I’m an observer of nature which is how I learn things. Sometimes nature can throw a curve ball. Through my kitchen window I spotted a Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly nectaring at the Bidens alba just off my patio. Being a favorite butterfly of mine I grabbed my trusty Nikon point and shoot from the dining table and headed out to try to stealthily creep up to get a photo of this beauty in constant motion for my “Central Florida Critter of the Day” blog. I got a few shots and was satisfied I probably had a good one to share.
Since I only write about what happens in my own yard, I learned a long time ago to not use a SD card in my camera because I’d never get back in the house if I had unlimited shot capacity at hand. I allow myself the 20 or so high quality photos that can be captured on the camera’s internal memory. That way I get back inside within a reasonable amount of time, am not overwhelmed with too many photos or choices and I don’t get a sunburn. I also rarely go back inside without full capacity on the camera being used…I believe in efficiency and there is ALWAYS something of interest to be photographed in nature. It is a habit that has served me well…although it can be a bit frustrating at times to get that “memory full” message when an amazing creature is in front of you. Still, there is a delete button to make room for a once in a lifetime shot.
At any rate, I glanced up and saw a Gulf Fritillary Butterfly(Agraulis vanillae) fluttering over where the Florida native Maypop Vine chose to pop up this year. I figured I’d finish off my photos over there. That’s when I noticed that she laid an egg on the blackberry stem hidden within the maypop. I took a photo as she fluttered beneath my hands.
I got another shot of her actually hitting the intended maypop target with an egg. I was in the middle of taking a photo of a planthopper when I noticed Miss Frit had laid an egg on a single silk strand of a web of the resident Long-jawed Orb Weaver Spider (Leucauge argyra). The butterfly continued to flutter around when I saw her lay an egg on some Sida rhombifolia. That’s when she fluttered so close to me that I swear she was trying to lay an egg on ME. This butterfly had gone rogue…laying everywhere. Even the Bidens alba was “egged”.
So, what did I learn?
Not all butterflies have good aim;
Just because a butterfly lays an egg on a plant doesn’t necessarily mean it is a host plant;
The adage “Close only counts in horseshoes (and hand grenades)” needs to add “and butterfly egg laying”
There were plenty of visitors stopping by including a dragonfly, a few wasps, ants and others that I’m sure won’t care which buffet the eggs are on.
There are all sorts of ants and I was drawn to a group that was hanging out on a leaf of Bidens alba, a Florida native plant that is a bundle of biodiversity. This group of ants was like none I had ever seen before. Medium sized, shiny and with a heart shaped abdomen. What I found more interesting is that it was a reasonable gathering of say 50 or so, not thousands as I would normally expect of ant conventions.
They were engrossed in eating some white looking glop, the color resembling Elmer’s glue gone bad. A lone fly was off to the side, standing watch. I snapped a few photos to see if a closer look via zoom would tell me what was so fascinating as to draw this crowd.
I learned these valentine looking scavengers are called Acrobat Ants. They are in the Genus Crematogaster. I’m not ready to get these guys down to the species level with 10 different species in Florida that look rather alike to me. I got itchy just looking for Genus.
The habit of bending the gaster up over the thorax when disturbed is likely how it got the common name Acrobat Ant. The worker looks a little like he’s walking on his hands, so to speak.
Even a close zoom look didn’t reveal what the glop was but based on the listed foods, I figured it must have been bird poop.
The next day I returned to the scene of the crime and all the ants were gone, as was the fly. There, on the leaf was a tiny spine bone.
My first thought was to dial up Dr. Temperance Brennan. Of course she’s a fictional anthropologist and these bones seemed way too small to be human, so I opted to use an Internet search engine. “T-i-n-y V-e-r-t-e-b-r-a-t-e” I tapped into the search box. Up popped some news results about a certain frog being the world’s smallest vertebrate.
I recalled seeing a lot of the juvenile invasive Cuban treefrogs in recent weeks, so I thought that frog might fit the bill. Next search: F-r-o-g S-k-e-l-e-t-o-n. Up popped a very nice image of a labeled bullfrog skeleton.
Eureka!!!! The vertebrae matched my find. And, the small pointy piece is a urostyle. And to think I failed biology. Look at me now Ms. BiologyTeacherWho’sNameIForgot.
I wonder where the rest of the frog bones went. Did the acrobat ants bury the evidence? Who did the actual killing? Was the fly merely a witness? Or did he have a role in this massacre? Well, I’m no “Bones”, so it shall remain a mystery.
