While walking along a trail at Leesylvania State Park yesterday, a half-inch long, curiously flat bright red insect caught my eye. The Red Flat Bark Beetle, Cucujus clavipes, is typically found under the bark of ash and poplar. Its flat shape allows it to easily move around under bark, and sometimes even into the tunnels of destructive wood borers and bark beetles, which it likes to eat. This is beneficial, as it helps limit wood borer and bark beetle damage to the tree.
The larvae overwinter from North Carolina to as far north as Alaska. Scientists have been studying the Red Flat Bark Beetle to determine how the larvae survive such cold winters. Beetle larvae produce glycerol, an anti-freeze protein, that enables them to survive to temperatures as low as -100C. The concentration of glycerol in larvae in more southerly climates is less than in larvae in Alaska, so the temperature that they can withstand is different. Alaskan larvae have a higher concentration of glycerol because they undergo more dehydration than southern larvae. According to scientists at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, knowledge of glycerol could be used to create a solution to cool human organs in order to preserve them, to create a non-toxic de-icing solution for aircraft, or a concrete that will set in colder temperatures. For you ice cream lovers out there, it might even be able to be used as an ingredient that could prevent the crystals that form inside an open carton of ice cream.
What a beneficial insect, and it’s pretty too.
Last week, I was in Vancouver, Canada, visiting my family. My sister mentioned that Snowy Owls had been sighted near Boundary Bay, about 20 miles south of Vancouver, so we went out to see them. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans, Harry’s owl Hedwig is a Snowy Owl.
Snowy Owls breed on the Arctic Tundra, and typically winter there. They nest on the ground, and fiercely defend their nests from predators, even wolves. Snow Geese, which sometimes nest near on the ground near the Snowy Owl, appear to derive some protection from predators because of the presence of the Snowy Owls.
The Snowy Owl’s primary food source is lemmings, but they also eat mice, voles, ducks, hares and fish. A Snowy Owl can eat 1600 lemmings in a year. They have been known to follow traplines in the north, eating the animals that are caught in the traps. They swallow small prey whole, and their strong stomach juices digest the flesh. Bones, teeth, fur, etc., which are not able to be digested, are regurgitated in pellet form 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Every few years, Snowy Owls fly south in large numbers in what is known as an irruption, possibly when Arctic food sources are scarce.
Unlike most other owls, they are easy to spot. For one thing, they don’t roost in trees, preferring to perch on logs in the open. Secondly, they are diurnal, so are seen during the day. Plus, they are stunning white birds with yellow eyes, about 2 feet tall, with a 5 foot wingspan.
There were hundreds of people watching the owls. I enjoyed being with so many other nature lovers, most of whom were respectful and well-behaved. But there are always a couple of jerks who feel that getting a good picture is so important that it is acceptable to get too close and harass the birds. It was refreshing to see people telling off these idiots.
In a two hour period, I saw more owls (30) than I’ve seen in the rest of my life. It was a wonderful nature experience to start out the year.
While walking in Julie Metz Wetlands earlier this week, I spotted a brown mass on a leaf. It looked like a large bird dropping, and I thought it could also be a half eaten frog or toad. I whipped out my trusty camera with macro lens and took a picture.
To my surprise, it was a very special spider called the Bolas Spider, in the genus Mastophora. Bolas Spiders are so named because they capture their prey by using a sticky blob of silk called a bola on the end of a silk thread. In the non-spider world, a bola is a weight on the end of a rope, used by South American cowboys as a sort of lasso. The cowboy entangles the cow’s legs with the rope and weight, stopping the cow from running away.
The Bolas Spider creates her bola, and also secretes a pheromone of a particular moth species to attract a moth. When the moth approaches, the spider cocks her leg and swings the bola. If the bola hits the moth, the moth sticks to it, the spider reels in the bola and the moth, and wraps the moth up in silk webbing for her later dining pleasure. Read more…
If you have seen a pale green, almost translucent insect with golden eyes, either flying around or perched on a leaf, it’s probably a Green Lacewing. These delicate creatures are harmless, but their larvae are voracious predators, devouring soft-bodied pests such as mealy bugs, scale, spider mites, caterpillars, whitefly, leafhoppers, pest eggs and aphids.
The female lays 200 or more eggs on a plant leaf and stem, each suspended on a hair-like stalk. After several days, the eggs hatch, and the larvae feed insatiably on insect pests. One lacewing larva can eat as many as 600 aphids during the 1 to 4 weeks before it pupates. After about 5 days in the pupal stage, an adult lacewing emerges. The Green Lacewing in this photo was found at Merrimac Farm.
