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Water

rain gaugeJune 2009 was the second wettest on record in Denver.  In addition, the average temperature of 64.4 degrees (F) was 3.2 degrees below normal.  Needless to say, we didn’t run our sprinklers this June.

Of course, during the course of a typical June, we do run the sprinklers. I follow Denver Water’s rules, and use my own rain gauge (pictured) to adjust watering times whenever possible. I use a lot of mulch to keep evaporation down. I plant drought-tolerant specimens. But with this much land, I am still aware of how much water I’m using.

So in spite of the great moisture we’ve been having, I started to research rainwater harvesting.

Imagine my surprise to find that in Colorado, it has been illegal to use a rain barrel to collect roof run-off.  The reason behind this is, apparently, that if I collect the water from my roof, the folks downstream can’t use it. Drat.

Then I read that Colorado Senate Bill  09-080 allowed rainwater collecting beginning July 1. Hooray?

But as I began to actually understand the new law, I was again disappointed. It turns out, I still can’t legally collect water because I can get water from Denver Water (a “domestic water system that serves more than three single-family dwellings,” as stated in the bill).  Oh, and even if I weren’t served by the municipality or other water district, I still wouldn’t be allowed to use the rainwater on my vegetable garden or lawn. Drat!

I confess I’m confused by this. If I collect rain water, then put it on my vegetables later that month, wouldn’t that be the same in the long run as if the rain had fallen on my vegetables? Won’t the water eventually end up in the same place, i.e. the watershed’s water course? Isn’t ensuring that the water goes into the ground in fact better than allowing it to evaporate off of concrete?rain gutter

Here is my proposed rain barrel location. Notice that there is not permeable ground below this gutter, just sidewalk.

Is the water that comes gushing out of this gutter during a good rain making its way to the South Platte, really? I’m going to have to think that it just evaporates the second the sun comes out.

One website claims that “a pivotal study focusing on the Denver area revealed 97 percent of precipitation never makes it to streams,” although the study is not cited.   I’d be interested to see the study, if I could find it!

Not wanting to break the law, I started to wonder about greywater recycling. My washing machine, for example, doesn’t drain directly into the sewer. The drainage hose is routed to a utility sink, where it then goes into the sewer. I can just put a bucket in the sink, then use that water in my garden, assuming of course that I’m using an environmentally friendly detergent and no bleach. But alas, that’s illegal, too!

Now, it is July. We’ve had very little precipitation and it has been in the 90s or close to it. I ran the sprinklers this morning, while letting gallons and gallons of greywater go down the drain.

While I took this picture in mid-August, I have delayed posting it. This is due partly to being busy, but to be honest, I was procrastinating research. I didn’t know if what I was looking at was a yellowjacket or a wasp or a hornet, or even what the difference was. Clearly, something was enjoying a moth as an afternoon snack.

Paper Wasp Eats Moth

Carnage

 

What better way to celebrate a new year than by settling the question?

I have identified the apparently hungry insect as a Paper Wasp, more specifically, the Vespidae Polistes dominula. I don’t have the expertise, or perhaps the proper photographs, to further distinguish the wasp’s sex.  (Comments from entomologists are, as always, welcome.)

It turns out, the family Vespidae includes three groups of social wasps. They all establish colonies annually, abandoning them in the fall, with only a few fertilizes queens overwintering; they all make nests of “paper” produced from chewed wood pulp; and they do not leave a stinger. With all this in common, how can we tell them apart?

The genus Vespula is the yellowjacket. The genus Dolichovespula is the hornet. And the genera Polistes and Mischosyttarus are the paper wasps, aka umbrella wasps, found in Colorado.

I was able to eliminate the Dolichovespula, but the coloration of the Vespula and the Polistes is very similar. This publication helped me enormously to make the final distinction.

