Wild Ideas: Summer brings insects, spiders and baby skinks

A huge gray petaltail dragonfly chows down on a native green stinkbug. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A huge gray petaltail dragonfly chows down on a native green stinkbug.

With summer now in full swing, and a recent dry, sunny spell replacing the almost-daily deluges of rain, the invertebrates where I live are finally showing up in big numbers, and the young of other animals keep emerging.

During the day, the dog-day cicadas have been in full chorus for a few weeks, and the katydids were not far behind them. The butterfly scene has changed dramatically around my yard. This spring, a half-dozen great spangled fritillaries showed up most days on the native flowers in my gardens and only one or two swallowtail butterflies at a time. Having now bred, the fritillaries have dwindled in numbers but clouds of eastern tiger and spicebush swallowtails are now crowding my former herb garden, now a native-plant garden for pollinators.

After a rainy spring, swallowtail butterflies have started to show up in big numbers, including (clockwise from left) an eastern tiger swallowtail and a female dark morph of the same species nectaring on wild phlox, and a spicebush swallowtail nectaring on cardinal flower. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
After a rainy spring, swallowtail butterflies have started to show up in big numbers, including (clockwise from left) an eastern tiger swallowtail and a female dark morph of the same species nectaring on wild phlox, and a spicebush swallowtail nectaring on cardinal flower.

Along with the swallowtails and fritillaries, silver-spotted skippers, some other small butterflies, hummingbird moths and many species of bees and wasps visit the garden daily. All of the Lepidoptera are especially fond of the wild phlox there, now in full bloom, but also regularly visit the purple coneflower and a cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) I planted this spring. Both are still blooming. Even an occasional hummingbird wanders over from the hummer feeder to feed on nectar of the trumpet-shaped, bright-red flowers of the lobelia.

The flowers of the butterfly milkweed, the first to bloom in the garden, have now converted to seed pods, so I hope to spread this pollinator attractor around to other places in my gardens and other open spaces. The mountain mint, some oregano I left in this garden and other plants with smaller blooms have been attracting tiny bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and other small insects. Among them is the tiny (1–1.25 inch wingspread), dark Hayhurst’s scallopwing butterfly (Staphylus hayhurstii).

In another garden patch, which receives more sun, a butterfly milkweed is still blooming and attracting pollinators. Soon the native asters and goldenrod there will be blooming, too, and abuzz with insects.

Native mountain mint attracts a host of pollinators, particularly tiny ones, such as this Hayhurst’s scallopwing. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Native mountain mint attracts a host of pollinators, particularly tiny ones, such as this Hayhurst’s scallopwing.

Dragonflies, ants, eyed click beetles and several other insects also are showing up regularly on damp laundry on my laundry line, near the pollinator garden, attracted to the colors of the clothes, the sun on them, the moisture or some combination of these. And the gray petaltail dragonfly I mentioned in my July 9 column hung around my yard for a few days, occasionally landing on my arm when I’m out there. It’s not the first dragonfly to do that. Are the attractants at play as with the laundry, or am I just the only vertical landing surface in the middle of the yard?

With large flying insects, including butterflies and other dragonflies, on its menu, I wondered if the gray petaltail would target the butterflies nearby. However, the only prey I saw it catch was a native green stinkbug. I’m hoping brown marmorated stink bugs are also on its menu.

A large marbled orbweaver spider spins out silk from her abdomen to wrap a crane fly that was caught in her web. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A large marbled orbweaver spider spins out silk from her abdomen to wrap a crane fly that was caught in her web.

Other invertebrate predators are busy this time of year. Spiderwebs, particularly of barn and tiny micrathena spiders, both in the orb weaver family, have stretched their webs everywhere across the trails through the forest. A barn spider has built a huge web every night between the railing of my porch and the side of the house. I try not to leave the porch light on very long, as it has been attracting a ton of moths. While I’m sure the spider enjoys this largesse, especially since these spiders breed this time of year, I hate to see the moths batter themselves against the light and otherwise get distracted from their own reproduction.

On a recent evening, as I was sitting on my deck, where I regularly watch the invertebrate show at dawn (see my July 2 column), I saw a large spider catching and wrapping an equally large crane fly in its web, The web was stretched across the path running through the small copse of trees there, and the spider had also pulled together a tuliptree leaf with silk at the top of one of the anchor lines, creating a cone-shaped shelter.

Summer is bringing a whole new crop of baby five-lined skinks with bright blue tails.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Summer is bringing a whole new crop of baby five-lined skinks with bright blue tails.

I grabbed my camera and went down to try to catch the drama in the waning light. What I found was a marbled orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus) busily spinning out silk from her abdomen while twirling the crane fly, wrapping it neatly in a cocoon. The spider then retreated with her prey up to her shelter. There she was happily enjoying her meal. Judging by her bulging round abdomen, she’s undoubtedly eating for more than one.

On the reptile front, the remaining nest of five-lined skink eggs I wrote about in my July 23 column  hatched out successfully a week or so ago. The babies, with their bright-blue tails, have now joined our healthy local population of skinks, several of which I’ve seen recently skittering along the outer walls of my house.

© 2015 Pam Owen

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