A garden is the best alternative therapy.

Thinking Small

If I spend any amount of time in the garden, I soon discover some sort of creeping, crawling creature.  Since I was a little boy, I’ve been fascinated with bugs and insects.  I would often turn over the large, landscaping rocks in my mother’s flower beds to discovery what lurked underneath.  When my brother and I would trek through the woods, I spent a good amount of time looking for new bugs, turning over limbs and even breaking apart rotting logs to find them.  Most of these bugs aren’t harmful to my garden plants at all, but serve a purpose in the complex web of life.  Take the green stink bug, for example.

(click photos to view larger images)

This little nymph was discovered hanging onto the Whirling Butterfly gaura.  It wasn’t causing any damage, seemingly content just to “hang out”.  I picked it up and handled it for some time, and luckily it didn’t spray me with its characteristically bad-smelling chemical.  Perhaps it hasn’t matured enough yet.  At this size, I’m sure this bug provides a good snack for the green anoles or perhaps a member of the spider family.

Lurking nearby, I found this little striped wolf spider.  This species can grow quite large and love to terrorize my wife and daughter by their mere presence.  Whenever they show up in unexpected places, they are met by a scream and usually an, “Oh my God!  JOE!”  That’s code for, “There’s a large, ugly bug that you need to get rid of!”  Most of the time, I enter the room to find a small, frightened little spider, which I quickly scoop up in my hands and transfer outside.  Although wolf spiders are known to bite humans, I’ve never had one that I’ve handled do so.  I’m always careful to hold them loosely, though.

Spiders are fascinating!  We used to have a good number of garden spiders when I was growing up.  I would literally spend an afternoon hunting grasshoppers, crickets and moths to throw into their large webs.  I loved to watch this particular spider move with lightning speed to the struggling insect and begin wrapping it in a thick strand of silk that streamed from the spider’s abdomen.  The insect would struggle for awhile, but once it was completely wrapped, the spider would move in for its paralyzing bite, then all movement would stop.  I think the spider appreciated my help, but it made no qualms about telling me when I got too close.  It would run to the center of the web and begin bouncing the entire web back and forth violently to warn me to stay away!

The wolf spider is much different from the garden spider, however.  Instead of weaving a web, it hunts its prey freely.  This particular spider was found in the foliage of some flowers, no doubt waiting for an insect to come and dine on nectar – quite possibly its last meal.  I’ve seen wolf spiders dragging their meals with them as they go, a difficult task when the prey is equal to or larger in size than the spider itself.

Because spiders prey upon a variety of insect pests, I consider them beneficial insects in my garden AND my home.  I’ll have to add this one to my Beneficial Insect Files.

I had no idea what this was until I looked it up.   Also known as Prairie Berry, Silverleaf Nettle, White Horsenettle or Silver Nightshade, this plant is toxic to livestock.  I have one plant growing near the back fence line, and I wasn’t able to ascertain what it was until it flowered.  Pretty little flowers, nonetheless.

Keeping My Interest

Some of the biggest, most beautiful blooms in my garden aren’t flowering perennials, but vegetable plants.   The squash and zucchini flowers not only catch my interest, but keep the local bee population busy all day long.  There’s plenty of nectar to go around, and the bees have to wipe their feet before exiting to dislodge caked on clumps of pollen.

honeybee tongue darts out like a sword

Vegetable Harvest

The vegetable garden is doing very well.  I am really pleased that I decided to put it on the opposite side of the house this year.  The amount of sunlight on that side makes all the difference.  This weekend, I harvested another couple of zucchini, a few squash and a few cucumbers.  I grilled the zucchini and squash with some fresh herbs, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.  The cucumbers were sliced and added to a spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette, candied pecans, grapes and carrots.   Here’s what I picked off on Sunday:

The rest of the vegetable garden is coming along nicely.  I have over a couple dozen tomatoes forming, and lots of bell peppers, habaneros and jalapenos as well.

The cantaloupe is really taking to the trellis I built a few weeks ago.  I already have a few fruit starting to form, too!

