Amaranth

•December 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This year we tried planting some new seeds in our gardens. Amaranth. Specifcally Golden Amaranth and Molten Fire Amaranth, both from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Sadly none of the Molten Fire grew, but happily one of the Golden seeds sprouted and grew. The seeds are very tiny. Smaller than poppy seeds and about a quarter teaspoon worth of seeds was planted. From the one seed that took, the resulting seed head gave us about 5-6 tablespoons of seeds. We’ll definitely be trying again next year.

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The seeds are not edible when raw, however cooked they are fine to eat. Given their small size it isn’t normally eaten on its own instead you find it usually baked into bread or popped and mixed with honey. The grain itself can also be pressed to extract amaranth oil.

We didn’t get enough yield to eat any, but hopefully next year will give us a number of plants and much more seed, some to save and some to cook with. A single seed head can yield up to a pound of seed.

Since the plants are quite attractive in appearance we also tried growing them in our front yard. With their foilage and seed heads they make a nice decorative plant that also gives us an edible yield. More and more we are looking for plants that not only look nice but also serve other roles. Perhaps food for us, perhaps critter (bees, humming birds, etc.) attractors.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

•November 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In mid September, over the course of just a few minutes I observered a number of insects preparing for winter. Bees gathering nectar and pollen. Spiders spinning webs in preparation of catching their next meal. Ants enjoying a watermelon rind we had left on the ground. And a grasshopper, well, just sitting there.

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The first thing that came to mind was the Aesop fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

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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