Thursday, August 13, 2015

Check Your Calendar

If you take a look at your phone you will see that your calendar is already well into 2016,  impossible as it seems.  You’ve probably scheduled LRN river cleanups, dentist appointments, birthdays, recitals, concerts, LRN Oyster Roasts, weddings - yes, her. again. - and on and on.  But for many in the class of pollinators we have been looking at, the calendar is genetic and 2016 is another generational brood.

Years ago, as part of a science project for our daughter, we harbored a praying mantis in our home.  “Manty” enjoyed pretty much the run of the house, but tended to stay near the plant where the crickets were delivered by the giants.  Eventually, Manty created her egg case (known scientifically by the delightful name ootheca) on one of our indoor plants and then, almost immediately, stopped eating.  No cricket would tempt her.  And that was that.  There was much inconsolable wailing at Manty’s operatic funeral, and she went to her rest in a cotton-lined box.

Such is the precision of this biological clock that whole sets of specialized predator species, such as this Great golden wasp, having done their work, vanish from the garden seemingly all at once.  This species this week, that one the next.  The end process for them all is very similar to that of Manty.  It is fairly quick.

Some of the smaller bees, especially where they exist in large numbers, do an enormous amount of pollinating because of the relatively large quantities of grains they accumulate on their legs and abdomens and transport throughout a flower population.
The two shown are a tiny sweat bee and longhorned bee.  Bee identification can be tricky and confusing, but there are fantastic online resources available.  Google Images and are a good place to start.  

Larger animals, including this cicada killer wasp, contribute relatively little to pollination in the scheme of things and more to helping control the cicada population.  These wasps can be found in abundance in places where annual cicadas emerge in large numbers.  When they stop by your garden they add a dramatic touch to the scene.

From a distance, many people would mistake this flower fly for some kind of bee, and that’s the idea.  Flower flies are noted for their specialized mimicry of bees and wasps which makes them less attractive to predators.  Some members of this class of flies remain functional year round in Lynnhaven watershed, becoming active whenever the temperature exceeds 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

You are likely to notice ants scurrying along on just about any flowering plant in your garden, but it is not thought that they actually contribute much to general pollination.
Bumblebees, on the other hand, distribute pollen from just about every part of their body, and a beautiful work environment.

Of course, everyone wants butterflies around.  If you have the space and the sunshine you can attract just about any species you want. Sulphurs are abundant and hardy and several swallowtail species - this is a Red-spotted Purple - like open shade, a situation very common in the neighborhoods along the river.

Latest from the Xerces Society:

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ospreys Keep their Iconic Place in the Lynnhaven

Most of us recognize the Osprey as a common bird hovering over the Lynnhaven, or nesting atop a channel marker or pole. It has made an amazing recovery from DDT, which caused numbers to plummet in the 1950's through the 1960's. (In fact, one of the largest risks to their current population is entanglement in twine, balloon line, and discarded fishing line- #bekindwithyourline, #bubblesnotballoons! Always properly dispose of fishing line.) The Osprey is a unique raptor with 99% of its diet coming from live fish, which means that it usually must live no farther than 12 miles from water and fish.

For the 3rd year, The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center and The Center for Conservation Biology at The College of William and Mary recently conducted a 2-month long Osprey survey of the Lynnhaven River identifying 98 nests. This is up from a recorded 62 nests in 2013, though not directly comparable, due to an increased survey area this year, but still good news for our Ospreys!

24 Osprey chicks from 12 nests were banded with a US Geological Survey uniquely numbered band on their right leg, and a Purple (for the Chesapeake Bay watershed) alpha-numeric band on the left leg. (In 1992, only 4 Osprey chicks were banded in 3 nests!)

Researchers believe one of the primary reasons for an increase in breeding populations is the building of nesting platforms. Of the 98 nests identified, 86 were on platforms and channel markers! The remaining 12 were on trees, mostly in First Landing State Park. Thank you to everyone who has been involved in building and maintaining these platforms in the Lynnhaven watershed - they are making a difference!

