• Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2015.

    Backyard butterflies: Crescent city

    This October, just in time for Halloween, I’ve had sightings of two different orange and black butterflies known as crescents: Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon). I’ve written

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  • Pollination is serious business--get in line, busy bee!

    Butterflies and Bees: out takes

    You find some funny things when you start reviewing your photo files looking for images to delete (file sizes are big these days!). So the other day I posted a

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  • Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globosa flower.

    Butterfly Sage: bees love it, too!

    Birds love it. Bees love it. Maybe even educated fleas love it. But butterflies probably love it the most. What is it? Why, butterfly sage, of course. I’ve written before

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  • Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.

    Dragonflies gone missing?

    I haven’t seen nearly as many dragonflies in the back yard this summer as I have in years past; I’m not sure why. But it seems that nowadays I have to

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  • Depth of field redux

    A couple of years ago as I was just starting out in macro photography I experimented a little bit with depth of field using a beautiful male Citrine Forktail damselfly.

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  • Zebra heliconian

    Some days, you just get lucky. This Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia) just sat patiently on a leaf letting me snap pictures as I walked closer and closer.

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  • Damselfeast 2015

    The Rambur’s Forktail damselfly (Ischnura hastata) is one of the more widespread and common damselflies in my area, and across the southern part of the country, really. Its range even

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  • Dragonflies and damselflies returning to the yard

    After a dry beginning to March (and no rain since then, but at least the heat’s moderated a bit for the past few days), the odonates have started returning to

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  • New Backyard Butterfly: Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis)

    With my new “monthly inventory” program underway, I’m taking a bit more time in the mornings and at lunch out in the yard, weeding when windy, taking pictures when calm.

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  • Giant Swallowtail at last

    The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is not the largest butterfly in North America. That distinction goes to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, at least to the larger females of that species. P.

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  • Here there be dragons

    Wow, a record for me. Three days in a row at the Yamato Scrub! My older son, Eric, surprised me midmorning on Labor Day by suggesting that we go to

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  • The Café at the End of the Universe

    Remember Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Remember how Milliways will eventually be built on the remains of Frogstar B,

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Tabebuias flower more than once

After over four years in our "new" house I'm still learning things. This morning I noticed that our Tabebuia tree out front is flowering for a second time this year. It had a reasonably good flowering season back in April, and here it is at the end of June:
Tabebuia aurea flowering for a second time this year. June 28, 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

Tabebuia aurea flowering for a second time this year. June 28, 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

I hadn't seen that before. Who knew?

Diverse lawns in south Florida

Earlier this spring I started reading yet another book on gardening in south Florida. This one, by James Kushlan, with photos by Kirsten Hines, is called Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. It came out last fall from the University Press of Florida. I didn't order it at first, because I already have tons of books on gardening in Florida: gardening with native plants, butterfly gardening, gardening for wildlife, gardening with groundcovers, hardcover, softcover—you name it, I've got a book on it. But, as often happens, a month or two ago I ran into a spell where I didn't have much to read, so I ordered it and went straight through it when it arrived. And I'm glad I did, because it reminded me of a couple of concepts that I'd lost sight of during my recent replanting: the value of a diverse lawn, and the importance of keeping some areas of the yard free of mulch (about which, more in a later post). On the diverse lawn:
Lawns are desirable in almost any garden to provide unobstructed vistas, separation of planting areas, dramatic transitions, paths and walks, and open places for backyard activities. Showing a tidy bit of lawn out front, adjacent to the neighbor's tightly manicured lawn, might ensure neighborhood or municipal peace. Lawns are important for birds, too, but what birds do not need are fields of monocultural sod grass. Of all the ways bird gardening differs from other gardening, the diverse lawn may be the hardest to get used to given that so much time, energy, and money are customarily spent tending a typical South Florida sod lawn, and heavy pressure from neighbors and the community is usually at play as well. What birds do need are small patches of diverse lawn. Diverse lawns are composed of many species of short plants, encouraged by infrequent mowing at high wheel settings. These lawns provide a diversity of insects, fruits, and seeds at staggered times.
A diverse lawn is crucial for wildlife gardeners, because pollinators depend on some kind of flowering plant being in bloom every day of the year. With a normal lawn, a sod monoculture that's always mowed so that it never flowers (St. Augustine grass has lovely flowers), and that's weeded to make sure no diverse flowering plants can get established, the homeowner is dependent on flower beds and any shrubs or trees to carry the entire burden of providing nectar and pollen. Or, as more frequently happens, such yards remain biological deserts—pleasing to the eye, perhaps, of those who are used to our imported craze for lawns that look like they're tended by flocks of sheep, but utterly devoid of anything that might attract a butterfly or a bee:
The typical beginnings of a barren monoculture.

