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Ghostly Shapes in the Pond

July 10th, 2008

For the last few weeks I’ve noticed ripples in the pond on quiet days, usually near the shoreline.  I look for fish quite often, and if it’s a bass or bluegill you can hear the “pop” or “smack” as they find an insect to dine on.   The bullfrogs are calling now also with their slow “baarooom, baaroom” voices.  And when two bullfrogs get together in a mating ritual, it’s like two splashy, flopping critters near the weeds. 

Ripples along the pond shoreline

But the ripples I’ve been seeing were not the same.  The previous two years I stocked a few grass carp as well as koi to help control vegetation and algae in the pond.  And years ago, a previous owner stocked a few of them as well.  Whether it’s luck or the right combination of fish I don’t know, but thus far we have had no blooms of algae or emergent vegetation problems, and the pond has remained much more open and clear. 

My suspicion is that the ripples I’m seeing along the water’s edge are the grass carp feeding.  I’ve let the grass from the shoreline grow long enough to fall over into the water to some degree, and the critters around the pond seem to appreciate it.  Every now and then I see ghostly shapes near the edge of the grass, but was not quite sure what it was.  And I didn’t know for sure if the grass carp I stocked actually survived over the last two years.

But the other day I found out they not only survived, but are apparently thriving.  Here’s picture of one of the ghostly shapes.  See the darker fish in the shadow of the tree?  It’s hard to tell size, but from the distance I took this picture, the fish is close to three feet long.  

Solitary grass carp in pond

And then for the first time ever, I saw a small “school” of three grass carp near the surface and just happened to have the camera nearby.  These are very large fish, easily 2-3 feet.  They didn’t stay for long, and I haven’t seen them since.  When I think I do see them and walk slowly near the pond’s edge to look, they vanish quickly.

School of three grass carp in pond

It’s fascinating to think these have grown so large and overwintered on little to no vegetation, and with the surface of the pond frozen for weeks at a time.  And it’s somewhat unnerving as well.  These are the same species of nuisance fish that have escaped into many midwest rivers over the years.  But these particular grass carp are triploid as well as being land-locked in the pond.  Triploid meaning that they have three sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two, and cannot reproduce. (I always wonder about that, with the quote in mind from Jurassic Park that “nature finds a way”).  However they do require rivers to breed successfully, so these fish won’t increase their population here.  I was also careful not to put too many in our small body of water, because as you can tell they get very large, and are long-lived.  

For now we seem to have a fortunate balance of fish with less vegetation, yet enough to maintain the fertility and biodiversity of the pond.  There’s still healthy bluegill, bass, frog and turtle populations as well, so for now we’ll just see how things work out.  We do fish occasionally, but I doubt we’ll hook one of these monsters.  Then again, I wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway.

Summer Bumbles and Bees

July 8th, 2008

The month of July in Missouri is a lot of things.  Good things like tomatoes, barbeques, cooler mornings and maybe a few rainstorms if we’re lucky.  And then there’s the other things… the heat and humidity, weeds and trimming, and tons of insect critters that find their way into everything, usually leaving us itchy reminders to deal with.

I guess the bees fit that insect category, but they’re pretty neat to have around.   Unlike a few other critters such as ticks and chiggers.  Now I’m sure the peskier bugs serve some functional purpose for the web of life in our evironment.  But there’s times I wish they would serve that purpose somewhere else!  If you’re going to live in the country however, you have to take the good with the bad, and I’m learning that the good far outweighs the bad over the course of time.  

It’s not hard to appreciate our pollinators though.  Those amazing bees that go buzzing around and help us grow our fruits and vegetables.   Isn’t this a cool looking bumblebee?  This one is working a lavender plant, darting from flower to flower. 

