Tag Archives: florida

Feeling Sluggish

I encountered a Florida native slug this week (shown above) so thought it was a good time to dust off and republish my lost article on these interesting decomposers.

Dateline: September 2, 2011*

I live in Florida for seven years now and this week I saw my very first slug. Two in one week! Slugs are mollusks similar to snails but without an external shell.

Introducing the Florida leatherleaf slug (Leidyula floridana), a critter native to our fair state. Initially thought to be endemic to Central and Southern Florida, it has since spread northward and has also been found in Louisiana, Texas and northern Mexico which could indicate that it was found in more areas than the original records indicate or that it was spread via transport of goods from state to state.

Florida Leatherleaf Slug

This fellow (gal?) was a whopping 3.5-4 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Slugs are hermaphrodites so I suppose it is a little of both! These critters are said to mostly live in natural, undisturbed habitats and as such are not of economic consequence. They rarely reach pest status although they do eat crops and ornamentals, given the opportunity. They have two pairs of tentacles, with the larger, upper pair bearing visual organs and the lower used for scent.

Their primary job is decomposition so I’m thinking that they are a good ally to have around. I discovered the first one underneath my sit-on-top kayak when I was dumping out some water. I wasn’t even exactly sure what it was, since it was in a “contracted” state. That is pretty much flat on the ground. The second was discovered by Chili, the Irish Setter who was nosing at it on the patio early in the morning where it was lounging in dampness along the drip-line from the gutter. Dampness must be their thing and appears to be vital to their habit needs.

Slug in contracted state, they flatten themselves out

Eaten by ducks, moles and shrews, a few other birds may partake in this <gag> delicacy. Other natural predators would be larvae from some insects, fungi and protozoa. Other species of slugs are eaten by frogs, toads, turtles, salamanders and snakes. Although mostly herbivores, there are some carnivorous species that will dine on other slugs or earthworms. They have their place in the food chain but I’m glad there is a huge gap between the links of slug and man.

The are quick to right themselves if flipped over

I flipped it on its back to get a look at the bottom and it was quick to twist and squirm right back over to right itself. The one on the patio didn’t seem to leave a slime trail like I remember those in New York doing. At any rate, rather than chance slime on the Irish setter, I gathered up my new found friend and placed him (her?) in the “dog free” area where it will hopefully break down some of the endless amounts of grass cuttings that are so typical of rainy season in Florida (it just never STOPS GROWING!) A little research indicates that they generally do leave a slime trail, so I must just have had a “Felix Unger” type. Lucky me!

The bottoms are smooth. This one covered in clippings it is breaking down

Once again I find another species in my beautiful wildlife garden. Nature never ceases to amaze me with the vast fauna it provides.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on September 2, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


The Biodiversity of a Single Native Plant

My thistle is blooming this week so I thought it was a good time to dust off an old article about this great beneficial plant.

Dateline: April 19, 2013*

Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii)

In my garden, I always savor the often unheralded plants.  Plants that many remove from their own landscapes because they are unattractive “weeds”.  If you remove Thistle (Cirsium spp.), you are missing out on experiences better than any action movie.

About 5 foot tall

Meet Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii) a resident of my landscape.  This guy took forever to bloom, starting out with dirt hugging basal leaves about 12 inches in diameter.  Slowly it began reaching for the skies, eventually becoming eye to eye with me.  Five foot tall (or short depending on who’s doing the measuring).

A plethora of wasps were seen

I patiently waited as this larval host for Painted Lady Butterflies (Vanessa cardui)  and the little Metalmark butterfly (Calephelis virginiensis) slowly grew to produce one of the most abundant food provider of any Florida Native Plant I have encountered in my garden.  I’m still searching daily for caterpillars, but they are elusive at this point, that or with the way this plant can stick you, I’m reluctant to get stabbed in the search.

A delicate native meadow flower, but watch out, the spines hurt!

What I did find is somewhat awe-inspiring.   I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.


Some consider aphids pests, but they feed many up the food chain

Ladybugs eggs

Ladybugs lay their eggs where they know there will be an adequate supply of aphids to feed the young

lady bug larvae

The ladybug larvae have voracious appetites

ladybug pupa

Turning from larvae to adult is this ladybug pupa

small ladybugs

tiny ladybugs

big lady bugs

Big ladybugs

spotless lady bugs

Big spotless ladybugs (technically lady beetles)

Assassin bugs

Jagged Ambush Bugs (Phymata fasciata)

Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata fasciata) munches on another tiny anthropod

Wasps of various shapes and sizes

Paper Wasp

Paper wasps

Ichneumon Wasp (Therion morio) use moth larvae as its host.

