Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One Fine Day

I awoke this morning with a feeling of anticipation. The weather forecast had promised that temperatures and humidity would drop overnight, providing us with our first truly pleasant day since early June. Promise kept! When I opened the back door, I was greeted with a cool breeze and soft warmth from the sun.

I'd planned ahead - I set aside the whole day for cleaning up the jungle that my yard had become, and for setting in some new plants to welcome the fall weather. The very air felt energizing, and within a few hours, I had restored the side and back yards to a place worthy of My Florida Backyard.

On the south-facing side of the house, I had some liriope grass that refused to thrive after two full growing seasons. I figured I'd been patient enough, so I pulled it out. I found some end-of-season Angelonia (right) on sale at the nursery, and planted them along with some pink pentas along the side of the house.

Angelonia is a very heat-tolerant plant that is a perennial here in Zone 9. It can take the heat, but should be able to withstand a light frost or two when January's chill drops down from the north. The plants are about 6 inches tall now, and may double in size if they get enough rain this fall.

I also pulled out some overgrown lantana along the front of the house and planted these lovely little dianthus (some people call them "pinks" because of the pattern of the petal edge).
When the work was done, I just sat on the bench in the backyard and enjoyed the sun - and the native swamp sunflower that has finally decided to bloom (left). The butterfly garden had many visitors, including a Zebra Longwing who refused to hold still long enough to have his picture taken. The belted kingfisher has returned to our pond, and I listened to his raucous call and watched his swooping flight.

As afternoon turned to evening, the day became even more pleasant. The sky was shaded with pink and purple, the water birds flew over the lake in flocks headed for their roosts, and finally the moon shone softly in the sky. From start to finish, it was a day to take joy in here in My Florida Backyard - and so I did.

The best way to pay for a lovely
moment is to enjoy it.
- Richard Bach

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Ants Go Marching

We love most bugs in My Florida Backyard. In general, they're part of a healthy balanced garden, and can often be fascinating to watch.

And then there are fire ants.

Ants are amazing creatures. Their colonies and work ethics are beyond compare in the animal kingdom - I have no doubt that given the opportunity, ants could take over the earth and probably run it better than we do. For the most part, I admire ants.

So why do we in My Florida Backyard feel so differently about fire ants? Perhaps this picture of a fire ant queen and some of her minions can begin to answer the question...

Still not convinced?

Fire ants are an invasive species in Florida. Originally from Argentina, fire ants were accidentally introduced to the U.S. in 1918. Since then, they've spread throughout most southern states. They have no natural controls here, so they've been able to proliferate unchecked.

Fire ants are aggressive. If you step on a mound accidentally, they will attack in force. I can understand the need to defend your home, but honestly, these guys are nasty. The bite is painful at first, and then insanely itchy. Some people (including yours truly) swell up around the bite site, and suffer from the bites for days afterward.

Fire ant colonies build enormous unsightly mounds that deface your landscaping. Case in point:

Once they show up in your yard, they can be pretty hard to get rid of. Even harsh chemical treatments are only effective temporarily. Unless you choose to treat your entire yard every couple of weeks (which is horrifyingly bad for the environment), you're going to get occasional fire ant infestations in Florida.

General "Green" Pesticide Rules:
  • It's always best to use pesticides reactively rather than proactively. On other words, treat only when you discover the problem.
  • Always treat as minimally as possible to eliminate the pests. More is not always better.
  • When you can, use treatments approved for organic gardening, as they are generally better for the environment.
  • Find a treatment that attacks only the specific pest you have. It's not desirable to kill every insect in your garden; in fact, that's usually the worst thing you can do.
  • Always leave a "buffer zone" if you live on the water. Experts recommend avoiding pesticide and fertilizer applications within 30 feet of water to avoid runoff contamination.
All of that being said, what fire ant treatments can environmentally-conscious gardeners use? Well, as always, you're not going to find effective "green" treatments at the big box stores, so it's best to try local eco-friendly nurseries. If you can't find what you need locally, you can go online. Clean Air Gardening offers organic fire ant treatments - we like Green Light Fire Ant Control. They also offer details on less toxic ways to deal with these demon creatures.

