Nature


If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.

  • Alex Trebek
cecropia day of eclose

Cecropia moth made it to maturity from caterpillar raised in a sleeve

Sometimes, in the course of our lifetime, we may find ourselves in the right place at the right time to make a difference in the life of some living thing. Maybe it is just the simple act of putting a nestling bird back in the nest from which it has fallen. Or we may be able to transplant a native plant to a safe location just a few feet away from the reach of a roadside sickle bar. Once I had to scoop up with a towel a baby fox that had fallen asleep in a dangerous place on the golf course and put it back with its brothers (or sisters!) who had chosen their resting place wisely. While it may not always be a good thing to interfere, sometimes it may be the best thing.

box turtle crossed road day after rain 5-30-16 Pamm Cooper phot copyright 2016

Box turtle was helped across busy road

Where I work, we often have a surprise when mowing early in the morning. This year when I was mowing a green with lights on just before sun-up, I noticed something that I thought was an earthworm moving in the path of the mower. At the last second before running it over, the creature starting running on little legs and I stopped in the nick of time. It was a tiny salamander. I put it in a plastic cup with a lid I always have with me and later on I put the little guy in the woods near a vernal pool.

salamander very tiny 4 green 9-23-2017

tiny salamander saved from a mower

In a similar way, the eft form of red-spotted newts often end up on greens or fairways the day after a rain. Being so small, they are often unable to make it back to the woods where they belong. So placement in a plastic cup keeps it safe until the opportunity comes to set the little eft on the forest floor. Like Shakespeare wrote- ‘all’s well that ends well’.

eft form of red- spotted newt 2017

Eft form of the red-spotted newt

Our giant silkworm moth caterpillars have a high percentage that are killed by introduced parasites meant to control the gypsy moth caterpillars. When I find young silkworm moth caterpillars in the wild, I like to raise them so prevent parasitism. When they form cocoons, I take them back from whence they came. Cocoons can be attached to twigs of the host plant with a bread tie or put in leaf litter below.

cecropias just before second instar

First instar cecropia caterpillars found on alder and raised in captivity safe from introduced parasitic wasps

Turtles often are the recipients of human kindness, especially when they attempt to cross roads. Box turtles are frequently seen crossing roads the day after a summer rain, and many have been helped across by kind people. Some turtles travel great distances to lay their eggs and encounter similar hazards. Once we found three spotted turtle eggs while renovating a bunker. Carefully marking them to keep them right-side up, they were transferred to an aquarium and placed under sand. Within two months they hatched and were released on the banks of the pond where the eggs where originally laid. If it were possible for turtles to leap for joy, they would have.

spotted turtle one week old 2012

Spotted turtle hatched from egg just before release

spotted turtle saved from the mower

Another spotted turtle removed from harm’s way

If a baby bird is found on the ground, it is important to note whether it is a nestling, which has fallen from the nest prematurely, or a fledgling, which should be out of the nest. The cedar waxwing shown below was a fledgling found on the ground on a cart path. It was moved out of harm’s way to a low branch nearby where the parents easily found it. Unlike many other animals, parents will still feed and care for baby birds even after human handling.

cedar waxwing fledgling

Cedar waxwing fledgling moved from a cart path to a low branch

There are walking sticks I find every year on certain plants on a particular power line right- of- way. A lot of tree and shrubs were marked to be cut down to clear the lines including a small clump of filbert and viburnum that are the host plants for these insects. I wanted to try to save a few before the chain saws arrived, so I took my beating sheet and was able to find several tiny walking sticks that probably had hatched that week. They were raised that summer until work along the lines was complete. Since the host plants were left standing, the walking sticks were returned.

power line after tree cutting 2017

Power line right-of-way after drastic tree removal. Walking stick host plants escaped the saw

walkingstick week old perhaps 2017

Walking stick just hatched removed from power line area, raised and released back after tree removal work finished

