Friday, December 18, 2009

The Legend of the Christmas Spider

Years ago someone, if I remember correctly my mother, bought a spider ornament for my Christmas tree. It came with a book that tells the Legend of the Christmas Spider. Here is the story.

A long, long time ago, a gentle mother was busily cleaning the house for the most wonderful day of the year ... Christmas Day. Not a speck of dust was left anywhere. Even the little spiders had been banished from their cozy corner high up on the ceiling. To avoid the housewife's busy cleaning, they finally fled to the farthest corner of the forgotten attic.

Finally, it was Christmas Eve. The tree was decorated and the children delighted. But the poor spiders were frantic, for they could not see the tree, nor be present for the magic of the season. The oldest and wisest spider suggested that perhaps they could wait until everyone had gone to bed and then sneak through the crack in the door to see the wonders of the tree. The little spiders silently and carefully came down out of their attic corner and across the floor to wait in the crack on the threshold.

Pretty soon all was quiet, so the spiders quickly crept into the room. The tree towered so high that they couldn't see the ornaments on top. In fact, the little spiders' eyes were so small that they could only see one ornament at a time. They all scurried up the trunk, out along each branch, filled with a happy wonder at the glittering beauty. The spiders loved the Christmas tree. All night long, they danced in the branches, and every place they went left a trail of dusty, gray web. When at last they had inspected every bit of the Christmas tree, it was shrouded in the dusty gray of spider webs.

Santa smiled as he thought of the happy spiders seeing the tree and how much they liked it, but he also thought of how sad the mother would be over the dusty tree. He reached out his hand and touched the tree just as the sun came in the window. All the webs started to sparkle and shine turning into shimmering, sparkling silver and gold. The tree glistened in greater beauty than ever before!

While we need to overlook some of the biological information, it's still a nice story for the holidays. I personally think everyone should have a spider ornament on their tree- not because of the legend of the Christmas spider, but just because spiders are cool! Happy holidays!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ladybug video

For those of you who couldn't view the ladybug video, here's a link that will take you to You Tube to watch it there:

Ladybug video

Friday, December 4, 2009

Brrrrr- Baby It's Cold Outside!

Have you been outside today? I would think that somehow I got transported back to Ohio if I weren't currently sitting in my office in Austin listening to Christmas carols. Holy crikey- it's COLD! There was a reason that I moved to avoid the COLD!

The good things about the cold turn in the weather:
1. hubby is excited that it might snow (being a Texan, things like snow excite him while I've had my fill of snow while tramping around Ohio State- walking to class in snow/slush & freezing temperatures is not a good time)
2. the boy might get to see snow for the first time- great photo op, right?
3. mulled cider and hot chocolate- mmmmm
4. deer chili- double mmmmm
5. it helps my Christmas spirit

Okay, so onto the buggy part of this post. I often get questions- mostly from children- about where bugs go during the winter. Adaptations that insects have to survive the winter:

1. Migration
Insects move to a location where temperatures are not as cold. The most well known example of migrating insects is probably the Monarch butterfly.

2. Freeze tolerance
Some insects are able to survive having some of their body tissues frozen. When temperatures warm up, the insect "thaws out" and goes about it's business.

3. Communal living
Many insects will cluster together and use collective heat to survive freezing temperatures. Ladybugs are a good example. The video below is a clip I took on a recent trip to Ohio. The ladybugs begin aggregating each fall and usually find their way into my parent's house. The video shows them gathering on my grandparent's motorhome.

4. Insect antifreeze
(read on...this is going to make great dinner conversation for you tonight!)
Some insects produce glycerol, a compound similar to anti-freeze, in the fall to prepare for overwintering. These compounds allow body tissues to supercool and remain above their freezing point.

So now that you know how the bugs are going to survive tonight, what do you have in mind to keep warm?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Halloween early? Tarantulas!

It's October, so that means I need to write about creepy things, right? Some of you might think I always write about creepy things, but spiders, especially large, hairy spiders really creep most people out. Oh yeah, and cockroaches. Most people scream like a little girl when they see a cockroach, but I've already covered them. So for all you arachnophobes out there.....

Tarantulas are probably the heaviest spiders that we have in Texas. Their bodies can be up to 1 1/2 inches long and they get even larger when you add in their legspan. Tarantulas create burrows either by digging one or using natural cavities under rocks, logs, etc. Sometimes they'll line the burrow with silk and add a few lines in front of the burrow to help detect prey that might wander past. Tarantulas eat things such as crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars, so they are beneficial and help reduce pests that may be wandering around in your yard.