Ichneumon Wasp (Therion morio)

Cuckoo Wasps:

Cuckoo Wasps stand out with their pretty blue coloring

Some type of Diptera, likely a flesh fly whose Larvae parasitize bees, cicadas, termites, grasshoppers/locusts, millipedes, earthworms, and snails. Adults have a sweet tooth choosing nectar, sap, fruit juices and as this guy likely is, honeydew produced by the aphids.


Chalcidid Wasp (possibly Conura spp.) use butterfly and moth pupa as diet, but also will parasitize beetles and flies and some are secondary parasites of Ichneumon and Braconid Wasps.

Chalcid wasp

Velvet ants (Dasymutilla spp.) are not ants, they are wasps.

Leaf-footed Bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus) are a common visitor to thistle, and while a pest, if it hangs out on the thistle, it isn’t sucking the life out of your citrus.

There are always some pests, but other beneficials keep them in check

Various stink bugs, both pests and predatory beneficials.

predatory stink bugs GOOD GUYS!

There are sure to be more species to come and I’ll venture to guess that the birds are waiting in the wings, so to speak, too reap the benefits of this amazing provider.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 19, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

What Does Weed Mean To You?

I saw my first Southern White Butterfly of the season this week…apt because the Virginia Pepperweed, a larval host is in full bloom. I also saw that the Plantain is sprouting, as is the Cudweed. That brings about the onslaught of pesky weed and feed commercials popping up on television. According to them I should be eliminating those lovely native larval hosts from my garden in favor of some biological desert of a lawn.

It brought to mind an article I wrote a few years ago that is worth repeating. Food for thought (and future pollinators).

Dateline:  January 31, 2014*

Monarch butterfly on Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I’m one who cringes when anyone calls a native plant a weed.  Given the top definition in the dictionary, it has such a derogatory sound to it:

Weed:  (wēd)
1. A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants.
2. An aquatic plant or alga, especially seaweed.
3. Something considered useless, detrimental, or worthless.
4. Slang
a. Tobacco.
b. A cigarette.
c. Marijuana.

I understand the “troublesome” part and perhaps even the “unattractive” part, but the “undesirable” moniker is what really rubs me the wrong way when it comes to targeting native plants.

Ok, you don’t want a lot of stragglers growing in your formal garden, I get that, but to kill off a whole species of plants, just to get the look of a carpet in the front yard seems ridiculous to me.

Lately, the term “weed” has a happier connotation (see definition #4c above), at least in my mind. Super Bowl XLVIII (Seattle v. Denver) is “The Weed Bowl”. It brings back memories of the ‘70s although it might not have much to do with gardening, unless you are running a grow house for recreational marijuana in the two states that the Football Conference winners hail from.  😉

Now, more importantly, since so many so-called “weeds” are larval hosts for butterflies and native insects, this is what “weed” means to me:

This might be what is there

but I see this Buckeye Butterfly

Cudweed might be what is growing

but I envision this American Lady

It might look like pepperweed to you but it looks like a southern white butterfly to me
A ground cover of Frogfruit might be offensive to some But I only see White Peacocks fluttering around

Whenever doubting that some wild growth in the garden bed is a good thing, think about this quote by Eeyore:

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” –A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

and, for more than just nectar….food for growth.

So before you head out with the weed and feed, think about where have all the butterflies gone?…Food for thought.

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

Warblers: If One is a Butterbutt, Should the Other be a Butterhead?

The warblers have been prolific these days so I’m republishing my 2013 lost article on what keeps them coming back to my place.

Dateline:  January 25, 2013*

Both Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers will visit birdfeeding stations

This is the time of year when the warblers are a sea of yellow and gray around here. The two most prolific of these birds at my place are the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus).

The Butterbutt

A common name for the Yellow-rumped Warbler is butterbutt and it is easy to see why.

