Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 2: bees and bugs

Do you know why the common name in English for Helianthus is sunflower? The common name is the same in Dutch (zonnebloem), German (Sonnenblume) and several other languages. In French (tournesol) and Spanish (girasol), the common names refer to “turning to the sun”, an accurate description of how this plant behaves.

Sunflowers exhibit a phenomenon known as heliotropism — an inclination to turn East in the morning so that the developing buds are warmed by the sun. The plant heads track the sun during the day and, at night, they reorient themselves to face East again. So if you pay attention when you visit a sunflower field at different times of day, you’ll notice they face a different direction in the morning and afternoon.

It’s not only birds, butterflies — and people! — that enjoy sunflowers. When these flowers grow in abundance, plenty of varied insects come to enjoy them and I’ll share something about these “sun worshippers” with you.

Bees of varying sizes were feeding in the sunflower fields that I visited. The large carpenter bees (Xylocopa) were not difficult to spot with their smooth shiny abdomens.

The similar-sized, fuzzy-looking bumble bees (Bombus) were actively visiting one sunflower after another.

American bumble bees (Bombus pensylvanicus) were foraging on nearby hibiscus blooms.

At a different site in neighboring Durham county, where sunflowers bloom later, I saw bumble bees on partridge peas and other yellow flowers.

 

There, too, my attention was caught by a bee that looked quite different from others that I’d seen. It proved to be a leafcutter bee (Megachilid), which has large mouthparts that enables it to cut pieces of leaves, plant resins and soil to line its nest.

The leafcutter bees are interesting in their unique method of carrying pollen. Rather than collect pollen in baskets called corbicula on their hind legs, they gather the substance in a clump of abdominal hairs called a scopa or pollen brush.

Back at the sunflower fields, I observed one medium-sized cuckoo bee (Epeolini) eventually become covered with sunflower pollen. These bees do not have an anatomical structure for carrying collected pollen and the females, like avian cuckoos (or cowbirds), lay their eggs in other bees’ nests.

The much smaller Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) were very numerous. It was interesting to discover that for some time, the NASA website included a section on honey bees! It stopped being updated when the principal investigator retired but NASA maintains the site because of the valued information it contains. Some of the interesting facts they listed about these insects:

  • Bees can fly about 20 mph (32 kph).
  • The highest recorded number of eggs laid by a queen was 2,000 per day!
  • Bees have been on our planet for about 30 million years!
  • To make 1 pound (0.45 kg) of honey, bees need to collect nectar from about 2 million flowers!!
  • The average foraging bee (all females) makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  • The main way in which honey bees communicate among themselves is via chemicals called pheromones.

The honey bees and common Eastern bumble bees make a good choice by spending lots of time in sunflower fields. Scientific studies indicate that ingested sunflower pollen enables them to suffer less infection from two common parasites, a real boon for bees who might otherwise succumb to colony collapse as a result of disease.

 

Both in the sunflower and other fields, it was fascinating to see other types of small bees as well. The small green sweat bees perhaps prefer more colorful blooms as that is where I mostly saw them.

These tiny non-aggressive bees are attracted to sweat because it provides them with moisture and salts.

There were some other interesting insects besides butterflies and bees in the sunflower fields and surrounding vegetation. While looking at some bumble bees circling a large sunflower head, I had inadvertently photographed a pair of much tinier insects near the center of the flower. I actually only noticed them when I was looking at the photos at home or I would have tried to focus on them better in the field.

When I enlarged the photo, I was able to get a somewhat fuzzy look at them and BugGuide identified them for me as sunflower seed maggots (Neotephritis finalis). These tiny insects have prettily patterned wings, but I discovered there is not a lot of information available about them; some research in North Dakota in 2008 concluded they might be a pest but no other data were easily available. They are a species of fruit fly.

Another insect seen on the sunflowers that many people find distasteful were the green June beetles (Cotinis nitida). The larva can damage vegetable and other plant roots, while the adults will feed on ripening fruit, so many gardeners will try to get rid of them.

A cute little syrphid fly, which BugGuide couldn’t identify specifically (a Palpada species), seemed to be alone with no fellow flies nearby.

There were several slender meadow katydids (Conocephalus fasciatus) to admire with their extremely long antennae.

The most interesting fact I discovered about them is that they have a soft song comprising ticks and buzzes that alternate for time periods of 1–20 seconds.

