Manual Destruction of Bagworm Nests Really Works

It finally occurred to me a while back that we didn’t spend any time taking care of bag worm nests this year. Evidently, the manual destruction of bag worm nests really does work to remove them.

I’ve posted here before on bagging the bag worms. Essentially, the bags or tents are manually destroyed by physical means using a stick or plastic bag-wrapped hand so the caterpillars don’t have a home to go back to after ravaging the forest. Yes, by destroying the nests and the worms that get in the way, we are killing living things. Just remember that we’re not using pesticides to do so!

Not only are the nests unsightly, but the caterpillars are very destructive. They eat all the leaves from a chosen tree, especially cherries and other members of the Prunus genus. If the tree is in otherwise good health, it may be able to sprout a second set of leaves to carry on living for the rest of the season. If the same tree is hit two years in a row with the hungry mouths of bag worms, the tree may become too weak and not survive.

It’s typical that the woods that surround our house are a haven for the tent caterpillars or bagworms. We used to see the ugly tents in many trees, but this year there were none. There seem to be plenty of nests that appear high in trees, especially near the rivers, so that makes a sort of reservoir of worms for future infestations.

Does anyone else see good results by manual nest removal? I’m curious to see what may appear next year. If we do see more bag worm nests then, you can bet that they’ll also be destroyed.

Red Eft Going Boldly in the Woods

While out looking for wintergreen plants during the morning hours one day in July, this orange salamander crossed my path. I wasn’t walking on a trail, but rather traipsing through the oak-hickory-maple woodlands on a mountain ridge in Pennsylvania. What a cute little salamander! It’s very unusual to see a salamander outside of their hiding places, but if you do see one it’s most likely the Red Eft.

Red Efts are the terrestrial phase of the Red-Spotted Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens, who usually can be found in ponds or other slow-moving water. The life cycle of this salamander is typical of amphibians who need access to water as well as land. The land must be damp or moist, so they don’t stray far from a source of water. The source of water that this particular red eft came from was likely a small pond about an 1/8th of a mile down the lane.

Looking down on a salamander found walking in the woods early in the morning.
Looking down on a salamander found walking in the woods early in the morning. Photo taken 4 July 2011.

We see dark-colored newts hanging in the pond until they are startled or gulp a breath of air before submerging. The aquatic phase is dark brown or russet with red spots.

It was a joy to see this little gal tramping around in the woods. There are some gigantic bullfrogs at the pond and lots of their carnivorous tadpoles, so I’ve wondered about the newts’ ability to evade their predators. Leaving the pond for a year or three is part of their strategy to survive. The terrestrial or land form of newts has a bad-tasting chemical in their skin secretions that wards off birds and mammalian predators.

Red eft tramping through the woods in the mountains.
Red eft tramping through the woods in the mountains. Photo taken 4 July 2011.

As to the sex of the red eft, one can’t be sure as they haven’t transformed into adults yet. The Red-Spotted Newt life cycle begins and ends in a small body of water, like a pond, ditch or temporary vernal pool. The aquatic larval stage spends the first few months in the water until it reaches the transforming stage. During its transformation the aquatic salamander attains the ability to breathe atmospheric air so that it can live on land. The transforming phase is dark in color, but otherwise looks just like the red eft.

When the transformation is complete, it’s ready to leave the water and go about on land as the red eft, or land form of the newt. The newt will find a new or its birth pond in one to three years and mature into an adult female or male. Adults are yellowish-brown or greenish-brown with dark spots. Males are differentiated from females by a high dorsal fin on their tail. The tails of the transforming phase and the red eft are nearly round in cross-section. When in breeding condition the males will have black horny growths on their hind legs and toes that the females lack.

Roger Conant makes an interesting statement in the Reptile and Amphibian Peterson Guide about the boldness of the Red Efts in exploring their terrestrial territory.

The terrestrial efts, although avoiding direct sunlight, are extraordinarily bold, often walking about in the open on the forest floor in broad daylight. After summer showers in mountainous regions they sometimes may be seen by scores or even hundreds.

I can certainly vouch for seeing one terrestrial eft in broad daylight, but I wonder where scores of them have been seen at one time. Has anyone seen such a sight?

