Friday, December 31, 2010

Little Hive on the Prairie

Wild Honey Bees, Apis mellifera

Honey Bees Clustering on Hive
Honey bee hive hanging from abandoned oil field equipment.

The dark ball hanging under the center of the broken ramp is the bee colony.

     The Master Naturalists finished sprigging a mess of Eastern Gamagrass and bumping up Yellow Indiangrass seedlings.  We had extra time on this last workday before Christmas, so the Nature Conservancy Technician, Tim O'Connell, treated us to a ride out on the Prairie.  He promised to show us something special.  From the pick-up truck, we saw hawks, sparrows, killdeer, geese, caracaras, and an osprey, but the surprise was a hive of wild honey bees!
     We were in a remote part of the prairie preserve.  Tim pointed out a dark mass hanging beneath a piece of abandoned oil field metalwork.  As we approached, we could see the honey bees clinging to curtains of wax comb.  We moved slowly and kept our distance.  Although it was wintertime, astronomically speaking, the air temperature was in the 70s F,  plenty warm enough for bees to fly in defense of the hive if they perceived us as a threat.
     The Honey Bee, Apis mellifera, is revered on this planet for unsurpassed pollinating skills, as well as honey and wax production.   The subspecies, A.m ligustica, is the most common western honey bee in Texas.  Africanized Honey Bees, which also live in Texas, encompass different subspecies, such as A.m. intermissa.  You cannot distinguish one type of honey bee from another other just by looking at them.     However, the Africanized Honey Bees are much more aggressive in defending their hive than are the western honey bees.
    Wild bees often make their nests in the hollow of a tree;  Live Oaks, which keep their leaf canopy year 'round, are popular.  The bees look for a spot that will be within easy flying distance of water, pollen and nectar.  They also favor a location that offers some protection from the weather.   Because there are not many trees on the Texas City Prairie Preserve, these  insects had to be resourceful.  The colony will live through the winter, surviving the cold days by clustering together.  We were delighted to see this healthy hive of pollinators on the prairie.

This is a brand new subject for me.  If you like, you can read more about bees here:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Preying Praying Mantis

Big compound eyes and sharp spines on forelegs
Basking in the morning sun; legs outstretched to snatch prey
Praying Mantis Looking like a cosmos leaf and watching the camera

Monarch for breakfast

European Praying Mantis consuming Monarch Butterfly

Where is it?  Some days I spot the European Praying Mantis in the garden and other days I don’t.  Its camouflage is so excellent that I may look directly at the mantid,  glance away at a butterfly, look back - and it has vanished!  Of course, it’s still hanging in the same spot, looking like a leaf and a flower stem.  The Praying Mantis needs this disguise to hide from birds such as Blue Jays and Mockingbirds.  But this insect, Mantis religiosa,  is a large and voracious predator.  Consider this: during a Hummingbird Festival, several of my Master Naturalist acquaintances reported hearing a hummingbird squeaking in distress.  When they investigated the source of the fuss, they discovered a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the clutches of a Praying Mantis.  They confessed that they did intervene, using a pencil to carefully pry the tiny bird from the mantis’s  grip.   Another Master Naturalist friend recounted that as a child she and her sister would feed raw hamburger to mantids on her front screen door.  Interestingly, the next season, Praying Mantises returned to her screen!  In my garden, I have seen the Praying Mantis devour Green Anoles, bugs, moths, and to my great dismay, a Monarch Butterfly.   After that episode, I was emotionally and foolishly considering a “Praying Mantis Relocation Program”.  I wanted to move it away from the Milkweed Patch to a different part of the yard, but first, I would have to find it.  After two days and no sign of the mantid, I had calmed down.  The Praying Mantis is hunting, hidden in the garden.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fritillary Euthanasia

Injured Gulf Fritillary on Pentas
Injured Gulf Fritillary
Proboscis partially uncurled
  The silver flash from the folded wings of the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) is usually a welcome sight, but there was something odd about this one clinging to my Pentas.  His behavior was wrong: he lingered too long and he didn’t startle as I passed.  The next morning, I found him on the same plant, dangling precariously from the magenta blossoms.  This did not bode well.  Was he dead?  Was he too cold to be active yet?  At the same moment, another Gulf Fritillary hurried through the garden, spreading his pumpkin-orange wings as he paused to sip from the cosmos.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Buckeye, Sulphur and Tawny Emperor

I have several pretty visitors to show you.
This is the Common Buckeye.  When I spot these, they are often on the ground or pavement, basking in the sun. This one was nectaring on yellow lantana when I photographed him.  Since I just planted some snapdragons, I was pleased to learn that snapdragons are one of their larval foods! 

