Friday, April 19, 2013

Cacti ain't so tough...

If it weren’t for a pile of caterpillar poop (“frass” if you want to be fancy), I never would have found myself cutting open a prickly pear pad (and by "myself", I mean watching my lovely wife cut open a prickly pear pad as I became distracted by some large ants), nor would I have learned about cactus-boring caterpillars.
Prickly Pear, Opuntia sp., is a common sight in southwest Kansas.
There I was, minding my own business, walking around a dried up lake adjacent to some remnant sand-sage prairie that is officially “not open to the public”, hoping to reap the benefits of some remnant sand-sage prairie edge effects, when I noticed a pile of frass on a prickly pear pad.
Yes, it does look like something pooped on some Prickly Pear, 'cause that is insect poop.
I’ve seen caterpillar poop in many places before, but never on prickly pear.  Of course, this warranted further investigation.  After finding a stick sturdy enough to compliment the small blade of a pocket knife, the suspect pad was opened.
I can't imagine being interrupted mid cacti-binge.
The culprits were quickly revealed.  Gray-ish blue, black-spotted larvae enjoying the dickens out of some prickly pear pads.
Prickly Pear so good this caterpillar could not be bothered to acknowledge the camera.
May I introduce to you the North American cactus borer, Melitara sp.(a boring brown moth).  Of course, we now have these larvae housed with fresh prickly pear pads at our home.  I mean, don’t YOU want to know which species of cactus borer this is?
By the way, cactophillic insects can be quite effective.  Another cactus borer, the South American cactus borer, Cactoblastis cactorum (that is the best name on Earth), helped eliminate millions of acres of invasive prickly pear in Australia in the 1920’s and later it was used in South Africa and even Hawaii.  That same moth is now invasive in North America, so keep an eye out for any bright orange caterpillars you see in prickly pears.  For more information on that invader, see HERE.

Otherwise, go find some cacti to look at too closely!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Big Flippin' Ants!

Here in southwest Kansas it has been hard to miss the large, pebble-covered mounds of the harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex spp., or "Pogos".  These impressive ant mounds can be up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide and extend up to 3 meters (10 feet!)  into the earth.   
Damn my lack of scale!  This P. barbatus mound was 3 feet in diameter.
Again, lack of scale, but this P. occidentalis nest was quite noticeable from 100 feet away.
 Naturally, once I found myself standing over one of these mounds in awe, it was also hard to miss the large, red ants busily moving in and out of the mound.   
The Red Harvester (P. barbatus) hard at work.
More P. barbatus, apparently a darker form, ignoring my camera.
 There are 22 species of harvester ant in North America and 6 of these can be found in Kansas.  While it can be tricky to determine exactly what species of harvester ant you are looking at, there are a handful of characteristics (aside from the obnoxiously large mound) that can help you determine that you are definitely looking at a harvester ant.
  1. Harvester ants are noticeably large for ants, 5-10 mm (.2-.4 in)
  2. The commonly encountered harvester ants are dark, rusty red or red
  3. Harvester ants have large heads and formidable looking jaws
  4. If you look a little closer, you’ll notice that the ant’s abdomen is joined to the thorax by a noticeable “stalk” consisting of two segments.
  5. Before the two segments of the “stalk” start, there is a pair of bad-ass spikes!

