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Edison and Ford Winter Estates

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Our last stop on the vacation was the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. I was keen to see the botanical laboratories and such, not so much the big houses of two rich men I don't particularly admire. Edison was a ruthless capitalist and elephant electrocutor and Ford was a noted anti-Semite. We saw some cool stuff there though--check out the tree behind this statue of Edison.

I made sure to show my dad the Oatmeal strip about Tesla, after we got back, just so you know.
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We went for a walk in the morning to look at the neighborhood of Magnolia--we hadn't really seen it in the daylight.
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100 More species #98: Grass-carrying wasp

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Grass carrying wasp, Isondontia sp.

A few days ago Alexis called my attention to an insect carrying a long blade of grass through the air. It was a strange sight, since the insect was fairly small (about 15mm long) so it looked like a dry bit of grass was piloting itself upwards and away from us without help from the wind. Then I photographed this medium sized black wasp a couple days later, only to find that it was probably responsible for the flying grass trick.

Some wasps chew up wood and make paper nests of hexagonal cells, some take mud into their mouths and make clay pots or pipes, some lay their eggs in the tissue of living plants and let their grubs live in the weird galls that result. Grass-carrying wasps gather blades and stems of grass and stuff them into a cavity to make an unkempt analog to a typical songbird's nest. Into these nests they lay their eggs and provision them with paralyzed tree crickets. (The most well-known cricket is the snowy tree cricket, whose song can be used to tell the temperature).
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My dad stayed over on Saturday and Sunday morning said goodbye to the dogs. The bright sunlight and full growth of weeds and flowers everywhere inspired me to take pictures of the house and yard:Read more...Collapse )

3:00 snapshot #1059

Nine grams of crickets.

Slug trails on siding; Goldenrod.

100 More Species #50 Goldenrod crab spider

Goldenrod crab spider Misumena vatia

Certain animals tend to be referred to by either a male or female pronoun, whether or not individual's sex is known. I noticed when I was a child that some people referred to all cats as "her" and all dogs as "him." I do this with spiders--unless I know the spider to be male, I refer to it as a female. This is because the female spider is usually much bigger and more interesting than the male. Above we see a tiny male goldenrod crab spider, barely larger than the 3mm flowers of the goldenrod blossom. The female is usually a full centimeter in size, with an additional centimeter of legspan.

My first encounter with one was at the same phlox where I first saw hummingbird moths. A bumblebee was oddly still on the white flowers; I examined it closely and found my face alarmingly close to spider with a body the shape and color of a sun-bleached skull, jaws clenched on the dying bee. It's legs were held crablike, forever poised to seize. The encounter impressed me, one of the few times I was viscerally frightened by a spider.

This species is notable for changing color from yellow to white depending on where it is hunting. The spider specializes on pollinators, calling into question the blanket label of beneficial attributed to spider-kind. Looked at another way, this spider drives the evolution of pollinators, selecting against the slow and unwary.

Small things that live in my yard

All these small things were photographed on the grounds of Contentment Cottage. These are things that I chose not to include in the 100 species project, either by caprice or ignorance.

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100 Species #85: Jagged ambush bug

These jagged ambush bugs, Phymata sp., are clinging to one of the stalks of goldenrod featured in an earlier entry.

Yes, yes, these ambush bugs appear to be gettin' in on. However, this insect is known to practice pre- and post-copulatory guarding behavior. In order to help ensure that he is the only male to fertilize the female, he'll cling to her back and deter other suitors. The female may not have even accepted this male yet, or maybe he's old news. I only stayed long enough to get the picture.

Jagged ambush bugs are lumpy and dense, with coloration that breaks up their outline. (The genus name means "tumorous.") They can be pretty hard to notice on a plant, hanging out near the flower. There they sit, motionless for as long as it takes, waiting for a pollinating insect of the right size (larger prey for the females, which are bigger than the males). Then they grab it with those inflated-looking front legs--"raptorial forelegs," a fun adaptation that has evolved in several species of true bugs, as well as in mantids--and suck out the goo inside with a beak-like "rostrum."

Dedham, after the rain

We've had a lot of partially rainy days this summer. It's been good for plant and mushroom growth. I wish these mushrooms were in my yard, but they won't be. This is "Old man of the woods," Strobilomyces sp., a mushroom whose parent fungus grows in association with hardwood trees. These were at the base of an oak. Our yard has Norway maple (which, as a non-native weed tree probably won't form mycorrhizae with native mushrooms--we'll see, I guess) and shagbark hickory, so I doubt we'll have this mushroom species.

Our yard does have lots of insects, and the rain can make them easier to photograph:
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This spray of Canada goldenrod Solidago canadensis is part of a big stand of it way in the back part of the yard, and was alive with honeybees Apis mellifera when I took this shot.

Canada goldenrod is the most common and most weedy of the many kinds of goldenrod that occur in our area. It's a classic weed, appearing after a place has been disturbed--by fire, flood, bulldozer etc.--and enjoying the full sun and bare soil. It survives out in the open until the open space becomes enclosed by the shade of shrubs and trees. It may help to delay this succession by putting chemicals in the soil that impede the growth of maples and other plants. Each goldenrod plant has hundreds of flowers attracting insect pollinators as varied as flies, beetles, bees, wasps, butterflies, and moths. The seeds are fed upon by goldfinches and other birds. Goldenrod suffers from the misconception that it is a major cause of allergies--probably a confusion resulting from other, less conspicuous plants that bloom at the same time, such as ragweed.

Honeybees are semi-domestic animals, probably native to India or the Mediterranean, brought to virtually everywhere on Earth by humans. Our species provides artificial nesting places and locates them near crops that need pollinating. These bees are generalists, able to feed on and pollinate thousands of species of plants, most of which are completely alien to them. There are mobile honeybee colonies, dozens of hives put on trucks which drive through the night to service various agricultural fields. In recent years these hives have suffered mysterious losses, likely a combination of various stresses and the effects of pesticides.

I've found that one common perception that has developed from the science journalism about this issue is that "the bees" are disappearing. Why, then, are we being stung by yellowjackets, etc.? It's an educational opportunity.

This is a bee-mimicking fly (anyone know what kind?) on another goldenrod blossom nearby.

Canada goldenrod appeared earlier as 365 urban species #223. In the same entry I wrote about ragweed.

The honeybee was 365 Urban species #194.


The Urban Pantheist

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