Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Big Brains Vexed by the Tinies: Odorous House Ants

Tiny ants are a reminder of the power of the minuscule to vex us big-bodied, big-brained humans. Squash one on the kitchen counter, and others quickly appear, running in helter skelter patterns. A sense of futility quickly sets in, despite our vastly superior strength. As I write this, an ant crawls along the edge of my computer screen. The same dynamic plays out in the world beyond the kitchen window, as a powerful economy is laid low by a lowly coronavirus. A previous post compared tiny ants to "dust with legs." The closer nature gets to inanimate matter--a virus can barely be considered alive--the more it taps into the undeterrable laws of physics and chemistry. As a kid, I was impressed by big things, but relentlessness increases as size decreases, the most telling example being the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere. Unlike our big-brained selves, CO2 doesn't sleep, or get discouraged, or conjure false realities to make itself feel better. It just does what it does, day after day.

On a far less tragic scale, our latest domestic iteration of David and Goliath began, I hear, with a harmless looking orchid plant that had sat forgotten in a corner of the living room for an unknown period of time. Taken to the kitchen sink, it was watered generously and left to drain while the family went for a walk.

Upon return, the kitchen counter was coated with tiny ants, most likely the odorous house ants that would normally not show up until later in the season.

I've tried various approaches to controlling ants over the years, including meticulous cleaning and borax-based solutions. Only ant poison worked. It's called a poison, but medicines are also toxic if taken in excess. The aim, whether treating inner or outer nature, is to be minimalist and targeted.

Though the ants seemed mostly gone by the next day, someone in the house discovered ant nests in the kitchen--one in the knife holder, the other in electric kettle.

Eggs had been laid in the tiny crevices of the electric wire's insulation in the kettle's base, requiring some dismantling to thoroughly clean.

While the parts dried (no water was put on the exposed wiring), we speculated that the ants had been dormant in the orchid pot, then launched a great escape upon being inundated in the kitchen sink. A similar dynamic can prompt ants to come inside during the summer after heavy rains. It's not clear if the nests in the electric kettle and knife holder were created by escapees of the orchid pot, or if they were already there. The queens can only lay one egg a day, apparently, which suggests it would take more than a day or two to make a nest.

Previous posts on how odorous house ants can quietly create a parallel world in your house--a covert medieval-like landscape dotted with kingdoms--are below.

Winter Ant Sleuthing

Ants in the Pantry, or Dust With Legs

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Becoming a Tree

A tree was spotted taking a selfie of its shadow with the Veblen House.

Yes, you can become a tree when the angle of the sun is right, and wave to the flowers growing below, and cast your mighty shadow across the expanse, to mingle with the land's many memories of the passing day.

A Honey Bee Swarm, and a Specialist Native Bee on Spring Beauty

A couple interesting sightings of bees in Herrontown Woods recently. Working on trails on April 12, I paused and heard what sound like a buzzing coming from somewhere nearby. With so many machines of transport shut down due to the pandemic, it was quiet enough in the woods to hear what turned out to be a swarm of honey bees 40 feet up in a snag, still erect but completely stripped of branches. They were flying around a hole in the trunk. I went to get another load of stepping stones from our stockpile, but by the time I returned a half hour later, they were gone.

Some internet research led me to an entomologist at Cornell University, Scott McArt, who was kind enough to reply:
"From what you describe, it’s very likely a colony that swarmed. During swarming, half of the bees will leave the hive with their old queen, while the other half of the bees will stay in the hive with a new queen. The exiting bees will typically leave the hive and congregate on a nearby branch for a few minutes or hours, then move on to the next branch (or their new home, once they’ve found it). It’s an impressive sight when thousands of bees assemble onto the branches and/or move en masse to the next location, hence why it’s called a “swarm”." 
"Mid-April is a bit early for swarming, but not unheard of, especially since there’s been some warm weather and flowers popping up over the past few weeks. Aside from a bear getting into the hive, it’s really the only reason you’d see thousands of bees up in a tree right now. So if you didn’t see a bear, I’d say you saw a swarm :)"

Another bee sighting was much more subtle. Over the past month, the most numerous spring ephemeral wildflower has been the spring beauty. Again working on a trail, I happened one day to look down and see a tiny bee visiting one. I was crouching down to catch a photo when the bee dropped off the flower and stood motionless among the dead leaves--reminiscent of the freezing behavior rabbits use when approached. The same happened another day when I again sought a photo.

