July 30, 2013
The mowers haven’t come down the road yet. The roadsides are filled with flowers of many colors. Blue is popular in front of the house.
Early in the spring the chicory rosette of leaves makes a tasty addition to potherbs or salads. In summer four foot high stalks lined with powder blue daisies wave in the breezes.
The flowers open when the sun hits the buds. Native bees stuff their pollen sacs full and fill up on nectar. By noon the flowers look like limp pink rags hanging on the stems.
Later the seeds are hidden under these pink rags.
Goldfinches love chicory seeds.
Over the winter goldfinches don’t attract much notice. They are drab in yellow green feathers. Only the black wings with white bars on them identify these birds. Part of the winter the finches leave.
When the finches return, they are still in their drab colors. About April goldfinch males dress up in their brilliant yellow feathers.
Goldfinches love sunflower seeds. They visit the bird feeder several times a day so it’s easy to watch them.
Sometime in June few finches show up at the feeder. They are hidden away on nests. They are eating grass seed instead of sunflower seeds.
The grass seed is mostly gone by late June. Sunflower seeds and the bird feeder regain their popularity.
Then the chicory seeds mature.
Early in the morning as I head for the barn to feed the chickens and let them out, I scatter the goldfinches. They line the fences reaching over to dine on chicory seeds. Some acrobats hang on the chicory stems eating.
If I stop in the road and watch, the finches put on a little show. They flutter and jockey for the best spots. They show off their gymnastic skills bouncing on waving stems. They stretch out almost to tipping off their perches reaching for that last seed.
Unless the mowers arrive before fall, the show will continue until frost as the chicory will bloom until then.
Gray Hair Streaks
July 23, 2013
Butterflies seem to be everywhere during the summer. Gray Hairstreaks are one of the smaller but still pretty ones.
The first time I saw one, it had its wings spread open exposing a brilliant metallic blue. I had never seen a blue butterfly before. It wasn’t long before I noticed flocks of these around.
Manure piles are a popular hangout. Butterflies eat mostly nectar. Nectar has plenty of energy rich sugars in it but is short on all other needed nutrients.
Minerals are some of those needed nutrients. These are found in manure. Butterflies slurp them up from wet manure.
Various swallowtails come by individually. Sulfurs too come by alone. Not hairstreaks. They love company. A group of twenty or thirty is not uncommon.
I’ve read prey creatures find safety in numbers. As a group gets larger, each individual’s chance of becoming dinner goes down.
I’ve noticed that herd animals seem to think whatever someone else is eating is better than what they have. Chickens are a good example.
Japanese beetles are out. They devour the wild grape vine on my garden fence. I knock them into a bucket with water in the bottom. The beetles are poured into a pan in the chicken yard.
A single chicken may be in the yard. I dump in the beetles. The one starts eating as fast as she can. She better as the entire flock is running over to see what this hen has found.
Then the males may be hanging out with the girls. And the girls are hanging out with the boys.
Whatever the reason, gray hairstreaks flock together. This isn’t only on manure. Flocks flutter around water sources. Flocks descend on flowers.
I stopped to check on some butterfly weed in different places. Small flocks of gray hairstreaks were busy drinking nectar on the umbels.
Taking pictures of these little butterflies let me see why they are called gray hairstreaks. Only the males are that brilliant blue. Even they are a silvery gray on the outside of their wings. Tiny spots accent the gray. At the tip of he bottom wing are slender threads sticking out, the hairstreak.
Watching a flock of these lovely butterflies is a welcome excuse for a few minutes rest between loads of manure. I’m glad they appreciate the growing pile coming out of the goat barn.
July 16, 2013
When spring finally arrived, bald-faced hornets crawled out from under fallen logs and other places where they had spent the winter. Each of these was a queen ready to start a colony.
A queen must find a good location to start a nest. Protection from rain, sun and predators is high on the list. Availability of wood pulp and food are there too.
Bald-faced hornets build paper nests. Paper is made from tiny bits of wood glued together with their saliva.
One of the first places I see these hornets in the spring is on my clothesline poles. Paper wasps are there too diligently scraping off bits of wood to form little balls then flying off to add paper to their nests.
A bald-faced hornet queen builds a small comb similar to that of a paper wasp or a bee and lays eggs. She builds a tiny nest over this comb.
All this work requires energy. Energy comes from food.
The queen lives primarily on nectar. Nectar is pure carbohydrate.
Hornet larvae need protein. The queen goes hunting insects.
By summer time a bald-faced hornet nest is a big, busy place. Hundreds of hornets buzz in and out. Some build a bigger nest over the old one. Some deconstruct the old nests. Some tend the queen. Some go hunting.
A favorite prey for bald-faced hornets is the housefly. Fly filled barns are popular hunting grounds.
Flies tend to move in groups. Individuals move from group to group but the groups gang up on food items and places to lay eggs.
Hornets zip through an area checking for fly groups. Unfortunately hornets are much bigger and noisier than flies. Fly groups scatter when the buzz of a hornet gets close.
It becomes a deadly game of cat and mouse. Flies gang up on a good spot. Hornets buzz over. Flies scatter.
