Mystery bug #1 Mystery Bug #2
What's that bug?
Have you ever found a cool bug in your backyard, tried to I.D. it, and been frustrated because you could not find it in any of your field guides, in a google image search, or even in BugGuide.net?
Do not despair, as you are not alone! As you may know, insects are the most numerous animal life form on the planet, comprising about 85% of terrestrial animals. Not only that, insects come in all shapes and sizes, and do magic called metamorphosis after being nymphs or molting their hard exoskeletons as they move through instars on their way to sexual maturity.
"Arthropods are a highly-successful group of invertebrate animals that includes insects, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, mites, horseshoe crabs, scorpions, and crustaceans. In terms of species diversity, arthropods are second to none. That there are in excess of one million arthropods species that have been identified by scientists and there are estimated to be many millions that have not yet been identified. Scientists estimate there may be a staggering 30 million species of arthropods alive today, the vast majority of which are insects."
The insect world is currently divided into 32 orders. The largest order, the beetles (Coleoptera), contains more than 370,000 species. Other major orders are moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera, 150,000 species), bees, wasps, and ants (Hymenoptera, 120,000 species), flies (Diptera, 100,000 species), and bugs (Hemiptera, 80,000 species).
To make mystery bug I.D. even harder, remember that all insects go through metamorphosis-which means that most of them look completely different from adults when they are in their immature stages as larvae and instars-making it quite a puzzle to identify them, since field guides and websites often only show images of the adult stages of many insects.
For example, take mystery bug #1, found by my friend Lorene in her West Seattle garden:
after three fails (which included an image search, googling "green ladybug", and BugGuide.net), I googled "Seattle pest insects" and found a P-Patch reference document from the Seattle Dept. of Neighborhoods, that told me all about the invasive Green Stinkbug, which were first reported in Seattle in 2014.
Bingo! Lorene's bug turned out to be the 5th instar stage of the Southern Green Stinkbug Nezara Viridula. She found this insect alongside lots of little tiny black bugs (2nd/3rd instar) on a Dalia leaf, never before seen in her garden.
Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus Philenor) life cycle stages
The thing to remember, when taking care of your backyard, is that often times immature stages of beneficial insects look very different from the adults. Be sure to be gentle when you are weeding and tidying up your garden for the winter, as many caterpillars overwinter in the grasses, leaves, shrubs, and woodpiles. These are your butterfly nurseries. If you do find a "pest" insect, such as the Green Stinkbug, please contact the Garden Hotline: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 206-633-0224.
Cloacal Kiss: Red-rumped swallows mating ©Narendra Pandit
"The birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees"...
Ah yes, spring! One of the questions many people have is how exactly do birds make babies?
Bird sex: to begin--most male birds do not have a penis
There are almost 10,000 species of birds and only around 3% have a penis. All of our male songbirds, eagles, hawks, gulls, cranes, owls, pigeons, hummingbirds and woodpeckers do not have a penis. Flamingos, penguins, and albatrosses have also completely lost their penises. Birds with penises include ducks, geese and swans, and large flightless birds like ostriches and emus.
In the kingdom of aves, 97% of male and female birds have what's known as a cloaca; the cloaca is a multipurpose internal chamber that ends in an opening used for discharging sperm or eggs. It is the only opening for the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts.
Springtime antics of songbird mating may include the male showing off his clever dance moves, singing repertoire, and feather displays, along with loop-de-loops, gifts of food or trinkets, and general lovebird tom-foolery. If the female is receptive, eventually she will land, shift her tail feathers to the side, and the male bird will swoop in for a swift tail-to-tail "kiss" as their swollen cloaca bump together for the transfer of sperm (above photo). If you have ever been lucky enough to witness the cloacal kiss, you know that if you blink you will miss it.
Our backyard birdhouses have housed many families of songbirds over the last 20 years, and this year we have a birdhouse full of tiny chickadees. YAY!
not my photos, credit goes to Bluebird Bet @ Sialis
Chickadees usually lay 6-8 dime-size eggs in a soft downy nest constructed by the female. Mother birds sit on their eggs for 12-13 days, and then for two weeks after they hatch, both parents work long hours to feed the voracious nestlings. We enjoy watching the adults fly in with a beak full of food, perch in the Stewardia tree and call, wing in to the "bee-peep" of the babies to deposit the grub, and then leave with a white fecal sack-keeping the downy nest clean and tidy.
