When Plants Hang Out

Spanish Moss, hangs from treees and shrubs but doesn’t live off them

I’ve four  interesting plants growing on my trees and shrubs. They are Bromeliads, members of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae). Often called Air Plants because they don’t require soil to thrive, my four are all members of the Genus Tillandsia. Florida’s native Air Plants are epiphytic meaning they live on other plants but do not take any food from them so they are not parasitic or harmful. They just use the plants or trees as support.

You’ve probably heard of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) as it is often used in the floral industry to hold in moisture around planted displays. Despite the common name, it is not a moss at all and Spanish Moss does not even have any roots. This Air Plant has scaly stems that latch onto the host so it hangs down from the branches. It gets its water and nutrients from the air via the leaves that are covered with cup-like scales.

You have to really look for the flower blooms since they are miniscule

The blooms are tiny and green and easily missed. This Air Plant reproduces by seed dispersed by wind or via fragments carried off by birds.

Generally found on Cypress or Oak trees, mine covers a Ligustrum shrub, while not native to Florida, it certainly is providing a grand podium for the flowing strips of this Air Plant that call it home.

Hanging down as it does, the other common name, Graybeard fits it perfectly

Along the truck of my pine trees I can always count on small masses of Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata).

Ball Moss in Bloom

In doing some research for this article, I come to find out that people want to kill it, apparently because they don’t like how it looks on their trees or they mistakenly believe it is harming the trees. Since it is epiphytic, it provides for itself, thus, no harm, no foul. It gets its moisture from rain, and can tolerate dry periods by becoming dormant. In order for it not to send out seeds, the articles I read that condemn this Air Plant recommend bagging it in plastic and throwing it in the trash.  Seems a little rash for something that is benign and provides for native fauna.

Mockingbird uses a ballmoss covered pine limb as a perch

Ball moss fixes nitrogen which in and of itself is a reason to keep it. It converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that plants can use. Should it fall from its host, it will become fertilizer for other plants. Propagation is by wind dispersed seeds, or you can break apart clumps to start new plants. Use it as a decorative touch, tied to a decorative piece of wood or tree bark, or in an orchid basket. In this type of use, leave outside in the rain during the summer and bring indoors when temperatures start falling below freezing. Interestingly, this air plant will grow on telephone wires and is hearty to 20F.

Next up is Southern Needleleaf (Tillandsia setacea) which I acquired from a fellow member of my chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. She brought a slew of these to share, taken from hurricane season branch trimming. I placed one on a branch in an oak tree and one in some sort of non-native cypress (before I knew!). It has bloomed and as I had hoped, it began to propagate on its own and is sprinkled throughout my trees now.

Southern Needleleaf in Bloom has stiff “leaves”

Now, to the wildlife part. What exactly do bromeliads do? They are important to our ecosystems as some of the larger ones accumulate water in their leaves, providing for the more petite of our fauna. Frogs, worms, insects and salamanders use them as drinking fountains and some hide in the leaves. Since many species of bromeliads have deep wells to collect rain, the water is available during times when it isn’t plentiful from other sources.

A Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerina) decided to go prefab and used an airplant as a ready-made nest

In my case, the ground-doves have used the southern needleleaf as a prefab nest on several occasions.  Spiders and insects use both Spanish Moss and Ball Moss.  Bats can use thicker sections of Spanish Moss as cover to rest during the daytime. And, you will find both of these Tillandsia spp. as components in many a bird nest. Although these varieties may have small nondescript flowers, they do provide interest in the beautiful wildlife garden, if for no other reason than the mystery of how they live on air.

Northern Needleleaf (Tillandsia balbisiana)

Last, a recent (2018) addition to the landscape is the state threatened species called Northern Needleleaf (Tillandsia balbisiana). The threats are due to Mexican bromeliad weevil (Metamasius callizona) and habitat destruction.  I suspect that this airplant, which landed in a Meyer Lemon tree and on several branches of a Winged Sumac, blew in with Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Northern Needleleaf (Tillandsia balbisiana)

*This is an update of a tale originally published by Loret T. Setters on March 2, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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Arbor Day? Yes! And It’s All About Florida Trees!

Florida Arbor Day 2019 was January 18th.  What better time to dust off and republish one of my lost articles .

Dateline: January 16, 2015*

Thrasher in a laurel oak

Florida weather puts us ahead of the April National Arbor Day planting curve.  The third Friday of January is officially designated as Florida Arbor Day (in Louisiana too!).   Tis our dry season, so I suppose we plant now to get the roots reaching deep for water before rainy season hits and makes it easy.  This helps establish a wind resistant tree since deep roots provide a better anchor system.  Also deep roots is what makes a lot of the native trees quite drought tolerant as they grow up.

You can’t beat laurel oak for providing a LOT of bird food

Our friends over the border in Georgia follow with their state Arbor Day just a month later.