At any rate, acrobat ants play a role in carrion cleanup, like vultures but on a smaller scale. And, I’ve learned that they are an important food resource for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker:
It seems that Acrobat ants are found in damp or rotting wood so they aren’t as big a house pest as many other ant species. They may even cue you in to water infiltration problems if you find them in your home. Another interesting new species to add to my buggy life list.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 2, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
In 2009 when I began writing about my garden encounters I felt good that I was getting the word out about the importance of native plants in the scheme of things. At that time I had no idea just how important they are since I was clueless about how each creature performs a vital role in the rungs on the food chain and often are dependent on a single plant as a host. It was a hobby I embraced as I found I liked learning about creatures’ interaction with plants and I also love to spin a yarn as anyone who knows me could attest.
With each new encounter I became more aware of the circle of life and that even aphids can be important in the scheme of things. Killing one creature that we may not hold in awe ultimately will result in less food for someone higher up. I threw away my soapy water bottle in which I dropped leaf-eating beetles. I stopped picking off the bagworm “cocoons” that I was told were so bad for my plants. I started the practice of “live and let live”. A chewed plant is not something to frown about …it is something to rejoice. It just might help grow a baby bird in the making.
I have a few blogs that I write. Back in January 2016 I received a comment on one of my “Central Florida Critter of the Day” posts from an arachnologist in Switzerland.
Dr. Martin Nyffeler, Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Basel was requesting the use of my photo and encounter of a Regal Jumping Spider who had a treefrog in his clutches. Dr. Nyffeler has studied and published many research papers on spiders. Things I find fascinating…like spiders eating various critters including fish and bats. He was in the process of putting together a research paper on spiders eating vertebrates and my treefroggy encounter qualified.
I was thrilled that someone internationally known for spider research was interested in my little rendezvous with nature. I knew that my encounter was not a normal, run-of-the-mill occurrence, but I didn’t realize that it might just be rare.
Another benefit is that earwigs eliminate decaying organic materials from the environment. They eat algae, fungi, mosses, pollen as well as insects, spiders and mites both dead and live.
This week I discovered a family living in the folds of a Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliniana) leaf. I was thrilled to discover they are a native variety called the Lined Earwig (Doru taeniatum). With its bright, shiny pallor that glistens in the sunshine it doesn’t seem creepy to me at all.
Earwigs are generally nocturnal, although I’ve seen my guys out and about during the day in recent times, dancing quickly up and down the Bidens alba and grass seedheads. The genus Doru are important caterpillar predators and have a particular taste for the egg of the velvetbean caterpillar, a pest of pod plants especially soybeans.
Unlike a lot of the insect world, the momma earwigs provide care to their offspring, feeding their nymphs through regurgitation. They do, however, seem to play favorites.
Rumor has it that they fly, but I my bunch didn’t take to the airways. An earwig’s defense mechanism is to squirt foul smelling liquid or use the pinchers to…well…PINCH! Stand back and keep your fingers away, or just don’t annoy the little buggers.
Predators include the Tachinid fly, toads, birds, chickens and ducks. On a good note, natural enemies of the exotics, include arboreal earwigs (Doru taeniatum). So, I’m welcoming my new little friends!
While large populations may damage grass and be a pest if they get inside your home, they are generally harmless preying on more harmful insects. Just use common sense to keep home areas free from dampness.
So, while earwigs as a family may be a mixed bag, I’d vote for keeping my friendly native genus around.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 9, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
The redroot is in full blooming swing and the arthropods are showing their appreciation with their mass flocking to this pollinator magnet.
Carolina redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana) is a member of the Bloodwort family and an indicator of wetlands. Native to the coastal areas of the eastern US, in the northeast it is listed as threatened and endangered in much of the area, which may account for the fact that I wasn’t aware of this beauty until I got to Florida.
The sword-shaped leaves remind me of iris and I remember when I first got out here to my property I patiently waited for the “irises” to bloom. I was a little perplexed as the inflorescence began to unfold.
At first I thought them rather homely, but then they showed what they are made of, by being a virtual playground for butterflies, bees, wasps, spiders and more.
They can be quite stately some reaching heights of three foot. They look fabulous as a mass planting that they can achieve on their own as they spread by rhizomes as well as seed.
