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SOUTHERN BEE KILLERS LOOK LIKE BUMBLEBEES

      The next time you spot what appears to be a bumblebee perched on a plant in your garden, take a close look at the insect, as it just may be accomplish insect predator known as the southern bee killer (Mallophora orcina)

       The southern bee killer is one of the approximately 1,000 species of robber flies that inhabit North America.  All of these amazing flies eat all sorts of insects; however, the southern bee killer prefers to eat paper wasps, carpenter bees, honeybees, and bumblebees.

       The southern bee killer is commonly inhabits backyards throughout the entire state.  In spite of this, unless you actually spot this predatory insect flying about with its prey, chances are you mistook it for a bumblebee. Bumblebees do not fly about clutching other insects.  That is understandable as it is fuzzy like a bumblebee, and its body is marked with the yellow and black pattern we associate with bumblebees.  In addition, if its legs seem to be exceptionally long and its eyes extremely large, you are probably looking at a bee killer.

       The southern bee killer is a true mimic.  It definitely looks like a bumblebee.  Biologists are not certain how the bee killer’s similarity to a bumblebee benefits the insect.  Some suggest it causes predators that do not like to be stung by bumblebees to shy away.  Who knows?

       At any rate, the southern bee killer is an ambush predator. It spends its day perched on a blade of grass, flower, twig, or other object and waits from a bee to fly by.  Once it spots a potential prey, it immediately chases it down.  If successful, it grabs the hapless bee in midair and impales it with its powerful, sharp mouthparts.  It then immediately injects its prey with a combination of enzymes and nerve poisons.  This deadly concoction disables the insect and dissolves its body tissues.  The bee killer then drinks its liquefied meal. 

       Since bee killers routinely return to the same perch, if you happen to locate a perch, check out this location from time to time, you can watch the bee killer hunt time after time.

       Although the southern bee killer is a deadly predator, I have never heard of an instance where one attacked a human.  That being said, if for some reason you happen to touch one, it can inflict a painful bite.

        

BACKYARD SECRET: SUNFLOWERS HELP THWART BEE DECLINES

       The demise of bee populations across the country is a major concern.  The economic and ecological impact of declining populations of these pollinators is staggering.  For years, scientists have been diligently trying to determine both the causes and solutions to this problem.  The findings of a study recently published in Scientific Reports suggest the sunflower may provide a glimmer of hope for some species of bees.

        The study investigated the possible impacts of diets of two species of bees containing various pollens on populations of two of the parasites linked to high bee mortality and sluggish colony growth.  The study reported European honeybees and common bumblebees that fed on the pollen produced in the flowers of sunflower plants were less infected with these parasites than bees that did not consume sunflower pollen.

        In the words of Rebecca Irwin (one of the biologists that conducted the study), “We tried other monofloral pollens, but we seem to have hit the jackpot with sunflower pollen.”

        Although this discovery is promising, the biologists that conducted the study were quick to point that, since sunflower pollen is low in both protein and some amino acids, the bees cannot live on sunflower pollen alone.  As such, they need to supplement their diets with the pollen of a variety of other pollen-producing plants.

        Consequently, if we homeowners want to help in the fight to thwart the ravages brought about by two of the deadly parasites that plague our bee populations, we need to add sunflowers to the variety of other pollen- rich plants growing in our backyard.  I am please to say sunflowers are currently blooming in my backyard.  I hope you will find a place for them in your backyard too.

BACKYARD SECRET: THE CATERPILLAR’S AMAZING GROWTH RATE

Some caterpillars exhibit an unbelievable growth rate.  Believe it or not, the caterpillars of some butterflies actually double their weight every two days.  If a human baby had a similar rate of growth, it would weigh a ton in just 14 days!

MEET THE RED ADMIRAL

        The red admiral is one of our most recognizable butterflies.  This is because this dark, medium-sized (1.75-2.50″) butterfly displays striking reddish orange bands across the tops of its wings.

        The red admiral flies rapidly from spot to spot.  It often lands on the ground, the sides of our homes, large flowers, you name it.  There it will often flatten out its wings and bask in the sunlight.

        Whenever it lands on a flower, do not assume it is nectaring.  The red admiral is a butterfly that only occasionally seeks nectar from blossoms.  Instead is prefers to dine on the sugar found in plant sap.  In fact, the largest concentration of red admirals I have ever seen was feeding on a gaping wound on the trunk of a willow tree.  Sap was oozing from the spot where a large limb broke off the tree the night before during an intense thunderstorm.         

        The butterfly will also dine on the juices oozing from rotting fruit.  I have also encountered red admirals seeking nourishment from dry dog food.  In addition, to the chagrin of many, it will also visit piles of dung. 

        The list of red admiral host plants includes pellitory, nettles, and false nettle.

        Since red admirals are now flying about backyards throughout Middle Georgia, I am sure they can now be seen in other parts of the state too.  If you have not seen one yet, you have plenty of time to make the acquaintance of this butterfly this year.  This strong flyer can be seen in Georgia from March through early November.

        I must admit I do not see as many red admirals as I would like, however, whenever I do spot one it is a special treat.  If you encounter your first red admiral this year, I am sure you will understand why I am so fond of this butterfly.

DRAGONFLIES ARE SHOWING UP IN BACKYARDS

        Dragonflies are beginning to make their appearance in our backyards.  These aerial predators are on the prowl looking for mosquitoes and other small insects.

        The first species to show up in my backyard this spring was the common whitetail (Plathemis lydia).  The male of the species (depicted here) is not difficult to identify.  Its body varies from white to pale blue.  This dragonfly’s eyes are brown.  The insect’s clear wings are marked with wide bands about halfway between the tips of its wings and body.  The leading edge of this bands display slender streaks that project toward the tip of the wings.  The insect measures roughly 1.5 – 1.9 inches in length. 

