Underground Bees

•November 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Underground Bees

A new band?

No. Some bees will make their home underground. The wasp, commonly called an eastern yellow jacket, of the genus Vespula is one that will take advanatge of an underground space if available.

The queen overwinters and starts the nest early in spring. At first the eggs laid become daughter workers, but later in summer the males and future queens are produced which then disperse and mate with the future queens then overwintering to repeat the process next spring.

One day I noticed these wasps flying in and out of some bushes right in front of our house. I observed and looked in the bushes and found they were going into a hole in the ground. It looked like a chipmunk sized hole. Pretty obviously they were living underground. A chipmunk nest, or more specifically the cache where it stores its food can be a sizeable cavity.

We left the nest alone and did nothing other than observe over the summer. One day in early September I noticed what looked like trash on the sidewalk in front of the bushes. A closer observation showed it was a bee’s nest.

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Getting down low I peeked under bushes and saw more pieces of the nest. Finally I pulled the bushes away from the house and found a basketball sized hole in the dirt.

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Taking a guess here, some predator (perhaps a skunk or raccoon), must have discovered the nest during the night, dug down and tore it apart. The roots of the bushes were completely cut or torn away so whatever attacked the nest must have been a good digger (I’m leaning towards a skunk). The nest, torn apart, probably resulted from the hungry predator looking for the grubs to eat.

Sadly, doing a search for “yellow jacket underground nest” yields many results all about how to get rid of the nest. I’m happy we did not try to get rid of the nest and that nature worked things out. But I also feel a bit bad for the wasps. It must be traumatic to have your home completely torn apart in the middle of the night.

Here’s a shot of the wasps that, for a time, had their home next to our home.

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Genetics Gone Wild – Revisited

•November 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Revisiting the topic of genetics we’ll examine a few other gene mutations. All the subjects here were seen over the course of a few days and were part of a large flock of birds stopping in our yard.

First we have the usual suspects. A common grackle, an european starling, a red wing black bird and a miniature bald eagle.

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A miniature what? No, that’s not an eagle. Based on the eye color and shape it appears to be a grackle, although in flight it does look a lot like a miniature bald eagle. This color variation is usually a leucistic variation. This is when the bird’s genetics determine that it is unable to make a color that is normally found in its plumage.

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The Sibley Guide, found online, describes this much better than I can. Another example of the color variation is seen below.

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One of these birds is not like the others. In this case all the center feathers on the tail are pure white while the outer feathers are still normally colored as is the rest of the bird.

 

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Finally here is one with a partial leucistic coloring just on the head.

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In all three cases the differently colored birds all had the yellow eye with the black pupil and the beaks all had a similar shape so we’re fairly confident all three are common grackles. What drew our attention to these was the flash of white in an otherwise predominantly dark color flock of birds. I wonder if predators also are able to more easily pick out a bird like this in a flock?

Unlike albinos, these birds do have most of their colors. In a true albino there would be a complete lack of all color.

 

Danger! Danger!

•September 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Gardens can be dangerous places.

First example, a crab spider (family Thomisidae) on a black eyed susan. The bee on this flower is tiny, perhaps a quarter of an inch long, so imagine how small the spider in front of the bee is. In this case the prey (the bee) was way to large for the spider to deal with so it did not attack.

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But what happens when the little crab spider grows up? A “normal” size bee is suddenly now just the right size for a meal.

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Crab spiders hunt by waiting in ambush. When the right size prey comes around the spider will grab with its front legs while quicking biting and injecting a paralytic venom. They prey quickly stops moving and the spider can then start on its meal.

Of course not all crab spiders match their chosen plant as closely as the previous one.

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In this case it’s a crab spider on a joe pye weed. The Misumena vatia spider, the white and yellow ones shown here, are also able to change their color over a number of days allowing a white one to assume a yellow coloration when on a yellow plant. Unfortunately for the one above it won’t be changing to red so it’s camouflage is less than ideal.

Not all ambush predators are spiders however. These next two shots are of the same incident, seen from above and below.

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The bee above was captured by an Ambush Bug, part of the Assassin bug group and one of the Phymata genus. Similar to a praying mantis, it has strong front legs that it uses to quickly grab and hold prey. The mottled green and brown colors along with its ability to sit motionless waiting for prey helps give it a chance at a meal.

So, how do you spot a bug having lunch? In the two examples here I actually found them by noticing the bee not moving as opposed to seeing the predator. When bees are swarming all over the flowers and constantly in motion gathering nectar and pollen a bee just sitting there becomes obvious and worthy of a second look.

Genetics Gone Wild

•September 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Genes control what an organism looks like. They control how it develops and grows. What happens when something goes wrong in those genes? Or instead of wrong, perhaps a recessive gene expresses itself?