Sycamores are great shade trees and lose their leaves in winter allowing the warmth of the sun to cut down on heating costs

It’s been a while since I did a tree story, so what better time?  I thought I’d just discuss a few of many species of trees at my place and who comes visiting.

Sulphur Butterflies will bed down for the night in a sycamore tree

American Sycamore or American Planetree (Platanus occidentalis) hosts some insects and in turn spiders, reptiles and birds. I’ve found katydid eggs parasitized by wasps, butterflies resting under those huge leaves and some unidentified moth larvae as well as many other arthropods.  I’m holding out for sycamore lace bugs…likely one of the few people who would be excited to see them on my tree.  Although this species of tree probably wasn’t the best choice in my Central Florida location, it has worked out well and seems quite happy to be living here.  That could be since it wasn’t shipped from some far away place, it was started in our own county (think provenance).  I purchased it from a Master Gardener Plant Sale, a great place to find local plants.  Native Plant Society sales are another great place to find locally grown stock.

Long Leaf Pines are majestic

The Pine trees (Pinus spp. ) are a favorite of so many different species of songbirds, wading birds, woodpeckers and raptors.  Squirrels like to dance up and down to snag pinecones as a snack.  My pines also provide support for airplants.

Even in death Pine trees support fauna
Laurel Oak hosted a ground dove nesting last year

Two varieties of oaks (Quercus spp.) are a favorite of nesting mockingbirds and doves.  The acorns feed the woodpeckers, blue jays and thrashers.  These trees are a favorite nesting place for insect galls and beetles that in turn attract the songbirds, spiders and reptiles.

Winged Sumac are mid-size trees and provide fruit

Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is deciduous with the leaf litter serving as the larval food for the Redbanded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops). The prolific drupes of fruit feed multiple species of birds and mammals.  They form after the continuous blooms of spring, summer and fall provide needed nourishment for our pollinators.

Dahoon Holly provide countless berries for wintering birds

Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine), an evergreen, also provides continuous berry availability for our feathered friends and browse for others.

This Red Maple sapling started as a single leaf pair in the driveway and is now coming into its own after being moved to a better location than that chosen by the bird who planted it

The Red Maples (Acer rubrum) provide seeds for birds and is a host for moths. The spectacular color that occurs as this deciduous tree loses it’s leaves, gives this native New Yorker her needed fix of autumn, although quite a short season here.

The bluebirds enjoy the winter Red Maple when scouting for insects or warmth from the sun
Bay Trees support pollinators with clusters of flowers. The resulting fruit feeds birds and mammals

The Red and Swamp Bay Trees (Persea sp.) are making a comeback after the devastation from laurel wilt in our area.  I’ve many saplings and hold out hope that they will have resistance to this heinous disease created when invasive beetles provided a pathway for the fungus as they set up shop.  My saplings are good news for the pollinators, especially the Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio palamedes) and two other swallowtails that make use of the leaves as its larval food source.  It also is host to redbay psyllid (Trioza magnoliae) that in turn draws in birds looking for protein to feed their young.  Flowers are visited by pollinators and berries are enjoyed by birds and other fauna.

Persea sp. is the host to the Larva of the Palamedes Butterfly

Well, that sums up a few of the many naturally-occurring and human- added trees on my piece of paradise.  Florida Forestry has a list of trees although it includes a lot of species that I would consider more of a shrub, but at least if you are in Florida, you can see what a great variety of plants Florida has to choose from.

Mourning Dove with baby in Live Oak tree
A live oak provided the perfect nesting spot for Mourning Doves

If you are from Florida, take a little time this weekend to visit your local native plant nursery and choose a tree to plant.

The mockingbirds will use Dahoon Holly for nesting as well since it has dense foliage

Those of you in other regions?  Mark the calendar with “save the date” on your very own designated State Arbor Day. You could make an educational event of it hosting children and teach them how and why it is important to plant native trees.  You could take a field trip to find trees of note in your community and, more importantly, you can gear up so you are ready to add beauty, food resources and habitat for fauna in your very own beautiful wildlife garden.

Winged Sumac, a great Florida Native Plant supports many pollinators

Happy Arbor Day, Florida! (and Louisiana too!)

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 16, 2015 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

In the Garden, the Eagle has Landed

A Bald Eagle (photo above) stopped by to visit my Longleaf Pine Tree (Pinus palustris) yesterday.  I thought it was a good time to dust off and republish one of my lost articles on this majestic beauty.

Dateline: February 13, 2015*

The graceful flight of this raptor doesn’t match up with the flight of a vulture (© 2016)

As I looked up to the sky, the vultures were flying overhead in full force.  I suspect the remains of some dropped prey may have been in the 3-acre lot across the street.  Vultures in my neighborhood are a routine affair. I live within a mile (as the crow flies) of a wildlife management area and a ranch in cow country can be seen in the distance from my kitchen window.

Well, well, well, who do we have here?

