caterpillars


Venus looking glass II

Venus’ Looking glass

Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.

Al Bernstein

 

This spring took forever, it seemed, to warm up, but it did, and just in time. Rains provided a boost to plants that suffered during the drought of last year, and dogwoods, crabapples, azaleas and rhododendrons had fabulous flowers this spring. But now June is here, and yesterday marked the first day of summer, and so we move on to the warmer weather and all it brings with it.

elderberry blossoms 2011

Elderberry flower head

Native elderberries are in full bloom right now and many bushes are covered with the large, white flower clusters. Later on, the dark purple fruits will provide food for many birds and mammals. While edible for humans, and high in vitamin C, most people do not care for the raw fruits, but may make jam or pies from them. And mountain laurels are still in bloom now as well. Some cultivars, such as ‘Kaleidoscope and ‘ Firecracker’ have striking red flowers. Dewberry, a native berry that forms mats sometimes as it creeps along the ground, is in bloom now, and its flowers are important food sources for many native bees and butterflies. Soon to come into flower are the native Canada lily, Indian pipe and native wood lilies. Venus’ Looking- glass, Triodanis perfoliata, is a native purple wildflower that has its flowers along the stem at the leaf axils. Poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, should be blooming now. This native milkweed grows well in wooded, shady areas. Flower heads dangle down, unlike those of most milkweeds. The white flowers are attractive to several moth pollinators.

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Several insect pests are making their presence known. The infamous 4-lined plant bug, a lime green adult with 4 black lines down its back, leaves behind diagnostic feeding damage that later on will look like black angular leaf spots. They are cosmopolitan in plants they will eat. This year they have been reported feeding on many herbs, dandelions (who cares?!), sunflowers, sedum, and the list goes on. Also, both the Colorado and false potato beetles are mating as we speak, and they seem to be heading for a banner year, population –wise. So crush the eggs as you may find them on any of your nightshade family plants like tomatoes and peppers. Be careful not to crush any lady beetle eggs, though, as the larva will feed on those of the potato beetles.

moutain laurel

mountain laurel cultivar

Colorado potato beetle June 2017pg

Colorado Potato Beetle laying eggs

On a walk along a power line yesterday, I was delighted to see two visitors from the south- common buckeye butterflies. I have not seen these occasional visitors since Hurricane Sandy, so this a good butterfly to keep on the look-out for. Red- spotted purple, viceroys and American lady butterflies should be in the process of laying eggs now, if they haven’t already. I found several tiny spicebush swallowtail caterpillars also this week. Check out your dill, fennel or parsley, because the black swallowtail butterfly may have laid an egg or two on them, and the caterpillars may have hatched out.

common buckeye June 21 2017 Coldbrook

A visiting common buckeye butterfly

Swamp milkweed leaf beetles are easy to spot with their red and black elytra. Not pests, these chunky beetles are just a colorful splash on a green background. Pine sawyers, longhorn beetles commonly mistaken for the invasive Asian long-horned beetle, are active now. They will often visit newly stained decks until the stain dries out. Dogwood calligrapha beetles, striking in their spiffy black markings on a white background, are out and about on native dogwoods now.

calligrapha

dogwood calligrapha beetle

There are many birds that are now fluttering around trying to keep up with newly fledged young.  Catbirds, robins, red-tailed hawks, Carolina and house wrens, Bob-o-links and some sparrows have a clutch early and some species, like the ubiquitous robins have a second brood. Fledglings are often very loud as they beg for food, and get louder still as mothers withhold food briefly, to teach them how to fend for themselves.

chipping sparrows just hatched 6-6-14

Chipping sparrow nest

we recently had a visitor to our office. A green bullfrog somehow landed in our window well and could not escape. So we managed to catch it and Joan Allen walked it to a nearby pond. Another bit of excitement at work.

froggie in the window.jpg

froggy in the window

As you venture out into the landscape, I hope curiosity will get the best of you, causing you to turn over leaves looking for insects, watching birds as you see and hear them, and bending over to see what is lurking on the ground by your feet. In such a way we become more interactive with the environment and thus, less frightened or at least dismayed by new discoveries. Look stuff up when you find it. Curiosity did not kill the cat, nor will it do likewise to people. Nor has asking questions ever done any harm, at least as far as I know…

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Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

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Cedar waxwings in a Hawthorn tree, an important food source for birds in the winter

I love the outdoors and have spent a lot of time off the beaten track exploring since I was a young adult growing up in the Chenango River valley in New York. The way to get acquainted with nature is to get out in it. And I have done so all my life. This year was a good one for me personally as far as observing nature in all its glory. Even though the weather was colder in the spring and hotter and drier in the summer, and perhaps was the hottest year on record, there was a lot going on, both on a typical and uncommon level.

