"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." ~Wendell Berry

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Monarchs Meet the Government

This summer, I was so thrilled to see a beautiful, strong crop of Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appearing along both sides of Highway 137.  There have been efforts in the last few years by Missouri Department of Conservation (MODOT) and Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to increase awareness of native wildflowers and grasses in our state and we have been seeing increasing amounts of the tall Indian grass, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Compass Plant, Blackeyed Susans and many, many other native forbs and grasses growing along all the highways this summer. 
Native Big Blue with flowers on 8/24/2014.

Native Indian Grass with flowers on 8/24/2014.
I was keeping a particularly close eye on the Common milkweed that was popping up everywhere also, as I really wanted to harvest some seed from the pods that were forming this year.
Then, about 3-4 weeks ago as Bob and I were driving down the highway, he almost drove off the road as we rounded a corner and I cried out in dismay.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The roadsides where I anticipated seeing the tall, beautiful native grasses weaved in amongst all the tall, seed-laden Common milkweed had been mowed down by MODOT.  A broad swath of the roadside - 16’ wide up into the ditches and up the other side – had been closely clipped by a finish mower.  There were less than 10 milkweed plants remaining in the whole 3 mile stretch.  I was horrified.  I was incensed.
Monarch caterpillars on their native food - Common Milkweed.
Where there were at least 200+ milkweed plants, now there are only 6.
As we continued our trip, the realization of the deeper impacts of the mowers’ blades began to dawn in my brain.  Not only had they mowed down the plants that were forming their seeds, they had also likely just slaughtered hundreds, if not more, Monarch caterpillars and thousands of eggs.  What a Greek tragedy. 
Approximately 200 milkweed plants mowed down along this stretch.
My head was reeling from the senselessness of it all.  The Monarchs would have been better off if the plants had never been planted there, forcing them to go to safer areas to lay their eggs.
At a time when environmentalists and even the President are warning us of the decline in the Monarch population (90 percent decline and now in the “near-threatened” category according to this article: http://biophiliccities.org/building-community-and-habitat-in-the-city-of-st-louis-through-milkweeds-for-monarchs-the-st-louis-butterfly-project/), MODOT is spending money on a program called “Roadside Beautification”, buying and scattering native seeds, at what I’m sure is a great cost to the taxpayers.  Then, before the plants can complete their cycle, make their own seed heads, and scatter themselves naturally (at zero cost to the taxpayers), they mow it down, victims of the government, in the name of "beautification".
100+ milkweed plants were mowed down through this stretch.
Unfortunately, these plants aren’t “beautiful” all year.  They can be ugly and look weedy at times.  However, even at their ugliest phases, they are still beneficial and still performing a vital function. They mowed these plants down at the absolute worst time of year, likely killing the “last generation” of Monarchs that would be part of the Great Migration that would be returning to Mexico and returning the next season.
Another similar story came across my desk (linked here: http://www.newtondailynews.com/2014/08/11/early-mowing-contributes-to-monarch-butterfly-decline/arkeeup/ )the next day and it made me wonder; how much of the decrease in the monarch population is being caused by this type of activity in the latter part of summer all across this country?
Another 50+ plants mowed down through this stretch.
Apparently, in many people’s haste to plant milkweed due to the growing popularity of the Monarch butterfly, they have failed to learn more about the care & environment needed for the milkweed and its importance as habitat for the caterpillars.  As it often does, the government, in its haste to “help” and with all good intentions, actually did more damage and wasted our money.  Are we surprised?  No.  But now, the mower blades need to be stilled and the government agencies that just want the roadsides to look beautiful, need to stand down.  They could easily wait until the end of September when there would be no damage to the population of Monarchs.  We continue to pursue those who can do something about this idiocy, but it’s much like the journey in “The Wizard of Oz”.  Only instead of a Yellow Brick Road, we have to wind our way through the government bureaucracy to discover who is responsible first.  Responsibility & government – now there’s an oxymoron.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mom Said, Go Forth, Eat, Poop, and Be Free

This past month has been extremely busy for me, but I was happy that I was still able to go and wander among the milkweeds, stand on my head and search for Monarch caterpillars on what is left of the end-of-summer plants.  In the last 2 weeks, I've found 27 caterpillars so far.  One disappeared, apparently, becoming an appetizer for an older caterpillar (or as my husband calls them, "worms") that I had in the same container.  Another lesson learned - put the teeny, tiny fellers in their own containers!  One died while trying to shed his skin, so I currently have a crop of 25.
After losing 6 out the first 9 that I found much earlier this year, I learned another lesson; separate them into smaller groups, just in case you do develop a case of "Black Death".  This disease is rather nasty and can spread quickly, killing most of your cats if you're not careful.  So, while I do have one of these Monarch enclosures (http://www.livemonarch.com/store_enclosures.php) (the ones showing as "sold out" are listed as $1000 - this is incorrect and I've let the webmasters know that price will scare the highlights out of some people's hair!), I am still using containers to group them into small groups, by age, so that my first instar cats don't become an appetizer for a fourth instar.