The typical beginnings of a barren monoculture.

The bird gardener, though, wants to attract these insects, because they are what attract birds to the yard. A truly diverse lawn in south Florida will have, without the gardener even lifting a finger, the following "weedy" insect-attracting plants (and these are just in my yard; the "selection" varies from place to place): Spanish Needles (Bidens alba), nectar source for almost any butterfly and larval host plant for Dainty Sulphurs:
Strymon istapa (Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2013.

Strymon istapa (Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2013.

Trefoils (Desmodium spp.), larval host plant for Gray Hairstreak, Dorantes and Long-tailed Skipper butterflies:
Trefoil (Desmodium sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Trefoil (Desmodium sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Wireweed (Sida acuta), a nectar source for many insects and the larval host plant for Gray Hairstreak, Columella Hairstreak, and Tropical Checkered Skipper butterflies:
Wireweed (Sida acuta). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Wireweed (Sida acuta). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

  Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum), nectar plant for many butterflies and larval host plant for Great Southern White, European Cabbage White, and Checkered White butterflies:
Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum providing nectar for a Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum) providing nectar for a Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Cheesy-toes (Stylosanthes hamata):
Cheesy-toes (Stylosantha hamata) providing a nectar meal for a Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 7, 2015.

Cheesy-toes (Stylosantha hamata) providing a nectar meal for a Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 7, 2015.

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa), a beautiful low-growing mat-forming weed with pink flowers:
Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Dayflowers (Commelina spp.), a winding, climbing, grasslike plant related to the spiderworts:
Dayflower (Commelina sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Dayflower (Commelina sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

The sticky-seeded "tarvine," Boerhavia diffusa, also known as Red Spiderling for its flowers and its sprawling, long-legged growth habit:
A common weed in Florida lawns and gardens, Boerhavia diffusa. Boca Raton, FL, May 20, 2015.

A common weed in Florida lawns and gardens, Boerhavia diffusa. Boca Raton, FL, May 20, 2015.

And all of this without even trying! A trip to the native plant nursery or a meeting of the local FNPS chapter can net the bird/wildlife gardener more flowers, like Powderpuff Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa): Or Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea):
Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) providing a nectar meal for our state butterfly, Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia</em). June 28, 2012.

Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) providing a nectar meal for our state butterfly, Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia). June 28, 2012.

All of these plants (except maybe the last) can be mowed at the homeowner's convenience, to keep the diverse lawn, while functioning like a weedpatch, from looking like one. As Kushlan reminds us, "A diverse lawn need not look like a knee high, unkempt vacant lot. It needs to be mowed regularly to keep it as a lawn, but at a high mower setting." In fact, if you leave an unmowed patch, even the typical St. Augustine grass sod will send up beautiful flowers:
St. Augustinegrass flower

St. Augustinegrass (Stenotaphrum secundatum). Boca Raton, FL, May 22, 2013

Why not give it a try? References Kushlan, J. and K. Hines. 2014. Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. Gainesville: UP of Florida.

Fiddlewood flowers and true garden pests

Gardeners who plan their gardens for wildlife often see that planning rewarded. The thing is, it's sometimes hard to tell whether that reward is, as the computer programmers say, a feature or a bug.  That is, we plant the plants we do because we're interested in more than just the way the garden looks to us; we want it to attract the attention of the native fauna as well. But of course we also try to manage the garden so that there are plenty of beautiful plants and flowers throughout the year. So although we experience at least as many "pest" infestations as gardeners who plant for traditional garden beauty, we handle them differently. For example, we have rather yucky-looking caterpillars attacking our beautiful passionvines to the point of defoliation at times. Sounds like a bug, right? But at the same time, it's a feature: those caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies. The damage to the plants is ephemeral; passionvines not only refoliate rapidly, they're notorious for popping up at many different places in the garden, whether you wanted them there or not. (Again, hard to tell whether that's a feature or a bug!) The caterpillars of passionflower butterflies (the heliconians, Zebra, Gulf Fritillary, and Julia) eat the passionvines for the chemical defenses they provide. These caterpillars aren't pests; they're friends. We manage their infestations by planting enough of the vines in out-of-the-way spots that they can defoliate them, should the population require it, without sacrificing the lovely flowers everywhere. The same is true for many of the "weeds" that grow in our diverse lawns. Cheesytoes , Spanish Needles, Trefoil (Desmodium sp.) , and the like—all of these are attractive to insects, which in turn attract lizards and birds and other wildlife to the garden. It's not the same as a true ecosystem, but it's nice to see some life in our yards, instead of the sterile no-fly zones of monocultured lawns, manicured weekly by gas-guzzling and noise-polluting "landscaping" crews. There are, however, some pests that even the most tolerant of wildlife gardeners would like to control. In the second week of May I started to notice my Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) starting to come into flower, which is very exciting. This is a beautiful and ornamental native plant. The wildlife value of its flowers is limited, because it flowers for such a short time each year, but when it's in flower, my goodness! It sure is pretty:
Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

