Journal archives for April 2017

April 12, 2017

Lowly Greens

Posted on April 12, 2017 03:13 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 07, 2017

Pick-up Sticks

American entomologist Karl V. Krombein conducted a magisterial study of wasps and bees across a full decade from 1953 to 1964, collecting and examining some 3,400 trap nests. The results of this study were published in 1967 by the Smithsonian Press as Trap-nesting Wasps and Bees: Life Histories, Nests, and Associates, or, as I like to refer to it, the trap-nesting bible. With the aid of this book and the information it contains, I’ve conducted a limited amount of trap-nesting myself and have enjoyed it immensely.

Last year I added a bundle of hollow stems (all snipped to about five inches in length) at the base of our front yard bee block, to provide some additional nesting opportunities for the wasps and bees. The hollow stems, which are easily split open, work very well as natural trap nests. Seeing that a number of the stems had been occupied by midsummer, I placed one of them in a container so that I could examine the adults when they emerged from the trap. Usually, I photograph the wasps that emerge and then release them. In this instance, the wasps all emerged while we were away on vacation and all died before I could release them. Five Keyhole Wasps (genus Trypoxylon) emerged from the stem, two males and three females.

Over the winter, birds continuously ransacked this bundle of stems, eventually scattering them all to the ground where they were covered by snow and lay until spring. Today I played pick-up sticks, replacing them into their holder on the bee block. One of the fallen stems that I picked up was still plugged at the end. A closer look showed the stem to be cracked lengthwise so I decided to open it and have a look at the wasps inside. I was in for a surprise.

Upon opening the nest, what at first I took to be pupae turned out to be masses of parasitic wasp larvae that had devoured the overwintering Trypoxylon pupae. At some point last fall or this spring the nest had been compromised. The cracks in the stem had allowed the tiny parasitoid wasps to gain access to the nest cells. I remembered reading about such infestations by Melittobia chalybii in the Krombein book. Here is Krombein’s description: “This eulophid parasite was a very serious pest in trap nests. It not only parasitized a number of nests in the field at several localities but also it caused serious secondary infestations in other nests in the laboratory…. Melittobia has limited powers of dispersal, thus accounting for its presence in traps placed in these particular situations [i.e. dead trees or structural lumber], rather than traps suspended from branches of living trees. Although Melittobia females are winged, they apparently do not fly at all but merely hop a few inches or walk about on the substrate.”

More recent studies have shown that these parasitoids have a complicated life history involving some curious dimorphism: short-winged and long-winged females as well as blind, flightless males that don’t resemble the females in the least. I’ve kept the larvae with the hope that they will pupate and emerge as adults and I’ll be able to have a look at some of these morphological differences. As can be seen from the photographs of the one dead female wasp found in the nest, their body shape is remarkably flat, no doubt helpful in prying their way into host nests, the head being especially odd in having the shape of a flat disc.

Posted on April 07, 2017 02:52 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

April 06, 2017

Jumping Beetles and Bog Talk

Today I met with artist Meg Ojala, a St Olaf professor who has embarked on a study of bogs. Twice last year we visited a small local bog together. Now I was getting a first look at images of the many other bogs she’d visited, the bogs of northern Minnesota and the bogs of Finland. Photos of bogs, bog plants, and bog surroundings laid in stacks upon the floor, hung in groupings on the walls. We talked about her project and upcoming gallery shows and further travels. By the time I left I had a bad case of bog envy, wanderlust, and wetland withdrawal symptoms. The only remedy, of course, was to get outside and find some water as soon as possible.

So, a little later in the afternoon, I visited the Cowling Arboretum at Carleton for a short walk beside Spring Creek, the Cannon River, and catchment pond wetland near their junction. Cloudy and cool, but even still, plants were sending up first leaves and flowers were readying themselves for the next spate of sunshine and warm weather. Likewise, the sheer number of people passing me by on the trails indicated that many of the students and residents have turned the corner as well, crossed the threshold of belief, and seem convinced it is now spring—no matter what the actual weather. Or, I simply missed the sign announcing some kind of cross-country running event.

I get out of the way and wander off the main trails and have a look around. Parts of the forest floor are carpeted by the vibrant green leaves of the escaped cultivar, Siberian Squill. And some few of these plants are in bloom with handsome blue flowers. In addition to the squill, I find a single Hepatica flower, the first of the year for me. Soon there will hundreds more. Ahead of me in the woods, kicking among the leaf litter and the greening vegetation for something to eat, is a Song Sparrow, teaching me something about patience.

Earlier in the day, I photographed a small beetle brought home from yesterday’s walk. A number of these bright metallic beetles roamed up and down the side of tree along with a number of flies, probably all attracted to leaking sap. I’d seen these beetles on the very same tree the previous year and had tried but failed to photograph them due to the shiny reflections off the beetle wing cases, so I decided, this year, to bring one home and try to photograph it using a flash. Even this approach wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but the images were good enough to help identify the beetle as a Metallic Flea Beetle, genus Altica, a member of the leaf beetle family Chrysomelidae. There are numerous related and difficult to separate species in this genus, most being host specific and most are quite small in size. While photographing the beetle I discover a surprising thing, the beetle jumps, it actually springs off the ground just like a grasshopper. Which, obvious after the fact, must be why they are called flea beetles.

Posted on April 06, 2017 03:58 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 08, 2017

Pasqueflower and Prairie Smoke

A couple of solid wildflower firsts today, Pasqueflower and Prairie Smoke, both in bloom at McKnight Prairie.

As for the pollinators of these early flowers, I thought I saw one bee and actually did see a number of tachinid flies, probably of the genus Gonia. These large, goonie-looking, white-faced flies are thought to be parasitoids of Owlet moths (Noctuidae).

