Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plant hires ant bodyguards

Ah, the beautiful little prairie at work! I've written about this one-third acre transformation of barren turf grass into biodiversity boiling over before, HERE. Today, I trotted outside for a brief 15-20 minute photographic interlude, and was rewarded with something rather cool.

Among the many native plants in our prairie patch, all provided by Ohio Prairie Nursery, is this little gem. It's Partridge Pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, a showy pinnate-leaved beauty. It is easy to grow, quick to arise, and pleasing to the eye. Insects also find it pleasing to the palette, as we shall see.

The rich lemony blossoms are offset by chocolate-brown stamens dangling from a crimson bulls-eye. An arrangement sure to lure winged pollinators. And any would-be pollinating insect would be wise to arrive by air. Partridge Pea has made a long-term co-evolutionary pact with some serious six-legged tough guys to keep ne'er do wells out of its foliage.

An ant (I don't know the species) clambers about a Partridge Pea plant. It was one of many on the plant that I chose to photo-document. We have lots of these plants in our prairie, and I suspect all of them were inhabited by ants.

We are not here, in this photo, to look at this ant. We'll look at ants in a bit. I draw your attention to the tiny cuplike appendage on the leaf's petiole, upper lefthand corner of the photo. Note the glistening reddish syrup within. The petioles (leaf stalks) of all the leaves are similarly adorned with these cups, which are known as extrafloral nectaries. A great many flowering plants are laden with intrafloral nectaries - sweet nectar rewards hidden within the flowers. They are there to entice pollinators into the bloom, where they will be dusted with pollen and thus complete the plant's pollination process.

Extrafloral nectaries are far scarcer, and arguably far more interesting.

Ah! One of our ants has found an extrafloral nectary, and is lapping the secretions within like a dog at a bowl. Extrafloral nectary nectar is basically supercharged plant sap, rich in fructose, glucose, various proteins, and amino acids. Utterly irresistible to ants. Plants such as the Partridge Pea, that are stippled with extrafloral nectaries, are apt to loaded with ants. The ants scurry busily from nectary to nectary, and in between they race about the rest of the plant in their quest for more of the sweet stuff.

The impact of this ant army? An incredibly effective deterrent to any wannabe defoliators such as caterpillars or other insects that would damage the plant. If the ants detect a threat to their spoils, they will launch a brutal attack and drive off or kill the interloper. This behavior, of course, greatly benefits the plant and is an excellent example of a mutualistic relationship: both organisms in the partnership benefit.

Numerous studies have been done on ants and extrafloral nectaries, and most have found that plants with ants suffer less grazing damage, and also generally produce better fruit crops, than plants without ants. Some investigations have suggested that plants with extrafloral nectaries may also benefit by keeping ants away from the flowers. Ants are probably not great pollinators in general, and can spook legitimate pollinating insects from the flowers, rob nectar with no reward for the plant, and possibly damage reproductive tissues. But probably the main goal of possessing extrafloral nectaries is to in essence hire a team of ferocious, fearless six-legged body guards to safeguard the plant.

Plants protect themselves in numerous ways: production of various compounds that ward off herbivores; thorns; development of difficult to digest fibrous products such as lignin, etc. But few protective strategies top the complex active defense system brought on by development of extrafloral nectaries. This defense system isn't particularly common; for instance, of the 330 or so species of Chamaecrista worldwide, only about 26 have evolved extrafloral nectaries.

While ants are clearly the primary target of the nectaries, they also attract other predators such as jumping spiders. The spiders will apparently sip at the nectaries, and are drawn to plants that sport them. Having a jumper or two hanging out in your foliage is a good way to help keep plant-damaging insects at bay. I photographed this jumping spider (species unknown) on Tuesday in a prairie with plenty of Partridge Pea close at hand. I didn't see it visiting nectaries, and didn't know that they would do so until doing some research for this piece. I'll be more alert in the future and try to photo-document a jumper sipping from a nectary.