This year we had an interesting incident involving honey bees. Since it was late in the year and many flowers were no longer available, honey bees were very busy on black and blue salvia in a large planter outside the clubhouse. The problem was, someone had fallen into and smashed the salvia and it had to be removed. Our gardener noticed that over fifty honey bees were still swarming around where the plant had been, and they were even trying to get nectar from the petals remaining on the ground. Since a planting nearby along a stone wall also had the same salvia, we took small branches with the flowers and held them over the ground where the bees were. The bees immediately went for the flowers on the stalks and stayed there, or flew with them to the front planting. We shook the bees off, and they found the new flowers right away. We were able to get all the bees over there in this way. They probably would have found the other salvia on their own, but it was something to do…

karen transporting honeybees

Transporting honeybees on a branch of black and blue salvia flowers

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Honey bees inside flowers and following branch as they are moved to a new nectar site

To help wildlife on your own property, include water dishes for toads, chipmunks, and other animals, birdbaths and perhaps bird and bee houses. Provide shelter for  birds such as small trees and shrubs, which may also double as food sources and nesting places.

bee nest house using bamboo tubes

Bee nesting house using bamboo tubes that should be sealed on one end with mud or another substance

When you are out and about enjoying  nature in the wild or in your own back yard, it is always satisfying and cheering to one’s own little self to see something else become better off because of what we may be able to do. Just think- you don’t have to be a nature expert to become, at least for a little while, a bee whisperer.

Pamm Cooper                                              all photos by Pamm Cooper

Every growing season brings a variety of inquiries into the UConn Home & Garden Education office, either by snail mail, email, or in person. This year was no exception and I would like to share some that I found particularly interesting.

As we are entering the Christmas season I will start with an image of a Christmas cactus with raised bumps on its leaves. Although they were the same color as the leaf they had a translucent appearance when viewed with the light from behind. These blisters are edema (oedema)are the result of a disruption in the plant’s water balance that causes the leaf cells to enlarge and plug pores and stomatal openings. Moving the plant to a location with more light and watering only when the soil is dry can control edema.

Edema on Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus with edema symptoms

The cold of winter can cause problems that sometimes aren’t apparent until later in the year. Tree trunks that are exposed to southern light during the winter can suffer from sunscald and frost cracks. Sunshine and warm daytime temperatures can warm a tree enough so that the sap begins to run but the nighttime temps will cause the sap to freeze and expand, weakening the bark and resulting in vertical cracks. Dogwood with sunscald (on left) and willow with frost crack (on right) are among the susceptible species.

 

There were several incidences of huge populations of black cutworm larvae emerging in the spring including a group that appeared to be taking over a driveway! The Noctuidae moth can lay hundreds of eggs in low-growing plants, weeds, or plant residue.

The wet spring weather that helped to alleviate the drought of the past two years also had an effect on the proliferation of slime molds, those vomitus-looking masses that are entirely innocuous. The dog stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus) is another fungus that made several appearances this year.

Hosta plants exhibited several different symptoms on its foliage this year and the explanations were quite varied, from natural to man-made. The afore-mentioned wet spring and summer or overhead watering systems can cause Hosta to have the large, irregular, water-soaked looking spots with dark borders that may be a sign of anthracnose (the below left and center images). In the image below on the right the insect damage that shows up as holes that have been chewed in foliage may be caused by one of Hosta’s main pests, slugs.

But one of the more enigmatic Hosta problems presented itself as areas of white that appeared randomly on the foliage. Several questions and answers later it was determined that the Hosta in question was very close to a deck that had been power washed with a bleach solution! Yeah, that will definitely give you white spots.

Bleach damage 3

That bleach bath also affected a nearby coleus (below on left). Coleus downy mildew (Peronospora sp.) also likes the cool the cool temperatures and humidity of spring (below on right). The gray-purple angular blotches of this fungal disease were first observed in New York in 2005. Fungicides can be helpful if used early and thoroughly, and overcrowding and overhead watering should be minimized.

The grounds of the residence where my in-laws live have a lot of flowering plants in the landscape and as we walked one evening I noticed that the white roses had spots of red on them. These small, red rings are indicative of Gray mold (Botrytis cinerea), a necrotrophic fungal disease that is also a common problem in grapes called botrytis bunch rot. The disease is a parasitic organism that lives off of the dead plant tissues of its host.

The fungus Gymnosporangium clavipes, cedar-quince rust, on Serviceberry warranted several calls to the center due to its odd appearance. The serviceberry fruit gets heavily covered with the aecia tubes of the rust which will release the aeciospores that infect nearby members of the Juniper family, the alternate host that is needed to complete the cycle of the infection.

