Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Western Ribbon Snake

About a week ago my daughter and I visited one of the farms my husbands family owns to look for rattlesnakes. We spent about 2 hours wandering around, flipping rocks and enjoying the beautiful weather. We did not locate any timber rattlesnakes, but we did find plenty of other great herps, including this beautiful Western Ribbon Snake. I was busy flipping rocks when I heard my daughter Shaylyn yell that she had found a garter snake. I was pretty excited by this since we've not found many garter snakes on this particular farm, so I was curious to see what she had found. I must say I was even more excited by her discovery than when I first thought she'd found a garter snake. It turned out she had found a western ribbon snake (hamnophis proximus proximus) which are very closely related to garter snakes. This species was a lifer for both of us and we were happy to have the opportunity to photograph such a neat snake. I document all the species I find on this farm and I was happy to record this one as a first for this farm.

Ribbon snakes tend to be found near water, so it is somewhat puzzling as to why this snake was at this particular location. While we have had a lot of rain this spring, which partially filled a tiny pond that has been dry for the past 3 years, there really isn't much water to be found on this farm. The Nodaway River is about 1/4 mile away, which seems like a long jaunt for a small snake. While I might not understand why this snake chose our farm, it apparently thinks it is a good home.

Ribbon snakes are much more docile than their cousins the garter snakes and have been kept as pets with much success. They require nothing more than fresh water, proper food, heating and a 20 gallon fish tank. They may reach lengths up to 35 inches which makes them a manageable size as a pet. They are common, so there are no worries of pulling a rare or protected species out of the wild, which can result in fines.

 These are very slender snakes with a long tail that makes up 1/3 of its overall length. The body is dark with three stripes running the length of the body. The center stripe is often orange, but may be yellow. The belly is cream colored or may have a greenish cast to it. There may or may not be a yellow or orange dot on its head.
These are very fast moving snakes that are quick to flee when bothered. This one proved difficult to catch, but once we had it caught, it calmed down pretty quickly so we could get a few pictures before letting it go back under the rock where it was found. Like nearly all snakes, when bothered it musked, which is an effective defense that implements a combination of fecal matter and an oily musk that the snake releases from their cloaca (vent). Depending upon the snake, this can be mildly off-putting to outright nauseating. Garter snakes, or in this case the ribbon snake is more on the nauseating end of the that scale. This particular snake gave me a good dose of musk that nearly made my daughter gag and she claimed there was no way she was holding this snake. I had to laugh, because I've been musked so many times in my life that the smell doesn't bother me much anymore. I did have her drive home though, as I did not want the smell of musk to permeate my steering wheel as I drove. No amount of hand sanitizer can wash away that me!

Ribbon snakes feed on a wide variety of prey, including earthworms when they are small, then later frogs, toads, salamanders, and small fish like minnows. These snakes are active beginning in April and will remain so until October. During the hottest part of summer they are mainly nocturnal. If the temperatures remain mild they will be active at all times of the day or night. Mating takes place soon after they come out of hibernation in April or May. Like all garter snakes, ribbon snakes bear live young sometime between June and September. Neonates (newborn snakes) are about 10 inches in length and the female may have up to 28 offspring in a single litter, but average is closer to 15.

One of the things I love about being outside and exploring our farms or any natural area is the new discoveries to be made.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rhubarb Weevil

Rhubarb weevils (Lixus concavus) also known as Rhubarb Curculios are commonly found throughout the Eastern United States and portions of the Western United States such as Utah, Idaho and Texas. There are known populations in Ontario, Canada as well. 

They use plants in the genus Rheum as their host plant, much to the detriment of their offspring (more on this below). This includes Rhubarb, from whence this beetle gets it's common name. But they also use other plants including dock, thistle and sunflower. I find them frequently in May on curly dock that grows near our garden. In March and April when the curly dock is young and tender it attracts a completely different beetle called a Green Dock Beetle. When those beetles leave, the weevils show up and feed on the dock in its much larger state. 

Adult beetles overwinter in leaf litter and become active in May. They will begin laying eggs in host plants, typically one egg per plant. Even though these beetles share a common name with the rhubarb plant, they cannot complete their life cycle within the stalks of rhubarb. Eggs laid within the stalks of rhubarb are quickly consumed by a sticky sap-like substance that the plant produces in response to a foreign object or injury. This destroys the egg(s). Instead the weevil will use sunflower, thistle and dock most often as a suitable host. About 10 days after the eggs are laid the larvae will hatch and begin feeding. They work their way down the stalk to the ground where they will pupate. This process takes approximately 9 weeks. Right before pupating the larvae will chew an exit hole into the plant that the adult can emerge from after completing pupation. The adults will feed for a few weeks on the leaves of the plants before the colder temperatures drive them into sheltered areas where they will spend the winter. 