As I watched with interest at the vast number of both turkey and black vultures hovering, I spotted an alien, one who just didn’t match up.  He soared with a lot more grace and the unmistakable white-feathered head made me curse the fact that I didn’t have my camera in my hand.

As I continued to look up I lost the beauty of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the sun.  This raptor has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782.

Let me zoom a little closer

Then, across the way, high in a bald-cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) I spotted it.  How appropriate that the Bald Eagle would be perching in a tree with “bald” in the name.  And, at this time of year being deciduous they are “bald”…the trees, not the birds. The fine leaves of the tree should be making a comeback as soon as the weather warms.

The delicate leaves of a bald-cypress will return once spring rolls around

You can find these Florida native trees in wet locations.  The older ones may have the trademark “knees” which are formed by lateral roots creating a structure above the ground.  This phenomenon gives them a wide base; especially those trees that live in seasonally inundated locations.

You can see feathers of the Bald Eagle blowing in the breeze

As it turns out, the eagles aren’t bald at all. They just have a white head in sharp contrast to the deep brown coloring on the body.  These birds have a wide range of diet.

They eat birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates such as crabs, and mammals including rabbits and muskrats. They take their prey live, fresh, or as carrion.”

They look every which way from their perch in search of food

In my neck of the woods, look for unmistakable HUGE nests in tall longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) or mature live oak trees (Quercus virginiana) which are also tall and stately.

I prayed the bird would hang around long enough for me to get my camera.  As luck would have it, eagles spend a lot of time scanning vast areas from their perch and birdie was there when I returned.  Whoever came up with the term “eagle eye” must have been a birder. My vantage point was a bit of a distance for clearer pictures, but a wonderful encounter at any rate.

Our national emblem

While eagles are not inclined to spend too much time in areas of dense development, you may find one will pop in if there is a tall landing spot and good potential prey.  So plant a tree, encourage wildlife and hope for the best.

The following picture is of one that landed on a snag in my beautiful wildlife garden back in 2010.

It’s great when they actually land IN my beautiful wildlife garden

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on February 13, 2015 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

 

My Hero and Gardening Anxiety

Yesterday morning, while driving to the community mailbox area to pick up my mail I spotted a cottonmouth snake along the roadway (photo above).   Thought it was a good time to dust off an old article I had written on my first encounter with this venomous species.

Dateline: June 22, 2012*

Beautiful, but deadly

I’m doggie sitting this week for a friend of mine. Her two woofs are wonderfully obedient and a pleasure to have around. The other morning all four woofs and I head outside for our usual morning romp in the meadow. I brought a cup of coffee out with me and was standing on the top step by the kitchen door. I saw the big lab/dobbie mix (AND I MEAN BIG!) playing with my Irish. Tanner, the English Setter was off in the front sniffing around.

I looked at the shortest member of the group, Melo, a mix who is a little “quirky”. He must have been abused during his young life for he will cringe in terror at normal routine things such as opening a dishwasher door or if you make a quick movement to pet him. With the patience and understanding of my friend and her family, this adoptee  is a bit more confident and very loving.

I glanced at Melo who was at the end of the parking pad. The fur on his back was up and I heard a low, guttural growl. Now, I’ve been having a bit of a rat-fest here…yet another has infiltrated my car engine compartment…a hazard of living rural. Melo has a fabulous reputation as a fruit rat catcher. I was hoping he had zeroed in on one of the enemies so I looked out a bit in front of him. There I saw a snake, a rather thick snake and I figured it was just one of the usual garter or banded water snakes that call my place home.

Now snakes are not uncommon in my yard and I welcome them with open arms…that is until this week. Thankfully Melo listens so when I called his name and yelled, “come”; he immediately turned and trotted back to me. I put him in the house. Next up…I called Hershey the big doofy guest. He too trotted over and entered the kitchen. I yelled out to Tanner and thankfully, he listened and ran inside. Chili was off in the distance so I cautiously walked over closer to the snake. I’m enamoured with snakes and I appreciate their rung in the food chain as they tend to the things I find icky…such as rodents and palmetto bugs. But I always use caution when approaching snakes given that Florida has dozens of snake species, but there are 6 venomous species in our midst. I’ve tangled with several pygmy rattlers, small guys who I can chop the head off with a shovel** without bodily fear to myself. My setters have collectively [been bitten] 3 times by pygmies, all healed with a quick trip to the vet.

No mistaking this triangular head as being a venomous cottonmouth

Back to the current snake…as I glanced, my eyes widened and I thought, “OH CRAP, I know that big triangular head”. There, lying in the high grass was the most beautiful water moccasin snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti) pit viper and one of the more venomous of Florida’s snakes. I quickly ran to get hold of Chili, who doesn’t necessarily listen where wildlife is concerned. Oh, she’ll drop whatever she catches when commanded to, but she insists on needing to catch it FIRST. I grabbed her collar and trotted her off into the kitchen. Then I pulled out my zoom camera (heck, I don’t have a gun…I needed to shoot it with SOMETHING). I got a few snaps but then it “smiled” at me showing the reason that it has its other common name, cottonmouth. It had a mouth full of foam. I was far enough away, but I don’t like to annoy the nature so I backed off. A bit later it was gone, though I’m not sure what direction it headed out to. Other common names are Florida Cottonmouth, Cottonmouth Moccasin, Water Moccasin, Moccasin.

