Aquatic Macro Invertebrates at Litzinger Road Ecology Center
Aquatic Macro Invertebrates are animals without a backbone that live in water and can be seen with the naked eye. I’ve had an interest in these creatures ever since I can remember. When I was young I caught a variety of water invertebrates such as water beetles, clams, crawdads and snails and attempted to maintain them in my aquariums. I was thrilled when my brother’s aquarium started to grow hydra even though they predate on tiny fish, because I’d read about them but never thought I’d see any. I currently have small colonies of freshwater shrimp in three of my aquariums. Many aquatic invertebrates are insects that live part of their life cycles in water but have an adult flying stage.
When the Litzinger Road Ecology Center offered a training workshop for volunteers on how Aquatic Macro Invertebrates are used to monitor water quality, of course I had to attend. Master Naturalist and Stream Team member Cliff Parmer taught us some Aquatic Entomology facts then we went outside to Deer Creek to learn how to take a scientific sample of water invertebrates.
If your garden has a water feature, at some point you may encounter aquatic invertebrates. A common example is the mosquito, very undesirable and needs to be eliminated. A strain of BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) will kill mosquitoes without harming any other life forms (except some gnats, which I don’t think anyone will be sad about – except maybe hummingbirds which eat them). Most other aquatic invertebrates are harmless or downright beneficial. For example, dragonflies live the first stages of their lives in water and are one of the best predators of mosquito larvae. When dragonflies emerge as flying adults they have a voracious appetite for adult flying mosquitoes – they also add beauty and color to the garden. Others, like caddisfly larvae or water beetles are not exactly beautiful in a conventional sense but have interesting lifestyles that are fun to observe and study.
Even if your garden does not include a water feature, there are ways that your garden can impact aquatic invertebrates. Water that runs off your garden and yard into a storm sewer is eventually released into natural bodies of water. If you can keep excess pesticides and fertilizer out of storm runoff you can help invertebrates to survive. Excess fertilizer harms invertebrates by causing algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the water and kill off more sensitive animals. Life forms higher up on the food chain such as fish and birds depend on a steady supply of invertebrates for food.
If your property is adjacent to a body of water, you can further aid the water quality by implementing a riparian corridor or creek corridor vegetative buffer. Such a corridor does many things for water quality, including temperature regulation. By cooling the water, streamside vegetation helps maintain higher oxygen levels in the water.
Backyard wildlife increases my enjoyment of the outdoors and my garden. If you feel the same way, an appreciation for small but vital water animals can be rewarding!
Late winter and early spring are good seasons to attract desirable bird species to your yard. Birds are not brooding eggs yet because they need to wait until later in spring when there is enough insect food to feed their young. However, they are now engaged in, well, getting engaged! In other words many birds are scouting out nest sites and selecting mates if they haven’t done that already.
You can entice birds to think your property is a good place to raise families by managing it with good bird habitat in mind – some ideas are in my previous article “Gardening for the Birds”. Some of the most sought-after backyard bird species are heavy insect eaters. Many dried and live mealworms are purchased to attract Eastern Bluebirds. Although they tend to be rare in urban and suburban areas, I saw one at the Litzinger Road Ecology Center a couple of weeks ago, so I know they are present in Ladue in places where the habitat is suitable.
Dried mealworms, which can be purchased at Schnarr’s, are more convenient than live mealworms and possibly more acceptable to those who are squeamish. If you would like to try raising your own however, I’ll tell you how. It’s so easy, I started raising mealworms by accident! For years I’ve raised plenty for my pet birds, newt and fish and there are enough left over to share with the outdoor birds also.
Life stages of the mealworm beetle in my hand – one larva, two pupae and one adult
Mealworms are not actually worms. They are larvae of a species of beetle, usually Tenebrio molitor L. My indoor and outdoor birds will happily consume all three forms of the beetle – adult, pupae, and larvae. When you purchase live mealworms in a store, they are usually larvae only and they are refrigerated to slow down their development into pupae and adults. To get adults who will lay eggs and make more mealworms, you need only to store the larvae at room temperature and give them food and a little moisture!
