Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Marsh Mallow Rose of China

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Boreas Yellow' in a bed of basil.
Summer is rapidly approaching in the Austral Home Bug Garden and I've been distracted by all of the spring flowers at my new location. The previous owner spent a decade planting what caught her fancy, but the tags have survived on only a few, so most are mysterious and some intractable. One group that I never expected to fancy are the hybrids of the 'Hawaiian' Hibiscus (really from China first), Hibiscus rosa-sinensis Linnaeus.  'Hibiscus' comes to us from the Greek for the Marsh Mallow Althaea officinalis L. whose roots gave us the original marshmallow and 'rosa sinensis' litterally means Rose of China.
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Psyche' (the only one with a tag)
Unfortunately, the hybrid hibisci don't seem to be very attractive to insects, except to the annoying Hibiscus Flower Beetle (Aethina concolor (W.J. Macleay, 1871)), a native species that makes short shrift of the large and fleshy hybrid blossoms. However, this simple red variety ('Psyche') is attractive to the honeyeaters, especially when the flowers are in their pre-opening 'flagged' state.
Flagged Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Psyche'
Still, even a home bug garden is also for the human occupants and I've decided that the diversity of hibiscus mutant forms are quite entertaining and have just added my first contribution (the 'Boreas Yellow' at the top). They obviously do well here and grow into attractive screening hedges.
Hibiscus possibly 'Brassy Blonde'
Alas, putting names to the various varieties can be parlous. There are thousands of varieties and many are close variations on a theme. For example, the (maybe) 'Brassy Blonde' above is similar to 'Boreas Yellow', but the eye lighter, the rays lavender and the outer petals a rich mix of gold and yellow.
Hibiscus possibly 'Lion's Mane'
I'm punting now, but here are a few more mysteries or best guesses.
Hibiscus 'Albo Lacinatus' an early hybrid

One of the 'tossed salad' type hybrids

Who knows, but the Hibiscus Flower Beetles like it

A single pink hybrid

A semi-double pink hybrid

A Native Hollyhock - Hibiscus splendens from nearby riparian rainforest margin

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Wet and Rusty Spring in the Austral Home Bug Garden

An ornamental Grevillea exploding into bloom.
A new year and a new Home Bug Garden. The last year has been one of those 'interesting times' the apocryphal Chinese curse threatens, but now all is better and I'm enjoying the new garden, my own hectare this time and not a rental. It comes with 10 years of loving attention from the previous owner, but no garden manuals or identification tags for the numerous plantings. For example, at least a half dozen unnamed Grevilleas have been flowering over the winter and into the spring. Given that, according to A Flora of Australia (Volume 17a) , the genus has 362 described species and more than 100 subspecies, not to mention the hundreds of hybrids and horticultural selections, any identifications I offer should be taken with a boxcar of salt. However, the brilliant pink and white specimen above may be Grevillea 'Caloundra Gem', a hybrid of G. banksii x G. whiteana.
Another firework of a flower, a native Lilly Pilly from back beyond the compost bin.
Although the pervious owner had a penchant for native plants, her tastes were broad enough to include many exotics. Some of these previously non-natives (well, probably most that have survived in the thin soil of this garden) have naturalised in the bush in Queensland and so present a  conundrum to a Home Bug Gardener. During my convalescence, I had the strong back of my youngest brother Brian to grub up some of the more intrusive weeds, but now that I'm mostly better I'm taking a less drastic approach. One reason, other than laziness, is that if I grubbed out all of the exotics, then about half the shrubs would have to go. I think a long term, one-at-a-time replacement strategy would be less disruptive. Also, the natives are not without their problems, as the poor Lilly Pilly above is infected with the introduced and destructive Myrtle Rust (Puccinia psidii) and may need to be terminated. This rather wet spring (atypical since we are supposed to be in El Nino) is no doubt encouraging the spread.
Myrtle Rust sporulating on a Lilly Pilly Bud
I've reported my infestation, but the Government has decided the rust cannot be eradicated, so it is another of those aliens that are here to stay and degrade native habitats.  Myrtle Rust is thought to be native to Brazil and, perhaps not surprisingly, my Brazilian Grape Tree (aka JabuticabaPlinia cauliflora), although also a Myrtle, shows no sign of infection. That's good, because I am looking forward to trying the fruit produced directly on the stems and the native bees appreciate the blooms.
Jabutikaba, aka the Brazilian Grape Tree, in flower & attractive to native bees
Well, that's my update to the Home Bug Garden. Apologies to those with comments that were so long in moderation, but it took me a long while to recover. And for those who wonder where the bugs are, here's a splendid mantisfly looking very much like a mantid with gossamer wings (but in fact a relative of the lacewings and not a mantid).
A Mantisfly Ditaxis biseriata (Westwood, 1852) guarding the salad greens