Sunflower fields are beautiful and spending time observing them as interesting wildlife habitats can really be enjoyable. These flowers also constitute a beneficial cash crop for farmers who can sell the seeds for sunflower oil, for human and avian consumption and the stalks for cattle feed.

And as if all those benefits don’t make sunflowers enough of a value-laden plant, scientific studies have also shown that they assist in phytoremediation, a process that helps remove and destroy polluting contaminants in soil, water, and air. Their deep taproots help aerate soil and make it richer for growing other subsequent crops as well.

Some sunflower fields may still be blooming through August and an online search can help you find them if you’d like to enjoy these wonderful flowers and their wildlife beneficiaries. If you have a garden, you might consider adding sunflowers to your vegetation mix if you don’t have them already. You can still plant some now in hopes of late autumn blooms.

This is a good time also to remember that the Ukraine became the world’s leading exporter of sunflower seeds until the currently ongoing invasion of the country brought this trade to a halt. Farmers who were still able to grow the country’s national flower are stuck with supplies and no income. Consider supporting organizations that are working to provide the Ukrainian people with humanitarian aid:

Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 1: birds and butterflies

Last month, many residents of the county where I live were alerted to the eruption of profusely blooming sunflowers that were attracting both birds and people. The avians were looking for tasty seeds, as well as bugs attracted to the blooms, and the humans were seeking beauty and backdrops for photo portraits.

 

Sunflower fields are so popular in our area that they feature on the TV news and in online tourism guides. The NC Museum of Art has sunflower fields and offered a sold-out Sunflower Photography Workshop.

Many birds love sunflower seeds, but it can be difficult to see the foragers as they may be dining at blooms lower down on stems. The bright blue indigo buntings are sometimes easy to spot but I couldn’t get photos of them feeding. Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) will often perch atop a bloom to peck away at the ripening seeds.

   

Other birds were active in the vicinity of the fields, but I didn’t see them at the flowers. For example, the Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) stayed in the vicinity of a nearby pond while I visited.

The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) flitted about in nearby meadows. I didn’t see them among the sunflowers.

It’s not only the birds and people that like sunflowers, however. A field of these flowers is a boon for pollinators. The Orange County fields that I visited featured hundreds of butterflies. The most numerous were the orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme).

As I watched, pairs of sulphurs would often flutter around one another, ascending high up in the air. It was interesting to see that two types of female orange sulphurs were present. Some were yellow-hued like the males; others were whitish in color, known as the Alba variant.

These sulphurs are also known as alfalfa butterflies and the larva is sometimes called the alfalfa caterpillar. An interesting fact about these sulphurs is that the males’ hind wings have an ultraviolet light reflectance pattern, while the females’ hind wings have an ultraviolet absorbing pattern so that they can be distinguished in flight.

Another abundantly present butterfly species were the cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), which were accidentally introduced into North America around 1860. They didn’t seem attracted to the sunflowers per se but instead were fluttering around and landing on the other flowering plants mixed in with them.

Of these small butterflies had me stumped for an ID at first; it was yellowish in color and didn’t have prominent black spots. However, an entomology expert on BugGuide assured me that it was a cabbage white.

Various types of skipper butterflies were feeding on the sunflowers.

There were a few variegated fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) visiting the sunflowers and an occasional black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) fluttered into view as well.

Both the cabbage whites and orange sulphurs were visiting muddy spots at a nearby pond.

This behavior is known both as mudding and mud-puddling and occurs when the butterflies are looking for certain nutrients in mud and rotting plant matter.

Observations have indicated that most of the puddling butterflies are males who often appear to be ingesting salts and amino acids. These substances seem to improve the males’ reproductive success and they transfer these compounds to females when they mate. The nutrients then contribute to the survival of the deposited eggs. Wouldn’t it be interesting if human males could transfer nutritional benefits to offspring in that way?

A latecomer to the puddling parties was a lone common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia Hübner). This species generates several generations of offspring each summer and I’m always pleased to see them in my own yard.

Next blog: the sunflower field visit continues with some other numerous visitors!

Weather, water, wildlife, and well-being

As I continue to go through my photos from Yellowstone National Park (a lengthy process!), I will post on a few other topics that you will hopefully enjoy. 😊

I just wrote a column for a local newspaper about climate and water. All life on our earth needs water to exist — plants, animals, and humans. Water contributes to respiration, processing nutrition, photosynthesis, regulating temperature and providing a living environment for many organisms. Scientific studies are documenting the benefits for our well-being of spending time in natural areas and beautiful places for this include nature reserves and parks with ponds, wetlands, lakeshores, creeks, and rivers.

