Category Archives: June

Ooops! Anatomy of a Potter Wasp Nest

Dateline:  June 28, 2013*

Potter Wasp (Eumenes fraternus)

I feel horrible.  I guess I will be up for only 2nd degree bugslaughter since I didn’t realize what I was doing.  There was no intent, I swear, Judge.

Potter Wasp Nests

Yesterday I noticed three potter wasp nests on the brick skirting around the bottom of the house.  They look like pots similar to what you would see at a ceramics store before the painting and firing of the clay, only in miniature. Without any thought I used the screwdriver in my hand to scrape these brood cells off the bricks since they were awfully close to the door.  All three “popped” open and I was shocked to see scads of caterpillars and what I thought was beetle or fly larvae.

Holy Mackerel!

Well, as research would reveal the larvae likely were young potter wasps in the Eumenes genus, probably E. fraternus based on the way the nests were constructed.  Just minding their own business, working through complete metamorphosis.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that until today.

Eumenes fraternus nest has a distinct pottery shape like a little jug

I’ll probably get a stay of execution because, as luck would have it, a hungry green anole showed up almost immediately upon the caterpillars being scattered.  He ate the evidence.  That potter nest must have rung like a dinner bell when I disturbed it.  At least my mistake made for a happy critter next up the food chain.  Hopefully it will be seen that way and I will avoid being fed to the mosquitoes.

Had I known the larva was a wasp, I would have moved it to a rearing box (or in my case, a screened Beanie Baby box) and tried to see it into adulthood.  Having now had this educational experience, in the future I’ll be a lot more careful about removing the little pots and will place them somewhere safe rather than attacking them with a screwdriver.

Put down the screwdriver lady! The larger green larva on the left is the wasp larva, others are various caterpillars

Although I doubt there would ever be a next time since it appears that momma potter wasps aren’t protective of the nest, so you don’t have to worry about some angry, aggressive insect with the stinger coming after you if you walk by.  They are capable of stinging; they just don’t really bother.  Now that I know that, I’d just leave the little pots alone.  One can never have too many wasps to help with pollination.  The adults are nectar feeders.

The wasp larvae was at the top of the pot until the crazy human came along and flipped open it’s housing

When I see how many caterpillars were provisioned in those three tiny pots, I’m amazed.  The potter wasp lays an egg suspended from the “ceiling” of the cell by a filament. She then gathers a bunch of caterpillars that she paralyzes and puts them into the brood cell so her larva will have something to feed off.  Then she seals up the entry with mud.

A different species shows how to capture and disable a caterpillar

This is an example of how nature stays in check.  Had all those caterpillars remained on a shrub or plant, there surely would have been noticeable chewing damage.  Had someone come along and treated the shrub with pesticides, there would be less pollinators, both butterflies and wasps, and fewer baby birds because there would be no caterpillars as food.   My mistake also destroyed a potential home for others, as older mud cavities are reused by Leafcutter Bees.

Luckily, if you create habitat as Mother Nature intended, the food chain works like it is suppose to work.  There are enough caterpillars to turn into moths or butterflies, but there are also enough to grow wasps, birds and whatever other critters find the squiggly things tasty, such as my anole buddy, who probably thought he died and went to heaven.

Another beneficial lesson about a beneficial in my beautiful wildlife garden.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 28, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Garden Pests? Invite the Myrmeleontiformias

Dateline: June 13, 2014*

likely a Mymeleon sp. (Family Myrmeleontidae)

Quite a mouthful.  Antlions and owlflies may be a tad easier to say for the non-entomologists such as myself.  They are members of the Insect suborder Myrmeleontiformia.  Still not familiar?  Ok, let’s put it in terms of their relatives that tend to get all the glory: Lacewings!  Along with some additional allies, all are members of the Order Neuroptera.

Ok, enough with the scientific name mumbo jumbo.  What the heck will they do to help me in my garden?

on dried palmetto frond

Antlion adults eat nectar and pollen and live for about 30-45 days. Some Antlion adult species also eat caterpillars and aphids.

Antlions as adults are a rather attractive flying insect which can easily be mistaken for a dragonfly in flight.  The majority of Ant Lion species are nocturnal for the most part. Your best bet at seeing them in flight is at dusk or at artificial lights at night.  The species shown in the photos can be seen up close and personal when they rest during the day. They try to blend in with plants…generally some dried stalk of taller grasses or, as shown here, comfy on a Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) frond.  I inadvertently disturbed this fella and (s)he moved over to the green frond.

startled, it moved to greener pastures

The ones pictured here are most likely Mymeleon spp. (Family Myrmeleontidae).

Antlions undergo complete metamorphosis. The female searches for a spot where she taps her abdomen and then inserts a single egg below ground.  Several eggs may be laid in the same area, up to 20 eggs per site. As the eggs hatch, the larval stage is formed and this is likely the most beneficial stage.

