Lifeguard on Duty

In our fountain-pond, we used to have floating flowers so bees and birds could enjoy the water without drowning. Unfortunately, they didn’t hold up to the harshness of the winter or changing temperatures. So now I’m a lifeguard. Every night, I fish out one or two bees who’ve accidentally found themselves in the pond with no way out. Sometimes I feed them sugar water in case they need some extra juice to fly away, but most of the time, they just want to dry off and leave, with the exception of bumble bees. These guys hang out and stay all night long. I often find them staying the night on one of my zinnias, unmoved, until the morning sun reaches them and then they fly off. It’s such a strange behavior because bumbles are harder to shoot than other bees because they are fast movers. I often think they are dead when I find them on top of a flower in the evening but they aren’t and will give me the claw to tell me to back off.  “Giving the claw” is a bumblebee’s way of saying “back off.” She’ll raise one of her front limbs as if to say “stop” and of course we respect that! After all, I didn’t save her to annoy her! Yes, Mr. Wild Dingo and I are those wacky people who rescue bees. Continue reading “Lifeguard on Duty”

The Buzz Around the Garden

Every morning, the ceononthus plants are covered in a variety of pollinating insects from honey bees, to bumble bees (pictured here), to hoverflies and butterflies. For the most part, they all peacefully work together, collecting pollen and ignoring me as I watch and photograph them. The bumble bee, however, can get mighty annoyed with me and it’s common for a bumble to buzz around my head, telling me off. They even do this as I’m pruning, dead-heading, feeding or watering. I love them to pieces but damn, they can be such a pain. It just so happens that one of the 250 species of bumble bees, the rusty patched bumble bee, one of the many native pollinating bees was added to the endangered species list this year. So I don’t mind a few of them telling me off now and then.  “Buzz off photographer! I got work to do,” says this bee! Continue reading “The Buzz Around the Garden”

Nectar Belly

This big boy kept me company every day this winter. During a long down time from Lyme disease, I’d lay on the sofa and watch him. He’d sit on this perch for hours, as long as the nectar was flowing. We named him Norm, because, well, he looks like Norm Peterson.

“Norm! What’s shaking?”
“All four cheeks & a couple of chins.”

Have a drink, Norm. It’s never too early for nectar.

Guisseppe and Luca

Giuseppe the Green, turned to me abruptly. He and his cousin Luca were busy snacking on the Mexican sage and I clearly annoyed them. I always knew katydids were omnivores but it surprised me to see them chomping on the white petals none-the-less. Maybe the this time of season brings a down turn in a carnivore’s food supply. There are fewer insects out and about in the colder weather. Heck, you have practically bribe me these days to get outside myself. On the other hand, maybe he just needed a little extra fiber in his diet. One never really asks these personal questions, especially at the dinner table. He did take an unusual interest in me. Perhaps he considered me as a main course.

This is Luca, Guissepe’s cousin, caught with a mouthful of fusion Italian-Mexican-Californian cuisine, Salvia Bianco. Luca is one of those radical millennial crickets who doesn’t eat anything containing GMOs, pesticides or gluten. Naturally, his diet is totally raw and organic. Today’s crickets belong to a group of strict progressives dieters who probably invented the “Eat This, Not That” trends found all over Internet, such as Paleo, low carb, no grain, no sugar—all those dismal diets lacking instant satisfaction on the opioid brain receptor. But I guess if you’re a cricket who spends the majority of his short, year-long life mating or trying to mate, you’re gonna want to be fit, not gassy. One thing’s for sure, girl crickets don’t dig gassy dudes. They go ga-ga for dudes with big spermatophores (“food gifts” that contain sperm and nutrients for females and off-spring). And that takes a whole lot of raw, organic, GMO-free paleo nutrients. Right after this dish, Luca’s gonna hit the night scene for some action and a different kind of satisfaction.

Jumping Jack Flash

You never forget your first photo shoot with a jumping spider. I saved Jumping Jack Flash, who’s only about 4 mm and looks like a piece of lint to the naked eye, from a fatal encounter with the mighty monster Hoover. It’s not like I’m a super hero (but I won’t stop you from referring to me as one). I saved him for my own selfish macro-geek desires. I whisked him into a private Dixie cup limo for a short ride to my studio where I could take his portrait before releasing him back to nature. He was not fond of the flash, hence his name, Jumping Jack Flash. I nearly jumped out of my own skin when he jumped out of the frame while I was shooting him. It’s amazing how a mere 4 mm insect can turn a person into such a nervous Nelly!

There are over 5,800 species of the jumping spider ranging 1-25 mm in size. They’re generally recognized for their unique eyes and by far are the cutest of the arachnids. With four pairs of eyes, they have the best vision among the arthropods and use it to court, hunt and navigate. Jumping spiders are found throughout the world. They don’t build orb webs or hang around waiting for a meal. Instead they use their unique ability to jump up to 50 times the length of their body. Even jumping 8 times the length of its body, as one slow-motion video of a jumping spider portrayed, is like a human being jumping the length of a school bus, without a running start. Yet, they have extremely weak back leg muscles. To jump, they increase the blood pressure in their legs which causes them to propel through the air. Prior to jumping, they attach a silk thread as a safety anchor to climb quickly back to its perch if needed.

Insects with excellent vision, such as the jumping spider, often do an elaborate courtship dance to attract mates. If you need entertainment, check out Internet videos of jumping spiders courting a mate. It’s better than watching a basket full of kittens.
Jumping spiders live for about a year. They are carnivorous, eating other insects, but some feed on pollen and nectar. These tiny spiders are capable of ambushing and killing insects much bigger than themselves, such as a honeybee innocently gathering nectar.

At first, I didn’t know if Jack was a he or she, but after reading about the size of the pedipalps of males and female jumping spiders, I am guessing that Jack is male. The males have bigger pedipalps than females, which are located in front of their fangs. The pedipalps are used for grabbing prey and mating. Once they catch their prey, they inject their venom and consume it right away.

Jack wasn’t very happy being confined at first. You would think the little fella would be grateful for the rescue. Instead he was sarcastic: “Thanks for saving me,” he said. “Being stuck in the belly of the monster Hoover would have really sucked.” Great. A jumping spider with a punny attitude. With that, he continued to run around in circles trying to escape his Dixie cup prison.

When he finally settled in and gave up on an escape, and accepted defeat, I took his portrait. Just look at how sad he looks in this portrait!  The detail and the uniqueness of such a small creature is astounding. It would be very easy to suck him up in the vacuum without a thought. I’m glad I took the time to get to know Jack, who was happy to be released onto my lavender plant just outside the front door.

Dances with Hummingbirds

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Each day I see Twig, the hummingbird, perched upon a fruit tree tree. Sometimes he chooses the plum tree, other times the apple tree. His feathers soaked from the down pouring rain, weather makes no difference to Twig when there’s territory and precious sage nectar to defend from his rivals. I move toward him and he chirps his annoyance. I look away, pretending not to notice him. He quiets. I take two more steps down the orchard path steps, with my camera in hand. Just a bit closer. I want to capture the details in his jewel-toned feathers. More curse words are chirped. One more step and I raise the camera. I fire off a few shots. Twig curses again and dive bombs by my head to teach me a lesson. “Chirp! Chirp! Chirp! You are very rude to take my photograph without my consent!” He darts off to the Salvia plant, soaked in rain water. The nectar must be at its prime in this humidity. “Chirp! Chirp! ” He cusses wildly between slurps of purple rain. I move away from the plum tree toward the sage to try for a few shots of him feeding. But my human speed is no match for the Indy-500 of Mother Nature. Before I raise my camera to shoot him at the sage, Twig is perched back upon the plum tree. I turn to sneak my way back down the orchard steps toward him again. Our dance not yet over. Continue reading “Dances with Hummingbirds”

The Original Angry Birds

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“Nothing ruffles my feathers more than other hummers poaching my nectar.”

All summer, it’s a regular Hummar War around my house. I always see photos of hundreds of hummerbirds happily sharing meals on one or two feeders all over the hummingbird forums that I read. Not at my house. Nothing but guarding and all out wars among them.

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“You don’t forget the face of the hummer who ate the last drop.”  Yup, they may have inspired not only “Angry Birds” but The Hummer Games, err, The Hunger Games.

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He spotted a rival just below him, plundering the sacred nectar. Family-style meals were not his thing. HBO words chirped between them.  “Take one more sip of that nectar and it’s lights out for you,” he threatened.

See? Hummers are badass.

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Meanwhile, I’ve been waiting for this ALL summer long! I bought this rather loud-looking birdbath because so many people on the forums showed how successful they were at attracting tons of hummingbirds as well as other birds to it. But none of my local hummers took a modicum of interest. Finally, a hummer shows up to take a bath–in cold weather.  Hummers do whatever they damn well please.  They must share genetics with Huskies.

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“Why are you having me mount this silly swing,” he asked. “They will never use it,” he said.  Husbands know everything.

Charlene the Crab Spider

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Charlene, the flower crab spider, sits contemplatively upon the black midnight basil plant. Normally found on goldenrod or other flowers, the flower crab spider (genus Misumena) is generally white in color but camouflages itself by secreting a liquid yellow pigment to match the flower it lives on. Crab spiders don’t spin webs to catch food, they hunt by camouflage, then grab their prey as it comes near to feed on the nectar of the flower. Bees and wasps are a crab spider’s favorite meal. While Charlene’s yellow camouflage doesn’t do much to disguise herself on the pink and eggplant-colored basil plant, I do often see bees enjoying the nectar of this particular flower at dusk when I’m watering. Her hunting location is not such a bad choice after all. At a mere 5 mm in size, Charlene sits, and waits. She has ALL the time in the world to wait for her favorite cuisine. With a beautiful sun set to enjoy, it’s worth the wait. Continue reading “Charlene the Crab Spider”

Stuff I Kill in my Garden

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Alyssum does not love me. I can kill it faster than I can squash a bug. Not that I actually squash bugs. I’ve tried watering, not watering, full sun, part sun, some shade and a lot of shade. Nadda. It goes from the pot to dead in 3 seconds. I’m not taking it personally. There are plenty of plants in the nursery. I don’t need no stinkin’ Alyssum. At least this hoverfly got in some good tastes before I killed its food supply. Continue reading “Stuff I Kill in my Garden”

Ladies Night

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Thursday’s are Ladies’ night at the ladybug sex club.

The box said, “Release your ladybugs at dawn or dusk. With ample food and moisture they can begin reproducing immediately.” And they say there’s no truth in advertising.

This team doesn’t much care about privacy.  That’s the boy on top, always much smaller than the girl. They hold on tight and can get busy for more than 2 hours at a time! Meanwhile, two others are hoping to get lucky too.  Dude, lay off the Viagra already!  I hired you guys to eat some aphids.  How is anyone going to get any work done if you’re always shagging?

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My eyes cannot unsee this. Ménage-à-trois!  Now I know why one website claims that up to 90% of Ladybugs have STDs—they’re always bumpin’ uglies! My image of the sweet innocent ladybug has been forever shattered.

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“Not tonight, I have the munchies.” After boogieing, the ladybug will hatch her eggs near a good food source, like a colony of aphids, so her babies can find food quickly. Eggs will hatch in 3-5 days and they will become full adults within 24 days. As larvae, they eat about 25 aphids per day, but as an adult, they can go through about 50 aphids per day. Gardeners’ best friends! Following a week-long shag-session, my ladybugs finally got down to the business of aphid/pest hunting. It’s about time too. I’m not paying them to boink all day long.

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“You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here.”

This little fella’s name is Robert De Niro, because damn, he’s just not gonna take it anymore. Makes me glad I’m not an aphid.

I know what you’re thinking. Ladybugs are so cute. But after witnessing all that group shagging and a little reading, my ladybug world has been turned upside down. They are some of nature’s seriously bad-ass mo-fo’s:

1) Eating up to 50 aphids per day, over its lifetime, a ladybug can consume as many as 5000 aphids.

2) If food is scarce, ladybugs will do what they must to survive, even if it means eating each other. A hungry ladybug will make a meal of any soft-bodied sibling it encounters. Newly emerged adults or recently molted larvae are soft enough for the average ladybug to chew. Eggs or pupae also provide protein to a ladybug that has run out of aphids.

3) In 1999, astronauts brought 4 ladybugs (John, Paul, George and Ringo) and a heap of aphids into space to see if the aphid could escape its enemy without gravity. The result, ladybugs: 87,452; aphids: 0.

They’re not ladybugs, they’re lady badasses!

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Last winter, before our garden went in, we had a major infestation of ladybugs. We found them in the 10’s in our house daily and hundreds by porch door for weeks. I had never seen them in mass like this before near our home. I didn’t know much about them except that they ate aphids. It turns out they hibernate and seek shelter in the fall, typically under protected locations, under leaves or behind bark. Since we had nothing in our garden except dirt, it’s only natural they’d knock on our door. This year, they’d better not be knocking on the door. There’s plenty of housing for all the critters out there.

Ladybugs are considered lucky in many cultures. In Turkey, they call them the “good luck bug.” In other Russia, Turkey and Italy, seeing a ladybug is a sign that a wish will soon be granted. I remember as a kid saying “make a wish” when we saw a ladybug.Some cultures have a nursery rhyme that feature the coccinelids. For example, this polish nursery rhyme,

Little ladybird had seven dots,
She was flying over a green meadow.
A little spider caught her in its spiderweb
I will set you free, little ladybird, and you bring me something.
Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread.

Yah, um, no. Jane, the ladybug in this shot, isn’t buying that nursery rhyme either. As far as I know, spiders are totally Paleo. Gluten is not on their menu. We all know that ladybug in the nursery rhyme would be paralized and wrapped in 3.2 seconds with her innards liquefying.

Admit it, you’d prefer a rhyme about innards liquefying.

 

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Ladybugs make make rabbits look celibate. I swear, I don’t go looking for this. They’re still gettin’ it on. It’s a regular ladybug love fest in the garden these days.

Ladybugs are of the Coccinellidae family of the order Coleoptera (Beetle). For over 500 years in Europe, they’ve been known as ladybird or lady beetles because they are not true bugs (the order hemiptera) but beetles. In typical American lexicography style, the term “ladybug” replaced ladybird and lady beetle. “Beetle-schmeetle,” says the American taxonomist. There are 6000 species worldwide. Their bright colors warn predators to stay away due to toxicity. Birds and animals avoid meals that are red and black. The spots on a ladybug’s back have nothing to do with its age, but you can determine the species by taking note of the number and position of the markings. The seven-spotted ladybug, for example, has, OMG, SEVEN spots. I’m glad there’s no test. I would have got that one wrong.

LinkedIn has 636 taxonomist jobs available! Apply now!

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“That was delicious! I’m full! I don’t need no stinkin’ napkin!”
Did you know Ladybugs clean themselves after a meal? I watched this little lady land on my basil and wash her face after a meal. There was a spider a few stalks away watching, but I don’t think he was too interested. Ladybugs yellow blood, which she will squirt from her knees, smells and tastes disgusting to most predators.

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This ladybug series is never ending…

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But it’s time to bug out.

What Kind of Gardener Am I?

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I tried vegetable gardening this year. Aside from my tomato plants and most of my herbs, it was less than stellar. All my lettuce bolted. My cucumbers were pathetic. None of my squash fruited. I mean, I have to be a complete doofus not to produce a single zucchini, right? So I ripped it all up and and put in flowering herbs, edible flowers and pollinating plants for the hummers and bees. But I left this pepper plant because for whatever reason it loves me and keeps putting out great peppers, even after harvesting the first round. I don’t know why but this plant makes me smile. It’s as if it’s telling me to “hang in there.” Next year, I’ll keep a few peppers around, because even if they don’t produce, the plant looks pretty on it’s own. World’s Worst Vegetable Gardener, But Peppers Galore! Continue reading “What Kind of Gardener Am I?”

Lizard Rock

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Ever since the new lizard condominium complex went in (it’s a three-tiered orchard built with natural stone & flagstone– perfect for lizard housing), Lizard Rock has been the hottest spot in town to catch some rays, gossip or hook up. Larry and Mona had many a rendez-vous before Mona got knocked up. Now we have 87 baby Fence Lizards running around with plenty of open homes for them to settle down in. With the skyrocketing costs and shortages of Bay Area housing, it’s a good thing they have us for landlords. Continue reading “Lizard Rock”

Heloise the Hoverfly

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Meet Heloise, the adult female hoverfly or flower fly of the family Syrphidae. Hoverflies get their name from how they hover in midair. Known as the helicopter of flying insects, they are able to dart quickly, fly backwards, and come to hover again. Sizes of hoverflies vary from small, long and slender, like Heloise here, to large, round and hairy. Heloise is roughly 6-7 mm in size, so she is teeny tiny.

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I found her pollinating the African Daisy Spoon petal plant, which graced me with a second round of blooms this year. This plant sees a lot of action!

How do I know Heloise is female? I’ve been known to be wrong a lot when it comes to bugs but from what I’ve read, female eyes of a hoverfly are smaller and farther apart and male eyes are bigger and come close at the top of the head, joining together. I’m guessing Heloise is female from the size and location of her lovely eyes.

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Hoverlfies are a gardener’s superhero. Small, light and incredibly good at keeping bad guys away while encouraging the prosperity of your favorite plants. The adults feed on pollen and the larvae eat decaying plants, aphids, thrips and plant sucking insects. A hoverfly’s capabilities are rivaled only by the ladybird beetle and lacewings for their benefits to the garden. High populations of hoverflies can control 70-100% of aphid population! All this from an adorable creature whose life cycle lasts from 3 weeks in the summer to 9 weeks in the winter. As the great sage Billy Joel says, “Only the good die young.”

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There are 6000 species of the hoverfly, found everywhere but Antartica. I’m guessing Helloise here is Toxomerus marginatus by the markings on her back.

Though they look a lot like stinging insects such as bees or wasps, Hoverflies, being true flies, have only one set of wings unlike wasps and bees. They also have the characteristic halteres, or bulb-like organs that evolved from the second pair of flying wings. You can see them on Heloise in the middle below her wings, a pair of yellow bulbs extending from the body. Each wing has a characteristic fold, or “false vein” which can be visible to the naked eye – it is located anterior to the first large vein that runs all the way to the outer margin of the wing.

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Even at their small size, you can easily tell the difference between a wasp and a hoverfly by it’s flight pattern. If it’s hovering and teeny, it’s harmless. Remember, if you see them, let them be. They are the good guys!

Red Eye Eddie

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This is Eddie otherwise known as Red-Eye Eddie. The other night, I was searching for bush crickets in our trees with a flashlight (no camera) just so I could watch them sing with their wings, when Eddie hopped up on a table on our terrace. I don’t know what kind of Katydid he is, though he seems like he could be a young red-eyed katydid, or the kind that can take out a gecko. (Do NOT Google Katydid Eating a Lizard.–Oh lookie, I did it for you!-– Eddie’s cousin comes up and it isn’t pretty.) Anyhoo, Eddie heard I was an arthropod photographer and asked me to shoot his portrait. I obliged. Unfortunately, I caught him while he was flossing the last of an aphid out of his teeth. Or maybe he was going for that “fist under the chin” yearbook pose. Either way, this is Eddie.

Sadly, the next day, we found Eddie face up inside our living room. We hoped he was mostly dead, but it turned out he was all dead. Maybe the fame of being photographed and adored went to his head. Or maybe that aphid wasn’t such a smart meal choice. We thought about going through his pockets for loose change, instead we mourned Eddie and gave him a proper burial outside in the garden.

“RIP Eddie. Your eyes were so red. Fame went to your head. And now you’re all dead. No more to be said.”

In his memory, I continue to stalk katydids much smaller than Eddie in our trees with their wings singing in full volume. It’s such a trip. Small things amuse me. Like, literally.