Living rural in the city is great – you can do it, too.

Category: Biophilia (page 2 of 3)

Biophilia month: Things to know and observe about wasps

Although the month of July isn’t quite over, today’s post is because when August really sets in, the wasps come out. It’s true you’ve seen them all year, but in August, they can become rather bothersome. I want to prepare you in case their pesteriferousness! starts early, or has started already. 

The reason they start pursuing food at our outdoor tables and patios is rather sympathetic, actually. The fact is, these nuisance wasps are workers – and males – and it’s the end of the season. They’ve served their purpose of gathering food for the larvae, so they’re no longer getting nectar rewards. Starving, they’re looking for anything sweet to eat.

In any case, that’s not the only way in which the female wasps cut off the males. They also “stuff” them into cells to keep them from poaching food.

One September, my parents’ neighbour’s tree was dropping apples all over the ground. This was easy fodder for hungry wasps (and rabbits). They were peacefully intent on imbibing the fallen fruit – and, like moose in Sweden, were a little drunk too.

A similar situation happened to me last year. I had a bunch of hornets hanging around drinking sap from a wounded sumac tree. I’d used a nylon cord to keep the tree upright when it was flopping over, and it was cutting into the new bark. Hornets are big, really, really big (it was size alone that made me decide these were hornets – they were more than 1″ long), so I was worried about the potential for stings. If a stranger came onto my property and riled them up for any reason, I could imagine the scene it would create.

But honestly, they were there for food. The sooner the tree wound stopped seeping, the sooner they would go away. To hurry that to its conclusion, I hosed the tree down carefully at night, cut off the nylon cord, and cleaned the wound while the hornets were stunned. Over the course of a week, the tree stopped seeping – and the hornet numbers dwindled until they went away.

But what if they’re nesting?

Not all wasps are dangerous to people. They can be beneficial, too. In fact, some extermination websites such as this primer on how to identify common wasps have gotten a lot better about explaining “pest” creatures to the people who believe they’re doing a good thing by ridding their property of biota. By giving accurate information on how the species looks and behaves, it can alleviate unnecessary fear and squeamishness (although they still cater to the biophobic by suggesting that perhaps it’s still a good thing to remove them). I’m pleased to be able to use these sites as a resource when they play nice.

And I was one of those people who thought they’re doing a good thing by removing a paper wasp hive. Early on in my property management experience, I got a doozy of a wasp sting, and I gladly killed the offender, even though that rallied the others and I had to escape inside.

In July of 2012 (part of my blogging journey that lead to here), I hosed down a wasp’s hive at the corner of my garage door with its attendant seven or eight worker wasps. They’d built hives before in the corners of the upper windows. It wasn’t a problem, but usually people don’t let hives stick around. I wanted to be like most people – a good steward of public-facing property. So I started the hose slow, and after a few passes of knocking the nurse wasps off, I turned on the jet and knocked the hive down.

Then I stood back and watched.

The workers spent the rest of the day rescuing and recovering the larvae. With the intense, careful work they were doing, I could only presume they were pulling them out of the husk of the hive. Then they set about creating a new hive in the same place, but with fewer cells. They went right back to tending it and sealing the larvae in. Ants scavenged the rest of the non-viable hive, plus at least one wasp that appeared she didn’t survive the dowsing.

Having observed the consequences of my actions and how they worked to create a new hive, I felt bad about it afterward. After all, it was a cosmetic concern. Over the course of them living here, attaching their small hives to corners of framing, they’d been peaceful – no threatening buzzing around humans. So I decided to leave them be.

So the ones that are buzzing around your barbeque? Consider cutting them a break, as they can’t help it – they’re hungry, and at least they escaped a potentially unpleasant death at the hands of unwelcoming relatives.

I’d recommend putting out a dish of extra-sweet aromatic fruit on a table not too far from what you’re planning to eat. Don’t panic when they visit you, just lightly wave them away. If wasps can recognize individual faces (and Polistes fuscates can), they’ll probably be able to estimate the difference between food that’s being guarded by humans, and food that no one bothers them if they enjoy it.

Bonus in that the fruit could be left out for other beneficial insects to enjoy. Like bees and even butterflies, if you’re lucky.

