Sunday, October 2, 2022

Four O'Clocks

These old-fashioned garden flowers are called four o'clocks. They are so named because their flowers open in the late afternoon between around four and eight o'clock. The flowers stay open all night and close the following morning, although sometimes remaining open on cloudy days. Click to enlarge.

I had heard that their scent was delicious so I sniffed a few recently and I can attest that they have a lovely, sweet, orangey aroma.

But why do they bloom at night? And why produce a scent anyway?

Because their pollinators are mainly moths who are attracted by scents and are active at night. It all seems perfectly logical now, right?

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Pine Barrens Gentian Time


In September I make a special trip to the New Jersey Pine Barrens to look for these beautiful rare blue pine barrens gentians, Gentiana autumnalis. Click to enlarge.

These lovely autumn flowers are natives of North American coastal pine barrens from South Carolina to New Jersey. See the sun shine through the cup! 

Some people think this is New Jersey's most beautiful native wildflower.

I love the trails of dots on the petals like fairy dust.

Pine barrens gentians bloom from September through early November.

Hunting for gentians in the pine barrens is a great way to spend an autumn afternoon!  

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Autumn Equinox This Week

Summer ends on Thursday, September 22. Let the autumn begin! After the autumnal equinox, the days will get gradually shorter until the winter solstice on December 21. No more long hazy summer twilights for us until next year. Instead we get to sit beside fires, drink hot chocolate, and think about what to be for Halloween. Click to enlarge.

Let us hope for the kind of autumn that the poet John Keats described as "a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Artistic Wasp Nests


See the little pot-shaped thing attached to the webbing of my garden chair? It was made by a mason wasp. Also called mud pot wasps and potter wasps, this group builds these little pots from soil and chewed plant material. Nice result, right?

The mother wasp stocks the pot with a sting-paralyzed insect to serve as food, lays an egg in the chamber, and seals the pot shut. The egg hatches into a larva that eats the food and then eventually digs it way out of the pot. Click to enlarge. And it's not the only cool wasp nest I found this week...

Behold the nest of an organ pipe mud-dauber wasp. This set of tubes is about 5 inches across. I found it in the eaves of a gazebo in a park where I was picnicking. Female organ pipe mud-daubers build these multi-chambered tubes, provision each with a sting-paralyzed spider, and then lay an egg and seal the chamber. Male organ pipe mud-dauber wasps stay around the nest to guard. That's a rare instance of parental care in insects. So... artistic creations and parental care. What's next, wasps?

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Happy Labor Day Weekend


This laughing gull pilfered a ketchup-dipped french fry from my picnic and is about to fly away with it. Documented theft right here. I caught him red-beaked! Let it be a reminder that -- around here, at least -- outdoor dining, laughing gulls, and summer are about to end. Have a happy Labor Day! Click to enlarge.

Sunday, August 28, 2022



This pale praying mantis was sitting on my green trash can today, making a faint reflection, possibly checking its pink highlights. It was about three inches long and in the exact spot I was about to grab to lift the lid.

This one, seen a few weeks ago, making it into my blog then, was a little longer than the one above. It was on a storm door of my house, in front of the glass and just below a handle I was about to use.

Although I may have made surprised noises in both cases, I was happy to see them. I can't think of another three-inch long plus insect I feel that way about.

Still -- seems like only yesterday they were so small I could have fit a hundred of them in the palm of my hand. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Dog Day Cicada Time


Dog day or annual cicadas are starting to get noisy outside. Males are singing to attract mates. There's more than one kind of annual cicada, with different species singing different songs and at different times of day or night. They sing with an organ called a timbal which is made of ribbed membranes that change shape with a click when pulled on by muscles. The clicks are amplified by hollow chambers in the insect. Click to enlarge. 

Here's a periodical cicada for comparison -- not what's singing now. These are the famous red-eyed ones that emerge in spring and early summer in 13 and 17 year cycles.
Some annual cicadas appear every year, but life cycles of individuals take from 2 to 5 years. They begin as eggs laid in slits on tree branches. (After the singing and mating is done.) The eggs hatch, nymphs fall to the ground and burrow down. They suck juices from plant roots, and eventually reach their last nymphal stage. Then they dig their way back up above ground, climb onto something and shed their skin and emerge as adults.

