A ‘New’ Ant Experience in the Landscape

A ‘New’ Ant Experience in the Landscape

One of the interesting ants that I am seeing more commonly in landscape settings is the Trap jaw ant (Odontomachus sp.).  This ant is so named because of it’s large mandibles (mouthparts) that spring shut capturing prey.  These mouthparts can also be used as a defensive mechanism allowing the ant to spring away from something it encounters.

Trapjaw ants. Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kat Lawrence

A nesting area is very recognizable after you have seen one because it looks like a collection of soil and small wood debris piled at the base of plants or old stumps.  I have encountered nesting areas around living shrubs in many mulched areas of the landscape and under pots sitting on old tree stumps.

Nesting area

Nesting debris from the Trapjaw ants at the base of a Princess flower. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF / IFAS Extension Escambia County.

My first experience with the trap jaw ant was not very pleasant.  I was working in a mulched area pulling a few weeds without gloves.  I unknowingly disturbed the nest and received a pain sting similar to a paper wasp sting.  The discomfort was short-lived and I personally did not have inflammation or inching a few minutes later.  Of course, I identified the ant and have since become very familiar with recognizing nesting spots.

Although trap jaw ants are not native to our area, they do not rank in the same category as fire ants which are both economically and medically problematic.  Since trap jaw ants are currently found in more natural areas of the landscape, homeowners should just be aware of their presence.  Consider a pair of gloves or garden tools when rooting around in mulch.  When a nesting area is disturbed, the large ants (about .5 inches) will be easy to observe as one of the more interesting ants we may encounter.

Northwest FL Pest Management Conference

Northwest FL Pest Management Conference

The UF/IFAS Extension and FAMU will be bringing the Florida Pest Management Conference to Milton on April 17th.  Attend to earn CEUs for your PCO License.  Attendance is free and we are currently seeking sponsors at $80 per sponsoring business/organization.  For more details and to register, please visit the conference webpage at Northwest Pest Management Conference.

Attracting Wildlife to the Garden

Attracting Wildlife to the Garden

One of the incredible benefits of living in Florida is exposure to the biodiversity of our wildlife population. From ordinary squirrels and mockingbirds to the more exotic panthers and migratory tropical birds, it is rare one can step outside the house without seeing or hearing wildlife of some variety. One of the practices we “preach” here at Extension is to provide habitat for wildlife in our yards and gardens. While cities and neighborhoods are human-centric, we share these spaces with thousands of wild animals, birds, fish, and insects and should always consider them in our actions.

Attracting birds and butterflies are popular pastimes, and Extension faculty can provide a tremendous amount of information on their preferences and food sources. However, a few unsung critters deserve homes and space as well. Just yesterday, I took a call from a gentleman who was excited to discover a small colony of bats roosting in a tree on his property. He was looking for ways to encourage them to stay, because he realized the countless benefits they provide in free insect control. Many people are nervous around bats of because of their unpredictable, irregular night flight pattern and association with scary stories. However, an average Florida bat can eat 1,000 insects a night, keeping pest populations down, reducing mosquito-borne disease, and saving millions of dollars in crop damage.

In our demonstration garden today, I was delighted to walk up on a black racer sunning itself in the grass. These common garden snakes provide valuable pest control of rats and mice, and are not aggressive or venomous. The fear of snakes often comes from the surprise of finding one unexpectedly, so always be alert and observant when outdoors. Respect for these creatures and a basic working knowledge of common venomous and nonvenomous species can go a long way towards calming one’s nerves. An excellent resource for snake identification in north Florida is this online guide. Like many snakes, this particular snake had been in tall grass, so it is always wise to be cautious in those areas.

This black racer sunning in the grass must have gotten the message about utilizing habitat provided for wildlife! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

To attract wildlife, learn about their life cycle and food sources, and provide shelter, water, and food for the species you are interested in attracting. Keep in mind that inviting wildlife may also draw their predators, but know that this is part of the larger cycle. Always keep safety in mind, and if necessary keep tall vegetation and deep water to a minimum in play areas frequented by young children. The benefits of providing food and shelter for wildlife are countless for human observers and wildlife alike.

Improving Soil Health, Suppressing Weeds, and Attracting Good Bugs

Improving Soil Health, Suppressing Weeds, and Attracting Good Bugs

Many gardeners plant a spring vegetable garden with a number of different vegetable types, which is excellent because a diverse and varied garden is proven to improve soil health. Intercropping is a gardening practice of growing different crops in the same field.  When planting a mixture of crops in the same field year after year, it is important to rotate the location of each type of vegetable.  This is a practice known as crop rotation.  Intercropping and crop rotation will help reduce insect pest populations, increase beneficial insect populations, and reduce weed populations .

Crop Diversity

Including plants that pest insects don’t like to eat in a garden forces the pests work harder to find what they find palatable. Studies have found reduced whitefly numbers on squash plantings mixed with a crop of buckwheat when compared to squash planted alone.  Another crop mixture that may be unintentional, but may be favorable, is a crapemyrtle stand along a garden’s edge.  Crapemyrtles will attract the crapemyrtle aphid which will attract predatory insects. When the predatory insects run out of crapemyrtle aphids to eat, they will move to the vegetable garden and begin to hunt pest insects.