In the case of plants you may see abnormal growth. In some cases, this is obvious, as in an albino species. In other cases it is even desired, for example when crossing two variants of a rose in an attempt to get a new variety.

Just observing any mass of plants and you’ll start to see the diversity that genes have imparted on each one. Some may be a little shorter or taller. Subtle color variants may be present. More or less flowers may be on display.

Two interesting examples were found in our bed of Black Eyed Susan flowers. First up is a curled leaf. This might be a result of outside influence (insect feeding on the plant causing the strange growth) or a result of genetics on this particular leaf growing wrong.

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Leaves are normally straight, not curled, as seen on the left and in the background. The next image is even more interesting.

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Petals normally grow around the head, not out of the middle.

Earlier this year we had a bee balm plant where after the flower head formed (normally at the top of the stem) the stalk continued growing right through the head, went up four more inches and then developed a second flower head.

Can you find it?

•August 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today’s entry is a short one.

Can you find the subject?

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Camouflage is a wonderful thing when you don’t want to be seen (or eaten.) In case you didn’t spot the moth, maybe this close up will help.

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What’s on My Asparagus?

•August 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

For three years I’ve been growing asparagus from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (it doesn’t look like they currently have our variety) which I did start from seed. Each year it has done better than the past year. This year, almost nothing. It’s finally time to harvest some and yet our spring crop was all but non existent. Only a few scraggly plants came up in the patch.

So, we took advantage of some plant sales and bought asparagus roots. We each planted a new section in different garden plots. They took and fronds appeared. They grew. All was good again.

Well, at least until a few weeks ago. I noticed one of the plants, a few feet tall, not looking so good. A closer inspection and I saw caterpillars or worms or all over it.

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Now for a sense of scale, these guys are maybe a quarter inch in size. Dozens and dozens. They looked to be eating the fronds, but only partially. In this next shot you can clearly see how they eat the green part but leave the underlying structure.

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At the time I didn’t think much of it figured it was just something that found asparagus tasty. Wandering around the yard some more and I came across the original bed and noticed one pathetic stalk still standing. A bit of red caught my eye.

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Well, I finally had a chance to look up what the red critter was and found out we have asparagus beetles and the worms are the larve. I also think in the above picture the two small dark objects sticking off the stem on the right side are eggs just waiting to hatch even more beetle larvae.

Instead of repeating what others have said, I’ll point you to a great article I found on Mother Earth News, written by Barbara Pleasant, that discusses these insects in detail.

Of course nature doesn’t let anything go to waste. Birds, Lady Beetles and a predatory wasp feed on the larvae, eggs and/or beetles. There are a variety of things you can do (organically) to control or eliminate them, as mentioned at the link above, but a good start is to remove the plant debris in the fall and either compost or burn it.

Sage Flowers

•June 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

No, not wise or smart flowers.. but actual flowers on the herb Sage.

Last year we had a nice patch of Sage in our garden. Over winter it, of course, lost all the remaining leaves that we didn’t pick last fall. Come spring it looked dead. Grey and brown woody stems. We almost pulled it from the ground but for some reason I left it alone. Sure enough a month later a few leaves started coming out from the base of the plant.

Within a month all the “dead” stems came back to life with leaves. Then, just a few weeks ago, it started to send up flowers. Normally you can pinch these off to help force more leaves but since we like to also save seeds for future growing we’re quite happy to see it flowering.

 

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At first the flower buds appeared and while it was obvious they would become flowers there was nothing particularly colorful about them initially.

 

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Soon the purplish blue color started to peak out and eventually the flowers fully bloomed.

 

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They are not large as this small fly sitting on one can illustrate. The fly itself is about half the size of a common housefly. Reading in garden forums and seems hit or miss for people to have these plants survive over the winter. I suspect the deep almost six inch mulch layer I have in this garden bed may have helped insulate the roots and helped the plant come back this year. Our winter was one of the coldest on record so I’m even more excited that it survived.

The leaves are quite delicious mixed into various recipes that call for sage. Fall squash crops, like butternut, pair well with the sage.

Medicinally sage is also useful. As listed on WebMD :

Sage is used for digestive problems, including loss of appetite, gas (flatulence), stomach pain (gastritis), diarrhea, bloating, and heartburn. It is also used for reducing overproduction of perspiration and saliva; and for depression, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Women use sage for painful menstrual periods, to correct excessive milk flow during nursing, and to reduce hot flashes during menopause.

Sage is applied directly to the skin for cold sores; gum disease (gingivitis); sore mouth, throat or tongue; and swollen, painful nasal passages.

 

 

 
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