Fire ants are a fact of life in My Florida Backyard. Because of them, I always garden in jeans with shoes and socks - the less skin I expose, the less likely I am to be bitten. But for the most part, they don't keep me from enjoying the year-round pleasures of the great Florida outdoors - and that's what's important.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Seasons In The Sun

As of 5:19 p.m. (ET), it's officially autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. Up north, leaves are starting to change color, nights are getting a bit nippy, and people are starting to dig out their sweaters and wonder whether they remembered to have their winter coats dry-cleaned last spring or if they better haul them in now before freezing temps arrive.

Here in My Florida Backyard, we sweated through the day as the thermometer topped 90 as usual. Summer temperatures will linger here for at least another 4-6 weeks, although the rains will likely begin to dwindle. By the time we reach November, we can expect the humidity to scale back somewhat (November is the driest month of the year here) and the temperatures to return to more comfortable levels.

Until then, we're soaking up as much rain as we can get. Since our first substantial rain back on May 12, Tampa's had a very decent rainy season. The hurricane season has been mild thus far, and no tropical systems have brought us any precipitation to speak of. However, we've had lots of afternoon thunderstorms and even a few systems moving down from the north to bring our rainfall totals to very respectable amounts.

Our drought index standings have improved dramatically, but it's important to remember that although seasonally we've received a great deal of rain, once the dry seasons starts, our rivers and reservoirs will once again begin to dry up. Water conservation is always important in Florida.

Fortunately, Mike Clay (head meteorologist at Bay News 9) notes that a moderate El Nino is expected this winter. El Nino winters typically bring more precipitation than usual, so we can hope to continue receiving these much needed rains over the autumn months. Of course, El Nino winters also bring a higher risk of severe weather. The Christmas Day tornadoes of 2006 were considered a result of a weak El Nino. It remains to be seen what El Nino will mean for Florida this winter.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Roll With It

If any of my neighbors ever watch me take an afternoon stroll in the garden, I'm sure they must often get a good laugh out of my behavior. Especially on days like today, when I make a new discovery and do the Dance of Joy to celebrate.

So what was it that made me dance like a Myposian* today? I've got canna skipper caterpillars!

I should start by saying I'm not all that fond of Cannas. I should be, I'm sure, with their huge leaves and dramatic blooms, but for whatever reason, cannas aren't really my number one choice for my garden. In fact, I probably wouldn't have them at all, except for the fact that previous residents had planted them sort of haphazardly around the foundation of the house. We found the bulbs when we were digging in preparation for our own gardens, and stuck them in a pot to see what would happen.

What happened, of course, was that they grew 5 feet tall practically overnight and sent out huge orange blooms on stalks. I kept them on the patio in a pot for awhile, but earlier this summer I got sort of tired of them and plunked them down in a corner of the garden outside instead.

Today, I strolled out to check on enormous fire ant mound (look for a post on that later this week) and noticed the tell-tale signs of canna skipper caterpillars - leaf rolling!

Canna leaves are huge and don't give caterpillars much of a place to hide, so the caterpillars create their own shelters by cutting along the leaf in two places and then spinning silk threads from side to side. As the silk dries, it shrinks and pulls the leaf pieces together, creating a nice little hidy-hole for the caterpillar. The caterpillars nest in there during the day and emerge at night (well, at least their heads do) to feed. As they outgrow one nest, they create another.

Of course, I had to open a few rolled leaves to check out the caterpillars, which are pretty fascinating themselves. To start with, they're transparent - the green you see inside is actually leaf being digested. Crazy!

You can also see the little silk pads that the caterpillars uses to help "stitch" the leaf together, and the neat path that's been chewed in the leaf so it will fold nicely.