The first surprise was a pleasant one- a larger than average number of foxes spotted in all kinds of places. Innumerable times I saw foxes in the wee hours of morning returning with prey for their young. Whether in rural or residential areas, these animals were having a great year. The ones I saw had healthy skin and fur, and certainly had no trouble finding food. On the golf course where I work, there was a pair of foxes that had a den of kits just inside the woods by a tee. Every day like clockwork, they had a specific route they traveled going from the den to hunt, and they had a specific, different, route returning to the den with their quarry. The good news was they killed a lot of troublesome landscape troublers- mice, voles and even several woodchucks.  Later on, the parents would be accompanied by the kits as they learned to hunt.

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Cooper’s hawk patrolling near a bird feeder

Although a dry year, the two or three thunderstorms we had brought out a few creatures the next day. One of my favorites is the eft form of the red- spotted newt. These tiny, bright orange amphibians sometimes  venture out of the woods after a rainy night and sometimes can’t seem to find their way back. Several fairways tend to have these guys on them in the mornings, so I am on the alert for them as I mow. Box turtles are also known to put in a similar appearance on days after summer rains. This year I was able to help a granddaddy of a box turtle get across a very busy road safely. This particular turtle  was one of the most ornately marked ones I have ever seen.

eft

Eft form of the red- spotted newt happily returns to the woods

Another creature that had an exceptional year was the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. The previous year, they were few and far between, but in 2016 they had a banner year. The host plants of the caterpillars are spicebush and sassafras and careful examination inside leaves  folded lengthwise reveal the larvae of this butterfly. It seemed like whenever you came across  a host plant, at least one of these caterpillars was somewhere on it. On one small spicebush in a butterfly garden there were six caterpillars from eggs laid by six different females.

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Two spicebush swallowtail caterpillars found on the same sassafras sapling

Fall leaf color wasn’t great at first- perhaps because of the drought- and some red maples that turned early were actually yellow or brown in color. But there was a snap of cold in early October and a day later the leaves were at peak color, a sudden surprise after a drab start. Oaks were also beautiful this year- not dominated by the browns of last year. Red and white oaks had striking reds, and some red oaks produced yellow or tan. Acorns were not particularly abundant, but enough were around to keep deer, turkeys, squirrels and chipmunks in good supply. This was actually good for the squirrels and chipmunks because in late September and early October they were not able to find many maple seeds to eat because of the sudden freeze in April that caused many maple flowers to drop early.

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Willow leafing out in the snow on April 3, 2016

While insect populations, especially caterpillars, seemed low this year, bumblebees and other native bees abounded. Late season bloomers like mums, asters and goldenrods provided many insects with a good source of pollen and nectar. I found a small goldenrod in full bloom after Thanksgiving, which was very unusual. Bumblebees, some small native bees and honeybees were active up until Thanksgiving week, at least here on the UConn campus and in my backyard garden because alyssum, some hydrangeas and a few obedient plants were still in flower. And the caterpillars of the imported cabbage worm butterfly abounded late this season- even into December- especially on certain ornamental cabbages. A good find this year was a scarlet malachite beetle- on a blade of grass near my front step. This was only the second one I have ever seen, so it was a noteworthy event. The excitement never ends…

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scarlet malachite beetle

This year there was a pair of barred owls that had a nest inside a standing dead tree trunk on the side of a country road I travel on every day. In the pre-dawn when I passed by on my way to work, the parent owls would often be bringing the last protein nuggets of the night’s hunts back to their young. In the afternoon, both parents would be guarding the nest from perches nearby. In the pre-dusk twilight, the young owls would appear at the entrance of the nest hole and let it be known that they were hungry. And so the hunts would begin, to continue until the following dawn. I missed them all when they fledged and went off into the wild blue to learn to be on their own.