Look at the curved antenna

The larval stage is commonly known as Doodlebugs, because in their quest to find just the right spot to build their pits, the bugs scurry around drawing “doodles” in the sand. The larvae build a funnel shaped pit and wait for an ant, termite or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in.  As the prey slides over the edge and into the pit, the Doodlebug uses its jaws to paralyze the ant by injecting poison. Then it sucks out the vital juices. Once they finish their meal, they toss the skeletal remains out of the pit. Rather like spitting out a watermelon pit in order to eat the next bite.

Showing the wings

The larval stage is a great way for children to observe and explore the world of insects. Antlions stay in the larval form for 1 to 3 years, followed by a cocoon stage made of sand and silk for about a month.  Kids can replicate their habitat by using a container filled with sand, feeding the larvae ants and providing water droplets.

With 22 species found throughout Florida, there are plenty of these workhorses.

A silvery look, this one easily blends in with the airplane wire used to stablize the shed

In addition to keeping some pest species in order, Antlion larvae serve as hosts to parasitic insects including wasps and flies.  They also are eaten by birds that are alerted to their whereabouts by spying the pits created by the larvae.

Next up in the world of Myrmeleontiformia are Owlflies, members of the Ascalaphidae Family. The Owlfly I have encountered is in the Genus Ululodes.

The Owl Fly can easily be identified by its long antenna

Adult Owlflies are similar in appearance to Ant Lions, but they have longgggggggggggggg antenna. They try to blend in with plants by bending their abdomen out to emulate a stick or thin branch on dried out stalks of grasses. Take my word for it, they can be very convincing.   The adults eat “on the wing”, similar to dragonflies.

I will fool you by looking like a stick

Rather than laying eggs underground like the Ant Lion, they go high, laying eggs along the stalk of tall dried grasses. The larva has a similar appearance to the Ant Lion with scary looking mandibles. When the larva hatch they congregate briefly before heading down into the leaf litter or up into trees to chow down in a solitary fashion.  They can be cannibalistic so they part ways with their siblings rather quickly.  When they are fattened up, they build their cocoons in the leaf litter.

Check out the Owlfly eggs. They are very tiny

This brings up an important point.   At all times of year it is imperative to leave some uncut debris as habitat to support these beneficial insects.  If you clear away every last stalk of dried grasses, Owlflies have no place to lay their eggs.  If you clear away all the leaf litter, they have no where to prey upon insects and no safe environment to form their cocoons.

Owl Fly larvae are an interesting bunch

I used to think that cutting down the dried native grass seedheads in spring while leaving the remains in a brush pile was adequate for use by the fauna. After all, the debris was available for the birds to pick up as building materials and any insects would still be there…like a centralized buffet. After seeing the habitat necessary for the Owlfly, I leave quite a bit of tall dead materials for them to use as support structures to lay their eggs. The resulting increase in the numbers of Owlflies at my place has proved quite rewarding.

Leave some tall dried brush for the Owl Fly

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 13, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

A Rosy Picture in the Garden

Dateline: June 15, 2012*

Most people cringe with the mention of snails in the garden. Often terrestrial snails are given a bad rap. In Florida we have about 140 native and exotic snail and slug species. Most land snails are not pests. They feed on algae and fungi. Most Florida snails are small, seldom noticed, and do not feed on plants.

With regard to snails in general:

“Only a very little part of them is edible or a garden pest. Much more there are numerous snail species in our gardens, which not only are not pests but even are quite useful, in that they eat other snails or their eggs, they return wilted plant parts to the circulation of nature or they help in the manufacture of compost.”

What gives these snails a bad name is that they are often confused with slugs, which do eat your plants and cause damage. In walks (creeps? crawls?) the Rosy Wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea) a mollusc native to Florida. This beneficial is predatory on other snails.

Snails, such as this Rosy Wolfsnail have shells. Slugs do not have shells

The Rosy Wolfsnail uses two ways to dine on other snails. In one, it grasps, and consumes the intended prey alive. Alternately when eating smaller snails, it swallows the prey AND its shell.

Only the shell remains of the snail to the left. I guess it was too big to eat the crunchy part too

In its native range which consists of Southeastern Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and widespread in Florida including the Keys (University of Florida 2009), the snail does not interfere with the balance of nature.

He was in there, just wouldn’t come out to play

Unfortunately, this snail was introduced to control the giant African land snail in certain Pacific Rim countries where they wound up also eating the native snails. This is an important lesson in why exotic species should not be introduced outside their native range. They can overpower native species resulting in their demise. The Rosy Wolfsnail is now an invasive species in that area.

