Backyard Orchard News
I usually can't get within 25 yards of a dragonfly.
Not so in our back yard.
A flame skimmer or firecracker skimmer (Libellula saturata) has apparently decided that this is where he wants to be.
Last Saturday, for nine hours, he perched on a six-foot-high bamboo stake, leaving only for a few seconds at a time to snag a flying insect before returning to eat his prey.
The flame skimmer, about a 2.5-inch Odonata, looks prehistoric. In fact, according to a UC Berkeley website, "The oldest recognizable fossils of the group (Odonata) belong to the Protodonata, an ancestral group that is now extinct. The earliest fossils so far discovered come from Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) sediments in Europe formed about 325 million years ago. Like modern-day dragonflies, the Protodonata were fast-flying with spiny legs that may have assisted in capturing prey; their wingspan was up to 75 centimeters (30 inches). The group went extinct in the Triassic, about the time that dinosaurs began to appear."
Meanwhile, back in our yard (325 million years into the future), Big Red kept snagging insects and flying back to his six-foot-high perch to eat them. Then occasionally he'd claim a five-foot-high bamboo stake. Too much high rise? A little acrophobia?
At first I kept my distance, hoping I wouldn't frighten him. However, he just looked at me as if I were part of the permanent landscape. Camera movement didn't faze him. After capturing multiple images from every angle possible, I thrust the macro lens about an inch away from his head. He did not move.
Am I a dragonfly whisperer or just lucky?
The flame skimmer prefers a habitat of warm water ponds, slow streams or hot springs. We have a fish pond, a pool and a birdbath in our yard, so I guess that's why he hangs out here.
And we have the perfect perches--bamboo stakes. They're meant to stake our tomato plants but now they're "dragonfly sticks."
We suspect Big Red won't last long. A Mama scrub jay is nesting in our shrubbery and when her babies chirp for food, off she flies in search of a tasty morsel. Mama Bird chased a bright orange gulf fritillary butterfly (missed!) and now, I expect, she'll go after Big Red.
It's a bug-eat-bug world out there, and sometimes it's a bird-eat-bug world when you don't want it to be.
A flame skimmer perches on a bamboo stake. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Different view, different time: same flame skimmer. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Flame skimmer peeks over the bamboo stake. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
From the back, the flame skimmer is equally gorgeous. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Flame skimmer devouring lunch, an insect he caught in mid-air. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The lady beetle, aka ladybug, was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We don't know how she managed to get tangled in the cellar spider's web or why the cellar spider opted to have her for dinner instead waiting for a tasty honey bee, a nutritious leafcutter bee or a plump bumble bee.
Nevertheless, we came upon this predator-prey attack in our backyard. It was too late to save the ladybug.
Ordinarily, the ladybug's bright red coloration serves as a "warning" to predators. Plus, ladybugs are known to ooze a foul-tasting chemical that tastes so bad that predators leave them alone.
"The bright colors of many coccinellids discourage some potential predators from making a meal of them," according to Wikipedia. "This phenomenon is called aposematism and works because predators learn by experience to associate certain prey phenotypes with a bad taste. A further defense known as 'Reflex bleeding' exists in which an alkaloid toxin is exuded through the joints of the exoskeleton, triggered by mechanical stimulation (such as by predator attack) in both larval and adult beetles, deterring feeding."
So why the cellar spider's unusual menu choice? "The spider's 'taste buds' probably weren't very good," quipped a UC Davis scientist.
Cellar spider traps and wraps a ladybug. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Cellar spider proceeds to eat the ladybug, an insect that scientists agree is "foul-tasting" to predators. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Consider the lady beetle, aka ladybug.
It's not a bug, but a beetle. It belong to the family Coccinellidae, and scientists have described about 5000 species worldwide, and about 450 in North America.
Some quick facts...
Ladybugs are not always red with black spots. The colors can be red, yellow, orange, gray, black, brown and pink. And, not all ladybugs have spots. Some have stripes and some have neither spots nor stripes.
Coccinellid are omnivores, dining on soft-bodied insects such as aphids, as well as plants. Aphids? A single ladybug can eat some 5000 aphids during its short life span of three to six weeks.
Ladybugs are considered good luck. If a ladybug lands on you, Lady Luck is supposed to smile on you.
This ladybug (below) landed on me on the grounds of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis.
I'm still waiting for Lady Luck.
When a ladybug lands on you, it's considered good luck. A gentle push and this one took flight. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
"For many years, beekeepers and environmentally interested individuals have expressed the opinion that the use of neonicotinoid insecticides ("neonics") have interfered with the ability of honey bees and native bees to conduct their life activities properly," begins Extension apicuturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology in his latest edition of his newsletter, from the UC Apiaries.
"Since laboratory studies have detailed the disruptive effect on those insects, it was suggested that the same things were happening in the field. Unanticipated losses of formerly strong honey bee colonies, and easily observable decreases in bumble bee sightings, correlated well with increased use of neonics."
Mussen goes on to talk about the neonic situation in Europe and what the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has to say about the controversial issue. EFSA concluded that the neonicotinoid pesticides posed a “high acute risk” to pollinators, including honey bees, but that a definitive connection between the chemicals and loss of colonies in the field remained to be established, Mussen wrote.
Mussen, California's only Cooperative Extension apiculturist and a member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty since 1976, says the situation is not that simple. Read why. His newsletter is available free on the UC Davis Department of Entomology website. Access his web page and then click on "March/April 2013."
Honey bee heading for a catmint (Nepeta) patch. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Don't ever call the European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) a slow poke. It's not "as fast as a speeding bullet" (Superman), but close.
The males, quite territorial, chase away other pollinators, including honey bees, sweat bees and butterflies.
The European wool carder bee gets it name from the fact that females collect or "card" leaf fuzz for their nests. Today we watched the bees sip nectar from our catmint blossoms and mate.
If you've never seen them in California, that's because they haven't been here that long. Originating from Europe, these bees became established in New York in 1963, and began spreading west. Bee scientists first recorded them in California (Sunnyvale) in 2007.
Like to attract them to your yard? Plant lamb's ear (Stachys byzantia) and catmint (Nepeta).
European wool carder bee darts through catmint. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Mating European wool carder bees. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
After mating, these European wool carder bees broke away at lightning speed. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)