 Yellow Butterflies! There are many different Sulphur butterflies in Galveston County.  Usually they are flying so quickly through my yard that I can only say with certainly, "It's a Sulphur."  This fellow basking on the Juniper was still long enough for a portrait. Some Sulphurs lay eggs on my Senna / Cassia tree.

This was a surprise sighting for me!  I looked up one morning (probably scanning for hawks) and saw a brown butterfly way up on the gutter.  This is a hackberry butterfly called a Tawny Emperor.  I do not have a hackberry tree in my yard, but I watched her sip condensation from the gutter, as she warmed in the sun.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Funereal Duskywing

This butterfly, nectaring from cosmos in my August garden, could be in formal attire or dressed in mourning colors with a white petticoat showing under the black dress.  It's the descriptively named  Funereal Duskywing with sooty wings and white fringe along the edges of the hindwing.  This lovely Funereal Duskywing , Erynnis funeralis is just one example of the skipper butterflies.  Taxonomists do not consider skippers to be “true” butterflies because they differ in so many ways.  For example, skippers look a little like moths with their stocky, feathery bodies and big, cute eyes.   The tip of a skipper’s  antennae has a curved, pointy club. To me it looks like a sickle or a pointed hockey stick.  True butterflies’ antennae do not curve back.   As this Duskywing demonstrates, skippers are usually cloaked in subdued shades of charcoal, chocolate, amber, copper, or bronze.   Larval host plants for the Funereal Duskywing include alfalfa,  indigo, vetch, and rattlebush.  Remember, if you want butterflies, you have to provide food for the babies and nectar for the adults.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blue Dragonfly

The previous "Obelisking Dragonfly" I dubbed a Blue Dasher even  though he/she was brown and yellow. Some of you wondered about that.  With this posting you can see the namesake!  The male Blue Dasher is a beauty, the color of a clear sky.  Some dragonflies spend most of their time flying, while others perch.  Dashers are perchers.  This smart fellow spends his days poised on a branch of my native salvia where the blue blossoms afford him some camouflage.  The little Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennes, like other dragonflies, will eat what it can catch.  I have seen these guys swoop repeatedly through a cloud of gnats - like sharks through a school of little fish.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dragonfly Obelisking

Blue Dasher Dragonfly, Perching

Dragonfly  Obelisking
As erect as he can be!

It's August. It's Texas. It's hot. What's an ectotherm to do?  The sun heats your body too much.  You could hide in the shade, but then you couldn't hunt and eat.  Solution:  reduce your body's exposure to the sun by changing your profile!  That is what this dragonfly is doing.;  In the first photo he is close to his usual horizontal perching position.  As the day heats up, he points his tail to the sky!  It is called obelisking because he looks like a tall pillar or obelisk.  I have identified this acrobatic guy as a Blue Dasher - an immature male or a female -  but if you are a Dragonfly-ologist and know otherwise, please correct me.  I want to learn!!!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dick Benoit Prairie Preserve, League City, TX

Purple Pleat-leaf,  Eustylis purpurea
White Gaura,  Gaura lindheimeri
Kansas Gayfeather, Liatris pysnostachya
White-topped Sedge, Rhynchospora colorata, blooming in a wet ditch.
Bee on Prairie Plantain, Cacalia plantaginea
 Tall white Prairie Plantain and purple spires of Gayfeather
It may be nearly 100 degrees F today.  Whew - too hot for me.   But this precious fragment of coastal prairie is glowing with summer color and humming with bees.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Green Lynx Spider

Peucetia viridians, Green Lynx Spider
Green Lynx Spider Resting on Cosmos
Young Green Lynx on Fennel Blossoms
I have been watching this lovely spider.  He had claimed one particular cosmos blossom and could be found there daily.  When the bloom began to drop petals, he still was loyal.  When the flower switched from nectar-producing to seed-producing, the spider moved to a neighboring, fresh cosmos.  His position must have nectar to lure prey, after all.  During the day, his colors help hide him from birds.  At night, the Green Lynx  assumes a more expectant posture:  I see the Lynx hang forward off the edge of the petals, his front two legs raised and extended, ready to pounce and seize.  One bit of silk might be secured as a drag line.  There is no web. The Green Lynx is a hunter.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hooker's Eryngo

