So Cal Alert: Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer

fusariumdieback

Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer, from UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab

Seems the greater LA area is ground zero for the introduction of yet another exotic beetle which is killing our our beautiful native oaks and sycamores, our landscape trees, even our beloved avocado trees.

The good news is that the fungal disease propagated by the beetle can be treated if detected early. You’ll need the services of a professional arborist, but the cost of treatment will likely be less than the cost of tearing out a mature tree.

Look at this link to UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab. Here they have several PDFs on identifying and treating the disease. They also have a map showing the spread of the disease. Of course, these are only reported infections–it could be much more widely spread.

(Note: a separate invasion was recently detected in the commercial avocado groves of San Diego county, so folks further south should be on alert too.)

Continue reading…

Haint Blue

blue

In the wake of our recent discussion of scrub jays and paper wasps, Donna, one of our regular readers, tipped me off to the Southern tradition of painting porch ceilings haint blue to discourage nesting insects — and restless spirits (“haint” derives from “haunt”) — from making themselves at home in our living spaces.

Haint blue is not a single shade of blue, but refers rather to a blue used for this purpose. The actual color could run from soft powder blue to true sky blue to bright teal.

While the cool, airy white porch with a blue ceiling speaks to elegant Victoriana, I’ll note that the practice probably does originate in the traditions of the Gullah or Geechee people, brought to this country as slaves. They’d mix up lime paint in various shades of blue and paint not only their ceilings, but around doors and windows–around every opening into their home, to protect themselves from evil spirits.

I spent a little time ( a very little time, admittedly!) looking for some solid historical writing on this haint blue business, but found nothing but hearsay. The same basic info seems to be distributed all over the Internets,  which means the resource pool is pretty small, or pretty shallow. Nonetheless, I think the idea of a blue porch ceiling very appealing, if for no other reason than it extends the open sky into our living spaces.

All this business is novel to me, a Westerner born and bred, but perhaps some of our readers from the South will have comments or experience with haint blue?

In the meanwhile, our front porch is overdue for painting, and I think I’ll try a blue ceiling this time. I’ll let you know what the wasps (and spirits) make of it.

For more information, the good folks over at Apartment Therapy have a post which covers the basics of what the Internet knows about haint blue:

Pretty and Practical: The History of “Haint Blue” Porch Ceilings

And Donna’s original comment pointed to this show, called You Bet Your Garden.

Thanks, Donna!

Of paper wasps and scrub jays

paper wasps

Another wasp colony, this one on our shed, probably related to the destroyed colony.  It’s a little blurry because I had no desire to get up in their business to take a better photo.

Stinging insects tend to send people into panic, especially if they’re yellow and black striped. After years of keeping bees, we’ve come to learn that many people can’t distinguish a honey bee from a yellow jacket from a wasp–and we won’t even start on the native bees. Yet it pays to be able to do so, because each is quite different, and we can interact peaceably with all of them if we know their ways.

Paper wasps, also called umbrella wasps, are those guys who build smallish, open celled nests in protected places, often the eaves of your house. Wasp stings are quite painful, but few people know that these wasps rarely  attack unless provoked. More, they are very beneficial in the garden, because they prey on insects which damage plants. So when they build nests under our eaves, we leave them alone, and never have any problems.

But keep in mind that they do have excellent facial recognition abilities, so if you ever hassle them (say with a hose set to the jet setting) they may not forget you so quickly.

With wasps, it pays to be diplomatic.

Unless you are a scrub jay.

Aphelocoma_californica

Western scrub jay, courtesy Wikimedia

I saw this amazing drama earlier this week. I wish I could have captured it on film. We had a small wasp nest in the corner of our patio roof. From my place on the living room sofa, I could see this corner through the front door. One fine morning a bold western scrub jay came to rest on our porch railing, then swooped upward and plucked a wasp off the nest and gobbled it up.

I was very impressed. I had no idea they ate wasps.

She ate a second wasp, delicately picking it apart on the railing, looking very self-satisfied. I thought the show was over, but it turns out she was just enjoying appetizers, because next she launched up and took the entire nest in her beak–random wasps still attached– and flapped off with it into the clear blue sky. Perhaps to enjoy the creamy center in privacy–or perhaps to feed her babies?

One wasp returned to sit forlornly in the place where the nest used to be.

I don’t often use the term bad ass, but that was bad ass.

And the moral? If you don’t want paper wasps in your eaves, do your best to attract birds to your yard. Especially brassy thieves like jays.

Here is a little bit more on paper wasps from the ever-useful Xerces society.

Behold the Ant Lion

Antlion_trap

Speaking of astonishment, I learned something new last weekend, and I love learning new things, especially things which remind me of how strange and wonderful the world is.

Have you ever heard of an ant lion or antlion?

