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critters

The skippers love them!

They sprang up by surprise along the edge of the garden. Four different daisies, all in a row. They came up from seeds, but where did the seeds come from? Each one is unique – three have purple flowers and one is white. One purple one (above) has those fun curled-in flower-petal tips.

Like dandelions, daisies are composite flowers. Each of the outer petals belongs to its own individual flower, and the purple and yellow center is also made of multiple flowers.

The brown and yellow skipper may look like a butterfly, but it is not technically a “true” butterfly. Skippers are about as different from butterflies as moths are. They are in the family Hesperiidae, (pronounced hes-per-EEH-ih-dae).

The big black and white skippers are in the subfamily Pyrginae, but this little critter is in the Hesperiinae (can you figure out how to say it?) along with about 50 other California species. These little yellow and brown lovelies are notoriously hard to ID, so I won’t even try. Most skippers in the Hesperiinae eat grasses as larvae.

Although they are smack up against the edge of the garden, the daisies look pretty here. They have been pruned back so that their branches will grow out into the garden, instead of across the gravel path.

I love the daisies at least as much as the skippers do!

There’s a nice big version of the skipper picture over at clear display blog, and you can get an even bigger tiff file by email. Just ask!

No, it’s not a giant mosquito, nor does it eat them! This is a crane fly, probably Tipula paludosa, which is an imported species from Europe. Since it arrived in North America it has spread widely, becoming one of the most common crane flies. However, there is a decent chance this is some other species of crane fly. There are more than 4,200 species described so far, and many of them are devilishly hard to ID.

Crane flies are some of the oldest flying insects. They were the first flies to evolve, some 225 million years ago when the very first dinosaurs were stomping around and the earliest mammals were trying to avoid getting stomped on. It is amazing that an insect as delicate as a cranefly could not only survive for 200 million years, but diversify into a family of more than 4,000 species worldwide.

Crane fly larvae are called leatherjackets because of their thick cuticle. Many kinds live in moist soil or leaf litter. If this one is T. paludosa, it might have grown up in the moist litter underneath the large bushes in the east corner of the garden.

Some kinds of leatherjackets are pests of lawns, gardens, and crops. Most are not. As adults, crane flies rarely eat. They are not favorites of insect collectors because they tend to drop their legs at the slightest hint of trouble. You can’t catch them in nets, you have to use a camera!

Discover Life has a nice page on Tipula paludosa. The Bug Guide has lots of pix of crane flies. There’s a crane fly article at Wikipedia. Nature Spot (England) has some nice pix of T. paludosa. And lastly, a blast from the past: when I was writing Cool Fact Of The Day for The Learning Kingdom way back in 1999, I wrote about crane flies.

She was flitting around in the sedge patch, maybe looking for just the right kind of long, thin, green, grassy leaves to tear into tiny strips and use in her nest. This is a sphecid wasp in the genus Isodontia, possibly I. mexicana, although we are a bit north of their normal range. These are commonly known as grass carrier wasps. There are a half dozen or so species in the US, all of which look very similar. To identify one of these little beauties right down to species, one might have to examine genitalia, body bristles or the exact arrangement of wing veins.

These shapely little wasps seek out small orthopterids (mostly crickets and katydid or grasshopper nymphs) which they paralyze with their sting and stuff into the nest, where their larvae can feed on them safely. Depending on the species, nests can be in vegetation or in burrows in the ground, sometimes in the abandoned burrows of other insects.

You can learn more about Isodontia grass carrier wasps at Discover Life’s page for the genus. There are also some nice pages with pictures at Bug Guide.

Taking good pictures of this lively predator was tough indeed, as she was constantly moving. The last shot was a lucky one, an action pose just at the split second she took off and flew away. Adios, little friend…

When I find a beetle I don’t recognize, usually the first book I open is Evans and Hogue’s beautiful beetle guide, which is part of the excellent series of California natural history guides from University of California Press.

Of the various beetle books in my library, this one seems to have the most comprehensive section of color photos, with more than 300 nicely composed images.

According to the blurb on the back cover, the book covers 569 of the 8,000 or so species of beetles in California, but almost all of the beetles I’ve found in the last few years can be identified by flipping through the color photos. Unfortunately (and this is my only criticism) the color plates do not include page numbers for the beetles illustrated, which means one must look up the species in the index to find the text description. Oh well, it only takes a moment to find the page.

