Dear Deer

Dear Deer,

Are you familiar with the moralistic tale of the mother hen who makes bread for her family?  No one helped her with the planting, the harvesting, the milling, or the baking of the bread.  However, once the bread was ready to eat, they all wanted a piece.  Would you agree that they did not deserve to share the bread?

I have been caretaker of Halcyon now for twelve years.  In that time, I have not only shared many of the natural resources found at Halcyon with other nonhuman life forms, I have actually increased available habitat and food resources for them.  I feel I have been very kind in sharing, and in general I have only minor complaints (well, except for that hawk from any conflict of interest between my needs and that of the needs of others living at Halcyon.

You deer have crossed the line.  Or, I should say more literally, the fence.  It was bad enough when you ate most of the lily blooms we’d been anxiously waiting to see. We have hundreds of lily fans; you could have saved some for us.

Good neighbors honor fence lines.  You have not been a good neighbor.  I have 14 acres to share with you.  In fact, I think I have been exceedingly generous.  Of those 14 acres, I’ve only fenced in 3500 square feet of land that I don’t wish to share.  This is more than fair.  I’ve left you with 606, 340 square feet from which to browse, rest, sleep, find cover and whatever else it is you do in your summer feeding areas.  Perhaps this is not quite enough space for your typical one-half to three square miles of territory, but there is plenty of land adjacent to Halcyon, and Halcyon offers a variety of valuable food sources and water.  I feel I’ve exclusive rights to my mere 3500 square feet.

It is not just space allocation rights that I am arguing here.  Recall the mother hen story.  Did you help me move rocks this past winter and spring to build my beds?  Did you help me haul soil up from the floodplain to fill my beds?  Did you help me plant my seedlings and watch over them anxiously for those first precious cotyledons to appear?  Did you help me set my seedlings outside and water carefully and protect them from late spring frosts?  And weeding!  My word, did you help me weed and haul mulch to protect my plants from competition?  Do you see where I’m going with this?

So imagine my frustration when I return from vacation to find my garden eaten.  By you!  You ate the beans down to one inch of stem, and half of each tomato plant.  You ate the pumpkin leaves and broccoli.  You ate the kiwi leaves and raspberry leaves.  Given your lack of help in producing these plants, I feel you’ve no right to eat them.

I know you want to eat well and feed your lovely young.  I want the same for my family.  Given your lack of responsibility regarding the existence of those desirable plants inside the fence, I must insist that you go elsewhere.  Since the stinky deer repellent did not work, I see only two options:  I get better fencing or I learn how to hunt.  After careful consideration, I’d like you to beware that I will be installing an electric fence.

In closing, I’d like to add that I have not included in this letter any of the expletives I normally use to address you.  I am trying to exercise neighborly restraint.  However, I’m only human and if you don’t take your “only deer” fence-hopping, garden-browsing tendencies elsewhere I will be forced to take drastic measures.  I may not hunt, but I have friends that do.


Caretaker of Halcyon

This bean trellis should be full of biomass by now.

This bean trellis should be full of biomass by now.

Deer-browsed broccoli

Deer-browsed broccoli


From Devil to King in a Year

I could see it from my seat on the mower and from about five feet away.  It was huge and turquoise and wicked looking.  I jumped off the mower for a closer look.  It was a devil of a caterpillar all right.  So, I ran to get my camera.

The hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis), when in its fifth instar and ready to pupate, is probably the largest caterpillar in our area.  The larva can reach almost six inches in length and the one I saw was definitely that big.  What was it doing crawling along the ground, conspicuously visible?  It was ready to pupate, which they do by crawling down from their host tree and, once finding a suitable spot, burrow six inches underground and overwinter in an earthen burrow. They do not make a cocoon as many moths do.

Something akin to magic happens during its time spent in its earthen burrow. It will emerge the next spring (sometimes the spring after) having shed all similarities to a scary devil.  Well, not shed exactly, but metamorphosed into its adult form, the royal walnut moth.  As a regal member of our native wildlife, it sports a coat of greenish-gray with bright velvet-orange stripes.  There are some light gold spots upon this coat.  Its head is crowned in orange velvet with stripes of the same light gold color.  It is a stunning display, well suited to our naming it a royal moth.

Its peristalsis-like movement so transfixed me that I took a short video.  How will it pick the right spot to burrow underground?  Does it sense me peering over it?  This one day, this part of this one day in its life is critical to the success of the individual and the species (if predation while seeking its burrow outweighed successful maturation).  For weeks, it had feasted relatively protected among the leaves of a black walnut tree.  Feeding alone and at night also helps protect it.  And once underground it will be protected from most harm while it transforms.  But all could be lost in this brazen hike from treetop to underground burrow, a hike discovered to be successful through years and years of evolution.  Genetically programmed to partake in each step of its development, the hickory horned devil hasn’t much choice in the matter.   Nonetheless, it seemed intent on its quest, perhaps counting strongly on its grotesque, scary appearance to keep it safe.  My only regret is not sticking around long enough to watch it safely reach its destination.