Friday, June 20, 2014

Winter's Coming

Giant Blue-eyed Grasshopper awaiting winter in the basil
In that very Australian way of taking the sun for granted, Winter has been officially here since the 1st of June and chilly nights started soon after. In the upside-down Home Bug Garden in Alberta, today is a day of mixed emotions: summer starts, but then the days start getting shorter in their inevitable slide towards the next winter. Weather is more lag than slave to the calendar and the upside-down North American tradition of using the solstices and equinoxes to begin seasons is an interesting tradition, but not especially logical. We still celebrate today in the Pie Creek Home Bug Garden. The 21st of June 2014 at 8:51 PM AEST will be the official Winter Solstice and the time at which the days start getting longer instead of shorter. Today will be the shortest day of 2014: sunrise 6:36 AM and sunset 5:06 PM.
Four Fruit-piercing Moths (Eudocima phalonia) ruining a mandarin
That means long nights. By the time the Solstice arrives it will have been dark for almost 4 hours with Scorpio overhead along with the Southern Cross, Milky Way and myriad other stars. Well, if it isn't cloudy. If it is, then it will be time to go moth hunting. The largest around at the moment are the beautiful but noxious fruit-piercing moths (Eudocima spp.): almost as large and even more annoying than House Sparrows (none of the latter here, thankfully).
Another Fruit-piercing Moth Eudocima materna
Mothing at the black light has not been particularly good. Most of the moths are small and seemingly impossible to identify, except for one small and all too numerous member of the leaf-mining and tying family Gelechiidae: Dichomeris capnites. This small (1 cm long) moth swarms the black light, crashes into the camera, and infiltrates the house.
Carpet moth (Scioglyptis cf lyciaria) & 4 party pooping Dichomeris capnites
Although small, this moth is easy to identify because of its aggregative desire: it forms giant clusters (up to 20 m in length have been reported) on vegetation of many thousands or perhaps millions of moths. Each tries to huddle together as close as possible (head to bum, side to side) so that the adorned leaves look as if they were coated in plate chain-mail.
Daytime aggregation of the Autumn Cluster Moth Dichomeris capnites
Appropriately, these moths have attracted the common name of Autumn Cluster Moth, although the clusters do persist into winter. The species name is also appropriate; 'capn+ites' from the ancient Greek words for 'smoke + like'. When disturbed, day or night, the resulting fluster is very much like dense smoke.
Native Bee (Tetragonula cf carbonaria) & Monarch share the basil
So that's the Home Bug Garden in Winter. A time of bugs big and small. Some good, some bad, most indifferent. The garden is bursting with salad greens, basil and assorted brassicas. I suppose I should make some pesto before a frost gets the basil.
A pair of Tawny Frogmouths snooze away a short winter day.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Autumn in the New Home Bug Garden

Striated Pardalote and blue skies
It is autumn in the Mary River Valley in SE Queensland, a time of cold nights and clear, blue days. Daytime highs are rather similar to Edmonton in the summer, 20-25 C are common, but nights chill down to the single digits. Last night it was 5 C and I wished I had packed a warm jumper. Everything is green and lush from the rains, too long delayed but copious when they began to fall, and the tanks are full to overflowing.
Don's Pond full after the summer rains
Dollar Birds, Forest Kingfishers, Channel-billed Cuckoos and a few other birds have moved away for the winter, but others have moved down from the mountains to winter in the garden. Some butterflies migrate through too. In March and April the Blue Tigers were purposely winging their ways north.
Blue Tiger Tirumala hamata (WS Macleay, 1826)
More recently an Australian Painted Lady appeared looking brand new and happy. A migrant from down south or the last of the summer's generation?
Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi (McCoy, 1868)
From all the birds and the bees busily going about their business you'd hardly know that winter was coming, but winter here tends to be kind.
Native bee (Lipotriches sp.)
Winter is a good time for gardens too, but I hope not as good for the garden pests as the summer was. My fond hopes of a bumper crop of tomatillos fell afoul of the 3-lined Potato Beetle (Lema cf trivittata Say 1824), a thoroughly obnoxious pest.
A couple of 3-lined Potato Beetles plotting the destruction of the garden.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Big Wig in the Moth World: Emperor Moth