For more on the name of this plant, check out the post over at Eat the Weeds. I quote just a very few relevant words here (lightly edited):
When Linnaeus was naming plants, the English words “violin” or “fiddle” were not common in his time; plus, he preferred classical names. He knew the wood was used to make musical instruments so he named it  “guitar wood shrub,” Citharexylum fruticosum. That got stretched into Guitar Tree and then Fiddlewood Tree. Now you know. The most common name for the tree in the Caribbean islands is “old woman’s blisters”—read it’s used for a lot of ailments. Boiled twigs and decoctions are used if you’re chilled. When mixed with Strongback and Spoonbush it is used for sores. Boiled with mahogany, lignum vitae, Doctor Club roots, Snowberry and papaya latex, it was used to aid indigestion… or perhaps create it…. Also beware… insects of all sorts love the tree so you will encounter them, in numbers. The fruit pulp is edible but not prized. Do not eat the seeds.
Unfortunately for those who garden for aesthetics in addition to wildlife value, as noted by Green Deane in the above quote, this beautiful small tree serves as the larval host plant of a particularly annoying insect, a communal-feeding caterpillar, Epicorsia oedipodalis (I've written about it before). Since the time of that write-up, the UF/IFAS program has released a paper on them that wasn't available to me until I started researching this post. (About time, guys!) Here's the relevant section of the paper for gardeners and native plant enthusiasts:
This leaf-eating pest does no permanent damage to the plant, the shrub simply puts out a new flush of leaves. From an ecological perspective, the larvae themselves may serve as a valuable food source when baby birds need feeding during the spring dry season in Florida.
While I'm sure it's true that the feeding damage isn't permanent, and that this is indeed a worthy caterpillar, and a worthy moth too, for that matter, it comes in feeding hordes so large that they can completely defoliate young trees (and mine is only a couple of years old). So rather than letting nature take its course, I've been trying to manage the tree by systematically removing the caterpillars whenever I notice the characteristic signs of their presence: long webs running along the flower stalks (you can see it in the above picture if you click through to the full-sized version), skeletonized or discolored, dead, or dying leaves:
Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Maybe once my tree is a bit older, I'll be able to practice the more ecologically sound approach and leave them on the tree. For now, though, I'm in protective mode. If you clicked through to look at the first picture of the fiddlewood flower, you noticed the long webbing running up the flower stalks; there are usually several caterpillars hiding in those protective zones. And since this hideout was running along the longest and nicest flower stalk, I needed help to remove the caterpillars without damaging the flowers. So I turned to my lovely and talented wife, whose up-close vision is far finer than mine, and whose hands are far steadier, for help:
Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

If you look closely at the image above, you can see the little caterpillar in it:
Detail of caterpillar removal.

Detail of caterpillar removal.

And here's a larger one that she'd removed a minute earlier:
Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

And here is a jar full of hundreds of these little guys that I've removed via leaf-pinching and simple snipping over the past several days:
Caterpillars in a jar.

Caterpillars in a jar.

