Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Butterflies of San Antonio & Butterfly Gardening 101

Fall is here, but in typical Texas fashion we are still warm and sunny!  Which makes PERFECT weather for our butterflies to get that last bit of nectar before they hunker down for winter months.

If you are into butterfly watching, I've always said October is the best month to do that.  And if you have ever wondered how many species of butterflies we have in Texas or San Antonio and what they look like, I am offering a Butterflies of San Antonio & Butterfly Gardening 101 class at the San Antonio Botanical Garden on October 15th from 10-12pm.  

We'll discover the common families of butterflies and common species within those families.  With actual specimens to view by eye and under the microscope, you can get an up close look at these creatures that you usually don't catch while they are "on the fly".

We'll also cover my favorites for butterfly plants and tips on how to design your garden to make it more butterfly friendly.  I suspect, if the weather is nice, we'll also be able to tour the garden and view some butterflies active on the flowers.  We'll see what you learned and what you can spot!

Participants will also receive my favorite butterfly field guide.

Join me by registering through the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  Cost is $20 for nonmembers and $18 for members.  You must pre-register to attend!

Friday, August 26, 2022

It Rained... Can We Expect Mosquitoes?

 A large portion of Texas received rain recently.   Rain is great and was much needed, but it also means standing water and mosquito breeding!  Water is a requirement for mosquitoes to complete their lifecycle.  Only the adult (that bites) is found outside the water.  So, the more water we have standing in puddles or filling up containers means more places for mosquitoes to lay eggs and more eggs eventually become adults.

You may not notice much increased mosquito activity right now, but I suspect in the next week, we will be seeing quite a few more mosquitoes as enjoy our walks in the park or spending time outdoors.  Mosquitoes didn't go away during our drought... they were just harder to find.  

Many species of mosquitoes lay their eggs just above the water surface, waiting for the time when it rains and the water rises and saturates those eggs, allowing them to kick start the lifecycle.  Out of eggs hatch larvae, larvae eat organic matter in the water (so dirty water is better for them!) and larvae turn into pupa.  Pupa will emerge as adults.  Females and males take sips of nectar to get some carbs and then females go in search of blood meals.  Blood meals come from anything with blood, including humans.

It can take as little as one week for mosquitoes to go from egg to adult, which is why I anticipate next week mosquito activity will increase.  It may already be increased with more sites for females to lay eggs.

Why do we care about mosquitoes?

Because they transmit diseases.  In many counties, mosquitoes are trapped and tested for diseases.  In Bexar County, one such sample has tested positive for West Nile.  So we know West Nile is around... just one more thing to add to the list to worry about!

What can you do to avoid mosquitoes?

Unfortunately, there is no easy, silver bullet.  But there are tried and true things you can practice to reduce mosquito populations and reduce your risk to being exposed to bites:
  1. Reduce standing water - if they can't make to adulthood, they can't bite!
  2. Avoid mosquitoes.  Stay indoors, wear long sleeves and pants, stay out of areas where mosquitoes are heavy.
  3. Use mosquito repellent.  If you can't avoid them, choose an insect repellent of your liking.  Can't decide what to use?  Check out EPA's search tool.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Become a Beekeeper! Beekeeping 101


Interested in beekeeping and need some help?  This course will cover all the basics of beekeeping from what suit options you have, how to put on the gloves, where to purchase the clothing to what tools to use and how, how to set up the apiary to how to manage those hives and how that first year looks.  

In Person - September 30 @ Bexar County AgriLife Classroom, 3355 Cherry Ridge, Suite 208, SATX 78230 9am-4pm | $65
Virtual - October 3, 5, 10, 12 6-8pm | all sessions also recorded | $45

Field Days Included for Both Options!  Weekend and weekday options.

You'll walk away from this class with tons of materials, factsheets, catalogs, and information.  The hands-on opportunities from the field day will help you feel confident that you can be a beekeeper!  Our goal is to give you all the tools from materials, to information, to actual experience so you can be successful.

Bugs a Swarming!

Did you get some of that great rain yesterday?  I sure hope so.  And if you did, you probably noticed TONS of insects swarming, flying and floating through the air.

Some social insects will initiate nuptial flights when we are in high humidity - generally right before or after a rain.  When we have little rain for months and then a good rain event, these insects have to take advantage of a good situation.  Yesterday was that good situation.

You may be noticing ant alates in your house.  You may also notice fire ant alates crawling around the surface of your pool, the sidewalk, or other surfaces.  Termites were also swarming yesterday.  The main difference between termites and ants are antennae, waist, and wings.  But to keep it simple, look at the waist - it's much easier.  Ants have a pinched waist, whereas termites have a thicker waist.  Ants also tend to fold in half when they die, but termites stay unfolded.

