Posts Tagged ‘insects’

Fifty Shades of Grayness

July 16, 2012

Pandora Sphinx Caterpiller

Wooly Bear Caterpillar
(Isabella Tiger Moth)

I guess I should have realized that if I invested in fancy new lights, borrowed a cool and quiet generator and picked up a nifty pop-up white sheet contraption, it would rain on the night of my moth program, my favorite of the entire year. I’ve been the naturalist here at Hill-Stead for going on six years, and I’ve tried to offer programs that will excite, educate and entertain. And I’m shameless. I’d stand on my head in the center of Farmington, Ct (where we are located) if it would make people see how exquisite and vital nature is to us, and how much Hill-Stead offers in terms of natural beauty and value.

When I was a child I was scared senseless by moths. Something about their fluttery-ness, and their nighttime habit really blotted out all reason in me.  It was terrible-a naked, irrational phobia. And of course I had only seen the brown and gray jobs (talk about fifty shades of gray!) my mother referred to as “millers”.  “Don’t be afraid, its’ just a miller,” she’d say, as I freaked out.  What the heck is a “miller” anyway?

But later, as I grew as a naturalist I read of fantastic moths, pink and yellow, green, purple-and so important to the ecosystem.  I was hooked-and determined to get over my irrational horror. I bought a moderate set of UV lights, dragged a white sheet out of the closet and brewed up some sticky bait in a bucket. I pretty much try everything that I plan for the museum out in my backyard first, in case of glitches. It wasn’t easy.  The moths fly around your head when you bend near the sheet to examine things and for a while I had to wear one of those big hats with a veil. But in time I didn’t mind the moths brushing against me, and I felt kind of honored to be part of their soft yet scaly world. I taught myself everything I could using the old books that were around, Covell and Holland and a few others. I watched moth websites carefully. To me, it is a hard subject-there are twice as many moth species as butterflies. And as our resources become better we are likely to discover others. There is quite a bit to remember.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but I really want to spread enthusiasm about this wonderful topic.  Moths are as vital to the pollination of plants as bees are, for example.  But I don’t hear too many people extolling their virtues.  Yet.

Huge Geometer Moth I saw on vacation in the Caribbean

“Mothing” is growing in popularity these days, but it isn’t in the everyday vernacular right now. But National Moth Week is coming up soon,July 23-29 and I even have the T-shirt. People ask about it a lot (it has a really big silk moth silhouette on it) so it is a very good ambassador for the whole subject. Since my official Hill-Stead Moth Event was rained out, I’ve changed my plan for participating. I’m having a “Celebrate the Diversity of Life” party at my house. I’m putting up my lights and calling my friends on Wednesday July 25 from sundown until I can’t stand it anymore. You can come too if you want. Just contact the museum and they’ll put you in touch with me. Just don’t freak out when the moths.  You can borrow my hat with the veil.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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

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

All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

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

Sunken Garden Poetry Festival

June 24, 2010

I had a nice time last night at Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.  How could you not? It was a perfect summer evening.  Latin flavored jazz filled the air while picnics were shared, wine poured, blankets fluffed out over the lush grass.  The Sunken Garden itself was in all its June glory, the Summer House providing the backdrop for the music and for the reading of poems.  Now and then a little cry of happy recognition flared up as friends found one another in the gloaming.

Our Beatrix Farrand-designed sunken garden played host to two fine poets, Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Bessie Reyna.  What a treat it was.  And as the sunset turned into night, birds flew to roost and night time things began to take over.  I was happy to see several chimney swifts, as I did last year.  And the wager still stands that they have nests in church steeples here in Farmington.  Other than raising young, the swifts live the entirety of their lives on the wing, and it may be that they dip their wings at us bi-weekly while we admire our nationally-known poets.  One lone bat skittered across the sky, looking uncoordinated, but being actually anything but.

The full list of the attendees were as follows:

Red-Tailed Hawk
European Starling
American Robin
Catbird
American Goldfinch
Chipping Sparrow
Chimney Swift
Song Sparrow
American Crow
Downy Woodpecker
Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
Brown-Headed Cowbird
Tree Swallow
Blue Jay
Eastern Phoebe
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Coopers Hawk
Hermit Thrush
Red-Eyed Vireo
Cardinal
Grackle
Great Blue Heron

Shetland Sheep
1 Dragonfly
1 bat
Field Crickets
Fireflies
Tree Toads

Other than the hundreds of people, there were 24 species of bird, 3 species of insect, 1 amphibian, 1 bat, a small flock of literary critic Shetland Sheep, a slightly more than three-quarter moon and Saturn glowing in the early summer sky. And poetry. There was lots of that. Define it how you like.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

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