Now cottonmouths are a water snake and with the recent rains my yard has been holding a lot of water. I was grateful for a three-day reprieve so I could tackle the high grass that built up when my mower crapped out. I had done a preliminary mow with the new machine, but had the wheels set high because my native grass meadow is hard to mow if allowed to languish for anything more than a few days. I lowered the wheels and set out to scalp the parking areas and where the dogs play.

I’ve been anxious ever since. I wouldn’t let the dogs out without supervision. Tanner is the only one that goes back by the pond so he has been leash restricted. He loves to jump through the brush on a rabbit hunt and since a pygmy has already bitten him, I don’t have any faith that he is smart enough to back off.

On Chili’s annual visit to the vet this week I inquired if there was anything I could do before I rush one of the dogs in with a cottonmouth bite. He wanted to know why such a question. I explained my dilemma and he said, just get em in here quick. Then he cautioned me to be careful myself. These snakes are not to be messed with.

While hawks do control rodent and snake populations, I’m not sure this young hawk is a match for the very large snake.

So, I contemplated what I could do to change the habitat immediately around my house. I have a trapper coming to trap any of my rodent “friends”. Remove the food source, remove unwanted wildlife. I scalped the area closest to the house, removing a lot of the Spanish needles (Bidens alba) and tall grasses, which saddens me, but we can’t be giving habitat to our venomous friends. I was thrilled to see a hawk land right next to the car clawing at the ground. Shortly thereafter I saw him in the back grass pulling apart pieces of his find and munching away. To me it looked like it was some sort of snake…alas, I doubt it was the big guy I need to move on. I’ve a piece of wood that I intended to build a bluebird nesting box with. Now the plans are being rework into an owl nesting box.

Fellow blogger Kathy Vilim gives some excellent awareness and avoidance advice.

In the meantime, I will keep the 30-foot parameter “defensible area” around the house scalped. I am wearing my clunky boots any time I am out in the yard. I am researching fence installers to prevent Tanner from going back into the pond area. I’m praying that the repeated noise I have created with the weed wacker and mower sessions has bothered the snake enough to slink on down the road. Personally, he didn’t seem to want me hanging around his area any more than I want him hanging around MY area. I’m contemplating shooting lessons…hey, while I don’t relish the thought of killing wildlife, this is one species that I cannot mess around with, although I will opt for it to slither off into it’s own safety any time possible.  If it endangers my dogs tho, it is a goner!

I’m a bit more relaxed as the week moves on.  I’ve had tens of dozens of snakes in my yard over the years and they don’t seem to hang out for days on end…mostly passing through. I’m holding on to that thought to keep my calm. Time will tell, in the meanwhile, I have the car gassed up and the vet’s number on speed dial…and eyes in the back of my head.

*This is tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 22, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

**Since my initial posting of this article I have evolved and now choose to safely relocate any dangerous wildlife by calling a licensed wildlife relocation service.

It’s a Worm…It’s a Slug… It’s a WHAT?

I found my friend above when I was taking the chainsaw to some downed limbs left from Hurricane Irma in 2017.  It’s starting to cool off in Florida. Perfect time to get the firewood ready for those two nights when it is cold enough to appreciate a warm fire.

It reminded me of the first time I encountered a flatworm…same scenario…dealing with the firewood.  I decided I should dust off my old article to share what I learned about these critters.

This one wasn’t as robust as my previous finds…only about 2 inches long and extremely skinny (the magic of macro photography).  It appeared to be munching away on a ghost ants’ nest.   Beneficial in my book!

UPDATE 12/17/2018: Heard from a twitter expert located in France as follows:

“The new photograph is not a Bipalium… some Geoplanidae but not a Bipalium. The 2012 photograph is Bipalium vagum, not Bipalium kewense.”

So I can now correct my previous tale!  Thank you Professor Jean-Lou Justine, ISYEB, MNHN [@Le_Museum], Paris

Dateline: January 27, 2012*

Uncovered this Flatworm while gathering firewood

I was out gathering firewood two weeks back when Holopaw had its big two-hour freeze. Firewood piles always produce a most interesting assortment of critters which is why I always wear gloves…hey, there are widow spiders in them thar logs. I filled my planter tub to drag the logs to the door and decided to rearrange some remaining logs so they would dry out better. I grabbed one and placed it up top in the full sun. Looking down at the next layer, there was this interesting bright white worm with a black stripe, the likes of which I’d never seen before. Grabbing the camera, I clicked away. Upon examination of the photos, the mystery critter appeared to be munching on beetles.