Bumblebee and lavender © Fox Haven Media

And did you know that bumblebees are the primary pollinators of our tomato plants?  I’ve seen them all over our tomatoes, but I didn’t realize until recently that the way bumblebees pollinate tomato plants is through sonification.  The bumblebee pulls the tomato flower down to a vertical position, and vibrates their wing muscles at a certain frequency after which the tomato flower pollen falls out of pores in the anthers.  When the pollen falls down, it sticks to the bumblebees fuzzy body and, oh by the way, the bumble just happens to be rubbing that same fuzzy pollinated body against the tomato flower stigma, and because of his fuzzy little travels, voila! pollination from one flower to another occurs.   I think of bumblebees with appreciation every time I eat a tomato!

Here’s another important pollinator below, but it’s not a bumblebee.  Instead this is a Carpenter bee about to dive headfirst into a hydrangea flower head.  Carpenter bees are not thought of very highly because of the tunneling damage they can do to wooden beams, decking and the wood in houses and barns.  Yes, they actually bore holes and tunnels in wood!  We see them around here, but I’m not sure where they are nesting. Sometimes you see the male buzzing up and down in a certain area, seemingly harassing you if you try to walk by.  That’s just his way of protecting his territory or a nest nearby, but he’s actually harmless and can’t sting.  Not very fun to have a big buzzing critter zoom at you however.

Carpenter bee and hydrangea flower © Fox Haven Media

But our other favorite pollinators are the honeybees of course.  Our two hives appear to be doing just fine, although one is a lot stronger than the other in terms of the number of bees around the hive.   And yesterday there were hundreds of bees clustered outside the hive.  Are they getting ready to swarm?  Fanning to cool the hive?  Just new bees getting outside for some fresh air!?  I don’t really know, but with lots of space in two relatively new hive body supers, I think they’re just staying cool.  They have quite a bit of shade under some oak trees, but it has been very hot and humid lately.

Honeybees clustered outside the hive on a hot day

The other hive which is weaker didn’t have many bees hanging around outside however.  In both hives, the bees were coming and going just the same, and working flowers around the property.  It’s interesting to see the differences though, and I’ll be opening the hives up sometime the next week to see what else I can find out.

Beetle Mania

July 2nd, 2008

I’ve got beetle mania this week.  After seeing hundreds and hundreds of japanese beetles decimating our grapes and other plants, we decided it was time to get a trap.  They’re simple, not too expensive, and work like a charm.  Within minutes of hanging up the trap yesterday, beetles were flying toward it and dropping into the bag.

This thing works very well. There’s at least four flying beetles and a dozen more over the yellow vanes above the bag, and more on the way!

Japanese Beetle trap in action

After a few hours the bag was full of hundreds of beetles. Yuck!   We put up another trap and left them up all day.  This morning I threw out what seemed like two pounds of bugs, and hung up a couple of more bags. 

I considered cutting open the bag and throwing the beetles in the pond after reading about someone who fed them to his catfish, but I didn’t want to chance releasing a ton of beetles that we already caught.  This morning the grapes already look better, and there are many fewer japanese beetles on the other plants.

I’m under no illusion that this will solve our nuisance problem with the beetles.  But it may just help the grapes continue to mature, and lessen the number of beetles we have next year.  Chalk one up to technology, but I hope some enterprising bird can figure out how to eat these little suckers!

On the subject of yucky bugs, does anyone know what this big brown catepillar is?   It’s sitting upside down next to a 4×4 post!  I’ll try to find out… maybe we’ll call it a “Big Brown Four Inch Catepillar” for now.  Not very creative, I know.  Any better ideas?

Big four inch catepillar

Sour Grapes

June 29th, 2008

The change of seasons is welcome, and with the beginning of summer we find ourselves looking at the garden and landscape a little differently.  The plants are maturing and bring new flowers while the weeds try to march through everything.  The grapes are growing nicely on the arbor, and I think of using them for jellies or even wine someday. 

Grapes

But the insects are also now out in full force.  We’ve been chasing fireflies and avoiding mosquitoes, and we just deal with bugs as a matter of course. But some of them are strange and pesky critters such as the Japanese Beetle.  I’m told these little beetles were not around this area until just a few years ago.  They apparently were introduced to the U.S. around 1916 on the east coast, and have spread a few miles every year.  Last year was the first we had seen of so many around our area, and they decimated the grape leaves.  The fruit just shriveled up as they sucked the juice from the leaves (see the little brown spots?) and the whole plant just withered.