While the size and hairiness of tarantulas freaks most people out, they really are fairly harmless. Of course, they have fangs and are capable of biting, but typically their venom doesn't react with our body chemistry in a negative way. Tarantulas will let you know if you are upsetting them to allow you ample time to move away- they'll rear up on their hind legs and put their front legs into the air. If you see one do this, then leave it alone. Tarantulas may also brush their legs along their abdomen when threatened to brush off urticating hairs that can cause irritation to the eyes or skin.

The above photo is of Debbie, the Bird Eating Tarantula that I have in my office (I feed her mice, not birds). The quarter is in the photo so you can have a size reference.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Those Aren't Tiny Moths, You Have Drain Flies

I've had several people asking about drain flies lately, so I thought, "Wizzie, maybe drain flies would make a good topic for your blog." What a great idea!! So here I am....

Drain flies are also known as moth flies because they look like cute fuzzy, little moths. You can tell that they're not really moths because they only have two wings which categorizes them as a fly. Drain flies are small, but can be seen by the naked eye. They're a grayish-black color.

Photo by Sam Myers (thanks Sam!).

Larvae of drain flies are commonly found in- you guessed it- drains! Other places inside can be toilets, condensate lines for ice makers or loose areas of tile where water can collect. They can also be found outside around faulty septic areas, A/C condensate lines or rainwater collecting areas. Basically, any location where there is moisture and organic matter can be a living area for the larvae.

Often people will see drain flies flying around in the kitchen or bathroom, but not know where they came from. To figure out if you have drain flies coming out of your drains, place tape over one side of the suspected drain before you go to bed at night; in the morning, check the tape for flies.

You can capture adult flies all day long, but until you find the source and get rid of it, you will most likely continue to have a problem. Once you locate where the drain flies are coming from, physically clean the area using a stiff brush and then flush it with boiling water. This will get rid of the larvae and eventually, no more adults.

Update on the boy:

Hubby and I have discovered that the boy speaks Parseltongue. We have been suspecting it for awhile by the sounds emerging from between his teeth and lips, but it was confirmed this week- we found to squished baby rattlesnakes on the road by our house. Apparently they were coming to visit the boy. I guess when he's 11 we'll be receiving his letter from Hogwarts.

The boy still isn't walking, but is getting more confident standing on his own and moving between pieces of furniture. The big thing that has happened is the FIRST WORD- I'm so proud of him! Yes, I know, several posts ago I said his first word was "mama", but let's be honest, he was discovering a new sound. While I'm still thrilled when I hear "ma-ma-ma-ma-ma" I'm now talking about actual communication. The boy now will make the sign for "milk" when he wants milk or as he's getting milk. It's really quite adorable, but I still have to catch it on video. Yes, we've been teaching sign language for common things that he might want/ need to say- milk, eat, bath, sleep/ bed, book, ball, dog, cat, mom, dad, dirty diaper and, of course, poop.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Migrating Dragonflies

Have you been noticing dragonflies lately?

This information is provide courtesy of Forrest Mitchell, Professor of Entomology with Texas AgriLife Extension. Forrest has a site & a book on dragonflies.

"Although there are a lot of different species of dragonflies and damselflies in Texas (currently 231 according to Odonata Central, see below) not many of them will pick up and migrate as you have already noticed by the stable numbers in your backyard. In the appendix of A Dazzle of Dragonflies are 26 (I think) species listed that may be migratory, but there are two species mainly responsible for these current mass movements that I am seeing: the wandering glider (Pantala flavescens) and the spot-winged glider (Pantala hymenaea). My best scans can be found here:
about halfway down the page.
You can see more pictures and scans of them here:
You can find write-ups on both species here, as well as the 'Species of Texas' checklist:
Odonata Central and John Abbott are where I go with my questions.

The rainpool gliders are adapted to breeding in temporary water, hence their name. If they have enough to eat, the wandering glider can go from egg to adult in less than 30 days during the summer, so the water only needs to last that long. A dozen or so spot-winged gliders developed in a shallow fountain one summer on my deck. I don't know how long it took since I didn't notice them until they were over half-grown. They ate insects that fell into the bowl, midge larvae and any other dragonflies that were deposited after they were. Rainpool gliders will lay eggs in nearly anything that can hold water including buckets, saucers, flower pots, water troughs (a favorite), puddles, ditches and swimming pools. They will attempt to lay eggs on shiny car hoods, wet asphalt and wet concrete. I have noticed that the wandering gliders will lay eggs in water that is in open sunlight, while the spot-winged glider will lay in the shaded pools and water.