Sitting down at my trusty computer I tapped away…”white worm black stripe” into the search engine over at bugguide.net. Hmmm, no results. OK, I guess you are not an insect. Off to Goodsearch…might as well earn a little cash for FNPS while I work. I try “white worm black stripe”. Many results but nothing seems decisive in the result headlines. I try AVG search “white slug black stripe Florida”. EUREKA! I see a listing with a headline “Detailed information on Hammerhead Worm”. Describes it perfectly.

The hammerhead looking end appears to be the end that eats

My friend is a Land Planarian, specifically, a Mollusc-eating Hammerhead Worm (Bipalium vagum), a member of the Platyhelminthes Phylum that includes flatworms, tapeworms and flukes. They can grow to be 8-10 inches long.

I read further to discover some consider this family as beneficial predators who devour slugs, insect larvae and earthworms. Insect larvae?…good or bad, depending on species. Slugs? starting to sound like a keeper. Earthworms?…DRAT…not a good thing. Well, we all have our bad sides, so time to explore further.  Since mine has been determined to be B. vagum and not B. kewense, I’m less concerned, as there are indications that it feeds exclusively on mollusks.

The Land Planarian is believed to be native to Indo-China. Ut oh, an alien in our midst. It doesn’t seem to have any predators apparently because of the icky secretions that it’s covered in and adhere to the ground as it moves along looking like a slug mucus trail. They need humidity and like dark, cool, moist areas under rocks, debris, or in my case firewood.

It looked like it might have been eating beetle larvae and adult sowbugs or pillbugs

I won’t get into the workings of this critter in catching and devouring its prey. The technical terms made my head hurt. If they get into an earthworm-farming situation they can cause economic devastation, but in a small garden situation, well, most of what I read is that they don’t require control, as the populations remain small and they are harmless. On a good note, they are carnivorous so eventually eat each other. Self-IPM, I like that!

Thus, my recommendations: if you are an earthworm farmer, get rid of these guys, but don’t rely on cutting them up to destroy them. Reproduction of Land Planarians is principally by fragmentation so a part you leave may just suddenly crawl away as a new flatworm. I suppose drying them out would work and I always have deadly results from freezing various exotic invasives.

Any stalker of slugs is a friend of mine

If you are just a typical wildlife gardener such as myself, they are not toxic, so rather harmless. And hey, it was an interesting find that it was stalking slugs and eating beetles that might have traveled in with the logs for the fireplace. I hate beetles in the house, so Mr. Hammerhead gets to live at my place. That, and when I went back to the woodpile it was no where to be found.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 27, 2012  at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments. Updated December 17, 2018 to correct the species identification.

Night of the Living Dead, Part II: Carpenters and Soldiers

Back in 2014 I found a grasshopper that seemed quite willing to provide a never-ending pose for the camera. Ultimately I learned that this poor creature didn’t have much say in the matter. He was infected with “summit disease” caused by Entomophaga grylli, a grasshopper specific fungus. In writing my article at that time, I put two and two together and realized that a planthopper I had encountered was inflicted by a similar phenomenon.

Margined Soldier Beetle a.k.a. Margined Leatherwing (Chauliognathus marginatus) infected by fungus

Fast forward to 2018.  I recently encountered two more insects that met the same fate as said grasshopper and planthopper. While photographing leatherwing soldier beetles, I saw that one had slightly outspread wings…an unusual stance for this pollinator. When I brought up the photos to edit I saw that he was clamped on to the plant and also that there was the appearance of a fungus beginning to take over. I immediately thought back to my grasshopper/planthopper article and did some research. Lo’ and behold, my little soldier had succumbed to Eryniopsis lampyridarum (syn. Entomophthora lampyridarum) fungus, a pathogen of soldier beetles.

The beetle latches on tightly to a flower where it will slowly be killed from the inside by the entomopathogenic fungus

Some entomologists believe that fungi are the primary regulatory agents of insect outbreaks worldwide.

The wings continue to expand open until the fungus fully develops to finally release its spores starting the cycle anew

Less than a week later I found a carpenter ant that also was afflicted by some sort of summit disease caused by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a cordycep specific to ants. Latched on to the fallen needle of a Long Leaf Pine Tree which had caught itself in a Live Oak, I photographed him (her?) over the next few weeks after learning that it takes that long for the true affects to be become evident.

Carpenter Ant (Camponotus sp. likely floridanus)

A couple of days after my first encounter with the zombie ant, I got to observe a wand-type projection emanating from the ant’s head. Apparently it will produce a small sphere that will ultimately burst to send forth spores and begin the process anew.  The anatomy of this lifecycle is fascinating.

As the fungus takes over the ant, a fruiting wand-shaped body grows from the back of the head

…there are thousands of different varieties of the cordyceps fungus. Each one specializes in a single insect species that it can control with its zombie-making abilities.