  • Careful analysis of my photographs (comparing it to the brick upon which it was standing) revealed that the wasp in question is at least 5/8 in. long. That’s longer than the average yellowjacket. It is also quite slender compared to a yellowjacket.
  • The nests built nearby are clearly of a single comb and not enclosed.

paper-wasp-nest

Visitors to my house over the summer months would occasionally inform me that they had “discovered” a hornet’s nest — in fact, one of the paper wasp nests. They looked at me like I was crazy when I said, “Oh, yeah, I know it’s there.” Even without knowing what kind of insect I was dealing with, I knew that it was beneficial to my garden, killing other pest insects.  Additionally, since they are most likely to sting to defend their nests, I thought it best to leave them alone.

However, I have read that one should remove nests found on eaves during the winter months, because other undesireable insects may use it. The paper wasps will make new ones come spring.

A final note on the prey: my best guess is that it was a Miller Moth. I imagine it was already deceased when the paper wasp came along.

A new hummingbird!

Phil spotted the first hummingbird of the season at our Hummingbird Mint. It is different than the Broad-tailed hummingbird Phil photographed last year. Today’s was a bright yellow, with rufous (reddish-brown) underparts and a speckled throat.

My best guess is that it is a female Rufous hummingbird. The Rufous is very hard to tell from the Allen’s hummingbird, but I believe that the Allen’s range is much more limited and does not seem to come even close to Colorado.

Some interesting facts about the Rufous:

  • A territorial hummingbird known to be aggressive with other, larger hummingbirds.
  • It makes one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird in the world, as measured by body size: 3,900 miles from Alaska to Mexico, equivalent to 784,500 body lengths.
  • It has a heart rate of 480 beats per minute when resting, up to 1,260 beats per minute when excited.
  • It feeds on nectar a minimum of sixty times a day, at 13 licks per second, playing an important role in pollinating at least 129 plant species.
Phil and I were putting together some new outdoor rocking chairs in the lawn when I heard a noise in the lawn behind me. I turned around to find a baby bird, although alive for a change!

This little bird had feathers and was hopping around rather awkwardly and chirping.

Baby bird

Baby bird

While observing the bird and trying to decide a course of action, Phil spotted a mourning dove, perched on the lines above our fence. Could this be a parent, watching over the youngster from a safe distance?

Mama bird

Adult bird

By pure chance, I had recently read a couple of things about finding baby birds on the ground.

Number one, I knew that it was a myth that one ought not touch a baby bird because the mother will reject it if it smells like humans. I had read that it is better to scoop it up and put it back in its nest.

But I didn’t know where the nest was.

Plus, I remembered something about fledglings. Fledglings are young birds that have just gotten their feathers and are about ready to fly. They can hop around. This seemed to fit the description of my little friend.  It seems that one should NOT try to put a fledgling back in its nest (even if I knew where it was).  And the fact that we had spotted a possible parent so nearby made me think that the best thing to do would be to take the dog inside and let her swoop in and save the day. I don’t know how, but that’s what I thought.

According to a bit of research, I think I did the right thing. The tricky part is deciding if it was, indeed, feathered.  It looks a bit fuzzy about the face. I also don’t know if the young bird is the offspring of the adult or not. It’s hard to tell from the photograph. The more I study it, the less the youngster looks like a mourning dove to me.

We had to leave the house shortly afterwards, and both adult and baby were not to be found when we returned that night.

Here’s a bit about the mourning dove. Factoids of note include:

  • Mourning doves have the longest breeding season of all North American birds.
  • Both male and female mourning doves share in incubating and feeding their young.
  • When young mourning doves tap on their parent’s bills it stimulates regurgitation of crop milk, produced by both male and female parents, and the sole source of food in the babies’ first 3-4 days.
  • Adult mourning doves usually live to about 1.5 years old in the wild, but can live up to 19 years.
  • During migration these birds may fly over 1000 miles to reach their winter resting spot.

Bee problem

As any reader can glean from other posts, a “bee problem” in our house means that we’re concerned about our honey bee colony, discovered living in the Big Tree.

Our bees swarmed in mid-June with little additional fanfare. (See other posts link, above.) They moved on quickly, left some bees behind in the Big Tree, and all returned to normal. Except that maybe it didn’t.

The bees swarmed again. So late in June that the incident, reaching epic proportions, actually stretched into July.

