First, a note to my email subscribers: the formatting will be much better, and the photographs larger, if you click on the link and read the blog online rather than in your email program. I think I’ve set it up so your email will be a summary with a button that will link you to the blog, but since I’m new at this, I’m not sure. Now, on to the week’s news!
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This is a week of beautiful caterpillars.
Over the last three years, we have converted a sterile lawn into habitat-rich orchard, vegetable garden, and meadow. The meadow has grown simply by not mowing regularly, and selectively mowing around desirable plants to promote them and suppress the prolific non-native invaders. The meadow and flower beds now include several large stands of common milkweed, lots of goldenrod and asters, a sea of Queen Anne’s lace, and some native shrubs—like spicebush.
Last week I posted a picture of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. This week, you can enjoy a younger instar. It has cleverly disguised itself as a bird dropping with eyes. All instars have pretty convincing false eyespots. The caterpillar’s actual head is tiny and tucked down, making it difficult to see its true eyes, and I suppose the guise works to persuade potential predators that it is actually a snake or something much fiercer than a caterpillar.
Queen Anne’s lace is in the parsley/carrot family, so native insects associated with this family are happy to eat this non-native plant. Just yesterday, we spotted a black swallowtail caterpillar. Last year, we found a few eating our cultivated carrots, and transferred them over to the Queen Anne’s lace. This one had found the Queen Anne’s lace on its own.
Sometimes, very bland moths are very beautiful as caterpillars. Brown hooded owlet moth caterpillars certainly fall into this category. The caterpillars eat goldenrod and asters, so they’re happy in our yard!
In the past, we have noticed milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs, but this week, for the first time ever, we spotted a monarch caterpillar! As is broadly known, monarchs are in decline for a number of reasons, including increased pesticide use and decreased habitat (farmers eliminating “weedy” hedgerows to maximize crop area). We have only one record of an adult monarch in our yard, on September 29, 2015. Obviously there must have been one in our yard a couple weeks ago, too, in order to lay the egg! We also spotted a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar and fall webworm eating milkweed.
Aside from caterpillars, we’ve been enjoying some great wildflowers. By the chicken house, the native sunflowers that we yanked up from the gravelly shoulder of the road near Charley’s parents’ house are blooming. It was a patch he’d been admiring for most of his life, and when we noticed that they’d spread into the path of the highway department’s mower, we decided to transplant a few of the most at-risk. In the two years since then, they’ve spread wonderfully. Yesterday I photographed bumblebees, hover flies, a crab spider, and even a dance fly hanging out on them. Hover flies are bee mimics, reminding me of sweat bees, and while they do sometimes hang around sweaty people, even lapping moisture off of us with their sponge-like tongue, they are truly flies. They are in the family Syrphidae; many syrphid larvae eat aphids, and therefore are important biocontrols for farmers and gardeners.
In the woods, hog-peanut, common boneset, and white wood aster have started blooming. White wood aster is one of the most abundant woodland plants in New England, and its sweet white flowers brighten up the woods in late summer. At least on our land, they are the first of the asters to bloom (although we spotted the first calico aster bloom today, just a few days after the white wood aster).
In the garden, we’re picking an abundance of corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and eggplant. I’ve been canning. In the photos below, the really tall plant behind Charley is broom corn.
We’re finishing the last of the black currants and gooseberries, and are still enjoying ever-bearing strawberries. The ground cherries (or husk cherries) are just starting to ripen, and they are delicious! Ground cherries are native nightshades (the family that contains tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant). The fruits, like those of tomatillos, are “wrapped” in a papery husk (a modified calyx). The fruit falls off the plant and finishes ripening on the ground; the husk turns brownish and crinkly when the fruit is ripe. Unwrapped, the fruits look like golden tomatoes, but taste sweeter and less acidic (Charley says, “like creamsicles”). Last year we dried some, creating unusually delicious raisins. So far this year, none have made it beyond the garden fence.
In other news, we acquired two additional hens on Wednesday. These girls showed signs of scaly leg mite, and even though their previous owner said they’d been treated, we decided to give them another leg-drenching and a 24-hour quarantine before introducing them to the rest of the flock. They’re still a bit shy with us and the other chickens, but I’m confident that they’ll fit in soon.