Monday, August 5, 2013


Paper wasps favor eaves of buildings and the tops of exterior door frames for nest sites. These black paper wasps built
their home in the corner of a garage door and don't seem disturbed when we open it. They can stay. It was wasp like these
black ones that nailed my hand recently.
A couple of weeks ago, while deadheading a yellow flag iris that had shriveled up long before, a paper wasp stung the back of my hand. I assumed that I had squeezed it or something, until I saw the nest hanging among the foliage of the nearby honeysuckle vine.

The nest got knocked down, since the honeysuckle badly needs to be pruned. Paper wasps generally don't rebuild in the same spot. And they are welcome to rebuild in a more convenient place. I frequently see paper wasps cruising through the collards and other garden plants (my husband likened them to Blackhawk helicopters) searching for juicy lepitoptera (moth and butterfly) larvae.

The adult wasps don't eat the larvae themselves, as they feed on flower nectar, but they feed them to their own babies. Here is an interesting video of paper wasps, including footage of them shredding a caterpillar to feed their babies. The fact that they hunt down plant-munching larvae makes them beneficial critters in the garden. I do not begrudge them their ability to defend themselves and their nests.

Even though I frequently work among plants abuzz with hunting wasps and bees of all sorts, I rarely am stung. Accidentally crushing a stinging insect will get you stung, but most of my stings have come when I come too near the nest for comfort. Some bugs are quite testy, while others will suffer a great deal of disturbance before delivering a sting. Much of the time, they will give a warning buzz before going in to do damage.

Cloudy weather kept these ladies close to home in the blackberry bush. Often
these black and yellow striped ones are called yellow jackets. While related,
they are not, however, yellow jackets, but paper wasps.

While pruning the blackberries last week, I found a paper wasp's nest in one of the blackberry plants. They weren't terribly disturbed, I saw the nest before anyone buzzed me, and I'd rattled the plant with some pruning. A few days later I was able to pick berries off the plant and they simply buzzed out, but didn't head toward me. So they're cool. I will take the nest down once it is abandoned for the winter so they don't return next spring.

Wasps, like many native bees, have one dominant female who is generally responsible for at least starting the nest building and laying eggs. Her sisters, or more frequently, her daughters, expand the nest and feed the young. When winter comes, some females overwinter to start their own nests the next spring.

When stung by a wasp, immediately apply vinegar or lemon juice to neutralize the venom. A paste of baking soda works against bee stings, and also helps ease the pain and itching of wasp sting. Here is a link to a number of home remedies for stings.

Look to wasps as your friends in the garden. When they are around, stay calm and treat them with respect to maintain a friendly relationship. However, like all relationships, if you push the other person too far, you'll get stung. So, know the boundaries and keep the vinegar handy.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Reptilius Interupt Us

Wait for it... Wait for it...
Encounters with wildlife is a given when you live in the country, especially when you are surrounded by woods. Most wildlife encounters or sightings are benign, or possibly annoying.

However, some can be potentially dangerous.

We live in a clearing surrounded by rocky wooded slopes, meaning that snakes are everywhere. It is particularly prime real estate for woodland snakes, such as the black rat snake, which we encourage, and the rattlesnake and copperhead, which we discourage. For the most part, we've seen the black rat snake most frequently, rarely seeing a copperhead near the house and never seeing a rattlesnake.

This year, however, we've seen few black snakes. I suspect that during last year's drought they migrated to a lower area with water. A few days ago, my husband was standing on one of the large rocks at the bottom of our terraced gardens around the house, sweeping water from the puddles to discourage mosquitoes. As he swung the broom out, a copperhead snake struck at the broom from the grass below, then slid into a cavity beneath the rock. Startled and scared him a bit.

Peeking out of the hidey hole; snare poised; garden hose flooding the hole.

That night he fashioned a snare from an old aluminum tent pole and some telephone wire, planning to capture the snake in the daylight. The following morning, as I went to the garden, I saw its head peering out of the hole, testing the sunlight.

Then began the wait.

My husband sat on a bucket on the stone, the snare poised in front of the snakes head, and waited...

and waited...

and waited...

I watched the hole to see which way the snake moved, whether it went further back into the darkness or started moving out. I snapped a few photos. I answered the phone. I got the binoculars so that I could see it better, as I didn't want to get to close and startle it back under cover with my presence.

But copperheads don't move quickly. If they sense a potential threat they "freeze" rather than sliding away as most other snakes will. They depend on their camouflage, which blends well with a litter of leaves (and the wood mulch on our garden paths). That is why copperhead bites are the most common venomous snake bites in the U.S. People don't see them and may stomp a foot or place a hand near them. And the copperhead's first instinct is to strike, rather than move back.

Setting her free.
However, a copperhead's venom is the least potent of any of Kansas's venomous snakes. Yet it's venom makes the bite quite painful and it can destroy flesh and bone tissue, creating scarring and perhaps causing the loss of use of a limb. They generally inject only a small bit of venom, or none at all, when biting for protection, so sometimes bites do not result in poisoning. However, even a non-venomous bite can create a nasty infection, so medical attention is always recommended.

After about 45 minutes of waiting, the snake moved back in a ways and we decided to try and flush it out with water. We shoved the end of a hose into the hole and turned on the water. The water ran and ran and ran, never running back out the hole. So there must be a deep cavity under the stone. A perfect snake's den. Possibly where our 7-foot black snake hid out when it lived here.

Another hour or so of waiting and the copperhead's patience did not wane. Then it moved to the side of the cavity, just inside the opening and pulled its head further in. Perhaps the cavity was finally filling up a bit.

Then my husband's patience ran out and he stuck the snare inside, finally capturing the snake. we saw her fangs as she tried to protect herself, but she could not strike with the snare closed just behind her head. Into a 5-gallon bucket she went and I popped on the lid.

My husband held the lid tight on the bucket as I drove the car to a spot less than a mile away. We set her free at the creek, where I'm sure she'll find plenty of tasty rodents and a new den. Our woods are rife with copperheads. We know that. They are welcome to stay in the woods. However, if they venture into the gardens or near the house, they will be relocated.
Look closely and you can see a bit of her camouflaged back disappearing in the grass.
I want the black rat snakes back. More than one person has told me that they keep away venomous snakes, for whatever reason. I miss my giant black snake and hope that it is safe and well. I know that some people will swerve to hit snakes that are on the road and I worry about my reptile friends (of which I consider the copperheads one). Shame on those people. Large snakes are quite beneficial, holding down populations of rodents and baby rabbits.

So, that is the end of our reptilian interruption. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Oh yes. Hubby blocked the entrance to the cavern. One less snake hideout to worry about.
Just for kicks, here is a link to a slide show about Kansas snakes.