Ode to a Sargent Crabapple Weed

Northern Short-tailed Shrew from US NPS
What does a short-tailed shrew have to do with a crabapple? (Image via Wikipedia)

Weeds are everywhere, so they are often overlooked. Most of us would think of dandelions or anything else growing in the grass as a weed, or point to any of the plants along the roadside as weeds. Our definition of a weed here at Wildeherb is:

A weed: any plant that is growing in the “wrong” place.

As our high school horticulture teacher taught us, a rose bush could be considered a weed if it was growing in the wrong place.

When a plant is identified as a weed, someone will pull it out, mow it down, or heaven forbid, spray it with chemicals to kill it. If everyone would spend less energy on all of the above, imagine the time and expense we all could save.

Weeds are kind of like cockroaches. They’ve been on this Green Earth long before humankind ever made the first fire to keep warm, and they’ll be here long after 2012. At least consider other options before polluting the Earth with nasty chemicals because your lawn or flower bed isn’t quite uniform. Being uniform isn’t very natural, and in my humble opinion, it looks pretty fake.

Major Pet Peave: Watching road crews spray chemicals at the base of road signs or seeing the dead brown mass of plants afterward! Isn’t there a better solution? Right away, I’d vote for fewer signs. How about putting down some stone or mulch that wouldn’t interfere with mowing? Why not plant a ground cover that won’t grow as tall as the other weeds that need to be mowed? With millions of miles of roads in the U.S.A. this is a problem of immense proportions looking for a green solution. We need to find better, healthier alternatives to the way we do things! <Rant over…back to my own weed “problems”.>

Just a couple weeks ago I chopped down two trees that I had planted about six years ago. They were pretty Sargent Crabapple trees, but they were in the wrong place. Hence, these weeds were removed.

Sargent Crabapple flowering in the backyard.
Sargent Crabapple flowering in the backyard. Photo taken 3 May 2011.

We’re surrounded by the forest, so we really didn’t need more trees filling in the most sunny places we have. The little foot tall saplings were planted there until I found the right place to move them. The trees were beautiful this Spring when blooming, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to keep them. They were taking up more sunny real estate than five blueberry bushes!

I thought about digging them up for a friend who admired the sprawling crabapples, but that seemed like waaaay too much work. Besides, she could get her own set of ten trees just by signing up for the Arbor Day Foundation. At $1 per tree it’s a deal that can’t be beat.

The Sargent Crabapple, Malus sargentii, grows wider than it does tall. These “little” trees had most branches less than an inch in diameter, so I used a pair of loppers to tackle the job. Each tree had a spread of 10-12 feet. They took up too much space in the sunny spot, so they had to go. If the root ball had spread out like the limbs did, we could have had a fish pond if I bothered to dig them up instead of cutting them down. Too late!

Today, there are cabbages growing adjacent to where the crabapples stood. Moss roses or portulaca adorn the area, too.

The dog was helping me in this project, so he had to sniff and dig around the area. He was relentless and obviously after something. No matter what I said or did that dog wouldn’t quit, so I knew somebody was hiding in there. He dug out and killed a Shorttail Shrew, Blarina brevicauda, see photo above.

After the tress were cut and I raked the area of sticks and leaf debris, I could smell urine, like that of a mouse nest. If there were other shrews in that place they will probably go elsewhere without the shade of the trees. If not, the cabbage will be ok because these little mammals eat insects and invertebrates, not plants.

A certain visitor might miss the trees though. One day a couple weeks ago I saw what I first thought to be a large stick lodged in the middle of a tree. It had been windy, but I didn’t think it was that windy to have thrown a stick that far from the big oaks at the edge of the woods. When I recognized that the stick was now pointing up instead of down, I realized it was not a stick.

That stick just moved!
That stick just moved! Photo taken 23 May 2011.
It's a black rat snake! Perhaps it was searching for a shrew-meal.
It's a black rat snake! Perhaps it was searching for a shrew-meal. Photo taken 23 May 2011.
Tiny yellow flowers at the branch tips of Sargent Crabapple.
Tiny yellow flowers at the branch tips of Sargent Crabapple. Photo taken 3 May 2011.
A doe and young buck (on right) graze the long grass and weeds behind the flowering Sargent Crabapple trees.
A doe and young buck (on right) graze the long grass and weeds behind the Sargent Crabapple trees that were still flowering. Photo taken in the afternoon from the deck on 14 May 2011.