Partridge Pea is in full bloom now. If you're around some of these plants, have a look to see if ants are working the extrafloral nectaries.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A trip to the prairies (or what's left of them)

A summer would be incomplete without a visit to the scraps of remaining prairie west of Columbus. A few sites like the above, tiny 1/2 acre Bigelow Cemetery, are all that remain of the formerly vast Darby Plains, which covered some 385 square miles. My generation must make do with postage stamp-sized museum pieces. Once Deere unleashed his chisel plow, game over for the prairies. What was once a botanical wonderland full of an incredible floristic diversity, with attendant abundant animal life, has been pulverized by the plow. Over 99% of Ohio's original prairie has been converted to the Big Three: corn, soybeans, and wheat.

I still greatly appreciate what we have left. Bigelow Cemetery, which dodged the plow as burial grounds are sacred, and the cemetery was established before farmers had gotten around to plowing up all of Madison County, was looking good. I was there yesterday, and reveled in the mid-July explosion of prairie plants.

Purple and Gray-headed coneflowers, Wild Bergamot, and Royal Catchfly paint the tiny cemetery in a rich palette of colors.

The Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, is exceptionally vigorous this year. This is a prairie plant if there ever was one. If you see Royal Catchfly, and it's growing wild, you are in a prairie, or at least the remnants of one. Whenever I see this beauty, I take photo after photo, trying for the perfect image. Yesterday, while standing quietly composing images, my frame was photo-bombed by a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Alas, before I could react and snap her chin-deep in a catchfly flower, she noticed me and shot off, scolding your narrator with a barrage of angry squeaks.

Where the coneflowers and catchfly end in the above photo, beans and corn take over. And stretch for miles and miles in all directions. What collective fools we are, as a species, to destroy so much of our richest (former) natural resource. You'd think we might have saved - not to be greedy or anything - maybe five (three? two?) percent of it. What a richer Ohio we'd have.

Enough of lamenting the stupid follies of our imperfect primate past. You owe yourself a visit to Bigelow Cemetery, soon. While the catchfly still blooms. More info on this pioneer cemetery HERE.

Another prairie shard that I visited was Milford Center Prairie in Union County. This scrap, like the cemetery, exists largely by accident. A railroad bisected the prairie at this point, and the buffering right-of-way was spared the plow. After the tracks were yanked, a utility acquired the right-of-way and installed power lines, thus keeping the plow at bay.

There is apparently a mass synchronous bloom of Royal Catchfly, because it also looked as good as I have ever seen it at this spot, too. NOTE TO MANAGERS: Milford Center Prairie really needs a good fire. Maybe next fall or spring...

Nearly overshadowed by the botanical extroverts was this diminutive little plant, the Hairy Ruellia, Ruellia humilis. What an ungraceful common name - and common names are quite important! Another option with a bit more pizazz might be "Prairie Petunia".

I was pleased to be strafed by this F-15 of a butterfly, the Silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus. He finally settled on a leaf, and seemingly entranced by my macro camera rig, allowed me right up into his grill. Normally this species, the largest of our skippers, is rather wary and close approaches can be difficult. I was grateful for his cooperation.

Less cooperative, strangely enough, was this Exposed Bird-dropping Moth, Tarache aprica. Normally the animals that mimic bird droppings - there are scores - sit and pose quite nicely. They are apparently confident in their resemblance to fresh Blue Jay splat. Very few things enjoy eating bird droppings, so if you can do a good scat imitation, your chances of survival rise.

I had to stalk this moth, and after the third flush it finally allowed me in close enough to obtain this one image. After making my photo, it vanished into the thick prairie vegetation from whence it came.

One can only imagine my pleasure at stumbling into this black and scarlet beast. It is a Poison Ivy Sawfly, Arge humeralis, and the animal is quite the showstopper if you ask me. As you may have inferred from the name, the larvae of this species - they greatly resemble caterpillars in appearance and behavior - feed on Poison Ivy. As if you didn't already like this bug.

