Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

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When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

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In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

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The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

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I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.

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September 7 Nature Walk

The second of the annual Detroit Audubon field trips to Eliza Howell Park takes place on Saturday, September 7, 2019, starting at 8:00 a.m. The public is invited; there is no cost.

Timed to coincide with the early days of the Fall bird migration, this walk give special attention to birds, especially warblers headed from the North Woods to Central and South America. Depending upon the weather conditions, we are likely to see several warbler species, perhaps including these three. (Thank you to Margaret Weber for these three photos.)

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Black and White Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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American Redstart

The fall warbler migration begins at the end of August and continues into October, with individuals of some 20 different species making short stops at Eliza Howell. The find from one day to the next is almost always different.

If September 7 is a good day, the birds will keep us quite busy, but we will also stop for non-bird observations. This is about the best time of the year to note the variety and nature of spider webs among the wildflowers and the shrubs. They vary in sizes and shape; this is a small one on a thistle.

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September is also the month when I most frequently see a Praying Mantis (or 2 or 3). They have reached maturity and may be seeking mates and/or laying eggs. (I wrote about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” on September 13, 2018.)

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Butterflies continue to be present. One of my favorite late-season butterflies is the Common Buckeye, which makes it appearance in Eliza Howell after the July butterfly peak.

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I usually find several Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park each year, beginning about this time. We may want to stop for a look (through lenses) to watch the hornets enter and exit the hole near the bottom of these amazing constructions. (For more, see “Bald-faced Hornet Nests,” December 12, 2017.)

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Blue Jays migrate in September and many spend days at Eliza Howell harvesting acorns, from the middle of September into October. (For more information, see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018).

September 7 might be a little early to see them at work, but we will check (this photo also courtesy of Margaret Weber).

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The seasons repeat themselves, so it is possible to predict what might be seen at any given time of the year. But it is also true that every day is different and almost every walk includes an element of the unexpected. Such is the nature of nature walks. September 7 should be fun.

Never on Yellow? The Silver-spotted Skipper

The Silver-spotted Skipper is one of the most common butterflies in Eliza Howell Park. This year I saw the first one on June 7 and have been seeing them almost every visit since.

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Recently I have been putting to a test a report that I have seen more than once – that Silver-spotted Skippers rarely visit yellow flowers, that they can be found on a wide variety of other flowers, but almost never on yellow.

Large yellow blooms (especially Coreopsis, Heliopsis, and Black-eyed Susan) have been abundant in the park since June and other species of butterflies are definitely attracted to them. (Clockwise, starting with top left: American Lady, Monarch, Black Swallowtail, Pearl Crescent)

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During the last 2 weeks, in about 30 hours of observation, I have carefully watched every flying Silver-spotted Skipper I saw (and I saw dozens of them) and noted where it came to rest.

I have seen them on (white) Queen Anne’s Lace, here and the first picture above.

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I have seen them on (blue) Chicory – not pictured – and on leaves.

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I have seen them on (purple) Red Clover – not pictured – and frequently on (lavender) Wild Bergamot.

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I have seen them on (white) Boneset, which this one is just leaving

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During all this watching, I did not see a single Silver-spotted Skipper go to a yellow flower. While my observations are not sufficient to say “never on yellow,” I can confirm that the term “rarely” does apply.

Most intriguing behavior.

Less Frequently Photographed

The appearance of colorful butterflies, birds, and flowers often brings out the camera, but many less visible or less colorful living park features do not get similar attention. During my walks in Eliza Howell Park in the second week of August this year, I have been making an effort to get pictures of some less frequently photographed insects and spiders.

A large number of dragonflies are now flying in the park. It is difficult to get a good image of one since they seem always to be on the move, rarely resting long enough for me to get a picture, but I am beginning to get a few.

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There are, I think, over 300 different species of dragonflies in the United States and Canada and I am not (yet) prepared to attempt species identification of most of those I am seeing. For now, it is enough to see some of the variety and to have a few pictures with enough clarity that some body features can be noted and appreciated. Dragonflies are predators, eating other insects.

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Every year in late summer, I see webs that cover the tips of some tree branches. These “tents” are the home of the larvae (caterpillars) of a moth called Fall Webworm. I hardly ever see the white adult moth, but the tents where the larvae feed on leaves are easy to find. Though the trees lose some leaves, the webworms do not appear to do any long-term damage to the trees.

Since the larvae can usually only be seen within the webs, it is difficult to get a good picture of them. I have not yet done so.

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Grasshoppers are also in abundance in EHP now, especially easy to find along the walking path within the road loop. They are usually seen “hopping” away from where one is walking, not waiting to have their picture taken. I have a little more success finding them at rest in foliage. Grasshoppers are herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves.

The over 600 species are often in shades of brown and/or green. I am just beginning to get a sense of the variety within the park.

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Similar to the case of dragonflies, pictures can help me gain appreciation for some grasshopper features by allowing for close-up looks without catching them.

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August is the beginning of spider web season. Last year — September 20, 2018 — I wrote about the Banded Garden Spider (Banded Argiope) and its orb web. I have now found another orbweaver, the closely related Black and Yellow Garden Spider. It has been present in the same location for days, waiting for insects to get caught in its intricate web largely hidden in the wildflowers.

Large and colorful spiders like this are photogenic, but they are not frequently photographed simply because they are not frequently found.

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I confess that I have also been taking many pictures recently of butterflies and flowers, both of which have been plentiful and brilliant this month so far. But I do not want to neglect those “critters” that I know less well and photograph less frequently. There is so much to observe, to learn, and to admire.