The diet of the Yellow-rumped Warbler consists of mostly insects including caterpillars and other insect larvae, beetles, weevils, ants, scale, aphids, grasshoppers, caddisflies, craneflies, and gnats, as well as spiders. Quite a menu variety. They also eat spruce budworm, a serious forest pest concern.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler was reaching up for some treat in a groundsel bush

It’s interesting to watch the Yellow-rumped Warbler feed. They flutter and catch insects on the wing and they also flutter next to tall grasses to snag seeds. It reminds me of how a hummingbird hovers.

Visiting Wax Myrtle aka Bayberry

Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoy fruits, particularly bayberry a.k.a. wax myrtle, which “their digestive systems are uniquely suited among warblers to digest”. This gives them a greater northern winter range. This shrub is the most prolific in my garden.

Add a female wax myrtle and the yellow-rumped warblers are sure to flock to your place

Other commonly eaten fruits and seed include:


In my garden

Juniper berries Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Poison ivy Toxicodendron radicans
Poison oak
Greenbrier Smilax spp.
Grapes Vitis spp.
Virginia creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Seeds from grasses Bluestem (Andropogon spp.)
Goldenrod seeds Solidago spp.

This probably explains their vast numbers at my place. They will use feeders but nutrition from actual plants is a better choice since the food isn’t chemically treated to control insect pests during production.

I set up natural foods at the feeding station via a wreath created from the spent seedheads of native plants and the Pine Warblers come calling

When I added the red cedar I hoped that the Yellow-rumped warblers, who build nests in conifers, would be enticed. They build with twigs, rootlets and grass, lined with hair and feathers. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that in my area they are non-breeding winter residents. Still, the cedar will feed them and many other bird species make use of this pretty native tree.  I’ll just have to hope that someone in their breeding range will share their encounter details.

One thing I noticed is that the colors of “my butterbutts” aren’t as vivid as some shown on birding websites where they can have sharp black markings. Apparently during the winter they are a little more drab, but they will always have that bright yellow tail thing going which they flash often when standing still, spying for insects.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler’s colors can be a little drab in wintertime

The Butterhead

Pine Warbler

Ok, the Pine Warbler isn’t called a Butterhead; I’m just making that up. They are pudgy birds and they do have bright yellow HEADS, so if the yellow RUMPED warbler…well, you get my drift.

The Pine Warblers are a little pudgy

Aptly named since they spend much of their time in the pine trees, they also come down to find insects in the grasses and they do enjoy seed, and among warblers they are notorious seed eaters…especially pine.

This week the Pine Warblers are especially fond of the bidens alba seeds

Recently they have been spending a lot of time in the dead parts of the Spanish Needles (Bidens alba) munching away on the spent seeds. Still, they mostly eat caterpillars and other insects including beetles, grasshoppers, ants, bees, flies, cockroach eggs, and spiders. Again, they will readily come to feeders, but natural foods are a better source of nutrition than commercial birdseed.

They get along with other birds such as this blue jay in the oak

These birds nest high atop pine trees. I’ve yet to see an actual nest but I do take out the field glasses and scan the trees during nesting season since I am hopeful that they will nest, given the amount of time they spend around my garden which has those tall pines. I’m still not clear how any type of nest could stay up in a pine since they sway so much in the wind. These birds must have access to super glue.

Pine Warblers like to hunt for insects in wood and brush piles

The Pine warbler is quite melodious and I get so much enjoyment hearing them from high in the treetops. A bird that is fun to watch, beautiful and worth setting up habitat for.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 25, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

This Bird’s a Lone Wolf

An Eastern Phoebe has been visiting and perching in the Florida native Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) lately so I am republishing my lost article from 2012 on this interesting bird.

Dateline:  November 30, 2012*

Likely you all know the adage “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” and when you see robins eating in a field, swallows roosting in a tree or geese in flight, there is no denying it. Enter the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), who seems to say, “Not me baby! I vant to be alone” using its best Greta Garbo voice.

Rarely do we see a pair of phoebes. Mostly it is a lone bird, perched on a fence or low tree branch with few leaves, studying the air or groundcover below on the hunt for something tasty and I don’t mean greens, berries or seeds. The phoebe’s diet consists primary of insects. Since they are flycatchers, they’re unlikely to come to feeders. They are a part of the Tryannidae family.