The diversity of wildlife around ponds can be delightful, especially in the summertime. You may be lucky to see mammals coming to the shoreline or pond’s edge to get a drink or have the good luck to catch sight of beavers, muskrats, minks, or otters.

Or perhaps there will be a yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) standing atop a beaver lodge, surveying its surroundings, and taking time to preen.

Reptiles and amphibians clamber onto rocks, snags, branches, and boardwalks to sun. Turtles lay their eggs close to ponds and rivers. At this the time of year, you may come across the remains of leathery eggshells left by hatched turtles (or dug up by predators).

Damsel- and dragonflies, like these amber-winged dragonflies (Perithemis tenera), are interesting to watch; they don’t even need natural water sources but will come to tubs of water containing plants like pickerelweed. Butterflies, such as these cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), “puddle” in mud, carrion and dung alongside creek and pond banks to obtain amino acids and salts in the fluids they suck up.

                 

The bugs do risk ending up as bird food. Northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) and purple martins (Progne subis) skim above and over the water, snapping up insects as they swoop and soar.

   

The tiny insects on vegetation near water can be remarkably interesting, so taking along a magnifier can increase what you see. Most leaf- and planthoppers are quite small but the glassy-winged sharpshooters (Homalodisca vitripennis) are about fingernail-sized. They consume the fluids in water-carrying tubes in plants, called xylem, and then need to expel excess water from their bodies by shooting out fluid droplets into the air.

   

The vegetation near water can also be fascinating. Indian pipes, also known as ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora), are saprophytes (not fungi) with no chlorophyll. These white, leafless plants obtain their nutrients by tapping into other plants’ resources through mycorrhizal fungi. They usually grow in clusters but can still be difficult to see. My friend Ace spotted one and introduced me to the species, for which I was quite grateful!

Many birds nest near water. Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will raise young in boxes we put out for them, but they and other birds also like to use holes in snags near or in water. Those nests are much more difficult for predators to reach.

Birds also like to nest near water because they’re primarily insectivores in the spring and summer and there are plenty of bugs in such areas. The only hummingbird nests that I’ve been able to find were all near water; up to 60-80% of their diet comprises spiders and other bugs.

This year, I had the good fortune to see a female ruby-throated hummingbird building her nest and raising her young (previous blog). The first time I visited this wetland after the babies fledged, mama hummer came and hovered about 2 feet in front of me, as if she were greeting me. I’ve seen her on subsequent days as well.

The larger water birds, such as geese and ducks, like to bathe in ponds and rivers.

Other birds enjoy taking a bath in streams and creeks. American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) enjoy company with other species. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) like some solitude or sharing space with a fellow jay.

           

Birds living further away from natural water resources also need to drink and bathe and that is where we can help them out. Small birds like Carolina chickadees and brown-headed nuthatches like to drink from the ant guards on which hummingbird feeders are hung.

     

Bird baths can become very popular. Eastern bluebirds and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) very much enjoy two of mine in the front yard.

 

House finches, American robins, cedar waxwings, Carolina chickadees and gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) tend to like my backyard baths. And then they appreciate branches and nest boxes as platforms to shake out those water-laden feathers. Birding friend Ylva commented that the vigorous fluttering of this catbird would be worthy of an audition for the musical Cats!

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can put out shallow dishes or plant pot saucers in your outdoor space (steps or patio) as a place for birds to drink and cool off. If you have a balcony, it might take a while for birds to find your water source, but if you stay inside, you may see them come to sip and splash.

If you are luckily mobile, I encourage you to take some outings near waterways. The wildlife and plant diversity can be wonderful and entertaining. And in the meantime, we can all take action to conserve and preserve water:

Getting airborne when lift is lacking….

If you’ve had the good fortune to watch a bird caring for nestlings and then encouraging them to enter the big wide world, you might think that the young ones automatically know how to fly. But my recent observations of a ruby-throated hummingbird family (Archilochus colubris) showed me that a learning curve — albeit not a long one — may be involved.

On the 29th of April, my friend Ace and I had the good fortune to spot a female hummingbird. We discovered that she was gathering construction materials for a nest with inside walls that included plant down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was camouflaging the outside of the walls with lichen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on the nest, she sat in it periodically, moving her body to form the cup shape and tamp down the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

The walls expand as the eggs hatch and nestlings grow; this is possible because the walls are held together by spider web and caterpillar webbing (6 May).