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Barred owl guarding her nest during the day

Wild blueberries were especially abundant this year, as were huckleberries. Noticeably fewer were dewberries, which are produced by plants that creep along the ground. Late in the season, migrating birds had few cedar berries to eat (unlike the bumper crop of last year), but at least black gum, poison ivy and Virginia creeper were loaded with fruit. Migrating warblers such as the yellow- rumped warblers are especially fond of these fruits. And if you have a bird feeder and some woods nearby, keep on the lookout for small raptors like the Cooper’s or the sharp-shinned hawks which prey on other birds. If birds around the feeder scatter suddenly, there may be a good reason, apart from a cat. During the winter, check out any hawthorn or crabapple trees that still have fruit. Robins and cedar waxwings are common winter visitors to these trees.

And as a final note, enjoy what is left of the year. And have a Merry Christmas! Or whatever you may celebrate at this time of year…

highland-park-springs-christmas-2016

Highland Park Springs Manchester, Ct.

 

 

 

 

This summer has been, as they say, one for the books. High temperatures that went on for weeks and limited rainfall certainly did a number on our gardens, containers, and flower beds. Many calls to the Home & Garden Education Center were from gardeners bemoaning the sad state of affairs. Plants were stunted, didn’t set flowers or dropped them early when they did, leaves were scorched looking, and in general plants just performed poorly.

What a relief when the temps dropped into the 80s and rain actually fell in measurable quantities. Plants rebounded, lawns revived, and gardens began to produce once again. My window boxes and some hanging containers did not quite survive though and I refilled most of them this week with some beautiful flowering vinca and a plant that is new to me, evolvulus, a member of the morning glory family that produces tiny, bright blue flowers that last just a day.

Vinca and evolvulus 2

The squash plants that I thought were done for have now taken over their areas and are producing copious blossoms and fruit. I am happy to see that the Powdery mildew resistant variety (Success PM) has proven its worth as there are very few signs of the disease.

The squash bugs however have yet to give up the fight. There are still egg masses every few days and the odd grouping of nymphs that I am not sorry to say do not last long once I have spotted them.

The cucumbers and the eggplants are loaded with blossoms and have started bearing fruit. The tomatoes, which hadn’t suffered as much as some of the other plants, have been slow to ripen but they can continue to produce into October if they are covered at night.

I had moved some potted basil plants into a shady area a few weeks back and they have shown their appreciation by filling out nicely. I detect pesto in our near future! A second planting of arugula looks great as does the kale.

 

 

And we are not the only ones that are enjoying the kale. This differential grasshopper was munching away happily, not even caring that I was filming him. This species of grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) has been known to do some substantial damage to crops such as grains, hay, and alfalfa, especially during hot, dry periods which increase the likelihood of survival of the nymphs and adults. They will also feed on annuals such as sunflowers and perennials including one of their favorites: ragweed. Maybe they are not all bad. They don’t cause enough damage in a home garden to warrant insecticidal control.

 

A striped cucumber beetle (Acalymma vittatum) was also enjoying the kale even though the cucumber plants were not far away. The adult feeds on the foliage and the larvae feed on the roots but the biggest problem that they bring with them is the bacterial wilt known as Erwinia tracheiphila which can be fatal to cucurbits. The feeding of the adult beetle opens wounds in the plant but it is through the frass (excrement) that the bacteria enter the vascular tissues of the plant. As the bacteria multiply they block the xylem and prevent water and nutrients from reaching the shoots and leaves. The striped cucumber beetle is definitely a bigger concern than the grasshopper or squash bugs as they move so quickly that it is hard to just squish them out of existence like I do with the squash bug nymphs.

Striped cucmber beetle

Over on the asparagus fern a red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) stood out brightly against the delicate ferns. As with other insects that also feed on milkweed the red milkweed beetle accumulates alkaloid toxins in their flesh that protect it from predators. The black spots against that bright red-orange background are the insect equivalent of a large ‘Do Not Eat” sign. These can be picked off and dropped into a container of soapy water. Don’t use a spray or systemic insecticide on the milkweed as it will harm the beneficial insects that also visit, especially the Monarch butterfly.