If you love beetles as much as I do and you live in California (or even if you don’t!) this handy guide might become one of your most valued references.

If you choose to purchase Field Guide to Beetles of California (California Natural History Guides) through the Amazon link in this sentence you will be supporting my ecogarden work by adding a few shiny new pennies to my account balance.

It lurks among the flowers of the Swiss chard. This assassin bug waits quietly, alert and ready to pounce. It sees me, which makes it hard to photograph because it keeps moving around to the far side of the stalk. Like most predators, it has an intelligent, deliberate way of behaving.

This one is in the family Reduviidae (reh-doo-VEE-ih-day, Wikipedia), possibly related to the European species Coranus griseus (photo at Flikr by Joao Coelho), but most likely not the same species. Note the characteristic “hunchback” appearance and the spotted edge of the abdomen.

Assassin bugs are related to the non-predatory shield bugs (here’s a previous post about a shield bug).

Some can administer a painful, venomous bite with their piercing mouthparts. They violently attack their prey, which can be much larger than themselves, and subdue it with a poison bite. Then they suck out the prey’s inner fluids, leaving behind an empty shell.

These are vicious little hunters. Some assassin bugs even specialize on mammalian blood, including the notorious kissing bug of Mexico and the southwestern US, also in the Reduviidae (basic kissing bug facts from University of Arizona).

Several days after the first pictures were taken, this pair were discovered in a state of mutual … well, they were having a good time, no doubt. They were on this chard flower stalk all morning and all afternoon, and they were still together at dusk.

The next morning they had gone away.

Looking at insects like these, one might wonder at their form. From an evolutionary perspective, what is the advantage of the sharp-edged shoulder humps? Why are there prominent spots along the edges of the abdomen? Are these sexually selected traits like guppy colors or deer antlers? Do they serve some other function?

Assassin bugs like to hang out in flowers, waiting for… well, this little critter, for example, a flower fly in the Syrphidae who is happily eating pollen among the same chard flowers. I think this lucky one got away.

Look to this previous post for another flower fly.

Summer is here and my small patch of managed wilderness is bursting with life. Nestled between two apartment buildings, this little chunk of land has evolved a lot in recent months.

The biggest recent changes were the removals of two large sources of shade, exposing the garden to full sun during most of the day.

First, an old magnolia tree came out because the property owner did not like how its roots were rucking up the driveway. He had a good point, actually. Even though the tree was a noble and beautiful being, its sudden removal has changed the garden for the better, allowing many new plants to thrive in the greater light.

Above: The second removal was the large old cape honeysuckle that used to fully own a large section of the space. In this view from the balcony above the garden you can see the empty space it left behind, covered with a mixture of old magnolia leaves and seeded eco-compost. It was cut down to a stump because it was having a lot of trouble adapting to the new, sunny conditions. By cutting it down I pressed reset, and now the new growth will be properly shaped and adapted for the current conditions.

Above: In the center of the empty space, the stump of the cape honeysuckle sends up a mound of new green shoots. I’ll let it grow into a decent size bush, but it will not be allowed to take over the space the way it did before I chopped it down. I want to keep it, even though it is considered an invasive alien, because of how much the local hummingbirds love its orange-red flowers. Once it gets bigger, it will bloom again.

Meanwhile, the layer of magnolia leaves and seeded compost has begun to evolve into a new ecosystem. The leaves were there because of the old magnolia tree that was removed. Rather than scrape down to bare dirt, I decided to keep the leaves, letting them decompose naturally, mixed with the compost. Some people have told me “Magnolia leaves never decompose!” Watch and see, it’s already happening.

Although the summer sun on the thin layer of compost has prevented many sprouts from coming up, beneath the leaves are countless sheltered nooks and crannies where critters like sowbugs, snails, crickets, centipedes, and earwigs have taken up residence.

As the leaves decay, this open space will gradually fill in. Below: at the edges, various plants encroach by sending up shoots from underground runners.

Above: The main feature of the larger east section of the garden is this dense thicket, dominated by a purple flowering Salvia. It also contains trailing Nasturtium, several other species of smaller Salvia plants, and a large patch of rosemary (visible peeking out at the right). In the foreground, an avocado seedling pokes up.

At the base of the avocado seedling, a critter shelter has just been added. It’s just a few bricks and a paving stone, but it’s a dry place where snails, spiders, and others can find protection.

