I am sure you have recently been enjoying waking up to temperatures in the low 50s as much as I have. On these special early fall mornings, I love stepping out on the deck and take in the sights and sounds that surround me.
One thing that I have noticed is no butterflies are visiting the globe amaranth, zinnias, garden balsam, and scarlet sage growing in pots on the deck. However, each day I have spotted small bumblebees visiting scarlet sage blossoms.
Being able to begin feeding before butterflies and other pollinators arrive is a definite advantage to the hard-working bumblebees.
Remarkably, bumblebees can fly when it dips down as low as 40º F. As such, since the temperatures in my neck of woods should not drop below 40º F for a few weeks, I will be able to enjoy a cup of coffee while watching bumblebees are hard at work for some time to come.
To say the least, Georgia’s largest wasp is intimidating. Indeed, it is two or more inches long. Although it can inflict a painful sting, it only does so when provoked.
While it is big, the insect prefers to dine on fermented sap and nectar. However, its young have a far different diet.
The cicada killer gets in name from its habit of hunting down and catching cicadas. Often it latches on to these large insects in flight. Since its prey often weighs more than it does, when it attempts to fly back to its nesting burrow it more often ends up hopping for short distances than actually flying.
The female cicada killer paralyzes its hapless victims and places them in burrows (5-10 inches deep). Once she positions a cicada in just the right spot, she lays an egg on it. Next, she leaves, sealing off chamber before heading out to search for another cicada. She will sometimes repeat this process more than a dozen times.
The eggs hatch in only two to three days. Upon hatching, each larva begins eating its own paralyzed cicada.
The cicada killer overwinters as a larva. In the spring, it emerges and begins hunting down its own cicadas needed to produce a new generation of these formidable predators.
Female cicada killers live for a couple of months or so. On the other hand, males die shortly after mating.
You can go for years without ever seeing one of these large insects in your yard. I personally cannot remember the last time I spotted one. However, during the past couple of weeks, my niece saw one grab a cicada in mid-air and ride it down to the ground. Then this weekend my granddaughter found a dead cicada killer on the floor of her garage.
Both of the young women had never encountered a cicada killer before. Both found spotting one an eye-opening experience. If ever see one, I am sure you will be astonished to learn such a large predatory insect patrols your backyard.
Recently I received a post from one of our fellow bloggers that lives in the Athens area voicing concern that spiders might pose a threat to hummingbirds. In response to her communication, I have tried to uncover any reports of hummingbirds being caught in the large, sticky webs constructed by Joro spiders.
For those of you that that are not familiar with the Joro spider, this large spider is native to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. It first appeared in the United States in Hoschton, Georgia in 2013.
This long-legged foreign invader has spread rapidly and is now weaving their large, sticky webs in at last 25 counties in North Georgia. The spider has also been found in nearby South Carolina.
Experts tell us that Joro spiders do not eat birds. However, it is well known that hummingbirds are caught in the webs fashioned by a variety of native spiders. In such cases, unless an unfortunate hummingbird can break free or rescued, it dies of either from starvation or dehydration.
To date, I have not found any documentation of a hummingbird being caught in a Joro spider web. However, that does not necessarily mean that this does not occur. If you have seen and perhaps photographed such an event, please let me know.
Since the joro spider has not been in the country very long, experts are unable to determine the impact, if any; this spider is going to have on native animals. In the meantime, Richard Hoebeke, an entomologist and curation with the Georgia Museum of Natural History, offers this advice, “Spiders are beneficial, they are feeding on insects that a log of people consider pests, yellow jackets, stink bugs, mosquitoes, other insects that people don’t want to see around the house, they would be happy to have them in their webs. And a lot of them do end up in their webs. So, I consider them beneficial, I would just simply leave them alone. Don’t get in their way. Don’t aggregate them. Just let them be.”
For more information on the Joro spider, go to Search on the right side of this Blog and type in either Joro spider or Spider alert.
Whenever you encounter the eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus), you may be astonished at it size and perhaps fear it might bite you.
The eastern Hercules beetle is indeed large, in fact, since it can attain a length of around 2.5 inches, it is probably the largest beetle you will see in your backyard.
However, while it appears dangerous, it will not bite or sting. It much prefers to eat rotting fruit or the sap exuded from ash trees than human flesh.
Both male and female eastern Hercules beetles range in color from olive green, to tan and gray. Their exoskeletons display multiple black spots. No two beetles have the same number and distribution of spots. Consequently, researchers use the spots to identify individuals.
As you can see from the photos that accompany this blog, males sport two pronotal horns that some described as looking like the horns of a rhinoceros. The males use these horns when fighting for the opportunity to mate with females. Females lack horns.
Although they are found throughout Georgia, the homeowners that are most apt to find one of these giant beetles are those have yards that feature scattered hardwood trees, especially those where rotten limbs have be allowed to remain on the ground. Eastern Hercules beetle larvae feed on rotting wood, especially oak.
Since eastern Hercules beetles are nocturnal, it is unlikely that most of us spot one unless it is drawn to an outside light.
The strength of eastern Hercules beetles is legendary. Perhaps that is the reason we sometimes refer to it as the ox or elephant beetle. It is said that it can lift an object 850 times its own weight. This is the equivalent of a human lifting nine fully-grown elephants.
I hope you will have the opportunity to spot this gentle giant in your yard. It represents one of the countless animals that are hiding in plain sight in our backyards.
