Hymenoptera in My Garden

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For those with a fear of bees (apiphobia) or wasps (spheksophobia), now is not a good time to hang out in my garden. The overgrown sedum, in particular, is crawling with pollinators, one on top of another: bumblebees, wasps, hornets, flies, and the occasional moth or butterfly (just to tone down the terror factor a notch).

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The sedum is called “Autumn Joy.” I guess I forgot to ask, “Whose joy?” Not my husband’s, certainly, but maybe these guys’?

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In another flower bed just a few feet away, I noticed a large concentration of wasps investigating my tiger lilies.

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At first, I wasn’t sure what could be so interesting about these bare stems, the blooms having vanished almost two months ago now. When I went in for a closer inspection, however, I found hundreds of tiny insects beneath the leaves.

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These purple spotted lily aphids (macrosiphum lilii), destructive little pests, apparently make a fine meal for the visiting hymenoptera. So, while I don’t generally make it a point to encourage wasps to gather near my deck, I’ve decided to make an exception and let them feast for as long as they like. Because it’s nice when the garden takes care of itself.

Out front, I found another insect predator grappling with its insect prey. Generally, I see cicada killers (sphecius speciosus) hovering near their holes in the hardened mud by the river, but the droning buzz of cicadas had drawn this one into my front yard, where, despite its generous size, it was struggling to lift a cicada and transport it back to its nest.

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My boys and I watched for a few minutes, (giving me time to feel a little sad because I happen to like cicadas and have written about them before) then went back to our work in the driveway. I even forgot about it until a sparrow flitted past my view carrying something large in its beak. When it landed on my front walk, I saw it drop a cicada, which it began to devour quite happily. Bird trumps insect. This time, anyway.

 

Taking Shelter

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The boys’ shelter has survived the change of seasons, evolving from a barren, winter structure into a hidden hermitage, surrounded and softened by the island forest’s leafy undergrowth. While in the past I’ve found evidence of white-tailed deer visiting the shelter, and once even discovered the remains of a pizza party (not the deer that time, I’m assuming), last week I only found this lonely Horned Passalus Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus), which objected very noisily (or stridulated, for the entomologically-inclined) when my oldest son picked it up for further investigation.

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As I am a more of an etymologist than an entomologist, I advise that you visit this site if you are interested in more information about this beetle. In the meantime, I’ll just sit here,

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or maybe pick up these cans.

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Revelation and Rambling

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This week has been a revelation. The melting snow has pushed the Monocacy just a little over its usual borders. It flowed from streams, trickled from sunny banks, and washed in from streets and drains. As the swelling river turned a muddy brown, the land returned to a green slightly brighter than when we’d last seen it, before the snow fell.

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For most of the week, I was exiled from “the island” by the river’s rising waters, left to gaze longingly at the carpet of green, where I knew early spring flowers were blooming. It’s the most wondrous time of year for the place, when it seems most clean and bright and promising (I’ve been known to call it “Fairyland”). But my side of the river isn’t without its own curiosities.

Again and again this winter, I’ve meant to write about the Canada Geese that travel over us in noisy flocks at dusk. It’s a particularly wintry phenomenon that I associate with clear skies and bracing cold. It seemed only fitting, then, that on winter’s last day, I watched about a hundred of them take off from the soccer field at Riverside Park.

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As they flew over the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, I noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a taller tree in the forest retention area (which got some much-needed attention only last December).

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It’s just a smudge in the distance in the picture that I took of it, and the geese merely specks, but with my naked eye it cut a regal silhouette, and I got a glimpse of its burnished chest when it glided from its perch, crossed low over the path in front of me, and headed into a stand of trees on “the island,” well out of my reach. Despite knowing that it was unlikely that I’d spot the hawk again, I hurried to the edge of the river and searched in the direction I thought it had gone. As expected, I didn’t find the bird, but I did see a tall, white American sycamore, which reminded me that I was supposed to take a picture of my favorite sycamore (because, yes, I have one) for the Maryland Biodiversity Project’s American Sycamore Facebook Blitz (because, yes, they had one). I was too late for the blitz, but I set off down the path the next day to photograph “my” tree anyway.

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Isn’t it beautiful? It’s branches like gnarled, work-weary hands, reaching for the sky?

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It even makes trash look good:

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(Needless to say, among the things revealed by the melting snow was quite a bit of trash, and I couldn’t help but think that the juxtaposition of these two things meant that someone had a pretty wild night followed by a pretty rough morning:

Or maybe it was just a few ill-conceived hours.)

