Only fools mess around with bees, wasps, and hornets as they collect nectar and go about their business while visiting flowering plants. Relentlessly curious predators and other trouble makers quickly learn that patterns of white, yellow, or orange contrasting with black are a warning that the pain and anguish of being zapped with a venomous sting awaits those who throw caution to the wind. Through the process of natural selection, many venomous and poisonous animals have developed conspicuously bright or contrasting color schemes to deter would-be predators and molesters from making such a big mistake.
Visual warnings enhance the effectiveness of the defensive measures possessed by venomous, poisonous, and distasteful creatures. Aggressors learn to associate the presence of these color patterns with the experience of pain and discomfort. Thereafter, they keep their distance to avoid any trouble. In return, the potential victims of this unsolicited aggression escape injury and retain their defenses for use against yet-to-be-enlightened pursuers. Thanks to their threatening appearance, the chances of survival are increased for these would-be victims without the need to risk death or injury while deploying their venomous stingers, poisonous compounds, or other defensive measures.
One shouldn’t be surprised to learn that over time, as these aforementioned venomous, poisonous, and foul-tasting critters developed their patterns of warning colors, there were numerous harmless animals living within close association with these species that, through the process of natural selection, acquired nearly identical color patterns for their own protection from predators. This form of defensive impersonation is known as Batesian mimicry.
Let’s take a look at some examples of Batesian mimicry right here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Suppose for a moment that you were a fly. As you might expect, you would have plenty to fear while you spend your day visiting flowers in search of energy-rich nectar—hundreds of hungry birds and other animals want to eat you.
If you were a fly and you were headed out and about to call upon numerous nectar-producing flowers so you could round up some sweet treats, wouldn’t you feel a whole lot safer if you looked like those venomous bees, wasps, and hornets in your neighborhood? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun to look scary—so scary that would-be aggressors fear that you might sting them if they gave you any trouble?
Suppose Mother Nature and Father Time dressed you up to look like a bee or a wasp instead of a helpless fly? Then maybe you could go out and collect sweets without always worrying about the bullies and the brutes, just like these flies of the lower Susquehanna do…
FLOWER FLIES/HOVER FLIES
So let’s review. If you’re a poor defenseless fly and you want to get your fair share of sweets without being gobbled up by the beasts, then you’ve got to masquerade like a strongly armed member of a social colony—like a bee, wasp, or hornet. Now look scary and go get your treats. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
With nearly all of the Neotropical migrants including Broad-winged Hawks gone for the year, observers and counters at eastern hawk watches are busy tallying numbers of the more hardy species of diurnal raptors and other birds. The majority of species now coming through will spend the winter months in temperate and sub-tropical areas of the southern United States and Mexico.
Here is a quick look at the raptors seen this week at two regional counting stations: Kiptopeke Hawk Watch near Cape Charles, Virginia, and Second Mountain Hawk Watch at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.
During coming days, fewer and fewer of these birds will be counted at our local hawk watches. Soon, the larger raptors—Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Golden Eagles—will be thrilling observers. Cooler weather will bring several flights of these spectacular species. Why not plan a visit to a lookout near you? Click on the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page for site information and a photo guide to identification. See you at the hawk watch!
What’s all this buzz about bees? And what’s a hymanopteran? Well, let’s see.
Hymanoptera—our bees, wasps, hornets and ants—are generally considered to be our most evolved insects. Some form complex social colonies. Others lead solitary lives. Many are essential pollinators of flowering plants, including cultivars that provide food for people around the world. There are those with stingers for disabling prey and defending themselves and their nests. And then there are those without stingers. The predatory species are frequently regarded to be the most significant biological controls of the insects that might otherwise become destructive pests. The vast majority of the Hymanoptera show no aggression toward humans, a demeanor that is seldom reciprocated.