If you're wondering what the butterfly will eventually look like, check out this information on the Canna Skipper, also called the Brazilian Skipper, from Not as flashy or showy as a monarch or swallowtail, but skippers are delightful in their own way. Hopefully, these canna skipper caterpillars will thrive here in My Florida Backyard!

*Is anyone getting these Perfect Stranger references?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Time Changes Things

My Black Swallowtail caterpillars have been growing and changing, and entering that time when they prepare for the final change into beautiful butterflies. When I last reported, my largest caterpillar was in his fourth instar. (Reminder - an instar is the stage between each molt.)

This caterpillar in particular seemed pretty feisty. Anytime he was handled, or even thought he might be handled, he used his osmeterium in self-defense. In other words, he extended a sort of fleshy antenna-looking thing and emitted a pretty nasty smell, almost like incredibly strong fresh paint. For a small guy, the smell is very potent, and it lingers.

After he reached his fifth instar, the caterpillar seemed to eat 24 hours a day, until he was huge and quite beautiful.

Finally, he was ready for the big sleep. Swallowtail chrysalises are very different in shape from those of monarchs. Additionally, they are connected in two places to the structure the caterpillar chooses. In the picture below, you can see that in addition to the silk pad at the foot, the chrysalis is also supported around the middle by a silken strand (you can click the picture to enlarge and see more detail).
The black swallowtail caterpillar is interesting for all the different stages it has, long before it becomes a butterfly. It was easy to draw these magnificent creatures to My Florida Backyard just by planting a small parsley bed. Feel free to try it for yourself - but don't expect to have any parsley left for your own use!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Make New Friends (But Keep the Old)

As we finish out the last few weeks of summer, I've been thinking about my butterfly garden and its successes and failures this year. Last year, when I was establishing the garden, my only real goal was to draw butterflies (of any kind) to the yard. This year, I expanded my goals to include drawing a wider variety of butterflies, and providing host plants to begin encouraging caterpillars to live and grow in our habitat.

To draw a wider variety of butterflies, I planted a wider variety and/or greater number of nectar plants. (Makes sense, huh?) This summer, nectar plants in My Florida Backyard included (bold items were new):
  • Blue Porterweed* - This drew some smaller species, like the Horace Duskywing and Long-Tailed Skipper.
  • Butterflyweed - This yellow milkweed type plant seemed to be a favorite of Giant Swallowtails.
  • Tropical Lantana and Pineland Lantana* - A perennial favorite; this year I noticed Fiery Skippers and White Peacocks visiting these frequently.
  • Tampa Vervain* - Similar to lantana, in a pretty purple color.
  • Milkweed - Many butterflies, including Eastern Black Swallowtails, love to visit the flowers for nectar.
  • Tropical Sage*, Red Salvia*, and Coral Honeysuckle* - Red trumpet-shaped flowers (as on the salvia to the right) draw butterflies and the occasional hummingbird.
  • Mexican Petunia (sterile cultivar) - I've seen the occasional sulphur butterfly visiting these, a rare find in my garden.
  • Plumbago - Another favorite of several kinds of butterflies.
  • Firebush* - Gulf fritillaries love these.
I planted some new host plants this year, and learned that some things I already had serve as host plants as well.
  • Passionvine* - I planted this in both native purple and non-native blue. The gulf fritillary caterpillars dined like kings all summer long, and we've seen plenty of empty chrysalises indicating their healthy metamorphosis into butterflies.
  • Parsley - I added this for the Eastern Black Swallowtails and am raising several generations right now.
  • Sicklepod Cassia* - This is a plant I learned about while volunteering at the MOSI BioWorks Butterfly Garden. It is the host plant for several sulphur butterflies, but I've yet to see any eggs or caterpillars.
  • Tropical Milkweed - We planted some last year and added plenty more this year. However, wasps and ants took a toll on the monarch caterpillars, so I've taken to raising some in captivity for release when they become butterflies.
  • Plumbago - Turns out this is the host plant for Cassius Blues, although I've yet to spot any.
I feel pretty good about my accomplishments this year, but next year I hope to have better luck with sulphurs. I'd also like to add wild lime for Giant Swallotail caterpillars, pipevine for Polydamus Swallowtail caterpillars, and get my hands on some pawpaw to draw Zebra Swallowtails.