Rodents of Unusual Skill

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A couple of weeks ago, I diverged from my regular rounds along the Monocacy and came upon a young tree trunk that looked as if it had been hewn by a wood-carver.

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I took note and walked a little farther along to find another tree that had been similarly cut. Now strongly suspicious, I stepped a little closer to the steep riverbank, scanned the waters, and found what I expected: a dam.

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Such logjams are not uncommon. They occur naturally after flood waters push down and collect fallen trees, branches, leaves and other debris (i.e. trash) against obstructions in the river, such as boulders, bridges, or small islands. I had a feeling that in this case I was seeing the work of another river dweller, one of earth’s largest rodents, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis). Just to be sure, I revisited the area yesterday and found that even more trees had been felled.

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While I would very much like to meet the beavers, I’ve a feeling that they’d prefer to avoid me (I live in Maryland, after all, not Narnia), so I had to make due with knowing that they were nearby and looking about their home. Unfortunately, the light was horrible, flat and almost numbing, so I had to play a little with the paltry light meter on my phone when I tried to photograph these industrious beavers’ environment. None of the results are accurate.

Besides frustrating myself with my limited camera, I managed to gather an overflowing bagful of trash, some of it unusual (the foam from a bike seat!). I don’t usually get noticed, but today a man observed me and remarked that I had an impossible job. “Just a little bit every day,” I answered. He just kept walking.

Of Dogs and Deer

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Nope, nothing to see here, you can put that camera away now.

So, I think that my younger dog, Rosie, might be planning her escape.

As I was getting prepared for our walk a few days ago – gathering trash bags, putting on my coat, jangling leashes – instead of presenting herself at my feet, as she usually does, she rushed upstairs. A little puzzled, I snapped the harness onto my older dog, Poppy, and waited. A few moments later, Rosie reappeared, but with an old, dried up, edible “chewie” in her mouth. I said to her (because I regularly talk to my dogs, cat, and any other living thing that happens to be in my vicinity, including myself), “We’re going on a long walk, don’t you want to leave that here?” But, as I reached to take it from her, she respectfully turned her head away. “Suit yourself,” I shrugged. As my older dog loves to carry things in her mouth, the situation didn’t seem too strange, and I figured I would just put the “chewie” in my pocket when she got bored.

About a half mile later, however, at a divergence in the path to the river, Rosie turned onto the less-traveled dirt trail, found a stone, and began digging a shallow hole just beside it. When she reached her preferred depth, she dropped the “chewie” into it, snuffled, and proceeded to nose dirt, leaves and other dried plant matter over it until the hole was filled. Now, I should note the Rosie has lots of these little stashes in our back yard. Occasionally she unearths them and returns them to the house in their slightly soggy, rotten state (another good reason never to buy rawhide). This is the first time, however, that she has ever stored something off of our property.

So, yes, I’m a little suspicious. She’s a nervous dog who’s been acting just a little too nervous lately. And I know she’s done with me holding her back from all those wild animals out there, so tantalizingly close, taunting her with their heady scents. Like those white-tailed deer we came upon on the island yesterday: a whole herd of them, and I wouldn’t let go of the leash, even to take this poor video:

That’s Rosie’s bark at the beginning, when it looks as if I’m going to fall over.

I can’t blame her, really, when the deer are so clearly out of control. I found a hoofprint just inside of the boys’ shelter (which Rosie, therefore, considers hers), so who knows what they’re getting up to when we’re not around?

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Although I am guessing that, even though there was evidence that they were eating and sleeping nearby, this was not their empty pint of gelato:

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Beyond Mud Pies

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Last week’s rains filled the Monocacy to its banks, which prevented exploration for a few days, but as the water receded to more average levels, we were treated to another sort of fun: mud. Lots and lots of it. The kind that sucks off your boots and ends up in your hair. While the boys modeled it into facades that seemed to lead into the riverbanks (and which reminded us of something out of Tolkien, like the Mines of Moria, but for muskrats), I discovered a veritable treasure-trove of tracks and footprints.

