Welcome to Meteorological Winter

December 1 began meteorological winter, which is different from astronomical winter.

Meteorological winter is based on the three coldest months–December, January and February. Astronomical winter is based on the solstice, which this year happens on December 21.

So, since we’re in meteorological winter now, I thought I would see what my squirrels were thinking. For newer readers, what I am relying on is the time tested (sort of) tradition that squirrels build their nests based on their foreknowledge of winter cold. The higher up in a tree a squirrel builds its nest, the colder the winter will be.

I ask you, does this make any sense? No. But it has seemed to hold true for almost every winter that I have consulted the nests. So let’s look up at some nests.

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This is the squirrel’s nest on my property. It’s a little hard to see because it’s almost at the top of this oak. Clearly, my squirrels are thinking “cold winter.”

And I wouldn’t disagree with them. November ran well below average, except in snowfall and rainfall.

But that’s not the whole story.

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There are two nests in this tree (again, if you can’t see them, my apologies. This time of year, we’re all still cleaning up leaves, and I couldn’t get near anything because of leaf piles–which is still better than snowdrifts!)

These trees are on my neighbor’s property, directly across from my house and my oak. In the tree on the left–the one nearest their house–there are 2 nests. One is on the lowest branch and another just slightly higher. So their squirrels are thinking different things than mine.

So perhaps the “split decision” this winter means exactly that: periods of very cold weather followed by not so cold. I’ll take that!

Lantana for Pollinators

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I went out to pick my green beans this morning and discovered my lantana covered in bumble bees.

This is the first time I have grown lantana in a couple of years. I try to grow it on a regular basis in some container because I know that in the past I have seen both hummingbirds and Eastern swallowtail butterflies flocking to it every time I do grow it.

But this was the first time I had seen so many bumble bees on the plant at the same time. A couple seemed to be hanging out and drying out–there had been rain the night before. But several more were actively visiting, looking for pollen. It was nice to see.

I know that in warmer parts of the United States lantana can be an invasive plant, so, as always, know before you grow!

Airborne Marvels

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Unfortunately with all our rain, this photo doesn’t do justice to what’s really happening here.

Every year, for about a month or so, the timing of which seems to coordinate with the maturing of the periodic dog day cicadas, of course, eastern cicada killer wasps (sphecius speciosus)make tunnels (hence the large opening and the disturbed soil in the photo).

The cicada killer wasp is the largest wasp in my part of the world and it’s a fearsome looking creature. It looks pretty much like a giant hornet or yellow jacket–and when I say “giant” I am not kidding. They can be up to 2″ long (which doesn’t sound long until you are walking along and all of these wasps are burrowing and flying around at you!)

Despite their size, in general, they are gentle and non-stinging (although as with all stinging insects, if something happens to annoy them, they will defend themselves. The Spoiler once managed to get stung by a bumble bee! I wasn’t sure that was really possible. I now know it is.)

What these wasps are doing is making a tunnel nest for an egg. They then grab a cicada, take it down into the nest for the egg to eat when it hatches, and fly away. Nothing very scary. The whole process takes about a month.

Our cicada killers at this site have returned every year for decades and to the best of my knowledge, despite the building’s public use, no one has ever been stung.

There are lots more fun and interesting facts about our largest wasp (in North America, at least) at this site about Cicadas.

If you encounter them–or their tunnels–don’t be afraid. Just watch and enjoy.

Sterile versus “Fruitful” Flowers

We all think about planting for bees and other pollinators most of the time, I think. It’s constantly in the news that our pollinators are in trouble, so if we have the choice of planting a shrub, perennial or even an annual that will provide some nectar, why wouldn’t we?

At first glance, these two flowers seem fairly similar, don’t they? Yes, one is a single form and one is a double. One has green leaves and one has variegated leaves. Those are the obvious differences.

What’s not so obvious–and what took me a few years to figure out–is that the flower on the right–the double variegated form (Sugar Tip Rose of Sharon or hibiscus syriacus ‘America Irene Scott’) was sterile–in other words, it made no pollen for the bees.

This is a double edged sword because for those of you who know the characteristics of a typical rose of sharon, you know that unless you deadhead them after bloom, you will have fields of seedlings to contend with. And they root deeply too.

But the bees–and even hummingbirds–do love them. That pollen laden cone (made up of anther, stamens and filaments), in the center of the flower is generally covered in bees. This particular variety even has a red eye to draw in the hummingbirds. (This variety is Lil Kim, or
hibiscus syriacus ‘Antong Two.’)

So what to do? Does that mean you shouldn’t plant Sugar Tip? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t be taking my advice if I said “no!” I planted it in a spot where I clearly didn’t want a lot of self-sowing seedlings from another sort of hibiscus and that’s worked out quite nicely.

It does sort of break my heart when I see the bees visiting, though, looking for nectar that I know they won’t find.