I was able to find mention of a Spring Beauty Bee (a miner bee named Andrena erigeniae) in a list of specalist bees.

An article in the Baltimore Sun entitled "Searching the Forest for the Bees" describes the bee's lifestyle, which includes only a brief appearance in the spring. It's useful to know that honey bees are not native to America.
"Unlike honey bees, which congregate in hives, most of the forest bees are loners that spend the bulk of their lives in the ground. They emerge for just a few weeks in early spring to pollinate flowering plants, shrubs and trees before the forest leafs out and shades the understory from the sun.

Many are "specialists," Droege said, focusing on a particular type of plant or flower.

For example, he said, there's a bee that specializes in collecting nectar and pollen from spring beauty, a ground-hugging pink or white wildflower that's one of the earliest harbingers of spring. One can't exist without the other, he said. In fact, many flowers have features that attract particular pollinators, while discouraging or excluding others.

"Flowers were all designed by bees," Droege said, over millennia of co-evolution."
 As a botanist, I had naturally assumed that all bees were designed by plants.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Some Early Spring Flowers Along the Princeton Ridge

Though google was indicating that local nature preserves are closed due to the pandemic, my understanding is that only active recreation areas, e.g. playgrounds, tennis courts, etc., are closed. Hiking is still allowed. (photo of flyer should expand if you click on it)

Many people were out today enjoying the good weather and hiking in Herrontown Woods, Autumn Hill, and no doubt in other Princeton preserves well situated on the special soils of the ridge, like Witherspoon Woods, Woodfield Reservation, and higher elevations at Mountain Lakes.

Below are some photos of common flowers hikers are likely to encounter at Herrontown Woods and elsewhere.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is the most common, carpeting some areas. A couple times, when I noticed these were being pollinated by a tiny bee, I crouched down to take a photo only to have the bee drop down onto a dead leaf and stay still, as if trying to hide.

The tongue-shaped leaves of trout lily (Erythronium americanum) carpet some areas as well, and some of the leaves even produce the elegant yellow flowers.

You could say "Thalictrum thalictroides," or you could say rue anemone (Roo a-NEM-un-ee). The photo is a closeup. This is a little flower.

Mayapples emerge like a closed umbrella that then deploys, hiding the flower underneath the leaf.

Violets are a just starting to show up.

Bloodroots are less common, and have larger flowers than the others. Their latin name is Sanguinaria canadensis, in the poppy family. Their enthusiastic bloom always makes me feel sanguine when I see one. They power their flower with last year's energy. The flower is soon gone, after which the seeds mature and the leaf expands and deploys like a solar panel to collect energy for next year's bloom.

Skunk cabbage lines the streams with its big, odiferous, cabbage-like leaves.

There was a shrub, painted buckeye, that lined the streams in the North Carolina piedmont and greened up early in spring. Pilots were said to be able to navigate by the ribbons of green etched in the spring landscape by the buckeyes. It's possible skunk cabbage once played a similar role.

Here's the mighty roar of the skunk cabbage flower, which pops up very early in spring, before the foliage.

The wood anemones start blooming a few days later, carpeting some areas of the ridge. Latin name is Anemone quinquefolia, with the species name meaning 5-parted leaves.

That's about it for the early flowering natives that are most likely to be encountered. Others like toothwort, hepatica, and Virginia pennywort are seldom seen.

The wild geraniums have put out their leaves, but are in less of a hurry to get their flowers out there.

Jack in the Pulpit is also up, about to open up its pulpit with Jack inside.

Black cohosh will bloom much later, but is sending up leaves.