Just in time for Halloween: vampires, zombies and other ghoulish bugs.

Good night, sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite

While this rhyme has been sung to loved ones since the 1880’s, the nocturnal creatures it refers to have been feeding on sound sleepers since the time of the pharaohs.

Sheltering in the nooks and crannies of baseboards, floorboards, or even along the seam of the mattress, bed bugs emerge at night to feed on unsuspecting dreamers. Lured by carbon dioxide and body heat, the little wingless vampires crawl along your body in search of uncovered skin to draw their weekly feast. Ten minutes later, engorged and sated, they return to the shelter of the box spring, or a loose flap of wallpaper, and digest. Take a Deep Look at these bloodsuckers if you dare.

Attack of the body snatchers

The prospect of being fed upon in the dead of night might make your skin crawl, yet it is a far sight better than what can happen to a tomato horn worm in broad daylight.

A teeny, tiny wasp – only an eighth of an inch long – will lay eggs just under the hornworm’s skin. The eggs hatch inside the caterpillar and start eating its insides while it’s still alive! Larvae chew their way to the outside and spin cocoons that look like white insect eggs along the hornworm’s back. Weakened, the hornworm soon dies, unleashing 50 or more wasps to parasitize other tomato-destroying caterpillars. Purdue University has produced a brief look at the “alien encounter” for your viewing displeasure.

Photos used with permission from the Galveston County Master Gardener Association

Superhero bugs to the rescue!

For everything that creeps and crawls, there is another thing that stalks and eats it. Spiders are a formidable foe, ensnaring flies in sticky webs, chasing down crickets, or ambushing ants.

Whatever the method, most spiders end the fight by injecting venom into their hapless prey through fangs at the end of their “jaws”. All spiders are on a liquid diet – that narrow waist makes it impossible for solid food to pass into their abdomen. Just like in Arachnophobia, these eight-legged predators must pump their prey full of enzymes to suck the resulting juices, leaving behind an empty husk. Fortunately, if you are not a fan of spiders, there are even spider-eating spiders such as the cunningly clever, Portia.

For more spectacularly spooky tales from the creepy crawly world of bugs, join us for Walk in the Woods, October 10, 2019. Registration is required for this FREE lecture.  For more information or to register, visit the Walk in the Woods website here.

For more information on programs offered by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment

Under Dark of Night

Bats! Superhero crime fighters, blood-sucking vampires, quirky animated characters, and quintessential fixtures of Halloween décor. These creatures of the night are thoroughly intertwined in American pop culture. Yet, these cultural characterizations often lead to misunderstanding, fear and certainly under appreciation.   Read on for 5 fascinating facts about how bats really are heroes of the night.

1. They Live Among Us

There are more than 1,300 species of bats worldwide, inhabiting nearly every part of the world except the most extreme deserts and polar regions. Ten species of bats call the Greater Houston Area home. They range from the more common Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, the official bat of Texas, which emerges on warm nights in masse from under bridges, to less common species like the Silver-haired bat, one of the slowest flying bats and a solitary forest dweller.

Learn about the various bats that can be found around Houston here.

2. Bats Have Very Few Natural Predators

Owls, hawks, and snakes will eat bats. However, the biggest threat to colonies is White-Nose Syndrome. Millions of bats have died from this disease since it was first identified in 2006. Named for the white fungus that grows on the muzzle and wing of hibernating bats, this disease causes bats to become overly active, including flying during the day. This extra activity burns up their fat reserves which are needed to survive the winter.  There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, but scientists are working to control the spread of the disease. White-nose syndrome can persist on clothing, shoes and hiking gear so, if you’re going to enter a cave, be sure to decontaminate first to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.  Decontamination procedures recommended by the National Parks Service can be viewed here.

3. Bats Are Pollinators

More than 300 species of fruit, including guavas, mangoes, bananas, peaches and avocados, and over 500 species of tropical flowers depend on nectar bats for pollination. The Mexican Long Tongued Bat, found in western Texas and throughout the Southwest and Mexico, is responsible for pollinating the iconic Saguaro cactus and the raw material for tequila, Agave plants.

Learn more about bats that pollinate here.

4. A Bat Can Eat Their Body Weight In Insects Every Night

Bats help control the insect population, and in our part of the world, that includes mosquitoes!  Feeding on moths, beetles and other flying insects, bats contribute an estimated $1.4 billion annually in insect control in the state of Texas.  Mexican-free tailed bats have been recorded flying up to 100 miles round trip in a night, reaching speeds up to 60 miles an hour and reaching heights of 10,000 feet when hunting for food. There aren’t many insects that can outmaneuver those flying skills.

Read the Texas Senate Resolution recognizing the Mexican free-tailed bat as
the Official Flying Mammal.

5. Bats Aren’t Blind

In fact, bats have excellent eyesight.  Their sensitive vision helps them see in the darkest of nights.  The common misconception that bats have poor vision likely comes from their renowned echolocation ability which allows them to hunt more efficiently at night and has no connection to blindness. So the old adage of being ‘blind as a bat’ doesn’t seem that bad, does it?


To learn more about habitats, behaviors and threats to bats living in urban areas, attend Our Neighborhood Bats, led by Urban Wildlife Biologist, Diana Foss from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Registration is required for this FREE lecture. For more information or to register, visit the Walk in the Woods website here.

For more information on programs offered by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment

Mark your calendars!