Late summer and early autumn is a critical time for the Hymanoptera. Most species are at their peak of abundance during this time of year, but many of the adult insects face certain death with the coming of freezing weather. Those that will perish are busy, either individually or as members of a colony, creating shelter and gathering food to nourish the larvae that will repopulate the environs with a new generation of adults next year. Without abundant sources of protein and carbohydrates, these efforts can quickly fail. Protein is stored for use by the larval insects upon hatching from their eggs. Because the eggs are typically deposited in a cell directly upon the cache of protein, the larvae can begin feeding and growing immediately. To provide energy for collecting protein and nesting materials, and in some cases excavating nest chambers, Hymanoptera seek out sources of carbohydrates. Species that remain active during cold weather must store up enough of a carbohydrate reserve to make it through the winter. Honey Bees make honey for this purpose. As you are about to see, members of this suborder rely predominately upon pollen or insect prey for protein, and upon nectar and/or honeydew for carbohydrates.
We’ve assembled here a collection of images and some short commentary describing nearly two dozen kinds of Hymanoptera found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the majority photographed as they busily collected provisions during recent weeks. Let’s see what some of these fascinating hymanopterans are up to…
LEAFCUTTER AND MASON BEES
BUMBLE BEES, CARPENTER BEES, HONEY BEES, AND DIGGER BEES
YELLOWJACKETS AND HORNETS
We hope this brief but fascinating look at some of our more common bees, wasps, hornets, and ants has provided the reader with an appreciation for the complexity with which their food webs and ecology have developed over time. It should be no great mystery why bees and other insects, particularly native species, are becoming scarce or absent in areas of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed where the landscape is paved, hyper-cultivated, sprayed, mowed, and devoid of native vegetation, particularly nectar-producing plants. Late-summer and autumn can be an especially difficult time for hymanopterans seeking the sources of proteins and carbohydrates needed to complete preparations for next year’s generations of these valuable insects. An absence of these staples during this critical time of year quickly diminishes the diversity of species and begins to tear at the fabric of the food web. This degradation of a regional ecosystem can have unforeseen impacts that become increasingly widespread and in many cases permanent.
Editor’s Note: No bees, wasp, hornets, or ants were harmed during this production. Neither was the editor swarmed, attacked, or stung. Remember, don’t panic, just observe.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
Tropical Storm Ophelia has put the brakes on a bustling southbound exodus of the season’s final waves of Neotropical migrants. Winds from easterly directions have now beset the Mid-Atlantic States with gloomy skies, chilly temperatures, and periods of rain for an entire week. These conditions, which are less than favorable for undertaking flights of any significant distance, have compelled many birds to remain in place—grounded to conserve energy.
Of the birds on layover, perhaps the most interesting find has been a western raptor that occurs only on rare occasions among the groups of Broad-winged Hawks seen at hawk watches each fall—a Swainson’s Hawk. Discovered as Tropical Storm Ophelia approached on September 21st, this juvenile bird has found refuge in coal country on a small farm in a picturesque valley between converging ridges in southern Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Swainson’s Hawks are a gregarious species, often spending time outside of the nesting season in the company of others of their kind. Like Broad-winged Hawks, they frequently assemble into large groups while migrating.
Swainson’s Hawks nest in the grasslands, prairies, and deserts of western North America. Their autumn migration to wintering grounds in Argentina covers a distance of up to 6,000 miles. Among raptors, such mileage is outdone only by the Tundra Peregrine Falcon.
During the nesting cycle, Swainson’s Hawks consume primarily small vertebrates, mostly mice and other small rodents. But during the remainder of the year, they feed almost exclusively on grasshoppers. To provide enough energy to fuel their migrations, they must find and devour these insects by the hundreds. Not surprisingly, the Swainson’s Hawk is sometimes known as the Grasshopper Hawk or Locust Hawk, particularly in the areas of South America where they are common.