As with so many endeavors, along with the good comes a little bad—while enjoying the spring flowers I find the first tick of the year, an American Dog Tick crawling on my shoulder.

Posted on April 08, 2017 03:12 by scottking scottking | 6 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 03, 2017

"Equilibrist"

I see an adder and, a yard away,
a butterfly being gorgeous. I switch the radio
from tortures in foreign prisons
to a sonata of Schubert....

Noticing you can do nothing about.
It's the balancing that shakes my mind.
What my friends don't notice
is the weight of joy in my right hand
and the weight of sadness in my left.

– Norman MacCaig, from the poem 'Equilibrist'

Posted on April 03, 2017 01:11 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 1 comment | Leave a comment

April 15, 2017

First Bees

Which came first, the flowers or the bees? This year it was the flowers. But both have evolved, lock and key, together; the history of flowering plants is mirrored by the history of pollinators.

Lisa had the day off from teaching, so we were able to hike together today. Before we opened the car doors to get out, a Red Admiral graced the windshield and landed in the parking lot. This yearly migrant, surges north in the spring, arriving just in time to lay eggs on its host plant, Stinging Nettle. We’d chosen wisely in visiting the Cannon River Wilderness Area. As we walked down the stairs and entered the forested valley, a variety of spring ephemerals greeted us. First Bloodroot, its curled, knobby-fingered leaves beneath half-opened flowers giving it the look of a chalice raised by an Arthurian knight’s armored hand. Then Hepatica in numerous shades between white and violet, leafless, tall-stemmed flowers in tight groupings here and there across the forest floor. Lisa suggested they grew as living bouquets. More of a surrealist, the image that leapt to mind was of a group of Christmas carolers. Then Spring Beauty. Then False Rue Anemone and Dutchman’s Breeches, only beginning to bloom. Reaching the trail’s end at the oak savanna, Prairie Buttercup, small, egg-yolk-yellow flowers inches above the sand.

To the flowers go the bees. I had been concerned that the sustained cool weather was delaying the emergence of the early bees. For the last two weeks flowers had been open but there had been no bees to speak of. Today, however, my concerns fell away. The bees were back. A single, tiny Lasioglossum clung torpidly to the petal of a Hepatica flower. Colletes inaequalis visited willow catkins and dozens of vigilant males flew low to the ground at the aggregate nesting sites on the open sandstone slopes of the savanna bluffs. Several different species of Andrena gathered pollen from Bloodroot flowers. Yes indeed, the bees were back. I was happy, and doubly so, being able to take this hike and share these encounters with my companion of some many years, so many springs. Lisa and I were equal partners today like the bees and the flowers, or, the pleasing thought came to me, like the naturalists Edwin and Nellie Teale at Trail Wood.

Posted on April 15, 2017 02:10 by scottking scottking | 16 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 02, 2017

Byrd Masses

I'm not always optimistic, but today I definitely felt it. The warmest day so far this spring, the first of April, clear skies, and sunshine—it seemed possible that the first migrant dragonflies could show up on a day like this. So I set out to check the local ponds for Common Green Darners.

Sitting on the bench watching the pond in hopes that the first dragonfly of the year might fly by, I begin listening to the voices. A Blue Jay. Boreal Chorus Frogs. And new today, Wood Frogs. This early in the spring there is still a simplicity to the composition, a pared-down part song. The William Byrd Masses for 3, 4, and 5 Voices come to mind.

Nothing like the gravity of old church music to add ballast to an unchecked ebullience. I didn't see any dragonflies. They're not here yet. But, in addition to the Wood Frogs, I observed a few other firsts: the first Eastern Comma, the first Golden Dung Fly, the first Painted Turtle, and the first Northern Paper Wasp. And, later in the evening, I turned on the mothing light for the first time as well.

Posted on April 02, 2017 04:08 by scottking scottking | 8 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 19, 2017

Wild Ginger

What a crazy flower this plant has. Laying on the ground, the pollinators (small flies and gnats) coming and going resemble mechanics at an airport servicing the turbofan of a jet engine.

Posted on April 19, 2017 03:26 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 04, 2017

April Showers

Posted on April 04, 2017 02:21 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 05, 2017

The Diction of Spring

The diction of spring changes daily, sometimes from hour to hour as clouds build or sun shines. The words that tumble into the mind, sometimes habitual, sometimes surprising, arrive like waves of migrant birds. Snow melt. Mud puddles. Leaf buds. Flowers. Bees. Butterflies. Yard work. Gardens. Sunlight. Open windows. Screen doors. And the first, first, first of everything.

Walking the dog, the first mining bee of the year takes flight from a patch of Siberian Squill. From the look of the black and shiny abdomen, I'm tempted to guess it's Colletes, a Cellophane Bee. But I couldn't be sure from the one quick glimpse as the bee lifts off, makes a partial loop as it leaves. A sure sign of spring---blue squill flowers and mining bees.

Still no dragonflies. I looked for them at four ponds at the St Olaf Natural Lands. There were, however, a number of new arrivals among the birds: Song Sparrows, Tree Swallows, Bluebirds, and Eastern Phoebes. At the wooded pond, the calls of the Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs reverberated at about ten times the decibels of the previous visit three days ago. Obviously the membership of this particular choir has increased dramatically. I had the good fortune to spot one of the singing Wood Frogs, even capturing a short video of it as it called. This was the first time I've actually watched one call and I was surprised that it didn't have a vocal sac beneath its chin, rather a pair of lateral vocal sacs that inflated on both sides toward the rear of its head.

Posted on April 05, 2017 03:54 by scottking scottking | 10 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment