Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Differential Grasshopper

(Originally published as "Funky Grasshopper" on Another Monkey on Monday, August 29, 2005.)

I spotted this grasshopper hanging out in my butterfly bush this past Thursday. At first my mind only registered the fact that it was a grasshopper, but after a second or two I decided to run inside and grab my camera. I never remembered seeing a grasshopper quite like this, with a blue-green body and yellow legs covered with inverted black chevrons that made it look like it had come straight from an episode of Pimp My Exoskeleton.

A few minutes with my handy Audubon Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders (what, you thought I knew fun facts about Praying Mantises and Silver-Spotted Skippers right off the top of my head?) suggested that I had photographed a Differental Grasshopper. There are a few other possible candidates - a surprising number of different types of grasshoppers have those markings on their legs - but the Differential Grasshopper seemed like the best fit with what I had seen.

I spotted a few other interesting things in my butterfly bush this past week. You could actually do a whole nature documentary based on the things that like to lurk in or visit my butterfly bush, and you could probably get an entire season of documentaries out of looking at everything that lives in my small suburban lawn. I have a few other photos to show, but those will have to wait until I have more time.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Lurker in the Roses

(Excerpt from a longer version originally posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2005 on Another Monkey.)

I first became aware of Double Delight roses during a visit to Disneyworld years ago - probably in 1997. The rose gardens are one of the best-kept secrets at Disneyworld, and are generally ignored by most visitors. My mom and I had the gardens to ourselves that day, save for a family of Japanese tourists who found the roses infinitely fascinating. Years later, suckered by the ease with which I was able to grow my Royal Highness bush, I decided to branch out into other varieties, including the beautiful Double Delight I remembered so fondly. Unfortunately, Double Delight is nothing like Royal Highness: it produces only a few blossom-bearing shoots, a profusion of non-blossom-bearing spikes, and is considered a delicacy by little green cutworms. Its scent is gaudy and overpowering, but at their best the blossoms are extremely beautiful.

Royal Highness was my first rosebush, and while it is extremely vigorous and easy to grow and has a beautifully classical rose scent, its blossoms are less petal-dense and tend to go from the first opening of the bud to the last petal fall in just a few days. Still, it produces vast numbers of blossoms throughout the season - this rose is part of the third (and probably final) flush for this summer, which started about a week before I took the photo. (The first and second flushes happened in the first and last weeks of June, respectively.)
I was a little disappointed when I reviewed this picture shortly after I had taken it and spotted what I thought was a bit of bud or a dead leaf caught within the petals of the rose, ruining the effect of the delicate shading of pink seen in the petals. On a whim I zoomed in on the image to the limit of my camera's zoom function, and got a bit of a surprise. Whatever was lodged in the petals had legs and eyes - eyes that were looking straight at me.
I had a feeling I knew what it was, but I decided to get a few other images from different angles before I tried looking it up in my Audubon Field Guide. Unfortunately, while it was surprisingly easy to get a good picture accidentally, it was very hard to get a close-up of the hidden insect intentionally. At least the little critter hadn't moved from its chosen blossom since I had first photographed it.
(Notice that the eyes are again turned towards the camera. This is one alert insect!)

The Audubon Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders identified it as an Ambush Bug, a little insect about half the size of the fingernail on my pinky - maybe 1/2" long by 1/4" wide - that lurks inside of flowers and waits for unsuspecting bees or butterflies to come by. And when they do - POW! The Ambush Bug strikes, using those powerful-looking forelimbs to kill its prey, which is usually several times larger than the deadly Ambush Bug itself.

It's a jungle out there. My garden is the setting for daily dramas as predators and prey fight for survival. The Ambush Bug is a subtle reminder of this, although by no means is it the only killer lurking in the garden. But those other, less subtle killers will have to wait a while to have their stories told.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar

(Originally published 7/24/2007 on Another Monkey.)

My cousin called me up to her house this evening. They had "found" a big green caterpillar, and they were wondering if I could identify it. I grabbed my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects & Spiders and my Nikon Coolpix L4 and headed up. This is what they had "found":

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar

They had it in a green plastic coffee can, with a twig and some grass and leaves. It was clutching some blades of grass by what I assumed was its mouth. It turned out I was wrong. The grass was being clutched by the caterpillar's butt end.

Note the strand of silk in the image, cutting across the "o" in "(S)wallowtail". There was also some silk woven onto the inside of the coffee can. Apparently, the caterpillar had decided to form its cocoon right then and there, inside its little green cylindrical habitat.