No, I'm not going to try to raise them. I'm just going to keep them in that peanut butter jar until the trashmen come to haul it away with the rest of the garbage next week. These caterpillars also enjoy three other native plants in our region, two of which (Pigeon Plum and Lancewood) I have in my yard. Fortunately, according to the Featured Creature report, "less damage has been noted on these hosts." (The third host, Sea Grape, is a close relative of Pigeon Plum.) And, as usual with the UF/IFAS people, they suggest the nuclear option for homeowners interested in control of these infestations: Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as the way to make sure no insects survive in your yard ever. (They say that "this Lepidoptera-specific material is toxic to caterpillars but relatively non-toxic to beneficial organisms like predatory and parasitoid wasps, predaceous bugs, and vertebrates (birds, lizards, people, etc.)."  Sorry, IFAS, there's no way I'm going to apply that butterfly-killing bomb anywhere in my yard! References Kern, W. 2015. "Featured Creatures: Fiddlewood leafroller." Publication number EENY-617. Available at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/ORN/fiddlewood_leafroller.htm

New backyard plant: Portulaca pilosa

I didn't plant this pretty little weed, known variously as pink purslane, kiss-me-quick, or pigweed, but I'm glad to see it volunteering in my yard. Pink Purslane, known to horticulturists as Portulaca pilosa, is a low-growing plant with succulent leaves (succulent in both the technical and culinary senses) and pretty little pink flowers (although if you plan to eat it, I understand it's better to do so before the plant puts out its flowers).
Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Etymology: According to my Brown (1927), the common name, purslane, comes to us from the Old French porcelaine, which is from the Latin porcilaca, a corruption of portulaca. Lewis and Short's Latin Dictionary (1879) and the OED both give the spelling purslain, while the latter goes on to explain that portulaca was taken as a generic name by Tournefort in 1700. Apparently it translates literally as "little gate" (porte, right?), describing the lid on the fruit capsule. Pilosa means pilose, hairy. I don't know much about culinary or nonculinary edibles, but there's a good account of this plant over at My Herbal Notebook that you might want to read sometime. For some reason, Dan Austin didn't include this widespread native plant in his Florida Ethnobotany; perhaps there aren't any records or traditions of its use here or in the wider Caribbean.

Gulf Fritillary

The Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) is one of the most common butterflies in my backyard, and it's one of the most impressive as well. Large and brightly colored, it's attracted to the nectar provided by the abundant flowers of the butterfly sage (Cordia globosa) that I have growing in several places, as well as to its larval host plant, any of several vines in the passionflower family. I have a couple of them; one is a cultivar of Passiflora incarnata, with very showy flowers: passiflora_incarnata Another is the true native, Passiflora suberosa. The flowers of this second vine are much less showy but the plant is no less attractive to the butterflies for that reason: the attraction is the chemicals contained in the vine, not the nectar or the beauty of the flowers. The larvae eat the leaves and incorporate the toxic chemicals (cyanogenic glycosides) they contain. Here are some of the fruits and foliage of this "maypop" vine:
Leaf and fruit of Passiflora suberosa. Bocca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Leaf and fruit of Passiflora suberosa. Bocca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

The other day I found yet another species of passionvine that I didn't plant and haven't seen before, with intriguing red three-petaled flowers:
Unknown passionflower. Boca Raton, FL, May 13, 2015.

Unknown passionflower. Boca Raton, FL, May 13, 2015.

When I first saw the flowers, they looked so much like the bougainvillea that's growing nearby (right down to the three stamens in the middle) that I simply assumed one of those flowers had somehow fallen off that plant and onto this volunteer passionvine that's growing up between the cracks on my patio. But closer inspection revealed the flower to be part of the passionvine itself, so I'm stumped. And unfortunately, since it's a volunteer vine in a bad location, it probably won't survive long. And on top of that, because it's growing up between paver cracks, it's situated too tightly for me to be able to dig it up and put it somewhere nicer; I just have to hope that it sprouts again in a more favorable location. If you look at the leaves in the picture above, you'll notice that someone's been eating them; here's a picture of the culprit:
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, May 2, 2015.

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, May 2, 2015.

They sure look, um, interesting, when they're young, don't they? When they grow up, they look much more attractive:
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