A fly too engrossed with eating or too slow to maneuver out of the group is doomed.
The hornet drops down on the fly, whips her stinger around and flies off with her prize.
In-between hunts the hornet drops by a few flowers for some food. Daisy fleabane is popular. Even hummingbird feeders will do.
By the end of summer the hornets will finish their task. New queens will hatch and mate. These will seek out places to survive the winter.
The rest of the nest is as doomed as the flies the hornets hunted over the summer to raise their new queens. Frost will kill the hornets. Weather or people will remove the nest.
Next spring the bald-faced hornet queens will emerge to begin their nests.
July 9, 2013
Butterfly weed is blooming all along the roads and on hills, in pastures, any place it can. It is unmistakable with its orange flowers.
Butterfly weed is a kind of milkweed. A closer look at its flowers confirms this. It has the backswept petals, the erect corolla divided into five circular nectar wells, the five horns each pointing into a well and the central disc.
Milkweed plants can be only inches tall or eight feet tall. They can have large ruffle-edged leaves, tiny lance leaves or no leaves at all. Butterfly weed is in the middle. Most plants are one to two feet tall with branches. The leaves are paired, three to four inches long and an inch or so wide.
Some milkweed plants have single flowers but most have umbels. A flower umbel is like a bouquet adorning the plant. Some have only one umbel at the top. Others have many hanging off their stems. Butterfly weed has many umbels pointing up along its many branches.
The most noticeable thing about butterfly weed is its bright orange color. Except not all butterfly weed is orange. I’ve been finding a variety of shades from lemon yellow through orange to deep red. Loveliest all is a bicolor with backswept yellow petals and deep orange corollas.
Unfortunately the road department is zealously mowing the roadsides. If asked, the men love flowers. They love monarch butterflies. Yet they mow down these beautiful plants.
For those unaware, Monarchs migrate down to central Mexico for the winter. Storms have decimated the wintering butterflies, possibly killing three quarters of them. The Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweeds. The same milkweeds growing lushly in roadside ditches and on roadsides are key to restoring Monarch butterfly populations.
This year I will visit the road department and ask them to spare some of the milkweeds. It is important to mow the edges of the roads. But, perhaps, only the first couple of feet need mowing. This would leave most of the milkweeds for both us and the Monarchs to enjoy.
July 2, 2013
The newspaper had an interesting article about hive decline in bees. A lot of people go into panic mode whenever a bee flies by. Some have good reason due to allergy but most do not. Many people probably don’t think bees matter to them.
Let’s take a trip to the grocery store sans bees. The produce aisle? No fruit. No tomatoes or cucumbers. These are all fruits pollinated by bees. But lettuce, broccoli, vegetables in general would also be absent as they come from seeds from flowers pollinated by bees. The produce aisle would be reduced to potatoes, corn and garlic.
Grains are grasses mostly pollinated by the wind. That saves the cereal and bread aisles.
The canned food aisle would be mostly vacant. Vegetables and fruits are pollinated by bees.
Without bees our diets would be pretty boring and not very balanced for good health.
The chicory is in bloom along the road here. Bees flock to it. There are lots of kinds of bees and they come in lots of colors and sizes.
Regular honeybees are from Italy. There is a wild hive in the area so these visit.
Metallic green bees are small, less than half an inch long. They love chicory. Later they become nuisances as sweat bees.
Even smaller black bees scramble to collect pollen and nectar. This year I’ve noticed a black and white striped bee.
Smaller bumblebees buzz ponderously around the blooms. They prefer other flowers such as common boneset and white snakeroot with sturdier flowers and stems. Larger bumblebees ignore the chicory altogether.
Beekeepers and scientists have long held that one of the reasons for hive decline is the use of pesticides. Pesticides kill indiscriminately. Bees collect the poison and take it back to their hives so the entire colony is hurt.
Farmers insist they need pesticides. Since their fields are too big to police for when and where a problem arises, pesticides are put on a schedule and applied needed or not. After all, those buying their crops insist on perfection. No blemishes, insect bites or other evidence of insect damage is tolerated by those who only see food in a grocery store.
We rarely use pesticides. No one else in our valley gardens so no pesticides are used in the valley. Perhaps this is why so many kinds of bees thrive here. My produce is rarely perfect. Blemishes and insect damage are pared away. Chickens think they get a treat when these bits show up in their yard.
Honey is big business. Honeybees are a big business. Semi trucks loaded with hives are trucked from place to place wherever a farmer wants bees for pollinating a crop.
Another article I read some time ago said there is a new practice among big commercial beekeepers. Old time beekeepers like Ed McDonald in our area leave combs of honey on their hives for the bees to eat over the winter when they can not forage. Commercial beekeepers want all the honey and leave their bees corn syrup to eat.
The debate over causes for hive decline will continue. At bottom are two problems. One is the desperate need for money. The other is our disconnection with the natural world. Too often people forget plants and animals are alive with needs of their own that have nothing to do with what we want or the making of money. Unfortunately, when the natural world suffers, we ultimately pay the price.