Thanks to Reese Lukei, Jr., Research Associate at the Center for Conservation Biology at The College of William and Mary and Crystal Matthews, Curator of Birds at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, for sharing your research with us!  These wonderful pictures were taken by Reese Lukei, Jr. as well.

Now, for some more fun pictures! 

Weighing in!

Sorry to wake you, sweetheart!

Adults have yellow eyes, juveniles have red eyes

Crystal Matthews holding a newly banded Osprey chick!

Blog post written by Trista Imrich, Restoration Coordinator, Lynnhaven River NOW

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Cast of Small Characters

Painted Lady: Even in a small outdoor space, such as the confines of our condo yard area and deck, you can, with a bit of thought and planning, attract a remarkable variety of pollinators and other interesting garden insects.  We have Joe Pye Weed in a large container. This dramatic blossom brings out the butterflies, such as this painted lady.  Bumblebees love it as well and I sometimes find them sleeping on it early in the morning right where they spent the night.

Golden Digger Wasp: If I could have five acres of oregano, I would.  If you let it run to flower, you will be visited by a delightful mob of charming and colorful freeloaders.  Wasps, such as this Golden Digger, go around and around the blossom clusters endlessly.

Carpenter Bee: When it rains they get wet.  This carpenter bee spent a long, cold night on our citronella following a recent, heavy downpour.  Many people mistake the large and common carpenters for bumblebees, but they don’t mind in the least what you call them.  If you have flowers that they like, they will stop by every day.

Paper Wasp: This paper wasp is of a different species from the one most commonly found on the large, gray nests you see under house eaves, but they are very similar in every way.  They are not at all aggressive and are very beneficial to gardeners because they dine on nectar themselves and hunt for small caterpillars to feed their ever-growing brood.

Fiery Skipper: If butterflies don’t make you smile then maybe you shouldn’t be gardening after all.  Skippers are common in this area, and fortunately the Fiery, like living origami, is one of the most routine you are likely to encounter.  They can be practically tame once they get used to your presence in their luncheonette, so you can see them up close and watch them fold and unfold with relative ease.

Scoliid Wasp |  Hairstreak Butterfly | Thread-waisted Wasp & Sand Wasp: Mention apple mint to some people and they will scorn you.  It runs.  It grows tired.  But during July and August, it serves as the meeting, greeting and eating place of many pollinators, both in numbers and in varieties.  It is not unusual to see two or more species dining in peace - or sometimes not - on the same flower head.  It’s comical to see a tiny leafcutter bee attacking a larger species, much like a mockingbird harassing a crow.

Black Wasp: Many people are frightened of bees and wasps, but the truth is they are generally no more interested in you than your teenagers are.  All they care about is what there is to eat.  In this area, the most aggressive species are the ground-nesting hornets, and they are primarily woodland dwellers.  Dangerous-looking species such as this large Black wasp will sting only if seriously provoked, and will most often use its wings to flee any contact.  Obviously, if you have any known allergies, then you should definitely keep your distance.

Green-eyed Wasp: Another plant I’d like to have planted in five acres is this beautiful flowering garlic.  Some of my more uncommon visitors, like this exotic Green-eyed wasp visit it - and not much else - during the season.  They are very striking animals, and extremely fast.  They can appear to disappear like a magician’s trick.  Keep in mind that where you live, meaning the surrounding habitat, has everything to do with which species can visit you.  But if you build your little garden with the right plants, they will find you, and as I have mentioned before, the insects you see next summer will be the offspring of the ones you fed this summer.

