Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Wheels Are Still Turning

It has been a wild December and the balmy weather is keeping plants and animals awake and active. Fortunately for this gardener, it has provided the opportunity to get all the trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs in the ground that have been sitting in pots for the past three months courteously waiting for a home in our garden. It's inexcusable really, but it seems that whenever my crazy schedule allowed time to work in the garden mother nature had other plans. Now that I've gotten mostly caught up in the garden, I can become engaged in the blogging world again.

Despite the spring like weather, some creatures are staying on schedule and have found their overwintering spots, like this wasp that I almost hoed up while planting bulbs

or, the three American toads that I disturbed while digging holes for the trees and shrubs.  Yeah, they were just a little peeved.

But, it is amazing how many insects are still out and about. I'm seeing bees on the orange and lime trees that I roll outdoors on sunny days, and just last week, this Gulf Fritilllary was fluttering around the garden, in the spot where the passion vine grows, finding bare stalks killed back by an early frost.

 And then, while I was decorating the front of the house with Christmas decor, I saw this.

A wheel bug grabbing lunch. And yes, I was slightly traumatized to see one of my beloved gulf fritillary caterpillars being taken out, but equally astonished that this caterpillar was still in larvae form  in our garden in December.

I often see wheel bugs nymphs in summer but the adults have been more elusive. In fact I photographed one adult last November not knowing what it was. When I saw one again this fall I reached out and got a positive id from Ellen over at Using Georgia Native Plants. The cog-like structure on the top of their thorax gives them the appearance that they are armored and ready for battle. This unique appearance is not a facade.  These insects are ravenous predators, ambushing their target with amazing accuracy. They move stealthily toward their prey and then lunge forward using their large front legs to grab and hold onto their victim.  They use their stout beak to inject saliva, which contains a toxic paralytic substance, that immobilizes and kills their prey in seconds (well, at least its fast!), after which, this predator will suck out the victim's fluids.

If you see these guys in your garden that's a good thing. These fascinating creatures are a valuable ally in reducing populations of troublesome insects, particularly introduced species. They  feed on many unwanted insects, especially defoliators. They are predatory their entire lives and feed on many garden and forest insects including fall web worms, imported cabbage worms, locust borers, Japanese beetles, eleven-spotted cucumber beetles, leaf miner beetles, saw flies and aphids. It's no wonder they are classified as beneficial and we'll just overlook that fact that they do not discriminate and also feed on caterpillars, moths, lady beetles, honey bees and other wanted soft-bodied insects. As disheartening as it may be, I see it as the web of life alive and well in our garden. Everyone has to eat and it keeps all populations in check.

Fall is when wheel bugs mate (just one generation each year). The female lays her tiny, brownish, bottle shaped eggs on twigs with a gummy like substance, which helps protect it from stormy weather, parasites and predators, (just another reason not to cut back your plants in fall) and then dies, sometimes after turning on her mate and eating him (Nice!). The red, wingless nymphs hatch out in spring. They feed on aphids, and lots of them, while going through 5 molts before becoming adults by summer's end.

If you come across one of these wheels take some time to observe them. They are not aggressive and are very slow moving so they can be easily studied. Be sure not to handle them because they will deliver a painful "bite" (technically a pierce as they have piercing/sucking mouth parts) to humans. The sting creates a sensation that lasts for a few minutes and with varied intensity depending on the person. It is best to clean bites/stings with soap and water and apply a lotion with menthol or camphor for relief.

I have more posts to share so I'll be back before the end of the year. Please return. I've missed y'all.