The great thing about gardening for wildlife is that there are always new species to try to attract. A friend of mine says that since we have such small yards here in the 'burbs, she tries hard to plant only things that will benefit wildlife in some way. I've adopted this philosophy - no room for sterile ornamental plants here. My Florida Backyard is a NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat and proud of it!

*Native to Florida

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cats in the Cradle

I am, admittedly, not much of a cook. I enjoy a well-seasoned meal, but I'm not very good at creating it. So, the herbs I grow in my garden are seldom destined for the dinner table - at least, not a human dinner table.

A Black Swallowtail butterfly has been using my parsley patch as her own personal nursery, which is fine by me, because that's exactly why I planted it in the first place. They have some of the prettiest of eggs - they look like tiny pearls. They're white at first, and darken to look like black pearls just before the caterpillar emerges.

These caterpillars are especially interesting because they will go through so many visual changes before they make the final change to butterfly. As a caterpillar grows, it sheds its skin (molts) a number of times. The stage between each molt is called an instar. These young caterpillars hatched late yesterday or early today and are in their first instar. The second and third instars are slightly different, with reddish-orange spikes, although they retain the white stripe in the middle.

The fourth instar, however, is significantly different. I'm raising some black swallowtail caterpillars inside, and one reached the fourth instar today:
He'll continue to grow and will molt again into the fifth instar, which is again very different. I'll try to catch a picture of this instar before he pupates.

Here's a comparison of a newly-hatched black swallowtail caterpillar in its first instar and a week-old caterpillar in the fourth instar, side-by-side:

All in all, I can't really think of a better use for parsley than feeding black swallowtail caterpillars. Their caterpillar changes are fascinating to watch, and their butterflies are of course beyond lovely. I'm so pleased that My Florida Backyard is able to part of the complete life cycle of these wonderful creatures.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Those Who Love and Those Who Labor

At long last, our new camera has arrived! Almost as if on cue, a Queen butterfly dropped by for a photo op - a rare sight in My Florida Backyard. Our prodigious amount of milkweed draws Monarchs by the dozens, but Queens aren't very frequent visitors, for some reason. At any rate, not only did Her Majesty pose nicely for pictures, she also laid a few eggs that I was able to gather later. With any luck, they'll hatch in a few days and we can raise a few more Queens.

Around the same time, a pair of Monarchs decided the time had come for love...

Butterfly mating is an awful lot less disturbing than, say, duck mating. After a gentle dance in the air, they meet together on ground, flutter together for a bit, and then go their separate ways. Hardly a wing scale seems to be ruffled.

Note that you can tell the butterfly on top in this picture is a male, because of the dark spots visible on the upper hind wing. Those dark spots are actually scent glands that help attract females.

For more pictures of both the Queen and the mating Monarchs, see my Butterfly Gallery on Flickr.

How can you tell them apart?
I've been asked by several people how to tell Monarchs and Queens apart. It's much easier when they're side by side, of course, and very simple from a top view. Queens are a deeper, richer orange color, and their upper wings lack the black lines that a monarch has.

Left: Monarch; Right: Queen

When seen with their wings folded, it can be a bit more of a challenge, especially when they're in flight. Again, the coloration can help. Monarchs (top) tend to be a little lighter in color.

Queens (bottom) have some white pigmentation along their black lines, and their forewings lack the black markings.

If in doubt, though, it's easiest to try to view them from the top, when the differences really aren't mistakable.

Their caterpillars are slightly different as well, although the chrysalis of each is strikingly similar.

For more info on telling these types of butterflies apart, click here.

