October Gold and Blue

White oaks shine against a cloudless October sky.

Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) shine against a cloudless October sky.

The fleeting season of gold and blue arrived in central Minnesota last week. The golden hues of bitternut hickory, bur oak, aspen and ash glow against a sky the color of a newly opened morning glory — a shade unique to autumn. Along the Snake River in Pine County, MN, the steely blue-gray wings of a great blue heron swoop over the sparkling water.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swoops over the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swoops over the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Sky blue morning glories continue to bloom in October.

Heavenly blue (Ipomea purpurea) morning glories continue to bloom in October.

Closer to the ground, the last of the powder-blue bottle gentians and asters — some with center disks as bold as the sun — bloom among the grasses. Fallen aspen leaves accent walkways, and the heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower vine wind their tendrils skyward. In a few days, this lovely combination will dampen down to more muted tones, the gentle softness that insulates the earth for winter’s palette of black and white.

Bottle gentian blooms (Gentiana andrewsii) turn dark and dry out as their seeds mature.

Bottle gentian blooms (Gentiana andrewsii) turn dark and dry out as their seeds mature.

Asters (Symphyotrichum novi-begii) provide nectar to these hoverflies and many other autumn insects.

Asters (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) provide nectar to these hoverflies, or syrphids, and many other autumn insects.

Aspen leaves and moss decorate a walkway at our cabin.

Quaking aspen leaves (Populus tremuloides) and moss decorate a walkway at our cabin.

The heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) add light and color to the October woods.

The heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea) add light and color to the October woods.

 

Metallic Green Bees

A metallic green bee (agapostemon) drinks nectar from a Helenium flower.

A metallic green bee (Agapostemon) drinks nectar from a Helenium flower.

A female green metallic bee searches for nectar in a woodland sunflower.

A female metallic green bee searches for nectar in a Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.).

Bees of many kinds visit our backyard garden on sunny autumn afternoons — and not all are black and yellow!  I think one of the prettiest is the metallic green bee, which is a type of tiny sweat bee in the (family Halictidae).  The female bee’s body is usually a beautiful iridescent green.  The male bee has a bright green head and thorax, but in contrast to the female, he sports a vibrantly striped abdomen — black with yellow or white stripes.

Native asters are a favorite of metallic green bees.

Native heath asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides) are a favorite of metallic green bees.

Metallic green bees, typically just a few eighths of an inch in size, are small in comparison to many backyard bees, such as bumble bees and honey bees.  They are short-tongued bees, so they prefer to drink nectar from flowers that have a more shallow, open structure. In our yard they prefer Helenium and asters.

Unlike colonial bees that live in hives, each adult female green bee creates her own underground nesting chamber in which she lays her eggs. Sometimes, several females construct individual nests near each other, but they remain solitary.

When cold weather arrives in late October, the male green bees die. Fertilized females survive because they form a layer of insulating fat and burrow into the ground to overwinter. Next spring, they will lay eggs in new underground nests and continue the life cycle. Most years, green bees should be visiting your garden by the end of April.

A green bee catches the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

A male green bee catches the warmth of the late afternoon sun on an aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii).

 

September Days

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus).

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus).

The morning’s first light dawns purple, builds to a soft pink, then strawberry red. Crickets and other night creatures punctuate the mild air; the birds are quiet. As the sun climbs the eastern horizon, its light flares and glows green in the tops of river birches, maples and cottonwoods. There is only a hint of autumn color in the trees, but the wildflowers are dominated by gold — the gold of woodland sunflowers, goldenrod, a few butter and eggs. The first asters, purple and white, softly accent the gold. In the coolness of the morning, voices of early walkers rise from the sidewalk. “A beautiful morning for a walk!” women call in greeting to each other.

Plumes of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) surround a pond.

Plumes of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) surround a pond.

Butter and eggs, or common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris Mill) was introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Unfortunately, its bright flowers are considered invasive.

Butter and eggs, (Linaria vulgaris Mill) was introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Its bright flowers are now considered invasive.

Native heath asters (Symphotrichum ericoides) are at their peak bloom now.

Native heath asters (Symphotrichum ericoides) are at their peak bloom now.

