• 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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Chalcid wasps are small

Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.
We relate to the world around us through our senses. We have little choice. There might exist a world of objective reality, the realm of Plato's ideal, but we can't reach it, except perhaps through pure mathematics (and even then, Plato says, we're still looking at shadows on the cave wall rather than the actual objects that cast those shadows). So, stuck in the cave as we are, we tend to judge the world around us as it relates to us. A slightly older contemporary of Plato's, the ancient Greek sophist Protagoras summed up this anthropocentric tendency thousands of years ago in the pithy saying "Man is the measure of all things." This tendency has persisted to the present day, both in common usage and in cosmological theory1 But we don't need to be cosmologists to understand that we relate to the world around us through our human-sized senses. A pretty sunrise, for example, is easy to appreciate; it seems to be sized for our enjoyment:
Sunrise. Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2015.

Sunrise. Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2015.

The sun looks about as large as my thumbnail held at arm's length—easy to handle, despite my knowledge of how incredibly large the actual sun is. The point I'm trying to make is that everyday experiences like these center around events, objects, and beings that are, or appear to be, in the human-sized world. Our experience of worlds larger and smaller is less immediate. Both the microscopic world and the realm of the astronomically large are almost always mediated by our equipment: macro lenses,2 to make the tiny objects that inhabit the micro world large enough to see, and telescopes, to magnify and make visible as extended objects the tiny points of light that are, in actuality, the largest objects in the universe: other planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies. That's one reason I love these bits of optical gear so much. They open up realms of experience that are otherwise inaccessible to me. When I see a tiny little dot in the air with my naked eye, and it resolves itself into a lovely little bee through optical aid, I get a thrill. And when those tiny little dots and patterns in the night sky3 resolve themselves into recognizable patterns (for example, in Messier 42) in the eyepiece of my telescope, I get a thrill.4 Similarly, in our everyday experience of nature, be it in the back yard or at a nearby park (or even in a far-away national park or wildlife refuge), we tend to focus on those large objects that are visible to the naked eye: birds, butterflies, and perhaps the various shrubberies, trees, or flowers in which they appear. When we pay really close attention, we might see something as small as a dayflower, or a common honeybee or an ant, but that's pushing our powers of observation to their limits:
<em>Commelina</em> flower with small bee (<em>Lasioglossum lepidii</em>). The flower is about 3/4-inch wide.

Commelina flower with small bee (Lasioglossum lepidii). The entire field of view is probably 6 inches wide.

To experience the true diversity of the natural world, at least as it manifests itself in the insect world, we need magnification. I use binoculars, a hand lens, or the macro lens on my camera. The camera lens is especially useful as it helps me record details that I'm unable to see in real time. (For example, it enabled an expert to identify that bee in the above picture.) A recent fortuitous encounter through the camera lens drew my attention to the enormous wasp superfamily Chalcidoidea. This group is enormous in terms of diversity, not physical size: most of the over 22,000 described members are less than 3 mm from stem to stern; in fact, this group contains the smallest known insect, Dicopomorpha echmepterygis. And there are thought to be as many as 500,000 species in this group; there are so many of them, and they're so tiny, that relatively little attention has been paid to them compared to the "charismatic megafauna" of the insect world like the beetles or the butterflies. After several years of almost complete ignorance of their presence here in my yard I've recently discovered three tiny little members of this superfamily of wasps. At our current level of taxonomic sophistication, none of them can be identified to the species level, but they can all be assigned to a genus. Here they are, in alpha order: Brachymeria species (family Chalcidinae):  
Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

Conura species (family Chalcidinae):
Wasp, Conura species. Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2014.

Chalcid wasp, genus Conura. Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2014.

Eurytoma species (family Eurytomidae):
Chalcid wasp, genus Eurytoma. Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2015.

Chalcid wasp, genus Eurytoma. Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2015.