Texas A&M AgriLife

I did notice a lot of termites swarming, but the only species I saw were desert or agricultural termites.  These are super common to swarm in the late summer or fall when we get good rain.  These termites are the ones you want, if you get termites.  They are found in the soil, like others, but feed on grasses and other plant material.  Usually this is below ground, but you might see them above ground in areas that are dry or drought stressed.  They form mud tubes along blades of grass and weeds which are the most conspicuous thing about them.  Desert termites don't feed on wood in homes or other structures.  They look different from other termite alates by their body size and long wings.  Wings so long they tend to curl at the end.  Wings double the length of their bodies.

Another insect I noticed flying around in large numbers were dragonflies!  The Bexar County AgriLife office has a courtyard with a tennis court that has been painted blue.  The water puddles on top of the blue paint tricked the dragonflies to thinking they were seeing a water source (or so I assume).  And we saw dragonflies in astronomical numbers flitting around the tennis court!  You probably saw them where you are, and aren't they an amazing insect to see?

We'll also start seeing mosquitoes soon... but that's for another post - stay tuned!

Monday, August 15, 2022

Kid's Virtual Nature Club

Back by popular demand, but modified to incorporate MORE aspects of nature and science, is the revamped Bug Club.... now dubbed the Nature Club!

Geared for ages 6-11 (but open to all), this club meets every Monday, September 19-November 14 (except Halloween) from 5-6pm.  Nature Clubbers will receive a kit in the mail with curriculum, reading materials, materials for activities and experiments and tons of goodies.

We meet virtually via Zoom, so anyone from anywhere can join us.  If you miss a lesson, we even provide a recorded link so you can work on it at your own pace. 

Each week, we will delve into the natural world, discovering lifecycles, food webs, predator/prey interactions, pollinator/plant interactions and more.  We'll even dissect owl pellets!

To register, click here!  Cost is $50 and space is limited.  We are already more than half full, so sign up quickly to reserve your spot!

Insect of the Week - Army Ants

If you hear the term "army ant" you probably think of ants that live in the rainforest or tropical environments.  But I think you would be surprised to learn that army ants are all around - or should I say under - us.  They are subterranean ants that can have massive numbers and every so often decide to come above ground to make themselves known.

While these ants are usually rarely seen above ground, this week alone, I have identified army ants from two different locations!  I have to say, it was quite exciting for me to come into the office on a Monday morning and get to identify two samples of something I rarely ever see!  After polling a few of my entomologist colleagues, I found that the San Antonio area is not alone in seeing this phenomenon.  

Army ants.  Notice the lack of large eyes on the head.

Army ants are not considered a pest species because we so seldom actually encounter them.  But when we do, you usually see huge numbers - such great numbers that they are alarming.  Usually the numbers of army ants you see would indicate a heavy infestation, but not in the case of army ants.

They are predatory under the ground, feeding on other insects and invertebrates.  Most species have huge mandibles that are noticeable without a microscope or magnifier.  Their bodies are a reddish/orange in color and pretty uniform in that color.  The workers have various sizes, but they are all on the small size - similar to a sugar ant or small fire ant.  The coolest thing about their morphology is that they have no eyes!  Well, they may have eyes, but they are teeny dots on their head and nothing like other ant eyes.  We can assuming they lack well developed compound eyes because they have no need, living in the dark their entire lives.

Army ant workers and alates found on the bathroom floor, coming from
under the toilet. Photo credit - Jeff Schneider.

My best guess is that the reason we are seeing so many army ants is because it's dry and hot.  They are moving above ground to find food and other resources.  If you happen to find army ants above ground, savor the unique situation you are in!  Likely, they'll disappear as quickly as they arrived and you'll never see them again. 

Monday, August 1, 2022

Endangered Species? What Does This Mean for the Monarchs?

Very recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the Monarch Butterfly - specifically our migratory United States subspecies, Danaus plexippus plexippus - to their Red List of Endangered Species.

What does this mean exactly?  It means that the IUCN found, through gathering and analyzing data that Monarchs are considered to be in very high risk of extinction in the wild.  

IUCN is a membership union founded in 1948 that consists of over 1,400 government and civil society organizations.  It is NOT a regulatory agency.  In the United States, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have the authority to proclaim a species endangered and uphold the rules and guidlines of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.  USFWS will not vote again on the status of the Monarch until 2024. 

While IUCN Is not regulatory or have any jurisdiction over what property owners can and cannot do to conserve Monarchs, this designation can be influential in Monarch conservation.  At the very least, it brings some media attention to the "Plight of the Monarchs".

It is without denial that Monarch populations have decreased over time.  This is due to several factors, and many scientists agree that the primary factor is a reduction of overwintering sites in Mexico due to deforestation.  Other contributing factors include pesticide exposure, lack of food sources in the United States, and land management practices reducing milkweed.

Milkweed is the host plant for the caterpillars to grow and feed.  Milkweed is also a weed - decades ago, it was common to find milkweed along roadsides and adjacent to agricultural fields.  With the need to use every bit of land, we've crept into the spots milkweed grows.  We've also built neighborhoods and reduced the overall spaces milkweed naturally grew. 