Two other samples that came in, goldenrod (below on left) and sunflower (below on right), shared unusual growths of foliage. Sometimes plant aberrations can be the result of a virus (such as rose rosette disease), fungus (such as corn smut fungus), or, like these samples, phytoplasma. Phytoplasma is the result of bacterial parasites in the plant’s phloem tissue and can result in leaf-like structures in place of flowers (phyllody) or the loss of pigment in flower petals that results in green flowers (virescence). Phytoplasma parasites are vectored by insects.

A frequent question revolves around ‘growths’ of a different kind, in particular the white projections that can cover a tomato hornworm. These are the pupal cocoons of the parasitic braconid wasp. The female wasp lays its eggs just under the skin of the hornworm and the newly hatched larvae will literally eat the hornworm to death. As the larvae mature they will chew their way to the outside where they will spin their cocoons along the back and pupate. As the hornworm is effectively a goner at this point they should be left undisturbed so that the next generation of wasps will emerge to continue to help us by naturally controlling this tomato pest.

Tomato hornworm 3

Tomato hornworm with braconid wasp pupal cocoons

 

Another wasp that was caught in the act was the cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus), a large, solitary, digger wasp. Cicada killers, also called cicada hawks, are so called because they hunt cicadas to provision their nests. It is the female cicada killer that paralyzes the cicada and flies it back to her ground nest. The male cicada killer has no stinger and although its aggressive nature can seem threatening to humans, the male spends most of its time grappling with other males for breeding rights and investigating anything that moves near them.

Cicada killer wasp

A cicada killer wasp paralyzes a cicada

 

Speaking of noticing what’s going on around you, as my husband was walking past a False indigo (Baptisia australis) in July he heard a strange cracking sound and called it to my attention. The plant in question was outside of a gym on the Hofstra University campus where our son’s powerlifting meet had just ended. As many lifters exited the building amid much music and commotion we stood their staring at the Baptisia, heads tilted in that pose that is more often found on a puzzled dog. The bush was indeed popping and cracking as the dried seed pods split open!

 

But none of our inquiries approach the level of oddity reported by a retiree in Karlsruh, Germany, who thought that he had found an unexploded bomb in his garden in September. Police officers called to the scene discovered not a bomb but in fact an extra-large zucchini (11 lbs.!) that had been thrown over the garden hedge.

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This is not an unexploded ordnance!

 

I look forward to next year’s growing season with great anticipation!

Susan Pelton

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Photo: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

When you think of beetles, an image like the photo to the left probably comes to mind first. This is a common ground beetle. These are only one type of many in the diverse order Coleoptera.  The beetles come in a wide array of sizes, colors and forms. In addition, they occupy diverse habits, have food preferences ranging from dead organic matter to plants and other animals and even fungi, and have a variety of both harmful and beneficial roles, depending on your perspective. The ground beetle pictured here is a beneficial predator of other insects and small prey. One of the very interesting groups of beetles are the blister beetles in the family Meloidae.

The common name blister beetle refers to the skin irritation resulting from contact with an exudate produced by these beetles when they are alarmed or injured. It contains the toxin cantharidin, an odorless chemical found only in this and one other beetle family, Oedermeridae (false blister beetles). Skin contact in humans can result in blisters but they are reported to be only minimally painful if at all and to clear up on their own in a reasonable amount of time. There is a much greater risk associated with consumption of beetles (and the toxin) in hay by livestock, especially horses. Some blister beetle species are attracted to alfalfa, especially during bloom, and when cut for hay during this time, beetles can be killed and inadvertently fed to animals. Different blister beetle species produce varying levels of toxin and therefore have different levels of severity when ingested. Reports indicate that if a horse ingests only 5-10 beetles (or their toxin) it may be fatal.

Striped blister beetle (Epicauta vittata)Photo: Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org

What do blister beetles look like? They have a unique appearance. Wing covers (elytra) are generally shorter than the abdomen (note this in the photos featured in this blog). The neck (between the head and thorax) is very narrow and the thorax is wider at the abdomen than at the neck. Antennae are pretty long and look serrated or segmented. The striped blister beetle shown above is found in the eastern part of the US and southern Canada and the adults feed on some common vegetable plants and weeds, sometimes congregating in large numbers and causing damage. These and some other blister beetles are attracted to lights. As a group, the blister beetles are not nocturnal but are also not strictly diurnal.

