Thursday, November 21, 2013

Giant Florida Spider

While in Florida last week, I took a walk through the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. It is an example of what southeast Florida looked like before the drastic re-shaping of the 20th Century. I thought it was surprisingly empty of wildlife. A heron and some baby raccoons were all I came across until I was heading out of the park. 

As I walked between trees, I looked up and almost screamed. A whole row of these beauties were overhead. They are as big as my hand. I'm not kidding.

Golden Banana spiders Nephila clavipes are non-aggresive, as are most spiders. They are great bug catchers as you can see in the web.

While researching this spider I came across another spider, also called a banana spider. That South American spider has been found on supermarket bananas. That spider is aggressive and its venom is quite toxic.  The Scaredy Cat Naturalist will be carefully perusing all bananas before they go in the grocery cart.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

NOT a Mushroom Hunter

It's mushroom time in the Pacific Northwest. Most any time is mushroom time here but more so in the Fall. This is an excellent year for fungi in the Messy Garden. We are seeing new species. The most spectacular and only easily identifiable species is Amanita muscaria var. flavivolvata.

Amanita muscaria Toxic and Hallucinogenic

You'd think artists made this one up as a necessary element for fairy tale illustrations. Bright red with little chunks of white, they start out as domes, gradually opening out to a flat disk. They are toxic and hallucinogenic. Something, maybe the squirrels, takes bites out of them. Maybe they are taking little trips.

The mushrooms are a host for some fly species, which I find ironic as the common name is fly agaric, alluding to their traditional use as an insecticide.

The Messy Garden has many other species, including a least one that is edible. Several years ago a car stopped in front of the house and a middle-aged couple came to the door. In eastern European accents they asked if we were going to pick the mushrooms in our front yard. I'm sure we looked horrified when we said no. They asked if they could pick them; they used to pick them in Russia under birch trees.

We said go ahead. I asked the woman what the mushrooms were called; she gave their Russian name. When I asked what that meant, she said,"Mushrooms that grow under birch trees."

They must have known their mushrooms because each Fall they came back. Sometimes we saw them, sometimes not. They didn't knock, just stopped and picked the yard clean.

Nevertheless, I won't be cooking up a mess of yard mushrooms any time soon. The Amanita also grow under birch trees and not all of them are bright red.

Even if you told me you were an expert at mushroom identification and ate them in front of me, I still wouldn't try them. Well, maybe if you came back a week later, hale and hearty. I'm not the Sacredy Cat Naturalist for nothing.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pollinator Thursday: Unexpected Guests

One morning in March I found a cute little bee wandering around the window in my office. I couldn't figure out how it got in the house. The temperature outside was still cold. Bumblebees sometime leave their burrows in late January or early February, fooled by a few warm days. These are the ones I find dead on the sidewalk.

The little bee didn't fly; it walked in circles on the window.  I considered rigging up some kind of habitat for it until the weather warmed but I didn't know how to raise it. I put it in a protected spot in the garden and wished it well.

We went to Vancouver for the weekend. When I entered my office on Monday there were three of the little bees walking around the window. What the heck? These little ones also showed no interest in flying. They walked around the window all day.  In the evening they huddled together in a window corner.

The next day I put a little honey on the window thinking maybe they didn't have enough energy to fly. One of the bees lapped up the sweetness, the others didn't. Still no flying. I did a little internet research and found out they were mason bees.

I have often considered raising mason bees. This involves providing little tubes, either rolled paper, bamboo pieces or holes drilled in wood. I've never done it for two reasons: one is the time required to make the nest, two, it must be cleaned after use to prevent parasites and disease. This is the same reason I no longer have bird feeders but plant seed-bearing plants instead. Bird feeders have to be cleaned regularly and the seed picked up to prevent disease and rodents. Even if I wanted to spend time doing that, it is the kind of thing I easily forget.

Mason bees lay eggs in cavities and seal the opening with mud. In the early spring (so they were right on time) they bust out the seal and fly to the sky. I gathered the little bees and grabbed my camera to take their pictures outside. As soon as I lifted the cover, one flew off. I was only able to take one picture before the others went.

Looking on the outside of the window I saw a little patch of mud. The windows have a drainage hole on each side. The mama mason bee must have used one of the holes for egg-laying. Instead of pushing out the mud plug, little bees made their way through the channels of the window, probably attracted by the light in the room.

I felt blessed to play hostess. How did they know  I love bees?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

European Cross spiders (Araneus
diadematus) have taken over the garden. Care must be taken when transversing the yard. It is easy to walk right thorough a web which results in the funny "Brush, brush, wiggle, get this off me before the spider lands on me" dance.

I am mostly successful in performing this dance but last week I was not so lucky and felt a sharp pain on my neck. This resulted in the "OwOw brush this off" move and the spider was the unlucky one.  She lay, curled on the ground, trailing webbing.

Fear pierced my heart. I rushed to the mirror looking for bite marks. Hmm nothing. Most spiders are harmless, yes? But was this one of them? And she did bite my neck. Very close to the head. A trip the to Nature Mapping Foundation website was required.

I was reassured to read that yes very few spiders carry enough venom to harm humans and this was not one of them. I went back out and retrieved her little body. I try to avoid the webs and if I can't, I gently move them to one side but I didn't see this one and she paid the price for my inattention.

They have several names: Cross Orb Weaver, Diadem or European Garden spider. When the webs are destroyed they quickly rebuild, eating up the old web to manufacture new. Since they often build a new web each day I don't feel so bad breaking webs when they are across walkways.

These are the spiders that form the delightful spider nurseries in the spring. One day I'll find a little ball of moving yellow somewhere in the yard, once on a deck chair, once on the front door (we had to use the back door for several days) and this year on the sliding screen to the deck.

When they first hatch they stay in a tight little ball. Each day they venture farther but always cuddle up with their siblings at night. One day they disperse and are wafted around the garden to set up their own households.

The Burke Museum has a spider myths page to help you get over your tingles about these marvelous creatures.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

National Moth Week

Yes, it's National Moth Week with activities around the country. I will be searching out moths around the porch lights. I have some sphinx moth pictures from last month but I can't find them.