Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Sawfly: Here and gone

Dolerus on Mayday from 2007
It hasn't snowed since Friday, and while the Weatheroffice continues to predict rather dreary and somewhat below seasonal norm weather for the week, at the moment the Home Bug Garden is between bands of showers and hopping with birds and bugs. One of the more interesting of the latter is a black sawfly about a centimetre long. These have been appearing around the beginning of May for at least the last 6 years and if this morning's was the same as those identified before, probably a grass-feeding Dolerus sp. (possibly nitens). As far as I am concerned, they are welcome to all the quack grass they can eat (we let some grow for our cats, but there is enough to share). Alas for this morning's sawfly, it was quickly snapped up by an Orange-crowned Warbler, bashed against a cherry stem, and eaten. Well, the warbler still has a way to migrate, so it needs its grub.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Not Yet Native of the Week: Alpine Bells

Cortusa matthioli var. sachalinensis - Alpine Bells
Another April week, another snowstorm, so no bugs about and no flowers to brighten up the browns and white of 'Spring'. So time for another exotic from springs past:  Alpine Bells. We grew these from seeds from the Devonian Botanical Garden started in 2009. The first year we got just interesting leaves, but from 2010 on we have been rewarded with delicate drooping pink umbels of flowers.
Alpine Bells - delicate and delightful
One advantage of starting from seeds is a high probability of having diverse enough genotypes to allow outcrossing. That can also be a problem if the plants are weedy, but we've seen no sign of spread and the USDA has no listing for the genus, let alone the species, so there is no sign of these small, low-growing Eurasian plants being weeds in North America.
Alpine Bells in a mixed native-alien shade bed
Actually, I'm a bit worried that the Alpine Bells will be outcompeted by the larger plants that share its shady bed. The native Aralia nudicalis (Wild Sarsaparilla), the dark red-brown shoot above for example, will spread over the Alpine Bells later in the spring. However, so far, so good and all are coexisting.
Leaves of Alpine Bells
So, if the snows ever stop and the temperatures climb up towards 'normal', perhaps in three or four weeks the leaves of Alpine Bells will be poking up for their share of the light. Beware of imitators, though. Our plants appear to be Cortusa matthioli var. sachalinensis (Losinsk.) T.Yamaz., but there is some disagreement over species names in this genus. More insidiously, several large bulb companies market the ornamental onion Allium oreophyllum (= ostrowskianum) as Alpine Bells or Alpine Rosy Bells. These do have attractive flowers, and also seem to be not weedy, but lack the grace and elegance of the true Alpine Bells and bloom much later.
Ornamental onion Allium oreophyllum

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Adventures in Spider Misidentification: Redback

Redback 1, Skink 0
On this cold, but sunny Easter morning, I might be able to find a spider huddled in the backyard, but I think I'll combine Australian of the Week with Adventures in Spider Misidentification and offer a picture or two of the Australian Redback (Latrodectus hasseltii Thorell, 1870). Long considered a subspecies of the Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans Fabricius, 1775), or even Black Widows accidentally introduced into Australia, the Redback is now considered a likely Australian endemic and recent colonist of other areas of the world such as New Zealand and Japan.
Redback in tagled web
Like Black Widows, Redbacks tend to be more common than they seem because their web looks like little more than a tangled cobweb and they like to spin the webs on the undersides of shelters (e.g. chairs, tables, shelves, eaves) where the females can hide back in a corner or crevice. Also, the females tend to come out of their hideaways to sit in the middle of the web only at night. They make exceptions if provoked and for prey - like the unfortunate skink that I startled into a dash to its death. The spider was amazing swift, as was the venom: one bite and one twitch and the lizard was dead.

Up to 400 Redback bites are reported annually in Australia, but very few deaths have been recorded. My yard in Brisbane had a good population of Redbacks, but the closest I came to being bitten was while moving some large flower pots. My finger under the pot rim was right in a Redback's face, but she fled rather than bite, perhaps because I screamed and dropped the pot.