The sawfly is standing on a rich carpet of Queen Ann's Lace flowers, and was busily working them over. Note how its head is liberally encrusted with pollen. Forget the European Honeybee - all manner of native bees, wasps, flies, beetles and others do the heavy lifting when it comes to pollinating our native plant crops. While Queen Ann's Lace, Daucus carota, is not a native species, it sure does lure insects. as do many of our native parsleys.

Both of the prairie remnants that I visited host lush beds of this plant, Scurf Pea, Orbexilum onobrychis, and the plants were adorned with both flowers and fruit.

It didn't take much searching to uncover one of these beautiful polka-dotted caterpillars. It is the larva of an as yet to be described species of flower moth in the genus Schinia. I recently shared photos of the moth IN THIS POST. I had discovered this species in Milford Center Prairie two years ago, and it seems to be doing well. Yesterday, in short order, I found six of the caterpillars, and didn't check the vast majority of host plants that are present.

Our yet to be named flower moth caterpillar is a finicky eater. Scurf Pea is its only known host. Not only that, but the cats eat only the innards of the fruit. In the above photo, the caterpillar has bored a round hole through the fruit's wall and is vacuuming out the contents. Wedding oneself so tightly to one plant species is generally a bad strategy. If some other animal comes along and destroys 99% of your habitat, your fortunes will plummet. I've written more about this rarity HERE.

While perhaps the most humble of the flora and fauna featured in this post, I was most excited to find this tiny flake of a moth. It is a true rarity, perhaps even scarcer than the previous Schinia flower moth. This one does have a name, though: Coppery Orbexilum Moth, Hystrichophora loricana. The animal in the photo was at Milford Center Prairie, and it was the only one that I saw in spite of an hour or so of searching. Laura and David Hughes had discovered it there last year. I also found one, only one, at Bigelow Cemetery yesterday, adding Madison County to its range.

The Coppery Orbexilum Moth was originally discovered near Dayton, Ohio in 1880, and was described to science from that specimen. Then it dropped off the radar for about a century, until an entomologist found a few small populations in southern Illinois. John Howard found a couple populations in Adams County, Ohio, and a lepidopterist also located some of the moths in Kentucky. A few years ago, I stumbled into one in a prairie near Dayton, and was able to photograph it. I'll have to try and unearth the moth's original description sometime and see if I can ferret out exactly where in Dayton the original collection was made. Maybe I refound the site. Anyway, insofar as I know, those are all of the known occurrences of this inconspicuous little moth.

I'm glad we have spared a few little scraps of prairie for the moths, and the scores of other flora and fauna that are prairie-dependent.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lesser Grapevine Looper

A Lesser Grapevine Looper, Eulithis diversilineata, rests under your narrator's porch lights.

I found myself chained to my desk today, writing, writing, writing. Come nightfall, I took a break to see if any interesting lepidopterans had stopped in at the porch lights. Sure enough, the little oddity above was camped out on the wall. I was quite pleased, and rushed to get the camera. Lesser Grapevine Loopers are common, but I had no good photos of one, and here was the opportunity to remedy that!

Note the bizarrely curled abdomen, a very distinctive posture in this species. I suppose it is some sort of disruptive camouflage, perhaps making the resting moth appear more like a leaf with attached petiole. It certainly makes the moth an interesting photographic subject, if you ask me.

Shooting moths at night is always a challenge. Flash is essential, and it must be set properly for best results. For these shots, I used my Canon 5D Mark III, set on full manual, with the following settings: f/11, shutter speed of 1/200, and ISO at 100. Most importantly, the Canon Twin Lite flashes were mounted at the end of the 100 mm macro lens. The flash was set to ETTL mode, which it allows it to "talk" to the camera and meter the perfect amount of light.

No matter what your rig, as long as you can control the camera's settings manually, you can improve your nighttime shots. Find out what the camera's sync speed is - the fastest shutter speed that it will shoot at while using the flash. If you exceed the sync speed, the resultant photo will be partially blacked out or the camera won't shoot at all. Set the camera to f/11 (maybe f/8 on some point & shoots), ISO to 100, and the flash (built-n or external) to ETTL mode. Voila! You should end up with nicely exposed images, although some tweaking may be required.