How can YOU help Monarchs?  Plant milkweed!  While there is plenty of controversy over which milkweed to grow, unfortunately native milkweed can be tricky.  Tropical milkweed tends to grow better and look nicer, but can accumulate spores of a parasitic protzoan, Ophryocystis ekeltroscirrha (OE) that cause major issues for Monarchs.  ALL milkweed can contain these spores, but tropical blooms longer, attracts more Monarchs and more is deposited by Monarchs onto tropical milkweed - thus more spores.  The best solution to this major issue is to CUT YOUR MILKWEED DOWN before the end of September.  No matter if it's blooming or not, cut it down!  If not, you let more Monarchs stop, drop off and pick up OE and even lay eggs that will not survive the winter.                            **Note - I am very much skimming the surface of the OE issue, but that's for another blog!

The thing that speaks to me the loudest in this situation with the Monarchs is how easily an animal that most Texas visually know, respect, and appreciate can decline in numbers so great that any organization can pronounce them as endangered.  We've known this was an issue for many years and we've still let it happen.  And while Monarchs are not great or important pollinators, they are the canary in the natural coal mine, telling us to get our act together before something much more environmentally beneficial is in the same predicament.  

So this fall, when you are thinking about what you want your garden to look like, consider tossing out or native milkweed seeds or finding a spot to plant some tropical milkweed (just don't forget to cut them down in September!).  Let's do something to help our Texas Insect!

If you'd like to learn more about Monarchs and all butterflies common to Texas, be sure to watch my online course on Butterflies & Butterfly Gardening! 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Spring Break Nature Camp!

Looking for something fun for your kiddos over Spring Break?  Texas A&M AgriLife in Bexar County is hosting our annual Spring Break Nature Camp.  Get ready for experiments, activities, guest speakers, hands on with animals, and tons of fun learning about all aspects of nature.

When - March 15-17, 9am-2pm

Where - Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Classroom / 3355 Cherry Ridge, Suite 208 SATX 78230

Cost - $100


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Asian Lady Beetle Invasions

It is that time of year when Asian Lady Beetles make an appearance indoors, and usually in large numbers. While they can be a major nuisance, they shouldn't cause panic and some simple exclusion practices can help prevent this issue in the future.

Asian Lady Beetles are not native to Texas - they were introduced from Asia to the United States in 1960s and 1990s as a UDSA project to help reduce agricultural pests in several Southern and Eastern States from Louisiana to Connecticut.  They are now found throughout the United States either from natural spread or from further introductions into the United States from Japan on freighters.

Asian Lady Beetles are a true lady beetle, better known as a ladybug.  They are wonderful biological control agents of pests such as aphids in nature and during warmer months, help control those pests in our landscape.  During colder, winter months, they have a trait that makes them different from other ladybugs - their propensity to find harborage in protected spaces, which often is our warm home.  One way to tell the difference between Asian Lady Beetles and other species is that these guys have a marking behind their head that looks like an M.

Brantley Spakes Rickter, University of Florida
Scott Bauer, USDA

Asian Lady Beetles tend to be attracted to light or lit surfaces and will congregate in mass numbers on sunny, Southwest sides of buildings.  Especially those structure that are lighter in coloration, but really any surface will do as long as it is warmed by the afternoon sun.  They will soon find cracks and crevices to squeeze through and often times get into eaves of homes, attics, or directly indoors.

When we have these up and down temperatures in winter, typical of Texas, they will become active on the warmer days and are noticeable inside the home, clustering and flying around windows, door frames or lights.

Mohammed El Damir

The good news is that Asian Lady Beetles are not harmful to humans or pets.  Even when consumed, they are not known to be toxic, although I imagine if a dog ate too many, it would get an upset stomach.  But what they will do is leave a yellow stain on walls and surfaces, emit an musty odor, and just be a plain nuisance.  You may love ladybugs outside in your garden, but who wants them indoors?

How do you get rid of them?  Prevention is key, but it's often times thought of too late.  Seal up around cracks and crevices along windows and eaves, use screens on vents and large holes, replace weather stripping that is worn around door frames.  For those already inside, vacuum them up!  Throw them back outside and let them do their thing in nature.

Pesticide treatments are not always effective.  It's best not to focus on the indoors, but outside where they are entering.  Where they are applied is key - put the pesticide where the ladybugs are entering.... but if you know where that is, seal it up!  The entry points are usually vents, eaves, soffits, windows and doors.  Apply synthetic pyrethroids, such as bifenthrin, lamda cyhalothrin, delatmethrin, or cyfluthrin.  But if the ladybugs are already indoors, it's too late to spray.  In that case, pull out the vacuum.

OR - consider your house lucky!  Ladybugs are considered a sign of luck after all!

*images from Bugwood.org