What's astounding to me is how different all of these tiny creatures are from each other, once their images are enlarged enough to be useful. The conurid is eye-catching: bright yellow-orange body, with yellow eyes and black marks in distinctive patterns on the body; the two black wasps have remarkably different eye colors (bright red for the eurytomid, black for the brachymeriid) and antennal structure (the feathery antennae of the eurytomid differ markedly from the "straight" antennae of the two chalcidinids).5 While I know very little about these particular species, it seems plain to me that the conurid wasp is a predator, either a parasitoid or a hyperparasitoid; it's constantly scanning the leaves of my wild lime bush for caterpillars. The other two wasps appear to be phytophagous, eating either the nectar or the pollen of the plants I find it on; they seem to adore my butterfly bush (Cordia globosa), and I frequently see them inside the flowers, rather than scanning, scanning, scanning for prey like the predatory wasps. I've seen dozens of individuals of two of these species (the eurytomid and the conurid), which makes me think that they're either gregarious or social, if not eusocial like the ants and the honeybees; so far I've only seen the one brachymeriid, so either it's a solitary wasp or I've just not been paying enough attention. And part of the reason for this post is to testify that I haven't been paying enough attention, and to try to remedy that situation. But this is as far as I've gotten for now. Hope you enjoyed the trip! References Bug Guide. Available at http://bugguide.net Noyes, J.S. Universal Chalcidoidea Database. Available at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/chalcidoids/ Wikipedia article on chalcids. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcid_wasp

New backyard bug: Eurytomid wasp (family Chalcidae)

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.
Lately I've been getting photobombed. In several butterfly snaps (see this post here), I've seen these teeny tiny flying insects in the order hymenoptera showing up. Because they're so small and I've never focused on them before, I just assumed that they were all the tiny bees that I recently got a positive ID on (Lasioglossum lepidii). So today, since all the butterflies I saw in the yard were ones I've got hundreds of images of (how jaded we get!) I decided to turn my lens on these guys and try to get a shot of these tiny little critters. And I'm glad I did, because, as with most everything else, paying attention to something new makes you learn something new. It turns out that these little wasps with their black bodies and red eyes are nothing like the little bees with the black bodies and hairy yellow legs that I saw the other day. These guys are not little bees but chalcid wasps, members of an enormous group of tiny, mostly parasitic wasps (some, apparently, are phytophagous (plant eaters) rather than parasites or parasitoids).1 Here are the best images I've managed to get so far; you can be sure I'll get out back with a tripod to try to get some better shots soon:
Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

I'm intrigued by the contrast of the dark body and the red eyes, the challenge of getting an image of such a tiny creature, and by the reported diversity of this group of insects.
Parasitoid biology reaches its most elaborate development in the Chalcidoidea. There are solitary and gregarious species; ectoparasitoids2 and endoparasitoids;3 primary, secondary and tertiary parasitoids;4 polyembryonic species;5 and species with planidial6 larvae.
Doesn't that sounds like an interesting group of insects? Nevertheless, given how difficult they are to spot and to photograph, I doubt that I'll do more than appreciate them aesthetically while marveling at their diversity and applauding their ability to photobomb my more photogenic critters! References Noyes, J. S. 2003. Universal Chalcidoidea Database. Natural History Museum, London. Available at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/chalcidoids/introduction.html.  

New backyard butterfly: Checkered-Skipper, either “common” or “white”

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.
I've been documenting my tiny area of the world for so long now (4-1/2 years at the "new" house [built in 1928] and 7 years before that at the "old" one [built in 1968]) that it's always an exciting day when I can record a new species. The other day I posted about two new bees, and just this morning I got a new butterfly!
Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015. Best image I could manage of the underwings, which help in identification.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015. Best image I could manage of the underside of the wings which, when visible, help in identification.

Unfortunately for those who like things tidy and all animals correctly named, I'm not entirely sure which species this is. That's because, at least if you believe the national butterfly guide books, it is part of a pair of species [Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) and White Checkered-Skipper (P. albescens)] that cannot be identified in the field, and neither of them are "supposed to" be this far south in Florida. See for yourself on the range map in the newest (2012) field guide to North American Butterflies (Glassberg's Swift Guide):
Range map of White checkered-skipper in Glassberg (2012). South Florida is excluded.

Range map of White Checkered-Skipper in Glassberg (2012). South Florida is excluded.

It's always best, though, to consult local guides whenever possible. According to Minno's 2005 Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants, the range is all of Florida, even if it had "just recently" expanded its range into the state:
Range of White Checkered-Skipper in Minno's (2005) Florida Butterfly Caterpillars. Looks like they should be in the whole state, right?

