Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gone Ant'en

Later this week I'm heading out to Arizona for Ants of the Southwest, and I won't be back for a few weeks. So I probably won't be blogging for a few days.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sourwood Tree


Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, is an important nectar crop for honeybees. They make an excellent landscaping tree with their Lily of the Valley-looking flowers (which are very mildly scented) and their brilliant red fall color. Filmed above is a young sapling that only has 5 sprigs worth of flowers, for lack of a better term, and it's already getting a decent amount of pollinator attention. Sourwood honey is said to be a world class honey, making this tree an excellent choice for your landscape.



Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Trip to Longwood Gardens

I spent yesterday, July 4th, at Longwood Gardens, though not for the fireworks. Really the place was a bit of a disappointment and ran differently than I expected.

For starters the ticket system is confusing. You buy tickets to arrive at a specific time in half hour intervals but you can stay as long as you want and I didn't understand why this was necessary at all. What's wrong with just selling tickets and having a recommended time of arrival? Their parking lot is big enough for special events like the 4th of July, there were even people setting up camp outside on the hills around the parking lot having little BBQ's of their own.

Getting inside and walking the gardens for a day I started to realize why they limit the number of tickets they sell in half hour intervals. There is ONLY ONE place that sells food and drinks for people to eat lunch or dinner. Now they were holding a special event for fireworks and additional vendors were setup but they were all in one area! So you can't get a drink if you visit the entire right side of the facility or walk all the way out into the meadow garden other than a public water fountain they have hidden way back in this end building. I almost died of dehydration walking around this place.

Finally I found some sort of delicious-looking BBQ happening but this was only for people who spent the money on the fireworks show happening later that night. I asked the girl if I could upgrade to get some real food, and she said Nope! So inside the regular building I went where I paid $8 for the smallest peperoni pizza in the world that tasted like air. And the glass they gave me was tiny, like what they sell as a Small everywhere else, which was only about $2 though. And it came with "unlimited refills" but frankly there didn't seem to be anyone watching the drink area; it's all self serve so I could have fill up a 2 liter for all they knew. 

They should be selling collectable water bottles that come with free refills the day you buy it and setup more stations around the park where people can buy and refill them, similar to how an amusement park does it. I should be able to upgrade my dinning choice right then and there to special BBQ's, Buffets, and wine tastings etc... instead of having to walk all the way back to the main entrance for a wrist band.

I would have voiced all this to the little suggestion survey card but someone made off with the pen or pencil for doing so... so I just tossed a blank card inside to show what I thought of the place which was not much.

Most of the gardens were vast stretches of lawn with plantings only right next to the pathways. These plantings did look nice and worked well with a corridor effect (looking down the hall). There were points of interests such as sculptures and fountains and the occasional neat plant they highlighted but the amount of lawns this place has really drags the whole place down.

There was a Japanese Stewartia that was absolutely infested with Japanese Beetles.. which might not be a bad thing but generally no one wants this pest insect.

There's a main conservatory that's full of all sorts of tropical plants, and even included a rather nice pond section but it would have benefited from a guide or two or audio tour like a museum exhibit to highlight what I'm looking at and why it's important. 

Something where they'd put a number on the plant tag and you could listen to a botanist, curator, landscape designer, translator, or voice actor, talk about why the plant or feature is so impressive. They could rotate which ones are of interest in and out or limit it to specific gardens. Generally without the information and history behind it, it's really just another pretty flower among hundreds. 

I was happy to see a grove of Bottlebrush Buckeye but disappointing to see absolutely nothing was pollinating them. Actually there were almost no butterflies flying about at all. The only ones I saw were out in the meadow garden and I know from the Mt. Cuba Center that this plant is normally covered in hummingbirds, and large butterflies. They're growing it correctly at least. The plant wants to push up an army of suckering stems to form it's own grove which was extensive. The photo above was taken at the top of a hill and they extended all the way down around the pathway.

This is what it was like looking in. 

But the real reason for going was for the newly installed Meadow Garden, which I'm happy to say was drawing a decent crowd. All of the bird watchers and generally non-handicap guests were at least giving one pathway a stroll. 

Early on I was a little confused though. I thought they had sprayed Round UP on the pathways which is why they looked like dead grass but then I realized, nope, someone started to roll out the sod for god knows why and it's just dying from lack of water. A bizarre choice but perhaps it was something left over from last year. A good design choice I thought were these corner sections where instead of seeding in plants randomly, they had plugs to specific plants. Eventually this will ensure guests get to see specific plants up close and personal.

