Monday, July 31, 2017

Tarantula Hawks: Gentle Giants of the Wasp World

You have probably encountered tarantula hawks on click-bait websites in a list of "most painful stings", "most bad-ass", or "biggest jerks of the animal world".  It's just fake news and sensationalism, except for the part about the painful sting. That's true.

Unless you annoy tarantula hawks sufficiently by grabbing them for research purposes or just because you are stupid, they ignore you and go about their business of feeding on nectar, and hunting spiders for wasp babies to eat. They don't just hunt tarantulas, any large spider will do.  I have had them run over my bare feet (it tickles) while they were searching my patio for black widows.

There were a dozen or more feeding on the flowers of a Vitex bush in my front yard so I grabbed the camera. These pictures were taken with a macro lens, my camera only a few inches from the wasp.  A couple of them bumped into me or the camera as they flew from flower to flower but I was just an inedible obstacle.
Female Pepsis grossa
The males find a good nectar source like the Vitex and hang out there in early June, waiting for females to show up. They might get lucky. 
Male

This species (Pepsis grossa) is amazing iridescent teal with rusty amber wings in New Mexico.  The Arizona variant is all black-teal iridescent, including the wings. The females have curled antennae, the antennae of the males are straight.

About that Sting

I have been stung once by a tarantula hawk, and yes it is intensely painful. It was a "could not move or talk" level of pain for the worst 5 minutes of my life, including the time I got a 600V jolt from a Nixie tube driver.  However painful, the sting didn't leave much of a trace once it was over. Compared to the hours of slightly less pain from a bark scorpion sting ... I'd take the wasp.

By briefly paralysing an attacker with pain, the wasp can often escape.  It's effective enough that very few insectivores are going to try to eat more than one.

See Also:

https://askentomologists.com/2015/09/27/please-stop-sharing-the-wasps-are-jerks-memes/   Read more!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Storm Damage, Mostly Hail

Along with three inches of rain in two weeks we had a few short hail showers.  The rain was welcome. The hail was not excessive, but the damage it caused might make a novice gardener think they had a mysterious disease or leaf-eating pests.

Here's the first example, a chile pepper with the typical irregular holes punched by hailstones.
Holes from Hailstones

And the second, which looks like some sort of a disease, but is just spots of freeze damage where a small hailstone landed on the tender tomatillo leaves, stayed there, and melted.
Freeze Damage from Hailstones
Read more!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Establishing Squash Bees in Your Garden

By the time honeybees get their lazy striped butts out of the hive and start their daily commute to my garden, squash bees have been at work for a couple of hours pollinating my squash.  There is so little pollen left that the honey bees seldom bother to visit the blossoms.
Squash Bee with pollen-covered legs

Squash Bee with distinctive narrow-striped abdomen
How do they do it?  Squash bees live where they work, and turn the blooms into a singles bar. The male bees hang around in the blossoms, waiting for unfertilized females to show up.  Towards noon the males and any unfertilized females enter a male blossom and let it close around them.  At dawn, when the next blossoms are opening, the bees chew through the walls of their overnight hostel and continue their search for a mate.
Withered male flowers are overnight refuges
Instead of a long commute back to a hive with the pollen, a fertilized female squash bee digs a nest close to the squash plants.  She stuffs one of the chambers with pollen, lays one egg on the pollen and seals that chamber.
Squash Bee with pollen-covered legs
The fertilized females spend the afternoons digging nest chambers to fill with pollen the next day. They live in a nest until the chambers are all complete, then make a new one.
Squash bee nest hole
So how do you attract these wonderful creatures to your garden?  Plant squash, of course, and have some bare, untilled dirt next to the squash for the nests.  Read more!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: Buffalo 2.0 Is Now a Meadow

A meadow is grass with wildflowers ...and I have it!  At least in parts of the lawn, if you squint just right, I have fluffy clumps of grass with scattered flowers.
Jute mesh, new grass, and some wildflowers (Ratibida columnaris)
It's been slow to establish for several reasons:
  • We had a cooler spring than usual.
  • The summer rains have not come yet.
  • I did not till or amend the area before planting.
  • The seeds are not a select improved "turf" strain, it's just generic buffalo grass and blue grama grass. 
  • I fertilized very lightly and did not fertilize early.
  • Most of the wildflowers are perennials and will not bloom well this year. 
The erosion control mesh is doing exactly what I need it to do - when I water the mesh fills with water like waffles fill with syrup and it sinks in instead of running off.  I am watering daily to encourage the final grass seeds to sprout, with an occasional seep watering to get the roots to go deep.  I really need some rainstorms. Read more!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

DIY Sweat Bands for Sound Protection Ear Muffs

Sound protection while you are using power tools is important.  The whine of a power saw or the roar of a chipper-shredder can permanently damage your hearing, and almost always leaves you with a headache.