New backyard insect: Megachilid bee sp., subgenus Chelostomoides

Being a backyard naturalist has its ups and downs. It's fun to get to know your little corner of the earth well enough to know when something new (to you, if not to science) appears there. Lately I've been noticing how many different species of bees there are. Of course the most common bee in the yard is the good old honeybee, imported long ago from Europe. But in addition to Apis mellifera there are scores of other species. All of them are much harder for the uninitiated to identify, and even the initiated often can't tell them apart without a specimen and a microscope. No matter how good one's photographic skills, wild, unrestrained bees are unlikely to sit still for their portraits long enough to be sure of capturing enough field marks to guarantee a successful identification. Still, one can make educated guesses once one becomes familiar enough with the local apifauna. In my yard I can be(e) fairly certain of the following four species: Agapostemon splendens, the gorgeous little bee with the green thorax and, depending on sex, green (for the girls) or black-and-yellow (for the boys) abdomen. Here's one on one of our 11 official state flowers in the genus Coreopsis, C. leavenworthii:
Sweat bee (halictid) Agapostemon splendens on Leavenworth's Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Sweat bee (halictid) Agapostemon splendens on Leavenworth's Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Megachile petulans, the leafcutter bee with the big head and stout abdomen, loves to appear on my patches of Dune Sunflower (Helianthus debilis):
A leafcutter bee (Megachilid petulans). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

A leafcutter bee (Megachilid petulans). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Halictus poeyi is the small bee with the low profile:
Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Coelioxys dolichos, the cuckoo bee (the "common" name is Carpenter-mimic cuckoo leaf-cutter), looks pretty wicked:
The cuckoo bee with the crazy name: Carpenter-mimic Cuck-leaf-cutter (Coelioxis dolichos). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

The cuckoo bee with the crazy name: Carpenter-mimic Cuck-leaf-cutter (Coelioxis dolichos). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

I'm familiar enough with the GISS and markings of these four bees that I can be reasonably sure which one I'm looking at even before I take the picture. That reasonable surety is bolstered if I get a clear enough photo to bring up on my camera's screen, and if there's still doubt, taking it inside to view on the large monitor will usually seal the deal. But when some bee I haven't seen be(e)fore drops by, you can bet there's a flurry of activity. Like the other day when I saw a small dark bee zipping around the White Indigoberry (Randia aculeata), which is in flower now and literally abuzz with activity, I became obsessed with getting a good picture. And it was a challenge. The bee was about the size of H. poeyi, but black with white hairs instead of yellow, and it had no pollen-collecting hairs on its legs as that halictid species does. For several minutes all I got were shadows, butt shots, and empty foliage that the bee had just vacated. Eventually, though, I managed to get a couple of shots that were good enough to post to bugguide.net in hopes of an ID. Here's a better shot than those, taken a day later:
Megachilid bee, subgenus Chelostomoides. Boca Raton, FL, May 13, 2015.

Megachilid bee, subgenus Chelostomoides. Boca Raton, FL, May 13, 2015.

The ID didn't take long at all. About 10 minutes after I posted the shots, I got a notice that they had been placed in the interesting category "Megachile Subgenus Chelostomoides." Four species are found in Florida, according to John Pascarella's incredible1 online resource Bees of Florida. According to the information there, the large (very large) group of bees in the Megachilidae can be characterized by the following general features:
Long-tongued bees, rectangular labrum that is longer than broad and broadly articulated to the clypeus (Michener 2000). Other features that help distinguish the Megachilidae in the Southeastern U.S. are the lack of a basitibial plate (except in Lithurgus), 2 submarginal cells in the wing with the second submarginal rather long. The metasomal sterna have scopa present except in the parasitic forms. The scopa typically found on the hind legs of other bees is absent.
Not being an expert in bee terminology, I find only the first and last of the above-listed characters to be useful (they have long tongues and they don't have pollen-gathering hairs on their legs). This group of bees is one I'd not heard of before, so I did a bit of research. It turns out this group is unlike many of the other megachilids of North America, which are commonly called "leafcutter bees," the members of the subgenus Chelostomoides do not cut leaves to line their nests (Oh, those misleading common names!). Instead, they use resin, mud, or other materials. Which of the four species found in Florida, or whether this is a new one, I doubt I'll be able to determine. If you bothered to click through to the page from Bees of Florida you probably noticed how many of the shots needed to confirm ID were extreme close-ups of dead vouchered specimens; not something I'm likely to do here. But it sure was fun to watch this little bee zipping around the shrubbery! References bugguide.net Michener, C. 2007. Bees of the World, 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP. Pascarella, J. Bees of Florida. Online resource available at http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/hallg/melitto/intro.htm.  

