I happened through a fairly mature oak-hickory forest on the grounds of Warm Hearth Retirement Community yesterday. With the road being surfaced, the woods became the alternative route to my car parked well beyond the paving trucks.
I smelled them before I saw them–an amazing assortment, probably a dozen species–of mushroom, flushed into the above-ground world by the ample rains we have had since Florence passed through a few weeks back.
Gathered, the three clusters of Hen-of-the-Woods would have totalled probably 10 pounds. They were in very good condition. I have never eaten them. Many have. Why didn’t I fetch at least ONE of these clusters home?
In an earlier column I confessed my (and my hapless wife’s) checkered association with snakes and so I suppose it’s a short step to admit that I also have an inordinate admiration as well for insects—for joint-legged animals (arthropods) in general, I suppose, even including spiders.
There. I’ve said it. They have fascinated me for countless hours over the course of a long life as a bug-watcher.
In miniature, inside an armor-plated exoskeleton of a crayfish or millipede, wasp or butterfly exists all the working parts—muscles, nerves, vessels, cells, tissues organs—that sustain a human or an elephant on a larger scale of space and time.
Here on the planet long before us, the insects have become specialists with marvelously unique job descriptions or “niches” in their inherited life settings of desert sand or ocean floor, under tree bark or pasture soil. Let me just describe a few of them to you from those we find along Goose Creek in September.
A thoughtful neighbor brought me a gigantic immature insect in a bucket last week. Oh Joy! It had been years since I’d seen a Hickory Horned Devil—a hideously beautiful caterpillar that might just as well have come direct from the lot of a B-grade science fiction movie as from a modern-day forest floor.
This blue-green sausage-sized monster is the unlikely preparatory stage required to build the elegant Regal Moth, a beast and beauty story if ever there was one. You’d hardly think something lovely could come from the intentional ugliness designed into this largest of North American caterpillars with its orange, re-curved and thorny “antlers” (which actually are harmless to touch).
Today’s beleaguered forests are not the same as the undisturbed forests to which these creatures have adapted over their long history and this species—an intimate forest dweller—is one of many insects in decline across the country. So if you find one, show it to the neighbors—like mine did!
As fall approaches and summer vegetation begins to droop and brown, milkweed and goldenrod are both likely to harbor colorful and interesting species.
Common milkweed has been a plant-distribution success story as fields and pastures were cleared from the original virgin forest of the continent. Air-borne seed on silky parachutes spread across America, and with the milkweed as a food source, the Monarch butterfly and other insect species also spread.
The remains of our wild milkweed looks pretty rough by this time of year, dog-eared, raggedy and full of milk-weeping holes. The grasshoppers use it as resting spots, and inch-long Assassin Bugs lie in wait behind a leaf. When dinner comes, they spear it, and suck up its juices with their needle-like mouthparts that also contain in inner straw for this purpose. Also called the “Wheel Bug” for the toothed curve on its back, this is one to watch but not touch, as its bite can be painful.
Here I should mention that this bestiary of creatures on the milkweed is likely to have hard times ahead. While it’s important to insects like the Monarch butterfly, milkweed is just that—a weed—to those who grow crops or cattle on their land, and it is being exterminated across large parts of its former range. So if you have milkweed growing around the perimeters of your place, please leave it–or even plant a “butterfly garden” of milkweed and other host plants with the idea that species other than man and his animals need to make a living, too.
Lastly, check out the goldenrod, wonderfully crawling with a little community of specialist insects who come there for mating or dinner. One to look out for is the Locust Borer, an elongate beetle that you’ll hesitate getting too close to at first. With its yellow and black stripes it looks for all the world (and this is no accident) like a yellow jacket. (Notice a distinctive black “W” across the tops of the outer wings.)
This is a great example of “protective resemblance” in which a harmless animal wears the garb of a noxious one. Just don’t do like I did this week in my haste to show Ann this “sign of fall”: I quickly scooped up a Locust Borer from a goldenrod to show her, and when I opened my hands, I’d also captured a little bumblebee hiding on the back side of the flower cluster!
They’ll be gone soon, the insects of autumn, as much a part of the march of seasons as the passing of the wildflowers or migration of the songbirds. So do pay attention to the little zoo of fall invertebrates just out your back door, in your meadows and woods. They offer all sorts of lessons for those who take the time to look carefully at the small things close at hand.
I promise. Not fake news. Not an alternative fact. I did see this. On Goose Creek. Yesterday. It’s Planet Floyd. Trust me. I’m a stable genius.
The above is true. Except for the stable part. And the genius thing.
I did see this in one of our many, many, many dog walks around the loop up and around the valley.
Nevermind that this two inch mushroom was embedded in a carpet of moss. That somehow disappeared. I don’t know how that happened. Ask my staff. The ones that are left. A few still have their tongues, but not so many can find them anymore.
Meanwhile, keep your eyes open. See it. Say it. Y’all.
Yet another spider web. This one, freshly minted, just opened for business. Another day, another web. If you’re an orb-weaver, it’s your work. It’s what you do. No big deal.
But I never tire of wondering how the radians are calculated so that each turn is just so, and the next inner-loop just exactly follows within an eighth of an inch the loop before, all the way to the office–that position in the center at the junction of a vertical and a horizontal raceway to dinner.
The intricate design of the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) was a marvel for me in 1970 when I was a student on a field trip to the Smokies from Auburn University. Systematic Botany was a wake-up call to a budding zoologist who should not think there was little to learn from fixed, do-nothing greenery. I declared a botany minor after that field trip.
Laurel’s ten spring-tethered anthers (the pollen package) are arranged radially around the receptive stigma–the female part–in the very center of the flower.
A visiting insect would typically land on the disk and walk around the center in search of high-calorie nectar. And zap! the tension in the tethering “filaments” would shoot pollen onto the bee who would fly off with pollen from Plant A to deposit it on the female parts of flowers on Plant B.
Another similar method is used by a dogwood called Bunchberry–but the anthers additionally are able to swivel at the end of the filaments–creating more of a trebuchet force than a simple catapult like Kalmia.
Watch this short video of explosive Bunchberry pollen at 10k frames per second.