Squash with living mulch of buckwheat. Photo Credit: Oscar Liburd, UF/IFAS Extension

Trap Cropping

A trap crop is a plant that attracts a pest insect away from your food crops.  Trap crops work best when planted at the garden’s edge, along a fence row, or in movable containers.  A bare space, let’s say 5 feet or so, should be kept between trap crops and vegetable plantings.  This will help keep the pests from moving desirable crops plants.  When a large population of pests are found on the trap crop then it is time to spray them with insecticide, or cut the crop down and remove or destroy the debris. If trap crops are planted in containers, then it makes them much easier to remove from the garden when necessary.

Cover Crops and Green Manure

Soil organic matter can be increased by the use of green manure and cover crops.  Cover crops are generally planted during the off-season, but they can be planted in between vegetable rows and tilled in at a designated time as a green manure.  Both cover crops and green manure improve garden production by:

  • Suppressing weeds by competing for water, light, and nutrients;
  • Holding the soil in place and preventing erosion;
  • Scavenging for nutrients that can be utilized in future crops;
  • Reducing nematode populations;
  • Providing a habitat for beneficial insects.

A mixed plot of cover crops and trap crops. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, UF/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

A number of different crops can serve as cover crops or green manure crops.  Most are legumes (bean family) or grasses.  A few that should be tried are:

  • Cowpeas
  • Sunn hemp
  • Sorghum-sudangrass
  • Winter rye

More detailed information on cover crops and green manure can be found at this link: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217.

An Unexpected Inhabitant

An Unexpected Inhabitant

You never know what you’ll find when you start looking closely in your garden. I was puzzled as to why there were three dead leaves hanging together on my sweetbay tree when all the other leaves looked so nice and healthy. On further investigation, I found a cocoon was made by binding the leaves together and it was firmly attached to the branch with silk.

The hanging dead leaves are a perfect hiding place for the cocoon of the sweetbay silkmoth. Photo credit: Mary Salinas.

This is the cocoon of the Sweetbay silkmoth, Callosamia securifera. Adult females lay their eggs on the native sweetbay tree, Magnolia virginiana, as the caterpillars only feed on sweetbay leaves. The trees tolerate having a few leaves eaten so there is no need to pick off the caterpillars if you find them. Local birds may do that for you as they rely on an abundance of caterpillars to feed their baby birds.

See photos of this beautiful moth with more details on its life cycle.

And then explore Gardening with Wildlife on UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions.

Importance of Native Plants for Wildlife

Importance of Native Plants for Wildlife

Native trees, like this Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), provide habitat for various insects fed upon by birds. Source: James Holland, Bugwood.org

 

Planting native plants is a topic many north Florida gardeners, and subscribers to Gardening in the Panhandle, have seen covered in various ways and formats. It doesn’t take a great leap of understanding to realize that native plants are highly valued by our wildlife, which have adapted to living with these plants for millennia. However, we also get a lot of information about the latest, greatest landscape plant variety, many of which are non-native, and are lured to purchase them by their beautiful flowers and/or foliage. In the wake of Hurricane Michael, the importance of selecting native plants for the landscape becomes apparent when you look around and see whole forests severely disturbed. Furthermore, recent research has shown how much our native wildlife prefer native plants and need them for the best chances of survival.

Eastern bluebirds are an example of a bird that relies on insects. Source: Sandysphotos, Creative Commons.

Why Native Plants?

It’s not that non-native ornamental plants are “bad”, unless they’re the terrible invasive, exotic species like kudzu, Chine privet, etc., it’s just that the food chains that support our wildlife are adapted to native plants. A recent report published in the National Proceedings of Science found that chickadees had far better success fledging young when they foraged landscape areas containing 70% or more native plant cover. The reason for their success was that the insects they feed on utilize native species more than non-native plant species. Does that mean non-natives provide no value? Not necessarily. Non-native ornamental plants can be important sources of nectar and pollen and, as you know from experience dealing with pest problems on non-native plants, they also support insects. Native plants just support more of an abundance of these insects.

Following a large disturbance like Hurricane Michael, many insects, birds, and other wildlife will likely see a decrease in numbers and/or reproductive success due to the loss and/or disruption of native plant ecosystems. As stated in the recent report, restoration of urban areas should prioritize native plants to support local food webs.

The FloridaYards.org website is a great resource to find native trees for your area. Source: Screenshot, FloridaYards.org.

The FloridaYards.org website is an easy way to start putting together a list of potential plants. The website’s Florida-Friendly Plant Database allows users to select the area of Florida they live in, site conditions, plant type (tree, shrub, etc.), and to specify native plants only. It then searches the database for plants that meet those conditions and creates a list of species, along with photos and care information. If you’re thinking about how these trees hold up to storms, you can cross-check that list with UF/IFAS’s Wind and Trees EDIS publication. Of course, if you have any questions along the way, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.