The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department has a packed schedule this fall with something for everyone. Always wanted to grow your own vegetables or interested in what it takes to compost in your own backyard? Curious about the fascinating world of bugs, bats and birds? If you have been looking to learn more about reducing your water usage, adding native plants to your yard, or you’re ready to recycle the odds and ends around the house, then read on.

Invasive Species Task Force Volunteer Training
Saturday, August 10, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Learn how non-native plants are impacting our local ecosystem and what actions you can take to keep them at bay. Dr. Hans Landel from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will provide training on the identification and removal of invasive plants and the critical functions of native vegetation. Trained volunteers will be able to join the ongoing effort to tackle invasives in our area.

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here.


Fall Organic Vegetable Gardening Class
Saturday, August 24, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Beginning and veteran gardeners alike will gain valuable information at this free, three-hour seminar. Learn about the latest gardening trends, soil preparation, planting techniques and the best plant varieties for the area. Join Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents Emeritus (retired) Tom LeRoy and Bill Adams as they share their many years of vegetable gardening experience and expertise. Books authored by both Tom and Bill will be available. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer your gardening questions.

Free class. Registration required. Register here.


Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series: Our Neighborhood Bats
Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lecture series, led by Diana Foss from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Diana will discuss habitats, behaviors and threats to bats living in urban areas. Come learn the benefits bats provide to The Woodlands and where you can observe bats year-round in the Houston area.

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


22nd Annual Woodlands Landscaping Solutions
Saturday, September 28, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park

This event is FREE!

Don’t miss this year’s event at its new location—the Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park. Learn from area gardening and landscaping experts at over 30 booths. Shop the marketplace. Pick up FREE plants at the Montgomery County Master Gardener’s pass-along plant booth.  Take a composting class. Guest speaker Lauren Simpson will present, “Gardening for Pollinators” and Tom LeRoy will present on “Lawn Care”. Enjoy live music by Andy McCarthy, kids’ activities and food vendors. See you there!

Visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment for more information.


Smarter Choices Seminar: Healthy Landscapes = Healthy Waterways
Saturday, October 5, 2019 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Learn how simple steps can result in greener lawns and healthier waterways. Practical methods for maintaining your lawn and landscape, as well as alternatives to chemical use will be offered. 

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here


Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series: Vampires, Zombies and Body Snatchers
Thursday, October 10, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lecture series led by Megan McNairn from The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department. Megan will dive into the creepy crawly world of bugs where monsters come to life and ghoulish creatures go bump in the night.  

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


Pollinator Gardening
Saturday, October 26, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Lauren Simpson, area pollinator gardening expert, will share her experience of creating her own suburban pollinator garden. Lauren will offer practical gardening tips, pollinator information and simple home garden design strategies. Pollinator gardening resources and research-based gardening information will be available. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will answer your gardening questions.

Class is free. Registration required. To register, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment


Backyard Composting Class
Saturday, November 2, 2019 from 10 to 11 a.m.
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

Learn how simple and easy it is to turn kitchen waste, yard trimmings and leaves into rich, handmade compost. Try out the variety of composting tools and equipment. Find out how compost benefits plants, gardens and lawns.
Our outdoor composting class is taught by certified, experienced Montgomery County Master Gardeners. Composting resources, problem-solving, trouble-shooting and tips are provided at each class. High-quality collapsible compost bins are available for purchase at a reduced price.

Free class. No registration required.


Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting Workshop
Saturday, November 2, 2019 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Save water, time and money.  Hands-on training teaches you everything you need to know to set up a rainwater harvesting barrel in your yard and to convert automated sprinkler systems to water-efficient drip systems. Additional rainwater harvesting options, such as rain gardens, will be discussed.  Sign up for this water-saving workshop today!

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here.


3R Bazaar at The Woodlands Farmers Market
Saturday, November 9, 2019 from 8 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Farmers Market at Grogan’s Mill (7 Switchbud Place)

Celebrate America Recycles Day and explore the 3R Bazaar at The Woodlands Farmer’s Market at Grogan’s Mill Explore the 3R Bazaar and discover opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Shop from local artists featuring repurposed materials or create your own upcycled masterpiece.  Enjoy live music, kids’ activities and bring the following items to be recycled:

  • Batteries: Alkaline, AA, AAA, C, D, and 9V
  • Textiles: Overly worn clothing, shoes, linens and other unusable textiles
  • Oral care products: Toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and floss containers
  • Eyeglasses: Plastic and metal frames and cases
  • Document Shredding: $5 or 5 canned food donations to benefit Interfaith of The Woodlands Food Pantry

Free event. No registration required.


Walk in the Woods Nature Lectures Series: An Introduction to Birds of The Woodlands
Thursday, November 14, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lectures series led by Alisa Kline from Buffalo Bayou Park. Explore the vital role that birds play in our community’s ecosystem. Alisa offers tools and techniques for observing birds and behaviors and the benefits of documenting observations through iNaturalist.

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


Backyard Composting Class
Saturday, December 7, 2019 from 10 to 11 a.m.
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

Learn how simple and easy it is to turn kitchen waste, yard trimmings and leaves into rich, handmade compost. Try out the variety of composting tools and equipment. Find out how compost benefits plants, gardens and lawns.
Our outdoor composting class is taught by certified, experienced Montgomery County Master Gardeners. Composting resources, problem-solving, trouble-shooting and tips are provided at each class. High-quality collapsible compost bins are available for purchase at a reduced price.

Free class.  No registration required.


For more information on these events, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment or call 281-210-3800.

Air BeeNBee

Are you looking to purchase new property with a small footprint but a big return on investment? Nervous that you might not find the right renters or worried about the upkeep on another home?