Guest writer: Robert Brown, LRNow Stewardship and Access Committee

Monday, July 13, 2015

You Never Know When a Thought Might Happen

At the beginning of the month I was on our patio getting ready to have dinner when a black wasp fluttered heavily past me carrying a bright green load that may have outweighed it by a little bit.  The wasp I recognized as a mason wasp, and the load it carried was the caterpillar larva of a small moth species.  Hunting wasps are not generalists.  They do not consume the insects they catch themselves, but rather provide them as the sole diet of their offspring in the nest.  Adults are fueled by nectar and pollen, hence their dual importance to gardeners: controlling insects that damage plants while aiding in the pollination of the flowers they visit.

Trying to keep track of her in order to possibly discover her nest, I found her alighted on a leaf of Joe Pye Weed adjusting her load.  Previously, upon capturing this prey, she quickly administered a series of stings to paralyze it, making it possible for it to be delivered as inert cargo to the nest and rendering it safe to inhabit the nest cavity with her tiny egg. (Imagine a softball placed next to a sofa for size comparison.)  Her body, like that of all hunting wasps, is adapted to the transport of their specific prey, but the loads are nonetheless awkward and heavy, some weighing more than the wasp itself and which in some cases have to be dragged overland to the nest site.  It is sometimes a fantastic feat of endurance and of instinctive perseverance.  

I had no luck tracking the wasp any further, but I did find myself suddenly seeing this process from a new angle.

In my reading on this subject over the years the life cycle of these particular wasps has become pretty familiar to me, and two bits of data from that reading struck me.  Following the hatching of the egg, the larva proceeds to consume the provision left by the mother completely. From that single meal throughout the entire metamorphic period - in total lasting up to ten months - the  maturing larva does not pass any waste into the chamber or cocoon. This function starts only after emergence in the adult form.  Essentially, the wasp winds up containing every single molecule of the caterpillar. In a manner of speaking, then, the female wasp, by supplying a copy of wasp DNA via her egg, has transformed a moth caterpillar into its own future predator.

I don’t present this as a metaphysical construct, but as an amazing and somewhat unusual example of the principle of conservation of energy running at very close to 100% in a biological system.  

Not all hunting wasps are this efficient.  The larva of those that hunt adult crickets and other hard-bodied prey do not consume the brittle structures such as wings and carapace shells, but though the conservation rates are slightly different, the idea is the same.  This family of  wasps and their specific prey are part of a very tight and interesting closed loop.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Armor your Shorelines & Prevent Erosion!

Shoreline erosion is the natural process of sediment displacement, but too much erosion can be damaging to almost all aspects of aquatic ecosystems, as well as to your property value. Erosion occurs when sediment such as rock or soil is displaced by both natural elements and anthropogenic activities - wind, water, boat wake and construction, etc

Figure 1: Muddy waters of the Lynnhaven River

Signs of erosion include bare soil areas lacking vegetationmuddy water, collapsing banks, and gradual shoreline retreat - all of which lead to decreased water quality and unhealthy ecosystems. See Figure 1 for erosion in the Lynnhaven River. 

There IS a solution to shoreline erosion!

"Living Shorelines"

Living shorelines are Virginia's preffered method of shoreline management (over bulkhead or riprap), and they are a creative and proven approach to protecting tidal shorelines from erosion. They do this by slowing down the erosion process and maintaining a sturdy shoreline. The technique usually consists of filling and grading the bank and planting native wetland plants and grasses, shrubs, and trees at various points along the tidal water lineAlong with the benefits of reducing erosion and property loss, living shorelines also increase biodiversity, improve water quality, and provide an attractive, natural appearance. To learn more about living shoreline benefits visit The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) "Shoreline Site.

If you think your property could benefit from a living shoreline, email Trista or call (757)962-5398 to set up a free consultation appointment at your property. (Living shorelines or other shoreline treatments usually require a permit from VMRC, and will not be ready for construction until the following spring.)

Here is an example of a recent living shoreline project
on the Lynnhaven River



Find more information regarding living shorelines and plans of action below!

