Pokeweed is one of the many plants homeowners often refer to as weeds. These objects of our distain try to grow in alongside our precious cultivated plants, invade our lawns, and are generally viewed of as nuisances. However, some of these plants may be more valuable than you think. One such plant is pokeweed.
Other than the few folks that dine on the plants tender shoots in the spring, pokeweed is not a plant most people allow to grow in their backyards. This is unfortunate because, if allow to grow in the right spot it produces a bounty of dark purple berries that are relished by more than 50 species of birds. Among the backyard favorites the devour pokeberries are cardinals, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and bluebirds. The berries also provide nourishment for fall migrants such as thrushes and vireos that pass through our backyards on their fall migration.
Although pokeberries are often considered a fall food, they are just beginning to ripen in my backyard. This event caught the attention of a mockingbird. Although the vast majority of the pokeberries in my backyard are still green, as soon as one turns dark purple the mockingbird gobbles it up.
I must admit I remove pokeberries from some of my flower gardens. Meanwhile, I let me grow in idle spots and in the shrubby borders that define the north and south sides of my yard.
If a pokeberry takes root in a similar spot in your yard, I urge you to let it grow. It will provide your avian neighbors with an important source of food later in the year.
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.
The question mark is one of the most uniquely shaped butterflies you are likely to see in your backyard.
The wingspan of this butterfly ranges from 2 3/8-2 5/8 inches wide. Each of the butterfly’s fore and hind wings displays a deep downward pointing hook. The ragged outer margins of the wings dip inward toward the body. The dorsal surface of the wings is rusty orange and marked with black markings. Meanwhile, the ventral surfaces of the wings are light gray to tan. In summer, the outer edges of the wings are shaded with violet hues. The butterfly is named for the distinctive silvery question mark found on the ventral surface of the hind wing.
Do not waste your time looking for this butterfly visiting your flowers. Although question marks will occasionally nectar at flowers, they much prefer to dine on an odd variety of items including sap, animal dung and rotting fruit. Interestingly, question marks sometimes become intoxicated on the alcohol produces by decaying fruit. When they are in this condition they move above erratically and will even let you touch them.
The best way to attract this butterfly to your yard is to leave rotting fruit beneath your fruit trees and to provide them with caterpillar host plants. Two of their favorite hosts are elm and hackberry.
Early morning, before it gets really hot is an excellent time to go looking for question marks. At that time of the day, question marks can often be located basking in the morning sunshine.
In the afternoon, males spend much of their time displaying for females. When they are engaged in these displays, they will sometimes closely approach anyone walking near them.
In Georgia, the American goldfinch is one of the last birds to nest. In fact, most of these colorful birds don’t even begin nesting until late June. However, most nesting occurs during July and August. Remarkably, some American goldfinch nests remain active into September.
In spite of the fact they prefer to nest in habitats featuring small trees and shrubs, they will also nest in our backyards. If you are fortunate enough to have a pair of American goldfinches nest in your yard, you are in for a real treat!
It seems the female is charged with the with the duty of incubating the eggs. During these 12-14 days, she will spend upwards to 95 percent of her time perched atop her fragile eggs.
As you might imagine, this leaves little time for to feed. In spite of this, the dedicated female never goes without food.
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (Male)
The reason for this is every hour or so throughout the day her mate will circle the nest. If the female is hungry, she will softly call to him. Upon hearing the call, he quickly drops down from the sky and lands near the hidden nest. Once he lands the female will leave the nest and land nearby. He then quickly feeds her a nutritious meal of partially digested seeds. After eating, the male flies away and the female returns to her nest.
If you suspect American goldfinches are nesting in your yard, be on the lookout for a male repeatedly flying in circles over a small tree or shrub. If your suspicions prove to be correct, you will have the wonderful opportunity of witnessing this rarely seen behavior on regular basis.
No Independence Day celebration would be complete without fireworks. The explosions of brilliant colors against the dark summer night add a special excitement to this festive time of the year. However, during this special time of the year aerial kaleidoscopes of color do not have to be confined to the night. From dawn to dusk, hummingbirds decked out in iridescent green and red streak across Georgia backyards creating their own colorful aerial displays.
July is a special time of the year for hummingbird enthusiasts. Beginning around Independence Day there is an explosion of hummingbirds at our feeders. Up until then, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been scattered across the countryside living in discreet breeding territories measuring an acre or more in size. Consequently, aside for a brief period that extends from late May into early June, large concentrations of hummers around our feeders are rare occurrences. All of this changes after the females complete their nesting chores. With the breeding season largely coming to an end, rubythroats begin preparing for their fall migration.
For these flying dynamos, getting ready for this epic journey means storing the fat needed to fuel their southward flight away from backyards across North America. These tiny birds may visit 1,500 flowers in a single day trying to put on weight as quickly as possible.
The main sources of food are nectar gleaned from flowers, small soft-bodied invertebrates as well as the sugar water we offer them at feeders hanging in our backyards. Since drought conditions across much of the state have resulted in a paucity of nectar-laden wildflowers this year, nectar will be in short supply this summer. This forces the birds to look to the flowering plants and hummingbird bird feeders located in our backyards for a readily available source of energy.
The folks that will host the most hummingbirds at this time of the year are those that had the foresight to incorporate a variety of nectar-bearing flowers into their landscape design to go along with feeders filled with fresh nectar. If you failed to plant flowers for hummingbirds this past spring, make a mental note to do so next year.