Step into my parlor…

...said the spider to the lady beetle. And yet, nothing happened. This morning before work I went out and, as usual, was taking pictures of whatever I could find in the yard. I found this lovely Southern Sprite damselfly (first of the season):
Southern Sprite (Nehalennia integricollis). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015

Southern Sprite (Nehalennia integricollis). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015

It's always a pleasure to see these relatively rare damselflies. (Odd, too, how abundance is so tied to locale: Everglades Spite (N. pallidula) is considered very rare, while Southern Sprite isn't, and yet I get dozens and dozens of the former over several months and very very few of the latter. I guess being near the Everglades is conducive to the occurrence of Everglades Sprite? While most people across the range of these insects are not near the glades...) When I was finished with the sprite's photo session I wandered over to the patch of dune sunflower I have growing along the drive. I noticed one flower had two petals sort of curved upward toward each other, indicating, most likely, the presence of a hunting spider. (That is, a spider that hunts without using a web.) It had tied the petals together with a strand of silk; you can see them curling up toward the camera in the photo below:
Thomisid spider waiting for breakfast. Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

Thomisid spider waiting for breakfast. Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

Thomisid spiders are commonly known as "crab spiders" (not to be confused with Gasteracantha cancriformis, commonly known in south Florida as a "crab spider," although most naturalists call it the spiny-backed orbweaver to avoid confusing it with the "true" crab spiders like the one above). The true crab spiders are so called because their front pairs of legs are drastically elongated, much like the pincers of a crab. It's one of the largest spider families, with over 2,000 species worldwide. There are at least 130 species in 9 genera in the United States, so identification to species level is left to the true spider experts, the araneologists (as distinct from the arachnidologists, who study arachnids in general, which includes arthropods from other orders such as scorpions, mites, ticks, and chiggers, in addition to the Daddy Longlegs, which aren't true spiders at all). While I was taking pictures of this unusual flower-trapping arrangement (normally I see the petals of the flowers curled down, rather than up), I noticed a wee little lady beetle about to become breakfast:
Lady beetle, meet spider. Boca Raton, FL. May 8, 2015.

Lady beetle, meet spider. Boca Raton, FL. May 8, 2015.

And then the strangest thing happened: the spider just remained motionless while the beetle climbed on the spider's back, tumbled off onto the disk portion of the flower, and then scurried away out of sight!
Let's make a closer acquaintance.

Let's make a closer acquaintance.

So long, and thanks for stopping by. (The beetle is visible to the lower left of the spider.)

So long, and thanks for stopping by. (The beetle is visible to the lower left of the spider.)

I wasn't able to snap a picture of the scene as the beetle left, but I was certainly surprised to see what I assumed would be a typical predation scenario turn into nothing at all. In case you're curious, the lady beetle looks very much like the "metallic blue" lady beetle, Curinus coeruleus, although it's by far the smallest one of them I've ever seen. References Marshall, S., & G.B. Edwards. 2008. Florida’s Fabulous Spiders, 4th ed. Hawaiian Gardens, CA: World Publications. Ubick, D., P. Paquin, P. E. Cushing, & V. Roth (eds.). 2005. Spiders of North America: An Identification Manual. Keene, NH: American Arachnological Society.

Sweat Bees, or, spring is happening…

...and the bees are buzzing with excitement. I was out in the yard at lunchtime, as usual, and I noticed more than the usual activity around the flowerbeds in front. There were these little yellow blurs zipping from flower to flower in the Gaillardia1. These are among the prettiest flowers in south Florida, although I must be honest, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I brought my native plant book to my son's preschool to show to the director, one of the native Floridians who had been there for decades burst out "that's a weed!" To which my response was "what better type of flower to plant in an area with lots of preschoolers than a weedy, hardy, one?" It didn't carry the day, though, and there are no beautiful Indian Blanketflower plantings at the preschool. Oh, well. Sure is ugly, right? gaillardia_pulchella Where was I? Oh, right. Out in the front yard, trying to figure out what these little yellow blips were. There were at least two, but I was never able to focus on them long enough for a picture. They would zip crazily along their patrol beat, skipping from flower to flower, alighting ever so briefly to find it empty and move on before I could so much as twitch my shutter finger. I wound up turning in circles trying to draw a bead on one of them but had to give it up after a few futile attempts. Soon, though, I noticed a much calmer, green-colored blip that resolved into a bee digging for pollen all across these little plants. You can see how successful she's been by how puffy and yellow her legs are:
Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

