Syrphidae and Cucurbits

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

I harvested the first cucumbers of the season this week. I’ve seen them growing for a couple weeks now, seen the flowers even longer. But haven’t seen any bees.

This caused me a bit of concern for reasons both macro and micro. The lack of bees regularly buzzing during the summer months definitely bodes ill for our food system. But on a more selfish level: I want my damn cucumbers. Without the help of pollinators, they’re not going to happen.

Cucumbers – and cucurbits in general – have male and female flowers; they require something to transfer the pollen from one to the other. Ideally, this is insects. In a pinch, it can be a human with a Q tip. Which is a real drag.

But even with the lack of bees, the cucumbers are growing. That’s because there are plenty of hover flies. Diptera syrphidae, for the bug geeks.

There are thousands of types of syrphid flies world wide, all of them striped black and yellow like bees. On my cukes alone I’ve seen three different types, distinguishable by the variation in body and wing, eyes and mouth parts.

Diptera syphidae are not like Bluebottle flies (Diptera calliphorinaea) when it comes to pollination: hover flies are intentional pollinators actively seeking out pollen and nectar to consume, and transferring it from flower to flower in the process.

But that’s not all: syrphid fly larvae are predators of common garden pests. Voracious, badass little predators, according to Cornell University: “Most syrphid fly maggots feed on aphids, thrips, leafhoppers and other soft-bodied prey like small caterpillars. They move along plant surfaces, lift their heads to grope for prey, seize and suck them dry and then discard the exoskeleton.”

I like bees; I want them around. But show me a single bee species that sucks the life out of aphids and then tosses their broken, empty shells aside like a WWF wrestler, thumping it’s chest and shouting at the crowd.

Bring the thunder, syrphidae. And the cucumbers.

**
Additional Info:
Bug Guide. Syrphid Flies, retrieved from http://www.bugguide.net/node/view/196

Cranshaw, W. (2004). Garden Insects of North America.

Shelton, A. Syrphid Flies, retrieved from http://www.biocontrol.entomology.cornell.edu/predators/syrphids.php

Shepherd, M. and Black, S. H. Flower Flies, retrieved from http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/flower_flies.shtml

Mothra

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

And sometimes a big, ugly what-the-f*ck shows up on the front porch.

This is a Blinded Sphinx Moth.

I had no idea what to think when I first saw this thing hanging out. It was the size of the a small bird. Was it just relaxing in the warmth of the sun? Or getting ready to destroy Tokyo?

Sphinx moths – of which there are over 120 described species in North America – all start out as Hornworms. And two Hornworms in particular can be a pain in the ass: the Tomato Hornworm and the Tobacco Hornworm. They feed voraciously on the plants they are respectively named for. But all other types of Hornworms are of little to no concern. They live in trees, shrubs and woodland areas, doing little noticeable damage as they chew on the leaves. Some adult Sphinx Moths feed on nectar and help pollinate; the Blind Sphinx Moth apparently doesn’t feed at all.

The moth stayed in the same spot all day. It moved just enough to let me know it was actually alive when I prodded it with my finger. But other than that, it was as quiet and as still as the bark it’s trying to mimic.

Until the next morning, when it was gone as mysteriously as it had arrived.

**
Additional Info:
Bug Guide, Blinded Sphinx Moth, retrieved from http://bugguide.net/node/view/4481

Cranshaw, W. (2004). Garden Insects of North America.

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Red-Bellied Snake

While moving some stone and bricks around back of the house, I found a snake. Not an uncommon find but always a favorite. It was a small snake, maybe ten inches long and about as fat around as my little finger.

Seems like every small snake gets called a Garter Snake. Which isn’t surprising since there are about a bazillion different varieties and it’s most widely-distributed snake in North America. But this was actually a Red-Bellied Snake. It took a little digging to identify correctly but the differences are interesting. And pretty obvious when you know what to pay attention to.

A great little snake to have around.

A great little snake to have around.

* Red-Bellied Snakes are typically 8 to 16 inches long, making them smaller than Garter Snakes which run 18 to 50 inches. This also means a Red-Bellied has fewer rows of scales along its body than a Garter.