Later, in the afternoon, I walk the hilly paths. The sun is warm, an easterly breeze is mild. Barn swallows twitter overhead, swooping and soaring in pursuit of small insects. At a nearby pond, a dozen Canada geese perch on a half-submerged snag and a green heron alights briefly at the tip top of a skeletal maple. Close to the ground, small butterflies flutter across the wildflowers bordering the pond.

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar from New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-anglica).

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar from New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-anglica).

I sit in the sun to breathe in the peaceful scene and soak up the sunlight. Its radiant heat soothes and relaxes. I miss it so much during the long winter. I wish these late-summer afternoons would never end. I am grateful to be outside surrounded by this abundance of life.

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Gray-Day Gratitude, Bright Autumn Colors

One morning last week, I walked in our garden between bouts of rain. I wanted to enjoy the warm, mild air before a cold front rolled in that evening. Chipmunks had retired to their underground dens, birds were quiet, and I saw no insects. The exposed wet earth in the gardens smelled almost as fresh and pungent as in spring. Oregano and sage still scented our little herb garden. (I miss the aroma of fresh herbs so much during the winter.) A few bright patches of color accented the beige, russet and brown of mid-November, tiny remnants of a beautiful summer and autumn. I am so grateful for gentle autumn days and memories of a lovely, bountiful growing season.  What nature and garden memories bring gratitude to your mind and heart?

Fan-shaped gingko leaves fell much later than the maple leaves.

Fan-shaped gingko (Gingko biloba) leaves drop much later than many other leaves.

American woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta) fruit is a winter treat for some types of songbirds and small mammals.

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) fruit and leaves.

Moss in the north-facing garden of our backyard.

Moss in a north-facing garden of our backyard.

Common milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca) releases it silky seeds.

Common milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca) releases it silky seeds.

A tiny red maple seedling in the backyard.

A tiny red maple (Acer rubrum) seedling in the backyard.

Beads of rain adorn daylily fronds (Hemerocallis).

Beads of rain adorn daylily fronds (Hemerocallis).

Wild grape (Vitis riparia) leaves etched in maroon.

Wild grape (Vitis riparia) leaves etched in maroon.

Raindrops on crimson barberry (Berberis) fruit.

Raindrops on crimson barberry (Berberis) fruit.

The beauty of a single woodbine leaf in the empty garden.

The simple beauty of a single Boston ivy leaf in the empty garden.

An empty robin's nest and red maple leaf tucked into a dwarf blue spruce.

An empty robin’s nest and red maple leaf tucked into a dwarf blue spruce (Picea pungens).

Ornamental kale in a sunny spot.

Ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea) grows in a sunny spot.

Late-Autumn Insects

Last week, the coming winter teased us with snow flurries mixed in with the rain. But, during the first week of November, the temperature rebounded to the 70s. The breeze is gentle, the afternoon sun is hot and a few insects are active in some sun-warmed patches of our backyard.

On the garden’s last purple coneflower, a yellow-green, spotted beetle, similar to a ladybug at first glance, nibbles on the coneflower’s center.  It is a spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata).  And, though it’s a garden pest, it won’t survive the Minnesota winter, so I let it stay. It looks beautiful on the deep magenta bloom.

Spotted Cucumber Beetle

Spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) on a purple coneflower.

Across the yard in another sunny spot, bright red insects huddle together on a common milkweed pod. They include three different developmental stages, or instars, of the same insect, the large milkweed bug, (Oncopeltus fasciatus).  They use a tubelike mouth to inject digestive enzymes into the pod and then suck out the partially digested plant material.  Because they eat milkweed, they have the same toxicity found in monarchs and other insects that dine on the plant.  When I first noticed them a few weeks ago, I thought they were red aphids until I spotted an adult on the pod.  Over time, they began to grow larger, develop black markings, and become darker red.  Like the spotted cucumber beetle mentioned above, the large milkweed bug is migratory and those still here won’t survive our northern winter.

Early instars of Large Milkweed Bug

Early developmental instars of large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus).

Large milkweed bug in developmental stages.

Large milkweed bug in several developmental stages on a common milkweed pod.

The orange shells of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia Axyridis) glow where they’ve settled on the sun-warmed brick of our house and on a few hardy garden plants.  Unlike the insects mentioned above, these beetles survive the Minnesota winter.  They were introduced into the southern United States in the mid-1900s to help control agricultural pests and first appeared in Minnesota in the 1990s, according to University of Minnesota records.  To some people they’re pests because the beetles often find a way inside in the autumn. But, they also eat aphids found on trees, in gardens and on agricultural crops.  The easiest way to distinguish Asian lady beetles from native species is by an “M” or “W” mark (depending on the viewing angle) on the thorax between the head and abdomen.  (More about Asian and native ladybird beetles in another post.)

