Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Return on an investment: Mud Daubers Generation II

Holes left by emerging Mud Daubers
Last May and June were the wettest on record in the Home Bug Garden. Rain, rain, rain makes for too many mosquitoes, soggy basements, gloomy bug gardeners, and lots of mud. But, mud has its uses.
Young Generation II male A. waldenii
The most obvious beneficiary was an entertaining and industrious Mud Dauber Wasp Ancistrocerus waldenii (Viereck, 1906)Whenever the sun would briefly appear, she zipped around scooping mud from the moss under the fountain, piling the mud into an aggregation of cells, and slaying caterpillars to fill the cells and feed her young. Now her industry (and, we like to think, the umbrella we made to protect her nest) has paid benefits of at least a dozen new wasps that have emerged over the last week. I call that a happy ending and
A Happy Beginning for the new wasps

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Sour Solution: Feed your bees & beetles cherries

Andrena bee in Evans Cherry Blossom
Edmonton has a lot of intrusive bylaws, but the ban on keeping honey bees is an especially annoying one for home gardeners. Many vegetable and fruit crops require cross-pollination, something honey bees are very good at, but they are a rare sight in the Home Bug Garden. Fortunately, the native' pollinators have responded well to the conversion from lawn into open woodland and I get 'free' pollination services.
Scarlet Malachite Beetle & cherry blossoms
I have a half-dozen varieties of cherries (Prunus) blooming in the Zone 3 HBG at the moment, but none are the Sweet Cherries that are commonly found in grocery stores. Zone 7 is about the limit for most Sweet Cherries, although some apparently can survive into Zone 5. Instead, I have a variety of 'bird cherries' (Nanking Cherry, Mayday, Sandcherry) and 'sour cherries': Prunus cerasus 'Evans' and some hybrids between cerasus and the Mongolian Cherry P. fruticosus called Prunus x-kerrasis developed at the University of Saskatchewan.
7-spot Lady Beetle - not a great pollinator, but a good predator of Black Cherry Aphid
The 'sour' cherries are self-fertile, but still need insects to move their pollen around. Currently, at least four species of bees (Andrena milwaukeensis, Bombus moderatus, Halictus confusus, and an unidentified Lasioglossum), the two beetles above, and a small hover fly have been seen doing their best to help me make cherries for snacks, crumbles, pies, and wine.
Cat-licking good: Half the first harvest
The Evans Cherries are 7-8 years old and small trees. Each Evans has produced 5-10 kg of slightly tart cherries for the last three years - as pleasant as raspberries for snacking and a very nice fruit wine base. The Prunus x-kerrasis hybrids (Carmine Jewel, Romeo, Juliette) are younger, shrubby cherries, but are reputed to have rather sweet fruit. This is the first year they have had more than a few blooms, so I hope to be able to test the 'sweet' hypothesis. Thanks to the bees, beetles, and flies, of course.
Evans Cherry reaching for the sky

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Bug: We're back!

Native Bug & Exotic Flower
Tarnished Plant Bugs (Lygus lineolaris) have featured before on the Home Bug Garden and now they are back. Adults overwinter and emerge early. You could say they belong here, because they are one of those moderately rare insects that were in North America before my ancestors arrived and are now major pests of crops and gardens. Truly polyphagous (eating many) - well over 300 species of plants are attacked - and they are insidiously damaging to shoots and buds and vector of plant viruses. Just the kind of native bug no one really wants in their garden.

The flower this bug is perched in,Tulipa tarda, is a 'species tulip' - one that is much like its ancestors and has not been hybridized into something large and showy. Although the flowers are rather small (~5 cm diameter), they are early (unlike its name would seem to imply) and prolific. Native to Central Asia, where they would be a 'wild flower', the Tarda Tulip seems content not to spread into the wild in North America. Another happy alien in the HBG.

