Thursday, May 24, 2018

Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly Away Home

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

In many cultures, ladybugs are thought to bring good luck. In Sweden, a ladybug landing on a young lady’s hand means she will marry soon. In England, they are thought to be an omen of a good harvest. Some other cultures believe that if you kill a ladybug, then sadness and bad luck will follow you. As with many “old wives tales”, there’s a grain of truth to the myth, or at least a desire to lead behavior in a particular direction. Most farmers and home gardeners consider ladybugs a welcome visitor and something to be protected rather than exterminated.

Convergent Lady Beetle
Ladybugs are beneficial in gardens and agricultural fields. Rather than eating or damaging plants, they are carnivores that feast on plant pests like mealy bugs, mites, and aphids. This behavior may have even led to their common name. Legend says that during the Middle Ages, European crops were threatened by many plant-eating insect pests. Farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary to save their crops and soon after, they began seeing black-spotted red bugs doing battle with the other insects. The crops survived and as the legend spread, people began to refer to the helpful bugs as “our lady’s birds”. Over time, they became known as “ladybugs”, “ladybirds”, or “lady beetles”.

Seven-spotted Lady Beetle
Ladybugs are insects in the order Coleoptera (beetles). Like other insects, they have six legs, wings, a muscular thorax, and an abdomen, but most of these are tucked away under the ladybugs’ rigid coverings. The most visible of these coverings are the Elytra, on which you will find each ladybug’s typical colors. These are actually the ladybug’s forewings that have hardened to surround and protect the delicate hindwings. The elytra must be lifted to expose the hindwings so the ladybug can fly.

Seven-spotted Lady Beetle Lifting Elytra
There are several thousand different species of ladybugs worldwide; they inhabit most temperate or tropical climates. A few hundred species are found in North America, and several of those have been found at Hagerman NWR. Not all ladybugs are red with black spots, and not everything with the same general coloring is a ladybug.

Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle (not a Lady Beetle)
Like butterflies, ladybugs undergo complete metamorphosis. An adult ladybug lays a cluster of 10-15 eggs on the underside of a leaf in an area where she has found aphids or other small plant-eating bugs. The eggs hatch into larvae that look similar to tiny caterpillars, but with six legs. Unlike butterflies, the larvae’s diet is the same as an adult ladybug’s.

Ladybug Larva
The larvae grow and shed their “skin” (exoskeleton) repeatedly until they are ready to pupate. After shedding for the last time, individual larvae are enclosed in a new covering, not unlike a chrysalis. Over the next few days, they complete the transformation into an adult ladybug. From egg to adult takes less than a month and an adult can live a year or more.

Pupating Lady Beetle
Ladybugs are generally harmless to people, although one group can be considered pests. Asian Lady Beetles are becoming more common in Grayson County and can be a mild nuisance in winter, when they find their way inside our homes. All ladybugs can release a nasty-smelling fluid when threatened but the Asian Lady Beetles are larger than other ladybugs in the area, so that fluid is more noticeable. These ladybugs can be recognized by their orange legs – other local ladybugs have black legs.

Asian Lady Beetle on Soapberry
If you want to find ladybugs at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, you need look no further than the Butterfly Garden, where they help us keep the host and nectar plants pest free. You can also find them anywhere wildflowers grow, busily climbing up and down stems and over and under leaves and blossoms. I particularly like Silliman Road and L Pad for finding ladybugs. They like warmer weather and will not fly if it is under 55 degrees. The colors on the head and the number and pattern of spots on the elytra are helpful in identifying which ladybug species you are looking at. Think small and enjoy your search! You have no idea what else you may find out there.

Polished Lady Beetle





Thursday, May 17, 2018

Buttercups in Bloom

Have you ever gotten “butter” on your nose from a buttercup? Or as they are botanically named, Oenothera speciosa. Buttercups are also known as Pink evening primrose, Showy evening primrose, Mexican evening primrose, Showy primrose, Pink ladies, Pink buttercups, according to the Native Plant Information Network

From Wikipedia, we learned that although this plant is also frequently referred to as a buttercup, it is not a true buttercup (genus Ranunculus) or even in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.

Pink Evening Primrose at Hagerman NWR, by Kathy Whaley

The website for Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center goes on to say that while most primroses open in the evening, this plant, native over a widespread area from Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, opens in the evening in the northern range but in the morning in the southern range. They could also be called “dayflower” as each flower lasts only one day.


“Buttercups” are perennial; their blooms vary from palest pink, nearly white, to deep rich pinks. The flowers’ yellow pollen is the source of the “butter”. They will grow is a variety of soils but go dormant if the soil is too dry; in our area, you will note large masses of them where there are apparent low places in the fields and along roadsides.  



