Sunday, July 1, 2012


This is no time to go out. We're lying low. If we go out at all, it's somewhere close, and we go for the morning only. We try to remember to hydrate ourselves in advance. Mostly now, we don't go out at all. We hydrate our yard, everything in the front yard gets watered one day; everything in the backyard the next. Luckily that means the insect life continues in our yard, and that is where we observe most of it.

The common moth here now is the pretty little Girlfriend Underwing.

By day a few roost in the garage and whirl up when I walk in, and hide in the trees outside. They are on our windows, and get into the house. Mostly we find them dead; perhaps their life is very short, like most moths, or perhaps they are drying up in the drought.

I go out to the pond first thing in the morning, and the bright orange Zabulon Skippers have staked out territories on the pickerelweed, or on the button bush, and chase off everything that moves while they wait for the shy females. But so far the females that come out have already mated, or anyway, reject the males' advances. I would love to get a picture of them mating, the two sexes are so different from each other, and both very pretty. Here is the male, then the female.

To add drama, there is often a robber fly hanging around, ready to snatch out of the air whatever flies by, but perhaps the little skippers are too fast even for that falcon-like killer.

Another thing we can do if we do it before the heat of the day when everything hides: We can follow the progress of our caterpillars. I have already mentioned our Milkweed Tussock caterpillars. They are continuing their march (something like Sherman's) from one Common Milkweed plant to another down our driveway. There are about 35 plants, so their work is cut out for them. Here is a picture of a plant yesterday, followed by a picture of that same plant today.

The first wave, a size bigger, has now moved on to the next plant.

A few years ago a friend gave us two small rue plants, and even before we got them out of their pots and into the ground a Giant Swallowtail (very rare in our neighborhood) had come by and laid an egg on each. We hatched them and raised them half way, but we could predict the rue plants would be gone before the caterpillars were ready to make their chrysalises, so eventually we had to make the 150-mile round trip back up to the Ozarks to beg for some more rue plants. We did successfully raise the two Giants. One of the rue plants survived and by this year had doubled its size, when one day we looked down to see (though we had seen no adult Giant Swallowtails in the yard) fully twelve Giant Swallowtail caterpillars on the plant.

This was an act of idiocy on the part of the butterfly since the plant had barely enough sustenance for one caterpillar. We were already planning our rescue trip to the Ozarks when we looked one morning, and all the caterpillars were gone. We suspected the cardinals that nest in our yard. When they get their eye in for one of our favorite caterpillars, they quickly eat every single one. Perhaps it was a good thing to get that mother swallowtail's genes purged from our Darwinian universe, but to continue: This year, friends had given us some small bronze fennel plants which we had scattered through our raised beds, and very quickly we had six or eight Black Swallowtail caterpillars which pleased us very much.

But the more we thought of them there, the more we worried about their vulnerability to our cardinals, so in the end we moved six of them into the house to raise them under more protection. And for the fun of hatching them out. And because we didn't want them eating our new bronze fennel plants down to the nub. We could go to Krogers and buy parsley for them. (Perhaps this very slightly compromised our evolutionary non-intervention principles.)

The other caterpillars that we knew of in the garden were a bit more secretive, and perhaps could take care of themselves a little better. We have a small cherry tree in the center of the backyard we keep because it gets such interesting caterpillars on it. It had, for instance, started this year with some web-spinning sawfly larvae on it, which we may report on later. Right now it had a few Red-spotted Purple caterpillars. The Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay single eggs right on the pointed tips of the cherry leaves, and when the caterpillar hatches out it stays on the center vein and begins eating the leaf down to the stem. Here's one, perhaps escaping notice by looking like a scrap of dried leaf.

A few Senna plants volunteer in the yard every year. I think it's a pest some places, but we like it because of the Pierid caterpillars that use it, most often the Sleepy Orange. We remembered seeing the butterflies stopping on the plant to lay single eggs on the tops of the leaves. But the caterpillars, when they came, were so hard to spot that we only knew they were there by the leaves that began disappearing, and we searched those areas closely, and even then it took Cheryl's sharp eyes to find them.

Here it is ten o'clock in the morning and the temperature has already cranked up to 93. Life, to tell the truth, is rather cruel to the eager entomologist, keeping him cooped up in the house all winter waiting for summer to finally arrive, and then when it does, he finds himself still cooped up in the house, waiting for the summer to go away at least a little. I guess the best I can do for a while is some more garden reports. 

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