Wasps aren’t interested in stinging you, and you can avoid being stung simply by not being a threat to them, or acting threatened by them. Most stings happen when we’re not being watchful and we stumble into nest or into a single wasp at the wrong time – like the time I grabbed a weeping willow frond, only at a location where a wasp was feeding or resting. Ow. That one hurt.

Since accidents happen, prevent them by being observant – not by killing every wasp that could invade 3-dimensional space near you.

Come fall, they’ll have lived out their natural life cycle and they won’t be bothering anyone. Try not being bothered by them now, while they’re still around.

“Nuisance” wildlife control strategies in gardening

We have a lot of strategies to attract the animals and insects we want, and repel the ones we don’t. Here I discuss nuisance wildlife that we might want to control, as well as beneficial kinds.

Having food and shelter for insects and wildlife means that if you garden, you’ll have visitors. With some experience, you’ll know which animals and insects are pests, and which are merely hazards of gardening. You might want to actively welcome them – putting a dish of water out for the squirrels will reduce the number of tomatoes and cucumbers they steal, because your vegetables are an easy source of water on a hot, thirsty day. They’ll go for the water bowl, so put it out sooner rather than later, and the birds will benefit too.

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It’s Pollinator Week! Let’s build a Mason bee house.

After a brief warm spell in May, we’ve had a rainy June so far. I prefer rain to heat at this time of year, but I’m watching my plants, wondering “why are only the perennials and weeds lush?” So many of my plants have sprouted and stopped. They’re waiting for something. I’d say it’s the sun. Still, with all the transplanting I’ve done, the rain and coolness have helped them take root, rather than die like they did last year.

Even if the blooms have been on time, with fewer flowers to choose from, pollinators haven’t been around all that much.

In the interest of serving bees (and having the bees serve us), I’m celebrating bees because June 17 – 23 [2013 AND 2019] is Pollinator Week! The Pollinator Partnership has tons of information about pollinators and what we can do to be as hospitable to them as possible.

It’s not just about bees: “Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.” Even rats have demonstrated a role in pollination.

Bees that pollinate are honeybees, bumble bees, and many solitary types such as Mason (or orchard) bees. Honeybees and bumble bees pollinate cultivated crops; native bees pollinate native plants. To learn more about bees, check out the videos on the Pollinator Partnership website, put together by Burt’s Bees, Wild for Bees, and Isabella Rosselini.

Even more fascinating is CBC Ideas radio/podcast “Dancing in the Dark.” If you want to learn a lot about bees’ variety, language, complexity and sheer sophistication in a short time, listen to this!

Why should you care about bees?

Because despite their ubiquitous presence, honey bees are suffering from a disease called “Colony Collapse Disorder” and there is no human intervention or cure for it yet. I’m a biologist by training, and so the basic tool I know of to do something that might help is throw numbers at it – and help by buying honey from local beekeepers, and not at the grocery store. We need to drastically increase our beekeeping, even with expected losses, to increase the number of bees that have a natural resistance to the disease. Those that do, survive and go on to make queens and drones that help increase the surviving population.

I’m pleased to be attending an event on June 18th: “Nos abeilles sauvages en ville : une diversité insoupçonnée en lien avec l’aménagement urbain” – “Our wild bees in the city: an unexpected diversity in relation to urban development.” That’s in a few days. Members of CRAPAUD will be in attendance at the wild bees discussion, and they have hives of their own at UQAM. (A Google translation of that link can be read here.)

Two years ago, an apiary installed some hives downtown. The Ville is not planning on regulating the practice, so count on seeing more of this, everywhere.

This past weekend, I created a Mason bee house. I first got the idea last year because of an interesting rant on the Montana Wildlife Gardener blog against honey bees (It’s interesting – here’s a link to all of Montana Gardener’s posts on the topic of bees.) I also received a comment spurring me to do it.

Here’s the process, in pictures:

log suitable for turning into a bee house
A good-sized triangular log of wood
Drill bits
Drill bits! Choose 1/4″ or 5/16″ and at least 3″ long, but don’t drill all the way through the wood.
hole drilled suitable for a Mason bee
I drilled rows that cross-hatch along the long sides of the triangle. This is the first hole.
hanging the bee house log
Hung with a cup hook and a chain, with a notch on the triangle, on the tall fencepost in my garden.

The Mason bee house isn’t finished yet, as it needs a “roof.” It also needs more holes (what can I say, except I drilled what I could in my drill battery’s short life). Only half as many holes are drilled on both sides as there will be when it’s done, but already I see activity around it. This is good!