See? Not so hard.  While these ants are large and intimidating, luckily they are not overly aggressive (at least in my experience so far).  However, the sting of the harvester ant can be quite painful, the venom affects the lymph system and lasts a long time.  Apparently harvesters are responsible for killing at least three small children in Oklahoma.  
"Dude, have you seen the pair of bad-ass spikes on my epinotum?"   "Yeah.  Hey, who's that jackass with the camera?"
 So why are these ants known as “Harvester” ants and not “large, intimidating, kill-you red/rusty-red ants”?  Well, that’s easy.  Harvesters primarily feed on the seeds of various grasses.  Ants actively forage, or harvest, grass seed and store them back at the nest.  Harvester ants also tend to clear away, or harvest, all vegetation surrounding their mounds, sometimes creating a mound clearing up to 7 meters (22.9 feet!) in diameter.  Additionally, I had my face/camera nary .3 meters (12 inches) from these ants the entire time I watched them bounce the weevil from “Club Pogo”.  I am unscathed.  I could not say the same thing if I had been .3 meters (12 inches) from a fire ant mound…more likely I would just be saying, “son of a B$%#&@!!!”.  To further support the idea that these ants are not overly aggressive and are quite content to chow down on grass seeds, a quick story. 
Once upon a time, the author (that’s me!) came upon a visible commotion at the entrance of a harvester mound.  Upon closer inspection, a few harvesters were observed to be grappling with a weevil a bit larger than any of the ants.  Surprisingly, the ants were not trying to drag the weevil into the dark depths of the mound, they were actually trying to eject the weevil from the mound itself.   The ants carried the stubborn weevil about ten inches from the mound opening and dropped it.   Immediately, the weevil scurried back to the opening and again was forced out by the ants.  The weevil did not attempt a third entrance into the mound but wandered off completely unscathed while the ants went back to the business of their harvest.  One (as in me) may wonder (repeatedly) if the weevil was interested in the ants' stored seed or if it was just trying to escape the sun.  Anyways, the ants and weevil lived happily ever after.
P. barbatus bouncers escort Scaphomorphus frontalis from "Club Pogo".
Scaphomorphus frontalis don't care.  Scaphomorphus frontalis has other things to do anyways.
  Go look at some ants!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Kansas Welcoming Committee...

I bet you were just sitting around wondering, "How the hell do you tell the difference between a Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans) a Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus) and a Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus)?"  Well, it has nothing to do with how they talk, that's for sure.  And what perfect timing you have; I was just sitting down to blog about this very subject.  

You see, while scavenging through a pile of cement rubble for border material for one of my new raised beds, I came across my first Kansas widow.  Immediately I exclaimed, "Awesome!  My first Western Black Widow!" (okay, maybe I didn't, but I thought it).   Moments later, however, that creeping little voice in my head reminded me that I have never actually bothered to learn the distinguishing characteristics between the three black widows possible in the U.S. and I that I didn't even have a clue about their range overlap.  BugGuide quickly helped me with this dilemma.  So, here is a quick summary of what I learned that will help me (and maybe you!) feel more confident in future black widow identifications. 

1. Referring to some BugGuide info and a few other internets resources, there is some degree of range overlap for the three species of widow. Though it seems like the Northern and Southern widows try to stay mostly Eastern. 
Range map for Western Black Widow
Confirmed occurrences (dark brown) of the Western Black Widow, courtesy of BugGuide
Range map for Southern Black Widow
Confirmed occurrences of the Southern Black Widow, courtesy of BugGuide

Range map for Northern Black Widow
Confirmed occurrences of the Northern Black Widow, courtesy of BugGuide

2. Dorsal markings are not as important for identification as I initially thought.  Southern widows tend to be all black overall (aside from the hourglass) at maturity.  Mature Western widows also gain an overall black or even "shiny brown" appearance.  Northern widows can apparently have a row of red spots and white bands dorsally even when mature.   However, all immature widows can show a huge variation in the presence and degree of dorsal red and white markings when immature.  Take these images for example:

I photographed this sizable specimen on top of Stegall Mountain in Missouri.   I am going to assume this is  a mature Northern widow, remember the thing about Northerns retaining dorsal red spots?
Stegall Mountain, Peck Ranch Conservation Area, Missouri
 This slightly smaller specimen found under some rocks displayed some really great dorsal markings.  I am going to assume again a Northern widow since I did not photograph its hourglass.
Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Columbia, Missouri
Now here is the specimen in question.  The Black Widow that inspired me to learn!  I'm going to call this one a Western widow.  You will see why in a second.
Immature Western Black Widow, Holcomb, Kansas
 3.  The HOURGLASS is very important!  Though one source sites exceptions to these general rules, the following hourglass specs can be useful in ID'ing widows.  Northern widows tend to have an hourglass marking that is not connected in the middle.  Western and Southern widows have connected hourglasses, however, in the Western widow, the two halves of the hourglass will be similar in size and shape.  The Southern widow will have an hourglass with the half closest to the abdomen tip almost rectangular in shape.  
Western Black Widow (specimen in question) hourglass, best I could get inside a clear container.