Blisterbeetle.cornfieldJAllen

Meloe sp. by Joan Allen, UConn

So that’s the bad side of blister beetles (well, one of them anyway). An explanation of the life cycle of some of them in the genus Meloe (common name oil beetles) will shed some light on another somewhat negative impact. In blister beetles, the larval stages are typically predaceous while the adults feed on flowers or leaves. The earliest larval stage is called a triungulin. In many species, eggs are laid on or near the flowers of the host plant of the adult. After hatching, the triungulins attach to a male bee as it visits a flower and catch a ride to a female bee.  In some cases, large numbers of triungulins cluster together on flowers and emit a chemical attractant that mimics one emitted by the female of the target bee species to help attract males. Once transported to a female bee, the triungulins move from the male to her and accompany her to where she is building a nest, laying eggs and providing provisions for her young. There they leave the female and consume bee eggs, larvae and their provisions.  Adult Meloe sp. are easy to identify: their elytra are much shorter than their large abdomens as shown in the image above (possibly M. impressus or M. campanicollis).

As mentioned above, the adults are typically herbivores, feeding on plant material. Sometimes they will aggregate in large groups and cause significant but localized damage to food crops including those in the Brassicaceae, Amaranthaceae, Asteraceae, Fabaceae and Solanaceae. A couple of years ago there was a localized outbreak of Meloe campanicollis on Brassicas on farms in Connecticut (shown below).

Meloe campanicollis on Brassica leaves. Photo: Jude Boucher, UConn

Another type of blister beetle can be considered a bit more beneficial. Many in the genus Epicauta lay their eggs on or in the soil and the young feed on grasshopper eggs or even on the eggs of other Epicauta sp. The margined blister beetle (E. funebris) and the black blister beetle (E. pensylvanica) are examples of these beetles that occur in the northeast (and are widely distributed in the U.S. and southern Canada). Adult host plants preferred by the margined blister beetle include alfalfa, beet, eggplant, tomato, potato, and soybean. Black blister beetles are often found on goldenrod but will feed on many other plants too. See pictures below.

blisterbeetlemarginedPCooper 8-13-11

Margined blister beetle (Epicauta funebris) by Pamm Cooper, UConn

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Black blister beetle (E. pensylvanica) on goldenrod by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Viceroy butterfly on 'Miss Molly' butterfly bush September 2017

Viceroy butterfly on ‘Miss Molly’ butterfly bush

“By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather
And autumn’s best of cheer.”
–   Helen Hunt Jackson, September, 1830-1885

September brings a wealth of inspiration to the senses. Leaves of Virginia creeper are red already, there is the intoxicating scent of wild grapes in the pre-dawn foggy mornings, asters and goldenrods bring colorful splashes to the landscape and sunsets may fill the cooling sky with brilliant deep reds and oranges. Tree Hydrangeas, Hydrangea paniculata, had a great year, and many still have panicles of colorful flower heads. While many plants and insects are winding down to an early retirement, there is still a lot going on in the great outdoors.

Hydrangea paniculata dwarfing a visitor to Wickham Park, Manchester Pamm Cooper photo 2017

Hydrangea paniculata dwarfing a visitor to Wickham Park

It may be the time of year for oddities, now and then. For instance, there is a horse chestnut outside our office on the Storrs campus that has several flowers in full bloom this week. While many shrubs and fruit trees, like cherries and azaleas, may have a secondary bloom in the fall after rains, cool weather with a late autumn warm spell following, a chestnut blooming at this time of year is a more remarkable event. A bumblebee spent time visiting the flowers, so a second round of pollen and nectar is a bonus in that quarter.

bumblebee on horse chestnut flower 9-28-2017

Horse chestnut with visiting bumblebee – an unusual bloom for September

Red-headed crickets are a first for my gardens this September. These small crickets have a distinctive red head and thorax, iridescent black wings, and yellow legs.  At first glance, they really do not appear to be crickets because of how they move around vegetation. They also have large palps with a paddle-like end that they wave around almost constantly, giving the appearance of mini George Foremans sparring in the air before a fight. Found mostly only three feet above the ground, they have a loud trill and are usually more common south and west of Connecticut.