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The Asian lady beetle has that same bright coloring and also uses a defensive chemical to deter predators. Some humans are allergic to this foul-smelling liquid that can be exuded from their legs. But this one was very busy doing what ‘ladybugs’ do best, munching on some aphids that were on the underside of a squash leaf.

 

The lady beetles may start to congregate both inside and outside of houses and can be a nuisance. Visit our fact sheet for information on the Asian lady beetle if you experience an infestation and consider the non-lethal ways to remove them, keeping in mind how beneficial they will be in next year’s garden. Although the nighttime temperatures can start to dip into the 50s as we progress into September the garden will enjoy the still warm days into October.

Susan Pelton

All images and videos by S. Pelton

 

 

 I love insects. They are amazing.”  Andrea Arnold  

The UConn Bug Week programs were held over the last week of July this year and for our particular Bug Week event on July 30, we started early on in the season acquainting ourselves with the world of insects and searching high and low for specimens we could find and then bring home with us to raise. While rearing insects, you learn a lot about what they do, what they eat, how they behave and what their life cycles are.

Some of the fabulous volunteers -Bug Week 2016 Amy Estabrook photo

Some of our Master Gardener Volunteers- Amy Estabrook photo

We had several bug hunts from early June on and went to specific areas searching for specific insects and any surprises that might turn up. Volunteers from the Master Gardener program spent two months looking for and raising insects in the hope that they would be available as live specimens for our event on July 30. Of course, many pupated and that was that. But we still had a lot of wonderful specimens to show all the people that attended our program. We had display boards that our volunteers made for their particular insects, and with the live specimens, people got to see insects up close and personal.

Bug Week 2016 Suzi Zitser photo of Debbi Wright's display board

Debbi Wright’s fabulous display for the Virginia Creeper sphinx moth- Suzi Zitser photo

Our event was held at the Tolland County Agricultural Center, home to the Tolland County UConn Extension Office. There are over 35 acres of woodland, wetland and open environments, plus pollinator and butterfly- friendly plantings all over the property, so we were able to go outdoors and take advantage of all the gardens and wood lines to search for insects.

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Volunteers show visitors our insects. Photo by Earl Parent

Among the insects we had for specimens and displays caterpillars of the clear dagger moth, mottled prominent, Virginia creeper sphinx, milkweed tussock moth, Monarch butterfly, stink bugs of all kinds, Imperial moth caterpillars (just hatching that day), tobacco hornworms on their favorite tomato host, beetles, John Suhr’s moth and butterfly collection plus the UConn Natural History Museum brought some specimens from their fabulous collection. Other specimens included red-lined panapoda caterpillars and orange-striped oak worm caterpillars. We also had two walking sticks which were found in early June when they were the size of a thumbnail.

walking stick and friend bug week 2016 Earl Parent photo

One of our walking sticks out for a walk- Earl Parent photo

AMy Estabrook photo of Leslie and friends and a walking stick Amy Estabrook photo

Amy Estabrook took this photo of Leslie showing our walking stick to two small guests

We had three bug walks as well, and found interesting insects of all kinds- a Buffalo treehopper, leaf-footed bug nymph, silver-spotted skipper caterpillar, an apple maggot fly, a salt marsh tiger moth and a chickweed geometer moth just to name just a few. Many butterflies were also floating by  as we did our walks and we ended up seeing them again  when we got to the butterfly garden.

Bug Hunt with Jean Laughman

Jean Laughman finds some good insects on her beating sheet

 

The TAC Center has one of the best butterfly gardens going, and has been well maintained by Tina Forsberg and Jean Laughman. It has a spicebush in the center of one side and on it we found 6 spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, one of which was only a couple of days old. Hummingbird moths, swallowtail, crescent, skipper and, brush foot butterflies were there, and we even found a tiger swallowtail egg on a small black cherry.

chickweed geometer moth Bug Week insect hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Chickweed geometer moth Pamm Cooper photo

Butterfly garden walk with Tina Forsberg

looking for bugs in the butterfly garden

saltmarsh tiger moth Estigmene acrea found resting in the butterfly garden

Salt Marsh Tiger moth found in the butterfly garden- Pamm Cooper photo

Thanks are in order for all our Master Gardeners and Master Gardener interns for a job well done. Without your efforts, this would not have been a success, nor as interesting an event as it was. Also, thank you Joan Allen, for your talk on vegetable insect pests, and Dave Colbert for bringing terrific specimens from the UConn Museum of Natural History.

