A Stick-y Situation

Two paths diverged in the Nature Conservancy’s Sandyland Sanctuary; as I stood, deciding which to follow, I noticed some pretty, ruffled foliage. I didn’t recognize the plant, but I liked the way the twig lying across it had provided the third side of a natural triangle.

Then, I realized that the twig seemed to be looking at me. It wasn’t a twig at all, but an insect: a Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma denticrus). If you enlarge the photo, you can see what I imagine to be an appraising look in its eye.

Officially the longest insect species in North America, the creatures can reach six inches or more in length; from toe to outstretched toe, this one measured about eight inches long. It may have been a female, since female walkingsticks typically are larger than the males.

Found in woods, forests, and grasslands of the Southern United States, Giant Walkingsticks are common in Texas, but can be found as far north as Indiana and Iowa. They prefer a moist environment,  and generally are found on trees or shrubs.

A wonderful example of mimicry in nature, walkingsticks closely resemble twigs of the plants where they choose to rest. When motionless, they’re far less obvious to predators; their nearly undetectable presence has led to their continued reproduction and expansion throughout the Southern United States.

Both male and female adults are wingless and slow moving. Adults tend to be greenish to reddish brown, sometimes with pale legs. Immature nymphs, though smaller, resemble adults;  they’re often green, and sometimes resemble juniper twigs.

Noturnal creatures, Giant Walkingsticks feed on leaves throughout the night. When I found this one at a relatively early hour of the morning, it may have just settled in for a post-dinner nap.

Comments always are welcome.

One Skipper, Three Views

To be honest, I’m sure this isn’t ‘one skipper.’ ‘One species’ would be a more accurate title, since on December 24, Long-tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) were abundant at the nearby Dudney Nature Center.

I’d first seen a Long-tailed Skipper at Bastrop State park in October, and wondered at the time whether they frequented my area. On this day at least, the answer was ‘yes,’ and I was pleased to capture some of the details that had evaded me at Bastrop: particularly, their lovely blue accents and at least a bit of the split in their tails.

In their book Butterflies of Houston, John and Gloria Tveten note that pristine examples of this skipper can be hard to find, since lizards and birds often relieve them of their long tails, but in this case no damage was apparent.

Sometimes called ‘bean rollers,’ Long-tailed Skippers utilize members of the bean family as host plants; newly hatched caterpillars roll themselves into leaves for protection as they develop. Adults feed on a variety of plants, including Lantana, Bougainvillea, and various Bidens species.

In late December, these still-blooming stems of Porterweed provided nectar. A native Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) can be found in south Florida, but many local butterfly gardens include Porterweed cultivars because of the flowers’ attractiveness to butterflies and other insects.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly on a Less Airy Day

In my previous post, I mentioned that two common names for Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) are ‘hair grass’ and ‘hair-awn muhly.’ Both refer to the light and delicate appearance of the plant: especially its tendency to blow about in the breeze.

Everyone can have a bad hair day, of course, and this ‘hair grass’ is no exception. When it’s been awash in fog long enough for droplets of water to weigh down its apparent weightlessness, the plant becomes attractive in a different way.

Both photos were taken on the same October morning at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains. In the first image, near-zero visibility fog meant very little light, and another common name, ‘purple muhly,’ applied. In the second photo, the fog had begun to lift, and the grass took on its more usual color.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Putting the Metal to the Petals

These gorgeous metallic sweat bees (tribe Augochlorini) were only two of dozens buzzing about a thick colony of smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica) at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge on September 19.

Bees in this tribe are brilliantly colored, ranging from gold-flecked green to pure green to various shades of blue-green.  Some may be copper-colored, or even an unusual metallic-pink; all are easily noticed despite their small size.

Some sweat bees build nests in soil or, less commonly, in rotted wood.  Occasionally they act cooperatively, constructing nests that share a common entrance and that are protected by a guard bee.

The yearly life cycle of certain species is split into spring and summer phases.  In spring, they construct an underground nest and provision it for the new generation. After the young emerge, males leave the nest while the females remain, readying the nest for a second brood.

Given the number of bees swarming around the smartweed, I wondered if I might have been witnessing the emergence of a second, late summer brood. Whatever the reason for so many bees, an unexpected absence of mosquitoes allowed me to linger at the pond’s edge, appreciating these little jewels.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Nettled by Nature

Nascent Bull Nettle buds

Another name for Texas Bull-nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus) is ‘Tread Softly,’ and there’s no question that treading softly and carefully is good advice if Bull-nettle’s in the neighborhood. The inattentive or inexperienced risk discovering why the plant sometimes is called Mala Mujer, or ‘bad woman.’ Its stem, branches, leaves, and seed pods are covered in stinging hairs; when the hairs come into contact with human skin, the results can include intense pain, burning, itching, or cellulitis.

Several years ago, entranced by the sight of a field of white prickly poppies and eager to photograph them, I met my first bull-nettle by sitting on one. I don’t recommend the experience, any more than I recommend kneeling in a spot where the highway department has mowed them down, leaving invisible hairs strewn across the land.

A member of the Spurge family, bull-nettles produce several stems from a single taproot; the plant thrives even in the hottest and driest parts of the summer. Its lovely flowers, five to seven white, petal-like sepals surrounding ten or more stamens and a three-lobed pistil, bloom from early March through July across a large swath of the state.

Aransas Wildlife Refuge

Oddly, the stinging hairs don’t seems to bother the plant’s many non-human visitors. Here, a common green bottle fly (Lucilia spp.) pauses on bull-nettle flowers mixed with colorful Indian Blankets.

Willow City Loop, Fredericksburg

A Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar, heedless of the hairs.

El Capote Ranch ~ Guadalupe County

Perhaps sensing an opportunity for camouflage, this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) holds its hairy legs next to the plant’s hairs, while it assumes its characteristic prey-catching posture and awaits its next meal.

Tres Palacios Bay

The number and variety of creatures that can be found on and around the Bull-nettles is remarkable. Just don’t get too close while admiring them!

 

Comments always are welcome.