Tolerant and appreciative of flooding, they also stand up to drought so if you find some, might be a great addition to a rain garden.
The seeds are a favorite of Sandhill Cranes, a threatened species here in Florida and the roots are sort after by feral hogs, who have been known to destroy areas to satisfy their cravings.
The common name is based on the use of the roots as a dye that, when I experimented, produced an interesting tan leaning towards light rootbeer coloring. Subtle and pretty.
Perhaps, in the traditional sense, not the showiest of flowers…that is until they attract all that wildlife.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 23, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
I met a new butterfly this week. This particular butterfly is one of the skippers. Skippers are in the Superfamily Hesperioidea, as opposed to say, Swallowtails or Milkweed Butterflies that are in the Papilionoidea Superfamily encompassing Butterflies (excluding skippers).
Skippers are a diverse bunch and often hard to identify. This skipper was rather large, dull in color, but it intrigued me just the same.
Skippers can be somewhat trying to photograph. You see they…umm…skip from flower to flower and it is often nearly impossible to keep up with them. Luckily, this guy was drawn in by the nectar of Carolina Redroot(Lachnanthes caroliana) and seemed momentarily engrossed enough in his drinking habit that I was able to snap a couple of photos.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get great angles and it is imperative to have both the ventral and dorsal views of skippers to determine species. One dot, dash or directional mark can be a determining factor in getting it down to the correct species.
There are several subfamilies of skippers and because of the size, I knew it wasn’t one of the Grass Skippers (Subfamily Hesperiinae) as they are substantially smaller.
It had similar attributes to the Longtail Skippers that are Dicot Skippers (Subfamily Eudaminae). Dicot Skippers eat
There are also Spread-wing Skippers (Subfamily Pyrginae).
A quick check and I was able to determine it is one of the Cloudywings (Thorybes spp.). Comparing photos, I gave a preliminary identification as possible Confused Cloudwing (T. confusis).
As I always do with skippers, I checked in with my twitter pal @AndyBugGuy. Unfortunately, he reports there isn’t enough detail in the photos to provide a firm identification, but he did narrow it down to two possibilities: (1) the one I guessed or (2) Northern Cloudywing (T. pylades). Now it is up to me to keep my eyes peeled to see if I can get better shots or at least a good look myself to firm up the identification by paying close attention to the subtle differences in markings.
Often the larval host will help in determining butterfly species. In this case, I’d be more confident with it being a Northern Cloudywing (T. pylades) since there are numerous Desmodium species that are listed in the HOSTS database and occur on my property.
On the other hand, the HOSTS database lists Lespedeza spp. (bush clover) as the only larval host for T. confusis and I don’t have any of that currently at my place, although I’m sure it is close-by in the neighborhood.
THEN I found the following notation at the Butterflies and Moths.org Website regarding food choices for the Confused Cloudywing:
Heck, I’ve got T. florida growing in the back area, very close to the stand of Redroot that this guy was feasting on. How’s that for documented confusion.
So, while the Cloudywing may or may not be a Confused, this blogger is “Confused” indeed. I hope some additional flutterers will return for me to study further. However, if it gets down to having to dissect the genitalia, I’m out! Identification to genus will be good enough for me.
This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 29, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
Propagation can take place by several means: we break apart large clumps of plants at the roots and plant elsewhere or share with others, we gather seeds and plant or share with others, the wind blows seeds, mammals and other critters carry seeds from place to place and there are many other methods, including propagation by bird. They eat the seeds, which travel through their systems, and plant them, “pre-fertilized” when they stop to rest and…ahem…poop. Sometimes they plant in excellent locations, sometimes in not so excellent locations.
I thought, today we’d walk around part of my Florida yard to see what appeared along the fence line, under the flagpole, under a wax myrtle shrub and under a pine. I’ll call this my “Planted for the Birds, by the Birds” tour. At my house, as long as the birds are planting Florida native plants, they pretty much have free rein in their choice of location. Sometimes where they choose to locate a plant will become the centerpiece for a new gardening bed.
