Praying Mantis Egg Cases

Here’s another reflection on the fascinating intricacies of plant-insect relationships.

Way back in April, I was prepping some beds to plant woad at our Amethyst Brook community garden plot. I noticed this egg case on a hyssop plant:

I was pretty sure it was a praying mantis egg case. Several year ago, a parent in my class at school brought us a praying mantis egg case to observe. She told us to leave it in a glass jar in the garden shed all winter. In the spring when it started to warm up, we brought the jar into the classroom.

We were alarmed to discover that when baby mantises hatch, they will eat each other if no other prey is available. Yikes! We got them outdoors and out of the jar as soon as possible. And that was the end of that mantis egg rearing experiment.

I was happy to discover this egg case in the hyssop. The eggs overwinter inside the foamy case, or ootheca. The babies, or nymphs, hatch out when it gets warm. I was hopeful that they would stick around and find plenty of bugs to eat. Praying mantises are ferocious predators, and are considered by many to be a beneficial insect in the garden.

We have had many bug problems in the community garden plot over the years. Our highest priority problems have been bean beetles on the black beans (devastating) and three lined potato beetles on the tomatillos (disgusting). As with many insects, the larvae are actually the most destructive phase of their lifecycles. I have no idea if praying mantises actually eat bean beetle or three lined potato beetle larvae. One can only hope.

For the 2017 growing season, we had decided to focus mainly on dyeplants. Over the years, my woad there has suffered mighty predations from cabbage white caterpillars. You can read my earlier observations about their lifecycle here. In fact, I planted the hyssop because it is supposed to be a good companion plant for brassicas, and woad is a brassica. The adult cabbage white butterflies certainly liked the hyssop flowers as a nectar source, but the hyssop didn’t seem to decrease the number of caterpillars on my woad.

I was optimistic that the praying mantises could fend off the cabbage white caterpillars. A “Bite they little heads off, nibble on they tiny feet” sort of thing. That didn’t work out. My woad crop this season was utterly consumed and pathetic. Either the mantises didn’t stick around after they hatched or they don’t like to eat cabbage white caterpillars. According to this awesome post on the blog Bug Squad, on the UCDavis website, mantises do eat cabbage white butterflies!

Fast forward several months to November. I was checking on the dye and fiber plant at Bramble Hill Farm, and noticed an egg case on the amsonia. Even though it is more round in shape and doesn’t have vertical ridges, I think this might also be a praying mantis case:

It turns out that these rounded egg cases are from species of praying mantises that were introduced from Europe and China in the late 1800s. Here’s a short informative article by UMass professor John Gerber. This page about mantis’ lifecycle from Iowa State extension is also helpful. The Carolina mantis, which is the native species of mantis that can be found around here, has a longer, thinner egg case.

I  wasn’t as happy to discover this ootheca on the amsonia as you might imagine. The discovery was too ironic for full-on joy. Behind the amsonia are a few unhappy swamp milkweed plants. In part, they have been unhappy because they are are on top of a dry hill, not in a swampy place, and that is my own fault. They are also unhappy because each year, they get infested with a revoltingly sticky conglomeration of yellow aphids. Sometimes I can keep on top of it, but not this year. The aphids were more prolific than ever before, and my swamp milkweed made thin, sad stalks. Texas Butterfly Ranch has some useful information about yellow aphids here. Apparently these yellow aphids really love milkweed plants.

I was relieved to discover that I am not the only person to have this problem, though my priorities are slightly different than other folks. Many people grow milkweed species to support monarch butterflies. In my case, these swamp milkweed plants are intended for bast fiber. I haven’t seen any monarch caterpillars on them, and I don’t think they are a preferred food source. A concern that many people have with regard to monarchs and mantises is that praying mantises are indiscriminate predators. They will just as soon eat a monarch butterfly as a cabbage white, so their role in the garden is ambivalent.

I found the presence of this particular egg case to be sort of annoying. Somehow, the mantises had managed to deposit an egg case about 12 inches away from my aphid apocalypse, but hadn’t been there to prevent it. Perhaps they are banking on their babies enjoying an ample food source next year. Insects do plan ahead, as we know. But where were they when I needed them?

I harvested the amsonia on November 23rd.

It grew really tall this year. Despite many nights of frost, the leaves had not yet entirely fallen off. I could have left them until later in the winter, but I didn’t want the seed pods to shatter and spread. I examined the stalks closely when I got them home, and the egg case was still there. Since we have a “Don’t bring bags of bugs in the house” rule, I propped up the stalk with the egg case on it at the edge of the woods by our apartment.

I hoped it would be dormant over the winter, and that I could bring it back to Bramble Hill to do its thing in the spring. Praying mantises must like aphids, right?  A few days ago we had our first snow fall, so I went to check on it. Something has been pecking at it:

Perhaps we will get some praying mantises in the spring, but perhaps they have all been eaten. Time will tell.