But here's a problem for dog day cicadas -- a big wasp known commonly as the "cicada killer."At about an inch and a half long, the cicada killer is one of our largest wasps. The huge size makes them look dangerous, but they are not aggressive -- except to cicadas.

When a female cicada killer is ready to lay eggs she digs a nest in the ground. (Lawns, planting beds, and the edges of concrete slabs are favorite sites.) Then she hunts for a cicada. She will sting it to paralyze it and then carry it to her nest. She'll push the cicada in and may go back to find another. After the nest is provisioned to her satisfaction she lays eggs on the paralyzed prey and seals the nest.

The eggs hatch into larvae that feed on the fresh cicadas their mother left for them. Then, plump and satisfied, the larvae become pupae and spend the winter underground. They dig upward to emerge from the nest the following summer. They fly around sipping flower nectar until the time comes to breed -- and to hunt cicadas. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Long Legs

I spotted three long-legged insects this week. They all big enough to get noticed a lot, and two of them are frequently misidentified. The crane fly pictured here, for instance, is often mistaken for a giant mosquito. It's not. It's harmless.

The long-legged creature posing on the fading coneflower is an arachnid in the scientific order Opiliones.

It ia not a giant spider. It ia not venomous. Good news, right?
And last a well-known, well-liked, and never mistaken praying mantis looking leggy.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Green Flower


A green zinnia showing off nature's artistry. Click to enlarge.


An except about green things from Colors Passing Through Us by Marge Piercy

"Green as mint jelly, green
as a frog on a lily pad twanging,
the green of cos lettuce upright
about to bolt into opulent towers,
green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear
glass, green as wine bottles."

Sunday, July 31, 2022

On the Grapevine


Behold my concord grapevine in its summer glory. When I planted it last year it was a leafless and unpromising looking stick. This year it reached the top of its trellis. 

And it's making grapes for the first time!

And word apparently got out to the insect community about it. This appeared. It's a native North American insect that's commonly called a grapevine beetle. Although grape leaves are its main food, it's not considered very damaging.

It has that classic scarab beetle look.

As does the Japanese beetle, famous for eating everything, including grapevines, and is a well-known plant destroyer.

Here's a gang of Japanese beetles having a party on what's left of a hibiscus flower. They remind me of orcs. Note the couple copulating in the lower center of the shot.

Last and worst, there are lanternflies, a newly introduced insect problem. There are a lot of them trying to eat our grapevine. We're controlling them with handheld spray bottles of insecticidal soap. 
All four nymphal stages showed up on the grapevine in successive waves and now lots of adults like the one pictured here. 

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to reporting about homemade grape jelly in September.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Heat Wave

It was 100 F here yesterday. I took a short walk in a hot garden. As I stood looking at this zinnia, I noticed the sun casting shadows: the shadow of the yellow ring on the pink petals, the shadow of the petals on the darker flower behind. Click to enlarge.

And from my files -- vulture shadows.

A fly shadow. It seems to be rubbing his hands in anticipation of something.


And the sunflower's petals shading its face.

Here is a poem about the sun by Philip Larken: 


Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding.
Heat is the echo of your

Coined there among
Lonely horizontals
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.


Sunday, July 17, 2022

Look Underneath


Here's an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly with its wings spread. A lovely sight.

This is the moment to zoom in for a look under the wings at the butterfly’s body. Although the wings usually get all the praise, a butterfly's body is worth a look.

See. Snazzy stripes! Although humans don’t usually much like insect details, this might be an exception. Pretty, right? Click to enlarge. 

And it's not just tiger swallowtails. This spicebush swallowtail has  polka dots under there!

And the ever popular monarch? Polka dots again. I have a pair of pajamas like that.

So next time you are admiring a butterfly’s lovely wings — take a peek underneath. Here’s a black swallowtail — more polka dots.