Emperor Moth Syntherata sp.
The rains continue to scuttle-by the Gympie Region, so the rainy season so far has been a bust. But outside the relic rainforest regions, the climates in Australia always tend towards drought and flood with years of 'normal' rainfall not all that normal. The last few years have been flood in southeast Queensland, so drought is to be expected sooner or later. Last night, though, it looked like relief was in sight. A heavy cloud cover blew in, the moon disappeared, the humidity rose, and it looked perfect mothing weather until the rains came. The mothing was quite good, but the rains never came.
Underside of "Empress" Moth
Most of the moths were still on the small-size, but a handful of the medium-sized fluttered in and two on the large end of the spectrum: an as yet unidentified underwing and this striking Giant Silk Moth (Saturniidae). She is a bit battered, but still rather majestic with a wingspread of 12cm or so. She is a member of the genus Syntherata, either S.  janetta (White, 1843) or the more recently described S. escarlata Lane, Edwards & Naumann, 2010.  Apparently, the females are highly variable and the new species is difficult to separate from the old.
A pair of mystery moths of the micro and macro persuasions
So, although the garden is bone dry, I now have a handful of pictures of mostly attractive and interesting moths to try to identify and learn about. The most difficult are the so-called micro-moths:  a large number of families of small to tiny moths. Identifying them usually requires pinning with the wings spread and dissection of the genitalia. That is too barbaric for me (aka it's too much work), so I will putter around with the more accessible macro-moths. The (~4cm long) macro-moth above maybe in the family Cossidae, but if so it is one of the smaller members of the family that includes the Witchity Grubs. Unknown moths are always more fun, at least up to a point: they are a great excuse to while away the hours looking at pictures of one of life's most colourful groups of animals. 

Lane DA, Edwards, E.D.; Naumann, S. 2010. A revision of the genus Syntherata Maassen, 1873 (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) within Australia, with the description of three new species, and description of their life histories. European Entomologist  3(1): 1-41.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Naturalist observes that Big Bugs do have Smaller Bugs to bite'm

Don's Pond, a hothouse of insect lust and gluttony

I had an Ad infinitum* afternoon yesterday on an idyllic island in the middle of a water lilly-covered pond.

The entertainment came from watching some very large parasitic wasps misbehaving.

Literally it was lust in the dust as a swarm of several dozen males pounced and pursued females emerging from burrows in the ground.

Radumeris tasmaniensis (Saussure, 1855) belongs to the Scoliidae and is rather large – females to 30 mm long. They have the interesting habit of burrowing in the ground up to a metre or more in search of beetle grubs that they paralyze with their sting. An egg is deposited and the wasp grub that hatches from it proceeds to devour the beetle grub alive.

Lust-crazed male wasp pursues uninterested female
Since these beetle grubs are often pests (e.g. cane grubs), the wasps are considered ‘good insects’. The males, however, are pretty bogan, lust-crazed and don't know how to take no for an answer. I was not alone in my purving, though. Also absorbed by all the drama was a flight of very large and hairy bee flies (Bombyliidae).
Bee fly in flight
Ligyra satyrus (Fabricius, 1775) is a very large (53 mm wingspan) bee fly. The type specimens were collected by Joseph Banks during the Endeavour voyage and it was one of the first Australian insect species described. Its grubs somehow find their way deep into the ground where they eat the wasp grubs that are eating the cane grubs.
Ligyra satyrus (Fabricius, 1775) in person
*"So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum."
J. Swift (1733) On Poetry: A Rhapsody

Berry JA, Osten T & Emberson R. 2001. Radumeris tasmanniensis (Saussure, 1855), the first record of a scoliid wasp from New Zealand (Hymenoptera, Scoliidae, Campsomerini). Entomophauna 22(4): 41-48.

Yeates DK, Logan D & Lambkin C. 1999. Immature stages of the bee fly Ligyra satyrus (F.) (Diptera: Bombyliidae): A hyperparasitoid of canegrubs (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae). Australian Journal of Entomology 38: 300–30.