Three Swallowtails: Big, Bold, Beautiful

During these dog days of summer, the fields of Eliza Howell Park are alive with flowers and butterflies. Swallowtails are the largest butterflies in North America and three different swallowtail species are now flying in these fields and feeding on the flowers. They are big and hard to miss when one is walking among the flowers.

And they almost beg to have their picture taken.

Two swallowtail species are often found in the park during the summer – Black Swallowtail and Tiger Swallowtail. The third, Giant Swallowtail, is a more southern species that appears only occasionally. I didn’t see it until August 4 this year, when this picture was taken.

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As the name suggests, Giant Swallowtail is the largest of the three (with a wingspan of about 5 inches).

Swallowtails use their long proboscis for taking nectar and the best chance for someone to get close to view and/or photograph is when they are feeding. The “swallowtail” name comes from the “tail” extending in back from each hindwing, giving the appearance of a forked tail similar to that of some swallows (such as the Barn Swallow).

At first glance, Black Swallowtail and Giant Swallowtail look somewhat alike, especially when both are in the spread wing position. This picture is of a male Black Swallowtail.

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In addition to the fact that the Black Swallowtail is smaller (wingspan of about 4 inches), the yellow lines are in different locations on the wings.

The Tiger Swallowtail is also yellow and black, in fact it gets its name from the black and yellow striped look. It is easily distinguished, however, as it is more a yellow butterfly than a black one.

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While there is some variation among individuals in size, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (to give its full name) is usually larger than Black Swallowtails but smaller than Giant Swallowtails.

Butterflies often look different when their wings are folded or partially folded. It is interesting to compare the next two pictures. First a Giant Swallowtail.

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Then a Tiger Swallowtail.

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Of the three, the only one in which the difference between the male and female is major is the Black Swallowtail. Here is a picture of a female, followed by one of a male.

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Butterfly watching is usually enhanced by being able to recognize differences among species. But that ability can come gradually.

My main reason for writing about these three swallowtails is simply to highlight what is happening now in Eliza Howell Park. The season is short (especially for the Giant Swallowtail), but it is a special time of the year when one can watch all three of these big, bold, and beautiful butterflies on the same day.

 

Marvelous Monarch Morning

Monarch butterflies were active early on a recent late July warm and humid morning in Eliza Howell Park. I began to see them before 8 a.m.

Black-eyed Susan is now in bloom in the park. Based on past observations, it is not a flower I think of when I see Monarchs, so when a Monarch stopped on one to nectar, I approached for a picture.

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Given the numbers of Monarchs flying in the peak of the summer flower season, I decided to record in pictures some of the different flowers Monarchs came to rest on this morning. The second flower was definitely no surprise; I have often seen Monarchs on Red Clover.

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Monarchs are perhaps the best known North American butterfly – large, colorful, easy to spot, often discussed in terms of their migration practice and in terms of their declining numbers. One additional point is that Monarchs will often allow someone to get close while they are feeding on nectar, as long as the approach is slow and without any quick movements. These pictures were all taken with a phone camera.

Eliza Howell Park has several new benches. I was tempted to sit in the shade and watch the Monarchs, but I needed to be on my feet to get close.

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Butterfly Weed is a Monarch favorite, a flower in the milkweed family that serves both a feeding plant for adults and a host plant for caterpillars.

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Another flower that I have previously noted as a Monarch favorite is Purple Coneflower. One of the several Monarchs flying around in the “prairie wildflower field” stopped just long enough for a quick picture.

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I cannot be sure, of course, because there were several butterflies in their irregular flight patterns, but I think that each of these pictures is of a different Monarch.

The last picture I took this morning is of the butterfly on Boneset. Boneset is not one of the more common flowers in Eliza Howell and not one that I have ever associated with Monarchs in the past.

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Five pictures of Monarchs on five different flowers in about 2 hours = a Marvelous Monarch Morning.

I came away with a better knowledge of the flowers in the park that Monarchs select as food sources. After some 1300 Eliza Howell nature walks, I continue to learn something new almost every time.

 

Chicory: Eat, Drink, Admire

It is estimated that only about 10 % of the flowering plants in the world are blue. Chicory, a fascinating example of the 10 %, is now in bloom.

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Chicory is sometimes called “blue dandelion,” or “blue daisy,” or “wild bachelor’s button,” or one of various other names. The ones I see in Eliza Howell Park are typically the shade of blue in the above picture, but some blooms, especially as they appear in bright sunshine, are a different shade.

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A plant native to Europe and now naturalized in North America, chicory is valued for a variety of reasons. The roots, roasted and ground, have long been used as a coffee additive and, mostly in times of coffee shortage, as a coffee substitute (chicory does not contain caffeine).

The leaves are eaten as a green (“wild endive”). They are perhaps a little bitter, but if one has never tasted a chicory leaf, I suggest a test bite during the next  observation of the plant. 

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There are other uses of the chicory plant as well, but it is the bloom that attracts me most, just to observe and admire.

Each stem produces several flowers, but an individual bloom opens for one day only. The flower opens up in the morning (the next picture was taken at 7:30 a.m.) and begins to close in the afternoon.

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I don’t know if it is because of the relative rareness of the blue color, but there is something about the chicory flower that seems to call for a close-up look.

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During my walks, I often stop to check to see whether – and which – pollinators are coming during the limited visiting hours.

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Chicory blooms from late June through the rest of the summer. For me, that likely means many more stops and many more looks.