Wooly aphid

It looked like lint on the leaf of my winged sumac. Then it moved!!! (Scary music here). I took pictures and then came inside to investigate. It’s called a wooly aphid and the white cottony film covering it’s body has a waxy coat that protects it from some predators. Meanwhile, the aphid sucks happily on plant juices! 

For more details, check out this post: 



They could be acanalonia conica or or ormenoides venusta. They belong to the group of plant hoppers and they do the coolest thing… When you touch the stem they all move synchronously to the back side in attempt to hide. My trumpet vine is full of them, and this stem, in particular is suffering from a paucity of leaves! Here’s more info:



Ummidia (trap door spider)

this spider is related to the tarantula but much smaller in size and with less hairy legs. The trap door spider builds an ingenious tunnel covered by a trapdoor and uses this to catch prey.    For more info, check out this link http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_trapdoor_spider.html

a monarch tale

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” (Maya Angelou)

“She liked being reminded of butterflies. She remembered being six or seven and crying over the fates of the butterflies in her yard after learning that they lived for only a few days. Her mother had comforted her and told her not to be sad for the butterflies, that just because their lives were short didn’t mean they were tragic. Watching them flying in the warm sun among the daisies in their garden, her mother had said to her, see, they have a beautiful life. Alice liked remembering that.”(Still Alice)

This is a story with a “sad”, not tragic, ending. I say that at the onset of this monarch tale because sad endings are an integral part of the cycle of life. nothing that is born lives forever. we see a caterpillar or butterfly, a bud or flower, an egg, a bird, a baby or child and marvel at the beauty captured in these spring moments. the represent regeneration, rebirth, promise and the hope of life everlasting. Yet, in the flower of youth, it is easy to dismiss the inevitability of nature’s demise.

On an early april afternoon, while sitting in my garden, i spotted a bedraggled monarch butterfly fluttering among the tender leaves of my swamp milkweed. in previous years this same milkweed has been an autumn buffet for the milkweed bug and her offspring, This was the first monarch that had graced my yard. I did not check for eggs until the following morning and was elated to find them on many leaves of each of the 3 plants. This was April 8th, and I reported my findings to Journey North, a citizen Science monitoring network. Within 24 hours I was contacted by another Memphis resident who also had eggs on her milkweed. She advised me to make preparations for predators. I did, but the results were heartbreaking in small increments. I would say we started out with at least 20 eggs on each plant, had about 20 tiny caterpillars survive the egg stage. I covered the plants with a mesh laundry basket. Ants and wasps entered from below. They seemed to do well for a time and then, as the caterpillars got noticeably larger, they began to disappear again. In the end, I staked the cover to the dirt in about 10 locations. This worked for another few days and 5 caterpillars made it to 5 cm in length. In the end, when the last 2 living caterpillars moved to the netting, they were attacked through the mesh by wasps. None survived. The stated survival rate is 10 %. There was a long span of time of growth without any sign of predation. This was toward the end of April. I thought we’d made it to the “safety window,” but was terribly mistaken. So many thoughts have rolled around in my mind. The major lesson I came away with has to do with how nature is as much about death and survival as it is about birth and regeneration. I felt like a bad mother, full of sadness over these creatures with whom I spoke daily and that never acknowledged my presence. Nature takes its course, with or without human intervention. If the stats are so volatile when humans are actively engaged in positively influencing the success rate, then what is to be said for human obliviousness…. or detrimental meddling? The second wave of monarchs will lay eggs in July. My milkweed is robust… and i wonder if the monarchs will return and if the milkweed bugs plan another invasion…

Here are some photos of the journey from birth to death of my monarch caterpillars.

Bermeo sea wall


The sea,

trapped here by battered walls,

spits frothy curses at heaven.

They fall on deaf ears.

nature’s twinkies: the monarch and the viceroy

remember when your kids or those of someone you knew were around 10 years old, how they began to dress like their best friend and they would call or text each other the night before to decide what “look-a-like” outfit to wear the next day to school? i do. i had 2 very sociable girls and they loved to dress alike and like their “besties”! in nature there are  also “twinkies”, but there are much more practical reasons for “dressing alike”: survival! there is more than one kind of survival mimicry as well. in batesian mimicry, a harmless species imitates the characteristics of a toxic species in order to deter would-be predators. in müllerian mimicry a more mutually beneficial relationship exists. a given number of species may look alike because they both have toxic qualities and imitation becomes a mutually beneficial arrangement.

the monarch the viceroy butterflies are one of the best known butterflies to be recognized as “look-a-likes”. it has long been thought that the viceroy looks like the monarch so that predators of the viceroy will be fooled. the belief that only the monarch is really toxic (batesian mimicry) guided this view, but recent research seems to suggest that both are toxic in different ways so that their mimicry is mutually beneficial (müllerian mimicry). In the “finding that emerged from an early study—the viceroy, though more palatable than the monarch, was still less palatable compared with non-mimetic butterflies.”


monarch butterfy (Danaus plexippus)


viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)

to the casual eye, these two butterflies look alike, but there are several ways to tell the difference. here are two. the easiest sign is the black stripe on the viceroy’s hindwing. in addition, viceroys do not migrate so depending on where you live you will see them at appear at different times in spring.