Another specific plug planting next to one of the rest and viewing areas. Behind me there were some benches, sheltered by the sun with built in telescopes for everyone to look out upon the meadow. 

The occasional butterfly would flap about but for the most part they found a bit of butterflyweed and clung to it.

Black-eyed Susans speckled parts of the meadow with their little yellow disks.
There were a few places where they seemed to be better established and taller.


Red-winged Blackbirds fluttered about the meadow and all the bird watchers seemed to enjoy them particularly. I accidentally interrupted more than one person trying to take a photo I'm sorry to say.





Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa, was a real highlight here.

I love the way the color of the dried grasses adds to this, still blowing with the breeze along with the green, and still with yellow flowers dotting all over.

False Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, was another draw but mostly for bumblebees.

I really enjoyed the meadow garden a lot because there weren't big boring patches of lawn. If you're going to have big sweeps of lawn, at least do something with them; maybe even take that "golf course look" literally and maybe a mini-golfing or croquet. Or even make it more perfect than it already looks? A large carpet of moss maybe?

So the Meadow garden has my interest enough that I think I'll return sometime, maybe in September and I'll be sure to give the whole place another chance.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Introduction to Natural Pools - a film by David Pagan Butler

Quite possibly my next project to contemplate. My only worry with these is wildlife using it as their toilet. Obviously you don't introduce fish but things like racoons and opossums have some pretty nasty bacteria in their fecal matter. Even if I never swim in it though, it sounds like a fun thing to design.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Caterpillar Season

A few days ago it was unbearably hot and humid out, but I was enjoying it nonetheless because this seemed to bring out all the ants and other bugs of interest. There were so many types of ants wondering all over my plants that I was tempted to make a video about them all but the mosquitoes got the better of me.

One thing I had to photograph was this patch of caterpillars on my Persimmon tree. My assumption was they were some type of giant silk moth but I don't believe that to be the case.

Unfortunately they were all dead the next morning. No doubt a large black carpenter ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus, came along and chewed them all up into mush as there were several of those out on the tree. The whole clutch of them could have fit on a quarter, they were that tiny. I'm kicking myself for not removing the leaf and placing them into the butterfly cage.

I've no idea what they were, other than they were on Native Persimmon, they're were sort of hairy, and that I live in New Jersey. If anyone out there wants to take a crack at identifying them, be my guest. 

So I then realized this week, there are a lot of caterpillars in my yard! 


The Eastern Redbud has Fall Webworm, Hypantria cunea, which are poorly named because it's clearly the start of summer.

The tree also has treehoppers and a few aphids which are attracting ants that are supposed to help prevent insect herbivores or at least discourage and harass them onto other plants. It's not a perfect system but it does have an effect.

Fall Webworms get around this though by sticking together in a small group and forming webs around the leaves they eat for protection.

They do this until they're big enough to take on a few ants or develop other defenses. I'm not sure what they are for this species but I know long hairs, tasting bad, chemical weaponry, are a small taste of what some caterpillars do for protection. It's the early instars when the caterpillars have basically just hatched and don't have these defenses when they're picked off by everything, like the ones I found on the Persimmon tree.


The Eight-Spotted Forester is a day-flying moth (not quite a butterfly) that hosts on grape vines. The adult has black wings and eight cream/white or pail blue spots on the wings, hence the name.

Caterpillars are somewhat colorful looking and are in the habit of jumping ship upon disturbance, often leaving a silk lasso behind so they can climb back up. Grape Vines are very aggressive growing and often the caterpillars don't effect the yield of the crop.

Now I tried looking up what young Eight-Spotted Foresters look like, and I don't think these are them. What interests me is that the grape vine doesn't have any pores that produce extra floral nectar or attract aphids and other insects to do that for the plant. So that means the only ants walking over the plant are simply foraging for the sake of it, meaning fewer ants compared to a plant that's gushing out food to encourage them. So I'm curious to see how far these guys get.

And lastly the False Indigo Bush, Amorpha fruticosa, has not only eggs but fully grown caterpillars on it.

Silver Spotted Skippers, Epargyreus clarus, forage at night, making them hard to spot. During the day they stay inside a small "shed" of leaves they've woven together to hide from birds. Smaller caterpillars simply chew a section of a single leaf and fold it over with silk.

This is another case of the plant not attracting ants, other than letting them steal nectar from the flowers, but even this isn't a popular practice compared to other plants.

The caterpillars are a decent size and employ an additional tactic to hide from ants. One of the things ants look when hunting is insect frass; when they find it they know an insect can't be far. In this case though the caterpillars actually launch their frass pellets several feet away from them. They also lay silk down on just about everything they walk on to discourage ants from following them.