It’s Late Summer And The Wildlife Knows It

Skippers take advantage of late summer Spanish Needle blooms. The native wildflower is a good source of pollen and nectar.

By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director

Ever since June 21 this summer, the days have been getting gradually shorter. In about two weeks on September 22 the autumnal equinox will occur and the days will be shorter than the nights.

This forthcoming change is known not only to the human residents of Wakulla County. While not exactly intellectual giants, the insect population is preparing for the inevitable.

More than 2500 years ago the Greek raconteur Aesop told the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant was industrious and prepared for the coming winter, but the grasshopper was profligate and did not get ready for the impending period of privation.

It did not end well for this profligate insect pest. The moral of the story was to be prepared and have reserves ready when the days grew short. The bugs in north Florida clearly got the message.

Social insect, such as European Honeybees, are working hard collecting nectar and pollen from the early autumn wildflowers. Goldenrods, partridge peas and many others are humming with activity as the bees build up their stores.

Honeybees also have another tactic for surviving the adversity of winter.  The worker bees, which are all female, eject the drones, which are male, from the hive.

Wakulla County’s insect residents and visitors instinctively know winter is on the way. Honeybees are loading up on nectar and pollen provided by local flowering plants.

The drones scatter and are left to their fate.  They cannot forage and feed themselves, so they starve or fall victim to hungry birds or animals seeking a tasty morsel.

Many butterflies and moths drink the nectar of late blooming plants during summer’s shortening days. This allows them, by default, to improve the pollination rate and genetic diversity of plant populations.

Zebra longwings feast on the pollen of late bloomers as a method of producing a bad taste to repulse predators. Other butterflies, like the buckeye, remain in Wakulla County and have enough surviving members to replenish the populating in the spring.

Zebra Longwings dine on the sweet nectar of bright red tropical sage blooms. The waning days of summer and early autumn will soon see the end of this year’s crop.

Some, like the monarchs, are preparing for the arduous migrations to sunny south-of-the-border locations. Caterpillars load up on local milkweed species which provides a flavor deterrent to neophyte bird which attempt to dine on the colorful insects.

Humming birds currently are darting from bloom to bloom drinking the nectar to support their quick paced lives with this high carbohydrate solution.  Like the migratory butterflies, they will soon depart on a southerly heading.

The tiny hyperactive birds which have a typical wing beat of 50 per second and a heart rate of 1250 beats per minute need the calories.  Their supersonic metabolism demands the stratospheric energy levels provided by local autumn wildflowers so these tiny avian visitors can successfully complete their 500 mile trip across the Gulf of Mexico.

Even the lazy and long maligned fabled grasshopper’s cousin, the katydid, is enjoying the remaining warm days by snacking on available blooms.  This member of the Tettigoniidae family is an indiscriminant eater much like the grasshopper, but late season flowers are definitely on the menu.

Katydids are most easily distinguished from grasshoppers by their long antennae which extend beyond the length of the insects body. Unlike Aesop’s grasshopper, they and all the other insects are not wasting a minute preparing.

While it is hot now, winter’s chills are certain.

To learn more about late summer dining by insects in Wakulla County, visit the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension website at http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco or call 850-926-3931.