Black Widow - Latrodectus mactans - female
Southern Black Widow hourglass, Chris Wirth, BugGuide

Black Widow - Latrodectus variolus - female
Northern Black Widow hourglass, Chris Wirth, BugGuide
So, anyways, today I did meet my very first Western Black Widow (we'll see what the experts on BugGuide say....)!  I need more rubble for my garden...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fairwell to a Woodland Spring.....

A brief post for a brief break from loading the moving truck.  I find myself severely antsy for some  Springtime woodland rambling.  I also find myself quite sad to miss out on the fully awake Springtime woodlands.  Luckily, I have Springtime sand-sage prairie to look forward to.  That and the promise of an ample amount of space to install new vegetable and native flora gardens.

Anyways.  You know how I know Spring is (mostly) here?  A brief jaunt into the sleepy-eyed woodland last Friday revealed that the wild leeks are defiantly breaking through the cold ground.  

Wild Leeks, Allium tricoccum, a tasty indicator of Spring

In a couple of weeks my favorite Springtime harbinger would be blanketing the hillside with pungent, excellent-when-dried leaves for the picking.  When I located this population of leeks a few springs ago I opted to collect leaves rather than bulbs; the leaves are equally as flavorful and potent as the bulbs.

This is officially more leeks than you can shake a stick at.

 Additionally, one can tell that Spring is springing by the tiny spots of red moving all about the mossy rocks and trees in the woodland.  Velvet mites are out and about in force!
Velvet Mites, Trombidium sp., were out patrolling the moss in abundance

They look so soft.  I could easily fall asleep on a bed of velvet mites......

Luckily, I am too exhausted from moving boxes for 3 days to fully accept the fact that I will be heading for Kansas right before Morel season hits.  This was gonna be my motherload year, afterall!

Stop reading this and go play in the woods!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Cautionary Snow Tale

Not all winter storms produce cuddly snow creatures like giant ladybugs and yet-to-be-described species of morel.  Some storms bring forth creatures so vile that none dare speak their names.  This was the unfortunate case with Winter Storm Rocky.

The day started out as usual for any major snow event in Columbia, Missouri.  I woke to the faint sound of plows moving snow off the the main roads, leaving our sleepy little street untouched.  This sound was soon replaced with the whir and spin of various small vehicles stuck in the slush and ice outside of our apartment.  Winter Storm Rocky tried its best to show up Winter Storm Q, but fell slightly short.  Only once, in the wee hours of the snowy morning, did I hear the sound of Thundersnow.  An honorable attempt, however.

Winter Storm Rocky's meager offerings
As I said, the day started out as usual.  The dog, to his dismay, was walked and he decided quite firmly that there was no suitable real estate to properly conduct the business of the hour.

Marmaduke says "No way"
 There was a minor amount of snow hi-jinx and frolicking by the members of the household. 

Sarah, demonstrating proper snow-frolic technique
Anthony, full frolic

It was during mid-frolic that Winter Storm Rocky made its true intentions known.  The care-free snow-frolickers were set upon by a denizen-of-the-snow-so-vile-none-dare-to-speak-its-name (Dotssvndtsin, for short). 
The horror that is Dotssvndtsin

They say that a person who looks into the coal-black eyes of Dotssvndtsin is never the same again. 

Don't you listen?  Don't look directly into the eyes of Dotssvndtsin.
The frolickers put up a decent fight, but were no match for this snowy juggernaut of doom.
No amount of snow angels can protect one from the icy grasp of Dotssvndtsin.

Dotssvndtsin, impervious even to formidable winter weapons such as the snow shovel.