Caterpillar with field guide entry

The caterpillar appeared quite agitated, crawling all over my hand, my shirt, and the strap to my camera case. My cousin grabbed the camera and started taking pictures. Here's one of me going eye-to-eye with the caterpillar:

It's now safe at my house and back in its can, a net stretched over the top to keep my hungry hungry birds from eating it. In the morning I will check to see if it has spun its cocoon.

UPDATE, 7/25/2007: When I checked this morning the can was knocked over and the rubber band holding the net over the opening had been removed. But there is a cocoon in the can now! The caterpillar used one of the leaves to wrap the cocoon and it would be hard to see if I weren't specifically looking for it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hummingbird Moths and Silver-Spotted Skippers

(Originally posted as "More insects in my garden" on Another Monkey, Thursday, August 4, 2005.)

The first time I ever saw a hummingbird moth was in my grandmother's garden more than 20 years ago. I would guess that it was hanging around her Phlox, since they were pink and the one I managed to photograph this past weekend seemed to have a predilection for pink flowers.

Hummingbird moths are easily mistaken for hummingbirds - probably more easily mistaken for hummingbirds than they are for moths, which they, like all the hawkmoths, resemble almost not at all: they move like hummingbirds, they sound like hummingbirds, they feed like hummingbirds, and they look like hummingbirds - at first glance. Closer inspection usually leads you to notice the partially transparent wings, the antennae, and the very un-birdlike extra sets of legs. "Closer inspection" itself is a hint: hummingbirds are very skittish and will usually propel themselves away from any approaching hulks of humanity. Hummingbird moths will let you get right up next to them, as long as you don't make any sudden moves.

Hummingbird moths are very unusual-looking creatures. This is actually true of most insects - and, hell, most animals in general, when you get down to it. But most people don't take the time to get down to it. Hummingbird moths are not rare, at least in my neck of the woods, and are very active in the day. Hang out around some pink trumpet-shaped flowers (like these petunias) long enough this weekend and odds are you'll get to see one on your own - provided you live in a part of the world where they also live. It would help to have some kids along for the ride. Not so they could scream and run away or try to squish the poor beasties, but so they could start to learn to appreciate the enormous diversity of nature in their own back yards.

I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed with the lack of color among the visitors to my butterfly bushes. Besides the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies, the most common critters hanging around are the smaller Silver-Spotted Skippers.

Skippers are interesting to me for one major reason: they are neither butterflies nor moths, but are actually a third sort of big-winged insect that has characteristics in common with both. (I just found this out yesterday morning.)

I also find their coloration interesting. While the large white spot on the wings may serve to break up their overall outline, I can't shake the impression that they look like dark brown butterflies that have just been crapped on by a bird.

Do birds generally avoid eating things that they have crapped on? (This would explain why no birds have ever attempted to eat my car.)

I have not paid close enough attention in the past to know what the cycles of insects are in my own back yard. Will there come a time when my butterfly bushes will be covered with Monarch butterflies? Will something even more remarkable than a hummingbird moth come swooping out of the sky? I don't know. But I will keep my eyes open, and my camera handy.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

My garden of invasive perennials, part 1

(Originally published on Another Monkey on Saturday, July 30 2005.)

I've added plants to my garden over the years based on what they do and whether or not I like them. I have roses because I think they're nice, rhododendrons because they provide good sight screening, azaleas because I like the profusion of flowers in the Spring, blueberries because I like to eat blueberries, and butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) because I like butterflies.

So it was with some trepidation that I learned that the "summer lilac", the common Butterfly Bush, was considered an invasive perennial.

Well. I suppose there are worse things I could do than provide vast flotillas of butterflies (like the female Black Swallowtail pictured above, photographed earlier today while taking a late lunch with several dozen of her friends) with a quick snack or long-term nutrition for their several-thousand-mile migration.

Still, invasive perennials worry me. Some of the nicest plants in my yard just sort-of showed up on their own, probably as seeds deposited by birds. These plants - Rose of Sharon, Barberry, even a grapevine - have been integrated into my landscape. Others, like the Burning Bush, Trumpet Vine, and my two Butterfly Bushes, have been intentionally introduced by me.

