Category Archives: Six Legged

New Pet

My Limitless Affection For Small Critters

One of the usual fall garden chores I do whenever I’m home is raking the leaves.  It is a very meditative task.  The image of a Zen monk will come up almost every time I rake.  We have a lawn mower that can grind the leaves up, but I prefer raking.  It’s good exercise, the garden doesn’t smell of exhaust and, yes, I did mention that it’s meditative.  The birds also hang around when I rake, but will disappear when the mower is running, not to return until the yard is quiet again.

I did some leaf raking last Tuesday, before the rain had a chance to matte the leaves to the ground.  And, I found my new pet (however temporary)…a Giant Leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar.

Giant Leopard moth caterpillar, our new pet, curls up when touched
But stretched out and immobile when left alone during the day

I thought it was a Woolly bear when I first spotted it, but it’s almost twice the size and completely black.  It curled up when I touched it and that’s when I saw the rust-colored stripes on the back.  I brought it in the house to see what it was.  Once I learned that it can metamorphose into such a beautiful moth, white with black spots, a Giant (Great)Leopard moth as identified in The Butterflies and Moths of North America website.  I decided to try to raise it.

Since I mentioned a Woolly bear caterpillar, an inch long hairy moth with a rust colored band in the middle, I should mention a myth around it.  The rusty band is supposed to predict how bad the winter will be: the more narrow the band is, the colder the winter will be.  I’ve never kept statistics, but I’ve seen a lot of them flattened on the paths and walkways since they like to creep across the path as well.  No one has figured out why yet.

A Woolly bear caterpillar will become an Isabella Tiger moth if it doesn’t get mashed while trying to cross the path.

It takes a certain breed to go outside at 8:30 at night, in the rain, to rake up some loose soil, pick dry leaves and dig out Dandelion greens for a caterpillar.  We’re two of a certain breed apparently since Bill was holding the flashlight while I did the digging.  We are trying to make a comfortable place for him to winter in.

He’s not moving much when the light still on, hiding under the leaf litter, but comes out and walks around after we turn the lights off.  Hopefully he won’t pupate and make his grand entrance as a majestic Giant Leopard Moth in the middle of the winter like the Black Swallowtail we raised last year.

Spicebush Swallowtail

First Appearance in Our Garden

We have two types of Swallowtail butterfly in our garden every summer, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and the Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).  I raised a Black Swallowtail caterpillar in the house last year hoping to see it’s stages of transformation.  It became a butterfly in early winter which was too late to find food anywhere aside from what bloomed in the basement.  He was clearly a late bloomer, if you’ll pardon the play on words.  I hope to do it again this year but earlier in the season.  I have been looking for a caterpillar up and down the Dills and Parsleys, their favorite food, but have seen none so far.  I guess the birds have done too good of a job.

To my delight last week, I spotted a black-winged swallowtail.  When I looked closely however, it turned out to be a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus).  This is the first time I have seen a Spicebush Swallowtail in the garden.  I saw another one yesterday.  It’s a great addition to our garden, but I still miss the Black Swallowtail , none of whom have shown themselves yet this year.  I still have my hopes up though since it’s only August.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Garden Phlox.
On another Phlox
Easter Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush
The Black Swallowtail I raised in the house last year.

Friends in the Garden

Don’t Mash Them on Sight

There are countless species of insect in each garden if you look closely enough.  Most of us mash the unknown bugs at first sight especially when they look intimidating or ugly.  Fine, they may not look cute like Ladybug (Coleoptera coccinellidae) but most of them are pollinators and a lot of them help you rid your garden of pests.  Not all the unknowns are out to get our plants; they may be our allies.  Give them a chance to live and be part of your world and give yourself a chance to have an easy work in the garden.

I have always been curious about insects since my youth.  I used to catch them, pin them and look them up.  Now, I just photograph them and look them up.  Less bad Karma this way.  If they turned out to be bad guys for the garden, they’d better hide from me next time.