Let’s start with a lovely Red Bay (Persea borbonia) that was planted next to an alien Pyracantha. This showed up under the branch of a very tall pine. Now, many people would have removed the Red Bay as being out of place, but I mulched around it and tried to help it grow, with the intention of removing the Pyracantha once the Red Bay reached a certain height and was established. I loved that I had something native coming up to replace a non-native that was gifted to me when I first moved here. The Red Bay did well for two years, even encouraging Palamedes Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio palamedes) to leave their eggs, but it succumbed this past winter. Maybe it didn’t like the location but I think, in part, it met its demise since it was taken over by galls. Now, galls alone shouldn’t be harmful to this type of shrub, except for the fact that it was such a youngster and there were a LOT of galls. I still plan on pulling out the Pyracantha** after I replace the deceased Red Bay with a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) seedling that was passed on to me from a native plant sale. Hopefully I’ll have better luck with the Red Maple. I still hold out hope that a Red Bay will appear somewhere in the yard and “stick” next time.
In the front section of the yard I noticed that a Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) was coming up all on it’s own along the fence. This will happen often since birds will eat the berries and rest on a close-by fencetop. Think: WOW these birds are smart to plant a natural hedge to cover that ugly fence. While this might be in a somewhat crowded location, I like when nature plants things and I pretty much have decided to go with the flow. Beautyberries provide food for insects, birds, mammals and humans alike, and their bright purple-y-pink berries are eye-catching so from my perspective, they are a welcome addition no matter where they appear.
Not far from the new Beautyberry is some Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) crawling it’s way out from under a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera). I have a friend who told me I don’t want Virginia Creeper in my yard. Well, maybe she doesn’t want Virginia Creeper in her yard, but I’ve been gathering free seedlings from another friend who, like me, thinks it is a great vine that will provide for wildlife. We tend toward more informal gardening styles. Again, Virginia Creeper provides berries for birds to eat and good coverage for nesting purposes, so I think they are pretty smart to plant it for themselves and I’m only happy to help by adding more to their landscape design.
Along the same fence as the beautyberry I noticed black-eyed Susans had begun to sprout on the outside. My initial planting of Rudbeckia hirta was in the back pollinator garden area. Based on new location, I’m guessing that birdy picked a few samples seeds and is sharing the wealth in the front garden. The more, the merrier.
I was thrilled this year to see Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) appear next to one of my pine snags. The berries are a favorite among song birds, but use caution in maintaining a bird-planted location as they are also poisonous to humans, so keep them out of the reach of inquisitive kids. Young shoots are said to be edible, but given that the mature plant is poisonous, I wouldn’t play around with it myself. I’ll stick to other ethnobotanical uses such as using the juice to make dye or ink which we’ve used at outreach programs to teach kids about great everyday uses for native plants. A while back a Pokeberry began growing in an area near my electric box. I decided to move it outside the back fence. It didn’t make it. That’s one of the reasons that I generally let the locations chosen by the birds be the locations that the plant gets to stay in. How I wish I had just let the darn plant be. My tinkering killed the poor thing and I’m sure the birds were annoyed with me.
I also discovered an Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) stalk growing out of the planting area around the flagpole that holds my American flag. The mockingbirds just love to rest up top and I’m sure that’s how this newcomer arrived. Perhaps not the best location…I suppose I could have dug it up and moved it, but I thought back to the pokeberry brouhaha and opted to just leave it be. I now look on it with loving eyes, although I’m sure others would be rolling their eyes. But that’s ok. It was planted for the birds, by the birds, and maybe they just know best.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on December 3, 2010 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
**Update: The alien is gone and instead of putting the maple in, I added a one gallon Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) which seems to be adapting nicely having gotten its first berries in 2016.
Diurnal moths fly during the day rather than at night like the majority of moths. Some are quite pretty and are often mistaken for butterflies. One way to differentiate between the butterflies and moths is to look at the antenna. Moths have feathered antenna and butterflies have clubbed ends.
So, here is a dozen diurnal moths that have visited my Central Florida yard from time to time.
Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix) uses Rabbitbells (Crotalaria rotundifolia) as a larval host in my garden:
Small Frosted Wave Moth (Scopula lautaria):
Clouded Crimson Moth (Schinia gaurae) uses Southern Beeblossom (Oenothera simulans) as a larval host at my place:
Red-waisted Florella Moth (Syngamia florella) uses Rubiaceae family of plants, including Buttonweed (Spermacoce spp) as larval hosts:
This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 13, 2013 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.
I recently read a comment about grassy areas. I don’t remember where I read it but the person remarked how their lawn area was bare from dog traffic. Now, I have two dogs and not that long ago I had three. Big dogs. Of the sporting variety and they spend a lot of time outside trotting around, flushing out rabbits, trying to catch anoles and even chasing bird shadows. There is one section where they are allowed to dig…and over the years, the late and great Chili, the Irish setter nearly made it to China. That section is under the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) where it is barely noticeable.