Since I live in Florida, the Rosy Wolfsnail is a welcome visitor to my garden.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 15, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Reflections of a Native Plant Garden

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 13, 2013 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.

reflectionsCloudsBackGateI was out overlooking the pond that has swelled just over the banks with the help of Tropical Storm Andrea and our wondrous afternoon downpours.  I love when the dry season ends and the seasonal dry sections become one with the main pond again.

I began to think about how my yard has changed since my move here.  I’ve nurtured the natural restoration of many areas that had unceremoniously been clear-cut by former owners.  The changes since 2006 are encouraging.

Here’s what I saw:

The return of numerous dragonflies such as this Banded Pennant (Celithemis fasciata):

Longleaf Pines (Pinus palustris) under cloudy skies:

Snags amongst living pines provide housing for many bird species:

Large bushy Wax Myrtles (Myrica cerifera) providing shelter and food for the birds:

A scrub background of Saw Palmettos (Serenoa repens) with a foreground of Yelloweyed Grass (Xyris spp.) and Sabatia provide cover and food for many:

My addition of a Bald-Cypress Tree (Taxodium distichum) is taking foothold:

LAUREL OAK (Quercus laurifolia), a mere sapling when I got here is reaching majestic heights:

Additions of birdhouses have increased the bluebird population considerably:

Young Longleaf pines finally reaching phase II, bottlebrush stage:

I love seeing the progress and the fauna that has returned due to my shepherding things back to how mother nature intended them to be.

Pollinator Week: More than Bees and Butterflies

Dateline:  June 12, 2015*

Unknown Tachinid fly on Camphorweed (Pluchea baccharis)
Unknown Tachinid fly on Camphorweed (Pluchea baccharis)

Next week, June 15-22, 2015 is National Pollinator Week.  As we all know “butterfly gardens” are the rage. Of course everyone will set out to create a garden haven adding nectar and larval host plants to encourage the fluttering beauty of butterflies.  When bees join in the gardeners are thrilled as well, and often they will say they have a “pollinator garden”.  But pollinator species extend beyond those two limited classifications.

Tachinid fly (Archytas sp.) on Buttonweed (Spermacoce sp.)
Tachinid fly (Archytas sp.) on Buttonweed (Spermacoce sp.)

It is time to also give voice and be accepting of the additional pollinators including, but not limited to Diptera (flies), Coleoptera (beetles), Ants and Wasps.  Even the wind performs pollination, so give it a salute next week as well.

It may be that pollination takes place by fauna or wind based on certain traits that a particular flower has.

Fruit fly (likely Trupanea sp.) on TICKSEED (Coreopsis sp.)
Fruit fly (likely Trupanea sp.) on TICKSEED (Coreopsis sp.)

Ok, sometimes the pollination is accidental as they go about their business to gather provisions to feed their own young, but it is pollination just the same.  Rely less on commercial species such as honeybees and work toward establishing a garden that supports a variety of native pollinators.

Dark Flower Scarab (Euphoria sepulcralis) on CLIMBING HEMPVINE (Mikania scandens)
Dark Flower Scarab (Euphoria sepulcralis) on CLIMBING HEMPVINE (Mikania scandens)

You have to consider that sometimes one species relies on the demise of another in order to reproduce.  Don’t be quick to discourage parasitic wasps just because they are laying their eggs on your butterfly caterpillars.  Consider that they too become pollinators, so all things being equal does it really make sense to save one butterfly over what could potentially be several wasps that can also do the pollination?  And, couldn’t those several wasps feed numerous spiders which in turn can feed multiple lizards, which might feed several snakes, that would grow many hawks, etc., etc., etc.,

Delta Flower Scarab Beetle (Trigonopeltastes delta) on Buttonweed (Spermacoce sp.)
Delta Flower Scarab Beetle (Trigonopeltastes delta) on Buttonweed (Spermacoce sp.)

Don’t get into frenzy if a beetle is dining on your plant.  Beetles pollinate, some are predatory keeping other species in check and they may also serve as the next meal for your favorite bird.

Margined Leatherwing Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on Marshpennywort (Hydrocotyle sp.)
Margined Leatherwing Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on Marshpennywort (Hydrocotyle sp.)

Don’t be too quick to give a particular species of anything priority of another.  A monoculture of any one thing would eventually lead to a decline in all life.  Everyone has a role in the food chain, so work toward balance.

Soldier fly (likely Hedriodiscus trivittatus) on Bidens alba
Soldier fly (likely Hedriodiscus trivittatus) on Bidens alba

Personally, I’m happiest when I see a plant that’s a little chewed…that’s what plants are for. Feed and accept all life cycles, not one particular element and you’ll be doing a whole lot better service to the biodiversity of fauna in your beautiful wildlife garden.  Feed life!

Ant (possibly Crematogaster sp.) on THOROUGHWORT (Eupatorium sp.)
Ant (possibly Crematogaster sp.) on THOROUGHWORT (Eupatorium sp.)