I was out tracking with the lovely Channel Islands Tracking Team (if you live near Ventura, CA and want to learn how to track animals for fun, look them up). We were under a tagged-up bridge, in a dry river bed.  Someone pointed out a hole or divot in the sand and quizzed us: what made the hole?  I had no idea. It was a divot that could have been made by a big man’s thumb. I might think it was made by dripping water, if there was ever any water anywhere in this dry land.

The answer was “ant lion” —  and I was the only one among them who did not know the answer. Ant lion??? It was such as strange conjunction of terms  (see jackalope) that I thought they were pulling my leg. When I got home and checked the Internets, I realized that, as always, truth is stranger than fiction.

The name ant lion is a simple translation of their genus name, Myrmeleon– “ant-lion”.  Ant lion because they eat ants rather fiercely. This activity, and so the name, only applies to the larval stage of the insect. The larvae are also sometimes called “doodlebugs” in North America because of the linear, wandering trails they leave in the sand when not killing ants. Ant lions are found all over the world, in any region which has a dry, warm climate–and sandy soil.

Dry sand is necessary for their predation style. They dig holes in which to capture their prey. The hole I saw, like the hole above, is called a lion ant trap. (And a wicked trap it is! Arrggg matey!)

What dug the hole?  This:

Antlion1_by_Jonathan_Numer
This is an ant lion in its larval stage. And believe me, there are scarier pictures of these guys on the Internets, but none free of copyright restrictions. Go look at them if you’d like to have nightmares.

So, this creature digs sand pits and hides in the bottom of them waiting for a hapless ant to wander by. The ant slips on the crumbling edge of the pit and tumbles in. The ant lion is waiting in hiding at the bottom and may grab the ant when it first falls. If the ant  is lucky enough to regain its feet and start out of the hole, the ant lion kicks sand at it, barraging the ant with heavy fire until it slides back down to the bottom of the death pit and is caught in those fearsome pincher jaws. There is no escape from the ant lion.

Cunning. Efficient. Voracious. This is the ant lion. This is a baby ant lion, the larval stage. It makes you shudder to think what it’s like when it’s grown up, right?

Behold the adult ant lion:

Distoleon_tetragrammicus01

It looks like a damselfly or dragonfly but is not related to either. The adult ant lion is sometimes called an antlion lacewing. They are not much seen by humans, because despite those beautiful wings, they are weak fliers, and mostly lurch around in the bushes at night trying to find another bumbling antlion, so they can mate. In the daylight hours they rest on branches, where they are well camouflaged.

From pinchered, death pit-digging predator to delicate, bumbling, romance-seeking nectar drinker. You just never know where life will take you.

424px-Antlion_life_cycle.svg
 

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for all of the photographs in this post.

How many ladybugs can you find? The Lost Ladybug Project

Ladybird_coccinella_septempunctata

image courtesy of wikimedia commons

We linked to this project in our last link roundup, but I though it deserved its own post. The Lost Ladybug Project is a citizen science initiative out of Cornell University asking people all over North America to identify and report ladybugs they see in their area, so that these sightings can be mapped and collected in a database. Apparently some sketchy things are going on with our ladybug populations (as if the whole bee thing isn’t traumatic enough) and they’re trying to get a handle on it. From their website:

Across North America ladybug species composition is changing.  Over the past twenty years native ladybugs that were once very common have become extremely rare.  During this same time ladybugs from other parts of the world have greatly increased both their numbers and range. This is happening very quickly and we don’t know how, or why, or what impact it will have on ladybug diversity or the role that ladybugs play in keeping plant-feeding insect populations low.  We’re asking you to join us in finding out where all the ladybugs have gone so we can try to prevent more native species from becoming so rare.

arggh…

But still….ladybugs!!!  Check out their website. It looks like a fun thing to do, for both kids or grownups. Part of the fun is learning to tell the difference between the different types of ladybugs. There’s lots of educational resources for homeschoolers and teachers. And yes, there’s even an ap for it.

It might be a little late in the year for the best counting, but I’m going to go out in the garden and see what I can find.

What is that black and orange bug in my garden?

4 bugs

The suggestions on a recent “what’s this bug? post on this blog made me realize how hard it was to tell apart several common garden bugs: the harlequin bug, the bagrada bug, the milkweed bug and the boxelder bug. They are all flattish, orange/red and black, under an inch long, and seem to always be mating.

After doing the research, I really wanted to see all the bugs side by side, so I made this picture and this simple reference chart. It is now my gift to you. You are welcome.

Continue reading…

In Defense of the Paper Wasp

Paper wasp building a nest. Image: Wikimedia.

Paper wasp building a nest. Image: Wikimedia.