On Day One of the Bee Exodus, we noticed five different groups of bees just feet from the original hive in the Big Tree. I thought it odd that they would swarm again. I was worried that they were swarming not because of overpopulation but because of a disease or perhaps some other problem in the Big Tree.

Five Groups

Five Groups

The following video shows the groups of bees and pans to the hole in the Big Tree where the original colony resides. Hopefully you can get an idea of the short distance they had traveled.

 

The next video shows three of the groups, and gives an idea of the amount of activity surrounding the swarms.

 

On Day Two, the bees had made one larger swarm instead of the smaller groups.

One Group

One Group

Here’s a video showing the swarm on Day Two, blowing in a pretty good wind but holding on tight!

On Day Three, July 1, the bees moved to the nearby apple trees and started dropping like flies. (A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly!) I was really concerned. Why hadn’t they found a new place to live yet? Would they all die?

In the apple tree

In the apple tree

Dropping like flies.

Dropping like flies.

Dead bee

Dead bee

On Day Four, the death rate seemed to plummet but the bees were still in the apple tree.  I called the Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association. The nice man I spoke with calmed me down. It is normal for a colony to swarm several times in a season, and in fact it was good news because it meant that the bees were doing well enough to split many times. He said that since the bees fill up on honey, they can usually survive three or four days before they have to find a new place to live. I explained that it had already been four days, and I didn’t know if I could do anything to help them in any way. He gave me the names of some beekeepers who would probably like a free swarm.

I thought, well, at least the bees would have a good home! But I waited one more day.

On Day Five, the bees were gone. That is, except for about dozen who seemed quite attached to the apple tree. I couldn’t quite tell what they were doing there, but Phil and I could see a few bees in the same spot for many days afterwards.

There are still bees in the Big Tree. All’s well that ends well. Whew!

Aphid Invasion!

Today we made a discovery that actually started my skin crawling.

Phil bumped our Purpleleaf Sand Cherry and several bright green critters came flying out. What were they all doing on our bush? It didn’t take long to identify them as lacewings, whose larvae are quite fond of aphids. Here’s a picture of one of our lacewings, with plenty of aphids in the shot as well (all the green spots on the undersides of the leaves, and check out the nice fat one on the stem).

Chrysoperla rufilabris

It’s the aphids that are creeping me out. It didn’t help that I was sticking myself into the bush to try to get pictures. Now I keep imagining that I’ve got aphids all over my body.

Of course, where there are aphids, there are ladybugs. Sure enough, I captured the likeness of this one heading towards a leaf covered with aphids. I believe it to be a Hippodamia convergens (although I’m not 100% certain of this identification. Any help is appreciated.)

  • An adult ladybug can eat up to 100 aphids in a day, or 5,000 in its lifetime.
  • They will play dead when faced with a predator.
  • They produce a bad smell from fluid from leg joints, probably as another way to protect themselves from being eaten.
  • Ladybugs hibernate in the winter.
  • Plants that attract ladybugs include cilantro, yarrow, coreopsis, cosmos, and dandelions.

I can’t resist sharing one more photo. Here’s our same ladybug, on a different leaf. This shows the honeydew that is coating the plant. That’s the sugary waste left by aphids. Yum!

Some tidbits about honeydew:

  • Certain species of honey bees collect it to make honey, which is prized in Europe and Asia for its medicinal value!
  • Ants also collect and even milk honeydew. The ants, in turn, help the aphids by chasing away ladybugs.
  • Adult lacewings feed on honeydew. (Note that it is only their larvae that eat the aphids themselves.)
  • Honeydew can lead to sooty mold. This site offers information on identifying it, and a recipe for cleaning it from plastic or painted surfaces.

So what do I plan to do about my aphid invasion? Nothing. So long as I see the ladybugs and lacewings in the vicinity, I will trust them to take care of it.  

Itty Bitty Spider

Actually, this spider’s body is about a quarter of an inch long. I took this photo in fading light against our flagstone patio, and that little spider could really run! Thus, the mediocre pic.

However, I believe this to be an Araneus diadematus, or Cross or Garden Spider, introduced from Europe. It is perfectly harmless, unless of course you’re a tasty insect.

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