Pink Evening Primrose at Hagerman NWR, by H. S. Bert Garcia

You will also find a  showy yellow version in the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman National Wildlife RefugeOenothera macrocarpa, commonly known as Bigfruit evening-primrose, Missouri evening-primrose, Fluttermill, Big-fruit evening-primrose, Missouri Primrose (shown below).


Birds like the seeds from evening primroses and the flowers offer nectar to bees, moths, and butterflies.

NOTE:  Weather permitting there will be a Wildflower Tour of Hagerman NWR at 10 on Saturday, May 26!  Reserve a spot in the van (see sidebar of the webpage) or caravan along as we stop to enjoy various wildflower areas at the Refuge.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

From the Nature Nook Bookshelf: Nat Geo Kids Everything Series

By Jean Flick

Richard Louv, in “Last Child in The Woods,” pleads the case for reconnecting children with nature.  He dubbed the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the “growing gap between children and nature.” In his later book, “The Nature Principle”, he asks the question, “What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”  Consider rephrasing that:  “What would our children's lives be like if their days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”

A good starting point to spark interest and enthusiasm for the natural world in the minds of the children in your life is the “Nat Geo Kids Everything” series.    The “Everything” series invites kids into the world of nature through the use of fun facts and comparisons, and, of course, outstanding photography.  The unique “Explorer’s Corner” feature introduces readers to scientists such as ecologists (“Everything Birds of Prey”) and herpetologists (“Everything Reptile”) and offers a personal connection to the field work of these scientists as well as a glimpse into potential career opportunities.  Interactive glossaries keep young readers engaged all the way to the last page.

National Geographic has a well-established history of producing high-quality books, magazines, and documentaries about our world.  Their publications are noted for their scientific inquiry as well as their stunning photography.  Books published for children are of equal quality, designed to entice young readers to explore the many wonders of our natural world. 

The Nature Nook at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge offers Nat Geo Kids books for children with varying reading levels.   Pre-readers will enjoy “Slither Snake!” while books on bats, plants, butterflies, trees, and more are available for various reading levels.

In addition to the wide selection of children’s books available in the Nature Nook, HNWR provides robust programming designed to spark kids’ interest in the natural world that abounds on the refuge. FOH volunteers and refuge staff biologist Courtney Anderson engage children through The Refuge Rocks for Youth/Saturday programs, Spring Break activities, and multiple school field trips.


The Nature Nook is operated by Friends of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  All proceeds are used for projects and activities at HNWR.  Book review by Jean Flick.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

May Plant of the Month - Prairie Verbena

By Sue Abernathy

Have you noticed a purple hue in the pastures or patches of vivid purple along the roadside as you are driving down country roads?

More than likely it is Prairie Verbena, Glandularia bipinnatifida, which is an early blooming native perennial. It is also known as Dakota Vervain, Purple Prairie Verbena, and Dakota Mock Vervain. It generally has purple, five petal clustered blooms, but the color can vary from a bluish purple to violet to pink.  The blooms set on top of stems with highly divided leaves.


Prairie Verbena is drought tolerant and highly deer resistant. This native perennial can be found from Northern Mexico north to Oklahoma and west to New Mexico and Arizona. It thrives in full sun in open pastures and grasslands, often covering acres of ground, but will also tolerate partial shade. It is a low growing, trailing plant that likes dry to medium moist sites and well-drained soils like sand, loam, clay, caliche, and limestone.

Prairie Verbena’s extended bloom time from March through October benefits both gardeners and pollinators. The blankets of purple flowers are an excellent nectar source for butterflies and bees.
It transplants easily from nursery stock or the pasture and can be started from seed and it is a great addition to any butterfly or pollinator garden.  It is widespread throughout the state of Texas and can also be found in the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge along the slope, behind the bench in the smaller pergola.




Sources:
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at http://www.wildflower.org
Native American Seed at http://www.seedsource.com

Photo credits – Sue Abernathy

NOTE: Sue Abernathy is both a Grayson CountyMaster Gardener and a Texas Master Naturalist, Bluestem chapter, and serves as a co-chair for the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman NWR and as a Garden Docent. "Plant of the Month" blogs are contributed by the Butterfly Garden Docents at HNWR.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Red Harvester Ants

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

Ants! They get into your pantry. They invite themselves to your picnics. Some of them can chew through a wood framed house. Others sting!! What’s to like about an ant?? Well, maybe if it was a mostly peaceful ant that didn’t enter homes, chew on wood, or sting when you get near their nest, you could like it. The Red Harvester Ant is that sort of ant.