She was working hard, keeping her head down and doing her best to ignore that little yellow blip buzzing around, but after a while it became impossible: as soon as one of the blips noticed her, it plunged down at her and appeared to be trying to carry her off! Earlier I had been trying to figure out whether these yellow guys were some sort of robber fly or hunting wasp, but this interaction narrowed down the possibilities enormously: it must have been either territorial aggression or an attempt to get down to business. A minute or two later when one of the yellow blips finally settled on one of the flowers, perhaps to rest and reconnoiter a little bit, I was able to suss it out to my satisfaction. I zoomed in with my lens (not literally, of course, since it's a fixed focal length macro, but...) to reveal this:
Sweat bee, Agaspostemon splendens male (note the lack of pollen-carrying hairs on the legs). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

Sweat bee, Agaspostemon splendens male (note the lack of pollen-carrying hairs on the legs). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

The attacker was none other than a male A. splendens looking to, ahem, get busy. I wasn't able to get pictures of any of the attacks, but this node over at bugguide.net should give you an idea of the general nature of the proceedings, should you care to follow the link. Kudos to photographer Tim Lethbridge for that work! I'm surprised, in retrospect, by how yellow the blips of the male bees on their patrol flights appeared; their thorax looks green in the pictures. I think, though, that it must give off a bit of a gold highlight which, combined with the yellow and black stripes on the abdomen as opposed to the green and black of the female, is probably responsible for the great difference in GISS. According to Eric Grissell (2010: 220), sweat bees are "the most behaviorally complex of all the so-called solitary bees, ranging from solitary to communal, semisocial, and primitively eusocial." Grissell provides some good information for the amateur taxonomist as well: the term "sweat bee" is a bit of a simplification, since this family includes entire groups of bees that aren't all that interested in alighting on our arms and trying to drink up our sweat. (Although to be fair, many bees in the genus Lasioglossum reportedly do exhibit this behavior, although I've not witnessed it personally.) He calls the bees in the genera Augochlorella, Augochlora, and Agapostemon " 'little green bees' because they have no common name and they are little and green." I also have to give props to the Xerces Society for the accuracy of their description of the genus: "a fast-moving metallic green blur over summer flowers is probably an Agapostemon." These bees are generally solitary nesters in bare soil, so it's important to remember to leave some bare patches here and there if you want to encourage them. References Grissell, E. (2010). Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in the Garden. Portland: Timber Press. Mader, E., Shephard, M., Vaughan, M., Black, S., and LeBuhn, G. (2011). The Xerces Society Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey.

New backyard butterfly: Dainty Sulphur

April's showers have brought an explosion of new insect life to the garden. This morning I went out to check on the new plantings (record heat yesterday had made me concerned despite the relatively frequent recent rains) and discovered at least a half dozen Halloween Pennant dragonflies:
Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Three or four little blue dragonlets (yes, this one isn't blue; they aren't when they're relatively fresh males or, if they're females, they're this color throughout life):
Little blue dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Little blue dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

And a new butterfly species for the yard. (I'm sure it's been here every spring; this is just the first time I've been able to document it.) It's a small yellow butterfly with a name that pretty much says the same thing: Dainty Sulphur.
Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, April 27, 2015.

It's the smallest North American pierid (the term for butterflies in this family, "whites and yellows" or "whites and sulphurs"). They feed on low-growing plants in the Asteraceae, which basically means they feed on weeds. Around here they like Spanish Needles and perhaps other herbs in the genus Bidens, so there's very little reason to fear for the future of this weedeater. No one, and I mean no one, can get rid of Spanish Needles. (Glassberg, though, describes the status of this butterfly as "uncommon to abundant, decreasing immigrant northward and westward.") The taxonomic name is Nathalis iole, which translates roughly to "Nathalie's purple." I actually have no idea what the derivation of Nathalis is, so I speculate it honors someone Boisduval, who named the species, knew or fancied. The specific epithet, iole, though, comes from the Greek "ion" (ἰόν), which can mean either "violet," for the faint purple flush that is sometimes present on this butterfly (the caterpillar actually has two purple stripes on it), or "ion," the term Michael Faraday invented in 1834 to describe how something "goes" (from the Greek past participle of "to go," which is another meaning of ἰόν) from one electrode to another through an aqueous medium. (Boisduval names the species in 1836, so "ion" might have been in the current, so to speak.) References "Attributes of Nathalis iole." Butterflies and Moths of North America (website). http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Nathalis-iole Glassberg, J. (2012). A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Morristown, NJ: Sunstreak. Minno, M. Butler, J., and Hall, D. (2005). Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and their Host Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P. The dreaded Wikipedia for Faraday's coining of the term "ion."  
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