Goldenrod Ball Galls

One of the things I love about dyeing with plants is that plants are amazing and awe-inspiring in so many other ways, too. First of all, they create their own food from energy from the sun, and provide all of us oxygen-breathers and plant-consumers with life and sustenance. For that alone I am so grateful. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of amazing things about plants!

They are an integral part of complex inter-relationships that are not always obvious at my human eye level. I catch glimpses of some of these sometimes while I walk in the fields and woods, or when I garden. It makes me realize how much I don’t know about the intricate network of relationships between plants, animals, and microorganisms that are going on around me all the time.

Over the past several months I have noticed, and have had questions about, structures that I have found on fiber and dyeplants. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been learning.

First, let’s consider goldenrod. The kind I have used for dyeing is Solidago canadensis, I believe. I didn’t end up running any dyebaths with goldenrod this summer. Nevertheless, all summer I kept a close eye on it while it budded, bloomed, and went to seed. In the late fall, the stalks had dried and become woody. The structure of the galls on the stems was clearly visible.

Here is a photo of galls at Wentworth Farm conservation area on November 24th. I was struck by how many of these galls there were in a relatively small space:

It makes me think of a futuristic city with high rise apartments accessible by flying rocket-cars:

Generally speaking, galls work like this: an insect lays an egg on a plant, and some kind of irritation or stimulation causes the plant cells to swell up around it. The swelling makes a cozy home for the baby bug while it grows and develops. Eventually, the adult bug emerges and continues its buggy lifecycle.

The galls I photographed are, I believe, goldenrod ball galls. I identified them using two excellent resources at my school‘s library, Naturally Curious by Mary Holland and Entomology by Ellen Doris. For on-line resources, the University of Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener page and this Nature North page were very helpful.

Here are some more details about goldenrod ball galls. Goldenrod ball galls are made by the goldenrod ball gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis. The adults are teeny little things, about 5 mm long, which makes me feel better about the fact that I’ve never noticed one.

In the late spring, the female fly lays eggs in the leaf bud at the tip of the stem. As soon as it hatches, the larvae drills into the bud and starts feeding. In response to the chewing, or perhaps the secretions of the larva, the goldenrod stem thickens. The larva eats the juicy and nutritious tissue inside the gall as it grows, and makes a little chamber for itself inside. It takes 3 or 4 weeks for the gall to fully form. The larvae molt a couple times through the summer and fall.

Each stage of larval development is called an “instar” which sounds sort of magical.

The third-stage larva is able to survive the winter by producing glycerol and sorbitol, which prevent its cells from damage by freezing. The third instar goes into a kind of hibernation called diapause all winter.

In the spring, the larva chews an escape tunnel through the fibers of the gall, stopping just before the outermost skin of the gall. Once it has fully metamorphosed, the adult fly doesn’t have any mouth parts. Insects plan ahead! The adult fly crawls out through the tunnel that it dug for itself earlier, then pops through the outer layer of the gall by inflating part of its head.

The adult flies only live for a couple weeks, without eating. During this time they mate and lay eggs. They do not travel far from where they are born, which is why there are often a large number of galls in a small area. The females use chemical sensors on their feet and antennae to make sure they are laying eggs on the right goldenrod species.

The exit hole is very small when the adult fly emerges. The ones that I found had holes of various sizes. Some of them had large holes that looked like they had been chipped away.

It turns out that downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees can detect the larvae inside the gall and dig them out to eat. The woodpeckers make a neat hole, but the chickadees have to chip away with their smaller beaks, so the holes they make are messier.

I’m guessing this one was made by a chickadee:

Historic Eastfield Village 2017

On Saturday September 23rd, I demonstrated the flax-to-linen process at Historic Eastfield Village’s Founder’s Day celebration. It was a lovely day! We had a heat wave later that week, but under the oak trees that day it was pleasantly cool and shady.

I brought dried flax stalks with the seeds on, retted flax, and all the tools to break, scutch, and hetchel the fibers. I also had some commercial linen yarns that I dyed with madder, weld, woad, and black walnut.

Historic Eastfield Village is a very interesting place. You can read more about their history, buildings, and classes on their website. Last year, I attended Founders Day with Lisa Bertoldi, on the invitation of Niel DeMarino of the Georgian Kitchen, whom we had met at the Flax and Linen Symposium in August 2016.

This was my favorite image from Founders Day 2016:

It really captures what motivates me, and what I aspire to in my own knowledge and skills. Not that I am always successful! Still, words to live by.

Last year I got to wander all over the site and take photos of various artisans and craftspeople at work. Here’s the printer, for example:

This year, I didn’t get to see all the other demonstrations and vendors at work. But I did get to talk to a lot of interesting people!