What if you could build the house for pennies, be guaranteed several long-term renters and get your return on investment almost immediately?

Then it’s time to build a bee house!

Meet The Renters

Native Solitary Bees, also known as pollen bees, account for approximately 90% of bee species native to Texas. Because these bees are not honey producers and don’t have the ‘job’ of protecting and providing for a hive, they are not aggressive and are fine around children and pets. Most solitary bees will only sting when provoked (i.e. smashed or squished) and are safe to observe in the garden.

The most common bees to take up residency are mason bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees. A couple hundred of these friendly neighbors can pollinate as many flowers as a thousand honeybees!

In Spring and Summer, females will select a cavity or ‘room’ in your bee house and fill it with food, lay eggs, seal the room shut and then move on to her next nest. She won’t revisit or defend the nest. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the stored food, winter inside the nest and then emerge in the spring to start the cycle all over again, providing you an endless stream of renters and pollinators!

Hard Hats Required: Construction Zone

Bee houses can be any shape or size, though the size of a birdhouse, roughly 8” x 12” is common for most urban landscapes.  Make sure the depth of the bee house is at least 6 to 8 inches to allow plenty of room for bees to nest.

When building a frame, make sure that the back is closed and the front is open.  A roof will help keep rain out and should extend 2 inches over the front of the house. 

When choosing wood, be sure to avoid pressure-treated wood as the chemicals used will deter bees.  If you want to up the curb appeal of your bee house and add a coat of paint, be aware that the paint and sealant will deter bees for a few weeks until the smell wears away.

For the “rooms” of the house, provide a variety of sizes for bees to choose from.  There are many materials that can provide dark tunnels perfect for nesting:  bamboo, hollow reeds, cardboard tubes, small logs or tree branches.  Whatever material you choose, make sure they are all cut to fit the depth of your bee house.  If drilling holes, be sure to provide a range of sizes from 1/8” to ½” in diameter and use sandpaper to smooth any rough edges caused by the drill.

Several companies now offer premanufactured nesting tubes or blocks to insert into your frame.  These tubes allow for pieces to be removed if any damage, rot or disease occurs.  If interested in harvesting and storing bee cocoons, these removable options are great.  To learn more about harvesting solitary bees, check out this video by Bee Built below.

After collecting your materials, fill the frame with the various sized rooms and add in some bits of nature (pine cones, branches, foliage) to make the bees feel at home.  If concerned about birds or other predators, cover the front of the house with chicken wire

Room With A View

Find an area in your yard that is near where the bees will forage for food. A radius of 300 feet is ideal. Place the house on the South side of a building, fence post or tree that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.   The higher the better: place the house a minimum of 3 feet from the ground. 

Avoid hanging your house from a pole or hook; it will swing too much to be considered a safe home by bees.  Best to have the back of the house flush with a sturdy object. Once your house has residents, DO NOT MOVE!   If you must relocate, wait until November when most of the tubes will be filled with eggs waiting to hatch and emerge in the spring.

Upkeep

Bee houses require  little maintenance; however check periodically that the house remains dry and no mold or mildew is occurring.   Look for signs of pollen mites, chalkbrood, and parasitic wasps.  All are threats to your bee house. 

Harvesting cocoons each winter will decrease the chance for larvae to become a victim to pests or disease.  If not harvesting, consider replacing tubes every few years to reduce potential disease or infestations that are harmful to your bees.

To provide a long term housing option, remember to NOT spray insecticides on or around the bee house.

The best way to keep up with your bee house is to become familiar with who your neighbors are.  Identifying the types of bees and addressing their needs and common concerns will be very helpful in providing the best home for these pollinators.  Check out the free iNaturalist app for help in identifying and documenting the activity in your yard.

Once your bee house is buzzing with renters, sit back and enjoy your new neighbors!

These pollinators aren’t winning any beauty contests

Recognized as the beauty queens of bugs, bees and butterflies have reached celebrity status in the world of pollination. But, while they get the limelight when it comes to pollination, they’re only a small portion of the over 200,000 species that help produce our crops.  Many of these less adorable species include beetles, ants, moths, wasps and even flies.  Combined, pollinators service over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops, impacting nearly 1 out of every 3 bites of food and more than $20 billion worth of products annually in the U.S.

Awareness of the decline of the monarch butterfly and the honeybee has spurred communities across the country into action to ensure their survival.  But what about the less celebrated?  Let’s take a look at some of the underrated pollinators in our gardens.


Hover Flies

Hover Flies, also known as Syrphid Flies, are a large group of medium to large flies with black or brown bodies, yellow banded abdomens and two wings.  Resembling a bee or wasp, adults can be seen hovering above flowers, feeding on their nectar.  They can’t bite or sting but may try to steal some of your salty sweat from time to time.  The larvae play a beneficial role in gardens, consuming up to 30 aphids per day – a great natural pest control.  Hover flies feed on the same flowers preferred by bees, such as purple coneflowers, blanketflowers and sunflowers.

Black and yellow stripes don’t always belong to bees. Hover flies can easily be mistaken for bees but these petite pollinators don’t have stingers.

Hawk Moths

Experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers at night, hawk moths have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly  – some up to 14” long!  These acrobatic fliers include sphinx and hummingbird moths, built with stout bullet-shaped bodies and long, narrow wings.  See them mostly at night hovering in place enjoying nectar from heavily fragranced flowers. While many tomato gardeners, admittedly, fear the larvae of the hawk moth (a.k.a. green hornworms), the adults are excellent  pollinators for your garden.