There is no telling when or where Dotssvndtsin may appear.  All it takes is a bit of snow and a dash of tree debris.  Some say the carrot nose is the key to the demise of the Dotssvndtsin, but nobody has ever lived long enough to test that theory.  Next time you are out in the snow, keep warm and watch your back...
No snow people or real people or dogs were harmed in the making of this blog.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thundersnow and Friends

Looks like I got my wish....and maybe even more than I wished for.   Winter Storm Q brought Columbia between 9 and 11 inches of snow (depending on who you ask).  However, this wasn't ordinary snow, this was THUNDERSNOW!  Winter Storm Rocky is following in Q's footsteps and may hit us Monday and Tuesday with a similar amount of (thunder)snow.  Until then, I will enjoy documenting some rarely seen denizens of the snow. Thundersnow?  Pshhh, check these out....

Perhaps the last morels I will see before leaving Missouri for the mushroom-less (I cannot even fathom such a thing) southwest Kansas.

The elusive Snow Morel, Morchella nix
Just before I discovered those beauties, I stumbled across this beast.
A giant Adalia bipunctata!  Waiting to challenge Godzilla, no doubt.
Maybe there is something to that Thundersnow after all.....

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lessons in Snow

Patiently awaiting the arrival of Winter Storm "Q", I find myself thinking about snow. 
More precisely, about Missouri snow.  My last experience with snow before moving to Missouri was approximately 20 years ago in Rhode Island.  Of course, 1992-me found the Rhode Island snow to be a most pleasing affair.  However, after a few winters here in Missouri, I've decided that it is definitely time to update my stance on the subject of snow.  
The novelty of snow definitely wears out quickly for the 2013-me.  Shoveling, scraping, earth-friendly salting, slipping, shoveling some more, getting my truck stuck in my own driveway, getting pulled out by a friendly neighbor and then slipping again, is not my idea of a "most pleasing" affair.  However, despite the tedium of snow for the 2013-me, I daresay snow has some at least partially pleasing aspects.

This winter has been quite mild as far as my Missouri winters go.  Definitely nowhere near the "Snowpocalypse" of winters past...

What a pain in the ass...

One of the countless victims of the "Snowpocalypse" - Columbia, Missouri

So mild I find myself actually hoping that we get some substantial snow from the approaching Winter Storm Q.  This brings me to the first positive thing I have to say about snow.  I was pleased to discover that snow can definitely make the drab winter scenery a little more interesting and even a bit dramatic.

Drab, green-less walk through the woods?  No need to fear, snow is here!

Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, a wee bit snowy.
Have you ever seen a more interesting set of stairs??

The dramatic and snowy crevasse into the Devil's Ice Box, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

The snow and slightly hidden icicles hanging off of this ledge make this drab, sunset-hour, winter woodland scene a tad (over?) dramatic.
Additionally, I would like to thank snow for inspiring me to enjoy many of the darker, richer styles of beer which have served to warm my bones on many a cold winter's evening.  The legendary "Snowpocalypse" is directly responsible for making me brew my first Russian Imperial Stout with the intention of enjoying them during subsequent "snowpocalypses" (I really want to say "snowpocali") which have yet to occur...

I still have a few bottles of this tasty Russian Imperial Stout ready to go at the slightest hint of another MSE (Major Snow Event).

Finally, did I mention that I like to build snowmen?  I think the 1992-me would find that to be "most pleasing" indeed.

Go build a snowman/woman/person!
So, I guess what I mean to say is that snow is alright by me (mostly, sometimes, very briefly).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Warm up a moment...

Well, it is a nice sunny day today, though still a bit too cold to enjoy the woods (for me at least).  Looks like tomorrow will be in the 50's; that might just get me out of the apartment.  In the mean time I find myself day-dreaming of warmer times...

Snorkeling in a little cove off of the Florida panhandle, perhaps...
Destin, Florida. Snorkeling in along this jetty was like being inside a salt water fish tank.
 Maybe just swimming in the black water of the Suwannee River...
Fargo, Georgia.  One of the two rivers to originate from the Okefenokee Swamp.

A lazy canoe trip along the Chipola River...

Cypress knees along the river, Florida Caverns State Park
Enjoying the smell of the pines while making my way through the flatwoods of the Okefenokee Swamp...
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, eastern entrance.

Or maybe just gazing out over the marsh with the rest of the birds...

Tybee Island, Georgia
There, not so cold anymore.