There are now many studies to see if this may be a natural solution to pest control in agriculture.

the fungal projection continues to grow daily.

So, why all this sudden activity at my place?  According to the University of Maryland Extension, it might have something to do with how high the relative humidity is.(1)  Florida is synonymous with high humidity.

Why don’t others see more of this natural control?

Chemical sprays can have a negative impact on IPF [insect-pathogenic fungi] by killing or inhibiting fungal spores. (ibid.)

Yet another indication that man-made chemicals defeat built-in balances of our natural environment and have no place in a home garden.

While I’m not thrilled by the beetle being infected since beetles are a good thing in my book, I can say that I hope the spores from the ant find their mark on a good many more carpenter ants…always a problem child at my place.

Yes, ants have their purpose in the circle of life aerating soil and as decomposers, but they do tend to invade my house from time to time so any type of non-toxic control gets a big thumbs up from me.

Still no signs of the Perthecial plate, but I’m still monitoring it.

 

Select resources and additional reading:

(1) Nicole Rusconi and Cerruti R Hooks, University of Maryland Extension, Fungal Entomopathogens: An Enigmatic Pest Control Alternative

National Science Foundation, PEET: A monographic study of Cordyceps and related fungi

Night of the Living Dead

Dateline: October 31, 2014*

Petrified Bird Grasshopper (Schistocerca sp.) high atop some Bluestem grass (Andropogon sp.)

How does one control pest species such as grasshoppers and plant hoppers?  Often Mother Nature takes over control TO control.  Grasshoppers and other pests have some natural predators besides birds, and it isn’t just fauna.

grasshoppers infected with Entomophaga grylli have lifeless eyes

Think PATHOGENS… disease-causing agents!  All natural, no chemicals involved.   In recent times I ran into two examples of this phenomenon in the form of fungi.

I always knew that a fungus had an important role in the web of life, but in my mind it had more to do with the ability to break down organic materials and provide nutrients rather than helping in our quest to control pest species.

They pose for hours on end

My knowledge base was expanded when I found a grasshopper that seemed content to vogue for hours on end for my camera.  Then I realized that the poor thing clinging to the top of some tall dried grasses was actually petrified, as in dead, not merely scared.  I didn’t think that some ghost had snuck up and scared the life out of it, so I investigated a bit further.

There is a fungus that belongs to the Entomophaga grylli species complex, which is grasshopper-specific.  Often called “summit disease”,

The name is derived from the fact that infected individuals climb to an elevated location (summit) where they die. This elevated location helps the pathogen to spread because it is more likely to drip or blow unto foliage below, where it can be contacted by healthy individuals as they feed on foliage. Entomophaga grylliis not evident because the spores develop inside the body of the grasshopper. However, the dead grasshopper eventually disintegrates, allowing the fungal spores to be dispersed. The principal evidence of infection of E. grylliis the peculiar behavior of the dying and dead grasshoppers: they grasp vegetation.”

crawling up to the “summit” on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

As you can see in the photographs, it is very effective.

Another day I was back by the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) shrubs and I noticed some type of plant bug sitting motionless.  This is not all that unusual as there is even one particular insect that has a common name based on the fact that it favors palms…the Palm Flatid Planthopper (Ormenaria rufifascia).  Although called a plantHOPPER, most of the time when I see them they are stationary, and don’t’ seemed concerned with moving all that much.

Palm Flatid Planthoppers have rather attractive, bright colored markings

This pale green looker seems benign enough, as I have never noticed major damage cause by this species. This may also be because I have many saw palmettos sprinkled among a great diversity of other Florida native plants…no monocultures here.

I was taken by a new observation and what I thought was a new type of Planthopper.  On closer inspection, I realized that this indeed was one of the Palm Flatids, it just appeared to be in a costume of sorts.

Is the planthopper dressing up for Halloween? The coloring seems ghostly

It reminded me of emerald moth caterpillars that don bits of foliage in an attempt to disguise themselves.  I figured this was a similar situation.  I quickly found out that this creature was not gathering the adornment on it’s own.  Something was growing on it.Seems this is one of the Cordyceps species, an entomopathogenic fungus (a fancy way of saying a fungus that parasitizes and kills insects/spiders).  While often a beneficial fungus used in medicinal applications, this one does a job in the garden by disabling the planthopper.  Natural, environmentally friendly and interesting to observe.

As it deteriorates further, it releases spores to find living insects and start the process over

So, if you find an insect that seems to be overly willing to hold a pose, consider that maybe you are observing another interesting phenomenon in which Mother Nature keeps things in balance in your beautiful wildlife garden.  Natural biocontrol.

Happy Halloween 2014!

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 31, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

The Cow Killer and Other Misnomers

I was out looking at the insect activity on the Wild Lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) and spotted a velvet ant.  Figured it was a good time to dust off one of my lost articles on this oddly named species.