A starry ground:  Hooker's Eryngo, Eryngium hookeri
Bumble Bee gathering nectar
Honey Bee sipping nectar
Have you ever seen something for the first time and found it so beautiful or unusual that you felt dazzled?  That was my experience with this stunning native flower.   Its color ranges from green to shades of purple and silver.  As you can see, it is a wonderful nectar source for the pollinators.  It looks sharp and prickily  and it is!  Those points will go right though blue jeans.  I imagine that is how the Eryngo protects itself from being chomped by grazing animals.  We can grow this summer annual from seeds in our Texas gardens.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Clapper Rail

When I stopped on the prairie to photograph sulphur butterflies puddling on a cow patty, somebody else caught my eye.  At first I thought it was one of our juvenile Attwater's Prairie Chickens!  But one glance at the long beak corrected that idea.  It was a large brown bird slowly stalking through the grass near a culvert and drainage ditch.  This was a spot where there was usually standing water, but now the ground was hard, dry and cracked because of our scorching, dry weather.  He took cover in a thicket of short Rattlebox trees to preen briefly, then strutted back into the culvert beneath the gravel road.  The Preserve Manager identified him for me - a Clapper Rail.

Little Sulphurs

There have been clouds of these small, flitty sulphur butterflies on the prairie.  During our dry spell, the dainty insects gathered to sip moisture in the only place it could be found - in fresh cow manure.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Green Anole

This green anole, (Anolis carolinensis) does not look green at all as he - or she- relaxes on a basketflower leaf.  Even watching me, he is unconcerned, legs outstretched, all comfy.  He knows I don't eat the lizards in my yard, I suppose.  But suddenly my dog passes under his leaf.  Presto! Change-o!  The anole switches his color from brown to green, to hide from the canine predator.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Monarchs have Arrived - Finally!

Monarch Butterflies are visiting my garden this week.  I was so happy to see the tell-tale holes eaten through the leaves.  Then I spotted this little stripey fellow sunning on his leaf. Usually the babies hide safely beneath the leaves.  An adult monarch stopped buy to sip nectar from my American Basketflower.  One plump caterpillar was crawling up the warm brick wall heading toward the eves, preparing to make a chrysalis.  I hope he fastens on tightly because Hurricane Alex is expected to give us a lot of wind and rain. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bodacious Jumping Spider

A white smiling face on velvety black is what I spotted. Then I was stunned by flashes of green from the spider's real face.  Those were not his eight, laser-sharp eyes glinting at me, but his shiny, emerald chelicerae - his jaws!  The metallic-green chelicerae are his weapons. The jaws are tipped with sharp fangs and poison ducts which he uses to immobilize his prey.  Jumping spiders are not dangerous to people, but like anyone, they may bite if handled.  Jumping spiders, (family Salticidae, from Latin, saltus = to jump), do not rest on webs waiting for food to be delivered.  They hunt.  They have amazing, binocular vision - the best eyesight of all spiders - and formidable agility.  For a jumping spider, a web is essential safety equipment.  Before making a dramatic pounce on his prey, he would secure a web line so that he could climb back.  This striking fellow, who was stalking amidst my salvias, is Phidipus audax.  He would court a female by waving his atractive front legs at her and wiggling his abdomen.  Audax is a Latin word meaning bold or audacious.  One of my arachnid books labels him the "Daring Jumping Spider," another dubs him the "Bold Jumping Spider."  I may call him the "Bodacious Jumping Spider."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Green Treefrog

Look at the charming face on this handsome green treefrog, Hyla cinerea.  Wouldn't you love to have golden eyes?  This dapper fellow was resting inside my hose reel box. I had to wait for him to move off of the hose and get settled in another corner before I could water the thirsty plants.

Loggerhead Shrike

I look so cute and fluffy, yes?  But don't be fooled.  I'm the Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus.  See my sharp, hooked beak?  All the better for tearing and dismembering my prey.  I am tough like a little raptor!  Some folks call me the Butcher Bird just because I like to store my food on a thorn or barbed wire.  If you find an impaled grasshopper, lizard or mouse, leave it alone - you may be looking at my leftovers.