Thursday, August 18, 2022

Least Weasels
Recently, on social media the subject of least weasels came up when an individual discovered multiple chickens killed on their property. Several people commented on the post and said they had had similar experiences. Was this the activity of the least weasel or something else? Least weasels, along with numerous other weasel-like animals and various rodent species began appearing approximately 5-7 million years ago. At this time in our Worlds history great forests were giving way to vast grasslands and this new habitat was hospitable to these small creatures. These small burrowing, rodent-like animals thrived, and populations exploded.

The Ice Age that caused the demise of many land animals seemingly had no lasting effect on weasel populations and they were able to survive in less-than-ideal conditions, in large part because of their ability to burrow under the snow and hunt the small rodents tunneling through the frozen landscape. These tiny carnivores most likely made their way to North America via the Bering Land Bridge approximately 200,000 years ago. These well-established weasels are found throughout North America, as well as Northern Africa and Eurasia, from where the original populations came from before the continents separated.
These tiny, slender mammals are brown with white bellies, chests, and chins. In the more northern parts of their range their fur will turn completely white during winter, making for excellent camouflage. They have short tails and feet and small forward-facing eyes. Ferocious hunters, least weasels can kill and eat something up to 50% of their own body weight daily. With a body weight of 1 ¼- 2 ounces this means they are killing and eating about 1 to 1 ½ mice and consuming them each day to keep up with their fast metabolism. They are also known to kill and take young rabbits and other small mammals such as voles, and more rarely birds, bird eggs, fish, and frogs. These tiny hunters have a bite force, for their size, stronger than that of lions, tigers, bears and even hyenas! Their short jaw, strong muscles and the placement of their teeth allow for incredible strength when snapping their jaws closed. But do they kill chickens? The short answer is no, adult chickens are much too large for them to overtake and kill, however, if they came in contact with very young chicks and are hungry enough, they will definitely kill one. The most likely culprit in these chicken killing sprees is the mink or long-tailed weasel. Each are related to the least weasel, but are much larger, making it possible for them to kill something as large as a chicken.

The weasel and mink are distant cousins with similar body shapes and hunting techniques. Each have brains that are triggered by movement. Rodents have adapted to these fierce hunters by “freezing” in place thus avoiding the predatory instincts of the weasel or mink that would be excited by movement. In the case of chickens, when something invades their space wild, erratic chaos ensues and would be impossible for a mink or weasel to turn away from. They just are not wired to leave a situation that could secure for them enough food to see them through lean times. They will literally attack, bite, and kill every single moving object until nothing else is so much as twitching. Their long body, extremely flexible spine and quick movements make them formidable hunters and chickens enclosed in a coop would not stand a chance against their superior strength and predatory abilities. Once they have killed all they can, they will begin moving their victims to cache them for later. This is why you may find a pile of chickens near where they were killed still inside the coop. Obviously the weasel or mink cannot drag a chicken back through the hole it entered, but they will try. How do you identify whether or not a mink or weasel is the culprit causing the demise of your poultry? Look for the bite wounds. If the puncture wounds are located on the top of the head or back of the neck and are arranged close together, then you can probably blame the mink or weasel. Otherwise, you may have another predator wreaking havoc. Animals such as fox, raccoon, coyote, dogs and rarely even a hungry opossum will all dine on your chickens. After all who doesn’t love a chicken dinner? In the case of these predators, typically they do not kill everything in sight. Nor do they attempt to create caches by piling up bodies like minks and weasels do.

Fortunately, rogue weasels and minks are rare, they generally do not go after poultry, instead they prefer to eat more wild fare in the form small rodents and rabbits, or in the case of the mink, fish, and frogs. Both mink and weasels can swim, but weasels tend to stay close to the shore and grab food from there, whereas mink will swim out into water for something to eat.

Least weasels on the homestead are excellent at rodent control and are far more beneficial than harmful. Their larger cousins can, and will sometimes create problems, but if wild food is plentiful, they too are beneficial. Many animals will turn the tables on the least weasel and the hunter becomes the hunted. Hawks, owls, snakes, foxes, sable, stoat, and other carnivores all kill and eat least weasels. These predator/prey relationships make them important components of the ecosystems where they are found.

How do you protect your poultry from determined predators? Mink and weasels are capable of slipping through the smallest of access holes, they can climb and dig. You will need to tightly seal your enclosure and check for openings in your wire with a diameter of more than two inches. Make sure you have a wall at least two feet high and the wire above that is high enough to prevent chickens from jumping over. The best solution is to have a top on your coop. There are mink repellents on the market that are reported to be effective. This liquid repellent is harmless to chickens, but reportedly discourages these intelligent, motivated predators from attacking your feathered friends.