Zucchini (left) and tomato plant (right)

Zucchini, foreground, and cantaloupe on the trellis

Cantaloupe!

the melon is resting nicely on two pieces of nylon cord





Right outside our back door, we have a small herb garden.  Last fall, we planted three parsley plants at the back of the herb garden.  This spring, they grew considerably at first and then immediately started flowering and haven’t stopped now for several weeks.   Because the herb garden is so close to our back patio door, we often stand at the door and watch a variety of insects that stop to enjoy the parsley flower nectar.   This plant really attracts an assortment of flies (houseflies, tachinid flies, hoverflies), wasps (paper wasps and thread-waists), and bees (honeybees, sweat bees, mason bees and solitary bees)!  Many of these insects prefer the shallow nectaries of flower umbrels as opposed to other species of flowers with deep nectaries which require elongated mouthparts.

umbrels of parsley flowers

My wife, who is understandably a little alarmed by the number of bees and wasps by our back door (she’s allergic to their stings), asked me why we want so many wasps in the garden.  She understands that parsley is the host plant for Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars and can appreciate the beauty that adult butterflies bring to the garden, but wasps are an entirely different story in her book.  I explained to her that wasps are beneficial insects to gardeners.  She then asked me, “In what way are they beneficial?”  To her, they seem like a pest to avoid and not one to invite so freely into the garden.

The fact of the matter is that wasps are beneficial insects in the garden for two main reasons.  The first is that they are pollinators.  I find wasps on a number of flowering plants in the garden, including squash, cucumber, zucchini and melons.  This family of plants, called cucurbits, have unisexual flowers, meaning that each flower either contains anthers or ovaries (i.e. is male or female), but not both.  They cannot self-pollinate.  Pollinators such as butterflies, bees and wasps are drawn to the flowers of these plants by color and are enticed to stay by the nectar that the flowers offer.   As they lap up the sweet goodness, the flower’s pollen sticks to the legs and bodies of the pollinator, which then flies to another flower and deposits some of this pollen there.  With regards to cucurbits, the male and female flowers need pollen from one another in order to produce fruit.  Pollinators are the key to making this happen as they move from male flower to female flower, depositing pollen.

Wasps are beneficial in another way.  They are parasitic.  They feed on a number of garden pests, including flies, beetle larvae and even caterpillars.  To me, this is where wasps fall into a sort of gray area when you are butterfly gardening.  Naturally, a butterfly gardener wants to raise butterfly larvae to adulthood, but other creatures in the garden see butterfly larvae as a good meal.  So, there’s a catch-22 here.  A butterfly gardener grows plants that attract beneficial insects, and some of those beneficial insects end up killing one another.  Wasps do their part, however, since out-of-control caterpillar populations can decimate plants and crops.  Still, I cringe at the thought of my little caterpillars preyed upon by wasps and even birds.  It is nature, however, and everything exists in balance, so I have to let the natural process play out.  All things considered, wasps are beneficial to my garden – I just wish they preyed exclusively on beetle larvae!

The Paper Wasp

If you’ve ever seen a wasp nest in the shape of an umbrella hanging from a thin thread under the eaves of a house, then you’ve seen how paper wasps live and how they got their name.  Paper wasps gather fibers from plants, chewing and mixing them with saliva to form a substance similar to paper, which is then formed into nests with many adjoining hexagonal cells.

Nests are started by a single queen in the spring, which can grow to hold up to two hundred cells.  The queen overwinters in brush or wood piles and emerges in the spring to expand her kingdom.  After picking a suitable spot for a nest, she works tirelessly, gathering and chewing plant fibers and forming the first several cells.   In these cells, the queen lays her eggs, which hatch into worker (non-queen females) and male larvae.  As the brood grows, the queen continues to do most of the egg-laying and studies show that her behavior actually suppresses the ovarian functions in subsequent female wasps so that she remains the dominant female.  Workers care for the queen’s larvae and continue to build the nest, while also visiting the field to harvest nectar, plant fibers and insects for larval food.

Adult wasps do not eat insects, they subsist entirely upon nectar.  Workers collect caterpillars and carry them back to their nests, first stinging them to paralyze them.  Then they stuff the paralyzed caterpillar into one of the prepared cells, and the queen deposits a single egg on the caterpillar’s body.  The egg hatches and a tiny wasp larva emerges and finds all the food it could possibly need until it pupates and emerges as an adult, winged wasp.

Males are needed only for fertilization of the queen.  The queen has a specialized organ called the spermatheca, which captures and holds the male wasp’s sperm for later fertilization of eggs.  Males typically live short lives.  Late in the season, they mate with female offspring of the queen, which then leave the colony to overwinter and emerge in spring to start their own colony.  All other members of the colony, including the original queen, perish during the winter.  The newly mated female holds the sperm in her spermatheca until the following spring when she begins laying eggs on harvested caterpillars!