Here in Georgia fire ants can threaten birds that nest in nesting boxes. These pesky ants will enter nesting boxes and actually kill hatchlings.
Several decades ago Jackson, Mississippi resident R.B. Layton came up with a novel way to keep these dreaded imported insects from reaching his nesting boxes. Layton soaked either wood thread spools or sweetgum balls with the oil additive STP and placed them between the boxes and the poles that held them aloft. Supposedly, this formed a barrier over which the ants would not pass.
If you decide to try this technique, since thread now comes on plastic spools, you will have to find them at a craft store. They are available in a variety of sizes. I would imagine that you need to buy spools that are unpainted; an unpainted spool would probably retain more STP than those that are painted. As for sweetgum balls, they can be located beneath sweetgum trees across the state.
Since I have never had a problem with fire ants entering my nest boxes, I have never tested this technique. However, if you try it, I would love to know if it worked for you.
Since fire ants were accidentally introduced into the United States during the twentieth century, they have plagued both humans and native wildlife. However, findings of research conducted by biologists at Pennsylvania State University suggest that fence lizards that eat fire ants increase their immunity to the fire ant venom.
The researchers found that blood tests of the fence lizards that consumed dead fire ants three times a week developed three different types of increased immunity against the fire ant venom.
It is interesting to note that being stung by the fire ants did increase the lizards’ immunity against future stings.
From time to time, all backyard wildlife watchers see something that they cannot explain. For example, if gray squirrels frequently visit your feeders, chances are you will eventually spot one that appears to have lumps somewhere on its body. When this happens, it is only human nature to wonder what causes these mysterious lumps. A vast majority of the time, hidden inside each lump is the larva of a parasitic fly known as the squirrel bot fly.
Squirrel bot flies parasitize animals such as gray and fox squirrels, and rabbits. The squirrel bot fly looks much like a bumblebee. However, if you have the rare opportunity to examine one, you will see that it has one set of wings instead of two like the bumblebee.
Adult bot flies live for only two weeks or so. During this brief time, a female must lay her fertilized eggs on the branches of trees and other surfaces. If a squirrel happens by and touches an egg, it rapidly hatches and the larva tries to hitch a ride on the squirrel. The tiny larva must then make its way into the squirrel’s body via a body opening. This often occurs when a squirrel grooms itself and unwittingly swallows a bot fly larva. A larva can also gain access to the body through the bushytail’s eyes.
Once inside, the larva travels through the squirrel’s body before eventually ending up between the animal’s skin and flesh. Here it rapidly grows. As the larva increases in size, it creates a noticeable lump. Many people call these lumps warbles or wolves.
Over time, the liquid-filled lump swells. A bot larva can reach a size of 1.5-inches long and an inch wide. During this period in its life, a larva chews an exit hole in the squirrel’s skin through which it eventually wiggles out and drops to the ground.
Once on the ground it burrows into the soil and pupates. It will remain there until spring when it sheds the covering that protected it throughout the winter and emerges as an adult.
Meanwhile, once a larva leaves a squirrel, the open wound it left behind heals and any hair that was lost while the larva was living just below its skin will regrow.
Fortunately, we, as well as dogs and cats, cannot be infected by coming into contact with a squirrel parasitized by a bot fly.
The amazing drama involving the bot fly and the gray squirrel is played out in countless backyards across Georgia each year. However, I had never seen a “lumpy” squirrel in my yard until this year. Have you ever seen one in your yard? If you have, you now know the answer to a mystery that has confounded many folks for generations.
As odd as it may sound, many of our native bees are at least three times more efficient pollinators as the introduced honeybee.
Take for example the bumblebee: many of us grow blueberries in our yards. Many pollinators including honeybees and bumblebees visit the blueberry plant’s creamy white flowers. Studies have demonstrated that a honeybee would have to visit a blueberry flower four times to deposit the same amount of pollen as a bumblebee can in only one visit.
In addition, native bees are more common than honeybees in many of our yards. Unfortunately, few honey bees visit the flowers in my yard. Luckily, tiny solitary, bumble, and carpenter bees are routinely seen visiting a wide range of flowers found there.
This summer, as you walk around your flower and vegetable gardens take note of the bees you find pollinating your flowers. If you do, don’t be surprised if you see very few honeybees and an abundance of native bees hard at work pollinating the plants that provide you with food and a cascade of beautiful flowers.
I am convinced that we are guilty of underestimating the value of the 532 species of native bees that can be found flying throughout Georgia.
I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration. If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds. While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.
As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds. These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas. Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations. Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.
The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet. However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights. By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects. However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).
Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves. Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.
When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal. The worst trees are introduced ornamentals. Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies. Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.
Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies. The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses. This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy.
In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees. Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).
Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list. The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.
If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants. How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find. If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day. Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.
If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage. While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.
According to a recent, article that appeared in The Wildlife Society’s e-Wildlifer, this past winter the population of monarch butterflies found in their wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico dropped by roughly 26 percent.
Researchers attribute the decline, in large part, to a dramatic increase in illegal logging. While these activities have long been a problem, this past year it resulted in the removal of four times more of the firs and pines used by the butterflies as roosting sites than are typically lost. As a result, surveyors were only able to find the butterflies overwintering in only 2.1 hectares of habitat. To put this in perspective, the previous year monarchs wintered across 2.8 hectares of forests.
Monarch experts also believe that trees killed by beetle infestations, drought, and windstorms contributed to the decline.