For questions, comments or concerns - visit Lynnhaven River NOW or call (757) 962-5398

Blog Composed by Thomas O'Hara - Lynnhaven River NOW Intern

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Everybody Shows Up to the Party Hungry

Everybody Shows Up to the Party Hungry

This large leafcutter bee is a serious pollen magnet.  Most of it goes to feed her brood, but some, by chance, is transferred to the flowers it feeds on. Most pollen is not as large as that of these Indian Blankets.  If you have an area of full sun, these are terrific flowers to attract  pollinators.

In February when you were looking out the window at the snow and daydreaming about summer, June is the month you were probably imagining.  It is the “What is so rare as a day in” month.  By now most of your early annual flowers, bulbs and spring ephemerals, have bloomed and gone, but the big, sturdy summer blossoms are opening up and serving the vast insect public as meeting place, restaurant, cheap motel and nursery.

If you search around you’ll find orb weaver spiders, smaller than coriander seed, that by October will be the size of Concord grapes if your Carolina Wren doesn’t find them first.  You’ll find nymphs of all sorts, from leafhoppers to katydids. Some of these creatures bear no resemblance at all to the adult, but some do appear strikingly similar in form to their parents.  Caterpillars begin to munch your delicious herbs and tender leaves, and paper wasps begin to munch the caterpillars in order to feed their brood.  Nothing is safe out there. 

June brings in the “solitary” hunting wasps which have spent the last 10 months in burrows which their mothers dug for them the previous summer. Their life cycles are very similar to the mining bees I have described in a previous entry, with the notable exception of the type of provision they make for their offspring.

  The sand wasp is one of the earliest of the solitary hunting wasps to emerge, 
                                        normally around the beginning of June.  The females of this species have                                                    relatively long lives that last well into July.

These wasps emerge around the end of May and spend a few weeks eating nectar, finding mates, and maturing, after which the females settle down to the hard work of being a single mother. (For the males, this is a delirious, festive period, like spring break in Cancun, except they never make it back to class. In the insect world, this is by no means an uncommon fate for the boys of summer.) When fully matured, the females generally dig tunnels in the same area where they were born. This is normally a barren, sunny place also busy with other wasps of the same species nearby doing the exact same thing.  These animals are communal, but not social in the way paper wasps are.  Each adult is responsible for her own nest entirely.   

Not coincidentally, their arrival is timed to coincide with the maturing of the nectar-rich blossoms they require for energy, which they in turn help pollinate, and the maturing of the prey they hunt to provide for their future young.  Each type of hunting wasp recognizes only a narrow range of prey species, be it cricket, katydid or caterpillar.  You might think of these  wasps as the prom queens of pollination: beautiful, athletic, and, without knowing it, ruthless.  We will check back in on them in July when the dance is in full, mad swing.

Pollination is not something insects do on purpose. This little Eastern
bumblebee is ensuring the next generation of clover while at her task
of gathering nectar and pollen to feed herself and her growing young.

June is also the happy month that the little Eastern Bumblebees becomes your garden companions, almost like small yellow-and-black puppies. Unlike honeybees, which have armies of people and wheelbarrows full of  dollars working on their behalf, bumblebees of all types are in trouble to one degree or another due to habitat loss and chemical interference.  Most of their help comes from individuals, who garden with them in mind, together with scattered, small organizations who work on their behalf.  Bumblebees are generalists, but it’s easy to find out what flowers they prefer and all kinds of excellent information is available at the link below.  Don’t want to read any more?  Grow hyssop!  Grow salvia!  Grow sunflowers!  (Who knows, maybe the Tour de France will ride by.)   