* Red-Bellied Snakes tend to be plain brown, gray or black with – yes – a bright red belly. Or orange or yellow, sometimes black. Red-bellies also have faint stripes running along the ridge of their backs, with three light-colored spots on their collars. Color can vary so greatly in Garters that I won’t even try to sum it up. Ask Google, look at photos, much better.

* A Red-Belly’s head is more blunt and rounded. A Garter’s head tends to be a little more arrowhead-like.

* A Red-Bellied Snake has eyes that look like copper rivets whereas the round pupil and iris are obvious in the Garter’s eye.

And now for a fun Herpetology Geek Fact: Both snakes have keeled scales. Look really, really closely and you’ll see that most of their scales have a little ridge running up the middle. This gives both the Red-Bellied and the Garter a rougher look and feel than snakes with smooth scales.

Keeled scales

Keeled scales

I fully understand that many folks get the same visceral skeeved out feeling with snakes that I get with spiders. But both are great creatures to have around because they eat the critters that can cause damage and need to be kept in check. The Red-Bellied Snake in particular eats worms, insects, and slugs.

Which is excellent because the little bastard gastropods have been doing a number on my recently transplanted Lacinato kale. Not cool.

**
Additional Info:
National Audubon Society, Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians

UMass Extension, Snakes of Massachusetts: Scales, retrieved from http://www.masnakes.org/snakes/scales.html

Why the Fly

Flies: the swarming associates of death, decay, and stinking piles of poo.

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.
~ Ogden Nash

And yet we’ve decided to purchase 5,000 Bluebottle flies for the farm.

The isolation cage

The isolation cage

We just recently set up an isolation cage: a large metal frame covered by very fine mesh. The cage covers carrots and some other crops to prevent undesirable cross-pollination from pollinating insects. Why? Because carrots can easily cross with Queen Anne’s Lace – a wild carrot – and produce seeds that will grow into who-knows-what when planted in the future. Not cool. And the same is true for the other crops: they could cross in ways that would make their seed unreliable.

But carrots – and the other crops – still need to cross-pollinate with each other to produce seed. And they rely on insects to accomplish this. If we want to get any seed at all, we have to fill the cage with insects that will get the work done.

Hence the 5,000 Bluebottle flies.

Flies are incidental pollinators: they just like to sit on stuff and, as they buzz about sitting on different plants, they transfer pollen. Bees, on the other hand, are intentional pollinators: they’re actually moving from flower to flower looking for pollen. Why flies and not bees in the cage? Flies are way easier to manage.

I don’t know if this is what God had in mind when he made the fly. But it works for us.

Wolf Spider

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Wolf Spider

This week I started pulling back the leaf mulch from the raised beds to prep them for another season of tomatoes. And out from beneath the leaves scurried a Wolf Spider. Not a big one – maybe an inch in total length – and tan.

Most of those giant spiders in the movies that creep out of the darkness to nab people and hobbits are based on Wolf Spiders, both in general appearance and behavior.

Egg sack

Egg sack

Wolf Spiders burrow into earth or garden detritus – like leaves – and wait to ambush passing insects. They’ll also lay their eggs in these burrows. Wolf Spiders don’t spin a web to capture prey but they do make a web sphere around their eggs. Some spiders of this variety even carry the sphere on their abdomens until their young hatch; the little spiders then ride on the mother’s back until they are mature enough to scurry off on their own

This is what I found while working in the high tunnel at the farm. I was relaying row fabric when a Wolf Spider – a big, honkin’ one – scurried out from underneath. Total length was about three inches. Dark brown and mottled. Yeeesh.

It doesn’t matter how big or small a spider is – or that I could crush it in a single blow – I always get this visceral skeeved-out feeling when one surprises me. Their motions and appearance are so different from bigger creatures.

But I’m happy to have them in any growing space I’m working. There are plenty of leaf-chewing, sap-sucking, stem-boring pests they can take care of.