Euthochtha galeator leaf footed bug nymph 7-30-16 Bug Week hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Leaf- footed bug nymph found on a bug walk- Pamm Cooper photo

 

After all our hard work raising insects and running around finding host plant material to feed them, and after many long insect hunts in 90 degree weather, I guess we were all happy, in a way, to see Bug Week draw to a close. My dining room table is no longer a laboratory and that is how it should be. And yet, I do miss the pitter-patter of tiny little feet…

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

It has been a dry few weeks in the vegetable garden resulting in dusty soil and slow-growing for those who are unable or unwilling to water. I have been watering only the vegetables in raised beds, which have responded nicely. Tomatoes are four feet tall with plenty of flowers and varying developmental stages of fruit. Cherry tomatoes seem a little behind this year compared to the hybrid larger plants.  For better fruit set and pollination, simulate the actions of a buzzing bee inside the flower releasing pollen by shaking the entire plant a little each day. This really works, especially if your garden lacks other flowering plants which attract pollinators.  A new trick I read about and will employ this year is to hang red Christmas balls on the tomato plants before fruit begins to ripen to fool the squirrels, chipmunks and birds into thinking those red orbs are not for eating.  Last year I had quite a few V-shaped holes in ripe tomatoes from bird beaks. Christmas ornaments in July might look a little silly, but worth it to keep the tomatoes free of bites except for humans. Shiny pinwheels placed around the garden to catch the wind works well, too. I found one plum tomato with blossom end rot today. Blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium in the soil, or an interruption in the delivery of calcium to the developing fruit. An interruption can be caused by uneven watering. Perhaps I was not as regular providing equal amounts of water as I thought!

tomato blossom end rot 2016, 7-8-2016

tomato blossom end rot

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Summer squash

Summer squash and zucchini are doing very nicely. I have seen the squash vine borer adult flying among the plants, so I know I will have wilting vines about the time we are sick of eating squash casserole, breads and grilled zucchini. I should have planted extra squash seed every two weeks in another bed and kept it covered with row covers to replace the older plants which eventually die from the larva tunneling out the stems. (See an earlier blog for info on squash vine borer.)

Another squash pest easier to hand-pick and present also on my squash and cucumbers is the squash beetle. I scout for adults, eggs laid on top or bottom of leaves, and for the larval stage. I just squish all stages as my go to control measure. Cucumbers are climbing the trellis of arched cattle fencing re-purposed from a friend cleaning his garage.

Snow peas are just about finishing up after a late start and long spring. Flat leaf parsley needs to be picked and dehydrated or made into pesto and frozen on a cookie sheet in separate spoonfuls before storing in a ziplock and kept in the freezer. Easy way to take one or two and use in cooking.

 

Kale is growing faster than we can eat it! I find I can stay ahead of the cross-striped caterpillar and cabbage worm by interrupting their life cycle by cutting back all of the leaves except the growing tip at one time. I soak the leaves in a sink full of cold water with half cup of salt added to it. The caterpillars float to the top or sink to the bottom and the kale is clean. Although eating one or two after the kale is cooked won’t hurt us.

Kales, 7-8-2016

Kale

Hardneck garlic is proving to produce some pretty large bulbs this year, if the diameter of the stalk is any indication. I also pulled one a little early to check on the development. It was big. I am thinking the long, mild fall and winter let the root development go on a long time creating a healthy crop. Just waiting for half of the leaves to dry and turn tan signaling they are ready to be dug and hung to dry in the garage. Outside of the garden the gypsy moth caterpillars are pupating and emerging as the adult moths. The males are brownish, flitting around in a zigzagging flight seeking out the white, flightless females for mating.