The Lesser Grapevine Looper is one of a large cast of characters that depends on native grapes in the genus Vitis, and Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, for survival. Remove these plants, which are all too often derided as weedy, and take away the food source for legions of caterpillars.

I've written about the value of grapes and their kin RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Wood Frog, in the woods

A Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvatica, peeks from a leafy shelter in a Geauga County woodland. These small frogs are conspicuous in early spring, when mating orgies occur in vernal pools. The males belt out their ducklike quacks, which can be heard for considerable distances.

As spring progresses, and rolls into summer, the frogs become much less conspicuous. One occasionally encounters a Wood Frog by sheer happenstance, as we did in this case.

I dropped to the leaf litter, to see if the little frog would allow me better views, and photos. It did, and we can see the ornate detail that makes the Wood Frog one of our handsomest amphibians.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A prairie comes to life

This is the approximate view from my office, in a very urban part of Columbus, Ohio. In 2012, this lush growth of wildflowers was barren mowed lawn, largely lacking in life. BORING, and not at all environmentally friendly.

I approached the powers-that-be, and cajoled them into allowing us to work with Bob Kehres and Ohio Prairie Nursery to plant the one-third acre grass-scape to prairie. We did so in May 2013, and Voila! I took the photo above today, of the prairie in its second growing season. An incredible transformation has taken place, and the prairie will only grow better with age, like a fine wine.

I try to take a few minutes to stroll the prairie, camera in tow, at least once a week. I'm very interesting in documenting the profusion of life that has resulted from removing a lawn monoculture, and replacing it with numerous species of plants that are (mostly) indigenous to this area.

The cast of new characters is already lengthy: moths, butterflies, hemipterans, beetles, bees, wasps, flower flies, and much more. We have even had a male Indigo Bunting hanging around the prairie this summer, a first summering record for our 22-acre complex. As he regularly sings from the boughs of a Honey Locust on the prairie's border, I assume that our new planting has created a good enough food source to keep him happy. Hopefully he'll eventually find a mate.

Today's brief foray was noteworthy for the number of dragonflies and damselflies that I observed. There were Widow Skimmers, Eastern Forktails, Common Whitetails, Halloween Pennants, Common Green Darners and Black Saddlebags, and others that I'm probably forgetting. I don't even know where all of these dragons and damsels are coming from. We have two small wetlands elsewhere on the complex, but I doubt they are producing all of the insects that I saw today.

In the above photo, a beautiful Familiar Bluet, Enallagma civile, makes mincemeat out of some tiny victim. It was one of many bluets hunting the prairie today.

I was especially pleased to see several female Eastern Amberwings, Perithemis tenera. The females of this species seem to be wasp mimics, with their banded abdomen and habit of constantly twitching their tail end in the manner of a wasp.

Amberwings do reproduce in the wetlands on our complex, but they require surrounding buffer meadows to truly flourish. After mating and laying eggs, many female dragonflies leave the wetlands and the ruthless pursuit of the males that gather in such places. Providing an insect-rich prairie nearby is sure to lure lots of predatorial dragonflies, and my short trip into this prairie today provided ample proof of this.

If you plant it, they will come. I look forward to seeing that other wondrous beasts turn up in our prairie as the season progresses.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Butterfly Workshop recap

Yesterday, the Midwest Native Plant Society hosted a Butterfly Workshop in this building - the Caesar Creek Visitor Center, owned and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The facility is a fabulous venue for hosting such events, and is convenient to Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and lots of other places. We had about 105 attendees, mostly from Ohio, but also Indiana, Florida, and Kentucky. Major thanks go to the Army Corps for making the building available for such events, and to ranger Kim Baker for acting as our host. Linda Romine, also with the Corps, was also a great help.

The Midwest Native Plant Society was formed to run our upcoming Midwest Native Plant Conference, now in its sixth year. We try to put on one or two other special events annually under the MNPS banner, and the Butterfly Workshop was one of those.