A lot of the South is in a drought, but these dragonflies are able to stay aloft for long periods of time and do not need to originate from a close-by source. In fact, the wandering glider is found throughout the world except where it is too cold year-round. Work in the last decade on the eastern seaboard of the US shows that moving dragonflies are swept together and collected by weather fronts. These concentrations may then be deposited elsewhere and a long way off. We have had several cool fronts along with heavy localized rain to make rainpools and either or both may be what accounts for the presence of so many dragonflies in our region. I am noticing them mostly over stretches of roads and parking lots or wide open fields where the hunting is good. They may be in other places as well, but harder to see.

Just as fronts can bring dragonflies, fronts can also take them away. Enjoy watching them while you have a chance. In case they disappear, I've enclosed a scan of another migratory species, the common green darner to look at. They tend to move in September-October in our part of the world and are often seen by people doing monarch counts during the butterfly migration. I had another letter asking me about this species, so I pulled it out and made it a workable size. Feel free to post it on the DMN website for your readers and/or print it in your column. Credit James Lasswell, my coauthor on the book, with its construction. If printed on glossy paper with a good inkjet or laser printer, it is suitable for framing. Or so I think, but then I am biased."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Structural Pests Presentation- August 20th 2:30 p.m.

Take a break from the garden, come in from the heat and learn about the critters you may find inside your house.

What- presentation on structural pests (cockroaches, ants, pantry pests, etc.)
Where- Travis County Extension Office (1600-B Smith Road Austin, TX 78721)
When- August 20, 2009 2:30 p.m.

You'll learn how to identify pests as well as management practices.

For more information, contact Wizzie Brown at 512-854-9600.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Chinch bugs...does your lawn appear to be dying?

Chinch bugs seem to be a hot topic lately and no wonder- it feels like a blast furnace when you walk outside these days. Chinch bugs love hot, dry weather, so the conditions are perfect for them.

I'm not the only one getting reports about chinch bugs, KEYE was out here yesterday to do a story about chinch bugs because they have been getting calls as well.

Chinch bugs are small black bugs with white wings. Immatures, or nymphs, are a pinkish-peach color with a light band across their back. These insects cause irregular brown patches to appear in turf. The dead or stunted grass is usually surrounded by grass that is yellowing. You can look in the yellowing turf area for the actual chinch bugs to confirm that you have them (because there are other things that cause your lawn to have patchy brown spots, but those are for other blog posts). Often, chinch bug damage pops up next to sidewalks and driveways.

To avoid getting chinch bugs you can:

  1. Properly water your lawn.
  2. Properly fertilize your lawn.
  3. Avoid having an excessive thatch layer. If the thatch layer is thick, dethatch your lawn.
  4. If your soil is compacted, aerate your lawn and top dress it with compost.
  5. Select a chinch bug resistant variety of grass.
If you have chinch bugs already in your turf you can:
  1. Conserve beneficial bugs that eat chinch bugs by using chemicals only when needed and then selecting chemicals that are less- toxic.
  2. Choose an insecticide labeled for turf & chinch bugs.
  3. Read & follow all directions on the product label.
  4. If only one area of the turf is damaged, then spot treat that area instead of treating the entire lawn.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Podcast Poll- to podcast or not to padcast?

Lately, I've been a bit obsessed with podcasts- I think they are great. Some I listen to for information others for entertainment. I seem to be gravitating towards kid-related stuff like Pedicast and Manic Mommies (two of my favorites), but it's gotten me thinking about a bug podcast to answer questions about your bug problems.

So here's the thing....I don't know if enough people would be interested in listening to a podcast. I know everyone has a limited amount of time, so would you, my audience, take the time to download a podcast to listen to while out exercising, while driving, while checking email on the computer? Before I devote the time figuring out what I need to do to get a podcast up and running, I decided to take a poll (actually 2 polls). Both polls are located on the right side of the blog page. It would be really helpful to me if you could jet over and take the poll so I can decide if I should venture into podcasting world.

So please, please, please take the poll on my blog page. The poll will stay open until June 12th. Thanks!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Volunteers needed for spider survey!

I'm looking for volunteers to help with a spider survey. This is limited to those in the Austin area.