It’s been a challenge for me each year to see what new insects show up in our garden, both friend and foe.  Both pretty and ugly.  It’s very much like a treasure hunt, only these treasure will fly away from me most of the time.  I take it as a personal accomplishment if I find a new beneficial insect or more of the beneficial ones that are already in the garden.

I do organic gardening, so chemical and pesticides are not in the equation.  Insect infestation is not my problem though.  Between the birds and carnivorous insects patrolling the garden, the bad insect population control is pretty much done.  I still have a little problem with Japanese beetles, but far less than before.  These are some of the hard to spot or intimidating little guys in our garden.

Ambush Bug (Phymata americana) embedded herself in the Summersweet flowers.
Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) loves taking nectar from flowers. They also take other insects as food for their larvae.
Robber Fly (Promachus fitchii) in the act of catching his prey.
Mason Wasp (Monobia quadridens) loves taking nectar from flowers and takes cutworms for their young.
Two of the strange looking Hover Flies. They are great pollinators though.
One of many types of Hover Fly (Syrphidae, not sure of exact type) in the garden


A Little Accomplishment

We have always had Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in the garden.  It’s an official sign of summer when we see them in our garden.  They travel up from Mexico, their winter gathering place, every year.  It takes them two generations for their trip up north, but only one generation flying back.

I’ve learned that their population is in decline since we humans have been eliminating their caterpillar favorite food source – Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Industrial farming indiscriminatingly kills all the weeds along their flight path.  I know Milkweed is very invasive and poisonous if you eat it raw.  The milky sap that oozes out of a cut on one will make you itch if it get on your skin.  However, I’m not ready to see the Monarch butterflies pushed toward extinction.

I don’t know how the first Milkweed got in to our garden, but I had tried to get rid of them too.  Not much of a success; they keep coming up every spring wherever the roots have spread.  Once I learned that the well being of the Monarch population depends on this weed, I changed to digging them up and replanting them along our property.  This year is the third year I have been doing that.

The Monarchs have shown their appreciation for the first time this summer.  They mate in the garden.  I guess they have learned that they can depend on our garden for the survival of their young.  Since I saw them mating, I’ve been checking the Milkweed every couple of days.  Finally, they made me really happy today.  I found two caterpillars with bright yellow, white and black stripes munching on the Milkweed.  Just the sight of them made today a perfect day!

Monarch taking nectar from an Echinacea flower.
They decided to start their next generation in our garden.
Monarch caterpillar on a Milkweed stem.

Lady Bug

The Little Ladies Proliferate This Year

We have a lot of Lady Bugs (Coleoptera Coccinellidae) this year.  To be specific, they are Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles.  I counted over a dozen of them on one of the roses and some more on the other roses in the garden.  I also found egg sags and larvae under the leaves.  This is a good sign for the garden since their primary food is aphids.  The birds eat the aphids too but they also leave some damage on the rose buds from their sharp beaks.  A lady bug just walks up and down the branches and leaves and chows down on aphids like a vacuum cleaner, no damage done in the process.  They even eat while they’re mating…Ha.

She’s chowing down on an aphid while in congress

Aside from the prolific number of them, I also found a strange lady bug…a jet black one among the orange.  It has completely black wings with normal lady bug marks on the head. When I looked very closely, I still saw black lady bug spots faintly on the wings.  It’s also aggressive.  He pumped up and down on the leaf when I got the camera too close, fighting his own reflection in the lens.

Lone Black Lady Bug

According to the book Insects Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall, it’s supposed to be a “Fifteen-spotted Lady Beetle” (Anatis labiculata), not a mutant as I first thought it was.  I’m glad I have a new addition to the garden this year then.

Orange or black lady bugs, mutant or not, do not matter to me, they both work very hard on cleaning up the aphids that abound.  I just hope the birds would leave them alone and go for the Japanese beetles instead.