To begin, acquire a container that is steep sided so the adult beetles can’t escape. An unused 10-gallon aquarium is ideal. Place an inch or so of some kind of “meal” product on the floor of the aquarium. I use a combination of oatmeal, chicken food, and flaxseed meal. These creatures are not that picky so you can use what is cheap and available – I’ve seen an exhibit at the zoo of mealworm beetles consuming styrofoam!
Place a couple of pieces of bark or wood on top of the meal for hiding places. You don’t need a light, they don’t like it. I only use a light to see when it’s time to harvest some larvae. Nor do you need a lid because the adult beetles don’t fly. Buy a container of live mealworms and dump the contents into your mealworm container. Every couple of days, add a little more food and something with moisture that the larvae can “drink” from. Good choices are a piece of carrot or potato, or leftover pieces and rinds from fruits and vegetables that aren’t too odoriferous. You can also buy a special gelatin-like product that is designed for “watering” crickets. Avoid a dish of water because the insects might fall in and drown. If the substrate gets wet and moldy, replace with dry substrate.
When nutritious foods are fed to a prey animal like mealworms and crickets, that is called “gut loading”. In theory, the better you feed your mealworms the more nutrition you’ll be passing along to the eventual bird consumers. Cat food contains protein and amino acids that are very good for insectivorous and omnivorous birds. My two pet European Starlings’ staple food is made from 1/3 chicken food and 2/3 cat food. They are picky about what size food particles they will eat so there are always lots of leftovers that are given to my mealworms and quickly devoured.
Eventually the larvae will develop into adult beetles that will lay eggs. Lift up the wood pieces periodically to see how many insects are hiding under there. When you think you have a high enough population to start harvesting, go ahead and take some. You will get a feel for how many you can take and how often over time.
If you get a fruit fly infestation, try moving the mealworm container to place where a few tiny flies are not that bothersome, like a garage. You can also set up a fruit fly trap (available at Schnarr’s) near the mealworms to catch the flies.
Raising mealworms may seem “gross” at first but it’s a great way to see and teach the life cycle of insects. If you have young family members they might be intrigued by this activity and develop an interest in animals and science. I started aquarium keeping when I was eight years old and I already liked bugs at that age. Besides fish I loved to keep lizards, toads and praying mantises. Seeing the mealworms I bought for my pets turn into pupae was really interesting! If you give a little squeeze to a pupa that is alive it will wiggle, which is an amazing thing for a kid to see!
If you have been doing any reading about gardening lately, you have probably encountered many articles urging people to plant milkweeds for Monarch butterflies whose numbers have declined at an alarming rate in recent years. At the risk of bringing up a topic again that is already well-covered, I will mention milkweeds because right now is a great time to plant them. Milkweed seeds need a period of cold in order to germinate. Last year I simulated that effect by cold-stratifying Common Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed seeds in the refrigerator – a successful effort that resulted in many new plants. This year I’m going to use nature to accomplish the task.
The photo above shows a Monarch caterpillar on the left and monarch chrysalis on the right on swamp milkweed in my garden. My proudest garden achievement of 2015!
The most recent issue of Missouri Conservationist has a timely article about planting milkweeds. They recommend planting the seeds outdoors in January or February in weed-free bare soil. Press the seeds into the soil. If planting into pots, sprinkle 1/4 inch of soil on top of the seeds and press down. Place the pot in a sunny exposed area and water regularly after the seeds sprout. Transplant after the plants have two to three sets of true leaves.
If you start milkweed seeds this winter you will probably not get any flowers from your milkweeds until next year, but caterpillars can still use them as a host plant until then. Try planting some annuals among them to add color and hide leaves that caterpillars have chewed until you get blooms. When they do flower, get ready for quite a show of winged visitors! Schnarr’s carries three varieties of Milkweed seeds – pick some up now to improve your habitat!