As an adult, Citheronia regalis does not eat.  It lives only about a week.  Its sole purpose at this time is to mate and lay eggs.  Imagine spending nine to 22 months underground, for all we know oblivious to the great changes taking place in your body, only to have a week to explore the world with your new body, to mate, and to die.  Just a week to show off those beautiful new wings, surely seems unfair.  But that is because I am using a human point-of-view to see the situation.  Perhaps the regal walnut moth, with nothing more to do but mate and die, has a glorious time flying about, even if it’s only for a week.  Perhaps a glorious life and having fun is not in its schemata.

We humans, on the other hand, spend many years growing before we reach puberty.  We are (mostly) more aware of the changes that take place in puberty and get excited, often quite literally, for our adult stage, a stage we get to enjoy for up to 70 years if we are healthy and lucky.  It is funny how often we say we are so busy, when we have so much time in comparison to other creatures’ life cycles.  If you ever have the luck of circumstance to run into a hickory horned devil, please let it continue on its way undisturbed.  It’s a very busy caterpillar.



A Very Tiny Visitor

It’s a wasp, it’s a bee, no, it’s a hoverfly!  At least that is my deduction at the moment; any entomologists reading this are welcome to correct or confirm my identification.

I was walking around the garden looking for anything on which to use the macro feature of my camera – this is how I procrastinate garden chores. The bright orange of the calendula petals seemed perfect.  It wasn’t until I squatted down that I noticed the tiny insect.  It was less than a centimeter long. My first thought was that it was a small bee, but I know that many flies mimic bees.  I suspected it was a fly, and later searched for its identity online.  I think it is a hoverfly.

Hoverfly on a calendula petal.

Hoverfly on a calendula petal.

Hoverflies do look like bees.  Albeit so small it seems they couldn’t possibly hurt a fly, and they don’t.  Aphids though are another story.  Hoverflies exhibit mimicry.  Mimicry is an adaptive mechanism in which an organism looks like or imitates some protective mechanism of another organism to escape danger, yet they do not actually have the protective mechanism.  Hoverflies look like bees, but have no stingers.

Mimicry occurs through the process of evolution.  Very simplistically, a mutation would cause a hoverfly to look more like a predacious wasp or bee (or whatever the mimic-model relationship).  If the mutation then allowed the organism to better escape predation, it would be considered more successful than its fellow species that have no mutation.  In ecology, successful means a higher chance of survival and production of offspring.  These offspring would have the same mutation.  This happens slowly over many generations (unless you have a very high generation rate like bacteria) and eventually the species changes. There are three main categories of mimicry: defensive, aggressive, and reproductive, and there are different types within each category. Hoverflies exhibit Batesian mimicry, which is in the defensive category.

Mimicry, as well as many other evolutionary processes, has always fascinated me.  But what fascinated me most when I looked at my picture were simply the details of this tiny body.  The rich brown eyes are beautifully paired with the buttery-yellow antenna (more properly described as the annatto-yellow of commercially processed butter).  Then there are its delicate yellow legs walking on the knife-edge of the flower petals, an expert tightrope walker with no need for a safety net.  Hoverflies, as their name implies, can hover.  Of course with six legs and wings for balance, it is probably never in danger of tipping and falling.  Hoverflies can also fly backwards.  This is apparently a skill unique to the Syrphidae, the taxonomic family to which this hoverfly belongs.

Hoverfly adults feed primarily on nectar and are considered an important species for cross-pollination.  Adults sometimes feed on the honeydew produced by aphids.  The larvae feed heavily on aphids and are therefore a welcome agricultural insect.  So, to many, the hoverfly is a ‘good guy’.  I’m far from perfect, but I try not to evaluate other organisms from my human perspective.  In other words, I don’t like to use the terms good or bad to describe an organism or to place organisms on a hierarchy.  I know I am guilty of this judgment when it comes to the invasive plants at Halcyon, but I am trying to develop a tolerance for them.  It is not easy!

I think it is natural though to like or to dislike certain organisms even when we understand that all life is tied together in intricate ways we may never fully know or appreciate.  I really like this little hoverfly.  I think he is exquisite – males have rounded abdomens and females have pointed abdomens.  I think he is so exquisite that I spent several hours trying to identify the species.  I quickly got bogged down in the anatomical vernacular that went way beyond my rudimentary knowledge of head, thorax, and abdomen, but I narrowed it down to three possibilities:  Toxomerus geminatus, Toxomerus marginatus, or Eupeodes corolla.

Finding and learning about this little hoverfly was a pleasant diversion from garden tasks in the heat.  I should get out there soon and get some weeding done before it rains, and leave my camera inside.  On second thought . . .

Calendula flower

Calendula flower