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Hardneck garlic

I would love to spend the summer in my garden, but alas, I must return to work during the week. My interest in insects perks up when my basement office in a very old building surprises with the gift of a house centipede. While others may startle and run for a rolled up newspaper or fly swatter, I grab the camera for a picture to share with you. Don’t worry, they are harmless.

House centepede, 7-2016

House centipede.

-Carol Quish

“In summer the empire of insects spreads.”
― Adam Zagajewski

elderberry borer Birch Mt Rd PL 6-20-15

Elderberry borer

 

Toward the end of spring and the beginning of summer, I find that the most interesting insects are to be found. While spring offers some really good forester caterpillars and their attractive moths, among other things, nature seems to me to save the best for last, it seems to me. From beetles to butterflies, moths and their caterpillars, from June on there are some fabulous finds out there.

I have to admit to being a caterpillar enthusiast, and am partial to the sphinx, dagger, slug and prominent caterpillars and then the butterfly cats as well. Last year the swallowtail butterflies were few and far between, but this year our three main species- black, spicebush and tiger- are clearly more numerous. If you know where to look, you can find them.

I like to turn over elm leaves and search for two really spectacular caterpillars. The first is the double-toothed prominent, whose projections along its back resemble those of a stegosaurus. Along with its striking coloration and patterns, this is a truly remarkable find for anyone who takes the time to look and see. The second one is the elm sphinx, sometimes called the four- horned sphinx. This caterpillar has both a brown and a green form, and has little ridges running along its back. It is a behemoth, as well, like many sphinx caterpillars- robust and heavy.

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Caterpillar of the Double-toothed prominent moth

 

Long-horned beetles are out and about. Impressive because of their long antennae, these members of the Cerambycidae family of beetles can be impressive both in color and size. The larvae are round-headed borers, and are often plant specific as in the case of the pine sawyer. One of my favorites (but not because I love the larvae) is the elderberry borer. A pest of elderberries, the beetle is a brilliant metallic blue with orange bands on the elytra. This impressive beetle was featured on a postage stamp once upon a time, probably promoted by someone who did not have any elderberries in their garden.

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Eyed click beetle- a beneficial click beetle

Tussock moth caterpillars are in a class by themselves. Some here in Connecticut are a sight to behold, with the tussocks of hairs on their backs, long pencils front and rear (sometimes) and long setae along the body. The white- marked tussock moth caterpillar is a favorite among insect enthusiasts, resembling Bozo the clown in a way with its red head and wild hair. Found on many plants, both woody and herbaceous, these guys can be pests if enough of them are on the same plant. Blueberries are a favorite, but they can appear on almost anything. The yellow- based tussock is especially interesting because the final instar has hairs that appear frosted. Some of the tussock moths have pretty markings, the hickory tussock moth and banded, for example, and many are attracted to lights.

white- marked tussock moth caterpillar  Pamm Cooper photo

White-marked tussock caterpillar

yellow- based tussock moth caterpillar Ii

Yellow-based tussock moth caterpillar

white furcula caterpillar Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Walking sticks and mantids can be found resting on vegetation during the summer. Right now, walking sticks are small- one inch to two inches, and they develop slowly. Mantids develop slowly as well, and are especially found on goldenrods as the season progresses, as insect life abounds on these plants.

milkweed beetle taking off copyright Pamm Cooper

Milkweed beetle

Other insects of note are the hoppers, of which the tree hoppers are especially interesting. The buffalo tree hopper is easy to identify- look at its head to see how it got its common name- and many tree hoppers have interesting projections on their pronotums. Assassin bugs can be found along with their insect prey on the milkweeds, which are just starting to bloom now. The common milkweeds abound with the color of butterflies and milkweed beetles, the activity of bees, and the scent of the flowers themselves.

Buffalo hopper

Aptly named buffalo tree hopper

Get out now and discover the fascinating world of insects. You may need only venture as far as your own backyard.

 

Pamm Cooper                   All photos copyright 2016 Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

A weathered tobacco barn in the snow

A weathered tobacco barn in Enfield, CT

In northern Connecticut along the Connecticut River a quintessential image of winter is a tobacco barn in the snow. It may be bright red or a lovely weathered wood but either way it is an image of New England that many may think represents a time gone by. Although tobacco has been condemned as a health hazard the growing of tobacco is still a viable agribusiness in many towns in Connecticut, Enfield among them.