Asian lady beetle on goldenrod.

Asian lady beetle (Harmonia Axyridis) on goldenrod.

Asian lady beetle on 'Henry Kelsey' rose.

Asian lady beetle on ‘Henry Kelsey’ rose.

Glimpses of a Mid-October Afternoon

The breeze feels like August; warm, close, comforting. But the sun and the landscape reveal the day’s true identity: mid-October. Deep red, maroon, cranberry, orange and yellow leaves replace the myriad greens of summer. A few tattered wildflowers remain, but most have given way to sharp, sturdy seed heads in shades of brown and cream.  Thick, warty milkweed pods crack open and set free their silky seeds.  The woods are much quieter now without thrushes, warblers, orioles and so many other nesting birds to sing their courtship songs.  A few chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches and woodpeckers call in the trees and thickets, and small groups of Sandhill cranes bugle overhead as they fly between fields.  On the bank of the Snake River in Pine County, MN, a brown morph leopard frog rests in the long grass, and a few wood ducks splash and take flight as I approach.  Chipmunks scold each other as they scramble to collect and store red acorns for their winter stash. Most insects have disappeared for the season, but an eastern comma butterfly suns itself, ladybugs swarm looking for a place to wait out the winter, and hardy bumble bees seek the few remaining wildflowers. During the coming winter, I’ll hold close these memories of the sun’s gentle warmth and the glowing landscape.

American hazelnuts, October

golden october

Red oak, October

Sumac, October

Seedheads, October

American hornbeam seeds, October

Common milkweed seeds, October

chick oct2

Bugling cranes, October

Tattered bloom, October

Late bumbler on aster, October

Asian ladybird beetle, October

Eastern comma, October

Toadstool, October

Leopard Frog, October

chipfor tom

October road

Autumn Meadowhawk

The late afternoon September sun is warm and soothing.  Cicadas whine loudly and a monarch butterfly nectars in our patch of sweet Joe-Pye.  But another garden critter catches my eye this afternoon:  the yellow-legged meadowhawk dragonfly.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Also known as autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum), their bodies flash gem-like red, orange and amber in the sun. Perched on daylily stalks, balloon flower seed pods and hosta stems, each dragonfly swivels its head watching for flies, small bees and wasps, and other soft-bodied insects.

Adult autumn meadowhawks are present from August into early November in Minnesota.  The species is common across much of the United States and southern Canada, and often is seen in yards and gardens. Their yellow or brownish legs set them apart from other types of meadowhawks, which have black or dark-striped legs. They also have minimal or no black marks on the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

When I see a meadowhawk flash in the garden, I think of the ancient history of these creatures. Scientists believe that early dragonflies (Protodonata) first inhabited Earth 300 million years ago.  They speculate that Earth’s warmer temperatures, and the atmosphere’s higher oxygen content, contributed to insects growing larger than today.  Fossils show that some ancient dragonflies had a wingspan of two feet. Today, most of the larger dragonflies have a wingspan of two to five inches, and meadowhawks are smaller yet at about one inch.  What they lack in size they make up for in the sparkle of sun on their transparent wings and the jeweled designs of their bodies.  And, after watching a meadowhawk grind up a small bee in its jaws, I’m glad they’ve evolved into smaller predators!

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk's wings.  The ovipositor and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identifies it as a female autumn meadowhawk.

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk’s wings. The ovipositor, yellowish legs and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identify it as a female.

A Harvest of Berries

In late November, most leaves have fallen to the ground, turned brown and tucked Earth’s northern regions in for the long winter.  But the bareness reveals new beauty in the form of a harvest of berries.  Many colorful berries decorate trees, shrubs and vines, both here in St. Paul and in the woods surrounding our cabin on the Snake River in Pine County, MN.  They also provide food for many birds and small mammals.  Here is a sample of this generous harvest:

Six species of dogwood are native to Minnesota.  Among the  most colorful are gray dogwood and swamp dogwood, also known as silky or blue dogwood.

gray dogwood

Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) leaves turn shades of maroon and purple. White berries or “drupes” grow on stalks that turn bright red in autumn.