UPDATE: the Mason bee house is occupied, and I’ve also seen it being used as a source of fibre for paper wasps, gathering material for their hive. They chew up the wood and build paper for nesting cells. They’re again succeeding in occupying the upper corner of my garage door. Wasps have a place in our ecosystem, too – so I’ll leave them alone.

Middle hole
paper wasp
and a fibre gatherer

Charlotte has a web in my kitchen!

In my house, I have a rule: All rooms can have a resident spider, but only one per room.

It also depends on what kind of spider. A daddy long legs in the bedroom is OK, but my kitchen spider – a fierce and fast little predator – I’d move it elsewhere. Outdoors if the weather is ok, but in winter, to the garage or the cold cellar.

You may notice a little spider in the photo between the mouse figurine and the medication bottle. With its previous moult exoskeleton hanging above. If you really look, you’ll see that there is greater clarity in a circle around the spider. This is Charlotte’s cave.

Charlotte has been a very subdued presence on the window sill, hanging out at the mouth of her cave but retreating whenever I startle her. As she has been such an effective hunter there, I decided not to interfere — there’s no need.

But since I had to wreck her extended web today by taking away the medication bottle (using a pair of chopsticks), I removed her exoskeleton and her discarded prey. I was really quite surprised how small she started out when she moved in — she was a very tiny spider.

Now when she comes out of her cave, she’s a bold thing with a leg span greater than a 25¢ piece. Since the destruction of the cave, she hides behind the mouse figurine.

Last week, after more than a week without prey coming to her web wound around the frame of the window and various doodads not pictured above, she got off the window sill and wrapped a new web around the — I kid you not — handle of the kitchen faucet.

The first morning I just removed the web, but on the second morning, I felt a little sorry for her because the energy expenditure to do that work must mean she was hungry. I left the web intact, and just handled the faucet when I needed to use it. The web sagged with the direction the handle was throttled. Eventually, the web tore off.

I’m sure she’ll build a new web configuration overnight. If it starts expanding again, I might have to relocate her, with care, to the outside or to my garage. I have guests coming on the weekend and I won’t be around to supervise — I don’t want to freak them out too much. A sticky note with her name on it is insufficient information to say “this spider is ok by me.”

An update: Charlotte moved her web over to the left corner of the window, which is a great spot for her.  

The orb-weaver spider

spider and prey in web
Look at the detail in the web!

We have this spider in Quebec. It’s perhaps all over the world. It weaves a web between plants in meadows. Because it is so energetically costly to weave a web, the spider creates a zig-zag pattern across with silk that is coated with proteins that show up in UV light (or else the zig-zag renders the view more obvious), so that birds don’t fly through in pursuit of insects. This idea is now being applied to glass, to reduce bird impacts. Read about it on the BBC website.

And now, a jumping spider!

Checking out the links on the side of Jim McCormack’s  blog, “Jumping spider!” jumped right out at me. I would write his blog if I had his unique set of characteristics, and he always matches the enthusiasm nature calls for. “Cute” is definitely the word I apply to jumping spiders, and I’m glad to see someone in the comments rethinking her relationship to spiders. It comes with a great macro picture of a little guy in full-on “you lookin at me?” mode.

Check out this great video of a jumping spider.

Yesterday (no macro lens or better-than-iPhone camera available) I had a wee Zebra spider, black and white striped, this guy, hanging out on the floor by my bag while I was working at my desk. An hour or so later, I turn around, and there he/she still is.

Now, these spiders are everywhere, perfectly harmless, and at times perfectly helpless. It just seemed terribly out of place sitting by my shoe, and a little listless when I went to pick it up. It didn’t want to climb onto my finger despite making it a finger-jail, but it willingly got onto a scrap of paper I offered. So I took it to the bathroom where the window was open, and let it go.

It explored the sill for a while, but then decided the great outdoors was really where it wanted to be. So my one good deed was done for the day. (I try not to tattle/brag about these acts, but I keep on doing it. Bragging negates valour, dontcha think?)

So I took it to the bathroom where the window was open, and let it go. It explored the sill for a while, but then decided the great outdoors was really where it wanted to be. So my one good deed was done for the day. (I try not to tattle/brag about these acts, but I keep on doing it. Bragging negates valour.)

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