Tobacco was already being grown by the native populations when the European settlers arrived in the early 1600s. Within seven years of the town of Windsor’s founding in 1633 tobacco was being produced for both personal use and profit although the majority grown was a variety that originated in the Virginias. The rich sandy soil by the river and the short, hot summers yielded an excellent crop. By 1820 Connecticut Valley tobacco leaves were being used for cigars as the two outside layers, the binder and the wrapper.

The late 19th century saw a variety from Sumatra that began to replace the wrapper from this area. Local farmers created the ‘shade’ conditions that mimicked the sunlight and humidity of Sumatra. 1920 saw a cultivation height of 20,000 acres in the Connecticut River Valley although it is currently just over 2,000 acres. My husband’s great-uncle, Frank Burton, farmed tobacco in South Windsor during the 1930s and 40s. The following images are from a 1938 booklet that he used called ‘Hubbard’s Handybook for Growers’ from the Rogers & Hubbard Co. of Portland, Connecticut:

SCAN0409

 

Tobacco is part of the genus Nicotania from the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, a family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Tobacco mosaic virus is a disease that affects tomatoes and peppers in addition to tobacco. It can be transmitted through the debris of infected plants in the soil or through contamination of smoking materials on workers hands. It has been known to survive up to 50 years in dried plant parts. Avoid using tobacco products while handling or transplanting plants in the solanaceous family. Tomatoes will have foliage that has mottled yellow and green areas, reduced fruit set, dwarfing, and distortion. There is currently no control for TMV.

Another disease that can attack tobacco is blue mold, Peronospora tabacina, a downy mildew disease caused by a fungus-like organism that is highly destructive to seed beds, transplants, and fields.  Initially it can be confused with cold injury, malnutrition, or damping off. According to an Enfield tobacco farmer they did not have an issue with blue mold in 2015.

Insect pests of tobacco include aphids, cutworms, flea beetles, snails, slugs, wireworms, budworms, hornworms, and thrips. Many of these insects are common pests of tobacco’s relatives in the solonaceous family. Tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) is vectored by tobacco thrips. Tobacco and tomato hornworms are large caterpillars of the Manduca species that can strip a plant of foliage in a short period of time. As with tomato hornworm, tobacco hornworm can also be parasitized by wasps.

The end of the tobacco growing season is not the end of farmer’s work. Little has changed over the centuries in the way that tobacco is harvested. The entire plant is cut off the stalk at ground level and brought to curing barn by way of slow-moving tractors.

Freshly cut tobacco leaves

In our neighborhood following a wagonload of newly cut tobacco is a common occurrence.

Tractor with a loaded cart of tobacco leaves

When the harvested plants reach the barns they are speared through the base in groups of four to six and hung to cure. The curing process allows for the slow oxidation and degradation of the carotenoids in the tobacco leaf that give it the aromas such as sweet hay, tea, rose oil, or fruits when smoked. Starch is converted to sugar which oxidizes into advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), the inhalation of which during smoking contributes to atherosclerosis and cancer.

Tobacco in the barn

Air-cured tobacco is allowed to dry in well-ventilated barns over a period of four to eight weeks. Fire-curing takes three days to ten weeks. The tobacco barns used for these methods have openings along the long sides that can be adjusted to control the heat and humidity in the barn during the curing process.

Ventilation slats open

Cured leaves are then sorted for use as filler or wrapper based on their appearance and overall quality and sent on to cigar manufactures.

Cured tobacco

For over 350 years tobacco has been omnipresent in this area. Many a Connecticut teenager worked on a local tobacco farm and although I never had that experience personally I understand that it was not pleasant work. Currently most tobacco work is done by seasonal employees although their numbers may also dwindle in the future as the land is turned over to more economically viable pursuits such as real estate development. The tobacco barns that dot our landscapes may be no more than curiosities to future generations.

A beautiful red barn in the snow

A beautiful red barn in winter.

 

Susan Pelton

(all images by Susan Pelton)

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