Lunchtime at the workshop. We fairly well filled the place. The Caesar Creek Visitor Center is perfect for hosting such events. This capacious conference room can be set up in a variety of different ways, and features a large drop-down screen and up-to-date audio-visual. At the other end of the building is a smaller auditorium, and that was perfect for use as a concurrent breakout session room.

Major thanks go to everyone who made this event possible. Chief among them is Kathy McDonald, who oversaw all of the logistics in one form or another. Others who played key roles were Debi Wolterman, Yvonne Dunphey, Judy Ganance, and Sue Metheny. Jim Davidson, Sandy Belth and all of our speakers helped with leading field trips, and Mary Anne Barnett brought along a bunch of cool caterpillars for everyone to see. If I am forgetting anyone I apologize!

An event like this would be nothing without good presenters, and we had four topnotch ones: Jaret Daniels (author of Butterflies of Ohio), Jeff Belth (author of Butterflies of Indiana), Cheryl Harner, and Scott Hogsten. Thanks to all of them for informing and educating the group.

One of our ulterior motives was to get more native plants in the hands of more people. As you know (or should know), our butterflies, moths, and nearly all native insects and  other animals require native plants. Helping us achieve this goal was Gale Martin of Natives in Harmony nursery. She sold a ton of good plants to people, including a boatload of milkweeds (go Monarchs!).

As is our habit, the conference included field trips. We believe that it is quite important to get people outside, even though doing so often adds huge logistical headaches to a conference. A big advantage of using the Caesar Creek Visitor's Center was the abundance of diverse habitats within minutes of the building. Indeed, one of our trips explored the prairie plantings, woods, and wetland immediately adjacent to the building.

This group is wandering a large meadow full of native prairie plants, and dotted with two wetlands. Linda Romine and I led one group through here, and Jaret Daniels had another. Collectively, we found lots of cool stuff, and as is usually the case, the trips became natural history free-for-alls. We prioritized butterflies, but nothing was ignored. A definite highlight for many was an amazingly cooperative Yellow-breasted Chat that kept teeing up in plain sight and singing his odd series of hoots, squawks, grunts, and whistles. Chats can mimic well, and this one regularly performed a perfect rendition of the nearby Willow Flycatcher's soft whistled Whit! call notes.

One of the wetlands was ringed by Swamp Rose Mallow, Hibiscus moscheutos, which was just coming into flower. Both carnation and white flower forms were present. Filling the interior of the wetland - the creamy specks in the backdrop - was flowering American Lotus, Nelumbo lutea.

Nothing spikes diversity like a good wetland, and we found all sorts of interesting animals around and in these wetlands. The Corps of Engineers created these wetlands back in the 1990's, and have also planted lots of prairie species in the surrounding meadows. Today, we can enjoy the fruits of their labors, as this meadow is full of interesting animals.

Jaret Daniels holds up a Spicebush Swallowtail, Papilio troilus, that he captured for the group to study. It was released unharmed, and was one of many in the meadow. Jaret is at the University of Florida, and Director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity. We're fortunate that he likes Ohio; he's been up here a number of times in the past decade to help out with events like this one, and share his vast knowledge.

Jaret found this tiny Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, egg on a False Nettle, Boehmeria cylindrica, plant. It takes a sharp, trained eye to spot such minute objects. The egg taxed the limits of my 100 mm macro lens, but we can see some of its ornate sculpturing. It looks like a bluish-green barrel with prominent ribs. Red Admiral butterflies, which are among our showiest species, depend on several species of nettles for their host plants, demonstrating that even maligned native plants are quite valuable to fauna that is much appreciated by humans.

We encountered this cooperative pair of Eastern Tailed-Blues, Cupido comyntas. They were rather preoccupied with making more butterflies, which allowed our large group to closely admire them.

The wetlands were awash with dragonflies of many species. Best was a brilliant male Comet Darner, Anax longipes, but he was not as cooperative as this comparatively tiny Azure Bluet, Enallagma aspersum.

We ran across a pack of Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillars, Lophocampa caryae. working over a Black Walnut, Juglans nigra. These cats are quite showy upon close inspection.

