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.

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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!