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BACKYARD SECRET–PURPLE MARTINS HELP CONTROL FIRE ANTS

       Purple martins are known to eat at least 79 species of insects including dragonflies, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. However, I would be willing to guess you did not know they also dine on fire ants.

       It seems purple martins target mating male and queen fire ants. One group of researchers studying the feeding habits of purple martins found fire ants were captured during 32 percent of the birds foraging trips. The ants accounted for 31 percent of the insects taken. In addition, fire ants comprised 27 percent of the biomass consumed by the birds and their young.

       Based on these data, the scientists estimated purple martins consume some 1.7 billion fire ants annually across the United States.

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.

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.

       Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.

       Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.

      The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.

       You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.

       I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.

       Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.

       In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.

       For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.

       As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.

       That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.

THE CLICK BEETLE IS AN ODD BACKYARD RESIDENT

      The click beetle is one of literally thousands of insects that inhabit backyards throughout the state. However, most of these animals live in anonymity. Today Kim Walton, the web master for this blog, spotted her first click beetle in her backyard. This unusual insect was seen on a deck post.  

    The large eye-like markings displayed by some species of click beetles give the insect an ominous look. However, the click beetle is not prone to bite or sting. In fact, if Kim had touched it, the beetle probably would have immediately fallen to the ground and played dead.

       This insect is also known by a number of other names such as the snapping beetle, and skipjack. This is because, if place a click beetle on its back, it will flip itself into the air and land on its feet. This strange athletic fete is associated with a loud clicking noise.

       At times while adult beetles are burrowing into rotting logs, and butt their heads against hard wood, their head butting creates a tapping sound. Legend has it this is a sign of death.

       Adult click beetles feed on a variety of foods that include flowers and their nectar, as well as soft-bodied insects such as aphids.

       The click beetles larvae are known as wireworms. The larvae are true predators that hunt the larvae of other beetles, and a wide variety of tiny invertebrates. They will also consume both roots and seeds.

       Although click beetles are not as fearsome as they may appear to be, they are definitely a member large, diverse community of plants and animals that inhabit our backyards.

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.

 

A PLACE TO RELIEVE THE STRESS CAUSED BY COVID 19

        Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.

       Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.

       One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.

       Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.

       As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.

       In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.

       Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.

       When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.

       I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.

       While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.

       If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.

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.

A HARD FREEZE CHANGED THE COMPLEXION OF MY BACKYARD

       Early last week the overnight temperature dropped to 24˚F.  As expected, the hard freeze changed the complexion of my backyard.  Prior to the frigid weather a dozen or so plants were still blooming.  They were providing wild pollinators with a much-needed source of nutrition. 

       The only flowering plants that survived the cold weather were sweet alyssum, blanket flower, and sasanqua.  Although most of the flowers on my butterfly bushes died, remarkably a few survived too. 

       As expected most of the insects that were out an about before the freeze also met their demise.

       However, some did survive and are visiting the meager array of blossoms that remain.  The only insects I have seen lately are yellow jackets, bumblebees, and cloudless sulphur butterflies.

       The yellow jackets have continued to feed on the sugar water found around the feeding portals of a couple of hummingbird feeders that are being maintained in hopes they will attract a rare winter hummingbird.

       Tiny native pollinators have focused their attention on the tiny blossoms adorning sweet alyssum encircling a backyard birdbath.  Two or three cloudless sulphurs and a couple of bumblebees are regularly spotted visiting butterfly bush, sasanqua and blanket flower blossoms.  When they are gone, I will give my full attention to the animals that inhabit my backyard throughout the winter.

       Indeed Mother Nature provides those of us willing to watch and listen great wildlife viewing opportunities throughout every season of the year.

      

SURPRISED TO SEE A MONARCH ON A FROSTY MORNING

         Today I awoke to a thermometer reading of 32˚F. This marks the first day the temperature has plummeted to the freezing mark this fall.  While I do not have any idea how long the temperature hovered this low, I know it could not have been too long since none of the plants flowering in my backyard showed any signs of frost damage.

When I ventured outside for the first time on this sunny, cool day the temperature had risen to 57˚.  Much to my surprise the first creature I saw this morning was a monarch butterfly.  The monarch was nectaring on the purple blossoms displayed on two butterfly bushes.

Needless to say, I was startled to see a monarch on such a cold morning since even on a sunny day, monarchs are rarely seen when the air temperature is in the 50s.  When it is cloudy, this magnificent butterfly often does not take to the air until the air temperature reaches 60˚.  That being the case how was this butterfly out and about feeding?

More than likely it must have spent the night roosting nearby in a location where the temperature remained above freezing.

In autumn, when monarchs are passing through the south on their way to Mexico they seem to prefer to roost in pecan and oak trees; especially those growing close to a nearby source of nectar. These trees offer protection from the wind and their dense foliage provide places to roost that at are often warmer than the air temperature.

During the past few years, I have noticed that late in the afternoon during the monarch migration, monarchs will nectar on one particular butterfly bush growing on the north side of my home.  Just beyond my driveway stand three water oaks.  Several times as the sunlight melted away, the monarchs would flutter up into the oaks and vanish from sight.  While I am not positive this is their nighttime roost, I suspect it is.

Wherever the monarch I saw this morning roosted, it could not move until the temperature rose above 40˚.  As the temperature slowly climbed, the butterfly had to crawl to a sunny spot and open its wings and bask in the warming rays of the sun.  The butterfly’s black scales and abdomen enabled to it to absorb the heat needed to raise its body temperature.  Once its flight muscles reached 55˚ degrees, the monarch was capable of flight.

I am certain the monarch I saw this morning is now miles away from my backyard.  As the sun begins to dip below the horizon this afternoon, I hope it finds another suitable roost site and the night will not be as chilly as it was last night in Monroe County.

FEMALE MONARCHS ARE BETTER FLIERS THAN MALES

      One event that backyard wildlife enthusiasts look forward to each autumn is the migration of the monarch butterfly. During the fall of the year, these beautiful butterflies stop and feed in our backyards as they make their way to their winter home in Mexico. This epic flight takes a tremendous toll on these gossamer-winged insects.

       Ever since it became apparent monarch populations have plummeted to a fraction of what they once were, researchers have been scrambling to learn as much as they can about this fascinating insect. The results of one such study recently conducted by University of Georgia, Odum School of Ecology researchers provide us with answers as to why female monarchs are better fliers.

       When the UGA research team compared the wings of male and female monarchs, they discovered some notable differences. It seems the females’ wings are thicker, and somewhat smaller. In addition, their flight muscles are smaller and lighter.

       One might think having larger and heavier wing muscles, coupled with thinner and lighter wings would benefit the males. Actually, the reverse is true. The males’ larger and thinner wings are more susceptible to damage. Their wings also forced to bear more weight per square inch than those of the females.

       In essence, this means female monarchs are more efficient fliers than males. This, in turn, enhances the chances of the females surviving the autumn migration.