Photo of the Day

Pickerelweed and Eastern Carpenter Bee
An Eastern Carpenter Bee visits the flowers of an emergent Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  Each Pickerelweed blossom has conspicuous yellow spots on its uppermost petal, an adaptation shared with the Great Rhododendrons featured in a post earlier this month (July 1).  For each of these species the purpose of these pollen look-a-likes is the same, to attract bees to the pistils and stamens of the flower.  Do these lures work?  Just take a look at the pollen accumulated on the rear leg of this bee.

Blooming in Early July: Great Rhododendron

With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire?  Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), also known as Rosebay.

Great Rhododendron
The Great Rhododendron is an evergreen shrub found growing in the forest understory on slopes with consistently moist (mesic) soils.  The large, thick leaves make it easy to identify.  During really cold weather, they may droop and curl, but they still remain green and attached to the plant.

Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife.  The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Pinxter Flower in bloom
A close relative of the Great Rhododendron is the Pinxter Flower, also known as the Pink Azalea.

Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging.  Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants.  In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions.  Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth.  A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed.  In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site.  These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees.  In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) may be particularly sensitive to the loss of winter shelter and travel lanes provided by thickets of Great Rhododendron and other members of the heather/heath family.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens.   Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.

Great Rhododendron Flower Cluster
Great Rhododendrons sport an attractive blossom cluster.  The colors of the flower, especially the markings found only on the uppermost petal, guide pollinators to the stamens (male organs) and pistil (female organ).
Bumble Bee Pollinating a Great Rhododendron Flower
To this Bumble Bee (Bombus species), the yellowish spots on the uppermost petal of the Great Rhododendron may appear to be clumps of pollen and are thus an irresistible lure.  

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron.  One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves.  Go have a look.  You’ll be glad you did.

Great Rhododendron along Route 125 near Ravine
Great Rhododendron along Route 125 along the base of the north slope of Second Mountain north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Great Rhododendron along Swatara Creek
Great Rhododendrons beginning to bloom during the second week of July along Swatara Creek north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Note how acid mine drainage continues to stain the rocks (and pollute the water) in the upper reaches of this tributary of the lower Susquehanna.

Some Autumn Insects

With autumn coming to a close, let’s have a look at some of the fascinating insects (and a spider) that put on a show during some mild afternoons in the late months of 2019.

Bush Katydids (Scudderia species) are found in brushy habitats and along rural roadsides.  Their green summer color fades to brown, maroon, and gold to match the autumn foliage where they hide.  Bush katydids often remain active until a hard freeze finally does them in.
The Eastern Buck Moth (Hemileuca maia) is fuzzy, appearing to wear a warm coat for its autumn expeditions.  Adults emerge in October and may fly as late as December.  Females deposit their eggs on the twigs of Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia), Blackjack Oak (Q. marilandica), or Chestnut Oak (Q. montana), trees that, in our region, seem most favorable for the moth’s use when growing on burned barrens and mountain slopes.  The spiny caterpillars are known to feed only on the foliage of these few trees.  In the lower Susquehanna valley, the Eastern Buck Moth is rare because its specialized habitat is in short supply, and it’s all Smokey The Bear’s fault.
The Sachem (Atalopedes campestris) wanders north from the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the Susquehanna valley each summer.  In some years they become the most numerous small orange butterfly of all, particularly around home gardens.  The larvae will feed on Crabgrass (Digitaria species), but have not found success overwintering this far north.  By November, adults begin to look pretty drab.
From 1978 through 1982, the Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) was introduced into the eastern states by the United States Department of Agriculture.  It has become a nuisance in many areas where it swarms, sometimes bites, and often overwinters in large smelly masses within homes and other warm buildings.  As you may have guessed, it’s possibly displacing some of the less aggressive native lady beetle species.
On a chilly afternoon, a sun-warmed Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) pounced and dispatched this sluggish worker Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) that was trying to gather pollen from a late-season Purple Coneflower bloom.  This spider is bold indeed.
Under bridges, inside bird nest boxes, and sometimes beneath porches, the female Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (Trypoxylon politum), a predatory wasp, builds these elaborate nests composed of long rows (pipes) of nursery cells.  Into each cell one or more paralyzed spiders is deposited along with one of the female’s eggs.  When hatched, each larva will feed upon the paralyzed spider(s) inside its cell, then pupate.  The pupae overwinter, then emerge from their cells as adults during the following spring.  In the autumn, males often stand guard at an entrance to the nest (look at the fifth pipe from the right) to prevent parasitic species, including some flies, from laying eggs on the pupae.  These wasps are not aggressive toward humans.
A Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (right) observes a neighboring nest of Paper Wasps (Polistes exclamans).  This latter species, a native of the southern United States, is currently expanding its range into the lower Susquehanna valley from the Atlantic Coastal Plain. These two wasps are known to regularly coexist.  Both will take advantage of man-made structures for their nest sites.  People using the picnic tables beneath this pavilion roof never noticed the hundreds of docile wasps above.
Those moody Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons) can get very temperamental during warm autumn days.  These wasps may appear to have no enemies, but away from areas impacted by man’s everyday activities, they do.  The Robber Fly (Promachus species) hunts like a flycatcher or other woodland bird, waiting on a perch along the forest’s edge for prey to pass by, then ambushing it, yellowjackets included.
The invasive Spotted Lanternfly, a native of eastern Asia, continues to spread destruction.  It established itself throughout much of the east side of the lower Susquehanna River during the summer and fall of 2019.  Their route of travel across the farmlands of the region intersects with plenty of vineyards to obliterate and few, if any, natural enemies.  Expect them to begin colonizing the west shore en masse during 2020.
In 2020, plan to roll a few Spotted Lanternflies over, enjoy the view, and wait for the crimson tide to pass.  With any luck, they’ll peak in a year or two.

SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

Noxious Benefactor

It’s sprayed with herbicides.  It’s mowed and mangled.  It’s ground to shreds with noisy weed-trimmers.  It’s scorned and maligned.  It’s been targeted for elimination by some governments because it’s undesirable and “noxious”.  And it has that four letter word in its name which dooms the fate of any plant that possesses it.   It’s the Common Milkweed, and it’s the center of activity in my garden at this time of year.  Yep, I said milk-WEED.

Now, you need to understand that my garden is small—less than 2,500 square feet.  There is no lawn, and there will be no lawn.  I’ll have nothing to do with the lawn nonsense.  Those of you who know me, know that the lawn, or anything that looks like lawn, and I are through.

Anyway, most of the plants in the garden are native species.  There are trees, numerous shrubs, some water features with aquatic plants, and filling the sunny margins is a mix of native grassland plants including Common Milkweed.  The unusually wet growing season in 2018 has been very kind to these plants.  They are still very green and lush.  And the animals that rely on them are having a banner year.  Have a look…

The flowers of the Common Milkweed were exceptionally fragrant this year.  At their peak in early June, their hyacinth-or lilac-like aroma was so prevalent, it drifted into the house and overwhelmed the stink of the neighbor’s filthy dumpster that he had placed 12 feet away from my walls (100 feet from his).
Common Milkweed attracts a pollinating Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia species).  The dumpster attracts the invasive House Fly (Musca domestica), carrier of dysentery, typhoid, and other wonderful diseases.  Are you following this?  Remember as we proceed, milkweed is noxious.
Busy Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) load up with pollen from the flowers of the Common Milkweed.
A Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) munches on a tender fresh Common Milkweed leaf in mid-June.
Following the pollination of the flowers, seed pods will begin to grow.  I trim these off the plants.  The removal of the extra weight allows most of the stems to remain erect through stormy weather.  You’ll still get new plants from underground runners.  As you may have guessed, I’m trying to keep these plants upright and strong to host Monarch butterfly larvae.

I’ve planted a variety of native grassland species to help support the milkweed structurally and to provide a more complete habitat for Monarch butterflies and other native insects.  This year, these plants are exceptionally colorful for late-August due to the abundance of rain.  The warm season grasses shown below are the four primary species found in the American tall-grass prairies and elsewhere.

Big Bluestem, a native warm-season grass in flower.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium “Fort Indiantown Gap”) in flower.  This variety grows on the tank range at the military base where the armored vehicles and prescribed burns substitute for the  herd animals and fires of the prairie to prevent succession and allow it to thrive.
Partridge Pea can tolerate sandy soil and is a host plant for vagrant Cloudless Sulphur butterflies.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a popular native grassland wildflower.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) in flower.  This and the other native plants shown here are available as seed from Ernst Seed Company in Meadville (PA).  They have an unbelievably large selection of indigenous species.  You can plant a small plot or acres and acres using really good mixes blended for purposes ranging from reclaiming pipeline right-of-ways and strip mines to naturalizing backyard gardens.
A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly, a migratory species like the Monarch, on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Yes, it is that Echinacea.

There was Monarch activity in the garden today like I’ve never seen before—and it revolved around milkweed and the companion plants.

A female Monarch laying eggs on a Common Milkweed leaf.
A third instar Monarch caterpillar with Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii) on a Common Milkweed leaf.  Both of these insect species absorb toxins from the milkweed which makes them distasteful to predators.
Fifth instar (left and center) and fourth instar (right) monarch caterpillars devour a Common Milkweed leaf.  There were over thirty of these caterpillars in just a ten by ten feet area this morning.  I hope if you’re keeping a habitat for Monarchs, you’re enjoying the same fortune right now!
A slow-moving Monarch stopped for a break after making the circuit to deposit eggs on milkweed throughout the garden.
Third instar (top), fourth instar (right), and fifth instar (left) Monarch caterpillars quickly consume the leaf of a Common Milkweed plant.  Caterpillars emerging from eggs deposited today may not have sufficient late-season food to complete the larval segment of their life cycle.  Need more milkweed!
After benefitting from the nourishment of the Common Milkweed plant, a fifth instar Monarch caterpillar begins pupation on Big Bluestem grass.
Two hours later, the chrysalis is complete.
Another chrysalis, this one on flowering Switchgrass just two feet away from the previous one.  An adult Monarch will emerge from this pupa to become part of what we hope will be the most populated southbound exodus for the species in over five years.
There it is, soon ready to fly away.  And all courtesy of the noxious milkweed.
A chrysalis can often be found on man-made objects too.  This one is on the rim of a flower pot.
Ornamental flowers can attract adult Monarch butterflies seeking nectar.  I am now more careful to select seeds and plants that have not been treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.  There’s growing concern over the impact these compounds may be having on pollinating species of animals.  Oh…and I don’t mow, whack, cut, mutilate, or spray herbicides on my milkweed  But you probably figured that out already.

 SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.