It really seems to like the new fence as a perch

I watched my most recent visitor as (s)he sat on the 4-1/2 foot wooden fence. ZOOM…down into the native grasses, which are mixed with pennywort and frogfruit. SNATCH…picked up some critter and return to its same perch. REPEAT.

It also is happy perching on the PVC pole that the Coral Honeysuckle vine crawls up

Prior to the installation of this new fence, the phoebe used to hang out in the front using the flagpole or the small shed as a perch. Last spring I was excited to see it entering and exiting the open eaves of this shed, thinking it was looking for a nesting place. Sad to say that Florida seems to be outside the breeding range, it is a winter holdover here. On the other hand, team member Ellen Sousa has spoken about how her lawn area provides the perfect hunting ground for meals which is likely why she has had breeding pairs nest at her place in the northeast on a regular basis. I’m a little jealous.

Some say the Phoebe has drab colors, but in the sunlight the yellow tone to its breast becomes very apparent

Flying insects make up the majority of the Eastern Phoebe’s diet. Common prey includes wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, flies, midges, and cicadas; they also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes, as well as occasional small fruits or seeds. At my place, the beetles and/or spider wasps in the grasses seem to be the main focus for this guy. Although last night he was hawking critters in flight.

It was happier on a branch in the oak when it was hawking, rather than gleaning

California has a similar species, the black phoebe that was spoken about here at Beautiful Wildlife Garden by former team member Chris McLaughlin.

I hope when it was staring at me it wasn’t thinking I would make a good meal

So, to birdscape for this bird, provide a nice medium height fenceline or similar perch, a low-growing meadow-type area and don’t use any pesticides which might kill their food. They want their dinner tartare. You’ll soon hear the familiar peep or fee-bee as it patiently waits to soar down and dine.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on November 30, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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.

Hard to Swallow? Hardly!

National Bird Day was yesterday and as luck would have it the tree swallows returned to my neck of the woods even though the morning temperatures were below freezing. I will take this opportunity to republish one of my lost articles from a few years back.

Dateline:  January 5, 2013*

Hundreds of tree swallows leave the Bayberry

Carol Duke of Massachusetts,  fellow writer at the former Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog provides an awe-inspiring poetic and photographic tribute to the spring return and nesting habits of the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). In Florida, we provide the winter, non-breeding area for this interesting bird thus seeing a different side of behavior.

A group of tree swallows are known collectively as a “stand” of swallows.  Our winter residents hardly sit, let alone stand.  Nearly constant in flight, they soar, snagging meals of insects “on the wing”. A few years back I did a short video while they flew round and round and round.

This week the tree swallows returned to my area and I wondered aloud why they didn’t tire of flying, as I stood, camera in hand, waiting for a photo opportunity.  It was not to happen.  I recall beautiful photos of swallows, but I’m thinking that the majority of those were taken when they are nesting, standing and protecting nest boxes or feeding their young.

This seems to be as clear a shot as I’m going to get of these birds

The very next day I sort of got an answer.  It was a dull day, cold by Florida standards as the daily high never got above 61F.  I had the fireplace going as I prepared to watch an afternoon of football.

The shrub was black with birds

Cleaning up the dishes from a late breakfast the sky seemed to darken through the kitchen skylight.  Now we weren’t expecting rain and as I glanced out the window…one that doesn’t overlook the pond…I was stunned by the arrival of HUNDREDS of tree swallows landing in the Southern Bayberry a.k.a. Wax Myrtle shrubs which are growing as a natural barrier along the fence.

Though it would seem an exaggeration, I kid you not regarding the numbers.  Now, two days later under 80F skies, I was greeted again by “the swarm” and here is a 15 second video of the event.

There were HUNDREDS of birds flying and landing. They would barely rest for a moment before taking flight again, en masse, only to return seconds later.  The birds bump into each other with their landing techniques and the chatter is deafening.  Perhaps not oddly, they returned around the same time of day, 11 a.m.  They must know about “elevenses”.

They came in a blur and left in a blur

The main diet of the tree swallow is insects, but they also can be enticed to some berries, with plant materials making up about 20% of their diet. Appropriately enough, they landed in the female shrubs that represent the majority of those along that particular side of the property and produce the fruit.  I guess they were hankering for the waxy blue-colored berries of the Southern Bayberry (Myrica cerifera).  It could also be that due to the time of year insects aren’t as plentiful and that’s when the need to eat plants comes in.