Rows of eggs under a rose leaf

Home Sweet Home

The Bees Have Arrived

The post office called at 7:00 am today to notify me that my shipment of bees is at their station.  I’m required to pick it up.  The bee company won’t ship bees to the house since the shipment cannot be unattended.  They were shipped in a screen cage, approximately three pounds of them in there.  My neighbor and I were fascinated by how much interest the people at the post office took in my bees.  One person actually asked me what I will do with them.  I almost said..deep fried with salt and pepper.

This is the cage they traveled in

Anyway, I prepared everything before I could free them.  It was a cloudy and cool day and the rain had just stopped.  As soon as I pried the top of the cage open and lifted a tin can of food out, some of them shot right out past me.  My problem was getting the queen’s cage out of the box.  A whole bunch of bees were swarming on the little cage.  I brushed some off, more immediately landed on it.  I didn’t wear any gloves and had no smoker either since I didn’t want to stress them any more than the trip had.  A little wrestling and I managed to free the queen’s cage, pop the cork on the end and set it in the hive.

Bees gathering around the entrance

Next, the nerve-wracking part…putting the bees in the hive.  Following directions, I had already poured sugar water on them in the cage.  I was hoping that it might make their wings stick together enough to keep them from flying off.  All the books I’ve read and the DVD that came with the kit said to smack the bee cage to round the critters into one clump, then turn the cage over and pour them into the hive.  Easier to read and watch than to actually do it.  The first clump dropped in but a lot of bees were still hanging in the cage.  In the mean time they were flying all over the place.  I decided to smack the cage on top of the hive one more time then left the cage next to the hive.  I thought they could find their own way out.  I closed the hive and walked away.

I went back to check on them an hour later.  The bees in the cage were still huddled together in a clump.  I turned the cage over and dumped them on the ground in front of the hive.  With that, they fly up to the hive.  It worked!  Through all this I was never stung once.  I was told they were very friendly and they were right.

I guessed they were hungry.  They consumed half a quart of sugar water in three hours.  At the end of the day I had to add more sugar water to the feeder.  They seemed to have settled down by nightfall.  There was a small knot of bees hanging out at the front of the entrance this evening.  I think they’ve started to make a home for themselves now since I see some bits of wax that they chewed off the foundation dropped on the tarp under the hive.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

Settled down at last

Black Swallowtail unfurled

Finally metamorphosed

Remember that little Black Swallowtail caterpillar I kept in the house since August?  The one that crawled from the living room dill plant up the curtain and turned into a chrysalis, suspended from our curtain for weeks?  I gave up on it after a few weeks.  I read somewhere that a chrysalis would take at most two weeks to turn to a butterfly.  I waited for a month, kept checking on it every day, but nothing happened.  After two months, I took the mummified chrysalis off the curtain and gave it to Bill.  We both were saddened by the notion that we might have killed the little guy.

The empty cocoon he left behind.
Black Swallowtail on my hand

Surprise!!!!   I was home today, cleaning up the whole house.  At one point I got to Bill’s desk and saw a Black Swallowtail on it.  I thought  he had picked up a dead butterfly from outside and put it on his desk.  But, when I tried to move it out of the way, the butterfly moved it wings.  I was spooked.  It is the end of November and the temperature outside is below 50 degree…where did it come from?   Then I realized that the little Black Swallowtail had just come out of its cocoon.  The empty cocoon was still on Bill’s desk.

On a Jasminum azoricum in our basement

I let him crawl on my finger and took him down to the basement where we have flowering plants.  I don’t know how long he will last.  I can’t put him outside since there is nothing out there to eat and there’s frost every morning.  There are a few jasmines, Sweet Almond Verbena, and Lantana still blooming in the basement and it’s definitely warmer than outside.  But, how long will he survive?

As much as I’m happy to see it became a butterfly, I’m saddened that I cannot do much for it.  If it hadn’t held off for three months, it would be outside enjoying all the flowers in our garden.

I don’t know how long a chrysalis is supposed to survive in that state, but this particular one took more than three months to become a butterfly.  But become a butterfly he did and that’s dedication.