Leaves develop after the crabapple flowers. Its blooming period is about two weeks long. The leaves are small and cute. They occur in triplets with lobed edges and make a beautiful display in the fall.

Beautiful reds, oranges and purples in the autumn foliage of sargent crabapple trees.
Beautiful reds, oranges and purples in the autumn foliage of Sargent Crabapple trees. Photo taken 15 October 2010.

In a way it’s kind of sad to see the trees gone now, but I am looking forward to our fall cabbage crop. If you are looking for a small tree or a big shrub to fill in an area, you might want to give the Sargent Crabapple a try. It’s a pretty tree of a manageable size that gives rise to dainty flowers in the spring and colorful fall foliage. Join the Arbor Day Foundation for the cheapest way to get TEN flowering trees for only $10.

Yellow Oxalis Weed by the Millions

A weed that I’ve enjoyed seeing, until they had a population explosion in the vegetable garden recently, is the yellow oxalis or sour grass.

Yellow oxalis is also known as Yellow Wood Sorrel, which is the common name used for two closely related plants, Oxalis stricta and O. europaea. Both plants are native to the eastern United States. The outward difference between the two species is in the way the seed pods are held. The seed pods of O. stricta have a sharp angle in their stems, while those of O. europaea are not bent. Photos in this post are of O. stricta.

The leaves are like shamrocks, so sometimes we call it that. Each leaf is made up of three heart-shaped leaflets, joined at their bases.

By June the earliest flowering oxalis will set seed. Seeds develop in their candle-like spikes, which are the pieces to eat for a sour treat, although the foliage tastes sour too.

Yellow oxalis, Oxalis stricta, plant developing its candle-shaped seed pods.
Yellow oxalis plant developing its candle-shaped seed pods. Photo taken 9 June 2011.
Close up view of sour grass, Oxalis stricta, seed pods.
Close up view of sour grass seed pods. Photo taken 9 June 2011.

While pulling out weeds we often uncover toads. The little ones we find in the springtime are actually cute!

A garden visitor we like to see - they eats lots of insects - American Toad, Bufo americanus.
A garden visitor we like to see - they eats lots of insects - American Toad, Bufo americanus. Photo taken 9 May 2011.

Wild Native Bee Hive in a Catalpa Tree

A fellow we know is a farmer from way back. He knows the value of having bees around the farm and was proud to show us one of his natural bee hives. We didn’t get to see the actual beehive as it was deep inside the trunk of a large catalpa tree.

A big limb had broken off at the base for whatever reason and that made a hole into the trunk. Honey bees have been living in that tree for many years. Even though the big catalpa tree is right next to the house, our farmer friend found a way to live with the bees. Smart, I say. When his red raspberries are in flower, and that won’t be long now, they will be pollinated for sure.

Honey bees made a home in this old catalpa tree trunk.
Honey bees made a home in this old catalpa tree trunk. Photo taken 25 April 2011.

Letting the wild native bees stay where they are practically guarantees that the fruit trees will be pollinated. Another rotten old tree harbors a second colony of bees a hundred meters away. The walnut trees in that area will likely benefit from that beehive.

After hearing about colony collapse disorder and the plight of beehives in the USA, it’s great to see that at least some bees seem to be doing well.

Northern Ringneck Snake on Rocky Hillside

A Diadophis punctatus edwardsii on Goat Island...
Image via Wikipedia

On a hike along a mountain ridge we were crossing some hilly terrain as the trail followed a little valley between two large hills. It’s wooded and rocky and the valley has a little creek running through it. The day was warm, but windy.

I saw some slate rock and said to myself to turn over that piece. There might be a salamander under there. Earlier in the week I had seen a couple of lead-backed salamanders under tree bark that was on the ground, so it was fresh in my mind to look for others. Then, just before I turned over the rock I thought – Hey, watch out! There might be something under there! I turned over this brick-sized piece of slate and flipped it back pretty quickly. Instead of a salamander there layed a small black snake all coiled up!

It wasn’t coiled up to strike out, but was probably just laying there resting when some huge creature disturbed it by lifting the roof over its head. Ringnecks apparently do most of their hunting at night so that’s when they will be on the prowl. During the day they will hide among and under rocks and tree bark.

The ringneck snake in Pennsylvania is the Northern Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi. It is the only ringneck snake in the Mid-Atlantic, Appalachian and Northeastern United States. It is a sub-species that is related to the Southern Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus punctatus, that can be found in the Southeastern United States. The southern ringneck has a reddish ring around its neck and its underside is redder than the yellow belly of the northern ringneck.