Death of an animal that you have raised and cared for that provides eggs and companionship is never easy, and when that death comes in the form of carnage it is even more difficult. Rest assured though these incidents are rare, and in many cases can be prevented with a little due diligence on your part.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Blister Beetles


One of my favorite things is to help people identify insects or help resolve issues they may be having from insects wreaking havoc in their yards or gardens. Recently I received an email from someone near Kansas City that was experiencing a plague of blister beetles feeding on her milkweed. She said they had stripped the leaves in a day, and wondered if I had ever witnessed or heard of blister beetles feeding on milkweed? I had not and told her I would try to find out if this was commonplace. After asking around and submitting her image and question to a group I follow on Facebook. Turns out this is not all that uncommon, which surprised me. We know that a wide variety of insects, including monarchs and milkweed beetles are adapted to feeding on milkweed and can tolerate the toxins within the plant, and even gain some benefit from those toxins and are often inedible to predators. To have insects not typically seen on milkweed or known to feed on it, decimating it, seemed odd to me. I empathized with this person as she had planted milkweed to help the endangered monarch butterflies and in a matter of hours lost her plants to an insect often viewed as a nuisance.

There are over 2,500 species of blister beetles found throughout the World and approximately 250 species in the United States. The most common in our region are the ash-gray blister beetle, black blister beetle, striped blister beetle and the black and gray blister beetle. All have elongated body shapes with a very narrow thorax. This cylindrical shape seems to be characteristic of blister beetles. They also possess a chemical held within their legs called cantharidin. This chemical can be potentially harmful or even deadly to horses. It is believed that as few as 550 beetles, if ingested while grazing, or eating hay, can kill a foal or small horse (275 pounds or less). This is also dependent upon the species of blister beetle present and how sensitive your horse is to the chemical. For those pasturing your horses you need to be diligent and apply control measures to eliminate these beetles from your pastures, or hay fields. This same chemical is also used to create a controversial drug called “Spanish Fly.” It is this chemical that earned the beetle their common name of blister beetle. When skin comes in contact with the chemical a reaction occurs and can create painful blisters. I myself have experienced this. A few years ago, one landed on my neck, I brushed it away, but not before it released a healthy dose of cantharidin and left blisters on my neck that were painful for days. This is chemical warfare at its best in a bug-sized package. It is believed that many species may have as much as 50% more concentrations of cantharidin than other species. The striped blister beetle is one such species with higher levels of this chemical.


I don’t want to sound all doom-and-gloom when it comes to these insects, like nearly all bugs there is a good side. With the blister beetle it comes in the form of pest control, and in the creation of various drugs. One of which treats pox viruses like chicken pox.

The female lays clusters of eggs within the soil. When the eggs hatch, many species of these beetles seek out grasshopper eggs within the soil, or young grasshopper nymphs that are near the surface of the ground and ready to leave the soil. They will feed on these eggs and nymphs, thus controlling future populations of these often nuisance insects. Some species even feed on the eggs or larvae of other blister beetles or even bees. All blister beetles are carnivores in the larval stage. Grasshoppers can occur in near plague-like populations and wreak havoc on agricultural crops and garden produce. Not to mention their craving for screens, clothing and other non-food items that make them a pest near homes. This biological control the blister beetle provides is beneficial in helping control grasshopper population explosions. In the adult stage blister beetles feed on a variety of plants, some, but not all include carrots, soybeans, alfalfa, clover, radish, cabbage, and ornamental plants like hosta. As well as milkweed, apparently. They are also fond of pigweed, and ragweed. Keeping these noxious weeds out of your landscape can go a long way in reducing blister beetle numbers. Picking the beetles off plants and destroying will reduce numbers, especially if done before large populations are allowed to establish. Placing lime or Diatomaceous Earth near plants won’t kill the beetles but will repel them.

This year, according to several individuals I spoke to, is a boom year for blister beetles. What causes insects to have boom or bust populations from year-to-year? There are often numerous reasons, and in the case of the blister beetle, it could be the past few years of excessive grasshopper numbers. With so much food available to the blister beetle, their survival rate would be greater as would their population numbers. We also had a milder winter, and plenty of moisture early on in the spring. All of these conditions combined could have contributed to the explosion of blister beetles this year.

Love them or hate them, there is both good benefits and downright bad effects caused by the blister beetle. If you have horses and notice blister beetles in your pastures, then control may be warranted. If you have garden produce being destroyed by the adults feeding habits control may be needed. However, if the feeding is not causing issues, leaving them may be the best choice, thus allowing them to do their best work in the form of controlling those damaging grasshoppers.