Kristen Martyn, from Wild Birds Unlimited reported that "Research by Doug Tallajmy (entomologist at the University of Delaware) found that one pair of chickadees delivered food once every 3 minutes to their nest. Estimating that they forage during the hours of 6 am- 8 pm (entirely realistic during nesting season) means they make approximately 390-570 trips with insects to the nest each day. Hatchlings are in the nest for approximately 14-18 days. This number does not include the insects required once the young ones fledge, but are still cared for by their parents for another 1-2 weeks." That is a lot of worms, bugs, berries, and seeds! No wonder the parent birds are looking raggedy.
I am guessing that our nestlings are almost two weeks old, as we can see their tiny black heads as they peek out of the birdhouse. They will be fledging soon.
Can you spot our birdhouse nestled in the bay laurel?
Chickadees prefer a home that is 65% shaded and has an unobstructed flight path to the entrance.
In March I visited Hudson, Wisconsin and was amazed to see not just gray squirrels cavorting in the woods behind my mom's new home, but also a white squirrel. What the heck? Time for a bit of Inquiry research! (updated July 2019)
Nobody seemed to know too much about them--except that they were regulars in the neighborhood and they were considered to be (silver-haired) retired squirrels. Since then, my mom has spotted two white squirrels plus a black squirrel in her backyard, and I too have seen both versions on subsequent visits. I also was able to sneak up close enough to see the eye color of the white squirrel on my most recent visit, so...
I present to you my findings (and updates) and advice on:
Legend: the dots represent observations gathered from Citizen Science reports;
if you see a white squirrel, let Rob know by filling in this form.
Like this infographic? Here is a Copy for you ::
Rob Nelson, squirrelologist for Untamed Science, talks about his research and findings=enjoy
A Weed is but an Unloved Flower
If you'd like to delve a bit deeper, check out Weeds of North America by University of Chicago Press. "Dickinson and Royer provide much-needed background on these intrusive organisms. In the battle with weeds, knowledge truly is power. Weeds of North America is the perfect tool for gardeners, as well as anyone working in the business of weed ecology and control."
(and it will certainly keep me from weeding my front slope of dandelions for another week or two!)
With all this organic goodness happening in my yard, it saddens me to read that the EPA is refusing to ban the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos-even though the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the pesticide completely off the market last summer. The EPA is fighting that decision. "Several studies have linked prenatal exposure of chlorpyrifos to lower birth weights, lower IQs, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other developmental issues in children. But the EPA in 2017 ignored the conclusions of its scientists and rejected a proposal made during the Obama administration to ban its use in fields and orchards." Hawaii was the first state to pass a full ban last year. Now California, Oregon, New York and Connecticut are trying to do the same. I hope that they are successful and that this poison is fully banned from use soon.
Other bad news on the food front: from Carolyn Fortuna, PhD at Clean Technica
"It is becoming increasingly apparent that a yeast called Candida auris (C. auris) has resistance that is traceable to industrial agriculture’s mass application of fungicides. These chemicals approximate the molecular structures of antifungal drugs and that of many other fungi species. This yeast is killing immunocompromised patients in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes at a fast pace — up to 40-60% of those who suffer bloodstream infections now die in a month’s time. The reason for the rise in patient deaths is agricultural applications, which generate drug resistance across multiple human bacterial infections. This drug resistance kills 23,000-100,000 in the US annually. If you extend that death toll to global infections, we’re looking at 700,000 people worldwide." Read the full article
In 2013, Matt Jones, a doctoral student from Washington State University, approached dozens of West Coast produce farmers, both organic and conventional, with an unusual request. He wanted them to apply pig feces to broccoli fields to study whether dung beetles and other soil organisms were able to reduce food-borne pathogens.
While roughly 50 farmers declined, ironically because it introduced too much risk to their operation, the 43 farms that took part in the experiment helped demonstrate that greater biodiversity, including both dung beetles and soil microbial communities, suppressed E. coli and other harmful pathogens. In addition, a seven-day laboratory experiment revealed that two dung beetle species reduced E. coli numbers by over 90 percent and nearly 50 percent, respectively. Read full article here.
I still find it hard to believe that ANYONE thinks it is a good idea to use poisons to grow food. I say "Bring on the Dung Beetles!"