red headed bush cricket backyard garden 2017

Red-headed bush cricket

While visiting Kent Falls recently, I came upon a few small clumps of American spikenard. Aralia racemose, loaded with berries. Highly medicinal, this native plant is found in moist woodland areas such as along the waterfall trail at Kent Falls. Roots are sometimes used as a substitute for sarsaparilla, another Connecticut wildflower.

spikenard Kent Falls 9-11-17

American spikenard berries ripen in September

Many migrating butterflies like monarchs and American Ladies are on the move now and may be found on late season flowers like butterfly bush, zinnias, Tithonia, Lantana, cohosh, goldenrod, asters and many other flowers. In annual plantings where I work, honey bees are especially abundant on Salvia guaranitica  ‘ Black and Blue ’  right now.  And while many butterflies and bees can be found on various butterfly bush cultivars, the hands on favorite seems to be the cultivar ” Miss Molly” which has deep red/pink, richly scented flowers that attract hummingbirds, flower beetles, fly pollinators, people and bees galore. This is a great addition to a pollinator or butterfly garden. Other late season bloomers for our native insects and butterflies are black cohosh and Eupatorium  rugosum, (chocolate Joe-Pye weed), as well as asters and goldenrods.

American lady on Tithonia sunflower

American Lady on Tithonia sunflower

Black and blue salvia

‘Black and Blue’ salvia is great for attracting hummingbirds and honey bees

Snapping turtles are hatching now.  The other day while mowing fairways, I spotted long dew tracks and there at the end were two little snapper hatchlings. Very soft upon hatching, they are often heron chow, and these little turtles will travel long distances to find a good habitat.

newly hatched snapping turtle 9-25-2017 Pamm Cooper photo

Newly hatched snapping turtle

Every day at my house, we engage in a “Where is Waldo?” type hunt in the backyard gardens. What we are looking for are the tiny gray tree frogs that are hanging out on certain plants during the day. Snapping up any insects that get too close, these guys are a lot of fun to watch and look for. Most of ones we are finding are green, and are slightly larger than a thumbnail right now.  It gives us all some free entertainment before the leaves fall and we move on to- raking leaves…

two thumbnail size gray tree frogs Pamm Cooper photo

Two tiny gray tree frogs in my garden

Katydids, crickets and sometimes tree frogs are making a racket at night. Although really not unpleasant, to me, they are loud. But more enjoyable to listen to than the neighbor’s barking dog…I found a katydid eating a hyssop flower recently, but who cares about that this late in the year?

katydid eating hyssop flowers in September

katydid eating hyssop flwer

Bees are having their last hurrah now as the blooming season winds down. While native goldenrods and asters are important food sources of food for late season bees and wasps, there are many garden plants that are important nectar and pollen sources as well. In my own garden, I have two hyssops- anise and blue giant hyssop. There were bumblebees and honeybees that went on both, but there were small bees that preferred only the anise hyssop. These bees were very noisy, and hovered near flowers before landing, behaving like hover flies. Most likely these bees were in the Megachilid genera- the leaf-cutting bees. Abdominal hairs collect the pollen in these species and may take on the brilliant colors of pollen from the flowers they visit.

Megachilid leaf cutting bee on aster Belding September 2017

Megachile family leaf-cutting bee on aster

As the season winds down, there are still some caterpillars to be found, like the beloved wooly bears and other tiger moth cats like the yellow bear. A spotted Apotelodes was a good find. A robust, densely hairy caterpillar, this large fellow is notable for three sets of long hairs called “pencils” along the dorsum, and for its equally conspicuous red feet, making it look like it is wearing five pairs of little red shoes.

spotted apatelodes on honeysuckle Cohen Woodland field 9-12-2017 Pamm Cooper photo

Spotted Apatelodes caterpillar showing its little red feet

And just for fun, next year consider planting a candy corn vine, Manettia inflate, on a small trellis.  An annual vine, flowers last well into the fall before the first killing frost. This South American native has tubular flowers that resemble candy corn, and they are a favorite of the hummingbirds (and myself!) in my backyard.

candy corn vine an annual fun plant Pamm Cooper photo

Candy corn vine

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

groundnut August 13 2017

Groundnut flowers

“The brilliant poppy flaunts her head

Amidst the ripening grain,

And adds her voice to sell the song

That August’s here again.”