Hawk moths, including this Hummingbird Moth, have long tongues, or proboscis, to suck nectar from flowers, similar to a straw.

Soldier Beetles

Beetles present the greatest diversity of insects and pollinators, with more than 450,000 known species.  Regular flower visitors like the soldier beetle feed on pollen and even chew on flowers.  Solider beetles are one type of “mess and soil” pollinators, as they will defecate within flowers in the process of carrying pollen from one flower to another.  Soldier Beetles are commonly seen on flowers that are strongly fruity and open during the day such as marigolds, magnolias and many flowering herbs.    

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years.  Based on fossil records, they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 150 million years ago.

Ten Things You Can Do In Your Yard To Encourage Pollinators

1. Plant a pollinator garden—provide nectar and feeding plants (flowers and herbs).  Visit our website for more information on planting a pollinator garden or register your existing garden.

2. Provide a water source—place shallow dishes of water in sunny areas or create a muddy spot.

 3. Provide shelter and overwintering habitat (bee boxes, undisturbed soil areas, and piles of woody debris).

4. Stop using insecticides and reduce other pesticides.

5. Provide sunny areas out of the wind.

6. Use native plant species whenever possible—mimic local natural areas.

7. Grow flowers throughout season. Provide a variety of colors and shapes.

 8. Plant in clumps and layers. Use trees, shrub layers, with some low growing perennials and vines—intermix with flowering annuals.

9. Use compost instead of commercial fertilizers.  The Woodlands Township offers free compost classes October – March.  For more information, view this page.

 10. Look but do not touch.

Join Us In Celebrating National Pollinator Week

Monarchs on the move

The amazing monarch!

mxc-blog-monarch-g

Outweighed by a penny and powered by wings no wider than a toddler’s hand, the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus) is right now embarking on the first stage of a migration that will cover upwards of 3000 miles, with some individuals traveling over 200 miles in a single day! They will wind their way across mountains, deserts, and cities, through multiple seasons and weather extremes, in a round-trip effort that will span five generations.

Monarchs in the United States are split into two populations, one east of the Rockies and the other west, along the Pacific Coast. The western monarchs spend their winter in California. Those to the east winter in the mountainous oyamel fir forests of southern Mexico.

It’s now in early spring when the eastern monarchs descend from the oyamel firs and move northward through Texas, allowing us to re-appreciate their beauty and marvel at their incredible stamina, navigational abilities, and the unique spectacle that is the monarch migration.

An epic journey

As temperatures warm and days lengthen, monarchs finish their development which was suspended over the winter, become reproductive and begin mating with fervor. Once mating completes, around February and March, the females leave the males behind in Mexico and head for the milkweed that is now sprouting across Texas.

And so the migration back to the United States and Canada begins.

MonarchMap-NatureServe-10.20
Used with the permission of the Xerces Society  https://xerces.org/monarchs/

The energy expended to complete this first leg of the journey is tremendous. After six weeks or so, now March and April, the female monarchs must find a milkweed leaf on which to deposit their eggs before they die. Once laid, four days will pass before the eggs hatch into voracious eating machines – baby monarch caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feast night and day on the leaves of their host plant and, incredibly, will gain 200 times their body weight in just two weeks. When the feasting ends they form their chrysalis and spend the next 10 days metamorphosing into an adult butterfly, vibrating with color and ready to renew the march north. This is generation 1, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered in Mexico.

chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis

Several more generations will live and die over the summer, travelling further afield, but just one generation will make the entire journey back to the oyamel firs beginning in October.

The fall migration is even more dramatic than the spring, after reproduction has bolstered the population, dozens and even hundreds can be spotted hourly.

Creating safe havens for pollinators in our yards and communities provides vital waystations during spring and fall migrations.

The migration in crisis

Once 700 million strong, monarch populations have now crashed. It’s estimated the eastern population has plummeted by more than 85% while the western population is suffering even more – only 28,000 were counted this winter. Multiple issues are to blame:

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Over 160 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost to development since 1996.  Illegal logging of the overwintering sites in Mexico is also taking a toll.

Climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can devastate migrating populations. Because of the incredible density of monarchs in the overwintering grounds, severe freezes there are catastrophic.

Pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed used to grow throughout corn and soybean crops across the south and midwest. But herbicides have driven milkweed to near extinction in these agricultural landscapes and depleted monarch populations along the way.  Monarchs are also being impacted by neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides that spread their toxins through the plant’s tissues. Caterpillars that dine on these plants quickly perish.

OE. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a parasite that infects monarchs, causing them to die in the pupal stage or emerge deformed. Milder infections result in shorter life spans and an inability to fly properly. OE pervades in our area as non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) continues to grow through the cooler months, after native milkweeds have died back. Follow these important steps if you choose to grow tropical milkweed.

24868875674_c46b79454c_b
Monarchs overwintering in the oyamel fir forest of Mexico

What You Can Do

Join The Woodlands Township Plant for Pollinators Program. Through this program you can…

Learn

  • Get notified of upcoming lectures, classes and workshops by signing up for the Township’s Environmental Services blog and calendar updates. These free events focus on pollinators, native plants, invasives removal, organic gardening, no-chemical pest control and more.
  • Ask for a presentation on the Plant for Pollinators program and how to create habitat from the Township’s team of Environmental Education Specialists.
  • Follow the monarch migration with Journey North, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s Million Garden Challenge and more with these partner links.