 

They reveal the life along the river that I rarely see; the creatures that come out when I’m not there. Honestly, evidence of the white-tailed deer is everywhere, in the form of scat that my younger dog takes too much pleasure in rolling herself in (and then pouts for days over the subsequent bath), and the squirrels are rarely too shy to show themselves, either. Raccoons, however, are more secretive (being nocturnal), and herons, although visible, prefer not to let me get too close. The Monocacy is host to other animals as well: opossums (one of which made it into my house), shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, groundhogs (whose holes are another obsession for my younger dog), weasels, minks, and otters, just to name a few mammals. We’re there, too, of course, sometimes leaving a little more than footprints

At least yesterday I found a piece of trash that I could use to collect the other pieces of trash. That’s always helpful. If you look on the bright side.

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Weather, According to Caterpillars

I think most people are familiar with with the folklore concerning the Woolly Bear caterpillar: the longer the black bands, the longer and more severe the winter. To be honest, according to my lifetime of anecdotal observations, this is a totally unreliable means of predicting how snowy or cold a winter might be. Just look at these two Isabella Tiger Moth larvae (a.k.a. Woolly Bears, a.k.a. Pyrrharctiae isabellae) I found a couple of weeks ago:

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They don’t exactly look the same, do they? No. And that’s the problem I encounter every year. Arguably, though, taking these two into account, I can see a slight argument for a relatively mild winter. I guess.

What really confused me when I was younger were the Woolly Bears that weren’t really Woolly Bears. For instance, this fellow, the Virginia Tiger Moth caterpillar (Spilosoma virginica), is entirely blond:

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Is he trying to tell me that I should winter in California? No. Absolutely not.

Finally there are some decidedly un-woolly but incredibly interesting caterpillars that hang about in the fall. I think that this Eastern Comma caterpillar (Polygonia comma) is just perfect for Halloween, when it made its appearance:

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Just don’t ask it about snow.

The Little Things

When I think about summer along the Monocacy River, I think about sun, heat, and humidity, of course, but it’s the little things that really define the season…things like spiders, bugs, beetles, bees and other creepy crawlies. Some of these invertebrates are welcome: I love examining spiders in their webs, watching damselflies flit from plant to plant along streams of shallow water, and bees bumbling over the wildflowers in the floodplain. On the other hand, the invasive insect destroyers, like japanese beetles, which descend upon plants in dense, reproducing masses and devour their hosts’ leaves to bits of lacy shreds, repulse me. Yesterday, however, when I saw a slew of them chewing up some stinging nettle, I was almost happy with them. So, you see, it really is the little things. As long as you don’t mind getting a gnat in your eye every now and then.

(No) Pets on the Monocacy

Painted Turtles, big and small American Toads, baby crayfish, Eastern Snapping Turtles: if my boys can see them, they can get their hands on them. So can I, of course, but most of the time I’m pleading for their release, because, one, we don’t need another pet and, two, wild things need to live in the wild. I was acquisitive of animals as a child, too, which is why I know that healthy wild things seldom thrive once put in a tank or a cage. The frogs and toads get away only to be found months later petrified at the back of a closet. The turtles eat your hamburger but look so morose that eventually you just have to put them back where you found them. And the crayfish? Either something in the fish tank eats them, or they eat something in the fish tank. I’m happy to say that I never took a Snapping Turtle home. My brothers were once attacked by one in a lily pond, and that settled the issue.

A few weeks ago, my boys caught a baby rabbit that was living in one of my flower beds. It was small, clearly just out of the nest, and rather stupid about just allowing itself to be handled. (Well, maybe more naive than stupid). I had the boys release it across the street, but it reappeared in the backyard a short time later, and, without telling me, my oldest put it in the cage with his two friendly pet rats, Sugar and Anastasia. Thrilled to see the maiden rats treat the rabbit as if it was their own long lost child, my son called me up from the garage, which I was cleaning, to his room to see a “surprise.” This is what I found:

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Yes, indeed, that is Anastasia grooming the rabbit. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to convince the boys that this situation, while adorable, was not actually good for the health of any of the animals involved. In the end, however, it wasn’t the boys that gave me trouble. They agreed to release the baby rabbit across the street again, but the baby rabbit had other ideas. Within minutes of being let go, it hopped right into the garage, where I was still cleaning, and up to the back door.

“Oh my God,” my husband said, “did it imprint on us?”

“I guess it liked being mothered,” I replied.

I am pleased to say that, no, despite the baby rabbit’s apparent desires, we don’t presently have a rabbit living with our rats.  It took several more tries, but it finally stayed away when we made sure that it noticed that we have two dogs and a cat living in our house in addition to our two affectionate rodents. It’s now living underneath a hedge two houses away.  In the wild.