So just how far will our wayward Swainson’s Hawk have to travel to get back on track? Small numbers of Swainson’s Hawks pass the winter in southern Florida each year and still others are found in and near the scrublands of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Mexico. But the vast majority of these birds make the trip all the way to the southern half of South America and the farmlands and savannas of Argentina—where our winter is their summer. The best bet for this bird would be to get hooked up with some of the season’s last Broad-winged Hawks when they start flying in coming days, then join them as they head toward Houston, Texas, to make the southward turn down the coast of the Gulf of Mexico into Central America and Amazonia. Then again, it may need to find its own way to warmer climes. Upon reaching at least the Gulf Coastal Plain, our visitor stands a much better chance of surviving the winter.
They look amazingly similar to the green leaves on a deciduous tree. During the late summer and autumn, they spend their time as adults in the cover of the forest canopy. They prefer to run and hop rather than fly. But despite their discretion, you’re not likely to miss the Common True Katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia).
Take a listen and you may hear the male’s nocturnal calls filling the treetops of woodlands and shady neighborhoods throughout the lower Susquehanna valley right now. The loud, raspy “ka-ty-did, she-did, she-didn’t” is reliably answered by other nearby males as competition for willing females reaches a frenzy. In mature forests where populations are dense, this rowdy chorus can reach a remarkable volume.
The Common True Katydid’s song is like a soundtrack for the oft times melancholy mood of autumn. As the days shorten and a chill fills the air, the rate of the Common True Katydid’s call becomes slower and its tone deeper in response to the falling temperatures. Males continue forcing a sluggish call until freezing conditions finally bring about their demise. Another generation and another season gone.
Grasshoppers are perhaps best known for the occasions throughout history when an enormous congregation of these insects—a “plague of locusts”—would assemble and rove a region to feed. These swarms, which sometimes covered tens of thousands of square miles or more, often decimated crops, darkened the sky, and, on occasion, resulted in catastrophic famine among human settlements in various parts of the world.
The largest “plague of locusts” in the United States occurred during the mid-1870s in the Great Plains. The Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus), a grasshopper of prairies in the American west, had a range that extended east into New England, possibly settling there on lands cleared for farming. Rocky Mountain Locusts, aside from their native habitat on grasslands, apparently thrived on fields planted with warm-season crops. Like most grasshoppers, they fed and developed most vigorously during periods of dry, hot weather. With plenty of vegetative matter to consume during periods of scorching temperatures, the stage was set for populations of these insects to explode in agricultural areas, then take wing in search of more forage. Plagues struck parts of northern New England as early as the mid-1700s and were numerous in various states in the Great Plains through the middle of the 1800s. The big ones hit between 1873 and 1877 when swarms numbering as many as trillions of grasshoppers did $200 million in crop damage and caused a famine so severe that many farmers abandoned the westward migration. To prevent recurrent outbreaks of locust plagues and famine, experts suggested planting more cool-season grains like winter wheat, a crop which could mature and be harvested before the grasshoppers had a chance to cause any significant damage. In the years that followed, and as prairies gave way to the expansive agricultural lands that presently cover most of the Rocky Mountain Locust’s former range, the grasshopper began to disappear. By the early years of the twentieth century, the species was extinct. No one was quite certain why, and the precise cause is still a topic of debate to this day. Conversion of nearly all of its native habitat to cropland and grazing acreage seems to be the most likely culprit.
In the Mid-Atlantic States, the mosaic of the landscape—farmland interspersed with a mix of forest and disturbed urban/suburban lots—prevents grasshoppers from reaching the densities from which swarms arise. In the years since the implementation of “Green Revolution” farming practices, numbers of grasshoppers in our region have declined. Systemic insecticides including neonicotinoids keep grasshoppers and other insects from munching on warm-season crops like corn and soybeans. And herbicides including 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) have, in effect, become the equivalent of insecticides, eliminating broadleaf food plants from the pasturelands and hayfields where grasshoppers once fed and reproduced in abundance. As a result, few of the approximately three dozen species of grasshoppers with ranges that include the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed are common here. Those that still thrive are largely adapted to roadsides, waste ground, and small clearings where native and some non-native plants make up their diet.
Here’s a look at four species of grasshoppers you’re likely to find in disturbed habitats throughout our region. Each remains common in relatively pesticide-free spaces with stands of dense grasses and broadleaf plants nearby.