Grow

Choose a sunny spot

Volunteer

  • Volunteers are needed for larger community planting projects. Help to weed, seed and spread habitat for all types of pollinators. Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov if you or your group can lend a hand.

Observe

  • Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your phone and monitor your habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. Your findings will support the Plant for Pollinators Project. It’s also a great way to learn more about nature!

Plant for pollinators this spring!

At first glance, a pollinator garden may look like any other pretty flower garden. But for a garden to be a haven for native bees, butterflies, and moths, it needs to meet their needs for all life stages. And the most important ingredient are plants rich in nectar and pollen to feed adult pollinators and host plants specific to butterfly species. Here are simple guidelines for creating a pollinator garden that will reward you with three seasons of garden visitors and help protect these vulnerable insects.

Choose a sunny spot.

Most blooming plants require sun. Four hours of sun is ideal, but a minimum of two to three hours will work too. Some great nectar and pollen plants thrive in part shade (two hours of sun with dappled shade the rest of the day).

Plant natives.

Native plants support more than 29 times the number of insect species than non-native plants. Aim for at least 70% of native plants in your garden. (Print the PDF for recommended plant list.)

Plant host plants.

Host plants are where the female butterfly will lay her eggs and her young caterpillars will feed. Some butterfly species—like the monarch and some swallowtails—only have one host plant. It is vital, therefore, to include some of these plants to support these species. Most of our host plants are native, but some are non-natives well adapted to our area. By including these host plants, you’ll welcome more diversity into your garden. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant variety.

Adult bees and butterflies like some variety in their diet, just like us. By including different varieties of plants, your garden will attract a diverse assortment of pollinators.

Plant for three seasons.

Pollinators that overwinter in our area start emerging as the weather warms, and that could be late February to early March. As the weather turns cool, bees and butterflies go into hiding. As a general rule, they can’t fly when temperatures fall to 55 degrees. Bumblebees and some solitary bees will hibernate underground; other solitary bees will hibernate in nests they create in rock crevices and dead wood tunnels . Honey bees don’t hibernate, but buzz all winter keeping the hive warm—only the queen hibernates.  The monarch butterfly is the only migrating butterfly in North America and usually leaves its overwintering site in central Mexico in March, returning in November. You can track their migration each season at journeynorth.org.

With pollinators active and needing food spring through fall, it’s important that your garden provide blooms each season. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant in dense color blocks.

Avoid planting different plant varieties singly. Go bold! Group a minimum of five to seven of the same plant to create large swaths of color in your garden. This helps pollinators find them. A dense planting has another advantage. When host plants especially, are planted densely, the young caterpillars have a better chance of survival by hiding from predators.

Include a puddle.

If there’s a low area that holds water after a rain in or near your pollinator garden, leave it! These “puddling” areas are great for providing certain butterfly species (like male common buckeyes) with necessary minerals and nutrients. You can create your own puddle by filling a shallow pan or plate with soil, some rocks, and pieces of a kitchen sponge and keeping it wet.

puddler
A simple butterfly “puddler” is easy to add to a garden.

Provide shelter.

Shelter can take various forms, from a nearby fence or trellis, dense shrubbery, or a man-made bee house for solitary bees. It can also be as simple as leaving a pile of fallen leaves and pine needles in a nearby spot. Shelter provides safe places for caterpillars to pupate, and for overwintering pollinators.

Use no pesticides.

In your garden or near it. Period.

 Print a PDF of these tips and recommended plants.

Register your garden!

Register your pollinator garden with The Woodlands Township as part of the Plant for Pollinators program and receive a window cling for recognition and appreciation.

window cling.FINAL

Learn more about registering your pollinator garden.

Important note about tropical milkweed

If you already have tropical milkweed in your garden, be sure to cut it to four to six inches of the ground every October to prevent the spread of OE and interference with normal migratory behavior. Consider planting native varieties of milkweed. Learn more about OE and tropical milkweed, and native milkweed species for our area in our recent blog post.

In celebration of trees

It’s undeniable. There seems to be a universal human response to the majesty of trees. Trees do us a lot of good and not all their benefits are visible by the eye. These benefits are often grouped by their social, environmental, and economic qualities.

(Be sure to see the upcoming Township events that pay tribute to trees listed below.)

tree-3822149

Social benefits

One might say that trees help make us happier. They provide a sense of place and when we are in their presence, we feel serene and peaceful. Trees’ calming effects extend to the workplace, where trees can reduce worker stress. It’s also been cited that trees can decrease recovery time after surgery or illness and reduce crime in urban communities. A large, mature tree imparts a sense of majesty, strength, and even awe. This and their capacity for a long life may be why they are so often planted as living memorials to those we love and have lost.

The oldest verified flowering tree is a 2,293 year-old Sri Maha Bodhi Sacred Fig. It is also the oldest human-planted tree, known to be planted in 288 BC at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

People are drawn to shaded parks, pathways, and sidewalks, which in turn encourages social interaction and enhances a sense of community.

Environmental benefits

Trees improve the environment by moderating our climate from sun, wind, and rain. Sun is absorbed or deflected by leaves and the larger the tree, the greater its cooling effect. In urban environments, trees moderate the heating effect caused by pavement and buildings. Compact foliage and dense tree plantings provide an effective windbreak. Rain and stormwater runoff is not only slowed by trees, but is reduced by the water trees take up by their roots and store.