All of the native plants that filled the meadows provided a bounty of nectar for native pollinating insects such as this Potter Wasp, Monobia quadridens.Scores of native bees, flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects were seen. This wasp is on the flowers of Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium, a native member of the parsley family and a plant that attracts scads of interesting pollinators.

The wetlands produced a bumper crop of Northern Leopard Frogs, Lithobates pipiens, and Mike Zimmerman managed to snag one for the group's inspection. As I said, little escaped our notice or failed to capture our interest. Given the abundance of insect life in the meadows, I'm sure these frogs won't be lacking for food.

Thanks to everyone who came out, and I'm sure we'll be doing more such events in the future.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tricolored Bats!

A tightly packed scrum of Tricolored Bats, Perimyotis subflavus, clusters in the dim recess of a building in Warren County, Ohio. I was down at Caesar Creek Reservoir last weekend to meet with our planning committee for this Saturday's Butterfly Workshop, spearheaded by the Midwest Native Plant Society (organized to run the annual Midwest Native Plant Conference). I was pleased indeed to learn that the building that we were meeting in plays host to a pack of these tiny bats. Not only that, but what we have here is a maternity colony! There are eleven or twelve adult female Tricolored Bats in the scrum; the grayer, smaller bats are recently born offspring a week or so of age.

Sorry for the less than stellar image, but I was unwilling to shoot bright flash into their alcove, which would have made for a crisper photo.

However, one of the bats was isolated from the community and down much lower on the wall. It may have been slightly dehydrated, or maybe it just set down in the wrong place come dawn. Whatever the case, it was far more visible than the others. Nonetheless, we kept a respectable distance, and kept an eye on her, as she was in an area with regular people traffic. Eventually the bat did make her way to a much more sheltered and hidden nook in the wall.

Tricolored Bats were formerly known as Eastern Pipistrelles, and they are the smallest of Ohio's regularly occurring bat species. A big one might weigh 10 grams; a dinky one maybe 4-5 grams. To me, they resemble little golden mice with wings.

Tricolored Bats probably use trees and other structures a lot for warm weather roosts, but in winter they duck deep into caves to hibernate. And that habit, unfortunately, is proving to be their downfall, along with other cave-dwelling bat species.

In 2006, a strange malady affecting bats was noted in a New York State cave, and eventually branded as White-nose Syndrome, which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. It is suspected the fungus, which is native to Europe, was transported to the cave by a spelunker(s) who had recently been caving in Europe. Infected bats show whitish fungal crusting on their faces, hence the name.

The disease spread rapidly, and today has been recorded in 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces. WNS fungus, which thrives in damp cool places such as caves and mines, has had disastrous impacts on cave-dwelling bats such as the Tricolored Bat. In some cases, 95% of an impacted colony can be wiped out - worst case scenarios, complete mortality - and to date millions of bats have perished. Ironically, as is the case with so many introduced pests, the fungus apparently has no discernible impact on bats in its native range.

Bats play an incredibly important role in our ecosystems, especially forested areas in this part of the world. Collectively, they harvest untold millions of insects on their nocturnal forays, and are estimated to provide billions of dollars in pest control value annually in North America.

Look! A tiny foot is extended from underneath Mrs. Tricolored Bat! Our bat is concealing a week or two old baby. For a few weeks, the juvenile bats are closely guarded by the mothers, who feed them milk. Mother bats enwrap the babies with their wings and shelter them during the day, and can even fly with baby on board. Come August, this baby bat and the others should be free-flying.

This colony of bats has been returning to this exact spot and breeding for nineteen years. Our escort and source of information about these Tricolored Bats was Kim Baker, ranger and interpretative guide with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Kim and her colleagues have kept close tabs on these bats for years, and take pains to protect the colony. That's undoubtedly why they have been returning here for so long, even though their home is an artificial structure.

As Tricolored Bats are one of the species effected by White-nose Syndrome, Kim and company cross their fingers and hope for the best each spring, when the bats are slated to return. So far, so good, and their numbers have remained fairly constant. Let's hope this colony of bats manages to dodge the White-nose Syndrome bullet.