I really don’t like gardening advice that divides the natural world into lists of good and bad bugs. From nature’s perspective all creatures have a role, even the much despised paper wasp.

Paper Wasp Biology 101
Wasps perform important duties: some wasps eat other insects, other wasps are scavengers, acting as nature’s garbage disposers. That’s not to say that wasps don’t earn some of their bad reputation. I’ve found that, unlike honey bees, they can sting without much warning. And their sting is sharper, reminiscent of the unpleasant after-burn of cheap booze.

The wasps I see the most around our house are paper wasps (family Vespidae and probably of the genus Polistes, though there are many different kinds of paper wasps). Paper wasps like to build their small nests under the eaves of the house. Their diet consists of caterpillars, flies and beetles—anything that eats those kinds of bugs are a friend of mine. Nests consist of around 30 to 40 wasps–workers, queens and drones. They are much less aggressive than hornets and yellowjackets.

How I stopped worrying and learned to love the paper wasp
Of course, sometimes paper wasps build nests where we don’t want them. A neighbor was having her house painted a few years ago and called me over to remove a nest of paper wasps. I put on my beekeeping suit and pulled the nest off the eave of the house only to discover that you can’t move paper wasps. They just flew back immediately to where their nest had been.

Wasps don’t like scented products such as perfume, cologne, aftershave or hairspray. Come to think of it, if I were a wasp I’d sting people over this stinky stuff, particularly at the gym. But I digress.

Concluding rant
I suppose there are legitimate reasons to kill the occasional nest, but I wish more people knew the important role wasps play in our gardens.

And we really need teach everyone to tell the difference between wasps, honeybees, yellowjackets, hornets and bumblebees. You wouldn’t confuse an iPhone with and Android.

Fortunately, UC Davis has a video:

Black Widow or False Black Widow?

some kind of widow spider

I have a family of widow-type spiders living in my outdoor worm bin. I like spiders and all they do around the garden, and have a no kill policy toward them in general. This particular situation, however, has had me a teeny bit nervous. They hang out on the underside of the lid of the worm bin for the most part, though I’ve seen them on the surface of the worm compost once or twice. Obviously my concern is that I will touch one when opening or closing the bin, or while burying my kitchen waste.

Believing these spiders to be black widows, my options have been either to be very attentive while around the worm bin–or to roll out the vacuum. So far I’ve opted for being careful.

The thing about these spiders is that they lack the identifying spots on their abdomens, but I remembered being told somewhere that not all types show the red marks, and that males never do. Was this true? Were there other types of spiders that looked like this? After weeks of tip-toeing around the worm bin, I finally got around to doing some research. My conclusions are not conclusive, so I’m coming to you, dear readers, for help.

Wikipedia’s entry confuses me a bit:

Not all adult black widows exhibit the red hourglass on the ventrum underside or top of the abdomen — some may have a pair of red spots or have no marking at all. Female black widows often exhibit various red markings on the dorsal or top side of the abdomen, commonly two red spots. However, black widow young are believed to have at least some sort of marking on their abdomens. Adult male black widows are half the size of the females, and are usually gray or brown rather than black and red; while they may sometimes have an hourglass marking on their ventral abdomen, it is usually yellow or white, not red. Variation in specifics by species and by gender is great; any spider exhibiting a red hourglass or a pair of large red round spots on the ventral abdomen with an otherwise black shiny body is an adult female black widow.

Here is how I read this: Not all adults display an hourglass…but females often display some sort of red mark. Young and males may or may not have some kind of mark, but not red…but be careful! Variations by species and gender are significant. If you see a black spider with red markings, be very, very afraid. That there is definitely a female black widow. But really, there’s no guarantees here that other less flashy spiders aren’t some kind of dangerous, either.

This is not reassuring.

But then on the handy page Frequently Encountered Spiders in California, I learned about the False black widow.

Another European invasive, this spider seems to be displacing our native black widows in urban areas.  This spider is roughly the same size and shape as a black widow, but is brown with a faint purple sheen.

I like this false black widow option a lot. The false widows don’t have a dangerous sting.

The spiders in my box are pretty shy, but insofar as I can tell, they are all sort of an eggplant color–not that true, bad-ass black of a classic widow. Nor have I seen any red marks. (That doesn’t mean that big mama with her red marks isn’t hiding somewhere.)

So, from this not-so-great photo, can anyone tell me if this particular spider might be a false widow, Steatoda grossa, or a male black widow, Latrodectus hesperus? It’s about 1/2 inch in size.

UPDATE 5/10:  After reviewing the evidence, I believe this is a false black widow. However, my trouble are not over, because it turns out that they do have a venomous bite, apparently somewhat like a mild black widow bite. Here’s the bite intensity scoop according to UC IPM: black widows: obviously bad; brown widows: mild; false black widows: moderate.