Critter shelters can also be made of wood, especially if the wood is old and rotting. In fact, an old rotting log is such a great critter house that one should be a part of every ecogarden. If it gets interesting mushrooms after the rain, so much the better!

Another great critter house can be made from a simple pile of rough, natural rocks.

Let’s look inside. There are a few snails in there and a couple of sowbugs, but not much else today. I have seen earwigs, centipedes, millipedes, and crickets. Last week there were four big female wolf spiders carrying egg sacs, but they ran away before I could photograph them.

If an ecogarden is located in contact with a natural area, the critter shelters could contain much more interesting creatures like frogs, toads, or newts. I doubt there will be any frogs in this one, but a newt might happen by.

Critter shelters are also located in several other places in this garden, some in the sun and some in the shade. They are important! Try to leave them undisturbed as much as possible.

All through the garden are many delightful little scenes, like this wild strawberry, mint and a rock in front of the bearded irises. Those sweet little berries were consumed by me immediately after this picture was taken. Yum!

Above: At the north end of the garden is the vine wall (a fence, actually) where many kinds of climbers compete for space. Right now the morning glory vines are blooming in this section. Because of the lush, dense foliage this vine wall is also a fantastic critter shelter.

Maybe this space is small, and maybe it looks like just another suburban garden that has been allowed to grow a bit wild, but for me this humble mini-landscape is nothing less than a small treasure, attracting butterflies, birds, and countless other wonderful visitors and inhabitants.

Watch these pages as my little ecogarden continues to grow and evolve!

Did you see the previous state of the ecogarden report? It happened after the magnolia was taken out, but while the big honeysuckle bush was still in place.

The old, classic post “what is an ecogarden?“has pictures of the garden before the magnolia tree was removed. At that time, there were still some large bushes owning much of the north half of the garden.

There’s also an upstairs container garden, whose state will be reported in a future blog post.

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It seems like there have been a lot of posts about flies lately, no?

When the post on turning the compost came together it was slightly frustrating not to have a good picture of a black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) (Wikipedia). Now a big beautiful female has posed for us on a runner bean leaf, so here is her portrait.

With their jet black wings, antennae, and body and brightly contrasting white leg segments, these rather large flies (as big as a large bean) are among the most distinguished looking insects in the garden. As adults, they do not eat – in fact, they have no functioning mouth parts. They are also surprisingly tame – they can often be picked up easily in the hand, where they might just walk around instead of flying away.

This female’s bulging abdomen is loaded with eggs. Now that she has mated and become gravid, her only goal in life is to find some nice organic matter where her babies can grow. Quite possibly her target will be our box of fresh kitchen scraps:

more fly posts:

two gorgeous flies

just an ordinary fly?

This healthy feverfew plant (Tanacetum parthenium) (Wikipedia) sprang up last winter from a random seed right at the end of the stone walkway. For months I didn’t know what it was – beautiful, finely divided leaves on a plant with a lush, balanced shape. It got bigger and bigger, as did my curiosity about it.

Now that it’s blooming, it has attracted a variety of tiny insects including thread-thin “looper” caterpillars that inhabit the flowers, eating only their petals. Also present, very small golden-brown metallic looking beetles – can you see the beetle on the upper right flower in the picture below?

Feverfew flowers also seem to be quite attractive to syrphid flies (flower flies). There are almost always two or three of them hovering in the air near the plant, or resting on the flowers.

Here’s a post with a picture of a syrphid fly.

There it is, resting on a leaf. Looks like an ordinary housefly, (Musca domestica), but it might not be. The family Muscidae (Wikipedia) includes about 450 species in California alone, and more than 4000 worldwide. Many of them share the familiar “housefly” appearance, with gray color scheme and dark longitudinal streaks on the top of the thorax.

There are also flies in the Calliphoridae (blow flies), Sarcophagidae (flesh flies) and Tachinidae (mostly parasitic flies) that have a similar appearance. It seems like the “house fly plan” is a fairly successful shape, size, and look for such insects.

Because there are so many species and they look so similar, identifying small, nondescript flies is one of the hardest things an entomologist might have to do. It might involve counting hairs, studying wing vein patterns, or examining their genitalia under a microscope.

No matter what kind of fly this is, it is welcome in my ecogarden.

Here’s another post about beautiful flies.