If you live in an area with good populations of Redbacks or other Widows, it is a good idea to be cautious when using outdoor furniture or facilities. Checking under a lawn chair and removing web and spider with a stick can help prevent unfortunate juxtapositions of soft skin and spider fangs. This is especially true when using a dunny (not the mutant Easter rabbit toy, but an 'outhouse'). Checking under the seat may seem a bit obsessive, but is preferable to being bitten in a sensitive spot: such bites used to be a high proportion of those reported. This year in New South Wales spider bites of all kinds (314) resulted in more calls to paramedics than any other category (twice as many as dog bites), but lost out in the headline of the linked article to 'ants, bees, snakes, and one ferocious rabbit'. I suppose that is a fitting end to an Easter post.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pollinator of the Week: the flies have it

Mystery male fly on coltsfoot 22 April 2010
Other than small, weedy mustards and violets, the first more or less native plant to bloom in the Home Bug Garden is the Coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus). Before the springs started getting colder in 2008, coltsfoot was in bloom and hosting early bees by the third week of April, but since then (with the exception of 2010) it has been the first week in May. With this year's seesawing between warm and cold, it will be interesting to see what happens, but so far the bed is still frozen solid and covered in snow.
Being covered in pollen is a good indication of a potential pollinator
Although early blooming, Coltsfoot attracts lots of pollinators. Based on the very large eyes, I suspect the fly above is a male. Usually male digger bees (Andrena spp.) show up next, around the time the Coltsfoot blooms, and are closely followed by females and the overwintered queen bumble bees (Bombus spp.) some time between the 2nd week of April (2006) and the first week of May (2009), probably depending mostly on temperature and sunshine, but possibly also on the presence of the Coltsfoot and the spring bulbs that start blooming around the same time. So far, though, the only potential pollinators that have made an appearance are the flies.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Australian of the Week: Mystery Oedomerid Maybe

Spring in the Home Bug Garden - 5 April 2012
To paraphrase what a friend of Samuel Clemens allegedly said several times, 'the Home Bug Gardener often complains about the weather, but never does anything about it'. Well, after today's heart-attack cum hernia snowstorm, I'm doing something: indulging in nostalgia for a warmer climate without tons of snow that need moving.
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo - Qld version of snow
I once saw frost in Brisbane, in an open field on a cold winter morn, was once snowed on while driving on the New England Tablelands, and saw snow on the ground in the Snowy Mountains, Victorian Alps, and Tasmania. That is where snow belongs as far as I am concerned - on the ground and NIMBY! Sure you can see paddocks white with sheep or cockatoos in Queensland, but snow is as rare as the Aurora Australis.
False Blister Beetle - Lamington National Park
So here is a bit of colour from a long lost and much lamented research site, an oedomerid beetle from Lamington National Park (named after the Lord, not the possibly eponymous pastry). Allegedly this beetle (scanned in from an old slide film image) is Agasma semicrudum. But neither the all-knowing Google nor the Web of Science can confirm this and the only citation in the latter is a 20 year old paper in the Young Entomologist's Society Quarterly*. The genus Agasma was moved from the Malacodermidae to the Oedomeridae by Arthur M. Lea in 1909 (London Transactions of the Entomological Society: 45-251), apparently in a small taxonomic spat with a T. Broun (1909. Annals & Magazine of Natural History Series 8, 3: 223-233; 385-415). After this transformation, however, our mystery red and black beetle seems to disappear until the Young Entomologists had a go. Perhaps some beetle fancier can offer some advice?
Food and defence: chrysomelid larvae bums outward on gum leaf
Speaking of Queensland beetles, I used the above picture of a group of grubs of a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) as an example of group-feeding/ communal defence in lectures for several years. I always wondered what they might be, and now Myrmecos has offered a possible answer: Paropsisterna. We do have chrysomelid grubs that feed on tree leaves here in Alberta, but they seem to do so singly, so probably lack the cyanidic bums. Willows are a good place to look for them - once the trees have leaves and the snows are well and truly gone.
Chrysomelid grub on willow (probably Chrysomela sp.)
Well, I've had my rant and my rest from shovelling, and now it is time to sand the walkways so the neighbours and ourselves can walk them tomorrow without falling on our bums.
Grevillea coccinna, King's Park, WA

*Mawdsley, J. R. 1992. A new example of mimicry in Coleoptera from Australia. Young Entomologists' Society Quarterly 9(3):21-24.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday Wildflower: Meadow Rue