The wonderfully named Fiery Skipper is just one of the butterflies you
can attract with just a simple, compact garden. Butterflies pick up
pollen on various parts of their anatomy and carry it on to the next 
flower they visit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Native Pollinators: Part 3 - The Merry Merry Month

Many people never think of paper wasps as pollinators, but many species are.  This is Polistes annularis, a relatively common woodland/suburban resident.  In addition to foraging for nectar, they also hunt small insects and caterpillars.
One way to think of May is that it is August in reverse.  Cinco de Mayo and cinco de Augusto are, in terms of the length of the day and the angle of the sun, equidistant from the summer solstice.  May is the final meteorological month of spring, no matter what the Julian calendar claims, and nature knows it.
Meet the Gray Bee Fly, one of May's little zooming gems.  Like many of the nectaring fly species, they are able to hover and change flight angles in seemingly impossible ways.
Those earliest bees, such as certain species of Andrena mentioned previously, have already built and provisioned their nesting tunnels and passed on.  Their progeny will now use the long warm weeks to nibble the pollen and honey cakes their mothers have prepared and left them. In this way they pass through their various larval stages and fatten themselves up for the long pupal stage and final metamorphosis. These latter transformations take place during the cold months. Every calorie required for this process is left them in those amazing honey cakes and these offspring will not see daylight for another ten months.  But Mom thought of everything.
"Variegated fritillary" is not just fun to say, it is also a real animal and a close cousin of the rock star Monarch butterfly.  The butterflies that show up in spring are the ones that spent the winter as a chrysalis.  These adults reproduce to give rise to an intermediate, summer generation.  Some butterfly species generate several "intermediates" prior to winter, though many are very long-lived as individuals.
This life-cycle story is similar for most of the solitary bees no matter when they emerge during the season, and no matter where they nest.   
From a distance, this syrphid fly resembles a honeybee.  As a defensive mechanism, many syrphid (flower) flies are amazing mimics of other species of bees and wasps, difficult to distinguish even up close.  Hard-working syrphids tend to be generalists in their nectaring habits, making them useful to many plants.
May ushers in the era of the big, long-lasting blossoms which require a good deal of light, heat and water to fuel their slow development. The myriad insects that inhabit and animate the summer also begin to emerge.  Right now is a good time to hunt around your garden for the larval forms of insects such as ladybugs.  These larva are beneficial in that they prey on the same aphids as their parents.  Bees and flies still predominate the pollination scene in May, but the paper wasps are busy crafting their durable, papyrus nurseries, and mature beetles, butterflies and moths can now begin to depend on the blossoms they require for nutrition and find the host plants they need for reproduction.  May is also an excellent time to tune up your native bee spotting and identification skills.  It’s not too hot and your garden has not yet been chewed, sawed, blighted and roasted.  It’s lovely out there.
A water source is an important constituent of any garden setting. Paper wasps need water to create their papyrus, but other insects require fresh water as well.
There are mining bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, large and small carpenter bees, cuckoo bees. mason bees, digger bees and all sorts of highly specialized bees that only nectar on specific plants.  It is neither as bewildering as it might seem and much easier than you might suspect.  If you have some native, flowering plants or a small assortment of flowering herbs such as dill, catnip, oregano, thyme or basil, you don’t need to go chasing the beautiful pollinators, let these plant bloom and they will come to you.  All you have to do then is pay a little bit of attention to when the insects show up, pull up a chair and enjoy the show.
Slow-flying butterflies are easy targets for predators such as birds, but their wings provide some defense by tearing easily without impairing the rest of the animal.  I have seen butterflies with heavy damage to both wings still managing to go about life. This is a Red-spotted Purple Swallowtail.
But really, when all is said and done, you don’t have to name them or classify them or count them or even notice them for that matter.  What matters is that you create a space where they can thrive and let them do their timeless work.  In the garden shop, look for plants that attract butterflies and bees.  And I am not a “native” absolutist by any means.  If the insects like it, it’s part of the solution. 
Not all natives, such as this stinging spurge nettle, belong in your garden, but left where they do belong they support pollinators of all sorts, such as this Palamedes Swallowtail.  The Palamedes is the most common woodland swallowtail seen throughout the spring and summer in First Landing State Park.
Guest writer: Robert Brown, LRNow Stewardship and Access Committee