spinning silken tales

everyone loves a good tale, a storyteller that weaves mystery and surprise with the complexity of an orb’s web; wondering how, from a story line moving in apparently indiscriminate directions, we are left with a perfectly patterned tale. to approach what the writer/storyteller does, i decided to explore the spider and its web, and to let their mastery shine in nature’s morning rays. this is a perfect time of year to find them! here are some interesting facts:

although orb spiders love the heat of summer they really get down to business making intricate webs throughout the autumn months. this is when many reach adulthood and they are their biggest. the eggs of this species hatch in the late summer or autumn, but the hatchling spiders become dormant and do not leave the egg sack until the following spring. BBC has a lovely nature post about spiders in autumn.

the web of the orb spider, those wheel shaped and intricate designs, begins with a single foundation thread, a base for the entire structure. then she spins radius threads. once they are completed, beginning from the center, working outward, the spider spins auxiliary spirals around the foundation, followed by the sticky threads. as the sticky threads are released, the spider eats the auxiliary threads which convert to the web-like material that can be re-spun. a very cool animation of how the spider spins her web can be found here.

here are some photos i took from my spider watch project.

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and two great links; one shows the anatomy of a spider. the other is a good overall link with info about the black and yellow argiopes.

a writer that can spin a tale as beautiful as an orb’s web is a master of spinning tales!

and of course there’s the copperhead!

talk about stumbling… there i was almost sitting on the ground on the woodland trail at meeman shelby forest, photographing a beautiful, and probably poisonous mushroom.

no sooner than i got up and back on the boardwalk i heard a “shshshsh” noise. i looked around. it sounded like something moving under the leaves. then i heard the noise again and saw the copperhead snake about 5 feet in front of me in the leaf litter. it was between where i wanted to walk and where i stood planted. what to do, what to do? the first thing i did was take a picture (well, two, to be exact)… some presence of mind, eh?


then, the snake moved quickly under the boardwalk that i had to traverse. i stood still, a few minutes then made a wide circle around the boardwalk. i did not feel fear, but i was a tad concerned. after the fact i became slightly unnerved. when i got home i looked up all the info i could find on copperheads. they say that god takes care of fools and babies. i know i am not the latter but have thought myself a fool on more than one occasion. age, however has given me the wisdom to learn from my experiences. since last week i have been more watchful for dangers when walking in the woods. i also made a decision to wear proper foot attire, regardless of summer heat. an ounce of prevention is worth a pund of cure.

i did learn that while very painful, the bite of a copperhead is rarely fatal to adults. according to Dr. Peter Bromley, N. C. Cooperative Extension Specialist in Zoology, “Copperhead bites are typically not fatal. Small animals, like small dogs, may receive a fatal bite from a copperhead. The venom causes local tissue destruction and secondary infection often sets in. If you or your pet are bitten by any snake that you suspect is venomous, get medial attention immediately. For the most part, if you let snakes alone, they’ll leave you alone.”

never try and kill a snake. that is a major reason that people get bitten.  according to the university of florida wildlife and conservation lab, “you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snake bite“. that’s a downright comforting thought! maybe i should look out for storms!!!

tiny potters, living pots.


you never know when you will stumble upon an interesting find. this morning it was the nest of potter wasps, (family: Vespidae, sub-family: Eumeninae) that i encountered on a the branch of a cinnamon vine (chinese yam vine). they form little pot shaped chambers  and place one egg in each. then they capture insects and caterpillars, placing them in the chamber as food for the devolping eggs. then the wasp seals the basket with a cap. above is the nest i found on my morning walk and below is a video of the potter wasp constructing her living pot.

pretty neat.

Summer quartet

butterflies inspire artists on many levels. painters, dancers, musicians and writers have all dedicated works to their elegant beauty and delicate movement. beginning with the butterfly waltz by brian crain. although the piece is somewhat repetitive, it is altogether pleasant. i can imagine walking through an expansive meadow, humming, as i relish the plentitude of july and august butterflies.

although little is known about the significance of salvador dalí’s landscape with butterflies, they were present enough in his psyche to inspire this painting.

landscape with butterflies (click link to see dalí’s painting)

now, for a change of pace, i move to a chinese ballet/acrobatic performance, called butterfly lovers, that exquisitely captures the grace inspired by butterflies in fragrant fields.

vladamir nabakov, the famed russian novelist, literary analyst and part-time entymologistonce said, “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” the author was passionate about the blue butterfly, went on yearly lepitopteral expeditions and wrote several essays that focused on… “the connection between art and the changing subtlety of these fragile insects.”

After the death of his mother in 1778, william wordsworth wrote “to a butterfly”. here is the poem (from the bartelby website):

          STAY near me--do not take thy flight!
          A little longer stay in sight!
          Much converse do I find in thee,
          Historian of my infancy!
          Float near me; do not yet depart!
          Dead times revive in thee:
          Thou bring'st, gay creature as thou art!
          A solemn image to my heart,
          My father's family!

          Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,                       
          The time, when, in our childish plays,
          My sister Emmeline and I
          Together chased the butterfly!
          A very hunter did I rush
          Upon the prey:--with leaps and springs
          I followed on from brake to bush;
          But she, God love her, feared to brush
          The dust from off its wings.

i love the ephemeral, yet nostalgic connection in this romantic poem, with the loss of his beloved mother and the transience of the species. and so ends this brief summer quartet, inspired by nature and interpreted though art.


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