You can help create an environment where lacewings thrive. A garden with flowers will attract adults, who survive primarily on nectar and pollen. Lacewings like high humidity, which is the norm for our Virginia summers. They also need a place to overwinter, under loose mulch, leaf litter or under rocks. As you can see, you don’t have to do much to provide the proper habitat for the Green Lacewing, and you will be amply rewarded with a natural solution to your insect pest problem.
I recently participated in a walk, the purpose of which was to look for Dragonflies and Damselflies. We saw 30 species of Dragonflies and Damselflies, but the highlight of the day for me was watching an Eastern Cicada Killer dragging a Cicada across a field to her burrow.
The Eastern Cicada Killer female digs a burrow with a number of small cells, one for each egg that she will lay. She then captures cicadas, paralyzes them with her sting, puts one or more of them in each cell, and lays an egg.
The cicada serves as fresh meat for the hatching larva. When only one cicada is put in the cell, the larva will be male. Female larvae are bigger, so require at least two cicadas. The cicada prey is much bigger than the wasp predator, so as you can see, the female wasp goes to a lot of trouble to feed her young.
The scary-looking adult wasp is a vegetarian, feeding only on plant sap and nectar.
As so often happens in nature, the predator is also prey. Red Velvet Ants lay eggs in Eastern Cicada Killers’ burrows, and the Eastern Cicada Killer larvae serve as food for the Red Velvet Ant larvae. The food chain is complex…
Cicadas cause significant damage to trees. We are fortunate to have predators like the Eastern Cicada Killer to keep them in line.
Of the many splendors of spring wildflowers in Virginia, few can rival the beauty of the Pink Lady’s Slipper. On an overcast weekend morning, two friends and I set forth to try to find some of these elusive orchids. We had a general idea of where they might be found, plus a collective knowledge of the habitat, wet-forested area with dappled shade. Sometimes the journey is the point of the expedition, and we exclaimed over Birdfoot Violets, late-season Jack-in-the-Pulpits, butterflies, and so on, but were ever watchful, hoping… In addition to the beautiful flowers and insects, there were voracious swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes, more ticks than I would like, the terrain was mucky, and did I mention the copious amounts of poison ivy? We wandered the trails, rambled through the woods, and were unable to find a single Lady’s Slipper. Finally, after several hours, one Pink Lady’s Slipper was located. Unpleasant thoughts of mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy and mud vanished with the discovery of this incredible flower.
Pink Lady’s Slippers are pretty rare. To survive and reproduce, the lady’s slipper must interact with a soil fungus that breaks open the seed and passes on nutrients to the seed. In return, the fungus obtains nutrients from the Lady’s Slipper’s roots. It takes years from the germination of the seed to produce a flowering Lady’s Slipper, so commercial cultivation is not practical. Pink Lady’s Slippers require bees for pollination. Bees, attracted by the color and scent, are lured into the slipper. The only way out leads past pollen masses, and the bee leaves with pollen that is deposited in the next Lady’s Slipper it visits.
I hope that you are fortunate enough to see a Pink Lady’s Slipper this spring.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I went on a birdwalk at Mason Neck State Park. The other birdwatchers were more knowledgeable than me, and were excited when they heard the call of a Prothonotary Warbler, a bird with which I was unfamiliar. We stood in the mosquito-infested swamp for almost an hour, hoping that the warbler would reveal itself. It was several years later that I saw my first Prothonotary Warbler.
On Monday, I took a hike in Leesylvania State Park, and heard the now familiar tsweet tsweet tsweet song. A flash of golden yellow flitting through the tree canopy was my first Prothonotary Warbler sighting this spring.
Prothonotary Warblers are named after Catholic clergy called prothonotaries, who wear bright yellow robes. The warblers are less than 6 inches long, and weigh about 1/2 ounce. They fly from their wintering grounds in the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America to nest in the Eastern United States. This is a major trip for such a small bird. They nest in tree cavities near water, often in swampy areas, and eat insects and snails. By mid-August, their young have fledged, and they embark on their long journey south.
Like many other birds, these beautiful warblers are under threat from degradation of both their wintering grounds and breeding grounds. If you haven’t already done this, why not take a walk this spring to see this lovely bird? They can be seen at Merrimac Farm WMA, Leesylvania State Park, and Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and probably many other places in Prince William County. If you see one, I promise that it will brighten your day!