Range of White Checkered-Skipper in Minno et al. (2005). Looks like they should be in the whole state, right?

Of course, I'm sure neither Common nor White bother to read the guidebooks, and furthermore, should such a book-reading butterfly prodigy ever appear, I'm convinced that it wouldn't consent to confine itself to its agreed-on range, should the guidebooks every bother to agree! What's more, both of them are potential visitors south of the lake (that's Lake Okeechobee in case you aren't in the south Florida club), so either one is possible. The one thing I'm sure of about this butterfly is that it's NOT Tropical (P. oileus), the one checkered-skipper that "should" be in the area according to the guide books. That one looks rather different, although if you're new to checkered-skipper ID you might have to take your time to come to that conclusion. References Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Morristown, NJ: Sunstreak. Glassberg, J., Minno, M., and Calhoun, J. 2000. Butterflies Through Binoculars: A Field, Finding, and Gardening Guide to Butterflies in Florida. New York: Oxford UP. Minno, M., Butler, J., and Hall, D. 2005. Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

New backyard bugs: Megachile albitarsis and Lasioglossum lepidii

White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.
Earlier in September I discovered yet another kind of bee on my property: a leaf-cutter bee in the genus Megachile, this one has huge furry white legs and an amazing two-tone eye. Its "common name" is basically just a translation of its taxonomic name: Megachile albitarsis, the white-footed leaf-cutter bee:
White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

Like most of the other bees I've found in the area, this one was cruising from flower to flower exploring the Spanish Needles for nectar and pollen:
White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

And just recently, I captured an image of a teeny tiny bee that had enough detail in it to enable John Ascher, the bee guru at Bug Guide, to offer an identification: Lasioglossum lepidii, a halictid. I have the signal honor of being the first contributor with an image of this species in bugguide.net:
Lasioglossum lepidii, a tiny bee in the halictidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 10, 2015.

Lasioglossum lepidii, a tiny bee in the halictidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 10, 2015.

In the guide for the subgenus to which this bee species belongs (Dialictus), the following rather desperate note is offered:
Extremely difficult to ID to species, even under the microscope. They are so morphologically monotonous that breaking them into species groups isn't really an option. Many species can only be IDed by the relative density of punctures on the surface of the bee.
However: "The limiting factor is resolution of the images. If we could clearly see antennal proportions and scutual sculpturing many species identifications would become possible." (Comment by John Ascher).
I'm glad my two images were enough for him to give an ID of this guy this time around. (An earlier attempt from last October did not provide enough detail for a positive ID. The new 200-mm macro might have made the difference. Or the fact that I used a tripod this time.) Now that I'm up to 7 or 8 species for the yard, it's time to start listing them all so I can keep track of them; the ubiquitous Apis mellifera, the European Honeybee, is of course a daily visitor as well.
  • Agapostemon splendens, a halictid bee.
  • Coelioxys dolichos, a cuckoo-bee in the megachilinae.
  • Halictus poeyi, a halictid.
  • Lasioglossum sp., a (very small) unidentified halictid. Presumably L. lepidus (see next list item).
  • Lasioglossum lepidii, very small (and first picture in Bug Guide!) halictid.
  • Megachile petulans, a megachilid.
  • Megachile sp. Subgenus Chelostomoides, one of several hard-to-differentiate species.
  • An unidentified megachilid, perhaps "just another" M. petulans.
  • Megachile albitarsis.
So. There you have it. To my surprise, only three (or perhaps four) "sweat bees" (halictids) and four (or perhaps five) leaf-cutter bees (megachilids), in addition to the ubiquitous honeybee For those who are curious, here's a little gallery of all the bees I've seen:    

My baby blolly, after four years: boy or girl?