Improved air quality is another great benefit—leaves filter the air we breathe by removing particulates and pollutants (such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead) and replace them with oxygen. They absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Trees are natural air conditioners that can lower temperatures 6 to 8 degrees by evaporating water through their leaves. Their roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion, and improve water quality by filtering rainwater.

Trees can block and absorb sound, reducing noise pollution by as much as 40%.

Finally, trees provide important food and shelter for urban wildlife, including birds, pollinators, and small animals.

Economic benefits

Although determining a “value” of a tree can be very difficult, trees increase in value as they grow. The value of trees is also evident in home sales: homes landscaped with trees sell more quickly and are worth 5% to 15% more than homes without trees. When trees are planted strategically to shade a home, air conditioning costs are lower. And when they form a windbreak they can reduce heating costs in winter.

Native trees

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The native Mexican Plum, Prunus mexicana, has a spectacular spring display that is a feast for the eyes and pollinators as well.

There is a wealth of native trees to use for landscapes in our area. The benefits of native trees are many and can include colorful spring blooms, fall color, or food and nectar for wildlife. Natives are well-adapted to our weather conditions and soil, and once established, require no supplemental water (except for times of extreme drought).

View and print the list of Trees Suitable for The Woodlands. This list is far from exhaustive, but meant to provide a good sampling of those that can be found at local nurseries and provide special benefits.

Upcoming events

Mark your calendar for these events that each in their own way, celebrate trees.

Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup
The Howard Hughes Corporation® is excited to host the Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup on Saturday, January 26, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hughes Landing®. This year, more than 44,000 tree seedlings will be handed out, representing nine varieties including Bald Cypress, Laurel Oak, Live Oak, Loblolly Pine, Overcup Oak, River Birch, Sawtooth Oak, Silky Dogwood and Water Oak.

2019 Community Tree Planting
The community will come together to keep the woods in The Woodlands at the fifth annual Village Tree Planting event Saturday, February 9, 2019, from 8 a.m. to noon at Spindle Tree Ponds Park in the Village of Sterling Ridge. Volunteers of all ages are called upon to help reforest our community. Register now!

Creating Habitat in the Garden and Community
Saturday, February 2, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Woodlands Emergency Training Center. This free seminar will address how wildlife has been impacted by growth and why home and community habitats matter. Learn how to create habitat for butterflies, bees and birds and help them thrive. Register now!

Helpful resources

Visit the International Society of Arboriculture for loads of great information about trees. View and print their useful guides for planting and caring for trees:

New Tree Planting

Proper Mulching Techniques

Pruning Mature Trees

Insect and Disease Problems

OE and tropical milkweed

The relative virtues and problems associated with tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, continue to be a hot topic within the monarch conservation community, but the disparity between the two is becoming more and more clear. Scientific research suggests that its problems, namely its link to the spread of the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) disease, far out-weigh its virtues. In fact, it’s those very virtues—availability, adaptability, and long bloom season—that multiply its negative effects relative to the health and sustainability of the monarch butterfly species.

What is OE?

OE is a protozoan parasite that infects butterflies that host on milkweed. Its life cycle starts as a microscopic spore that breaks open when ingested by a caterpillar. Within the caterpillar, it grows and multiplies. Because a parasite depends on its host for its own life, OE rarely kills the caterpillar.

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OE spores are only visible under a microscope.

But the disease affects the development of the adult butterfly while pupating, and adults emerge weak and often with crippled wings. While many monarchs may carry OE as spores attached to its wings and thorax, the size of the spore-carrying population and the heavy level of spores within that population in the Gulf Coast region—especially Texas and Florida—is cause for alarm. Visit Project Monarch Health for more about OE.

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An adult butterfly with OE has no chance of survival when wings are malformed.

Recent studies corroborate earlier studies and tighten the link between tropical milkweed and an increase of OE. Gardening to help conserve monarchs requires an understanding of the risks associated with tropical milkweed as well as the steps to take to minimize its ill effects.

The introduction of tropical milkweed in the U.S.

Monarch enthusiasts with the best intentions were thrilled when local nurseries began to offer tropical milkweed for sale and embraced the Mexican native with gusto. It didn’t take long to discover that aside from being very easy to grow, monarch butterflies love this variety of milkweed. It seemed that a solution was in hand to help restore milkweed habitat for the Eastern migratory monarch population. As a result, tropical milkweed has been well established in parts the southern states—especially southeast Texas and southern Florida.

Then research began to emerge that showed an increase in monarch disease caused by OE was linked to tropical milkweed grown in the southern states.

What the research shows is particularly troubling for the monarch migration that passes through Texas gardens to feed and breed.

The effects of tropical milkweed

Research by Karen Oberhauser, Dara Satterfield, and others has and continues to demonstrate that OE in monarchs increases where tropical milkweed flourishes. (See links to studies at the end of this blog.)

What’s been determined is that the proliferation of tropical milkweed (in the southeastern parts of Texas and south Florida in particular), coupled with its near year-round foliage and flower production does two things:

It interferes with the monarch’s migratory cycle. Tropical milkweed encourages them to linger in the southern states and continue breeding and laying eggs, “trapping” them here where they cannot survive temperatures that drop toward the freezing mark. Possibly more important is the effect of milder winters. Given a non-stop supply of milkweed, interference with normal migratory behavior produces populations of monarchs that overwinter in Texas and Florida instead of completing their migration to the oyamel fir tree forests of central Mexico.

Monarchs who stay in the southern states for the winter are five to nine times more likely to be infected with OE than migrating butterflies.