Japanese Beetles

I’ve noticed them over many different plants this week, but they don’t have any natural predators apparently.  Does anybody know any good control techniques?  I’ve heard you can get a trap, but some people think that just attracts more of them.  I’ve also heard someone’s rooster liked to eat them, and someone else collects them by hand.  Ours are in so many places, and high and low, that I couldn’t begin to collect them all.  I did try spraying some tea tree oil soap on them… didn’t seem to bother them in the least.   I’m not inclined to use harsh insecticides around the house, so I’ll keep trying different things.

I suppose like many things we’re just going to have to get used to them.  Or maybe we’ll get those chickens next year after all!

Gardens, Critters and Clouds

May 22nd, 2008

Isn’t it strange how fast everything grows?!  A little rain and warm weather and we find ourselves in a jungle.   Lots of activity these days, especially working hard to get the garden finished up.  This is the first year we’ve had plants in the ground by late April and early May.  The tomatoes were a little nipped by a late frost, but are coming back.  And this year we put up a green fence and posts for peas and beans to climb. Hopefully.  And corn!  I’ve always wanted corn but avoided growing it since it’s so big and kind of messy.  This year with grocery prices we figured what the heck, and planted a bunch all over.  

Garden in May

It doesn’t look like much, but this is about half of the garden.  It’s small as country gardens go, and the rows are only about 20-25 feet long.  But the rows are perpendicular to the sloping hillside that leads to the pond.  This way the water doesn’t race across and wash everything out.  I’ve planted a few surprises around the corners this year, so we’ll see what happens. Now I’m wondering, if we’re trying to keep the bunnies out, why do we have that cute little bunny sign?!

I think the raccoons are going to be regular visitors.  Otherwise let’s see… we’re trying to grow cucumbers, a dozen tomato plants, eggplant, zuchini, watermelon, peppers and beets.  I’ve wanted beets the past two years and they simply would not grow… or the tops were chewed off by something.  They’re supposed to be the easiest things to grow!  Oh, and we even cut a bunch of potatoes in half and stuck ’em in the ground.  They’re already up and growing like weeds.  Now if we can keep it watered and relatively weed free, and the little bunny critters away, then maybe we’ll have a chance at a veggie harvest!

By the way, ever see one of these critters before in the picture below?  That little hanging down thingy on the cedar tree is a Bagworm moth cocoon.  The female bagworms crawls up a tree, preferably an evergreen of some kind, and picks apart the needles to make a nice little house.  Then they crawl to a nice cozy place to spend the winter and when spring comes they hang out waiting for the male bagworm moth, who actually flys around.  They two of them do their thing together and then all kinds of little bagworms crawl out over the whole dang tree.  Since the needles are green when the little bagworms make their cocoons they are hard to see at first. 

Bagworm cocoon

It would be kind of neat except they practically denude the whole thing!  They can really damage and even kill a tree or shrub, so they have to be controlled.  We didn’t pay close enough attention last year and had small spruce trees and juniper bushes that were covered in them.  We literally pulled several hundred bagworms off the plants filling up two milk jugs and then disposed of them. I don’t like spraying chemicals, but I had to treat the pine trees to make sure they survived.

If you notice the worms before they make the little bag cocoons you can just spray them directly.  This year I haven’t seen many yet, but when I do I tug the cocoon off the branch.  Oh, and if you just throw it on the ground, the little worm will poke its head out and crawl back up a tree!  Nature is pretty amazing sometimes, but I’m not very fond of these guys.  Once they’re in that tough little cocoon they’re like indestructable superbugs. 

This morning on the way to the bus the young one said “Daddy look! The clouds look like the ocean!”  That was a pretty good observation.   They looked like storm clouds at sea, ominous and rolling quickly through the sky as a front passes.  It rained briefly this morning, but not as much as you would think from the picture.  That was okay by me. But then it poured and poured. 

Storm clouds rolling by

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