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in fruit. Boca Raton, FL, August 21, 2015
Four and a half years ago we moved into a new house. This involved a lot of new things: first, and most importantly, of course, a new baby boy. Happy, shiny day. Also, relatively easy to determine the sex (baby humans have dangly bits). Baby plants, though, don't have such obvious markers of sex. For example, right around the time we were moving into our lovely new home with our lovely new baby boy, I was planting a lovely new garden. And I put in a lovely little tree called a Blolly (Guapira discolor). As with most plants, though, unless you're lucky enough to catch it in fruit or in flower, it's hard to tell whether it's a male, female, or both. (Plants that are both male and female are called dioecious; plants that are one or the other are monoecious. Flowers that are both male and female—that is, they bear both male stamens and female pistils—are called "perfect.") And when plants are young, they're not likely to bear either fruit or flower, particularly the slow-growing trees like the blolly. Like humans, the blolly tree is dioecious, which means it has separate male and female plants. (Unlike humans, though, it's usually the female plant that carries the dangly bits.) Unfortunately, I've never been able to find a good picture of either male or female flowers of this plant, so I've never known whether my little tree was a boy or a girl. And it's important to know, because when you have dioecious plants, if you want to ensure that they bear fruit, you need to have both male and female in relatively close proximity so pollination can occur. (Anyone who's read this blog knows that I have a whole host of busy pollinators to make that happen.) Trouble is, blolly flowers are so darn small that even when I see them, I can't see whether they have stamens or pistils. (And I'm such a hands-off naturalist that I don't even try to dissect them myself; perhaps something to consider?) So it would be really helpful to have a picture or a description of male and female flowers, so I could know which blolly to plant next: male, or female? The paucity of flower pictures has a reason. My two native plant guides that discuss this tree (Huegel 2010 and Osorio 2001) give a clue as to why pictures of the flowers are hard to find. They each say something to the effect that "the small greenish flowers are inconspicuous" (Osorio) but that the flowers are followed several months later by "clusters of 1/3-inch bright red fruit. . . that rarely last long as they are eaten quickly by birds" (Huegel). Here are the only flowers I've seen on this plant, captured back in April of this year; I'd have to agree that they are indeed "inconspicuous":
Blolly (Guapira discolor) in bloom. April 13. 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in bloom. April 13. 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

From that photo, can anyone tell me whether they're male or female? Knowing what I know now, I can: they're female. How do I know? Well, here's what they turned into:
Blolly (<em>Guapira discolor</em>) in fruit. Boca Raton, FL, August 21, 2015

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in fruit. Boca Raton, FL, August 21, 2015

Showy red fruits indeed! And those dangly red bits would seem to indicate that I have a female blolly. Here's a picture of a seed:
Blolly (<em>Guapira discolor</em>)  seed. August 27, 2015.

Blolly (Guapira discolor) seed. August 27, 2015.

However, here's the hard part—I still don't know whether my blolly is male or female! Why not? Because the blolly, I'm told by my nursery lady, can actually change from being dioecious to monoecious when its counterpart isn't available. Intriguing, no? Given that bit of information, I just had to find out more. I have to warn you: If you're looking around on the web and trying to find out more about how plants change sex, good luck. There's a lot of noise and not much signal. All of my search engine results are cluttered with people asking how to change their marijuana plants from male to female. I did find this summary of an article in Oecologia from 1980 that seemed like it might at least present evidence that such changes are not uncommon, although it doesn't sound like it goes into specifics on how the change occurs. So I emailed Rufino Osorio, the man who seems to know everything about Florida native plants, and here is what he told me:
If a label must be placed on your plant, here are two such labels that you can use: If your plant is female, and it produced a few male flowers that pollinated a few female flowers leading to fruit production, then your plant is subgynoecious (having female flowers with a few male or perfect flowers). If your plant is male, and it produced a few female flowers that got pollinated by the male flowers, then your plant is subandroecious (having male flowers with a few female or perfect flowers). Note that these labels do not apply to blolly as a species. They apply only to your plant. As a species, blolly is dioecious. And blolly, as a species, does not stop being dioecious simply because a few individuals might occasionally deviate from strict dioecy. It's just like people—human beings, as a species, are not described as albino simply because an occasional human being is born with the complete absence of melanin.
In order to test the "basic" sexuality of my plant, I'll have to wait until I see more flowers, find out whether they're mostly male, mostly female, or all male or all female, and proceed from there. Yay, homework! References Huegel, C. 2010. Native Plant Landscaping for Florida Wildlife. Gainesville: U of Florida P.   Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener’s Guide to Florida Native Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

