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HOVER FLIES–OFTEN MISTAKEN FOR STINGING INSECTS

      The hover fly (also commonly called the flower fly) is one of our most often misidentified backyard residents. When one suddenly appears out of nowhere and hovers close to our face while making a buzzing sound, many panic and begin swatting at it fearing it is a bee or yellowjacket. Actually, the hover fly is not a bee, not a yellowjacket, nor hornet or wasp. Instead, it is a fly and is harmless to humans.

       Here is how you can tell if you have encountered a stinging insect or a hover fly. All you have to do is remember this brief saying, “Two wings fun, four wings run.” In other words, flower flies possess only one pair of wings, whereas yellowjackets and their relatives have two sets of wings. In addition, while the flower fly will not sting or bite, as we all know, bees, yellowjackets, wasps, and their kin are armed with a stinger that they will use to inflict a painful sting.

       In addition, most of the flower flies we encounter in our backyards look much like yellowjackets. However, if you will look closely, you will notice the hover abdomens of flower flies look deflated and flat. The abdomens of yellowjackets, on the other hand, appear inflated.

       Also, hover flies can both hover and fly backwards, whereas, yellowjackets do not possess this mastery of the air.

FROGS AND FISH DON’T MIX IN SMALL BACKYARD PONDS

       If you are trying to encourage frogs to breed in your small backyard pond, it is best not to stock your pond with fish, with the exception of the perhaps a small number of mosquito fish.

       It seems many species of fish will eat tadpoles. In addition, young fish will often compete with tadpoles for food.

 

OAKS ARE IMPORTANT BUTTERFLY AND MOTH HOST PLANTS

              Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths.  In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants.  Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants.  Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard.  Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.

 

       Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies.  More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State.  Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards. 

 

       Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants:  red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth,  imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.

      If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks.  With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard.  If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.  If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list.  This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.

 

START PLANNING FOR SPRING GARDENS

      With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.

       Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.

UNWANTED NIGHTTIME VISITORS TO BIRD FEEDERS

       My wife and I have noticed the last birds to our seed feeders are typically cardinals.  Long after the chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and house finches have gone to roost male northern cardinals seem to glow in the fading light of the day.  Once the cardinals finally call it quits for the day, as much as we probably don’t like to think about it, a number of unwanted guests are apt to visit our feeders under the cloak of darkness.

       To some extent, which animals will visit our feeders depends on where you live in the Peach State.  For example, if you reside in North Georgia or a handful of other locations scattered around the rest of the state where black bears make their home, during the warmer months of the year you might have a visit from a black bear.

       For the rest of us, our feeders are more likely to be visited by rodents, raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer.  Believe it or not, coyotes and foxes are also known to frequent feeders at night.  In most cases, these animals are attracted to seeds that have been flipped out of feeders or scattered on the ground. That being the case, one of the best ways to discourage nocturnal visits by these furry critters is to clean up any seed left on the ground.  This task can be made less daunting by putting out only as much seed as your think the birds will eat during the day.

       Deer can often be thwarted by not feeding inexpensive seed mixtures that often contain corn.  Corn is a favorite deer food.

       If marauding bears are a problem, you will have to take your feeders down before sunset.  If you don’t, you stand the very real chance of having feeders destroyed our hauled off into the woods.

      Should you want to get some idea what is actually visiting your bird feeding area at night, install a motion-activated trail camera aimed at your feeders.  If you do, you may be amazed at what is going bump in the night just outside your backdoor.

QUESTIONS CONCERNING CREPE MYRTLE

       When I posted a blog concerning the value of crepe myrtle to wildlife, a blogger posed her concern that I had wrongfully maligned this popular ornamental, and wondered what the basis of my opinion was.

       It seems when crepe myrtle is blooming in her yard bees converge on the plant’s colorful flowers. She went on the say that when she deadheads the first crop of blooms to encourage a second blooming, when a new crop of blossoms bursts forth the bees return to once again feast.

       To say the least, I was surprised to learn that the bees in her backyard are drawn to crepe myrtle blossoms in large numbers. The crepe myrtles that grow in my neck of the woods are rarely visited by bees. This could be explained by the fact that she grows varieties such as Lipan, Tuscarora, and Dynamite. I am not familiar with them; they may produce an abundance of pollen and/or nectar. I do not know the name of the crepe myrtle rooted in my yard; however, I am sure it does not produce much of value to pollinators. I have seen wild pollinators feeding on the honeydew secreted by the aphids that live on the plants.

       I should also mention I have seen American goldfinches eat crepe myrtle seeds.

       In addition to producing little food, crepe myrtle is an exotic plant is invasive in many sections of Georgia. When it “walks away” from the place where it is planted, it can usurp habitat originally occupied by native plants. Typically, the native plants it supplants are of more value to wildlife than exotics.