Dateline: July 13, 2012*
Talk about an insect with a misleading identity, meet the Eastern Velvet Ant a.k.a. Red Velvet Ant. Looks and sounds pretty and upon a cursory look, one would think it is a great common name…except for the fact that it is not an ant. The wingless females crawl along the ground and look like GIANT ants, giving rise to this general common name. The males have wings and do fly, behaving very much like solitary parasitoid wasps that they are. They are native to the eastern United States.

female travels by foot since it has no wings.

Now, this particular genus Dasymutilla spp., (likely occidentalis) has another interesting common name: Cow Killer. Mind you, these insects are likely incapable of killing a cow. Apparently since the female has the capability of repeated painful stings, someone who was barefoot in a cow pasture stepped on one declaring a sting so intense that they felt it could kill a cow…or a mule, depending on who’s common name you prefer to use. The males, on the other hand, don’t sting.

Males do fly

The females are quite eye-catching and you can’t miss them scurrying along through the grass with their Large, BRIGHT red and black hairy bodies which have the look of fine velvet. They also are so fast that it’s a battle to get a decent photo.  They aren’t known to be particularly aggressive, but still, you should give them a wide berth.

Even hiding in the ground covers, their bright coloring is hard to miss

They are a parasite of mostly bumblebee larva, but food can include flies, beetles, bees and other wasps. They apparently use the “hard stages” of their prey (e.g., pupae, ootheca and cocoons) and they are said to have a heck of a time locating potential hosts, thus their dizzying quest as they crawl endless paths in their search.

This female was on a mission to get away from the camera

Their beautiful coloring helps protect them from potential predators and it seems that it works well enough that there are no known predators of the velvet ant.

So, gaze at the beautiful velvet look of the female from afar and keep your shoes on.

*This is an update of a tale that was originally published by Loret T. Setters on July 13, 2012 at the defunct national blog
beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Snuffleupagus: In the Garden Stuck on You

Dateline:  December 12, 2014*

Three striped mud turtle

Three striped mud turtle

The great reptile hunter was at it again.  I saw my dog Chili lying in the grass, alert and stretching out her paw like she was batting at something.  And, of course, she was.  Meet Timmy the turtle (named after a pull toy I owned as a toddler…ahhhh memories!).

In this species, you can’t tell the sex from the bottom, you need to see the tail

Timmy is actually a striped mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri), a rather small reptile species. They only get to be about 3 to 4 inches.
These turtles aren’t particularly large

I checked over the turtle and it seemed no worse for having an Irish Setter paw tickle it so I carried it back to the safety of the non-dog area of the yard.  That’s when I noticed a bump on the side of its shell.  It looked like a cake of mud, so I grabbed a stick to scrape it off.
oh NO! You have a lump…tumor or mud?

Well, hmmm, it’s ALIVE!!!!  And lookee that…it is curling back OVER the stick.  Seems I have found a leech and a pretty strong one at that.  As I always have my camera with me, I began the photo shoot.
ewwwwww! LEECH!

Leeches have segmented bodies with a large sucker at the rear and a smaller one at the front. Leeches have 1-4 sets of eyes (who knew?). Still, they apparently don’t see well.  During the identification search, I came to find out there are dozens of leech species and I while didn’t quite key this one to genus, I did determine it is the Glossiphoniidae Family.

Some genera in that family are pear shaped, which this guy was.  It also was pretty small…just shy of the diameter of a quarter which is also a characteristic of some members of this family.  To determine genus and species, I needed better photos of the bottom since a lot of the identification traits can be found there.

for species identification you need better photos of the bottom, showing the eyes (which would be behind the stick)

Although I removed the leech from the turtle and thought I had gotten it into a rearing container to take a few more photos, somehow it didn’t seem to be there when I went back to look.  Either it is the world’s greatest at blending in or I missed the container when I flipped the leech off the turtle.  Of course now I will be on the lookout for leeches because I NEED to know what species that guy was.
the front part reminds me of an elephant’s trunk

I brought the photos of the leech up on the computer screen.  Heck, that wiggling tubular thing looks like an elephant trunk or perhaps the nose of a certain Sesame Street character.

Leeches are famous as blood-suckers. The species that feed on blood have special chemicals in their saliva that prevents blood-clotting. Many blood-feeding leeches attack only fish, a few attack any vertebrate (including people), and a few are specialists on another group of animals, like turtles or waterbirds. There are also lots of leech species that don’t suck blood. They are predators, eating worms, snails, aquatic insects, and other invertebrates.”

According to the above source, parasitic leeches attach to their host in places that are difficult for their host to reach.  The turtle would have been hard-pressed to reach back where this sucker was cozied in.

Face closeup but still can’t see the eyes.

So, where do leeches fit in on the steps of the food chain?  Hosts of leeches include, fish, ducks and other water birds, amphibians, mammals (including humans) and turtles, such as Timmy here.