It significantly increases the rate monarchs are infected by the debilitating OE protozoan pathogen. If mild winters don’t produce a freeze, infected milkweed continues to thrive, not dying back like native milkweed species. This means infected plants persist. Infected plants in Texas are especially harmful because they sit in the gateway for the spring and fall monarch migrations.

Migrant butterflies at sites with overwintering residents were 13 times more likely to have infections compared to migrant populations that don’t come in contact with residents.

Adult monarchs migrating from Mexico in the spring that visit infected plants pick up hundreds of OE spores and carry them to other plants—increasing the number of infected plants and as a result butterflies, exponentially.

What to do?

If there’s any good news in this it could be that originally, most of the tropical milkweed planted was done so in gardens. By definition, gardens are tended. Gardeners should consider taking one of two actions.

Replace tropical milkweed with native species. While native varieties are more challenging to start, the effort would help minimize the spread of OE. Try these native species:

  • Asclepias incarnate, Swamp milkweed
  • Asclepias perennis, Aquatic milkweed
  • Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed
  • Asclepias verticillata, Whorled Milkweed
  • Asclepias viridi, Green milkweed

Or, be diligent about cutting it back every winter. Cut tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches of the ground each October.

If you have tropical milkweed in your garden and didn’t cut it back in October, do it now.

Milkweed for habitats

Milkweed used for non-gardening purposes poses a more clear guideline. Dara Satterfield  recommends, “that habitat restoration for monarchs focus on native species of milkweed, which are synchronized with the monarch’s natural migratory cycle and do not enable the year-round breeding that can lead to high parasitism rates.”

The spring migration approaches

Tracking the spring monarch migration starts on February 14. Visit Journey North to learn how you can enter your own monarch sightings and track the migration real time.

Delve in and learn more about tropical milkweed and its effect on the health of monarchs with these recent studies:

Patterns of parasitism in monarch butterflies during the breeding season in eastern North America, Ecological Entomology, 2018

Migratory monarchs that encounter resident monarchs how life-history differences and higher rates of parasite infection, Ecology Letters, 2018

Monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission in eastern North America, Ecological Society of America, 2011

Loss of migratory behaviour increases infection risk for a butterfly host, The Royal Society Publishing, 2015

Learn more about native milkweed species at these resources:

Native Plant Society of Texas

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

PDF of Identification of Milkweed in Texas, by Texas Parks & Wildlife

A wondrous journey

The first sighted monarch, migrating from the United States to its overwintering sanctuary deep in the mountains of central Mexico, reached its destination on November 6th, as reported by Journey North. Soon it will be joined by tens of thousands. Then by hundreds of thousands.

The spring and fall migration of the monarch butterfly is truly an amazing phenomenon. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, similar to birds. Unlike other butterfly species that can overwinter here as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs just can’t make it through our cold winters.

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Using clues from the environment, monarchs know when time is approaching to move on. Scientists believe shortening days and lowering temperatures, along with aging milkweed and nectar sources trigger a change in monarchs. And it’s this change that makes the monarch migration even more extraordinary: monarchs are the only known species to have a multi-generational migration.

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a generation unlike the others

Generally, monarchs produce four generations a year. The first three generations are bred and born in the United States after they arrive during the spring migration north from Mexico. Each of these generations makes its way northward with some reaching as far north as Canada. Individuals of the first three generations live from two to six weeks.

When the fourth generation is born, something happens—and what happens, exactly, is unknown. What is known is that this generation enters reproductive diapause as adults and can live as long as nine months. These are the little guys that make the great trip south, starting in the late summer (in the north) and fall. Somehow, this generation of butterflies knows exactly where they’re headed while never having been there before: the high elevation oyamel fir forests in the Transvolcanic Range of central Mexico. The trip can be an astonishing 3,000 miles long for the northern-most butterflies and can take about two and a half months to complete.

It is hard to contemplate a world without the monarch—it’s woven into the very fabric of our culture. But the monarch migration is now recognized as an “endangered biological phenomenon” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and our northern neighbors in Canada have already identified the monarch as a species at risk.

To see the monarchs gather in Mexico over the winter months is something to behold. Watch this short video by National Geographic to get a glimpse of a monarch sanctuary in Mexico:

more interesting bits about the monarch’s incredible journey…

  • Although the monarch migration is visible from the ground, glider and airplane pilots have reported monarchs flying at heights from 1200 to as much as 10,000 feet.
  • Monarchs have two speeds: powered flight (greater than 12 miles per hour) and gliding.
  • When gliding, monarchs catch thermals to gain altitude and then glide south to southwest with the help of the wind. If conditions are favorable, monarchs can maintain altitude by flapping their wings only once every 20 to 30 feet.
  • Flight requires sunny days, light winds, and temperatures greater than 55 degrees. Headwinds greater than 10 miles per hour and temperatures greater than 88 degrees impede migration.
  • Tracking migrating monarchs from various starting points in the interior United States shows that no matter where they begin their journey, they all fly, more or less, on a direct path toward central Mexico. Scientists don’t know how the butterfly determines its particular geographically appropriate direction.
  • Although the total migration advances southward only 25 to 30 miles per day, individuals have been recorded to have covered hundreds of miles in just a few days.
  • Monarchs overwinter in dense clusters on oyamel firs in a semi-dormant state. They become active when temperatures rise above 55 degrees to find water. Nectar is not required—they live off stored fats all through the winter months.

One late season monarch averaged 61 miles per day for two weeks while flying from Virginia to Texas.