Do they pose a threat to the local natural environment? I don't know. I can imagine a scenario in which civilization collapses and leather-clad gangs of mutant bikers roam the streets of Nanticoke in armored and beweaponed dune buggies, carefully avoiding the butterfly-infested groves of pink Buddleia, crimson Euonymous and pink-and purple Hibiscus syriacus, only to run afoul of the spiny needles of the blood-red Berberis thicket. And should such a future come to pass, it shall be upon my head, for I will have helped to bring it about.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Scientist

(Originally published on Another Monkey on Wednesday, June 16, 2004.)

This is my favorite photo of me as a little kid. I think I was maybe 3 or 4 when this picture was taken. And, like most things, there's a story behind it.

Me with Monarch Butterfly Posted by Hello

I had been playing in our back yard and I spotted a Monarch butterfly in our garden. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but my mom shouted "Wait!" and ran back into the house. (This was in those long-ago days when you could leave your child in your own back yard for upwards of several minutes without worrying that somebody was going to come along and do something horrible to him.)

She came back a few seconds later. "OK, now!" she said, and I continued to reach out to the butterfly. It was so beautiful, so delicate, like something made of living paper. I wanted to touch its wings, to see what it was made of.

This picture really gets at the heart of who I am. Curious, fascinated by the natural world, tentatively reaching out to engage it. A three-year-old Naturalist. A budding Scientist.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. I swear I didn't crush it or do anything else to kill it. But I do remember that the butterfly flew away a few feet...and then dropped out of the air, dead.

Yeah, that's me, too! Can't engage the world without causing some sort of damage.

Of course, I was horribly traumatized by the incident.
I may have made up for this crime against butterfly-kind many years later. How many years later, I just realized.

It was during my brief and horrible stint in graduate school. I was in grad school for a few months when I was 21, and dropped out shortly after my 22nd birthday. I am now 36. Assuming I was 3 when this picture was taken, there was a span of 18 years between this picture and my grad school experience. 15 more years have passed from then to now. In just three more years, there will be as great a distance between the present and my grad school experience as there is between my grad school days and this photo. Phreeow.

It was Autumn, maybe a month into the semester. I was walking the mile-and-a-half from my apartment to my office on campus when I came across an injured Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies taste terrible (or so I am told), and are brightly colored to warn predators away...don't bother, their colors say, go try eating somebody else. Not all predators get the message. Apparently one hadn't in this case; it had taken a chunk out of one of the Monarch's wings and spit it out, leaving the butterfly crippled and flightless.

I picked up the wounded butterfly, and it clung to me like a desperate child. I thought, what the hell, and carried it with me the rest of the way to my office in the Physics building.

I happened to have a broken pocketwatch whose glass face had popped off at my desk, so I decided to turn it into a butterfly feeder. A few grains of sugar and a little water, mixed together with a coffee stirrer, became a poor substitute for the nectar the Monarch would have stocked up on before the long flight to its breeding grounds in Mexico - a flight that now it would never take.

I coaxed the Monarch onto my forefinger and then thought about the problem of how to convince it to drink. I vaguely remembered that butterflies taste with their feet, so I thought this would be a good place to start. I maneuvered my finger so the butterfly's front feet waved in the air, then gently touched them to the sugar water. It moved the delicate clawed sticks of its forelegs tentatively in the mixture for a few seconds, and then, amazingly, its coiled proboscis gradually straightened and extended and reached into the liquid. It sucked up the sugar water until it had had its fill, and then recoiled its proboscis and pulled back from the watchglass.

Sugar water does not contain the nutrients necessary for butterfly survival. You should never fill a butterfly feeder with colored sugar water; you will be doing the poor insects a disservice. But I did not have the means to acquire the proper solution, and I did not expect my rescued butterfly to live very long. But it did live, in a hutch above my desk, for something like two weeks. I would occasionally take a break from studying or preparing labs or grading papers to let the butterfly cling to my finger as I inspected its insect anatomy. Sometimes I would blow softly on its wings, and it would tense its broken wings and flap them gently, perhaps remembering the sensation of wind and flying that would be denied to it for the rest of its life.

And after a time, it died. I came back to the office one afternoon to find it still and lifeless. I felt a little sad, but also felt that in some small way I had repaid a debt to a butterfly that may or may not have died because of me some 18 years before.

Oh, look, another one.

This is another spinoff blog from my main blog, Another Monkey. The plan is to isolate many of my Yard and Garden posts here, much like Unknown Failure isolates my computer problem posts. We'll see how that works out!