Ambush Bugs

What a perfect name

Ambush bugs (Family Phymatidae) with light green and brown camouflage wings and carapace wait patiently to ambush any insect that comes close enough.  You won’t notice it if you don’t really look for it; just blends that well with the surroundings like a soldier in camo’.  The bug’s front legs are similar to those of a Mantis, thick, muscular with claws at the end.  It’s not big at all, half an inch at most.  But size doesn’t matter.  An Ambush bug can nail an insect that’s a couple of sizes bigger than itself.

Ambush bug bags lunch.

I caught one Ambush bug in the act yesterday.  He had a large Skipper clamped in his claws.  I didn’t see it at first.  I was trying to take a photograph of the Skipper but when I focused more closely, I realized that the Skipper was a victim of the Ambush bug.  I didn’t want to disturb the meal so I just left it there after a few shots.  I went in search of an Ambush bug that I could photograph clearly.  Lucky me, I found one on a Black-eyed Susan.  It looked like leaf litter that had dropped on one flower petal.  Done.

Waiting for a target.

I’m glad that they are in our garden since they are beneficial insects.  They will help rid us of undesirables, at least until they themselves succumb to the local bird patrol.  I just hope they stick to the bad insects and leave the butterflies alone.

Ladybug Larvae

Bringing friends home

I was at the local farmer’s market during my lunch time today, looking for some new additions to the garden.  You never know what you will find at this market.  I only buy plants I don’t already have in the garden.  Today, to my delight I found Chiltepin, a type of wild chili pepper.  There was no second thought about it.  It’s sort of a hobby: collecting chili pepper.  This year I’m growing twelve different types of chili peppers in our garden.  The Chiltepin will be the thirteenth.

Has no hint of a "Lady".

I was about to pay for the pepper when I saw two little insects crawling on the plant.  When I look closely, I realized that they are Ladybug larvae.   That’s a bonus. The ladybug larvae can help clean up the aphids on the rosebuds.  They would walk up and down the buds and leaves looking for aphids to consume.  The lady who owns the stall saw them too and jokingly said that she should charge me a hefty amount for this pepper plants since I have these two guys to go with it.  We both laughed.  We are familiar with one another enough that she said to me that people who love hot chili pepper are crazy, including her husband, but she is selling countless variety of chili peppers.

A couple of Ladybugs enjoying life.

I got the peppers and the ladybug larvae back to the office.  They didn’t seem to have any interest in leaving the pepper plants.  But, when I got them on the train one of them crawled up on the seat.  We caught it and put it back on the plant and spent the rest of the trip back home checking to make sure that they weren’t trying to escape again.   Finally, we got them home and took some photos before letting them go on the rosebuds.  I hope they won’t become breakfast for the House wrens, Song Sparrow or Gray Catbirds since these guys do not discriminate.  They are serious garden patrollers, if you creep or crawl, you are their food.

Up Close and Personal

Added Benefit of not using pesticides

Gardening without pesticide has many benefits: the first and foremost is you don’t slowly commit suicide as a byproduct of trying to kill insects.  You develop a wide circle of helpers in the garden since there is plenty of fresh food to consume.  So far we count over 30 different types of birds aside from varieties of insect that prey on other insects.  We can pick fresh ripe tomato or sugar snap pea and put it right in our mouths.  We can smell all the roses in the garden without worrying that we breath in a poison.

Winter is here but our yard is still filled with birds, the natives and the ones migrating down from the Canadian Tundra, kicking up leaves and picking off flower seeds.  I was out getting firewood another day and found a large family of spiders under a log.  I promptly put that particular log back on the woodpile, left mama spider and her load of kids alone.  If they survive this winter, I will have a bunch of helpers in the yard next spring.  That is far better than chemical.

Filing the photographs I took last summer, many of these little life forms are just fascinating when you look at them up close.  Mother nature never runs out of design.  Here are a few to share with you.