Although Red Harvester Ants look formidable because of their size and wasp-like appearance, they are communal seed-eaters that mostly keep to their own business. If you have walked the Haller Haven Trail, at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge,  out to Dead Woman Pond, you have passed a broad, flat nest of Red Harvester Ants that stretches a few feet across. They are the large, busy, red ants that never stop moving as you pass. They are capable of delivering a painful bite if threatened, but they are not aggressive and are generally reluctant to do so.


Red Harvester Ants are a favorite food source for the Texas Horned Lizard and they are in constant competition for food and territory with other ants such as the invasive Fire Ant. Sometimes Red Harvester Ant nests are created in risky areas and do not survive. Often, that is because of human actions, either intentional or accidental. Red Harvester Ant colonies have been declining in recent years and that decline has impacted other native species.

Each underground Red Harvester Ant nest is composed of many chambers connected by labyrinthine tunnels that have been excavated by members of the colony. A mature nest can reach depths of over 8 feet and is several feet across. Within the nest, the colony consists of a single queen, who can live for 15-20 years, and thousands of female worker ants. Only the queen can reproduce and she is well cared for by the others, for her death signals the end of the colony.



For the first four to five years, a new queen produces only sterile female worker ants. These ants perform the tasks that ensure the success of the nest: foraging for seeds, maintenance and excavation of the physical infrastructure, caring for the queen and her larvae, and defense of the nest. When the colony reaches about 10,000 members, the queen produces a small number of males and fertile females. She will do this once per year for the remainder of her life.

These unique ants, called alates, have wings that will carry them away from the nest to an aggregation site. The site is created when a few males mark a location with specialized pheromones that trigger sexual behavior. These pheromones attract other males, who add more pheromones, and also draw females to the site. There, alates from many nests engage in a mating ritual that will result in new colonies being formed. Each female mates with multiple males of separate lineages, then flies to a suitable spot to establish her own nest. She digs down several inches and produces her first larvae, which become the nest’s original worker ants. The workers excavate the nest and gather food for their colony before moving deep underground for the winter.



In spring, the work continues. Scouts leave the nest each morning to look for food sources, leaving a trail of pheromones for the foragers to follow. The ants in the nest appear to have a sense of time. If a scout comes back too quickly, the forager ants sense danger and ignore that route. If a scout takes too long to return with seeds, then perhaps foraging will expend more energy than the value of the seeds they may collect. The foragers are therefore selective in the trails they follow. The work of these ants benefits the ecosystem by scattering some of the seeds they gather as they return to the nest. Meanwhile, excavation and nest cleaning are constant.


It’s easy to think that the frenetic pace of the ants lacks purpose, but as you watch individual ants marching out of the nest carrying staggering loads or returning to the nest dragging stalks heavy with seeds, you realize what an amazing society this is. Ants can carry up to 20 times their body weight. For every ant you see, there are several others that are working in the total darkness below the surface. Each ant will defend the nest to her death when called upon. Next time you see a Red Harvester Ant nest, stop and spend a few minutes getting to know them.



NOTE: Laurie Sheppard is a regular volunteer at Hagerman NWR and frequent contributor to the FOH Blog. She is a Texas Master Naturalist, member of the Blackland Prairie Chapter.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hummingbirds

Text and Photo by Renny S.Gehman

A blur, a whir—a hummingbird! Hummers are back at our Texas feeders after wintering in Mexico. Their arrival is eagerly anticipated and greatly enjoyed—almost everyone gets a thrill when they spot one of these tiny creatures. Here in North Texas that usually happens around April 1st and mine were right on time.  



In our part of Texas the most common hummingbird in our garden is the ruby-throated, although this year I’ve been blessed with a visiting black-chinned male—who was nice enough to perch on a nearby bush long enough for me to see the purple throat which distinguishes it from the other visitors at my window feeder. Although in some lights, ruby throats and black chins can look similar, the most obvious distinguishing mark is their throat color: either red or purple. Both can look black in some lights! Since their females are so similar, I just assume that the female I’m also seeing is actually more than one!

Part of our fascination with hummers happens because of both their small size and swift speed. A hummingbird—any of the 18 species found in the U.S.—is the smallest bird, but can reach speeds equal to geese, accelerating to 60 mph from a standing start in less than three feet! No other species matches their flying skill—they can hover, fly up or down, and also backwards because of their extremely large breast muscles, which move their wings in a figure-8 pattern unique among birds.

