I remember when I first moved to Florida I saw what I thought was a HUGE mosquito, thinking that there were mutant bugs down here, big enough to drain a body of blood in one gulp. They certainly look like mosquitoes, but the poor critters are swatted and squished all due to a case of mistaken identity. The flying mimics are actually crane flies and they don’t bite.
Crane flies are beneficial in our gardens. Some species’ larvae are aquatic while others spend their youth in the soil. Both break down organic matter, returning nutrients to their respective habitats. As with most of nature, occasionally too much of a good thing can pose a problem. Some crane fly species can be a pest to agriculture. That’s why it is so important to have a balanced garden. Avoid pesticide use as chemicals kill the good bugs as well as the bad, and often kill those bugs that will control others to avoid them becoming pests.
Both larval and adult crane flies provide an important food source for birds, reptiles, spiders, fish and other insects such as dragonflies, mantids, centipedes and beetles. Fishermen have been known to use the larval stage of members of the family Tipulidae (Large Crane Flies) as bait. As you can see, there are plenty of predators to keep the population in order.
Tipulidae is the largest family in the Order Diptera. Given this, identification can be mind-boggling. You can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the anatomy of a crane fly at that identification key link. Suffice to say I was unable (or unwilling) to crawl around counting wing lines or antenna segments…that and I really don’t wear my reading glasses when I am walking around the property calling on critters for a photo shoot. Old eyes can’t see tiny nuances.
Crane flies undergo complete metamorphosis. Some species have an elongated rostrum (think Pinocchio), a straw-like appendage used to draw nectar from flowers. Thus, we can conclude that they also perform pollination duties.
I noticed that most of the time when I see the adults fly it is when it is slightly damp or overcast, so if it is daytime and you see a mutant mosquito, take a good look before you swat. You may be saving the life of an insect that will help your wildlife garden grow more beautiful.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 11, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
This week I was thrilled to find the caterpillar of a Bella Moth(Utetheisa ornatrix). While this larvae does eat some plant material in early stages, the diet as it grows, changes over to the seeds, so they bore their way into the seed pods. That’s why these caterpillars may be hard to find. Usually they are inside and not readily visible. The seeds contain chemical alkaloids, which they consume to become poisonous or at least repellant to predators. Much like Milkweed provides this ability to the Monarch and Queen Butterflies.
I first saw a ripening pod and looked closely to reveal the telltale hole. I removed the pod and split it open to find the tiniest of tiny caterpillars. If you look closely, you can see the seeds that it began munching away on.
I shared a photo via social media and a fellow entomology enthusiast posted a photo of a much larger caterpillar and in his picture the larvae was creating the hole. Armed with this vision in my mind, I headed out to the Rabbitbells a.k.a., Rattlebox (Crotalaria rotundifolia), one of the larval hosts for Bella Moth. Eventually I was rewarded. There, posed on the pod, was a near mirror image of what was posted.
This caterpillar was MUCH larger…as much as 5 times the size of my hidden friend from days before.
This brings up the point that not every caterpillar can be found on, or exclusively eating, green leaves.
Some time back, I can remember searching and searching the sumacs and wax myrtles for the larvae of Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops). I never had any success as I turned over leaf after leaf hoping to add to my photo collection of Lepidoptera larvae. C. cecrops readily flies in droves at my place.
Mind you, I’d be searching until the cows come home since this Hairstreak species is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus as larval food. I really need to scout around the leaf debris if I’m intent on finding a photo opportunity. Another excellent reason to not be so quick to do gardening cleanup…there is life in gardening debris!
Many moth species use leaf litter and other similar larval hosts. Lichen is another popular food. As a matter of fact, there is a whole tribe of lichen moths(Lithosiini). Lichen is a fungus that grows together with a photosynthetic partner in a symbiotic relationship. That partner is often alga.
Bagworms, those odd case creators, also have members of their species who eat lichens.
So, when it comes to gardening, you may not be missing a butterfly or moth caterpillar sighting because you don’t see them conspicuously munching on the host plant leaves or flowers. Some are nocturnal diners who only come out in the dead of night. Or, they may just be at the base of the plant eating castoff portions that they need to survive. Then again, they may be seeking refuge inside the “Rattlebox” cafe.
Many of these caterpillars are thought of as “pest” species… leaf-rollers and leaf miners likely make you cringe. Heck, they are yummy bird food (no personal experience here) or turn into pollinators so consider alternate scenarios before passing judgment.
What have you found caterpillars eating?