Protein-rich grasshoppers are an important late-summer, early-fall food source for birds. The absence of these insects has forced many species of breeding birds to abandon farmland or, in some cases, disappear altogether.
To pass the afternoon, we sat quietly along the edge of a pond created recently by North American Beavers (Castor canadensis). They first constructed their dam on this small stream about five years ago. Since then, a flourishing wetland has become established. Have a look.
Isn’t that amazing? North American Beavers build and maintain what human engineers struggle to master—dams and ponds that reduce pollution, allow fish passage, and support self-sustaining ecosystems. Want to clean up the streams and floodplains of your local watershed? Let the beavers do the job!
Looking for a native wildflower that’s tall, showy, and a great choice for attracting wildlife, especially butterflies and bees? Then check out Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa).
Wild Senna, also known as American Senna, is a host plant for the larvae of Cloudless Sulphur and Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe) butterflies. It thrives in almost any moist, well-drained soil in habitats including open woodlands, forest edges, meadows, and gardens like yours. Its height at flowering ranges from three to six feet. If you prefer, this perennial wildflower can even be cultivated as a shrub-like form. It is easily grown from seed, which is available from Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania, as well as numerous other vendors. And don’t forget to give Wild Senna’s two close relatives, Partridge Pea and Maryland Senna, a try as well. They attract the same species of butterflies and are just as easy to grow. You’ll like ’em.
Your best bet for finding migrating shorebirds in the lower Susquehanna region is certainly a visit to a sandbar or mudflat in the river. The Conejohela Flats off Washington Boro just south of Columbia is a renowned location. Some man-made lakes including the one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area are purposely drawn down during the weeks of fall migration to provide exposed mud and silt for feeding and resting sandpipers and plovers. But with the Susquehanna running high due to recent rains and the cost of fuel trending high as well, maybe you want to stay closer to home to do your observing.
Fortunately for us, migratory shorebirds will drop in on almost any biologically active pool of shallow water and mud that they happen to find. This includes flooded portions of fields, construction sites, and especially stormwater retention basins. We stopped by a new basin just west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and found more than two dozen shorebirds feeding and loafing there. We took each of these photographs from the sidewalk paralleling the south shore of the pool, thus never flushing or disturbing a single bird.
So don’t just drive by those big puddles, stop and have a look. You never know what you might find.
If you’re feeling the need to see summertime butterflies and their numbers just don’t seem to be what they used to be in your garden, then plan an afternoon visit to the Boyd Big Tree Preserve along Fishing Creek Valley Road (PA 443) just east of U.S. 22/322 and the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages the park’s 1,025 acres mostly as forested land with more than ten miles of trails. While located predominately on the north slope of Blue Mountain, a portion of the preserve straddles the crest of the ridge to include the upper reaches of the southern exposure.
Fortunately, one need not take a strenuous hike up Blue Mountain to observe butterflies. Open space along the park’s quarter-mile-long entrance road is maintained as a rolling meadow of wildflowers and cool-season grasses that provide nectar for adult butterflies and host plants for their larvae.
Do yourself a favor and take a trip to the Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area. Who knows? It might actually inspire you to convert that lawn or other mowed space into much-needed butterfly/pollinator habitat.
While you’re out, you can identify your sightings using our photographic guide—Butterflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed—by clicking the “Butterflies” tab at the top this page. And while you’re at it, you can brush up on your hawk identification skills ahead of the upcoming migration by clicking the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab. Therein you’ll find a listing and descriptions of hawk watch locations in and around the lower Susquehanna region. Plan to visit one or more this autumn!
Have you purchased your 2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp? Nearly every penny of the 25 dollars you spend for a duck stamp goes toward habitat acquisition and improvements for waterfowl and the hundreds of other animal species that use wetlands for breeding, feeding, and as migration stopover points. Duck stamps aren’t just for hunters, purchasers get free admission to National Wildlife Refuges all over the United States. So do something good for conservation—stop by your local post office and get your Federal Duck Stamp.