Meanwhile offer your hummingbird visitors plenty of nectar. Begin by hanging up one or two feeders. Add additional feeders as the number of diners at your backyard cafe increase. Make sure there is always plenty of food for the birds. If you plan on going on vacation, ask a neighbor to monitor and refill feeders as needed. This will help ensure an explosion of ruby-throated hummingbirds will be patrolling your feeders long after the fireworks of this Independence Day have faded away.
The song of the northern cardinal is one of the most beautiful songs we hear in our backyards. Remarkably, like other songbirds, the cardinal produces its melodious notes using not one but two voice boxes.
If you listen carefully to a cardinal song, you will notice each phrase of the bird’s song is composed of a blending of both high and low notes. The lower notes are created in its left voice box. Meanwhile, higher notes are formed in the bird’s right voice box. Working harmoniously, the two voice boxes enable the cardinal to create a distinctive and pleasing song enjoyed by homeowners across the state.
Now that summer has officially arrived, days are getting shorter with each passing day. When this occurs many migratory birds beginning putting on the fat that will fuel the migration to their wintering grounds. One such bird is the summer tanager.
The summer tanager is a common resident of wooded backyards across the state. However, in spite of the fact, males are cloaked in red feathers and the females display a two-toned plumage (olive-green above, yellow below) and sport large pale bills, this colorful bird often goes unnoticed. This is because it often feeds in the tops of trees.
The summer tanager primarily consumes lots of insects such as bees, wasps, cicadas, yellow jackets and grasshoppers throughout the spring and early summer. However, throughout much of the summer as it is packing on fat in preparation for their autumn migration, fifty percent or more of its diet consists of fruits and berries.
Consequently, if you would like to attract local and migrating summer tanagers to your backyard at this time of the year, the best way to do that is to provide them with the fruits and berries they relish. If you look around your yard and cannot find any of the plants that produce this much-needed food, you should make every effort to add some of them to your landscape.
Here are some of the plants that provide fruits and berries gobbled up by summer tanagers as they prepare before they embark on their long flight to Central and South America: blueberry, blackberry, grape, hawthorn, flowering dogwood, rough-leaf dogwood, pokeberry, and black gum.
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.
What do you think is the weirdest animal that lives in your yard? Perhaps it is a spider, millipede, scorpion, or beetle. Then again, it may be a land planarian. Among the other names given this bizarre critter are soil planarian and arrowhead flatworm.
Once you spot a land planarian, you can readily see why these critters are often mistaken for snakes. They are shaped like a snake, have triangular heads, display broad dark lines that run down the length of their bodies, and can grow upwards of ten inches long. However, if you examine them closely you will see they are covered with mucous, don’t have any eyes and are not covered in scales.
The land planarian’s mouth is located about half way down the underside of its body. Instead of eyes, this animal has eyespots that can only detect light.
The body is covered with a heavy layer of mucous. This mucous enables the flatworm to keep its body moist. A flatworm will die if it loses water that amounts to more than 45 percent of its body weight. As such, land planarians live in cool, moist spots such as under logs, rocks, and forest litter. Around our homes, we most often find them under potted plants, or beneath objects stored on the ground like tarps and lumber. Other than that, we occasionally see them on the surface of the ground when heavy rain saturates the soil.
The land planarian eats a variety of invertebrates such as insect larvae, slugs, and earthworms. While gardeners appreciate the fact they destroy plant pests, they don’t like them eating earthworms as they help aerate the soil. In addition, anglers trying to keep a worm bed or folks that raise earthworms commercially hate them because they have been known to wipe out earthworm populations.
Oh, by the way, if they cannot find enough prey, they will cannibalize one another.
This flatworm feeds by restraining its prey with a coat of slimy mucous. Once it is subdued, the planarian extends its pharynx out of its mouth and into its victim and sucks out its body fluids.
This odd critter employs two forms of reproduction. It can lay eggs in a small cocoon (the eggs hatch in 21 days); however, it primarily multiplies by the process of fragmentation. The process takes place once or twice a month.
Fragmentation occurs when a planarian attaches the tip of its tail to an object and simply pulls away. Remarkably, the detached piece of tail is capable of moving about and will actually grow a new head within only 10 days!
The planarian’s amazing ability to regenerate has long been of interest to biology students and medical researchers alike. Unbelievably, a piece of a planarian, amounting to as little as 1/279th of its body, is capable of regenerating a totally new planarian in a matter of weeks. You can cut a planarian’s head and half and the animal goes about its business sporting two complete heads.
Years ago, planarians were carried to the International Space Station to determine what effects, if any, the environment has on such things as their power of regeneration. In one experiment, after an astronaut sliced a planarian’s head in half, the animal regenerated two heads in only five weeks time.
Planarians are currently being employed by researchers involved in biomedical research studies focus everything from human aging, memory, and diseases to genetics.
You can add the ground planarian to the list of exotic plants and animals that have been inadvertently brought to the United States. In this case, it is believed this native of Indo-China they were shipped around the world during the 19th century hidden in soil accompanying nursery stock.
Since the beginning to the 20th century, the flatworm has been located living in greenhouses across the country. It has since been found in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and a number of other states. It is thought the worms were introduced to these locations in potted plants sold in the nursery trade.
While it is clear we could easily live without this critter, like it or not, there is little chance we will ever rid ourselves of the odd introduced animal. In the meantime, countless folks will continue to be shocked when they lift up a pot and see what looks like a bunch of baby poisonous snakes poised to strike. Just remember, if these weird animals are slimy and lack eyes, they will not bite.