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 12, 2015 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Did that Cocoon Just Walk Away?

The tale of a debris carrying larvae originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 19, 2015 at (beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com/).

“cocoon” on blackberry
“cocoon” on blackberry

I love when something in my garden is being chewed on.  It means I am providing habitat and food for some species.  Needless to say, I got quite excited when I was down by the gate recently and I spotted a particular Sawtooth Blackberry (Rubus pensilvanicus) plant that looked all lacy.

The leaf was so lacy. Something must be hungry!
The leaf was so lacy. Something must be hungry!

I have hundreds of blackberry plants whose thorns rip my ankles and catch on my clothes. Sometimes I grumble quite loudly (often even an excruciating OUCH* will come out of my mouth) as I attempt to untangle myself and ultimately draw blood from doing the untangling.  But then I think about how these armored plants provide protective cover for so many in my beautiful wildlife garden.  I consider how the sweet juicy fruits feed birds, insects and mammals (including me) and how the delicately scented flowers provide for pollinators and many other insects.  It makes my battle wounds all worthwhile.

Back to my lacy plant.  I turned over a leaf or two looking for who was feasting away.  I saw a few crawlies but without my reading glasses I was hard-pressed to figure out who was doing the munching as they were too small for these old eyes to decipher.  That’s when I spotted a “cocoon” on the end of one of the leaves.

I snapped off the part of the plant that contained the cocoon and decided I would put on my citizen scientist hat and take it to a breeding container to see what adult would emerge. As one who believes that each species has its own important function, I’m not in favor of trying to “save” insects by handrearing.  I am, however, curious and appreciate an educational moment when it presents itself.

As I started to walk back toward the house I realized that the cocoon was walking…and toward my HAND!  As much as I love my bugs, I don’t ever touch anything with my bare hands.  I get rather “itchy” in that regard.  As my friend crawled up and down the leaves, I turned the plant part over and over keeping the crawly away from my skin. You can see what I saw in this 7 second video.

I got up to the patio and grabbed a recycled beanie baby box which I use as rearing containers when I need to solve the “who turns into what” mysteries.  I placed everything inside, took a few photos and a video and put some screening across the top.

Ahhh, it has legs
Ahhh, it has legs

Off to the computer, I come to discover that my cocoon isn’t a cocoon, but larvae of a Case-bearing Leaf Beetle.  Guess this little turtle-type housing unit explains the beetle’s common name.

busy bee
busy bee

Apparently many species in the larval stage resemble each other.  I can’t be certain, but I’m leaning toward it being a Warty Leaf Beetle Neochlamisus sp. possibly bimaculatus based on it being on Blackberry.  I thought I would get a firm answer, but alas, it still hasn’t turned into an adult.  Hopefully the mystery will be solved some time in the future if it ever completes the lifecycle.

quite an interesting creature
quite an interesting creature

While these beetles eat plants, the blackberry isn’t in any danger of being expatriated from my yard, so they can munch away.  The beetle probably feeds something up the food chain.  This particular plant was the only one that really looked chewed upon and blackberry can be quite aggressive so an added benefit could be mom nature’s way of keeping the blackberries from taking over the ENTIRE yard.

On a different trip around the “estate”, I spotted a cocoon on a Saltbush (Baccharis sp.) and zoomed in with the camera to get a closer view.  Before I could break off the branch to attempt to find out what the adult might grow into, the “cocoon” jumped off one branch and onto another.

this “cocoon” jumped down right before my eyes.
this “cocoon” jumped down right before my eyes.

Fooled once again…not a cocoon, but larvae.  I am overjoyed by this find because it is the Debris-Carrying Larvae of a Green Lacewing (Chrysoperla sp.), a beneficial pest-eating insect.

They move along the stems eating as they go.
They move along the stems eating as they go.

I learned about these insects two years ago when I found eggs on a palmetto bush. In my prior article on lacewings I was able to show the eggs, newly hatched larva and adults, but try as I might, I couldn’t locate the larvae decorated with the discarded carcasses of its meal tickets. Ewwwww, yeah, that’s what the stuff is that it glues to itself. Talk about a bold defense mechanism…but I suppose that if I glued some empty lobster claws to myself that no one would want to be bothered with me either. I guess we might conclude that Green lacewings are very savvy insects.

Green Lacewing Debris Covered Larvae
Green Lacewing Debris Covered Larvae

At any rate, I’m glad that I had this encounter to complete my photographic evidence of the lifecycle of a green lacewing.

So, once again I find myself mesmerized by new and interesting observations in my beautiful wildlife garden.  Sometimes looks can be deceiving…and FUN.

*that’s the P.G. version.  It actually is more like #*()@&*(&@!%^$###*(^&