–  Helen Winslow

 

August means summer is heading for a subtle change. Evenings begin to get cooler, skies are less hazy, most birds are getting a break from chasing fledglings all over creation, and the sounds of crickets and katydids during the night have replaced the trilling of the tree frogs. Bats are seen more frequently now as many moths and other late summer night- flying insects are abundant. Trees and shrubs have ripening fruit, deer are eating acorns already and, to top it all off, we just had a solar eclipse. Now is a great time to get outside and see what is happening in the garden and in the wild.

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks are on their own now

The tiger bee fly, Xenox tigrinis is a very large fly that can be seen flying about now. About the size of a quarter, this fly may fly low over lawns and can be mistaken for a wasp. It has large white markings at the end of its abdomen and they really stand out against the black color of the rest of the abdomen, resembling a bald faced hornet somewhat as it flies around, , apart from its size. Female tiger flies lay eggs near carpenter bee tunnels, and its larvae will eat the bee larvae that are developing within.

tiger bee fly 8-21-2017

Tiger bee fly

One of our larger spiders is the black and yellow orb weaver, Argiope aurantia. Commonly known as garden spiders, orb weavers are frequently found in gardens, meadows and fields. Their web has a zig-zag pattern at the end of a  thickened strip of silk that and may signal birds so that they see it and avoid flying through the web, thus saving the spider from major repair work. Who knows? Other creatures seem to miss that cue and end up as little morsels in the food “web”.

orb weaver spider

yellow and black orb weaver

Another orb weaver, the arrow spider (Micrantha sagittata), is much smaller the black and yellow one, and is one of only three Micrantha species found in North America. It has an interesting web composed on a rather permanent frame structure and then the orb section is built inside the frame at dawn every day. In the evening, the spider will consume the orb part of its web and have to start anew the next morning. The whys and wherefores of this behavior is one to be marveled at, if not at all understood by mere mortals.

Arrow spider Micrathena sagittata PAmm Cooper photo

Arrow spider

Butterflies are having a banner year- even giant swallowtails are being seen in northern Connecticut as of late. I just peeked inside the old stinging nettles leaf shelter of a red admiral butterfly caterpillar and found its chrysalis inside. One way to avoid predators is certainly to make oneself scarce. Monarchs, spicebush and tiger swallowtails and American ladies are abundant in numbers this year. Good plants for late season butterflies, especially migrators, are boneset, Joe-pyes, goldenrods, mountain mint, lantana, petunias, impatiens and bluebeard (Caryopteris). Mints and bluebeard are excellent for late summer pollinators as well. My gardens are humming with bee and butterfly activity right now as I have most of these plants in flower.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

Red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a nettle leaf shelter

Venturing out where forbs and small shrubs abound, you may run across the groundnut, Apios americana a native perennial vine that right now is in flower. The sweet- scented flowers are wisteria- like in form, appearing in small clusters along the vine. Found climbing among small shrubs and perennials like dogwoods, goldenrods and ferns, this plant is sometimes only noticed because its flowers are so striking in both color and clustered among a green background form the plant derives its name from the edible tubers that were consumed by native Americans and early settlers.

Cardinal flowers are also in bloom along watercourses now, and their brilliant dark red blooms and rich nectar attract hummingbirds. Along with jewelweed, cardinal flower is a great source of food for these energetic little birds. If you wait long enough when these plants are flowering, a hummingbird or two should make an appearance.

cardinal flower in stream

cardinal flower

Giant silkworm moths are putting in a second appearance this year, meaning a second or partial second generation of caterpillars will soon hatch. Over the last three weeks, Polyphemus and Luna moths have been seen, and there are fourth instar Promethea caterpillars out. Since the giant silkworm caterpillars take so long to reach the pupal stage, they may run out of foliage as many of the trees they feed on may shed their leaves before they can form cocoons.

exhausted Polyphemus moth on leaf litter Pamm Cooper photo

Polyphemus moth

And be careful out there! This past weekend I found two saddleback slug moth caterpillars in two different areas of the state, both on foliage not far off the ground. Though small, these caterpillars have many urticating spines that can cause a sensation like being stabbed with hundreds of tiny red-hot hypodermic needles.

saddleback found on small black cherry 8-19-2017

Saddleback caterpillar

As we move into the end of summer, sunrises and sunsets should be more colorful as the skies get cooler and particles high in the atmosphere scatter the blue light to our west and east as the sun sets or rises. To the early bird, then, may you see a spectacular sunrise.  And to the observer at eventide, may you be rewarded with an equally breathtaking sunset.