For anyone with a general interest in the insects that attack our vegetable crops, this excellent online source is worth a look:

John Capinera's Handbook of Vegetable Pests

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rainy Tuesday Click Beetle

Ampedus apicatus (Say, 1839)
Click beetles (Elateridae) are familiar to many children who delight in turning them on their backs to watch them spring up with a loud click in attempts to right themselves. Since the click beetle family Elateridae contains almost a thousand species in North America, children have a great variety of clickers to choose from. The larvae, called wireworms, of a few of these are pests in vegetable crops, pasture, and grains. In Alberta, only one of the 80 known species is a pest, the Prairie Grain Worm Ctenicera aeripennis (Kirby, 1837) (or perhaps the subspecies aptly named 'destructor').
To click or not to click ...
Ampedus apicatus (Say, 1839) lives in the boreal forest and appears to cause no problems - and hence has no common name. I think of it as the 'Two-spotted click beetle with the black thorax and head', but that is a pretty onerous handle. 'Apicatus' is clearly from the Latin for 'at the tip', but the generic name is a bit of a puzzle - perhaps an amalgam of the Latin 'Am' (loving) and the Greek 'pedo' (earth). Perhaps 'Apically-spotted Earth Lover' would come more trippingly on the tongue. Its wireworms may feed on fungi in rotting logs or perhaps prey on other insects in that habitat, but no one seems to know. Usually, I let them go on their merry way, but sometimes a childish urge to turn them on their backs gets the better of me.

Additional reference:

Webster et al. 2012. New Coleoptera records from New Brunswick, Canada: Elateridae. ZooKeys 179: 93–113, doi: 10.3897/zookeys.179.2603

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wednesday Wildflower: Marsh Marigold

A bright spot in the mid-May HBG
Even in a relatively good year, the first half of May in Alberta is not a colourful time of the year. Browns and greys still dominate in the bush and in Edmonton, even with its advantage of a strong Urban Heat Island effect, we depend for colour on those with the forethought to have planted bulbs last Fall.
Facing West in the afternoon sun
The one striking exception is the native Marsh Marigold Caltha palustris Linnaeus. Ever since we added it to our bog garden in 2005, the Marsh Marigold has been up as soon as the snow melts and blooming before the Ides of May. In the warmer springs before 2008, the blooms were opening in the first week (2-5 May), but since then it has been near the end of the second week. This year the first bloom was on May 8th, no record, but an indication that this Spring has been milder than the previous four.
Volunteer in foreground, progenitors in background
The bumble bees spend most of their time in the willows, coltsfoot, or the early spring bulbs, but they do forage at Marsh Marigold and no doubt contribute to seed set. Hoverflies seem especially appreciative of the flowers, although they are rather secretive about their identities. The one below may be a species of Eupeodes, but many Syrphini look very much alike to me.
Hoverfly (Syriphidae)
We now have several more Marsh Marigolds than we started with, but they are in no sense weedy. The flowers are gone before summer, but the glossy leaves are attractive too. All-in-all, Marsh Marigold is a rather excellent native addition to a damp spot in the garden.
Fruits of Marsh Marigold

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wildflowers of the week: Canada Buffaloberry & Beaked Hazelnut

Female flowers of a willow
 Spring has finally started popping in the Home Bug Garden, but in the bush things are still a bit subdued. Coltsfoot and Creeping Buttercup are adding some colour, and this week, wild violets, but most of the forage available to the bees is much less easy to notice - the catkins of shrubs and trees, willow and hazelnut in particular.
Tiny flowers of Canada Buffaloberry
 Among the moose grazed hazelnuts, however, is one shrub with more flowery, if tiny, blooms, Shepherdia canadensis (L.) Nutt., also called Russet Buffaloberry. Last week we mistook it for hazelnut, but this week, with the leaf-buds burst, we were quite clearly wrong. The scale-like appressed hairs that cover buds, stems, and leaves should have clued us in - Elaeagnaceae, the Oleaster family that includes things like Wolf Willow (Elaeagnus commutata) and Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia). 
Moth sipping at Buffaloberry flower
 The catkins of Beaked Hazelnut Corylus cornuta Marsh. also are 'in bloom', but not very flowery. We've managed not to even notice them until this year, when we corrected our misidentified Buffaloberries. Eventually, they do yield small hazelnuts - tasty if difficult to extract.
Beaked Hazelnuts
 We originally intended to plant Beaked Hazelnut in the HBG to provide some wildlife food and the odd snack. That was before red squirrels decided to colonize our attic, though, and on second thought we decided not to do any more to encourage them. There is nothing like removing 1557 spruce cones from attic insulation to make one appreciate that maintaining a distance from wildlife is in both our interests.
Nymphs of a hazelnut lace bug
 Another reason we decided against planting Beaked Hazelnut is that in the bush it is heavily infested by lace bugs (apparently Corythucha coryli Osborn and Drake, 1917) and look quite ratty by the end of summer. If the lace bug populations are out of control in the bush, where presumably their parasitoids and predators are abundant, then they are likely to be just as bad or worse in an urban garden.
Adults of Corythucha coryli