Well, needless to say, we're glad to have a camera again here in My Florida Backyard. The frequency of our posts should increase again, so be sure to come back often!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Calm Before the Storm

A Quick Note: We're anxiously awaiting the delivery of our new camera and the ability to take and post current photos of My Florida Backyard. In the meantime, here's some hurricane information that might help non-locals understand what storm season is like here in Tampa.

September is considered to be the most active month for hurricanes. Although the season begins June 1, the activity generally doesn't pick up until August, and September brings the peak. We here in My Florida Backyard are vigilant during hurricane season, but (contrary to what our northern friends and relatives seem to think) don't live every day in constant terror. If you're interested in meteorology (and here in MFB, we're interested in a little bit of everything), hurricane season can be fascinating.

What Makes a Hurricane Tick?
If you're interested in the all the nitty gritty details, check out Wikipedia's entry on Tropical Cyclones. For some basic info, read on.

Here are the basic hurricane ingredients*:
  • Water temperatures of at least 26.5 °C (79.7 °F) down to a depth of at least 50 m (160 ft)
  • High amount of moisture in the atmosphere
  • Low amount of wind shear
  • Pre-existing system of disturbed weather
In the Atlantic, our "pre-existing systems" generally consist of tropical waves coming off the west coast of Africa, an offshoot of the monsoon season. These waves travel across the Atlantic, strengthening or weaking depending on the SST (sea surface temperature), wind shear, and other weather systems they encounter. There are plenty of great sites that allow you to follow these "disturbed weather systems" right off of Africa - our favorite is Weather Underground and Dr. Jeff Masters' Wunder Blog.

Of course, not all tropical systems come all the way from Africa. Just a few weeks ago, Tropical Storm Claudette formed right off the coast of St. Petersburg and traveled up to the Panhandle. Generally, the less time a system has to form over water, the better, in terms of intensity. If Claudette had had more time, for instance, she would very likely have made it to hurricane status.

Now That's What I Call Turbulence!
One of the most fascinating aspects of hurricane research has to be the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters. Since 1944, the
53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron has been flying right into the heart of tropical systems to gather vital storm information. This info helps meteorologists understand more about the mechanics of the storms, and aids in making predictions about storm strength and possible effects.

To learn more, click on over to their website.

Tampa Is Statistically Lower-Risk
Before moving to FL in 2006, we did some pretty extensive research about hurricane risk. Florida's hurricane history is well-known; when you're surrounded by water on three sides, hurricanes have lot of angles from which to hit you.

We discovered that Tampa, interestingly enough, actually has a fairly low risk compared to the rest of the state. According to, Tampa stands about a 1 in 25 chance of taking a direct hit from a tropical system, compared to 1 in 6 in Miami or 1 in 8 in Pensacola.

Another consideration: although we love the beach, we chose not to live too close to the coast. The biggest danger from a hurricane is generally considered to be storm surge. We consulted storm surge and evacuation zone maps to determine the safest places to live in the bay area. We're of course at risk from wind, heavy rains, tornados, and other nasty hurricane features, but they don't scare us quite as much as storm surge.

Historically Speaking...
Tampa's last "direct hit" was the 1921 "No Name" storm, also called the "Tarpon Springs" storm. This storm destroyed the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs (the industry never truly recovered). The hurricane killed 10 people and caused $10 million in damage (that's 1921 dollars, folks).

It Only Takes One...
Historically, Tampa may have been "lucky", but that doesn't mean we're off the hook. A single major hurricane (category 3 or higher) could do significant damage in the Bay area. The 2009 season has been slow so far, but we're just entering the season for strong storms that take aim right at our area. One positive aspect of a hurricane is that, unlike a midwest tornado, you get plenty of warning when one approaches. So, we prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and enjoy My Florida Backyard as it thrives in the rainy season!

*When you move to hurricane country, you learn lots of great new terms like wind shear, spaghetti model, cone of uncertainty, and so on. If these terms are new to you, check the Bay News 9 Hurricane Glossary.