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 24, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
National Arbor Day is April 28, 2017 and many will mark the event by planting a tree. How many of those trees will actually live to see maturity? The information in the following (initially written for Florida Arbor Day which is in January) may help YOUR selection have better odds for success.
Dateline: January 13, 2012*
Happy Arbor Day (well almost). Ok…are you scratching your head and wondering if I’ve lost my sense of time? In seven days, on the third Friday of January, it will be Arbor Day for both Florida and Louisiana…two states who appear to want to be first in the nation. We are all familiar with National Arbor Day that is the last Friday in April and celebrated by 28 states as their State holiday. Did you know that in addition to the national holiday many states have another date? They choose them according to their best tree-planting times. When does your state hoist the shovels to celebrate?
So, you’ve found out WHEN, then there is the question of WHAT…finding a tree to plant for Arbor Day. Despite the Arbor Day Foundation (ADF) trying to “inspire people to plant” by offering 10 free trees with membership, I always try to discourage this. Wait…don’t get your pansies in a bunch, I think supporting a non-profit is a commendable thing to do, but please forego the free trees delivered to your house. Choose “No trees” or the “10 Trees Planted in our Nation’s Forests in Your Honor”** option instead.
Let me explain why. How many of us have been excited to get our free trees only to struggle to get them established while we watch them fail to flourish or die a slow death. I sometimes think that homeowners who get these free trees become discouraged to plant due to failure of the specimens to thrive. At my own place, a friend who got their free trees gave me two crepe myrtles (not native to Florida, I KNOW, but considered “Florida-Friendly“). Well, those things have been planted since 2006 and are still barely 1-1/2 feet tall and one has yet to flower. UPDATE 2017: Now about 6 foot tall with sparse branches and minimal flowering they are on the list to be removed since naturally occurring natives have filled in close by.
All ten trees that I received with my membership that same year are dead, despite nursing them according to instructions. If I hadn’t learned about native plants since their “burial” and local provenance, I’d be cursing Florida’s ability to provide a proper garden, blaming the sand that pretends to be soil. Apparently it is that the poor trees just aren’t adapted to the soil conditions or our climate. Heck, it even took me a while to get used to Florida where you can run the a/c and the heat on the same day.
Provenance can be a crucial factor in a tree’s ability to live a good long life and using a nursery within a 100-mile radius of the intended planting site will go a long way toward achieving better success. In addition, the question of the importance of genetic diversity and also the possible affect that outside specimens could have on our native populations through pollination or seed dispersal is often brought into discussion.
While purchasing with provenance in mind might give you a head start toward success, that’s not to say that you don’t have to baby a native tree during its young life. While we tout that native plants use fewer resources such as water and are generally carefree, even native trees need regular watering and care in order to get established.
I say when your state celebrates Arbor Day, find a nice native plant nursery in your locale to purchase your tree and support local business at the same time. I have a couple of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) seedlings purchased at our Master Gardener sale that are on tap for planting. And I also noticed a Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) volunteer under the momma tree that I will relocate (at least to a pot).
Oh…and you gotta love South Carolina. They must be a hearty bunch as they get out there on the first Friday in December to celebrate their Arbor Day.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 13, 2012 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
**This option doesn’t seem to be available any longer.
I’ll admit that I was not a big fan of Longleaf (Pinus palustris) and Slash Pine (P. elliottii) trees when I first moved out to my rural lot in January 2006. They were the only species in my yard at the time, and to me didn’t seem all that beautiful…very tall and somewhat gangly. Given that at that time I subscribed to gardening magazines whose photos espoused neat lawns and clipped exotic bushes…unsustainable visions…it’s no wonder.
Fast forward to present. I no longer subscribe to said magazines, preferring enlightening books such as Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy and The Landscaping Revolution: Garden With Mother Nature, Not Against Her by Andy Wasowski. I have joined the Florida Native Plant Society and I now base my choice of plants on their value in a biodiverse landscape and appropriateness to my ecosystem rather than some cookie cutter look that we are brainwashed to adapt to.
I’m now a big advocate of the native Pines since I found their beauty in the glimpse of sunset through their tall branches and in the magnitude of their purpose in a beautiful wildlife garden.