The rest of my yard is green…maybe one or two bare spots where the dogs attempted to create a new dig area. For the most part, the yard is green with tight groundcovers so during rainy season I don’t get a heck of a lot of mud tracked in (except maybe if the paws dug under the palmetto).
I set out to figure out why, with my crew, and the two other woofs I baby-sit for…why is my place green and not muddy?
I took a look and I have a medley of native groundcovers that I had nothing to do with planting. No monoculture here…Mother Nature doesn’t believe in that. There is fogfruit (or frogfruit…the vernacular depending upon where you live) (Phyla nodiflora), various native sedges, Virginia Buttonweed (Diodia virginiana), spadeleaf(Centella asiatica), exotic bahia grass (not my choice) and pennywort. Plenty of Manyflower Marshpennywort (Hydrocotyle umbellata), a native variety of …you know… that groundcover that everyone is set on killing…the dreaded <gasp> DOLLARWEED!!!!!!
Well heck, yeah, it can be aggressive but it fits in nicely with my other groundcovers and while there is a lot of it, it certainly isn’t taking over the guy next to it. Everyone gets along fine. Soooo, if someone is looking for a groundcover, why not just go with Dollarweed and save your dollars? Cheap groundcover that coupled with a few other native plants, stand up to dog paws.
Pennywort is said to be edible but use caution as it is a natural filter that absorbs chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers from runoff so care should be taken that the population of plants is in a non-targeted area before ingesting. It is sturdy and will maintain soil stability. The butterflies, bees and other pollinators love it when it blooms, certain spiders use it to build their low webs and others use it to hide from spider wasps. It provides shade for small frogs and toads. It does require moisture so if you are very dry, it wouldn’t be appropriate, as we want to conserve water, not use it to keep ANY area green.
One section of the yard had a pile of mulch that didn’t get distributed so I turned into a “mound” of these various groundcovers as a pollinator haven. It is bevy of activity all the time and another interesting element of my native plant and wildlife garden.
This tale is an update from an original published by Loret T. Setters on August 13, 2012 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.
I heard a loud drone while walking out back. I glanced over to an area I have let restore that consists of a patch of Winged Sumac(Rhus copallinum). There, covering the creamy white blossoms was a gang of pollinators of many shapes and sizes. There were solitary bees, honeybees, flies, ants and many Thread-waisted Wasps (Sphex spp.).
Winged Sumac gets its common name from the protrusions along the leaf stems that resemble wings.
Winged Sumac holds a place in my heart since it offers a bit of autumn coloring that I miss from my Northeast U.S. roots. The green leaves turn vibrant shades of red, gold and orange as the season changes.
Plants are dioecious so only the female plants produce berries that are eaten by grouse, wild turkey, and songbirds.
Rabbits eat the bark and twigs, especially during the winter months. The twigs are also browsed extensively by white-tailed deer during the winter months when other more desirable browse is scarce. This plant is listed as having special value to native bees, special value to honeybees, and is a major player in supporting conservation biological control, which is evident by just how many of the Thread-Waisted Wasps were gathered in my garden. These wasps are parasites of crickets and katydids.
Winged Sumac has a history of ethnobotanical uses one of which is to treat dysentery. Native Americans also used the fruits as a dye. When I experimented and made a dye from the berries, the cloth came out a light shade of gold, which seemed contrary to the redness of the fruits. Nevertheless, the color was stunning. The fruits can be processed into jelly and also be used as a base for a lemonade flavored beverage.
In Florida, R. copallinum is listed as a larval host for the Luna Moth(Actias luna) and Royal Walnut Moth(Citheronia regalis), although I’ve yet to experience this wildlife benefit. It is a larval host for the Redbanded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) and the numbers of this butterfly in my garden certainly speaks for it being so. BUT, don’t look for the larva on the tree itself because it is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus (leaf litter) as larval food. Another reason to not be overly neat in the garden. Leave those leaves.
Given all the benefit a sumac can provide to a wildlife garden, you certainly should investigate which species would work in your area of the country. Is Flame Leaf Prairie Sumac(R. lanceolata) right for you garden? or would Staghorn Sumac(R. typhina) be a better fit. No matter what your choice, this plant should be a priority in your wildlife gardening mecca. The pollinators will thank you for it.