I was eating dinner outside in downtown St. Louis recently and observed a large flock of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), known as a murmuration, select a group of trees in a nearby park for their nightly roosting spot. This is the time of year that Starlings finish raising their families and start living a more communal lifestyle, which will persist until the next spring breeding season.
A popular topic with customers at the store last winter was how to keep flocks of Starlings from eating all the food put out for the other backyard birds. This is a problem I WISH I had – I know that sounds strange. Starlings are my favorite bird, because I rescued a nestling nearly six years ago and raised her and adopted another one two years later. My Starlings Attila and Pooky are my beloved pets (as I’m writing this I have one my arm and one on my shoulder) and because of them I’ve done lot of reading about Starlings. I like to observe wild ones whenever I get the chance to see how their behavior and vocalizations are like or unlike my tame pair.
Unfortunately if a flock of Starlings descends in my yard, if I go to the window to watch them they immediately take off. So that is my first idea about how to keep Starlings away from your feeders – try putting the feeders within view of a window where there is human activity. Some birds are more tolerant of people, for example on my deck Carolina Wrens, Robins and Song Sparrows will not only tolerate me looking at them through the window but will sometimes accept my presence with them on the deck as well.
Another idea is to serve food that Starlings don’t like – that is difficult to do, since they eat almost anything. They cannot open the shells of sunflower seeds, so you might try feeding sunflower seeds with the shells on.
Another tactic I’ve seen recommended on other web sites is to remove perches on your feeders so that other birds can access the seeds but Starlings cannot because they say Starlings need a perch. Based on my own observations, I’m skeptical about this, but who knows, it might work on small feeders. I’ve seen Starlings cling to surfaces with no perch just fine, they even spread their short tails out like a woodpecker does to use as a prop, but the absence of a perch on a small tube feeder where there is not enough room to prop the tail might deter them. Another idea is to smear suet on a pine cone and hang it, allowing small clinging birds to access the suet but making it difficult for the Starlings. Others recommend putting wire mesh around the feeder that allows small birds in but excludes Starlings. That should work but of course will exclude all larger birds.
A squirrel baffle over a feeder is said to deter Starlings because they don’t like going under a cover. This I can believe – my two Starlings hate it when I pass a hand or arm over them, so I try not to do that. I also don’t cover their cage at night because it frightens them. They are also said not to like feeding while hanging upside down, so any feeder that makes the bird feed this way will probably not be attractive to them.
If you like Starlings but just wish they would give the other birds a chance too, you might also try providing a separate feeding area that appeals to Starlings more than other birds. A platform feeder stocked with cat food is perfect for Starlings. You could augment the cat food with vegetable and culinary herb scraps left over from your cooking if you have any, my two Starlings love vegetables, greens and herbs, both cooked and raw. Just leave out the avocados, onions and garlic – they are toxic to birds. There is a risk in this strategy, Starling flocks can be big enough to take over ALL the feeders if they are in the area – also you’ll get other animals – but it might be worth trying as a temporary measure to give your other backyard birds a break. If this type of feeder accidentally attracts crows and ravens, that can be a good thing, they will help drive off predatory hawks and falcons with their mobbing behavior.
You don’t have to rely only on feeders to attract birds. I’m not allowed to put out bird food where I live, so I provide a water feature that gives the birds filtered, and in the winter heated water for drinking and bathing. This attracts quite a few birds. I also have a lot of bird-attracting plants in my garden and when I’m able I leave the seed-heads standing all winter to provide food. Rose of Sharon, Purple Coneflower and Korean Hyssop seem to be particularly attractive to small birds such as finches. Woody plants like the Rose of Sharon will support the Starlings’ weight while feeding but many of the herbaceous plants won’t so the smaller birds can get a good chance at the seed. Starlings are imported to our continent – a greater proportion of native plants in your yard may bring an increase in native birds to give the starlings some competition. Areas of leaf litter also attract birds for invertebrate foraging – this is worth trying if you have an area of your yard that you don’t mind leaving in a more natural state. You can even include a dust bath area if you want to, since Starlings adore water baths and some other birds would rather have a dust bath.