Be sure to pick up your copy of the Spring issue, which hits the stands this month. (You can also wait until it is published on their website in May/June.) Sneak Peek here: Hug a Horticulturist
Any guesses on what the magic ingredient for a beautiful low-maintenance parking strip might be?
Tonight is our first lunar eclipse of the year, and it's also the third super-moon in a row, so it should be quite spectacular. North Americans will not even have to stay up that late to see its magic-and our friends and family in the southern hemisphere will be witnessing this event with us too. Here is the time sequence for all my friends and neighbors here in the NW:
It seems that the original version was a love song to the birds that were often found not only in the backyards and woods, but also on the holiday tables of feasting families.
You will be familiar with the first seven choruses/courses, as they are the usual fare ; ^)
On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The partridge is a member of the pheasant family and has been a traditional game bird in England for centuries. The partridge referred to in the carol is most likely a Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) or English Partridge. Partridges are usually ground birds who feed on seeds and insects so we are not sure why it would be sitting in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me Two Turtle Doves
The Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) is a common summer visitor to England. It is a dainty dove, smaller and darker than most other pigeons but would have been featured in banquets in medieval times just as today we eat pigeon.
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me Three French Hens
There are a four well-known breeds of French hens; Faverolles, La Fleche, Crevecoeurs and Marans. Faverolles have superior egg-laying ability during the winter months so would make an ideal gift for someone's true love at Christmas.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Four Calling Birds
Most people interpret a calling bird as a song bird. However, the original song referred to "Four Colly Birds". The word colly means "black as coal or soot" so it is likely that the gift was four blackbirds (Turdus merula). We know that blackbirds were eaten in the past from the children's nursery rhyme "Four And Twenty Blackbirds Baked In A Pie".
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Five Gold Rings
The gold rings are not in fact pieces of jewelry as the literal meaning would have you believe but are actually ring-necked birds. These are most likely to be Common (Ring-necked) Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) which were introduced to England from China in medieval times. Pheasant is still a popular game bird eaten today.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Six Geese-a-Laying
The geese in this verse are probably domesticated birds so are likely to be the Greylag Goose (Anser anser), the ancestor of our domesticated geese. The Greylag Goose is a large, native British bird and is still traditionally eaten for Christmas.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me Seven Swans-a-Swimming
Nowadays Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are protected birds but there are many surviving medieval recipes for swans. One such recipe says that "Swan was quite often served as an ordinary dish, without the head......". Swan was roasted along with peacocks, storks and other birds that we would never consider eating today.
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Eight Maids-a-Milking
Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) are small birds with yellow or greyish legs and a yellow beak. As their name suggests, cattle egrets tend to live near cattle as the animals' hooves disturb invertebrate prey. They are visiting the UK in increasing numbers and we think they are an appropriate bird to represent the maids in the carol.
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Nine Ladies Dancing
Many birds perform dances particularly during courtship rituals. Although regarded by some as black, sinister and greedy, cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) have a distinctive bobbing stance when dancing which we think looks quite ladylike.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Ten Lords-a-Leaping
Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) are tall, with long legs, a long beak and grey, black and white feathering. To take flight a heron must leap into the air and when standing, hunched with their neck bent over their chest they look just like old men.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me Eleven Pipers Piping
Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos) make a distinctive three-note piping-like cry as they take off. It is a smallish wader with contrasting brown upperparts and white underparts. Sandpipers habitually bob up and down, known as 'teetering', and they have a distinctive flight with stiff, bowed wings.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Twelve Drummers Drumming
We think the best contender for the drummer is the great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). They spend most of their time clinging to the side of tree trunks and branches trying to hide from observers and predators although they will venture into gardens to feed at bird tables and feeders. The presence of a great-spotted woodpecker is often announced by its loud call or by its distinctive spring 'drumming' display.
I spent most of the 1980s and 90s in Alaska
flying airplanes, floating wild rivers, winter camping, raising a wild child, and living off the grid :^)
With my MAT in Advanced Inquiry for Biological Sciences, I've taught K-12 students from north of the Arctic Circle to the Puget Sound Ecoregion, garnering over thirty years experience as a classroom teacher, learning mentor, and private tutor.
Here in Seattle, I am an advocate for environmental stewardship, place-based education, and outdoor play. I share my enthusiasm for birds, bugs, and backyards as a writer/photographer for Pacific Horticulture.
All photographs © T. Byrne unless otherwise noted.