With plenty of fresh food that I'm supplying them with (sometimes twice a day!), they are growing quickly.  I am so excited!
My only one in pupa stage right now.
 I am fascinated by the little gold flecks on the chrysalis.  A very appropriate color for what's inside though - pure gold.
8/13/2015-Guy/Gal #1

8/15/2014 - Guy/Gal #1, 2 days later with his new suit and definitely having a bad hair day.
See the little legs in the skin he shed (pic above)?

8/13/2015 - Guy/Gal #2 - shed his skin a day earlier (on side of tissue).

8/15/2015 - Guy/Gal #2 - ready to do it again, and he did 2 hours later.
With every 'shed' / instar their antennae are definitely growing too!

8/13/2015 - 6 Guys/Gals - 2nd Instar aren't those little trails so cute?!?
I love the adorable little trails that they leave as they munch, and munch, and munch their way through each leaf.  Even their frass is cute at this stage!
8/13/2015 - 6 Guys/Gals- 2nd Instar - different view.
I think the 6 Guys/Gals are writing hieroglyphs in their leaves.  Maybe it spells, "more fresh leaves, please!"?
8/15/2015 - 6 Guys/Gals - taking much bigger bites now.  Num, num, num!

8/15/2015 - 6 Guys/Gals - the rest of the gang (Mr. Bashful is on the back of the leaf).

8/15/2015 - These guys are new additions.  One is guilty of eating a first instar and won't fess up.
 One of the new additions above ate a first instar and won't fess up.  My fault, lesson learned. 
8/15/2015 - Bright & shiny after adorning his new coat this morning.

8/15/2015 - Found this guy yesterday on a plant that I had missed in my previous searches

8/15/2015 - I have 12 of these little first Instar guys now.
 It's difficult keeping track of the first instars.  I thought it would be easy to put them in a Tupperware container and they would stay put.  Last night when I did my last check, there were 2 missing.  I looked under the paper towels and under the container.  Finally, I saw one of them climbing the house wall and fetched him up with a small paintbrush and put him back on his leaf.  I found the second one this morning in a container with another single cat.  Guess he decided to go keep his neighbor company?
8/15/2015 - A couple more of the 12 little guys (2 more on the back).
Each day, I get up, fetch new leaves, wash them, then check my guests' health as I replace their leaves and their bedding. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Success is in the Eyes of the Beholder

When checking the smaller items that were made with the concrete over the last couple of days, we decided that today was a good day to liberate the bird bath from its walls and let it be free.  At first, I was disappointed at the ugly structure that emerged from the clay mold, but after studying it for awhile I started to really like it.  Is this the way a mother feels about an ugly baby?  I wouldn't know - I didn't have an ugly baby.

But this, this is different.  I hold no emotional attachment to it, only monetary investment.  Or do I?  As I studied it, I realized that I was starting to fall in love with it.  It needs some work on the spout, but otherwise, it is quite functional.  While it may be quite ugly around the edges, a slow realization started to glow in my brain.  This is so me.  This is the way it turns out for me sometimes.  Ugly, but quite functional.  I'm not about prettiness in my yard.  I've always been about function and this happens to be quite functional as it holds water and will provide my birds with a place to bathe.  It's unique.  It's mine. It works for the birds and it works for me.  Well, it will work for me after some grinding on the overflow spout.  I'm willing to bet my life savings that there's not another one like it in the world either.  It's so, MINE!  It's so "Kathy" so yes, I'm kind of proud of it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Making it the Way you want it

With only 2 pairs of purple martins here, still feeding their young, I have started looking at the other things on my list.  One of my major annoyances has been the constant, twice a day refilling of my el-cheapo, concrete, shallow bird bath since the weather has been so hot & dry.  It just doesn't hold a lot of water and I finally just gave up and let it go dry.  But the birds have still been stopping by and peering forlornly at the empty bath, making me feel guilty
I have seen many DIY projects for building a homemade bird bath, but none of them were exactly what I wanted or envisioned and I was quite sure that what I wanted was not available for purchase.  Not at a price I would pay, anyway.  I wanted something that I wouldn't have to refill two or three times a day.  Something with a 6 to 10 gallon water reservoir.  Just over a week ago, we finally setup a prototype of what I thought I might want and waited to see if the birds would like the waterfalls. 
3, 18" planter water trays, small aquarium pump, aquarium hose and a 6-gallon reservoir and my prototype was up & running.
Turns out, they love it!  But I still wasn't happy with the plastic trays - they were too deep and smooth and I had to add rocks to them to make them more shallow.  That would negate their formerly "easy-to-clean" attractiveness.  And I just didn't love them.  I could live with them, but that's different than loving them.  My darling husband knew that I wasn't happy with them and came up with the idea of molding and making our own bird baths with pour spouts at a depth of our choosing.  He always has great ideas.  I do too, but often his implementation is better than mine.  That's because he's more patient than I am and I was excited. 
I love making my own stuff and I love being crafty, so with a vacation day on Friday, we put his plan into action.  In Missouri, clay is our typical "top soil".  So we decided to take advantage of the ability to use it to make a mold for our bird bath trays.