Still not convinced that a Federal Duck Stamp is worth the money? Well then, follow along as we take a photo tour of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Numbers of southbound shorebirds are on the rise in the refuge’s saltwater marshes and freshwater pools, so we timed a visit earlier this week to coincide with a late-morning high tide.
As the tide recedes, shorebirds leave the freshwater pools to begin feeding on the vast mudflats exposed within the saltwater marshes. Most birds are far from view, but that won’t stop a dedicated observer from finding other spectacular creatures on the bay side of the tour route road.
No visit to Bombay Hook is complete without at least a quick loop through the upland habitats at the far end of the tour route.
We hope you’ve been convinced to visit Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sometime soon. And we hope too that you’ll help fund additional conservation acquisitions and improvements by visiting your local post office and buying a Federal Duck Stamp.
Are you worried about your well running dry this summer? Are you wondering if your public water supply is going to implement use restrictions in coming months? If we do suddenly enter a wet spell again, are you concerned about losing valuable rainfall to flooding? A sensible person should be curious about these issues, but here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, we tend to take for granted the water we use on a daily basis.
This Wednesday, June 7, you can learn more about the numerous measures we can take, both individually and as a community, to recharge our aquifers while at the same time improving water quality and wildlife habitat in and around our streams and rivers. From 5:30 to 8:00 P.M., the Chiques Creek Watershed Alliance will be hosting its annual Watershed Expo at the Manheim Farm Show grounds adjacent to the Manheim Central High School in Lancaster County. According to the organization’s web page, more than twenty organizations will be there with displays featuring conservation, aquatic wildlife, stream restoration, Honey Bees, and much more. There will be games and custom-made fish-print t-shirts for the youngsters, plus music to relax by for those a little older. Look for rain barrel painting and a rain barrel giveaway. And you’ll like this—admission and ice cream are free. Vendors including food trucks will be onsite preparing fare for sale.
And there’s much more.
To help recharge groundwater supplies, you can learn how to infiltrate stormwater from your downspouts, parking area, or driveway…
…there will be a tour of a comprehensive stream and floodplain rehabilitation project in Manheim Memorial Park adjacent to the fair grounds…
…and a highlight of the evening will be using an electrofishing apparatus to collect a sample of the fish now populating the rehabilitated segment of stream…
…so don’t miss it. We can hardly wait to see you there!
With temperatures on the rise in this morning’s bright sunshine, a flight of Eastern Subterranean Termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) streamed from the shelter of this tree snag to ascend skyward in a spreading cloud of kings and queens looking to start new colonies of wood chompers.
As the swarm cleared the treetops, it immediately attracted the attention of some recently-arrived migratory birds…
If you’re like us, you’re forgoing this year’s egg hunt due to the prices, and, well, because you’re a little bit too old for such a thing.
Instead, we took a closer look at some of our wildlife photographs from earlier in the week. We’ve learned from experience that we don’t always see the finer details through the viewfinder, so it often pays to give each shot a second glance on a full-size screen. Here are a few of our images that contained some hidden surprises.
..but upon closer inspection we located…
..but after zooming in a little closer we found…
..but then, following further examination, we discovered…
Have you noticed a purple haze across the fields right now? If so, you may have wondered, “What kind of flowers are they?”
Say hello to Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum), a non-native invasive species that has increased its prevalence in recent years by finding an improved niche in no-till cropland. Purple Dead Nettle, also known as Red Dead Nettle, is native to Asia and Europe. It has been a familiar early spring “weed” in gardens, along roadsides, and in other disturbed ground for decades.
Purple Dead Nettle owes its new-found success to the timing of its compressed growing season. Its tiny seeds germinate during the fall and winter, after crops have been harvested and herbicide application has ended for the season. The plants flower early in the spring and are thus particularly attractive to Honey Bees and other pollinators looking for a source of energy-rich nectar as they ramp up activity after winter lock down. In many cases, Purple Dead Nettle has already completed its flowering cycle and produced seeds before there is any activity in the field to prepare for planting the summer crop. The seeds spend the warmer months in dormancy, avoiding the hazards of modern cultivation that expel most other species of native and non-native plants from the agricultural landscape.