I want to compare spider diversity in various yards. You can use pesticides (synthetics or natural products) or no pesticides at all. If you usually don't use pesticides and need to for something that pops up, that's okay too as long as it's documented. I just want people doing what they normally do in their yard to put out cardboard strips to survey for spiders. You can do the survey in your veggie garden, your flower bed, a greenhouse, trees in your yard, etc.

I'll provide materials for you to use. You'll be responsible for putting out the items in your yard, collecting samples, documenting any pesticide use and getting samples to me or calling me so I can make arrangements to get the samples from you.

Right now, things are pretty fluid as to a timeline. Once I get enough volunteers lined up, I can nail things down further, but I hope to get started by the end of June and go through summer.

If you're interested in helping out, let me know!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hornworms...sphingid larvae

A researcher asked me to pass the following along. He is researching sphingid larvae and would like to know the distribution of particular species.

Keep your eyes open for any Sphingidae larvae that look like the ones on the link below. They
feed mostly on mint, sage, Verbena, lantana and Monarda.
If you know anyone else who has a garden who might grow those plants, please forward the link.

If you find the larvae, you can contact:

Bill Oehlke
155 Peardon Road
Montague PEI

Monday, March 23, 2009

Invasive Landscape Pests Seminar

April 16, 2009 1-3 p.m.

Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Dallas

17360 Coit Road Dallas, TX 75252

It started in the 1950s with fire ants and the invasion continues today. Newly imported and exotic insect pests threaten to disrupt Texas horticulture, upset natural ecosystems and cause added expense and heartache for home owners.

Master Volunteers and landscape maintenance professionals have an important role to play as critical “first detectors” of these new pests. This two hour seminar will address new or potential exotic pests likely to be found in our region. We will learn about the new chilli thrips, pink hibiscus mealybug, azalea bark scale, emerald ash borer, Formosan termite and Caribbean crazy
ants. Hands-on sessions will focus on identification and management. You will also learn steps to take if you suspect you have found a new pest. Be the first in your community to be ready for these new invaders.

Training will be held in the Pavilion building at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Dallas on April 16th from 1:00-3:00. The meeting is free and open to all Master
Volunteers, garden club members, rosarians, landscape professionals or any citizens with a green thumb. Trainers will include Extension entomologists Allen Knutson, Scott Ludwig, Mike Merchant, and Kim Schofield.

If you would like to attend, please let us know by April 15th.
To register, or for more information, contact the Dallas AgriLife Center at 972-231-5362 or email

Friday, March 20, 2009

Termites are swarming!

I was wondering when it would happen....we got the rain last week and it's been warming up this week....

The termites are here! The termites are here!

I was on my way back from lunch pondering what I should blog about today and I looked down and saw a termite swarmer crawling on my hand. How's that for a serendipitous moment? It was a subterranean swarmer...cute little bugger. I, of course, let it go to fly away where the winds will lead.

So what does all for this mean for you, my readers? Well, if you're a pest management professional, prepare for the phones to ring non-stop and lots of termite inspections. If you're a homeowner, I would use it as a gentle reminder to inspect your home for termites or a have professional do it for you. How, do you wonder, do you inspect your home for termites? Well, let me tell you.....


  • Examine around the foundation of your home for shelter/ mud tubes. If found, tubes can be broken open to see if there are termites inside.
  • Watch for areas where the foundation is completely covered with soil. You may want to consider reducing the soil level so that the foundation can be viewed.
  • Inspect areas of moisture build up. This could be near the foundation if the soil doesn't slope away from it and sprinkles water flower beds or by AC units.
  • Check areas near swimming pools that are splashed with water.
  • Look at gutters and eaves for areas that might leak or cause water damage.
  • Inspect any areas with wood to soil contact (fences, trellises, etc.).
  • Inspect wood areas- hardwood floors, door and window facings, baseboards, etc. Check for any weakened areas in the wood.
  • Inspect walls and ceilings for moisture damaged areas. Discoloration or staining can often be a sign of water leaks.
  • Examine any cracks in the slab or expansion joints for termite entry.
  • Look for blistering of paint on walls.
  • Inspect areas where pipes/ plumbing penetrate the slab (i.e. bath traps). If there is no accessible area to the bath trap, install a hatch or vent so inspection can be performed regularly.
  • Examine attic area for mud/ shelter tubes, wood rot or damaged wood.
  • If the house is pier and beam construction, inspect the crawl space (area between the house & the ground). Look around the piers for mud/shelter tubes.
These inspection tips are for subterranean termites (including formosans), but not drywood termites. Drywood termites do not need contact with soil like subterranean termites.

