Randi V.W. Eckel, PhD

Feb. 5, 2016

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Happy Cross Quarter!

That's right, even if you have never heard of it, this week is Cross Quarter which means we are halfway between the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice) and the First Day of spring (March 20th aka the spring equinox). It's always nice to know spring is on its way, regardless of what the Groundhog has to say.

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Redosier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

We have been admiring all of the lovely winter shapes that our native plants have provided for us: their seed pods, fruits, stems, even their bark! Our wildlife depend upon these food resources and shelter to make it through the winter. Winter fruits and seeds are critical for our winter birds, and many of our butterflies, moths, native bees and beneficial insects of all kinds overwinter in hollow stems, attached to dried stems, rolled in leafy nests, or tucked under downed leaves or pieces of bark. In the early spring, standing plant material is also a critical source of nest building materials for birds. I have noticed that Baltimore Orioles are particularly fond of stripping fibers off of old, standing Milkweed stems to use when weaving their nests.

Wild Yam (Diocorea villosa)

American Bladdernut (Staphylea americana)

We were fortunate to have encountered the egg cases of 2 different species of Praying Mantis when we were in the Pine Barrens back in December with the Philadelphia Botanical Club. These are fascinating structures! Many folks first discover what these are when an undetected egg case hatches on their Christmas tree and they suddenly have hundreds of tiny, hungry predators creeping amongst their Christmas ornaments!

Chinese Mantid egg case (left) and Carolina Mantid egg case (right)

Much to many people's surprise, we actually have 3 species of Preying Mantids in our area - only 1 of which is native to North America! The larger Mantises that most folks notice are actually Chinese Mantids (Tenodera sinensis) which will grow to 4-5" long when mature. These insects were originally introduced into the US near Philadelphia back in 1896. Their populations have been exploding around here in recent years and there is some speculation that this is due, at least in part, to their ability to feast upon the recently introduced Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys) which also comes from Asia (introduced and first detected near Allentown, PA in 1998). These large mantids are equal opportunity predators, and will eat a surprising array of creatures, including Monarch Butterflies and even Hummingbirds that stray within their grasp. We also have the European Mantid in our area (Mantis religiosa). European Mantids were originally introduced into the US back in the 1890's near Rochester, NY. These somewhat smaller mantids only grow to about 2 or 3" long.

Our native mantid, the Carolina Mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) is even smaller yet, and mature adults only reach about about 1.75-2.25" long. These diminutive native Mantids are often overlooked due to their small size or mistaken for immature (aka baby) versions of the much larger Chinese Mantids. Carolina Mantids are found throughout Central American and as far north as s. NY, though they are much more common in the southern portions or their range. We hope you'll enjoy the tail end of winter and keep an eye out for all of the 'gems' you can find outdoors in the winter, if you just take the time to look.

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