While modern farming has eliminated a majority of native plant and animal species from agricultural lands of the lower Susquehanna valley, its crop management practices have simultaneously invited vigorous invasion by a select few non-native species. High-intensity farming devotes its acreage to providing food for a growing population of people—not to providing wildlife habitat. That’s why it’s so important to minimize our impact on non-farm lands throughout the remainder of the watershed. If we continue subdividing, paving, and mowing more and more space, we’ll eventually be living in a polluted semi-arid landscape populated by little else but non-native invasive plants and animals. We can certainly do better than that.
It may look like just a puddle in the woods, but this is a very specialized wetland habitat, a habitat that is quickly disappearing from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. It’s a vernal pool—also known as a vernal pond or an ephemeral (lasting a short time) pool or pond.
Viable vernal pools have several traits in common…
They contain water in the spring (hence the name vernal).
They have no permanent inflow or outflow of water.
They typically dry up during part of the year—usually in late summer.
They are fish-free.
They provide breeding habitat for certain indicator species of forest-dwelling amphibians and other animals.
They are surrounded by forest habitat that supports the amphibians and other vernal pool species during the terrestrial portion of their life cycle.
To have a closer look at what is presently living in this “black leaf” vernal pool, we’re calling on the crew of the S. S. Haldeman to go down under and investigate.
Let’s take it down for a better look. Dive, all dive!
We hope you enjoyed this quick look at life in a vernal pool. While the crew of the S. S. Haldeman decontaminates the vessel (we always scrub and disinfect the ship before moving between bodies of water) and prepares for its next voyage, you can learn more about vernal pools and the forest ecosystems of which they are such a vital component. Be sure to check out…
This linear grove of mature trees, many of them nearly one hundred years old, is a planting of native White Oaks (Quercus alba) and Swamp White Oaks (Quercus bicolor).
Imagine the benefit of trees like this along that section of stream you’re mowing or grazing right now. The Swamp White Oak in particular thrives in wet soils and is available now for just a couple of bucks per tree from several of the lower Susquehanna’s County Conservation District Tree Sales. These and other trees and shrubs planted along creeks and rivers to create a riparian buffer help reduce sediment and nutrient pollution. In addition, these vegetated borders protect against soil erosion, they provide shade to otherwise sun-scorched waters, and they provide essential wildlife habitat. What’s not to love?
The following native species make great companions for Swamp White Oaks in a lowland setting and are available at bargain prices from one or more of the County Conservation District Tree Sales now underway…
So don’t mow, do something positive and plant a buffer!
Act now to order your plants because deadlines are approaching fast. For links to the County Conservation District Tree Sales in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, see our February 18th post.
County Conservation District Tree Sales are underway throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. Now is the time to order for pickup in April. The prices are a bargain and the selection is fabulous. For species descriptions and more details, visit each tree sale web page (click the sale name highlighted in blue). And don’t forget to order bundles of evergreens for planting in mixed clumps and groves to provide winter shelter and summertime nesting sites for our local birds. They’re only $12.00 for a bundle of 10—can’t beat that deal!
Here’s wishing you and yours a Happy Halloween. It’s a much-anticipated day of excitement capped by surprise visits from strange-looking hideous creatures you’ve never seen before. They don’t stop by for a chat. Nope, not a word. Just a little bit of nearly imperceptible buzzing when the move around. You see, the little sneaks have hatched a plan. They want to eat your stuff and maybe trash the place before they go. And when you finally get rid of them, more start showing up—dozens and dozens, then hundreds. The more you have, the more you attract. You’ll be shocked that there are that many living in your neighborhood. It’s like a scene from “Nightmare on Maple Street”. The invasion drives some people mad, but you’re just going to love it. So, get ready, because here they come. Trick or Treat!