Sunrise 28: Ault Park (Mushrooms, Aphid Farming Ants, and Lady Bugs)
When I left our apartment this morning, the first thing that hit me was how the “thunderstorm” that was expected last night at 2am never showed up. The air was still thick and wet, something I hoped would go away as the expected front cleaned out the humidity this morning. There was a bit of a haze, but the atmosphere was clear of clouds for the most part giving the air a vibrant feel to it. I wouldn’t call it a fog because you couldn’t see any clouds manifest themselves from the overlook, but the entire valley (and the sun) had a visibility that seemed to stop abruptly about 4 miles away.
The air this morning was warm and sweet, not to mention wet. It reminded me in general of how it feels on a warm sticky summer morning, but it wasn’t quite hot enough to be a nuisance. It was, honestly, just about perfect. My morning routine was finally complete, because I finally was able to make coffee after stopping at Trader Joe’s on the way home from work last night, so I enjoyed my first couple of cups as I waited for the orange accent to become a delayed hazy sunrise.
In the meantime I meandered over to the underside of the overlook and I found some fresh mushrooms that have recently come to life. They had that perfectly soft white foamy appearance to them so of course I had to take a picture to document them. In fact, the mushrooms I took pictures of Sunday night up in Alms Park are already starting to shrivel and age just two days later. If you’re on the front page, please click to continue, there are like 40 pictures in this post! –>
The sun was completely blocked by this haze for the first half hour of the sunrise. After awhile a small orange accent started to form in the upper horizon area. The sun eventually blasted through the haze, providing tight succinct photo opportunities before becoming so bright that the light seemed to wash out the pictures as if it were 01:00pm in the afternoon.
I was in a pretty good mood this morning given the combination of fresh coffee, a beautiful non-stormy atmosphere, and one other thing! Today is the day that my “article” shows up in the local “Eastern Hills Journal”. I’m planning on picking up a few copies after work 🙂
These two pictures are of my trusty 26oz Nissan Thermos.
As the morning went on, I found myself noticing more subtle signs of spring than I normally would. Because of the “late” sunrise I had to have the patience to sit and wait it out. In the meantime I began to notice that there were several new species of birds hanging around. I couldn’t get a good picture of them, but I think I saw several red and yellow wrens. Their calls were new to me and a welcome addition to the morning ambiance.
One thing that stuck out to me was how loud the bumblebees were. I typically don’t notice them in the moring, but today was different. I even heard, several times, a bumblebee crash down into the bush I was observing and noisily re-orient itself before flying out from the bush into the sky. One particular time I heard a loud buzzing followed by something hitting the patio 15 feet from me. I walked over to the patio and saw bumblebee lying on the ground, dead as a doornail. I then looked around and saw 4 other bumblebees, also dead, within 20 feet of the area. They had not been carried away by the local ants, yet, so they had to be fresh. I looked up and saw that there were several bumblebees in the middle of what at first I thought was a mating ritual, but as it turns out (I think) was some kind of mating or territorial fight. The bees would engage in the air, about 30 feet above me, and twirl around and twist as they fell towards the ground. The bees would disengage just before hitting the overlook or the cement, and fly after each other, tumbling into bushes and flipping into the trees. I imagine that they are fighting for total dominance over a female, I can’t imagine fighting that hard over nothing more than territory. For whatever reason they have chosen the overlook as their dueling grounds, explaining the five carcasses I found in the area.
As I was sitting alone at the overlook I noticed that there were several ants scurrying along by the metal base of the outlook support column. They were surveying the land, trying to find some food for their morning forage. I followed their trail back to their nest, and it seems that they have made a home underneath the wooden beam. I also saw my first “Lazarus Lizard” of the spring although I only caught his tail. You see, the Lazarus Lizards are a transplant species that can be found everywhere in Cincinnati, and they have now spread to the suburbs and into Indiana. They can all be traced back to four lizards that a young boy of the Lazarus Family brought back to Cincinnati from Italy in the 1950s. They survive the winter by burrowing into the ivy on the hills and enjoy a leisurely life basking in the sun. They are even protected under a recent addition to Ohio’s Native Species list. I’ll devote a future post to these guys, as I forgot to add them to the title of this post. Oops!
On the next beam over I saw some movement from a bigger species of ant. A species I know so well. The midwest carpenter ant. My parent’s home that I grew up in was made mostly of wood and brick and we battled constantly against their yearly invasions. Aside from being a residential nuisance, they are fascinating to watch because they can become so large. Their soldier caste have these giant heads and tower over the small forest ant species by several orders of magnitude. They are so large, in fact, that I rarely see them mess around with the other small ant species (I HAVE IDENTIFIED THEM AS APHID FARMERS); they seem to get along and stay out of each other’s way. The carpenter ants were burrowing into a small hole between the wooden post and the metal base, making neat piles of tiny pieces of wet mulch. Earlier in the morning while I was sitting on the bench I saw something fall down from the canopies above me and land by my foot. A spider carcass. At the time I couldn’t come up with an explanation, but now it appears that the carpenter ants are doing some spring cleaning and were likely throwing out their waste from a nest entrance up on top of the overlook.