A few things that I have learned about swallows is that they are cavity nesters.  If you are in their breeding range, to entice them to take up residence consider providing a nest box if you don’t have available tree snags.  Some have encountered problems with them competing with bluebirds for the nest boxes as related by fellow blogger Donna Donabella.  In some ways by not being in their breeding range, I’m lucky.  My bluebirds have free reign of the nest box I provide and when I see the size of the gang these tree swallows come up with, my bluebirds wouldn’t stand a chance.

I’m stilled stunned by just how many tree swallows will try to squeeze on one branch

Obviously a nice clear photo of the lovely iridescent birds is not in my future, given their winter habits.  I’ll be happy with the memory of my encounter.  Experiencing a gang of birds in some ways is just as rewarding as watching newborn nestlings.  So, as many of you await the spring return of the tree swallow, consider how we all get different views of the habits of our amazing creatures depending on our location in their world.  Provide for them appropriately and remember that avoidance of pesticide use is key in attracting our insect eating birds.

A few of the 2018 gang watch their flock mates in the Wax Myrtle from the wire above

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 5, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Mistaken Mosquito

Dateline: January 11, 2013*

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.

Some are reflective. You can see how they may be mistaken for a giant mosquito

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.

They have extremely long legs as shown by the Colorful Tiger Crane Fly (Nephrotoma spp.)

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.

Some seem acrobatic such as Brachypremna dispellens

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.

Brachypremna dispellens have white legs

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.

wake up and smell the Bidens alba

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.

Limonia subgenus Geranomyia are drawn to flowers

*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.

Autumn in Florida

Dateline: October 21, 2011*

Think Florida has no fall color? Think again!

Pine needles fall and drift lazily into the pond as the Spanish Needles (Bidens alba) produce copious amounts of seeds that stick to the dogs’ fur, my socks and every bit of clothing in the laundry. The Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) berries change with their wonderful aroma and pretty blue coloring. The American Beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) ripen to purple joy. The fruits of the Dahoon (Ilex cassine) turn bright red alerting the birds that look down from the blinding sunny skies to this important food source as they return to their winter homes from the north. The sun is much lower in the sky and intense in brightness but the breezes keep us cool.

Solidago sp. and Bushy Bluestem grasses add to the color pallette of the season

The edible garden renews itself preparing those delicious winter tomatoes and peppers. Celery that looked dead from the heat begins to green up again. Asters prepare their burst of blooms to provide nectar for the bees, butterflies and other pollinators that are with us year round.

Chalky bluestem provides various hues

Yes, autumn occurs in Florida and while it may differ from other parts of the country, we still have nice subtle shades of browns, yellows and oranges heralding the change of season. The Cypress trees (Taxodium spp.) turn from green to yellow to brown as they begin to drop their needles in anticipation of winter. The Red Maples (Acer rubrum) provide a wonderful color palette.

Fallen pine needles add a rich brown coloring of mulch returning nutrients to the soil

Tall native grasses bend in the wind as the fluffy tan seedheads shake free to travel in the breeze, planting their next generation and giving the birds a natural meal. The rich golds of several Goldenrod genus (Solidago spp., Euthamia spp. and Bigelowia spp.) coupled with Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) and Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) would give any Northeastern state a run for its money come late September and October.

Swamp sunflowers provide golds

I’ve heard countless times how some people could never move to Florida because they would miss the seasons changing. When I first moved here I was convinced I would too, but I have found that I love autumn in Florida just as much as I enjoyed it up north. The seasons here change just like everyone else’s do; it is just a matter of watching to see the beauty that Mother Nature provides in your specific area. It certainly is glorious no matter where you live.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 21, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Ants: Walking Wallendas in My Garden

Dateline:  August 2, 2013*

Acrobat Ants (Crematogaster) at the Bidens buffet

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.

Is the fly guarding the group? or is he trying to figure out how to sneak in

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.

Is the fly sick of waiting?

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.

Food for Acrobat Ants include

“honeydew, extrafloral nectar, scavenged protein from bird and other droppings, carrion”

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.

Okay, what the heck is this?

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.

the remaining vertebrae and urostyle made identification as a frog pretty easy

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:

C. ashmeadi workers make up the majority of this woodpecker’s adult diet, especially in the winter (Hess and James, 1998).

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.