The title of this article says it all and might not be what you think. I see it every day. I see hawks, kingfishers and great blue herons on alert in the branches looking down at the pond waiting for their bounty to swim near the top. I see black vultures and swallows resting comfortably, taking a break from flight in the shade of high branches. I see brown-headed nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers picking under bark for food. I see pine warblers flitting from cone to cone grabbing at the pine nuts held within. I hope to see their fledglings sometime for they use the high branches of these pines as their nesting grounds. Bluejays, red winged blackbirds, mockingbirds, bluebirds all spend time foraging in the pines and the list goes on and on. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is the only woodpecker in North America that excavates its cavity in a living pine tree. With the loss of old growth pine forests, this bird has become endangered and since it needs a forest, won’t be gracing my acre, but I’ll look for them in the conservation areas nearby. Yes, Pine Trees are for the Birds.
According to the US Forest Service, because of its timber value and because longleaf pine communities house many endangered plant and animal species, forest managers are attempting to regenerate more longleaf pine communities. Sixty-eight species of birds utilize longleaf pine forests. Mice, squirrels, and other small mammals eat the large seeds. Eagles utilize large slash pines as nesting sites.
It takes a long time to grow a mature longleaf pine and I have a few babies growing where I’m letting my property restore itself. There are various stages of growth in a pine, one being the grass stage, which can last one to seven years, depending upon competition with other plants. This is when the root system is established. At this stage, more grows beneath the soil than above and the pine is virtually immune to fire, which is a common occurrence in pine ecosystems…those lanky trees are just begging lightening bolts to hit. Next up is the bottlebrush stage when a white tip, known as a candle, begins to emerge. The bottlebrush stage is when it works on gaining height, bark begins to form, but no branches are apparent. This stage can last a couple of years. I have a couple of trees in the beginning of this stage.
Once the young pine reaches 6-10 feet, it starts to form the lateral branching and thus begins the sapling stage, lasting several years. I’m pleased to report that my neighbor has many in this stage. The remaining stages are: mature, where they grow from 60-110 feet; old growth (nearly nonexistent with clear cutting in the early 1900s), death and the last stage, “after death”.
The Slash Pine, on the other hand, grows more quickly, can be used as a landscape tree in zones 7-10, prefers full sun to part sun and is tolerant of moist sites. Grow from seed or purchase seedlings.
I’m grateful that “an angel on my shoulder” had me make the house setup guys leave a dead pine standing. I spotted some Pileated woodpeckers busy at work and I was interested to see what they were up to. Two fledglings were the result; an extremely rewarding wildlife encounter and a defining moment is my appreciation of pines. I used this dead pine as a post for my first bluebird nesting box. When it came down in a tropical storm, I got out my chain saw, cut it up and stacked the wood so the butterflies, snakes and lizards would have habitat. The birds visit the decaying stacks to peck and find beetles and other insects for protein. As the layers break down I move the broken-up wood to form pathways through the native grasses.
If you are lucky enough to have pines, protect them, if you have a supporting ecosystem, grow them. The pine is a mighty important tree and having learned what it takes to make a pine, I have a newfound love for them in their journey to become mature.
I’m happy to live in a Pine Flatwoods ecosystem where I can monitor their stages and enjoy all the wildlife that they provide for.
This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 6, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
We had our first freeze of the season this week although it only lasted an hour or two. I love winter in Florida as the types of visitors to the garden vary at this time of year. I glanced out back the other day and was surprise to see a couple of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) wading in the pond. I was mostly surprised because Tanner the English setter was out in the yard and hadn’t seemed to notice the white beauties out back. Some bird dog…HA!
I quietly called Tanner into the house and as he entered, I, camera in hand, headed out. While I was taking a few shots, suddenly another head popped up out of nowhere. THREE herons at once…quite a treat for me.
According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Great Egret is “the largest egret in the Old World, and thus has garnered the name Great White Egret. In the New World, however, the white form of the Great Blue Heron is larger.” This particular trio wasn’t the largest herons I’ve encountered in my pond but it is the first time I can recall more than one of this species at one time.
I was trying to be stealth-like myself and not scare them off as I moved to get closer with hopes of a better shot. Alas, I was unsuccessful. Those birds may look like they aren’t paying attention, but they certainly are completely aware of what goes on around them at all times. I barely moved 20 feet ahead before they flapped their massive wings and took to the sky.
This is an update with additional information and photos to an original tale by Loret T. Setters published on January 13, 2015 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.
Sometimes you know there are critters in your garden, but you don’t necessarily get to see their flying, furry or feathery self. How can you tell? Well, they leave signs.
Signs can be something as simple as a sound. Many birds are secretive and some, like owls are nocturnal and not everyone gets to observe the actual bird. So, there are times when listening will give you a hint of who is visiting.