Early in the morning, things were slow. So, I started breaking flax to see if I could lure people over to the tent.

It worked! Some of the other demonstrators and living history folk came over to visit.

This fellow, Henry Cooke, is a well-known 18th century tailor, but was there in his capacity as a militia member from the early 1800s. He was at Historic Deerfield the following weekend, as part of their Historic Trades series.

And there were lots of regular non-historical people, too:

In this photo I look like I am telling a tall fish tale. “It was this big, I swear!” Actually, I am describing the height that fiber flax can reach under ideal conditions:

Here I am explaining the dyes I used to make these colors:

Matthew took some better crowd shots, which you can see on the New England Flax and Linen‘s recent Facebook post.

Electra Update Part Two

As I mentioned in my last post, this is a “retro time” account of my flax harvest this year, not a “real time” account. Here’s the belated next installment.

I started digging up the Electra plot on July 31st. I didn’t finish until August 12th. Now it’s all pulled up, dry, and stored safely in the back of the van. Because that’s where the flax gets stored.

The yield was small but the effort was mighty! I could only work for a couple hours a day, and some days I didn’t work at all. This summer taught me a profound lesson in the privileges and assumptions I have carried with me all my life as an able-bodied, pain-free person. My motto used to be, “Do all the things!”* This summer, not so much.

On August 4th, Lisa and Carolyn from my flax and linen study group came to help with my flax harvest. Three people work much faster than one!

 

Here’s our haul after a couple hours. We were very happy with this lovely pile, and celebrated with Chinese food.

Granted, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a lot to show for that much work. However, since I wasn’t able to weed earlier in the summer, most of the plants we were removing weren’t actually flax. It was more like mining or excavating for flax. A lot of rubble punctuated by gleaming moments of excitement.

To maximize the learning opportunities (and to slow this whole process down to the speed of cold molasses!), I sorted most of the bundles according to stem thickness, height, and branching pattern. Why on earth would I do such a thing? Well. I often have questions regarding what I read or hear about flax processing. For example, I have heard that thinner stalks produce finer fiber. I have also heard that thinner stalks take longer to ret. I have also heard that branching at the base of the stalk is not desirable, even though it’s so close to the root that I can’t imagine it makes a difference in the length of the extracted fiber. Many times, I have wished for and wanted a way to prove to myself whether these things are true or not. Hopefully, my sorted bundles will let me test out some of these questions.

* N.B. My motto was inspired by this brilliant artist. Neither myself nor the artist, apparently, is good at being a grown up. Like her, I have embraced my hatred of going to the bank and cleaning.  I very seldom do either. Ha! Since I am resigned to my fate, I decided that the “things” in my motto are the things I want to do. If I’m going to put a lot of energy into something, it will be my personal obsessions and desires (plants, fibers, stinky creative messes, and saving obscure knowledge from obsolescence…).

Electra Progress Report Part One

I had meant to post updates about my flax crop this summer in “real time”. However, “retro time” will have to do.

Here are a few things that I observed and learned as the 2017 flax was growing and maturing.

First, the flax chewers who devastated my crop in 2016, and half of my crop in 2015, were back at it again this year. However, when you have 1500 square feet of the same variety (Electra from Biolin), rather than tiny test plots of 12 square feet or less, the effect of the damage isn’t as troubling. I found dozens of chewed up flax stalks, but it was a negligible percentage of the whole crop. I am sticking to my hypothesis that the culprits are rodents of some kind. Here’s some scat that may or may not belong to them:

Second, the chewers are not solely interested in flax. It might not even be their favorite or preferred plant to chew. The fact that flax is *my* preferred plant in that location means that it bothers me when they chew it. I don’t care about the other plants, so I’m less inclined to notice their demise. Predation of “weeds” is a boon, from a flax-grower’s point of view. But it’s possible that from the chewers’ point of view, it’s the flax that’s a nuisance.

The two most significant weeds in my plot were lambsquarters and campion. Since apparently most people spell that “lamb’s quarters” I guess I should adopt the convention. I found chewed stalks of both. Here are a few lamb’s quarters plants that had been chewed as they were going to seed.  On the left you see the entire stalks, and on the right a close up of the stalk where it was chewed. The diagonal angle is similar to the way the flax is chewed:

Campion plants were also chewed as they went to seed:

For comparison, here are some chewed flax stalks:

The pillowcase is there for contrast and scale. Yes, the lamb’s quarters were as tall as (and in many cases taller than) the flax.

Third, I can understand why campion is so hard to weed out. It had all gone to seed by the time I was harvesting the flax. Every time I pulled up a campion plant, I had an image of a million baby seedlings sprouting from my hand as I flung the plant aside. Basically I was sowing next year’s campion crop. This is the number of seeds from one pod. Every plant makes lots of pods….