In turn, they are food for fish (apparently tit for tat), birds, aquatic insects, garter snakes, other leeches (wow, they are cannibals too!).  Snails and mites might eat leech eggs.

“Fishermen will sometimes use freshwater leeches for bait.” The leeches that I read about that were specifically referred to as “freshwater leeches” were in a different order/family (Gnathobdellida/Hirudinidae) and it noted that those could use turtles and mammals as hosts.  Leeches have been used for medical purposes for deliberate bloodletting.

a little creepy, but beneficial

I’m not sure that Snuffle was actually using Timmy as a host since it was stuck on the shell.  Having seen a broken shell or two, there never seemed to be any blood so I‘m not sure that it is possible to suck blood from the shell, and I’ve read where leeches often are found on the legs of snapper turtles which makes a lot more sense to me.  Maybe Snuffle was just hitching a ride or maybe the tables were turned and the leech was actually a “takeout” lunch for the turtle’s mate.  Or, perhaps they were playing hide and seek.

At any rate, despite being a little creepy to look at, they do have benefits in your beautiful wildlife garden, so embrace them, but not so lovingly that they become stuck on you.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on December 12, 2014 at the defunct national blog
beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

In the Garden, Three Stripes and You’re Out

This past week my rescued English Setter Jorja (age 12) pointed out a striped mud turtle (shown above in the featured photo).   Perfect time to dust off one of the lost tales of this species in my garden.

Dateline:  February 28, 2014*

The second turtle found…come out, come out, wherever you are!

The other evening, Chili, the Irish setter a.k.a. the great reptile hunter sounded the warning and I headed out to round her up.  She was barking non-stop along the edge of the fence, which could mean rabbit, but given the area, a snake or turtle was more likely.

I trotted her off to the house and didn’t give it a second thought.  Two of the other dogs were already inside.  About an hour later or so, I called for Tanner, the English setter to come join us, as it was starting to turn dark.  No response!  I called again, giving him the treat signal and still no dog.

Well looky here, Tanner has himself a mud turtle

I put on my garden shoes and headed out to track down my boy, who often will just be staring into the backyard with visions of rabbits on his mind.  This time, though, he had something that seemed wonderful to gnaw on.  “Ok, boy, you found a good stick?”  On closer inspection, I realized that he had a mud turtle in his clutches.  A quick command to “spit” and out popped the turtle and Tanner somewhat unwillingly headed into the house with me.  Ahhh, mystery solved as to what Chili had spotted earlier.

Good, no damage to the bottom, so he should be fine despite being shook up by a dog

I returned to the scene of the crime and picked up the mud turtle to examine for damage.  He had some gnaw marks on the upper shell, but seemed no worse for the wear.  The bottom was fine and the chipped part of the shell was an old injury…worn down and still caked in mud.  I gently took my new friend and placed him in the dog-free area…the pollinator garden section under some nice vines.  From here he could easily find the back pond or stay in the coolness of this soft dirt area.  I checked about an hour later and he was gone, so Tanner didn’t do any lasting damage.

Hey, there’s another….smaller one

The next day when I released the troops, I decided that I better go check the area next to the fence.  It wouldn’t be the first time that a turtle returned to the dog area after I moved it to safety.  I looked down and spotted a smaller turtle, with less of a mud covering.  On this one three light stripes were evident, so I knew we had some Striped Mud Turtles (Kinosternon bauri).

This one isn’t so muddy

These turtles are aquatic, but spend a considerable amount of time on land.  Small in stature, they rarely reach more than 4-5 inches long.  The one that Tanner found was very encrusted with mud and given that the stripes weren’t apparent is likely an older member of the species, which normally have their stripes fade.

I’m not sure of the sex of my newfound friends since that is distinguished by the length and thickness of their tails and neither one was wagging it at me.  Males are said to be smaller and some consider this species “drab and undistinguished”.  Rather judgmental, if you ask me.  I prefer to think of them as “smart to blend in”.

This small turtle was VERY strong. As soon as I got close to setting it down in the brush, it already had the claws out to start running

Diet is said to include cabbage palm fruit (Sabal palmetto) and juniper leaves. They also eat algae, snails, insects, and dead fish. Seems they also have been known to check out what’s cooking in the cow dung [gag].

The initial area they were found in is right next to the saw palmettos (Serenoa repens) and since I don’t have any cabbage palms that are fruiting, maybe they expand their fruit intake to this similar palm species since there are considerable amounts of dried seeds scattered on the ground below.  This is also a slightly muddy area where storm water heads off into the culvert.  My lot also has lots of snails and plenty of insects to choose from.

The characteristic three stripes on this guy (or gal) are quite noticable, so perhaps a younger member.

So, we can add mud turtle to our list of turtle species visitors, which includes Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri), Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis) and Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox). I wonder who’ll be next.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on February 28, 2014 at the defunct national blog
beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.