I wear earmuffs.  But the foam ear pads produce sweaty ears!  I hate sweaty ears!  So I made these washable, cheap sweat-soakers out of cotton socks. They work well on my wireless headphones too, and don't block the movie sound. They lower the efficiency of noise cancelling headphones a bit, but it's still better than sweaty ears.

MATERIALS:
White cotton crew sock or socks, men's multi-size or large. Look for the highest cotton content as you can find in cheap socks.
Socks and Scissors

Read more!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wasps for Caterpillar Control


Many people think the paper wasps and mud daubers are a dangerous garden pest that needs to be controlled.  In my view, they are excellent pest controllers, especially for caterpillars.  They catch insects and feed them to their larvae.
These cells will be filled with hungry baby wasps!
I was looking at my hollyhocks, looking for the insect that made web nests like this in leaves and ate the leaves.  Most of the webs were empty, because wasps were systematically locating the nests and eating the caterpillars. The wasps ignored me as they moved from leaf to leaf.
Caterpillars hiding in rolled leaf web.
One of the Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa annabella West Coast lady
is the probably leaf muncher.  Mallows are one of their main host plants.

Wasps are also patrolling the Four O'Clocks, the tomatoes and the peppers, which have very little caterpillar damage this year.

When would I destroy a wasp nest? Nests in areas where they risk being bumped and bringing the wrath of the inhabitants on me are destroyed when I find them.  The first photo is of a nest that the wasp built in the garden shed, on my weed trimmer.  I destroyed it and hope she found a better place for her next effort. Read more!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Flowers! And Bugs!

Enough of construction and problem solving!  I have flowers to brag about ... Russian sage, hollyhocks, penstemons and gaillardia blooming between my patio and the fence in a gaudy mess.  
This is the traditional New Mexico style flower garden, where you plant a lot of things and let them fight for room. My long term plan is to extend this planting along the fence to the right, as time and available compost permit.

The Russian sage has dozens of bees, and an occasional butterfly.  These cream or white ones with spots are common.  An orange sherbet colored one taunts me and dodges the camera.
 

And on another wall, Zebra hollyhocks (Malva sylvestris) in a small planting area between patio and barbecue grill. There are also gaura and salvia for the hummingbirds.
 
Read more!

Monday, June 12, 2017

How to Grow your Own Ladybugs in 6 Easy Steps

A common question on gardening forums is "How do I attract ladybugs?".  It's easy. All you have to do is attract aphids.
  1. Have plants for the aphids. 
  2. Do nothing!
  3. Ladybugs will appear.
  4. Ladybugs lay eggs on the infested plants and eat aphids.
  5. Eggs hatch into aphid-eating larvae, grow up and make pupae.
  6. Adult ladybugs emerge from pupae and eat more aphids and lay more eggs.
Congratulations! You have grown ladybugs*.
Read more!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Climate, Micro-climates, and Nano-climates


This turned into an accidental demonstration of what micro-micro-climates are.  A micro-micro is a nano ... so maybe I'm showing nano-climates.  If you have a few plants that are unexpectedly struggling when the rest of the same variety are thriving, check for tiny differences in light and water.

EXAMPLE: Here are three young summer squash, looking quite water-stressed in the early afternoon.
Wilted
Less than 6 feet to the north, at the same moment, another three squash looking perky.
Unwilted
They were started and planted out at the same time, the seeds came from the same packet, the growing medium is the same home-made compost and silty sand, and they have the same length of drip tubing from the same manufacturer coiled around them.

The difference? The three to the north get light shade from a branch about 20 feet above them in the early afternoon. The stressed ones do not.

The solution? I added more drip tubing for the stressed ones.

I've seen nano-climates like this come from a window or wall reflecting light and heat, a septic tank's microbiological action warming the soil, or a change to a neighbor's landscaping giving more or less sunlight.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microclimate 







Read more!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: Buffalo 2.0 Update

Just a quick update on establishing the buffalo and blue grama lawn. It looked like this in early February, right after I spread the jute mesh and scattered the seeds.
February 2, 2017
After way too much weeding and daily hand watering, by late May I had grass and an enthusiastic crop of native wildflowers.  Two annuals -  Tahoka daisy (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) and sunflowers - are the main ones now. The perennial species are still very small.
May 27th
The daisies were not deliberately planted. They blew in from somewhere and I decided to keep them. They have a long bloom period, reseed easily, and attract a small white butterfly.
Tahoka Daisy
The native grasses don't grow very tall at first. They are establishing roots. When the summer rains come, I expect to see the buffalo grass sending out runners and the blue grama bunches get taller.
Tufts of grass
Read more!