        The bodies of immatures and females are brown and marked with white lateral stripes.  The wings of immature males resemble those of adult males.  In comparison, one of the main differences between the pattern of the female’s wings and those of the adult male is they are tipped in brown and black.  Since immatures and females are sometimes tricky to separate from other similar species, it is always best to consult a field guide when trying to identify them.

        It is possible to see common whitetails in yards across the state, however, chances are best if you live near water.

        Here in the Peach State common whitetails fly from March into early November.            

MONARCHS ARE STILL PASSING THROUGH GEORGIA

After what seemed like an endless series of rainy/misty days during which the temperature hovered in the 40s and low 50s, I was convinced I would not see another monarch this year.  However, much to my surprise after the rain finally moved out, and the nighttime temperature plummeted to 31˚F, I was surprised to see a monarch nectaring at the blossoms on a butterfly  bush in my backyard this morning (November 16).  When I saw the butterfly, the air temperature was 51˚F. 

       Later on in the day, I spotted a gulf fritillary nectaring at the same bush.

       If that wasn’t enough, shortly thereafter I spotted a cloudless sulphur fluttering at the windows in my sunroom.  The butterfly was obviously roosting on one of the plants my wife and I moved inside the night before.

       My experiences on this chilly November morning galvanized my long-held belief that my backyard wildlife neighbors will never cease to amaze me.  As such when I walk outside each morning, I expect the unexpected.

YELLOW JACKETS SEEM MORE PRONE TO STING IN FALL

       Throughout most of the year, it seems that we have a truce with yellow jackets.  For the most part, these small, yellow, and black wasps will not attack unless we antagonize them in some way or just happen to venture too close to their nests.  However, have you ever wondered why, from late summer into fall, folks seem to be stung more often by yellow jackets than at any other time of the year?  If so, read on. 

       There are a few plausible reasons why the chances of being stung by yellow jackets increases as the days are cooler the foliage transforms from green into a kaleidoscope of color.

       Entomologists tell us yellow jackets are simply more abundant in autumn.  At this time of the year, a yellow jacket nest may contain upwards of 800 individuals.  Faced with this overcrowding, the members of the colony become less tolerant of one another as well as humans and other animals alike.

       Some biologists suggest this behavioral change may also be linked to the insect’s switch from a predominantly protein diet to one rich in carbohydrates.

       Realizing these insects are more apt to sting without provocation at this time of year, we all need to use caution when changing the nectar in our hummingbird feeders or working about our yards.         

       This threat will slowly diminish as the sterile female workers begin dying with the approach of winter.  Interestingly, the only yellow jackets that survive the winter are the queen.

CHANGING WATER IN ANT MOTES HELPS THWART THE SPREAD OF WEST NILE VIRUS

       The recent news of two cases of West Nile virus being diagnosed in the Georgia has heightened the fear that this dreaded disease might show up in our neighborhoods.

       Public health officials have advised that, since the disease is spread by mosquitoes, we can all help thwart the disease is by reducing the places where mosquitoes lay their eggs. One of the easiest ways for homeowners to accomplish this is by ensure water is does not collecting in open containers.  When folks police their yards for buckets and other containers that collect water, they often overlook a potential place of mosquitoes to lay their eggs that is hiding in plain sight.  What I am referring to are ant motes.     

       For years, ant motes have been used to prevent ants from converging on hummingbird feeders.  In case you are not familiar with an ant mote, it looks much like the plastic lid of an aerosol can.  A wire runs through the center of the bottom of the mote.  It is hung, with the open end of the mote facing up, between a feeder and a shepherds hook or other support.  Once in place it is filled with water.  It works because ants trying to reach a feeder will not swim across the water in the mote. The downside of this simple device is it can also serve as a great place for mosquitoes to lay their eggs.  Consequently, if we want to protect our hummingbird feeders from ants and not encourage mosquitoes that might potentially carry West Nile virus, all we have to do is to empty the water in a mote every two to three days.  This will prevent mosquito larvae swimming about in an ant mote from developing into adult mosquitoes.

WELCOME TO THE TOOTHPICK GRASSHOPPER

Literally hundreds of different creatures live in our backyards.  One reason we do not seem many of them is they are masters of disguise.  One such animal is the toothpick grasshopper.

       This odd grasshopper looks unlike any grasshopper you have probably ever seen.  It is slender and looks much like a twig, plant stem, or blade of grass and is pointed.  Consequently, if it remains motionless, more often than not, you will walk by and never see it.  However, if you happen to see something out of place shaped like a sliver, has eyes and three pairs of legs, you have probably discovered a toothpick grasshopper.  

       The toothpick grasshopper often lives its entire life on its favorite food—tall grass.  However, from time to time it will venture out into a grassy lawn.   

       If this grasshopper is flushed, it tries to either hop or fly away.  Should it fly, it will not go far as its wings are very short.

       I first met the toothpick grasshopper in my backyard some nine years ago while on a walkabout the back of my property with my daughter and wife.  Needless to say, we had no idea such a bizarre insect was living in the yard.

       The other day I encountered my second toothpick grasshopper while participating in a butterfly count on the Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area.  In the meantime, I have seen literally hundreds of grasshoppers, but not a toothpick grasshopper.  This tells this is because I am not very observant, its camouflage is very effective, or it is an uncommon resident in my neck of the woods.

       Keep your eyes peeled, you may have toothpick grasshoppers living in your yard too.