Male Meadow Rue
With April's second blizzard descending and about to bury the few tulips and squill near the house that have dared to poke their leaves above ground, a brightly coloured wildflower seems out-of-place. So instead I offer one with muted tones: Meadow Rue (Thalictrum spp.). Four species of Meadow Rue grow in Alberta, and this one is probably Veiny Meadow Rue (T. venulosum). Gender varies with the plant in Thalictrum, some are male, some female, some both. This plant is a male with dangling anthers and looks to me as if he's expecting the wind to do his pollinating. Although not as fancy as the species grown commercially, we like this unobtrusive relative of the buttercups (Ranunculus spp.). Meadow Rue and Buttercup may not look much alike, but we can report that Meadow Rues do have yellow roots.
Creeping or Shore Buttercup Ranunculus cymbalaria
I'm not exactly sure of the origin of Linnaeus' genus Thalictrum. Timothy Coffey's The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers gives Thalia (Θάλεια) 'the blooming one', and the Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry. Thalia, in turn, is derived from the Greek for 'to flourish or be verdant'. However, Kathleen Wilkinson's Wildflowers of Alberta gives credit to the Greek thallo 'to grow green'. This may be all much of the same, but Linnaeus did describe another genus as Thalia - the Alligator Flags of the southern US.

Wikipedia has Thalia as named after Johannes Thal, a German Botanist. But Peter Bernhart in his entertaining Gods and Goddesses in the Garden, considers Thalia as a bit of Linnaean fun, honouring both Thal and yet another Greek Thalia (Θαλία): the Grace of festivities and luxuriant banquets. Given the abundance of flowers and the rather greyish foliage characteristic of Meadow Rues, I think I'll go with the Muse.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Snowbound Sunday: Bugs from the Sun that was

Autumn turns a Green Lacewing brown
Edmonton is experiencing its weekly blizzard and one hopes that the insects that were rash enough to stick their antennae out in last week's sun have found safe places to rug up. Other than a Milbert's Tortoiseshell butterfly, the largest insect I saw sunning was a confusingly brown Green Lacewing. Two type of lacewings can be commonly found around Edmonton: the Brown Lacewings (Hemerobiidae) and the Green Lacewings (Chrysopidae). Brown Lacewings are mostly a reassuringly tan to brown as larvae and adults. Green Lacewings, however, are not green as larvae and only mostly green as adults. This picture is probably of a species in the Chrysoperla carnea group - green with golden eyes in the summer, but a pleasant reddish brown when preparing to overwinter.
Inquisitive Ash Leaf Cone Roller antennae out
The most abundant insect was, unfortunately, the euphonious but pesky Caloptilia fraxinella - the Ash Leaf Cone Roller that makes a mess of the Green Ash leaves in the summer.
Unobtrusive Cone Roller with antennae retracted
Although these tiny moths have an interesting stance and pleasant pattern, no one really likes them. They make the ash trees look a bit ratty, but apparently don't hurt them much. But their tiny green caterpillars dangle from the street trees by silken threads and get in one's face, hair, and clothing.
Cluster Fly in the outdoor sun, where it belongs
Cluster flies (Calliphoridae: Pollenia spp.) are another insect that people tend not to like, but because of the adults, not the larvae. Their maggots are parasites of earthworms, so gardeners might have two minds about them, but the adult flies have the annoying habit of entering homes in the autumn and clustering on sunny windows. This can drive even entomologists up the wall. Fortunately, the species in Edmonton do not seem to indulge in the home invasion behaviour.
Meniscus Midge Dixella sp.
On the delicate and delightful side of the Diptera were the Dixidae. The adults of the Meniscus Midge that lives in our pond overwinter as adults and emerge well before the pond has thawed. A couple of weeks ago I thought they might be Winter Craneflies, but I was wrong. The one above is patiently awaiting a better day.
A lauxaniid fly Sapromyza sp.
Do to some confusion about the difference between a postsutural inter-alar seta and a postsutural alar seta, I was nearly wrong about a small fly in the family Lauxaniidae too, but a friend put me right. The little grey Sapromyza  sp.  
has an unfortunate generic name (Greek for 'putrid sucker'), but is a pleasant enough companion on a sunny spring day.
A pair of Sapromyza enjoying the spring sun and preparing to do what flies do so well