Archives

A NOVEL WAY TO KEEP FIRE ANTS OUT OF NEST BOXES

       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.

EATING FIRE ANTS MAY HELP FENCE LIZARDS DEVELOP AN IMMUNITY AGAINST FIRE ANT VENOM

        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.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF THE LUMPY SQUIRRELS

       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.

BACKYARD SECRET–NATIVE BEES ARE OFTEN MORE EFFICIENT POLLINATORS THAN HONEY BEES

       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.

YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR YARD TO SEE SPRING MIGRANTS

      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.

       

DISCOURAGING NEWS FOR MONARCHS

       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.

A DEVIL’S RIDING HORSE MAY BE GRAZING IN YOUR BACKYARD

       One of the most bizarre insects that inhabits our backyards is a critter known by a number of unnerving names such as the devil’s riding horse, devil’s darning needle, witch’s horse, and musk mare.

       The names referring to horses relate to the fact that the much smaller male of the species is often seen attached to the back of a female.  If you closely look at the picture accompanying this blog, you will notice a male clinging to the back of a much larger female.

       The name musk mare refers to the insect’s ability to spray would-be predators with a foul-smelling fluid.  It is believed this defensive spray helps thwart the attacks of ants, beetles, and even mice.

       With that in mind, if you stumble across a devil’s darning needle, do not get your face too close to the insect.  Should one happen to spray you; the chemical might cause temporarily blindness as well as irritation to your mucous membranes.

 

   

Photo credit: Angela Dupree

This insect is fairly large.  Males may be only 1.5 inches long, whereas females can attain a length of 5 inches.

       Even though this invertebrate may have been living in your backyard for years, you may never have seen one.  However, your chances of seeing one are greater in the fall than at any other time of the year.

       The places where you are most apt discover one of this fascinating insects  are hidden in grass, secluded beneath the loose bark of a trees, as well as under logs, and other objects littering the ground.

       Interestingly, in spite of the insect’s frightening names, it is not a ferocious, flesh-eating predator.  It prefers instead to graze on the leaves of a variety of trees and shrubs including oaks, roses, rosemary, privet, and crepe myrtle.

       I am surprised that, although I have spent a large portion of my life outdoors, I have never seen a witch’s horse.  However, a couple of weeks ago my daughter found the two illustrated here.  I guess that goes to show you can spend a lifetime watching wildlife and never see everything that is living just outside your backdoor.

THE CAROLINA SATYR IS A BACKYARD GHOST

      In spite of the fact that the Carolina satyr is one of the most common butterflies found in many Georgia backyards, its photograph rarely graces calendars or is featured in popular magazines.  Even in yards where it makes its home, since it almost never visits flowers, some homeowners do not realize it is there. 

       It prefers to live out its life in the moist, dark wooded spots where most flowering plants cannot live.  Even when is seen in its shady lair, it is often mistaken for a drab moth.  Indeed one could say it is our backyard ghost butterfly.

       The Carolina satyr is a small butterfly with a wingspan of only an inch to an inch and a half.  While it will never qualify as one of our most attractive butterflies, if you take the time to closely examine one resting on a dead leaf or twig, it quickly becomes apparent the pattern found on its ventral wings is quite attractive.

       Some have described the butterfly’s color as muddy brown; however, many field guides say it is light brown.  In fact, when the butterfly has its wings outstretched basking the sun; you can see the dorsal wings are devoid of any pattern.  Consequently, if you did not know what you were looking at, you would be scratching you head wondering what it the world you what it is.  Fortunately, for anybody trying to identify his or her first Carolina satyr, you do not often see a Carolina satyr in this pose.

       When we see one at rest, more often than not, it has its wings closed above its body.  In this position, the markings featured on the ventral side of the insect are clearly visible. Usually, the first things that catch your eye are the spots lining the trailing edge of the underwings.  The two largest spots are located in the bottom corner on the hindwing.  Each spot consists of a very small blue spot surrounded by a thick black ring.  In turn, this ring is rimmed in yellow.  Above these two prominent features, a series of smaller spots are positioned all the way to the tip of the wing.  These markings also have yellow rims.  A few will even have dark centers.  The underwings also feature two black traverse lines and dashes, respectively.

       Carolina satyrs are often seen fluttering about in shady woodlands, forest openings and nearby disturbed grassy areas.  They also do well in shady backyard settings. 

       Here they prefer to feed on tree sap, animal droppings and rotting fruit.  About the only time they are ever seen feeding at flowers is in late autumn.

       This is one butterfly that hugs the ground.  One observed flying more than a foot or so above the earth, is on a grand adventure.

       The Carolina satyr flight can be best described as slow and bouncy.  Those of us that watch butterflies appreciate the fact that Carolina satyrs rarely embark on extended flights.  As such, I have found that when I flush one in a shady spot, if I immediately stop and wait a few moments, the butterfly will often alight a short distance away.  This offers me the opportunity to take a glimpse of it through my binoculars or quickly snap a picture.

       Carolina satyrs are found throughout the state.  Depending upon where you live, you can see this delicate backyard ghost from late February until early November.

       If you and wondering whether or not these small butterflies are present in your yard, visit some of the shadier area of your yard.  Once there slowly walk about scanning the ground in front of you.  If you happen to catch the glimpse something slowly moving from place to place, more than likely you are not having a close encounter with something that goes bump in the night.  Instead you are probably looking at Georgia’s backyard ghost butterfly.

 

HOARY EDGE OR SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER?

       Summer is a great time to watch butterflies.  Depending on where you live, coupled with the abundance and variety of nectar plants growing in your gardens, it is possible to spot 25 or more species of butterflies in a single day.  Currently, I am finding anywhere from 12-17 species a day.  It is relaxing to watch butterflies flying from flower to flower.  However, I find it even more satisfying when I can identify what I am looking at.  With that in mind, I thought I would offer you some tips that will help you tell the difference between two similar butterflies that are likely to be seen in your backyard.

       The two butterflies I am going to focus on are the hoary edge and silver-spotted skipper.  Both are overall dark in color and display patches of white on the undersides of their rear wings.

       In my neighborhood, my wife and I see the silver-spotted skipper far more often than the hoary edge.  However, it is not uncommon to find them feeding close to one another on the same plant.   

       Both butterflies are similar in size although the silver-spotted skipper is a bit larger with a wingspan that measures 1.75-2.40 inches in width.  In comparison, the hoary edge’s wingspan is 1.4-1.75″ wide.

       The feature that you can use to most easily tell whether you are looking at is a hoary edge or silver-spotted skipper is the position of the splash of white visible when the butterflies are perched with their wings closed.  The white patch of the hoary edge extends inward from the trailing edge of the wing.  To me, this frosty patch also seems to be somewhat smeared.

       In the case of the silver-spotted skipper, its underwing patch does not extend all the way to the rear edge of the wing.  Instead, it is situated near the center of the wing.  In addition, this patch takes on a bright silvery white hue.  Also, the outer edges of the patch are more clearly defined.   

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.