If we hadn’t seen her working on the nest, we likely would not have seen it. It was very cleverly placed near the crook of a small branch that had lichen growing nearby (13 May).

I noticed a twig curving down from the branch beneath the nest and that became the marker for finding it again — not always an easy task as the hummer home blended in so very well with the tree she had chosen.

Just after mid-May, I had to stop my observations as I had the immensely good fortune to visit Yellowstone National Park (blogs on that coming up!). It was only on 4 June that I was able to visit the hummer nest again and it was a thrill to see two babies had emerged from the coffee bean-sized eggs.

During their first days, young hummingbirds are very vulnerable. They are blind for about 9 days and only begin to grow pin-like feathers after about 10 days!

Mom would come by and regurgitate food (insects and nectar) into their open mouths.

 

 

 

 

 

When the chicks grew enough to peer over the nest’s edge, we were able to watch them surveying their surroundings.

The two of them would look around in unison.

They moved around the nest more and more, jostling for space. By 3 weeks of age, ruby-throated hummingbirds are fully feathered and getting ready to fledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 7 June, I had a premonition that fledging was going to occur that day. I had volunteer duty in the morning (to pull invasive plants at a local reserve) so I could only visit the nest briefly before going to work.

The babies were both flexing their wings a lot. Hummers typically flap their wings 50-200 times per second! It turned out that they needed to exercise a lot, or they weren’t going to be able to get the lift needed to leave the nest.

The nestlings flapped back and forth as they revved up their muscles for a coming take-off. Their pectoral muscles need to be strong for their airborne flights and may account for up to 30% of their body weight.

Watching with excitement as I maneuvered a bit to get better lighting for photos, I saw one of the little ones begin to lift (above). S/he flapped furiously. I got a photo of the lift off but not the actual departure from the nest.

One nestling remained and s/he began flapping vigorously.

I had to stop my vigil as it was time to get to the nature reserve. While leaving, I ran into Ace and told him that one hummer had just fledged, and the other was getting ready so that he could see the event!

After my 2-hour shift, I drove back to the nest. Ace had let me know that Chick No. 2 had not yet left while he was watching. Sure enough, when I returned the little one was still there (above).

He moved around a lot but didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed that Chick No. 2 was not getting the lift needed to soar up and away despite all its efforts.

Mom came to give some encouragement.

She also gave Chick No. 2 a bit of nourishment.

That seemed to provide the young one with renewed energy as the practice wing flapping resumed vigorously.

After a couple hours, I needed to leave to do other things. I took a few more photos of the hard-working almost-fledgling.

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The next morning, I visited the hummer home again wondering whether anyone would still be in residence. The nest was empty so Chick No. 2 had departed the previous afternoon or evening. But as I watched, a hummer was zipping around the tree and the nest.

I think it was Mom. She may have been considering whether the nest could serve as a spot to raise another brood. It might also have been one of the young ones returning for a last look at home.

Observing the hummingbird nest over a period of weeks was a wonderful learning experience. I’ll treasure the memory for a long time to come. And I now have an even greater appreciation for these tiny birds that become flying gems in our natural surroundings.

Sometimes feared but with an endearing side – Sweet Tooth and Swayback

Today, I’d like to entertain you with a tale of two wild creatures that I’ve come to know a bit. I always enjoy learning about animals, even more so when I get to know something about their lives first-hand. Before getting to a description of Sweet Tooth and Swayback (two snapping turtles), I’ll share some interesting life facts about this reptilian species.

While box turtles often garner remarks of “how sweet,” “how cute,” and “let’s help it cross the road,” the appearance of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can arouse fear and dislike. Many people don’t consider them “beautiful,” and they have a reputation for being dangerous because they can cause injuries.

That is such a shame because this species doesn’t always live up to its “combative disposition when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck” (according to Wikipedia). It’s true that they don’t want to be picked up and will react very differently from the docile box turtle, who generally pulls in its head and legs and just waits for you to leave it alone.

Unlike the box turtle, the snapper cannot withdraw its head and limbs into its shell, so its main defense is to use powerful jaws to snap and bite when feeling threatened. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) notes that: “they are normally inoffensive underwater and pose little if any danger to swimmers or waders.”

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and tend not to bask like other turtles. Instead, they swim near the surface and enjoy the sun’s rays from there.