One bucket of clay, coming up!

The form for holding our mold.

The clay was sifted to remove all the rocks & big chunks.

Add water to make a super, gooey, sticky mix.

It has to be so sticky that it can pull your gloves off.

And makes you giggle.

I centered the pan, upside down and shaped the mold.

Final shape, with an overflow spout, to keep the water level where I want it.  I had to shape the spout twice.  Must remember to think upside-down!
My supervisor is so serious.  There will be no goofing off on this project, missy!  He told me not to post this picture, unless I was prepared to fight off all the women that will now flock to our home to find this handsome hunk.  Bring it, ladies!

My first test-run with a leaf casting, using clay as a practice substitute for concrete.

The pour is done.  The Terra Cotta color of the concrete doesn't exactly match the color you see in the bucket on the left.  But I can live with it.  We added this fortifier, so no wet cure is needed and neither is sealant: http://www.quikrete.com/productlines/ConcreteAcrylicFortifier.asp
 I will call this bird bath my "Cucumber Cool" bath, since I used all cucumber leaves under the concrete.  For my stepping stones below, I used a couple of grapevine leaves (as in the clay picture above) and some leaves from a Sycamore tree in the bigger trays.
My stepping stones and a 'brick' were poured out of the remaining concrete.
Now we wait.

Friday, August 1, 2014

An Ozarks Mason Bee Project - Part 2

It seems not to matter how many books you read or how much research you do when it comes to nature; nature will always do what it wants to do and there's nothing you can do about it.  Earlier this year, I had launched my first Mason Bee project.  I wrote all about it here:


When I put that housing out on 4/28/2014, I was very worried that I had missed the window to attract mason bees to my housing.  Turns out, my instincts were right.  Again.  Not only was I right about my poor timing, I was wrong about where I placed the housing also.  I had gotten the direction right, but after discovering tent worm caterpillars in my housing, I yanked them down from their mounts and did some more reading, eventually finding some text that said, "do not hang in trees".  I found out why.
I brought in all my housing, disassembled it, cleaned it all with a 10% bleach solution and left it in the sun to dry for a week.  I was very disappointed and frustrated at myself.
One week later, while sitting on our 4-wheelers in the shop, I noticed a small, flying, wasp-like creature flying around the small holes in the handlebar ends on both our bikes.
 And she seemed to be carrying something.

Bob's handlebar grip, already stuffed and closed off with a small amount of clay.

Bob researched it that night on the internet and found out that our alien-looking insect was a Potter's wasp.  Of course, we were conflicted in our ID, because she wasn't building anything that looked like the typical Potter's wasp nests that you see on the internet, but it never seems to happen that way here anyway.  But one id factor in particular helped - she was carrying a small caterpillar into her nest.  From the ID link above:
When a cell is completed, the adult wasp typically collects beetle larvae, spiders, or caterpillars and, paralyzing them, places them in the cell to serve as food for a single wasp larva. As a normal rule, the adult wasp lays a single egg in the empty cell before provisioning it. Some species lay the egg in the opening of the cell, suspended from a thread of dried fluid. When the wasp larva hatches, it drops and starts to feed upon the supplied prey for a few weeks before pupating.
Sounds kind of brutal, but fascinating at the same time.  Realizing that I had 4 empty Mason bee homes and this poor wasp could not be allowed to continue building in our handlebars, I mounted my Mason bee homes just outside the shop and gently coaxed the wasp outside so she could find her new homes.  I figured if the Mason bees weren't going to use my homes this year, something might was well take advantage of them.
It didn't take her long to find them.  She must have attracted others because I frequently see at least 2 of them building in their nests.  They have been very tolerant of me taking pictures and so far, I have not been stung.  I have really enjoyed watching their progress, even if they're not Mason bees.  Next year, I plan on getting my housing out earlier and will work on a better location also.  For now though, I'm perfectly happy to watch these busy, busy wasps building their nests.  Things didn't work out exactly as I planned because Mother Nature decided to do something different and I'm perfectly happy to take an alternative path with Her.
Photo taken 6/21/2014 - 2 weeks after placing the housing.
7/2/2014 - can you find her? Tip: she's in the upper house.

7/4/2014 - Closeup of the top home - notice the dried clay that has fallen off the entrance holes.  While she is completely capable of finding her own clay or making the seal on her own, I do spray water on the ground to keep some clay wet for her close by.

My lovely darling - 7/17/2014
8/1/2014 - can you spot the food that is trying to escape?

Yes, the escaping food is the glow-worm at the top there.  I imagine she'll return to catch him before he gets too far.