous fixed point.  A turtle will cross a four-lane highway to return to it’s natal pond to breed.  Birds, bats, frogs, turtles, insects all migrate.  Monarch Butterfly migration has achieved celebrity status.  

In people, wanderlust is abetted by business concerns, schools, jobs and such that send us off to points distant.   Yet somehow, the throng of dragonflies in the kitchen garden the other day had the same feel as an airport or train station on the day before Thanksgiving.  Perhaps we are more in visceral sympathy with nature than we realize.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

The Gall!

September 16, 2009

 gall collection Nature is the ultimate adventure story.  Filled with sex, death, devotion, pestilence,  battle, enslavement and disaster, it makes  Stendahl look like a comic book.  In comparison to natural history, War and Peace is uneventful.  Let’s face it, if  what you saw on a PBS “Nature” episode was translated into a human plotline, you’d never watch it and say, “Now, THAT was realistic!” 

Nature’s true-to-life stories are more complex and dramatic than any fiction.   Consider life on a wildflower stalk.  By Fall, goldenrod is a hold-out among blooming plants.  Nectar-loving bugs seek it out with gusto.  A single spray can be a frenzy of insects.  Pollinators come, but predators do too.  With bad timing, that nectar-rich repast could be a final meal.  If a boy and girl of a given species should visit simultaneously, love can bloom among the blooms, as it were.   Boy meets girl on botanical campus, and the rest is history.  Sex and death in a centimeter.

But the stems of certain goldenrods look as though they’ve swallowed a ping pong ball, others as though they’ve eaten a tiny football.  Still more have their proximal leaves contorted into a bunch.   What’s going on? 

ball gallThe plant has been invaded, becoming a  sort of unwilling insect incubator.  The protuberences,  known as galls, are the result and can be found in any stand of goldenrod.  Each shape is the signature of the insect that made the plant into its unwitting nursemaid.

The most common goldenrod gall is the “ball” gall.  In Spring, the Goldenrod Gall Fly lays an egg on the growing plant.  When hatched, the larva burrows into the stem of the plant, eating  out a chamber within.  This stimulates the growth of the gall around it, thus providing more food for the developing larva.  By winter the larva is fat and juicy-perfect for ice fishermen to use as bait!  Many the sliced thumb is the result of cutting through a woody gall to get the worm out. 

elliptical gallThe “elliptical” gall is made by the Goldenrod Gall Moth.  A variation on a theme,  the moth egg is laid onto a leaf in Autumn and overwinters there.  In Spring, the egg hatches and burrows  as a caterpillar into a goldenrod bud. The elliptical gall forms and the caterpillar feasts all summer from inside.  The lifecycle is completed in the Fall and a small empy chamber is left  for possible use over winter by a tiny spider or insect.

bunch gallThe “bunch” gall is the handiwork of the Goldenrod Gall Midge who oviposits at the tip of the plant’s main stalk.  The stem fails to elongate, and the leaves back up on each other like cars in a rear-end collision,winding up  twisted together.  This suits the midge egg  and other insects who take advantage of the thick swirl of leaves.  The cluster forms a home for many, including the lovely Crab Spider, who slowly changes color to match the plant it occupies.  The gall midge has its own curious feature:  throughout its reproductive life it produces either male offspring or female, but never both at the same time.

Never mind fiction, you can’t make this stuff up.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist