Friday, November 16, 2012

Ode to Spidey - Requested Reprint

Several of my friends requested that I publish, on my blog, a newspaper article that I wrote a couple of years ago. Enjoy unless you suffer from arachnophobia.


I bumped into an unexpected visitor on the side of my garden shed this summer. I nearly knocked her off the window screen as I reached for the water faucet. Stretched between the window and a red geranium was a web with a big black and yellow spider just sitting there minding her own business. I was eyeball to eyeball with this handsome spider who was sitting head downward in the center of a web that had dozens of little silk packages scattered throughout. Sitting under the light of the garden shed, she was catching all sorts of ‘passers-by.’

Photo courtesy of Sonnia Hill
As I touched the web with a twig, she would hesitate then run back to the plant. I was not about to do anything to harm this welcome guest. I caught an ant and flicked it into the web and Spidey (as I had nicked named her) ran out and bundled this precious dinner up in a little package of silk. And so it went during my summer, out to water, flick an ant and watch the spider wrap packages! Every once in a while Spidey would actually eat her offering! My neighbors thought I was nuts - feeding my spider!

Photo courtesy of Sonnia Hill
My Audubon Field Guide of Insects & Spiders identified my pet as an Argiope spider. The word spider comes from the word “spithra”, meaning spinner, and this big black and yellow spider is one of the best. The large web looks like a spoked-wheel with concentric rings of silk. In the center is a perfect zipper – a zig zag of webbing called the stabilimentum.  This web gave the Argiope spider the nick name of writing spider. Some people actually thought they could read words or letters in the web. Scientists thought the stabilimentum was for strengthening the web and protect it from damage while others thought this marking as camouflage.

A damaged web means trouble. The Argiope depends on the web not only for food but for lodging. A tattered web can no longer net meals and requires time and energy to rebuild. But, these spiders are recyclers in that they ingest their old web and reuse it for a new web. The bright threads of the web actually shine in the sun and warn passing birds of the web. I also found out that these spiders have poor eyesight but their sense of touch is very developed. When an insect hits the web, the spider feels the vibration and spring into action. It only takes seconds for the spider to grab the bug and wrap it up.

Spidey with a butterfly
Butterfly dinner
Reports state the spiders are responsible for 80% of the biological control in the garden and are the most important predators of insects. Spiders are often underappreciated by gardeners. So don’t get out that insecticide! Remember the timely words of Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, “I live by my wits. If I didn’t catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and multiply and get so numerous they’d destroy the earth.”  An old song goes “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.” Well, I did all summer.

But alas, our cool nights came!! I ran out to the garden and found Spidey lying limp in her web. I quickly gathered her up and brought her in and put her under a light but it was too late. I put her elegant body in a terrarium that I have and will hope that the two egg sacks on the window screen will bring more of this wonderful creature to my garden next spring.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What the Heck is That? #2

It is a coolish fall day and the thought occurred to me that soon I will be wanting a fire in the old fireplace. And, to start a fire you need kindling. I don't have to go far to get what I need. I have an entire backyard of kindling.

My backyard

Now to get someone to pick it up for me. And, . . . .that someone would be me.

I started picking up all of these nice pencil-sized shellbark hickory limbs thinking they would make good fire starter. 

Shellbark hickory limbs

I began to notice something strange. The ends of the limbs were perfect cuts. Almost like a miniature beaver had its way with them.

My good friend, Cecil (yes, someday I will write about him but I can't do him justice in my blog. . he is a one-of-a-kind) informed me that it was the Twig Girdler beetle. Ack!

The Twig Girdler is simply trying to complete its life cycle in my trees. The adult beetle emerges in late August-October to feed on the bark near the ends of the branches. The adult lays its eggs during the cutting process and the twigs are girdled because the larvae are unable to survive in living twigs.

The small larvae hatch and overwinter in the dead twig and when spring arrives, the larvae grow rapidly. They migrate to the end of the twig where they transform into a beetle in 14 days! This happens usually in August and thus there is only one generation a year. That is the good news.

The bad news is insect control is difficult since the larvae are protected in the twig. The best method of controlling these creepy crawlies is to accept the problem, rake up all terminal branches (remember there are some still hanging in the trees) and burn them. Ah, ha! A fire after all!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What the Heck is That?

I had a real serious blog ready to be posted about the trees out here in the piney woods of east Texas but this morning came upon something that I thought might be of more interest to you. It certainly was fascinating to me.

West side
Although it is still "coolish" here it is never too cold to kayak our beautiful lakes. So today the Kayak Kuties (that is what we call ourselves even though we have several rugged men in the group) decided to float Holly Lake and take in the brilliant colors of autumn.

As we came around the bend in the lake, look what we found! A baldface hornet nest. The hornets construct an inverted, pear-shaped, enclosed paper carton nest which can be up to 3 feet long. The grayish brown nest has two to four horizontally arranged combs and an entrance hole at the bottom. 

Baldfaced hornets are considered "social insects." The mature colony consists of a queen, 200 to 400 winged infertile female workers, brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) and, in late summer, males and reproductive females. Social, I guess! Must be one big party in that nest.

Baldfaced hornets are large (3/4 inch long) and black with white markings, particularly on the front of the head and the tip of the abdomen. Front wings of these hornets are folded lengthwise when at rest.

My insect ID book states that it is the only "hornet" reported in Texas but it actually belongs to the yellowjacket family (Vespidae). Its sting can be intensely painful.

Memo to self: when kayaking, avoid this area. . . .