Swamp or silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) berries ripen to dark blue. The shrubs form dense thickets that provide cover for snowshoe hare and other animals.

Swamp or silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) berries ripen to dark blue. The shrubs form dense thickets that provide cover for snowshoe hare and other animals.

Native hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees with long, sharp thorns that produce a beautiful red fruit eaten by many songbirds.

Native hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees, with long, sharp thorns, that produce a beautiful red fruit or “pome” eaten by many songbirds.

American woodbine’s scarlet leaves have fallen to reveal deep-blue berries on fire-red stalks or pedicels.  Woodbine is a close relative of Virginia creeper, but prefers sunnier locations and lacks adhesive cups at the end of its tendrils.

American woodbine berries are a winter food source for some species of songbirds.

American woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta) berries are a winter food source for some species of songbirds.

Many species of rose, both native and cultivated, produce beautiful fruit known as “hips”.  Rose hips are rich in vitamin C and other nutrients.

Squirrels eat the fruit or "hips" of (Rosa 'Henry Kelsey') before they've even ripened.

Squirrels eat the fruit or “hips” of (Rosa ‘Henry Kelsey’) before the fruit has even ripened.

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Smooth rose (Rosa blanda) produces nutritious hips favored by many mammals and birds.

The feathery white plumes of starry false Solomon’s seal have grown into plump berries that gradually changed from bright green to beige mottled with coppery red, and now are bright, translucent red.

Ripe berries of starry false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum) hang in plumes.

Ripe berries of starry false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) hang in plumes.

November Moonrise

I miss the long, light days of summer with their extended periods of predawn and dusky twilight.  But, if there’s an advantage to the lengthy winter nights, it is the beauty and greater visibility of the moon and constellations.  The sun’s lower angle allows the moon to be visible during some daylight hours of the winter months.  The planet Venus also is visible high on the southern horizon in the late afternoon and early evening, and is referred to as the “evening star”.

The November moon rises in mid-afternoon.

The November moon rises in mid-afternoon.

A good resource to find out about what’s currently visible in the night sky — such as planets, constellations, comets, meteor showers and other heavenly objects — is Sky and Telescope‘s “This Week’s Sky at a Glance”.

November moonrise through red maple (Acer rubrum).

November moonrise through red maple (Acer rubrum).

Late-Season Ladybugs and a Lacewing

After a couple of unseasonably chilly days that put a skin of ice on a neighborhood pond, the temperature rebounded into the mid-50s on Thursday and Friday.  Many non-native multicolored Asian ladybug beetles came out of hiding and scurried about on sun-warmed concrete sidewalks and stone walls.

An Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) soaks up the afternoon sun.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) soaks up the afternoon sun.

I’m not an expert at distinguishing between native and Asian ladybugs, but those I photographed seem to have characteristics of Asian ladybugs:  an “M” or “W” mark (depending on the viewing angle) on the thorax between the head and abdomen, variations in color among individual beetles, variations in the number of spots on wing covers among individuals, and remaining active into late autumn.

Individual Asian ladybugs show greater variation in color and number of spots number of spots amo

Individual multicolored Asian ladybugs show greater variation in number of spots and color than native species.

Asian ladybugs can be a competitive threat to native species and are sometimes pests indoors during the winter.  One November evening several years ago, we drove to our cabin for the weekend.  The ladybugs had gone into hibernation and when we heated the cabin, the warmth awakened a group of about 60 Asian ladybugs that had found a way inside.  They preferred the lights to us and were lined up like beads on a necklace around the tops of lamp shades, and on a lengthy pull-chain for a ceiling fan and light.  We never saw them again, so they must have found their way outside in the spring.

Like native ladybug species, Asian ladybugs eat large numbers of garden and agricultural pests, such as aphids.

Like native ladybug species, Asian ladybugs eat large numbers of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids.

I also found a green lacewing (Chrysopidae) on a window screen.  Lacewings destroy large numbers of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids and other small insects.  (I apologize for the poor photograph taken through the screen; unfortunately, the lacewing flew away as I went outside to photograph it.)

A green lacewing perched on a window screen soaks up suns itself.

A green lacewing (Chrysopidae) perched on a window screen suns itself.

The lacewing was a lovely and delicate gift on a late-autumn day; a symbol of spring to remember during the long winter.