Big, honkin' Wolf Spider

Big, honkin’ Wolf Spider

Living Closer

Common house spider

Common house spider

Since moving to this little piece of earth, I’ve come to appreciate what it means to live closer to this world we’re part of. But this season is bringing me even closer. Expanding food production at home and working another season at the farm is putting me elbow-deep in the soil on a constant basis and nose-to-nose with all kinds of organisms from the family Tibi Sensus Reptationis: insects and spiders, worms and snails.

Pollinators like bees and butterflies get all the glory, and rightfully so. Worms also get their due recognition. But any healthy growing space is teeming with countless other forms of creeping, crawling life. What about them?

The best thing has been to let her be.

The best thing has been to let her be.

There’s this little bit of Western hubris that has a tendency to get us into trouble: we seem to believe – both collectively and individually – that if we don’t like something, we can just get rid of it. Squish it, stomp it, pick it up and toss it out. As long as the thing we don’t like is gone, everything’s okay. In some cases, this is true and exactly what you should do. But in other cases, it’s complete wrong. How do you decide what’s the best? With a genuine understanding of what these creatures are and what they do? Or by “eew, gross”?

In a corner of my bathroom window is a little brown common house spider. She’s lived there all winter long, through the fierce cold and brutish winds that hammered that side of the house. As far as I can tell, she’s lived her whole life between the double panes. Her web, her paper-like egg sacks, and the detritus of her prey fill this small corner. Eew, gross. Not a pretty sight at all.

But take time to look past the gut reaction and you’ll notice something: this spot is clearly an entry point for insects. The various shells of the spider’s kills are evidence of that. These insects would be an annoyance at the very least, genuine and destructive pests at their worse.

What seems to have worked out best for both of us is simply to let her be.

Biennials

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Biennials are crops that take two years to reproduce.

Which means you need to exercise a bit of fore-thought and planning when it comes to growing your own seeds for things like cabbage, carrots, and onions.

Biennial crops grow vegetatively during their first season. They store lots of carbohydrates in their leaves, roots, or bulbs respectively. Which is why these parts of the plants taste so good. Of course, if our plates don’t get in the way, these stores of carbohydrates will be used as food for seed in the second season. The plants want to produce as much seed as possible, as quickly as possible.

The key to seed production in the second year is vernalization: a period of cold temperatures that will prompt flower development. In the natural cycle of things, this period of cold is technically called Winter. In the more contrived process of a seed farm, the period is called a walk-in cooler.

Calibos cabbage

Calibos cabbage

At the end of last season, we harvested Calibos cabbage, Dragon carrots, and Rossa di Milano onions with our friends and collaborators at Blue Heron Farm. We packed the vegetables securely in clean sawdust and over-wintered them in the cooler at Blue Heron. Harvesting and storing the crops – instead of just leaving them in the ground – serves two important purposes.

First, we can be certain that the crops will be safe and secure for the second season. Leave them in the ground as Nature would do it and you run the risk of loosing your crops to rot, rodents, or other uncontrollable factors.

In the ground and ready for their second season.

In the ground and ready for their second season.

Second, pulling these vegetables out of the ground let us make an initial round of selections for color, shape, and size. There’s absolutely no reason to put time or energy into saving vegetables we don’t want to reproduce the following season.

When we pulled the crops out of the cooler early this spring, there was a second round of selection. The only crops going into the ground are those in excellent condition. How the cabbage, carrots, and onions looked on the outside was important: good color and no rot. But looking inside was important too, so we cut open the onions and carrots. We were looking for onions with only a single growing point and carrots with the most robust color of orange. Cutting open the carrot also let us do the all-important taste test.

Admittedly, it feels weird to cut open plants that you plan to put in the soil. But there are some counter intuitive benefits. Cutting away the leaves of the cabbage make it easier for the apical bud to emerge and grow. The same is true for cutting an onion in half and planting the round bottom portion. Cutting the tip off a carrot at a diagonal allows for better contact with the soil. And one more taste test before planting.

Biennials are crops that take two years to reproduce. Which means we’re only half way to our intended goal. But so far, so good.

We’ll see what these particular vegetables still have to teach us this season.

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com