This species of weevil is one of the largest in North America, reaching up to 1/2 inch in length. They are black beetles covered in a fine golden dust. Like many beetles when they are alarmed they will roll over and play dead often rolling off the leaf or plant that they are feeding on. This must work well for the beetle, as I've had them do this and they virtually disappear once they hit the ground never to be seen again. 

If you have these beetles feeding on your sunflowers or rhubarb, usually handpicking the beetles and destroying them is sufficient to get rid of them as they rarely show up in large numbers. It is also recommended to kill plants like dock or thistle, which may be nearby your garden plants, that are also used as host plants. This can go a long way in reducing their numbers. Make sure to kill the plants in June when the larvae will be inside the plant feeding. Since we do not grow sunflowers or rhubarb I don't worry about them at all. The curly dock they feed on here is a pest plant and they are welcome to it. Plus I find them attractive and interesting beetles.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Northern Paper Wasp

Young female paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) are actively building their nests right now. They will seek almost any sheltered place to start their hive, including under large limestone rocks like the one pictured here. You will also find them in the eaves of homes and garages, inside old sheds and outbuildings, inside chicken coops, barns, etc. This single pregnant queen will form the nest and lay her eggs. When the eggs hatch they will be all infertile females, that will take over expanding the nest and feeding the offspring of the original queen. As the hive expands and becomes full of female minions they will often become very defensive and stings routinely occur if you venture too close to the nest. Give them space and you shouldn't have any problems at all. Wasps are able to sting over and over again which means an encounter with an angry hive can be a very bad experience. I've personally not had much trouble with them, but I know many people who have. Stings are painful and often cause swelling, itching and in rare cases anaphylactic reactions in those who happen to be allergic to bee or wasp venom. 

Reaching lengths up to 21 mm (or nearly 1 inch) makes them a fairly large wasp. There are four recognized color forms of this species depending upon the region where they are found. In our area, females are darker in color than males and have a reddish colored face. Males appear in late summer and early fall and will have a greenish-yellow color with greenish colored eyes. Males cannot sting as they lack a stinger. They do not protect the hive, or feed the queens offspring therefore they do not need stingers. Their only purpose is reproduction. Once mated the males will die and so will any females that have not reproduced. Newly bred queens will overwinter in leaf litter, under rocks, under the bark of trees or any sheltered area out of winters cold temperatures.

(A harmless male hanging out on my hand last fall)

Adults feed on nectar and sugary foods such as apples, grapes and other fruits. They will also show up at Oriole and hummingbird feeders. The females responsible for rearing the young will seek caterpillars and other soft bodied insects that they will chew up and feed to the developing larvae. This preference for caterpillars and other pests helps control nuisance insects like a wide variety of moth caterpillars that may feed on corn, soybean, cotton and other agricultural crops. Biological control at it's best. 

Females chew wood to utilize in making their nests. They will tear off tiny pieces of wood and chew it in their mandibles with a mixture of water they've collected that makes it malleable and easy to form into the distinctive hexagon-shaped papery nests we are all familiar with. Some of these nests may contain dozens, if not hundreds of protective females and additional dozens of larvae. Members of the same nest recognize intruders by how they approach the hive and will chase off any wasp that does not belong to their colony. If a wasp approaches the hive in a rapid, purposeful manner it is assumed she belongs there. If a wasp hovers in a slow manner near the hive, it is assumed she does not belong and is treated accordingly. If the intruder manages to get past any females guarding the nest, her visit won't last long. Usually within a few minutes her presence will have been found out and she will be aggressively invited to leave.

Towards the end of summer the queen will release a strong sexual pheromone, made of venom, on the hive once it has been deserted. This intoxicating "perfume" will send the males into a mating frenzy. Males will perch on a higher platform basking in the sun, waiting for reproductive females that they can force their attentions upon. Females will struggle against the males and sometimes escape their grasp, only to find themselves pursued again and forced to submit to the males attention. 

Once mated, bred females look for sheltered areas to spend the winter. In spring she will join aggregates with other bred queens for a period of time before they disperse and begin hive building. The initial offspring of the queen are all infertile females, later males will be produced followed by reproductive females and the cycle will start all over again. 

While stinging insects are rarely anyone's favorite insect; and if these wasps decide to build their nest right outside your back door or some other location where you will be in constant contact with them, destroying the nest may be the only option to avoid painful stings. However, if the hive is safely away from human contact, they are best left alone. They are excellent pollinators, great biological control and should be considered beneficial to humans.