       I am not the only wildlife biologist that does not consider crepe myrtle to be a great wildlife plant. Here is what Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, has to say about crepe myrtle, “Crepe myrtle is an enormously popular landscape plant because it has a nice habit, beautiful flowers, and lovely bark. But it contribute almost nothing to the food webs in your garden. If every plant is your yard were a crepe myrtle, you would have no food webs, and, thus, no birds, butterflies or other beneficial wildlife”

       If you enjoy the beauty offered by crepe myrtles in your yard, and the varieties you plant provide bees and other wildlife with food, continue to cultivate them. Meanwhile, plant some native plants that evolved alongside the native pollinators and other wildlife in your area. If you do, I think you will find they will be of great value to your backyard wildlife neighbors. In addition, you will be contributing to restoring the natural ecology of your yard.

THERE IS A SNAKE ON MY HUMMINGBIRD FEEDER!

       How would like to look out your window and spot a snake wrapped around your hummingbird feeder?  This is just what recently happened to Upson County blogger Wanda Granitz.

       Needless to say, the rat snake dangling from her feeder was not visiting to partake in a sip of nectar.  It was attempting to grab a hummingbird or two. 

       Like most predators, snakes are very opportunistic.  Whenever they locate a concentration of prey, they will try to take advantage of the situation whether they find an abundance of frogs, insects, mice, or hummingbirds.

       There are many other critters that capture hummingbirds.  These predators include bullfrogs, hawks, shrikes, cats, praying mantises, spiders, and others.  However, aside from cats we rarely see hummingbirds capture one of these flying jewels.

       Fortunately, for hummingbirds and their devoted fans, the unnerving sight of a snake curled around a feeder is not common.  If you are like me, you have never witnessed anything like this in your yard.  In fact, in all the years I worked as a wildlife biologist, I received only a handful of reports of snakes trying to feed on hummingbirds visiting a feeder.

       However, if you do happen to spot a rat snake on your hummingbird feeder, one of the best things you can do to protect the hummers is capture the snake and move it some distance from your home.  Do not simply release it elsewhere in your yard.  If you do, chances are it will return to dine on these flying delicacies at a later time.

DO NOT FORGET TO DEADHEAD MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS

        Humans and butterflies alike are drawn to the bold orange blossoms of the Mexican sunflower.  The problem is by the middle of August the blooms displayed by this tall plant are often quickly fading.  This is unfortunate for those of us that enjoy its stunning beauty and the butterflies and other pollinators that feed at its showy flowers.

       With this in mind, if you deadhead the spent blossoms displayed by your Mexican sunflower plants, they will produce a new crop of flowers that will continue to contribute their beauty to our gardens and be a source of nectar for butterflies such as monarchs later in the year when nectar will be less abundant than it is right now.

BACKYARD SECRET: RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAKS NECTAR ON BRONZE FENNEL

        For quite some time I have been documenting butterflies nectaring on a wide range of cultivated and native plants.  This effort has helped me gain a better appreciation of which species of butterflies use which plants.  Every so often, I encounter a butterfly nectaring on a plant I never realized they visited. 

       For example, a few days ago my wife and I checked our bronze fennel for black swallowtail eggs and/or eggs.  Much to our chagrin, we did not find either.  However, my wife did make a fascinating discovery. When she called me over to look at what she had found, I was surprised to see six red-banded hairstreaks nectaring on a bronze fennel’s pale yellow blossoms.

       Although we have been growing bronze fennel in our garden for a number of years, we never considered the well-known black swallowtail host plant a source of nectar for butterflies.  Oh sure, we routinely see the blossoms routinely visited by sweat bees and other native pollinators, but never a red-banded hairstreak other butterfly.  Yet, here were half a dozen beautiful red-banded hairstreaks so engrossed in sipping nectar they never attempted to fly away in spite of the fact we were standing only a few feet away from them.

       A quick check of the literature and Internet failed to uncover any mention of red-banded hairstreaks using the plant as a source of nectar.  In fact, most authors simply mentioned it was visited by a number of pollinators; however, none said it was source of nectar for butterflies.

       While my wife’s sighting may not be an

important scientific find, it was important to us.  It

advanced our understanding of the unbelievably

complex relationships that exist between the plants

and animals that live just outside our backdoor.  

BACKYARD SECRET: GRAY SQUIRRELS HAVE A UNIQUE WAY TO SHADE THEMSELVES FROM THE HOT SUN

          The gray squirrel uses its tail to help to help balance itself as it climbs and jumps from limb to limb, an even break its fall when is tumbles from a limb high above the ground.  Unbelievably on bright sunny days, the gray squirrel flips its bushy tail over its back and utilizes it as a parasol to keep the rays of the sun from overheating its body.