See Journey North’s  interactive map to see the progress of the fall migration. And if you have citizen scientist interests, consider adding your monarch sightings in their interactive spring 2019 migration map.

What a perfect time to contemplate a new or improved pollinator garden to make ready for the spring migration back north!

Fascinating snakes

Herpetophobia is the morbid fear of snakes. While they may provoke phobia in some, snakes are amazing animals with some pretty striking (please pardon the pun) attributes. Check out the list of some of them below. And for a closer look at the more common snake species in our area (yes, live specimens will be there for the viewing), attend the next week’s Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture.

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Nathan Wells will present, Snakes of The Woodlands
Thursday, November 8th, 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.
Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park
Registration is required.

Where you’ll find them…

Snakes can live in almost any environment, ranging from jungles and deserts to lakes and mountains. They live everywhere on Earth except Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand, and the North and South Poles.

There is an island in Brazil known as the Snake Island that arguably has the highest occurrence of snakes in the world. It’s estimated that there is one snake every 11 square feet.

The most common snake in North America is the garter snake.

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Garter snake

They come in all sizes…

The smallest snake is the thread snake that lives on the island of Barbados. It is about 4 inches long and “thin as spaghetti.” The longest snake is the reticulated python which can reach over 33 feet long. And the heaviest snake in the world is the anaconda, weighing over 595 pounds.

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Green tree python

Eating habits…

All snakes are strictly carnivorous. Depending on their size, however, their prey differs considerably. The smallest snakes feed on insects, snails, and mice while the largest snakes kill and eat anything from an antelope, pig and even a jaguar.

Most snakes need to eat only six to 30 meals a year to stay healthy.

To keep from choking on large prey, a snake will push the end of its trachea, or windpipe, out of its mouth, similar to the way a snorkel works.

Snakes don’t lap up water like mammals do. Instead, they dunk their snouts underwater and use their throats to pump in water.

Some snakes have over 200 teeth. The teeth aren’t used to chew—they point backwards to prevent prey from escaping the snake’s throat. And only venomous snakes have fangs.

Snake biology…

Most species of snakes lay eggs, and some species are ovoviviparous (they retain the eggs within their bodies until they are ready to hatch), but it was recently found out, that several species (such as the boa constrictor and the green anaconda) are fully viviparous (giving live births).

Snakes are completely covered with scales—even their eyes. Instead of eyelids, they have a brille, which is a transparent, disc-shaped, immobile scale that covers the eye for protection.

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Scales completely cover a snake, including its eyes

While snakes don’t have external ears, or eardrums, their skin, muscles and bones carry sound vibrations to the inner ears.

To accommodate their narrow bodies, snakes’ paired organs (such as kidneys) appear one in front of the other, instead of side by side.

Pit vipers, pythons, and some boas have infrared-sensitive receptors in deep grooves on the snout, which allows them to “see” the radiated heat of warm-blooded prey.

Snakes have one of the highest occurrences of polycephaly—a rare condition of having more than one head. There have been many cases of two-headed snakes. The heads might fight each other for food.

Species with super-powers…

The brahminy blind snake is the only snake species made up of solely females. It’s also the most widespread terrestrial snake in the world.

The death adder has the fastest strike of any snake in the world. It can attack, inject venom, and return to striking position in under 0.15 seconds.

There is a genus commonly known as the flying (or gliding) snakes. Native to Southeast Asia, these snakes are capable of gliding over distances as great as 330 feet through the air. Watch the video below to see how they do it.

The muscles that cause a rattlesnake´s rattle to shake are some of the fastest known, firing 50 times per second on average, sustained for up to 3 hours.

The black mamba is the world’s fastest snake. It’s found in East Africa and can reach speed up to 12 miles per hour.

Backyard birds

Whether you have a home with a backyard or an apartment with a balcony, the fun of birding can be enjoyed by all. There are over 800 bird species in North America, and as many as 500 can be found in Texas alone. This rich diversity of birdlife is a testament to Texas’s diversity of habitat.

The state’s biodiversity is easily grasped when the high number of ecoregions in Texas—ten to be exact—are taken into account.

An ecoregion denotes a geographic area of similarity in its mosaic of flora, fauna, and ecosystems.

Gould ecorregions of texas

 

Texas’s geographic location is a crossroads where eastern habitats meet western ones and southern subtropical habitats meet northern temperate ones. Adding to the state’s super-birding aspects is the fact that it’s situated smack dab in the central flyway. During the spring and fall migrations, birders are apt to see species that aren’t generally seen otherwise. The Woodlands is situated in the Piney Woods ecoregion.

Attract birds to your landscape

By providing the essentials:

  • feeders and native food-producing plants,
  • water, and
  • shrubs, trees and birdhouses for nesting and shelter

in home landscapes, backyards can be transformed into bird wonderlands.

What’s growing in a backyard is key, and there are many native plants you can add to your property to attract birds and other wildlife. Here’s a short-list of some excellent ones for the Piney Woods. And remember—the best habitats address all four layers of your landscape—canopy, understory, high ground, and ground.

Plants for Birds Chart

Birds of the Piney Woods

Here’s a look at some common and less-common birds that visit The Woodlands backyards—either year-round or seasonally during migration. See how many visit your backyard feeder this season.

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Especially for birders…

For aspiring and dedicated citizen scientists of all ages, take part in this year’s Project FeederWatch, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. The project kicks off in November. FeederWatch data help scientists track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Another great resource for birders is also brought to you by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird, where bird enthusiasts can connect to and contribute to the world of birding.