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.

17 comments:

  1. I'm glad you are back, Karin! I had never heard of nor seen a wheel bug - I'm glad they are good guys (mostly!).

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    1. It has been a very busy fall and I've really missed connecting with friends in the blogging world! I don't know if these wheels go as far north as you are but with the change in climate you never know if they will wonder up your way.

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  2. Missed you too and these are cool...my frogs are still awake and in the pond...crazy!

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    1. Wow! Those frogs of yours may have to start learning to croak some Christmas tunes!

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  3. I don't recall hearing about wheel bugs before. They do look ferocious ... but for a reason! I've been worried about the bees coming out of hibernation here, but they haven't, which is good. I hope we can escape the brutal subzero weather this winter, while realizing that El Nino might result in some plant damage, and struggles for some wildlife. Thanks for all the great info about the wheel bugs.

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    1. It will be interesting to observe the plants and impact all the weather has on the wildlife. I have crocuses that are coming up now, so I guess that means they won't be back for spring? I feel the need to grow lots of blooming plants indoors this winter so I transplant outdoors for the bees in spring since timing may be way off.

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  4. Very interesting post, Karin! You pictures are amazing, especially of the nymphs! I have still been seeing butterflies in my garden too, but we have just had a couple nights of hard frost. I will be very surprised to still see them when the weather warms later this week. Have a Merry Christmas! Deb

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    1. These are some crazy times! A few years ago I photographed an American Snout butterfly in late January on a warm day. It was perched peacefully on some vines in the woods. Normally I'm photographing birds that time of year, not butterflies. You have a blessed and joyous Christmas Deb!

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  5. Great article Karin! You have so many fritillary caterpillars in your yard, I'm glad you have the wheel bug to keep them in check!

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    1. I am sure this was a bonus find for the wheel. It probably didn't expect to find a nice juicy caterpillar in December.

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  6. It's very nice to have you back! i know how hard it is to keep up with daily life and find time for blogging. Happy holidays to you and family!!!

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    1. Thank you Lula! Best wishes to you and yours for a merry and joyous holiday!

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  7. Nice to see you.. Please have a very Happy Holiday season... Michelle

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  8. It's always fun to learn something new about insects and other garden creatures in your posts. Our winter is mild as well. I must poke around in the garden and see if there is any creatures still active in our strangely mild weather.
    All the best for the holidays and the new year!

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  9. Merry Christmas Karin. Wishing you the best for the New Year.

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  10. I've never seen the adults in my garden but I have seen the nymphs. I'm sure the adults have seen me! Once again, I've learned something new from your blog. :o)

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  11. At my house... The leaf footed bug nymphs look very similar to what you have posted. It's generally said that when there is a group of them.... It's bad bugs... When there's only one.... Then you have a predator. In sept 2013, I was able to post a pic of wheel bugs mating...

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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