Senna and sulphurs

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.
This spring I overhauled the front part of the front yard, getting rid of some scraggly dune sunflower and replacing it with some more long-lived plants. (Not that dune sunflower is bad or short-lived, but I have it in many other areas of the yard as well, and it needs frequent cutting back to keep it looking nice.) I put in some of the usual suspects with lovely little flowers: beach creeper (Ernodia littoralis), blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and a few actual wildflowers (a wild petunia, among others). I also put in three (count 'em, three!) little plants on which I pinned some rather high hopes: Bahama senna (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii).
Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015

Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

These are also called dwarf senna, so I suppose I shouldn't count on them to grow very large, but the pictures I've seen of them in my plant guides show some tremendously flowering plants, with big yellow flowers dominating the scene. That one lonely bloom in the picture above was supposed to be just the first of many. Hasn't worked out that way; once the blooms that were on the plants when I brought them home from the nursery were gone, there were no more. Rufino Osorio's guide mentions that they flower most profusely in autumn and spring, so perhaps a long period of summer dormancy isn't anything to worry about. But they also never seemed to grow. Whenever I went out to look at them, I saw snapped-off new growth, as if the plants were just too brittle for our breezy locale. I checked for insect damage but could never find a culprit, even though I know that several lovely yellow butterflies use these as their larval host plants (which was one of the reasons I'd brought them into the garden, after all.) Recently, however, as I was out pulling weeds after several months of heat-induced procrastination, I noticed what I'd probably just been overlooking for the past few months: a big, bright green and yellow caterpillar munching contentedly on the leaves, practically denuding the branches it was on:
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

The bright blue outlines around the black spots, combined with the yellow racing stripe on a green body are distinguishing characteristics of the lovely Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, an insect whose devotion to its larval host plant is reflected in its taxonomic name: Phoebis sennae. This caterpillar, despite its bright colors, just blends right into the leaves and stems of the host plant. It's the same kind of camouflage enjoyed by some parakeets. Take a look at them out of their natural setting (on a telephone wire, for example) and you'd wonder just how in the heck they could ever conceal their bright green colors. Why haven't they all been eaten by predators? But then you watch an entire flock of them just completely disappear into the green-leaved canopy of a large tree and it hits you: their camouflage is just perfect for where they evolved. At least, that's what I'm telling myself after months of apparent obliviousness to these quite large caterpillars trimming my bushes so effectively. Here's what this lovely young rascal will eventually turn into:
Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Here's another shot of a different larva, from the top (I just love the symmetry of the spots and the "wings" of the senna leaves):
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana. Top view.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana

And a different adult:
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015.

We have lots of butterflies here in south Florida. And if we plant pretty little plants that they enjoy, we can enjoy even more of them!

Venus and Jupiter conjoin

Conjoin? Well, not exactly. But I don't recall ever seeing the planets closer together in the sky than they were the night of June 30, 2015. They were both near the center of my FOV in my favorite macro lens:
Venus in close conjunction with Jupiter, June 30, 2015.

Venus in close conjunction with Jupiter. Put your cursor over the image (or click here) to see the planets' respective distances from Earth on June 30, 2015.

Truth be told, I'd forgotten all about this conjunction of Venus and Jupiter until my father-in-law reminded me. I went out in the backyard and shot this handheld with a lens designed for close-up work. (An astronomical conjunction is not the same thing as an eclipse or occultation, where the nearer object covers up the closer; technically they just have to have the same position on one of the two celestial coordinate axes, right ascension or declination.) The normal shooting distance to subject with this lens is about 30 centimeters. I wasn't able to get my camera that close to Venus or Jupiter last night. (Guess I'm just lazy.) Closest approach of Venus is 38 million kilometers, and last night it was 77 million kilometers away according to my planetarium software. Jupiter never gets any closer to Earth than 365 million kilometers, and was over 900 million kilometers distant last night. Here's the full field of view from the photo above, without the processing to darken the background:
Venus and Jupiter close conjunction. June 30, 2015.

Venus and Jupiter close conjunction. June 30, 2015. You can mouse over the image to see the labels or click here to see a larger version.

Will try again tonight if I can scrounge up a tripod. Then I can lower the ISO and try for longer exposures.

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
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