August dawn GHills from 8 8-18-13

August dawn

 

Pamm Cooper          August 2017

 

 

 

After two summers of drought conditions it is great to see how well the vegetable garden is doing this year. The lack rain and the elevated temperatures of last summer meant that I was lugging the watering cans from the rain barrel to the garden every other day. This year, it has been less than once a week as Mother Nature has provided precipitation in abundance. The zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, kale, Swiss chard, green beans, carrots, and beets are all living large.

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The first batch of ratatouille has already been enjoyed, a delicious blend of tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash and eggplant that is diced, tossed with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and roasted to perfection in the oven. The vegetables that provide the greatest depth of flavor in this recipe are the tomatoes and eggplant. These vegetables are found in the umami taste category (along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). Umami, by definition, is a Japanese word that means ‘pleasant, savory taste’. It is also known as glutamate and has been a part of the vernacular since 1985 which explains why it was not on any of the sense of taste diagrams that I saw in science class in the 70s.

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Foods that contain umami such as tomatoes, eggplant, spinach, celery, and mushrooms will all have their flavor improved by just a touch of salt (or fish sauce, which is also high in glutamate) making them great choices for anyone trying to reduce their sodium intake. I recently had a Thai dinner of a spicy eggplant dish that had such an incredibly savory taste due to the combination of the eggplant and the fish sauce that I ordered it twice that week.

In fact, eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables. It is used in so many cuisines around the world. I believe that my first exposure to eggplant was through my Italian heritage in the form of Eggplant Parmigiana, a staple of every holiday meal and a prime choice when ordering from Franklin Giant Grinder on Franklin Avenue in Hartford. Those breaded sliced rounds, fried in olive oil, baked in a tomato sauce, and covered in mozzarella cheese were umami with a capital U!

Fast forward to the 1990s and the exposure to so many more dishes that use eggplant, including vegan and vegetarian recipes where it is a good substitute for meat. In the Mid-east, baba ghanoush is eggplant that is roasted whole, scooped out when cool and mixed with tahini, garlic, and a little olive oil and eaten as a dip with vegetables or pita bread. The already mentioned ratatouille is a stewed dish that comes to us originally from Nice, France, where eggplant is known as aubergine. Eggplant can be pickled or made into chutneys in India or stuffed with rice, meat, or other fillings in the Caucasus.

One thing about eggplant that separates it from most other vegetables is that it is basically inedible when raw, having a very bitter taste and an astringent quality. Early cultivars required the slices to be salted, pressed, rinsed, and drained before they could be used in a recipe but modern cultivars such as the large purple variety have less bitterness.

The three varieties that I am trying this year are the classic plump purple ‘Black Beauty’, the green skin ‘Thai Long Green’, and the white skin ‘Caspar’. It would appear that we are not the only ones finding the eggplant interesting this year.

The first pests that I noticed in July were the eggs and larvae of the False potato beetle (Leptinotarsa juncta), often confused with its cousin the Colorado potato beetle, (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). The bright orange eggs which are found standing upright on the underside of the leaf are not as tightly packed together as the eggs of the squash bug generally are. It wasn’t until I looked at an enlarged view of the below image that I noticed that I had actually captured a larva emerging from an egg!

InkedIMG_20170715_194007276_BURST000_COVER_TOP_LI

The pale larvae will feed on the foliage of most Solanaceous plants for 21 days as they go through 4 instar stages and then drop to the soil to pupate.

After 10 to 15 days the adult beetle will emerge and lay eggs. There are usually two generations a summer in Connecticut.

Then there were the larvae of the Clavate tortoise beetle (Plagiometriona clavate), awesome masters of disguise, who use their own frass (poop) as a camouflage. The rear abdominal segment of the larva has a special fecal fork that allows the attachment of the dried fecal matter and holds it over the larva, hiding it effectively. Even if the frass is pulled back it will pull it over again.