They mate in the spring; this pair was engaged in a fairly sedate encounter at an urban park.

The NCWRC notes that it’s not uncommon for the pair to snap “savagely” at one another during mating (another instance of negative language to characterize them; they could have said “vigorously”!). This pair opened their jaws to one another but were not biting.

Females can conserve sperm for several seasons so that there is some on hand when needed. So this female may have wanted to use that as she pushed the male away.

This pair of turtles, whom I saw at an Orange County pond, did seem to be having a tussle, but they also might have been contesting territory or engaging in some other behavior.

The females come out of the water to lay their eggs (about 25); you may only see their tracks in the mud and never know where they buried the clutch. The eggs have a great chance of ending up as food for other animals, such as skunks, minks, raccoons, foxes, crows, and eastern kingsnakes.

Newborn and juvenile snappers often fall prey to large fish, mammals, birds (e.g., bitterns, hawks, owls), American bullfrogs, and alligators. This great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had a small turtle for a snack and spent quite a long time trying to crush it before swallowing it. (This was not a snapper but shows how the birds eat young turtles.)

Perhaps the high newborn mortality rate accounts for the fact that a female may lay a second clutch as well (laying 11-83 eggs in total in a breeding season). An interesting fact about the hatching snappers is that the little ones make a noise before they dig themselves out of the earth. To us, these sounds mimic clicks, creaks or what sounds like someone rubbing their finger over a fine-toothed comb.

The snapping turtles’ diet comprises quite a lot of vegetation, carrion and small animals. The latter are swallowed whole or bitten into pieces — young ducklings in a pond with snappers need to stay alert to avoid being caught. The snappers who survive to adulthood may reach a considerable age if they live in an undisturbed area, e.g., up to some 40 years.

And now we finally get back to Sweet Tooth and Swayback in particular. I’ve had the good fortune to become familiar with this pair at a local pond alongside a public road where I’ve photographed wildlife for many years. It has been designated as a “hot spot” for local and other birders on eBird. As my friend Lucretia has said: “birders and nature lovers have always enjoyed the beauty of the pond and surrounding meadows and fields and the wildlife that lives there. It is a special place.” Unfortunately, it’s now uncertain what will be happening to Sweet Tooth’s and Swayback’s longtime home.

I had seen these turtles swimming around in the pond frequently and admired their size. I’m guessing they might be a few decades old.

Last fall when a persimmon tree at the edge of the pond began dropping its ripe fruit, I was surprised to see one of the turtles up on the surrounding lawn on a rainy day— s/he saw me and quickly trundled off to the water’s edge.

On subsequent visits, I approached carefully and not too closely. By moving only a few steps to get in position for some photos and then standing still (although I did talk to the turtle, I admit), the animal decided to stay put. The temptation to eat some of the ripe persimmons was just too great and helped him/her overcome any fears.

I was very surprised as I had no idea that snapping turtles are fond of this fruit. On subsequent visits to the pond, however, I learned that it must be a real delicacy for them. This turtle seemed to recognize me after a few visits and didn’t hurry away. When Lucretia visited, Sweet Tooth (a name we decided to use for him/her) also stayed put.

Sweet Tooth is a bit of a messy eater, but then s/he doesn’t have teeth or any way to get the dripping persimmon flesh off her/his chin.

One day, I was surprised to see that Sweet Tooth had been joined by a companion, whom I called Swayback. I don’t know if this turtle had been injured at some point to cause the dent in its carapace.

Swayback didn’t seem quite as enamored with the persimmons as Sweet Tooth but did seem to enjoy eating some fruit from time to time.

Recently, the property on which the pond is located was sold. I’ve been told by people who pass by daily that the pond may be dredged and deepened so that it can be used for irrigation. Much of the surrounding vegetation, which made it a delightful spot with many hiding and perching places for migrating and resident birds was bulldozed.

I and others are worried about what could happen to the pond’s inhabitants. We hope that Sweet Tooth, Swayback and any other wildlife who call the pond home can be rescued, rehabbed if necessary, and eventually returned to their longtime home. Keep your fingers crossed along with me that we might enjoy seeing this pair of snappers relishing persimmon treats in the future!

One last note: if you want to rescue a snapper from a busy road, only pick it up at the back of its carapace above the hind legs. If you have your hands any further forward, the turtle can use its long and flexible neck to reach you for a bite. You can also move it with a square shovel (be prepared for a heavy load) or by having it on a tarp or blanket to carry it along.