With their high energy output, hummingbirds must eat every ten to fifteen minutes—a reason why they’re such regular visitors at our feeders. In fact, because of their energy requirements, hummers go into “torpor” or a reduced energy state at night when their heart beat slows, body temperature drops and they cannot move. But these little birds still use so much energy at rest, it is comparable to the amount a human uses during vigorous exercise.

The best way to help these high-energy flyers is to provide them with multiple food sources. Feeders are one food source humans can provide, but we need to remember some important guidelines:
  • Red dye is not necessary—and may actually be harmful!
  • Always boil your water.
  • Do not use honey—use refined white sugar. Honey promotes dangerous fungal growth.
  • Clean your feeders regularly—every few days, or even daily in hot weather—to avoid harmful fungal growth.

For detailed instructions, with amounts and proportions, follow this link to the Audubon Society’s website: http://www.audubon.org/news/how-make-hummingbird-nectar

Besides providing feeders, you can choose garden plants, like sage, honeysuckle and lantana, which attract hummingbirds—and often butterflies, as well. Some suggestions on planting a hummingbird garden are available in the Texas Parks and Wildlife brochure. To access online, follow this link: https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_br_w7000_1173.pdf.

Hummingbirds are fun; I’m never sure if I enjoy their iridescent colors, their acrobatic flying or their territorial squabbles more. They pack a lot of entertainment in a small package—and certainly demonstrate the truth of the familiar adage, Little, but Oh, my!

Ed Note: At Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, visitors can enjoy Ruby-throated and occasional Black-chinned hummers at the feeder outside the Visitor Center and in the Butterfly Garden!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

From the Nature Nook Bookshelf - Field Guides to Rocks and Minerals

Field Guides to Rocks and Minerals
Book Review by Jean Flick

The marvelous geodes in the Nature Nook and the large decorative crystal in the butterfly garden are both favorites of children visiting Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  Kids know:  rocks are fun!!   Beyond fun, Rachel M. Barker, with the US Geologic Survey (USGS) reminds us that rocks “tell the story of the Earth.”

Most rocks at the Earth’s surface are formed from only 8 elements (oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium), but these elements are combined in various ways to make rocks that are very different.  Geologists classify rocks into the three major groups (igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic), according to the major Earth processes that formed them (USGS website).  HNWR is located where the gently rolling black land prairies meet the more hilly terrain of the eastern cross timbers, providing us a glimpse into the geologic footprint that began millions of years ago when northern Texas was covered by a huge, warm, shallow sea.
               
There are three different rock and mineral field guides available in the HNWR Nature Nook.  Each offers unique features for the beginning or experienced geologist to explore and learn about a wide variety of geologic phenomena.  As you wander the refuge, by car or foot, be sure to take a rock and mineral field guide with you and discover more about “the story of the Earth” right here in our corner of that Earth.



The National Geographic Pocket Guide:  Rocks and Minerals of North America by Sarah Garlick.

This compact field guide, published in 2014 by the National Geographic Society, is lightweight and will fit easily in a backpack, pocket, or fanny pack.   The guide features 160 geologic forms and phenomena and is organized into the categories of minerals, rocks, fossils, and structures and landforms.  Each page contains high-quality photos of individual specimens for close-up comparison and photos of larger formations that might be viewed from a trail or road.  Key facts are presented in an interesting manner, making this an excellent guide for a family outing that will include a look at geologic features.

Use as a first guide for young and old to share in the discovery of the wonders of geology.

Smithsonian Nature Guide:  Rocks and Minerals by Ronald Louis Bonewitz

This guide, published by DK Publishing (first American edition 2012), offers full-page profiles of 270 rocks and minerals.  Each profile includes a large photo of each specimen, along with small photos of variants and a concise description of key features.  The guide begins with general information about minerals, crystals, gems, and rocks and includes several pages of helpful hints for beginning collectors.  At 350 pages, this guide is still small and light enough to carry in a backpack, but loaded with large photos for easy identification.

Use to delve more deeply into the world of rocks and minerals and as a reference when beginning your own rock collection.

Peterson Field Guides:  Rocks and Minerals by Frederick H. Pough

This fifth edition, published by Houghton-Mifflin Co. in 1988, offers more in-depth information.  Photos of individual specimens, as well as various landforms, are grouped together in the middle of the book for convenience in identification and comparison.  Individual rocks, minerals, and other geologic phenomena are discussed in greater depth with comprehensive information on each specimen or topic.  At almost 400 pages, the guide packs in a wealth of information but is still well-sized to be carried in a backpack.

Use to glean the most in-depth information when learning about geologic specimens.

Photo Collage - Rocks at HNWR, by Jean Flick



The Nature Nook is run by Friends of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  All proceeds are used for projects and activities at HNWR.