As far as hierarchy in the colony goes, the founding queen is generally the dominant queen, and rules over her workers to ensure their cooperation and subservience.  The most aggressive females will take up the role of queen should the founding queen die, and on rare occasions, aggressive females can root out the founding queen in a process called usurpation.  The aggressive female then takes over as queen, while the founding queen takes on the role of worker.  Despite this aggressiveness, paper wasps are not aggressive except in defense of their nests.  As I tell my wife, they won’t even bother you should you sit right next to the parsley flowers to watch them.  They are more interested in feeding than they are in you!

The photos below are of a red paper wasp (Polistes carolina) on parsley flowers.  This wasp is common from as far west as the Texas panhandle to the east coast up through New York.  They are quite large at an inch in length.

(Click on any photo to view larger)


Macro Monday 5.9.11

Here are a few selections for this week’s Macro Monday meme.  For more Macro Monday photos, click on the link at the bottom of the page:

Argiope trifasciata a.k.a. banded garden spider

lady beetle on gaura stem

bumble bee on Indigo Spires

Fall aster in spring

crab spider inside zucchini flower

The perennials in the garden have rebounded wonderfully.  The abundant sunshine and warm weather has been good to them, although the lack of rain necessitates a frequent watering with the garden hose.  We are thankful, however, for the recent rain.  It wasn’t nearly enough, but it did manage to saturate the first couple inches of soil.  I know the plants appreciate the rain water more than the city water, so I won’t complain.  Can I ask for more, though?

The perennial hibiscus is really bushing out and I suspect that, some time in May, it will begin flowering.  This variety has fluorescent fuschia blooms, which will bring additional color to the side of the house and is sure to captivate the attention of beneficial insects.  This is between our deep red-colored knockout rose bush, which is starting another wave of blooms, and the herb garden.

perennial hibiscus

The fall aster looks as if it is going to grace us with a pre-fall show this spring.  It is growing some flower buds as we speak, which will add a nice lavender splash between the orange and yellow lantana blooms.  It will continue to grow throughout the summer and put on its big finale in the fall.  It promises to be a good show.

fall aster preparing to bloom ... in spring!

In this photo, fennel flanks three dill plants at the very left side of the bed against the fence.  Surprisingly, the black swallowtails have been quiet the last few weeks after an early start of laying eggs and hatching baby caterpillars.  I don’t currently have a single egg or caterpillar on the hosts plants.  I’m hoping the rain will bring them back.  I mean, I have a total of twelve host plants for them!  Ding-ding goes the dinner bell!!

The three mounds of leaves on the right are black-eyed susans, which still have a little time before they’re in bloom.  At the back of the bed are my thyme plants that are finishing up their blooming stage.  I’ll shear them back when they’re done and encourage them to send up some new growth.

Texas lantana blooms

As a last minute decision, I sowed more Russian Mammoth sunflower seeds (I had four growing last year).  I had twelve come up, but some little creature ate two of them completely to the soil.  I still have nine going strong and another struggling a bit.   The six plants in the foreground below were planted at the same time as the others, but are already much larger than the other four.

Russian Mammoth sunflowers

The sedum wilts slightly in the heat of the day and rebounds by morning.  It seems to catch a lot of falling moisture as seen by these big balls of water.  I think I may need to shade them a little better.  They’re in the same bed as the Turk’s Cap, which enjoys partial shade.  The corner WAS in the shade when I planted them last fall, but the neighbors severely pruned the Texas Lilac tree that used to shade them.

water droplets on sedum leaves

Turk's Cap budding

It’s a challenge to photograph the honeybees on the gauras.   They move quickly from flower to flower, and the entire flower stalk sways so easily in the breeze.  These two photos came out fairly sharp, however.

Indigo Spires salvia barely lets on that it died back to the ground over winter.  These foot-long spires of flowers are everywhere and more are on their way.  In the second photo, the white Autumn Sage can be seen in the background, as well as the yellow blooms of Zexmenia.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher is Oklahoma’s state bird, but still calls the neighbor’s Mulberry tree its home.   Also known as the Texas Bird of Paradise, it is common in our area.   It is a beautiful bird, but I suspect it is the reason why I haven’t seen many butterflies and why the black swallowtail caterpillars disappeared.    It eats berries, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, moths and caterpillars.  I sure hope it got the squash borer bug, too.  Here it sits in the top of another neighbor’s tree at sunset.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher ... and butterfly eater!