Other creatures may leave slight damage on a tree or other plant as a sign of their visit.
Sometimes they leave a noticeable trail.
Sometimes they will dig a hole to nest in:
Sometimes they will leave a piece of themselves such as the Black Racer snakeskin featured in the photo at the top of this post.
Sometimes they leave an undesirable sign in the form of scat, a phrase that has a better ring to it than saying excrement, poop or sh*t, I suppose. It all means the same thing.
So, when wandering around your garden, don’t just be on the lookout for the moving, breathing things, be on the lookout for signs of living things that you may otherwise miss in your native plants and wildlife garden.
This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 13, 2013 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.
Depends on who planted it. I’d have to say the best description of my native plant garden would be “a hot mess”. If Better Homes and Gardens ever saw my place, they’d be issuing an executive order declaring it a disaster area. On the other hand, I’d likely get the Medal of Honor from the Insect and Wood Stork unions.
You see, mine is a natural garden most of which is left to its own devices. Oh, I made an attempt at planting designed areas, but I guess I’m just not that sort of gardener. Too much work and I’d likely be cutting my rewards in half were I to continue on a path of organization. I came to the conclusion that the wildlife was happier when the garden did its own thing…when I stopped tinkering with Mother Nature’s plan. The fact that I have been able to publish an article a week on the different fauna observed for more than six years speaks volumes for my garden.
I live on the wild side. I live where each property is about an acre or more; you can have chickens, horses or even a cow if you are so intent. The land is a natural paradise of native plants, no additions necessary. I have added things over the course of time, but recently I started thinking that perhaps I am a hypocrite adding plants, albeit native ones, to what is already a pretty fabulous ecosystem. Still, there are some butterflies that I just couldn’t live without, and since they meander through these parts, I plant larval hosts for them to keep them close where I can watch them. Rather like a way station.
Now, keep in mind that I don’t have the issues that a lot of people have…a subdivision scraped bare by developers who have a neatness fetish and a penchant for providing plants that grow quick, don’t make a mess of fruits dropping, attracting messy birds or mammals and don’t have any GASP!!!!! insects.
At the start, many subdivisions are just cookie cutter plots with little interest. Often, when an enlightened someone comes along and tries to improve it with a little color, they are called before a board of neatness freaks who squash the creativity out of them with threats of fines. That type of living situation demands design and organization to keep the peace. When I first moved to Florida, I lived in such a community. When I got my first “tag” for failure to trim, mow and weed, that’s when I knew I couldn’t live like that. Mind you, I had no garden bed, thus nothing to weed so, I inquired if they could come and point out my plot’s shortcomings. I was told “oh, we just check all the boxes; the grass was just a little high that’s all”. I lasted there a year and a half.
Seems I have a “weed” gene. My late Uncle Herb was a connoisseur of weeds. He spent time enjoying the beauty of wildflowers along the roadsides. When I lived in Staten Island, my greatest joy was learning the names of my plants by using “Weeds of the Northeast” as a reference guide. I had nearly every one featured in that book, contained on a tiny plot that was situated adjacent to a natural wetland about 40 feet wide. People were amazed with photos of herons and ibis and otters that lived along “the dirty little creek” in this New York City bedroom community. The raccoons made a racket and the opossums sometimes were sleeping in the recycling bin. It was paradise to me.
Now, happy at my new location, I’ve decided to inventory the plants native to Florida in my yard, based on the “What Florida Native Plant is Blooming Today” series that I started in 2009/10. I’m at 200 species and still counting. I need to break down what just grew vs. what I added, but that must wait until I’m finished entering into a database who all lives here. The majority just grow here.
I’ll admit there are times when a penchant for neatness will come over me but I quickly push it out of my mind. I think it is a result of brainwashing from years of subscriptions to gardening magazines that featured perfect lawns and straight lines of garden beds.
I am in awe of how others deal with organization and design in their native plant gardens. I just don’t live in that same situation. I live in an ecosystem that screams “burn me” so I use mowing, which in some ways can emulate a fire-type clean up.
I do this maintenance in a zone fashion; my garden will never be the same two years in a row…possibly not even two months in a row as I clear some areas before they become excessively overgrown while letting the others start on a path to a denser habitat. I keep my “plantain zone” for the rabbits, my “cranesbill zone” for the doves, my “cudweed zone” for the American Lady Butterflies…you get the idea. All I know is that I feel blessed to be able to see activity any time I look out a window. There is always some sort of movement, so I must be doing something right in my beautiful wildlife garden.