Tiny things

Some of the most fascinating things in nature are so tiny they could easily be overlooked.

Take pavement ants, for instance. The common name comes from the fact that colonies of pavement ants usually make their homes in the cracks of pavement. Here on the farm, these ants nest in the soil where they dig down and push out the dirt, producing small mounts on the surface characterized by a “dirt crater” at the opening.

The fascinating thing is that these ants can tell when a big storm is coming. To keep the rain runoff from flooding their nests, they build up the walls much higher than normal. I had read this a while back, and checked the mounds after almost a week of rain where we got a whopping total of 6-1/2 inches(!!) Sure enough, all of the ant mounds were built higher.

A 2010 article in the Journal of Neurophysiology reports an almost unbelievable sensitivity in ant antennae that allows them to sense minute changes in temperature and humidity at 0.2 second time intervals. This would certainly assist the ants in detecting looming weather fronts. Humans can ‘smell’ rain, and we can detect gross temperature changes that almost always accompany rain, but to be able to detect humidity and micro-scale temperature changes would give the ants a real advantage in forecasting.

As a naturalist, I need to always remember to slow down so as not to miss the tiny miracles!

Another brood of phoebes leaves the nest

For the fourth year in a row, a pair of Eastern Phoebes nested on our porch and successfully fledged their young. I took this picture of the four nestlings yesterday (only three are visible in this picture), thinking it would be a couple more days before the big event, but they were all gone by the time we got up this morning.

In Virginia, phoebes generally raise two broods per season. Unlike most birds, they frequently return to nest where they were successful in raising their young the previous year.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” They go on to say even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together; they may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.” In the case of our pair, however, I did see the male hanging around a lot during the day guarding the nest, and several times bringing food to the nestlings.

It is interesting to me that the phoebes, like bluebirds, wrens, and swallows, seem to give up their fear of humans and nest close to people for the few weeks it takes to raise their young. I see it as a sort of insurance policy to protect their nest. I remember reading somewhere that about a third of all eggs in the wild get eaten by nest robbers before they hatch. So the phoebes are very smart to nest on our porch, where the only predators are black snakes, and the dogs do a pretty good job of keeping them away!



Bluebirds fledged!

I wasn’t feeling well yesterday and spent the afternoon in bed. Looking out the bedroom window, I had a close up view of the bluebird nest box on the porch. For the last couple of weeks the parents had been taking turns all day long bringing moths and other insects to feed their young, but as I watched this day, the activity had stopped.

The parents were intentionally not feeding them so they would be hungry enough to come out of the box. Today was the day they would leave the nest! From a nearby tree, the female kept repeating her call, telling her babies to come out and she would feed them. The male kept flying past the nest box, encouraging them to come out.

As I watched, I saw two nestlings slowly make their way to the edge of the box and stare out at the world around them. It must have been quite scary, but their mother kept calling to encourage them. It appeared at one point as if they were jostling each other, each trying to get the other one to make the first move!

Then suddenly, one of the nestlings flew out of the box and floated gently to the ground below. Seconds later, the other one flew out of the box and landed nearby. Immediately, they began plaintively calling to their parents, begging for food. Mama bluebird flew to them and encouraged them to fly into the woods with her where she would feed them and they would be safe.

I felt so fortunate to watch the young birds summon the courage to leave the nest and venture out into the world, and I was happy for the parents who had done such a great job raising them.


The honey bees are all over the black locust blooms

Years ago, we decided to let our farm fields grow up to create more habitat diversity for wildlife. This process, called succession, is the natural replacement of plant or animal species in an area over time. In the last six years, our fields have been transformed from overgrown pastureland by the growth of shrubs and young trees, dominated by autumn olive, red cedar, tulip poplar, and black locust.

Black locust is native to the Southern Appalachians, and grows best in bright sunlight and prefers dry limestone soil. It spreads (prodigiously) by underground shoots or suckers, which contribute to its weedy character. The flowers, which open in May (in southwest Virginia) for only 7 to 10 days, appear as large, intensely fragrant white clusters. The locust blossoms are at their peak right now, pulling in the honey bees that return time and time again throughout the day to capitalize on this abundant food source.

Black locust trees in bloom next to our bee hives

Our honey bees are taking full advantage of this window of opportunity. The abundance of black locust makes it a major source of nectar for our bees, producing a light-colored honey with a floral, fruity, delicate flavor. Black locust-sourced honey remains liquid and does not crystallize easily due to its high fructose content.

We’re about to finish up the last jar of last year’s honey. Can’t wait until Bill harvests this spring’s honey!