Ringnecks are plain, dark snakes with a light-colored collar or ring around the neck. They only get 10-15 inches long and you probably have to turn over a rock or log to find one. This one was found under a slate rock in a rocky, wooded hillside near a spring-fed stream. A couple years ago we saw a ringneck that was lying among large pieces of bark that had been stripped off logs for firewood. It made itself visible only when pieces of bark were moved and its hiding place disturbed.

If you’re adventurous enough to turn over logs looking for salamanders, use a stick or a gloved hand. At the very least watch where your fingers and feet are because you could easily uncover a nasty snake instead of a sleepy one.

To find out more aoubt our legless freinds and other reptiles, check out Peterson’s Reptile Field Guide.

Skunk Cabbage at the Spring-Fed Stream

The trees on our ridge-top are just starting to make their leaves so the hillsides still look bare. The spring-fed streams look more alive with the skunk cabbage developing their huge green leaves.

The skunk cabbage has already bloomed for the year and is one of the only noticeable green things out here. No doubt this creek was much higher after the deluge of rain the other day.

A sunfish scooted away as we approached the edge of a pool in this little stream.

Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge.
Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
A downstream look at the babbling brook.
A downstream look at the babbling brook. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar. Photo taken 21 April 2011.

In this lowland area there were ferns beginning to roll out their fronds and other small plants growing green. Brambles and garlic mustard are some of the first plants to really get growing at this time of year.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is surprisingly edible. Crushing a leaf releases a skunky odor, so you wouldn’t think to eat this stuff. Eating a raw leaf will cause intense burning in the mouth because of the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Drying the leaves or rootstock thoroughly will remove this property. Dried leaves can be reconstituted for use in soups or stews or used as a cooked green. According to¬†Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide, the rootstock can be dried and pounded to make a flour that is somewhat cocoa-like.

Brown Springtails Jump On a Puddle

The other day I was outside to do a little yard clean up. I borrowed a tarp that was covering some firewood for moving raked leaves to the compost pile. A tarp makes this job very easy. Just lay the tarp near the area to be raked, rake the leaves on top of the tarp, grab a couple of corners and drag the tarp to the compost heap and dump it. A large enough tarp will hold a lot more leaves than a garbage can or bucket.

When I was finished using the tarp I returned it to cover the stacked firewood. A few pieces of wood were laid on top to keep the tarp from blowing away. It was then that I noticed something floating on small pools of water on top of some black plastic. Contractor garbage bags and black plastic sheeting had been used to cover other stacks of wood. In a few spots the plastic sheeting had been crinkled or curled in a way that allowed rainwater to pool.

At first I didn’t like seeing the water as it could be a mosquito breeding ground. But other insects breed in water, too. Here, the something that was floating on the water were thousands of Springtails or Collembola. Springtails were once classified as insects, but they now are considered to be in their own group, Class Entognatha.

Springtails are sometimes called water fleas because of their fantastic jumping ability. They are small and light enough to run around on top of the water and not break the surface tension. Photos taken 14 April 2011.

Roundish flotillas of springtails.
Roundish flotillas of springtails.
The Springtails are less than a millimeter long!
The inch-long maple flower gives a good size comparison. The Springtails are less than a millimeter long!
Floating springtails.
Floating springtails.

Other places that you can see springtails include planted fish tanks and snow banks.

The tiny insects probably hitch a ride on vegetation and get transported from fish tank to fish tank. There’s no telling where the springtails in my fish tanks originally came from, but at least a few of them have been evading the fish for years now. I found a cup and scooped some of the springtails from the puddle and poured them into a tank to treat the fish to something different.

Seeing any insect on top of a snow bank seems odd because most of them are dormant during winter. Snow fleas, as they are called, can sometimes be seen as jumping black specks on top of newly fallen snow. During winter in New York State they would appear out of thin air and then disappear just as quickly. I have no idea what they were doing on the snow or where they went when they disappeared. These were black springtails and they were about twice as big as the brown springtails of the wood pile.

Take an aquatic entomology class and you can learn all about the insects and related arthropods that inhabit our watery world. In lieu of that, keep your eyes open when you’re outside. You’ll never know what you’ll find!