Starlings have been doing what they do for 20 million years, and stopping them will not be easy. If it makes you feel any better, the fact that there are Starlings in the vicinity means that you will have fewer lawn grubs, tent caterpillars, Japanese beetles, stink bugs and other insect pests. Starlings are perfect eating machines for lawn grubs – their beaks have more force in the opening than the closing, and are suited for prying in the dirt and grass and exposing invertebrate prey – watch this great video to see this action from an insect’s point of view!
It might prove more productive to enjoy Starlings rather than try to fight them. Whichever way you want to go, it’s helpful to understand more about them. I recommend the following resources for learning more about Starlings.
This project was so easy that I worked on it up at the Schnarr’s cash register between customers!
When I got a new dishwasher this spring, I decided to get rid of my broken garbage disposal rather than purchase a new one. When it was working, I rarely used it anyway since I composted almost anything that would normally go down it. In a way it’s kind of a bad habit because I already have more than enough stuff but I do enjoy saving odds and ends of things I might be able to re-use and seeing if I can make them into something useful. My Dad installed my new dishwasher for me and removed the old garbage disposal and he gave me several ringlike parts that he thought I might be able to use for something. One of them fits perfectly a glass part of a broken fountain/mister that someone else gave me.
The glass bowl-like object rests nicely in the ring, so I decided to make a butterfly feeder out of it. The ring has three rolled tabs protruding around the outside edge. It was an easy matter to thread some chain through these tabs to suspend the feeder. From Schnarr’s I purchased some chain of a suitable guage and some small s-hooks to link the chain pieces together.
First I made three short equal lengths of chain. I pulled chain links apart with pliers to separate.
Next I threaded the small chain pieces through the rolled tabs to make loops, securing each with a small s-hook that I pinched closed.
Next I cut three equal longer lengths of chain and secured them to each small loop by pinching closed the other end of each s-hook. Then I gathered the three chain lengths together and the top and secured them with another s-hook which can be used to suspend the feeder from a beam, tree branch or stand.
At right is how the finished butterfly feeder turned out.
What food should one put in a butterfly feeder? If you have visited the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House in Faust Park you have probably seen plate feeders stocked with fruit in the conservatory. Butterflies like to sip juices from the fruit and according to Sally Roth, author of one of my all-time favorite gardening books “Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard”, they like it even better if it’s fermenting. That’s a good way to get use out of fruit that has gone bad.
Other foods that Roth suggests offering in butterfly feeders:
A clean chemical-free sponge or kitchen scrubber soaked in sugar water
Meat and fish scraps – especially if they are juicy
Fungi – if you don’t like to leave the fungal growths that pop up spontaneously in the garden in place, you could add them to the butterfly feeder – the butterflies will appreciate it!
It is evident that some foods that butterflies like are not attractive to humans. What you choose to add to the feeder may depend on your tolerance for odors or the possibility of attracting other wildlife. If you do not want other insects such as wasps and bees to access the food, you can make a cover from window screen or wire mesh that will allow the butterflies to poke their long proboscises through the screen into the food while excluding other insects.
I’m writing this toward the end of summer so there is not a whole lot of time this year for butterflies to make use of my new feeder. When the weather gets too cold for butterflies I’ll hang the feeder from a ceiling hook near a window in my home and use it as a plant hanger! In the fall I can always use extra space for plants when it’s time to bring them inside – they have a way of multiplying in the warm months, don’t they? I’ll put the feeder back out in late winter, perhaps even before flowers are in bloom, so that early-emerging butterflies can get something to eat if they need it.