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Adventures in Spider Misidentification: A matter of taste

Small male spider, possibly a Dwarf Spider
A happy coincidence of chores done and some sun and warmth between squalls on Friday convinced Mrs Home Bug Gardener to leave the computer behind to continue her photographic documentation of the Home Bug Garden. As noted previously, the most notable activity was the buzzing around the spring bulbs. But here and there lurked a spider or two. The tiny wandering male above, I think it may be an erigonine linyphiid, proved a challenge - at 3-4 mm long, a tough shot - but also a surprise. Spiders aren't to everyone's taste, but something found this tiny spider tasty.
Ectoparasitoid - probably a wasp grub
Spiders as a group get by almost entirely by feasting on insects. A few sip nectar at extrafloral nectaries, and possibly in flowers, and some sieve pollen out of the air with their webs. But by and large, spiders eat bugs. So, I guess it is only fair that a host of insects turn the tables on spiders and feast on them. Generally, spiders are eaten from the inside out by their parasitoids*, or at least their egg masses are, but beetles and mantids munch them up and hunting wasps pack them into cells as a feast for their grubs. There are also a few that get by with a more precarious existence - perched on the outside of the spider as in this picture. This seems to be the grub of an Ichneumonidae in what is called the 'Polysphincta Genus Group' . I assume this means the group is a taxonomic mess, but at BugGuide Bob Carlson has contributed a very nice series of pictures showing the life cycle of one such wasp.
Docile Digger Wasp
On the whole, I think I'd rather sip nectar like a bee, than suck on spider insides, but that is a personal choice and I know many people find the larger spiders tasty (NB - the poor quality of the video provides some protection, but if you are afraid of spiders, do not watch this video). But another surprise of the afternoon was finding something that likes to eat bees in my own backyard.
Tritrophic interaction: flower, bee, and ?
This particular Digger Bee (Andrena cf milwaukeensis) was extremely accommodating as a photographer's model. And if you look closely at the posterior of the abdomen you will see the probable reason.
Stylops female - the protruding blob
Alas, this particular bee is more than she seems. Most of her insides are a new ordinal record for the Home Bug Garden - a Twisted-wing Insect: Strepsiptera. I think this is a species of Stylops, parasites of Andrena bees, and while I am delighted to find the 349th species of insect so far identified in the HBG, I do feel a bit sorry for the bee. This type of parasitism is called 'stylopization' and as many as a quarter of the Digger Bees in an area may be parasitized**. The males of Stylops have to be seen to be believed. As yet, we have no pictures, but Nico's Wild bees & wasps photo stream has a spectacular picture of a male attempting copulation.


*Oliver-D. Finch. 2005. The parasitoid complex and parasitoid-induced mortality of spiders (Araneae) in a Central European woodland. Journal of Natural History 39(25): 2339–2354. 

**Davy & Grace Jones. 1981. Stylopization of Andrena spp. (Hymenoptera: Andrenidae) by Stylops crawfordi (Strepsiptera: Stylopidae) in Texas. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society
54(2): 223-227.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday Bees

A Digger Bee (Andrena possibly milwaukeensis) at Colfsfoot
Spring is always slow to come to the Home Bug Garden, but when it finally arrives, it is nice to see some repeating patterns. The same Digger Bee species (Andrena cf milwaukeensis Graenicher, 1903) captured in the picture above on 2 May 2007 is active again this May 4th and joined by three other bee species.
Striped Squill
The Striped Squill (Puschkinia scilloides libanotica) are the busiest at the moment, probably because they are in full sun. The queens of two early bumble bees, the Tricoloured (Bombus ternarius) and the Half-black (B. vagans or perplexus), stumble through the spikes of striped flowers with a loud buzz or two of warning, much as they did last May and many Mays before.
Tricoloured Bumble Bee at Striped Squill last May 7th
Not all is exactly as before, or at least I can't claim that is so. The fourth species of bee seems to be a largish Halictidae (Sweat Bee). Large for a Sweat Bee is not much - perhaps a tenth of the mass of a bumble bee queen - and this one is a bit skittish, so perhaps we never noticed it this early in the season before. But we do have one from mid-summer that looks very similar, so I'll leave off with that in case some other gardener would like to know what it looks like. If Mrs HBG gets a good picture of the Spring form, I'll post it for comparison.
Halictus Sweat Bee from July 2009