Fourth, not everyone knows what lamb’s quarters are. I was describing to someone how difficult it was to pull up my flax this year, and made reference to how many “lamb’s quarters” there were in the plot. They asked enthusiastically, “How much is that?” It had never occurred to me to think of the name as a unit of measurement, but now I love the idea! It does sound like a old fashioned measurement term.

The plant to which I am referring is a Chenopodium album. I went looking for the etymology of the name lamb’s quarters, but I’m not sure if I got to the heart of it. One source refer to Lammas, a harvest celebration on August 1 to bless the first loaves of bread. Personally, I am not sure how Chenopodium album fits into the picture. The seeds from C. album are edible and nutritious, so maybe they were an ingredient in a harvest-time loaf. I have never eaten the seeds, but I have eaten my fair share of lamb’s quarters. They are a delectable green vegetable, even more nutritious than the seeds.  But once the plant has gone to seed, the greens are well past their prime. In fact, they shrink up and often turn pink and fall off. Here’s another interesting article about lamb’s quarters. I may have to follow up on this question with better information.

Anyway, it isn’t a unit of measurement, it is a plant. A very useful and nutritious edible plant. It just so happens that it can grow as tall as me, and twice as tall as a flax stalk, and digging it up is very difficult.

Here’s what it looked like relative to the flax:

And here is a lone flax stalk surrounded by campion and lamb’s quarters:

Lastly, there is a lot more going on with regard to the relationship of insects to flax than I have any idea about. What are these creatures doing?

They were on the bolls as they were ripening. My guess is that they’re either eating them or laying eggs inside them. At the time I didn’t investigate further, but it might be important knowledge to possess.

 

Swamp Milkweed Sightings

I first learned to identify swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2012 after discovering some lovely fibers near my sister’s apartment in Maryland. In 2015 I acquired some plants from Nasami Farm in Whately, MA for the Common School‘s fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. For all this time, I have been keeping an eye out for it “in the wild” but haven’t seen it. Until now!

This month I have been spotting swamp milkweed all over the place. The first place I noticed it was in the bluebird field at Amherst College on July 6th. Admittedly, these photos are a bit like photos of Big Foot: blurry and indistinct. Trust me, though, it is swamp milkweed!

The next place I caught a sighting was in the Lawrence Swamp area of the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Amherst. It was right in the swamp, aptly. We could see several plants further out, but ran into the same blurry Big Foot photo problem. This one was close to the edge of the trail:

Continue reading “Swamp Milkweed Sightings”

Electra in Flower

My flax crop this year has been sorely neglected due to a pinched nerve in my upper back that had me out of commission for about 6 weeks in June and July. However, despite the weeds and lack of TLC, the flax started to bloom on the first of July. Here are some buds getting ready to flower:

Here’s the whole bed on July 1st. The main weeds are campion and lambsquarters, with lesser amounts of plantain and dock.

By July 10th the flax was in full bloom. Here are a couple photos of the flax flowers against the sky. It was a beautiful morning, and the flax flowers were gorgeous. The type I am growing this year is called Electra, and as you can see it is a blue-flowering type:

Continue reading “Electra in Flower”

Ten More Pounds of Electra

While I weeded the flax plot on May 6th, I was simultaneously glad for the opportunity to dig out the campion, and worried about weed pressure later in the summer, and worried that nothing had come up yet. So, I decided to spread another ten pounds of seed. There were a few reasons for this. First, I was worried that I hadn’t accounted enough for the possibility that I’d get a really low germination rate. Second, the more densely the flax is planted, the less the stalks ought to branch as they grow. Third, the more crowded the plants are, the finer the stalks will be and theoretically the finer the fiber will be. Fourth, a dense stand of flax might, hopefully, crowd out weeds. Continue reading “Ten More Pounds of Electra”

Weeding Out Campion

On May 6th, after the rain stopped, I stopped by the flax plot to see how things were going. There were no flax seedlings, but there was a lot of some other plant that I didn’t recognize.

They were big, robust, and had very deep and spreading roots. Since the flax hadn’t emerged yet, I decided to seize the opportunity to weed out as much of these deep-rooted plants as I could. So, I got a pitchfork and began digging. Continue reading “Weeding Out Campion”

Planting Electra

On Sunday April 30th I planted this year’s flax crop. Thanks to the generosity and support of Bernard Brennan at Amethyst Farm and Jeffrey Silberman in the Textile Development and Marketing Department at Fashion Institute of Technology, I am going big this year. Well, big for me. Up until now I have never grown much more than 225 square feet in a given season. This year I have planted approximately 1500 square feet! Continue reading “Planting Electra”