These small, green larvae with their flattened bodies and fringe of white spikes did a bit of damage to the eggplant leaves, leaving them quite pockmarked.

A few more visitors are not as Solanaceous host-specific as the False potato beetle and the Clavate tortoise beetle. The 14-spotted lady beetle (Propyleae quatuordecimpuctata) has been in North America since it came to Ontario by way of Europe in the 60s. It can out-consume the native North American lady beetle species, eating insect pests such as aphids, mites, and scale, landing it on the Invasive Species Compendium list.  Every garden needs pollinators and the bees love the big purple blooms of the eggplant.

This grasshopper nymph posed on an eggplant leaf, casting a very artful shadow. Grasshoppers are not picky eaters and can be found on every plant in the garden although squash and tomatoes are their least favorite. This one may have just been taking advantage of a bit of August sunshine. Can’t say that I blame it!

Susan Pelton

 

 

hardy silk tree UConn Wilbur

Hardy silk tree

July in Connecticut is an exciting time for me because of all the good wildflowers and insects that abound at this time of year. Insects get more interesting in summer and late summer, especially caterpillars that feed on older leaves. Plus, many birds have fledged their first brood by now, so the young birds are scattering around keeping their parents busy. Flowering trees are few, but in July sumacs, tree-of-heaven and the hardy silk tree bloom from mid to late July.

black walnuts July 2017
Black walnut dropped fruit in July

 

While July is hot and sometimes dry, we have had an abundance of rain so far this year. This is a really good thing because the gypsy moth caterpillars severely defoliated many trees that now need rainfall to help put out new leaves before autumn. We hope next year will have less of these pests, especially since many of the caterpillars were killed by either a fungus or a virus.

bittersweet doing well

Bittersweet decorating a truck

Wildflowers like early goldenrod, swamp milkweed, bouncing bet, monkeyflower and nodding ladies tresses are in bloom now. And the peculiar Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, has popped up, especially under white pines. It occurs in rich, damp forests where there is abundant leaf litter. While this plant may appear to be a fungus due to its white color due to a lack of chlorophyll, it is not. It survives in a mutually beneficial relationship with a fungus in the soil where it grows. Blue curls are an interesting wild flower that can form colonies in sandy, infertile soils. Bloom time is normally late July through mid- August. Check out damps areas for stands of swamp milkweed- one of the prettier of the milkweeds, to me. All kinds of butterflies and bees may be seen getting nectar from its flowers.

 

indian pipe

Indian pipe

blue curls Main st power lines August 5, 2012

Blue curls

 

This year Eastern red cedars have put out a bumper crop of fruit, unlike the dismal amount of blue berries produced last year. This is good news for migrating birds like the yellow-rumped warblers that rely of this food as they fly south. And, of course, the cedar waxwings that derived their name from their fondness for cedar fruit, will enjoy any fruit that remains after the migrators have departed.

cedar waxwing fledgling

cedar waxwing just out of the nest

Monarch caterpillars have been spotted, some in later instars, so that is good news for this favorite butterfly. Swallowtail caterpillars are also in later instars, and will have a second generation of butterflies later this summer. Check out small aspens for the caterpillar of the viceroy butterfly. This bird- dropping mimic will win no beauty contests, perhaps, but it is a good find nevertheless. Sphinx and many other moths are flying now, and bats are enjoying them during their night forays. Some of the geometers, or inchworms, have very pretty moths to make up for the drab larval stage.

chickweed geometer moth Bug Week insect hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Chickweed geometer moth

If anyone had their Joe-pye weed leaves chewed badly, it may have been the work of large populations of dusky groundling caterpillars. They are done feeding now, but keep an eye out next year if you had this problem. And aphid populations swell at this time of year as females give birth to live young by the truckloads. Sunflowers and milkweeds are just two of the plants that can have aphid populations that are very high.

dusky groundling joepye

Dgroundling on Joe-pye

Enjoy yourselves out there in the garden, park, or wilds. Look up and down and all around, for things of interest that abound this time of year. And listen for the katydids as they start singing during the hot, summer nights.

Conehead katydid neoconocephalus ssp.

Conehead katydid

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

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