On a side note, Mike Merchant has a post on some new information on Colony Collapse Disorder. You can check out his blog Insects in the City.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Austin's Funky Chicken Coop Tour

Just an FYI for those of you that might like to attend......y'know, chickens are great consumers of bugs that might wander into your backyard.....

Austin, TX Feb 9, 2009 -- Seattle has one. Raleigh has one. But Austinites like to be at the leading edge of all trends. So, when a group of local backyard poultry enthusiasts realized that Austin lacked an annual backyard Chicken Coop celebration, they took action. The result? Austin's first free Funky Chicken Coop Tour.

Urban chicken-keeping is on the rise in cities across the USA, and for good reasons. Chickens can be easy-to-care-for pets, provide insect control, supply delicious fresh eggs, and help create better yards and gardens. Most chicken owners report that it's just plain fun to have them around.

On Saturday, April 11, 2009, Austin-area chicken coop owners will open their backyards to the
public. The free, self-guided tour will run from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and showcase a variety of
poultry projects in a variety of settings, from urban to rural.

Visitors to the tour sites will see how scavenged materials can be transformed into a low-cost coop; or how a fashionable coop can enhance your landscape. Visitors will have the chance to see how chicken coops integrate into larger projects, such as organic gardens, sustainability and permaculture efforts, and school projects.

The tour hosts will be able to answer questions on chicken care, compliance with city ordinances,
coop design, and more. If you are thinking about keeping chickens in your own backyard, you'll get some great ideas for your own successful project.

The Funky Chicken Coop Tour will include coops all over the Austin area. A map of participating
coops will be available for download prior to the tour from Tour sites will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

April 11, 2009
10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.



Judith Haller
Member, Funky Chicken Coop Tour Planning Committee

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Do you have fire ants?

Well...boogers! I was halfway done with my post and Mozilla crashed and my entry disappeared. Oh well, I guess I'll have to start my witty banter again.

It rained. In Austin, it rained. It even rained at my house in Manor which NEVER happens even when it rains in Austin, Round Rock, Pflugerville, etc. etc. I think that Manor has some weird Bermuda Triangle thing with weather so it never rains all just goes around us.

Anyway, along with my plants gurgling with relief from being watered (I've been promoting natural selection in my yard....whatever survives without a lot of watering gets to, well, survive) I've noticed some fire ant activity. The mountain laurel is blooming, the fire ants are becoming active...all we need is for bluebonnets to crop up and it will officially be spring in Central Texas.

So what are your option for managing fire ants?
1. Broadcast bait over your yard.
Fire ant baits are a defatted corn cob grit coated in soybean oil that has the active ingredient- what kills the fire ants- dissolved in it. Most baits are put out at a very small rate (1-1.5 pounds per acre) and should be broadcast using a hand held spreader. Of course, people often feel like they haven't put out enough bait when they apply it properly, so they wind up putting out more bait until it looks like it snowed. Please be sure to read the product label to apply bait at the proper rate and with the proper equipment.

2. Broadcast a contact insecticide over your entire yard.
These products typically come in a granular form that needs to be watered into the soil once it's been applied. Many people get these products confused with baits, so again, read the product label for proper application instructions. With these products, the chemical is watered into the soil and the fire ants come into contact with the active ingredient when they excavate the soil to make tunnels and the mound.

3. Treat mound individually with the method of your choosing.
There are numerous products labelled for treating fire ant mounds. There are also numerous "home remedies" for treating fire ants. While some of these might actually work (like boiling water), many do not. Some home remedies may cause the fire ants to abandon the mound, but usually a new mound pops up 1-2 feet away. So, if you choose to treat individual mounds, choose your method wisely. Also, understand that treating fire ant mounds individually can be more time consuming, more costly and place more chemicals into the environment than broadcast baiting.

4. Two step- broadcast bait and follow up with individual mound treatments for mounds in sensitive areas.
Since many fire ant baits take anywhere from 2-6 weeks to see results, you may want to utilize the strategy of broadcasting a bait followed by individual mound treatments. Instead of treating all fire ant mounds, you can target mounds that are in sensitive areas (near animal kennels or where children play) or that need to be taken care of quickly.

For more information on these treatment methods you can read the publication Fire Ant Control The Two-Step Method and Other Approaches.