In case you can’t tell, I have an abnormal fascination with ants. I remember as a 9 year old kid, while living in South America and going through the third grade in Ilheus, Bahia, Brasil, I would sit for hours at the base of an enormous Cashew tree outside of our house and watch the leaf cutter ants as they made their journey up to the canopy of the tree and back down carrying a piece of leaf the size of a nickel. Their single file line could be traced sometimes hundreds of yards away, through the grass and across the road, through the bushes and up the wall until emptying out into a giant anthill. They disappeared into the nest where the leafs are chewed up and fed to their fungus farms. I’m not joking. If the ants got boring (never!) I could always find the green caterpillars the size of a hotdog with bright red and yellow barbs sticking out from all over its body, or the grass hoppers the size of tooth brushes that would swarm like sparrows, flying for miles at a time.
Part of what got me interested in studying complex adaptive systems and biological adaptation both as a hobby and related to my master’s work is the fact that many interesting computer models are based off of the ant’s social behavior. The “macro-level” behavior that manifests itself as a result of the individual ants working on simple and monotonous tasks have fascinated ecologists, economists, biologists, and computer scientists for decades (if not millennia). As one example, consider that a colony can “decide” to build a new wing for their growing population. That wing can take up to 24 months to complete from start to finish. The average ant in that colony, excluding the queen, has a life span of only 3 months. That means it can take up to 10 generations of ants to complete the project. And yet they do it flawlessly, without hesitation. How do they do it without guidance? Even the queen herself gives no instructions, her job is to lay eggs. They do it by communicating to each other and acting on local conditions. These local interactions done by each ant adds up and creates a “higher level” plane of behavior that can be identified not by the individuals making up the behavior, but as an action that is “executed” by the colony as a super-organism. A common phrase in the study of complex systems is that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. A fascinating book with so much more information in the “coffee table” version of the famous “Journey to the Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson (amazon referral link).
As I was watching the entrance to the nest of the smaller species, something interesting started to happen. As the sun came up in the background, the volume of ants leaving the nest started to increase until there was a thick crawling mess of ants outside the nest. I accidentally set my arm in their line. They didn’t bite, but it reminded me of that scene from “A Bug’s Life”, I can’t remember which, when the leaf falls across a line of worker ants and everyone freaks out. For once, a video that I can’t find on the Internet. The movie was from 1998, so it is understandable.
They filed out in their single file line and led me across the patio where they all hopped up on a fallen leaf into a small bush. I checked back 20 minutes later and there were hardly any ants in the line, let alone outside the entrance. It appears I witnessed the morning rush hour 🙂 Taking the ant pictures was kind of hilarious to me. I kind of felt like a “focus trapper”. What I mean is that my camera is an “auto-focus” type. I can certainly guide it, but in the end it makes up its own mind. So what I had to do with these quick ants is set the camera to “standby” ahead of time, causing it to focus on a specific piece of the foreground. I had to time it so that an ant would run into this foreground at some point in the near future, when I would take my shot. It worked out for several pictures.
The small bush, as it turns out, was absolutely flush with insect life. I have been waiting patiently all these mornings for the “insect season” to start, and it appears that now is the time. I ended up sticking around for way too long, drinking way too much coffee, and taking way too many pictures – something I hadn’t planned on doing after the research project I undertook on Sunday. I’m unsure of the species of bush, but what is important is that A) it will flower in the next few weeks, I can tell by the young green blossoms that are growing at the tips of each branch B) There are ladybugs mating and hanging all around the bush because C) there are HERDS of what I believe are aphids. This is a very important ecological environment for all three of these species – the aphids, the ladybugs, and the ants. I run across this situation throughout the year and if fascinates me every time. Ladybug, trying to get in on the action.
A larger ant, perhaps a carpenter or even a soldier from the herder species.
The ants are known as “Aphid Herders”. What happens is that the ants protect the aphids from the ladybugs, who are actually great hunters. The aphids cluster together while the ants walk among them, cleaning them and milking them for “honey”, or sugar water that they excrete. The aphids feed on the plant by sucking water and juice from the stem. There were many ladybugs on the plant, no doubt attracted by the tens of clusters of aphids. The ants were bouncing back and forth between the several clusters of aphids, sometimes leaving the aphids alone to fend for themselves before returning after a little while.
One important lesson, of course, is that where there are ants, aphids, and ladybugs, there are also spiders. There were several species of spiders that I found on the bush, probably many more that were too well hidden. One species had a small web laid across a leaf, the other two were waiting on the underside of the leaves for an unsuspecting victim.
As the sun became more intense (by this time it would have been around 8:00am, 1.5 hours after sunrise and time for me to get to work!) I stopped by to take some final pictures of another blooming bush nearby. This bush had several red beetles on it that were not ladybugs, or at least not the familiar round ladybugs we are all used to. There were more spiders on this bush as well.
Great shot of the aphids. Look at how many of them there are! There’s even a caterpillar in the mix. I prefer them out here over in my herb garden, where they wrecked havoc last year against the young plants 😦
Final shot of the valley, the sun high in the air. I’ve stayed much longer than I anticipated.
An old Asian man, I believe but am not certain he was Chinese, stopped by to see what I was taking a picture of. He showed interest in the leafs of the bush and the clusters of aphids that I pointed out. He was a friendly man who talked slowly, and he told me a rule of thumb that the mountainous people in China, Japan, and Vietnam use who don’t have access to a doctor. Aside from acupuncture, which he told me he performs on himself because it is too expensive in America, he said that green herbs can help your liver, white and roots can help your lungs, red things go to your heart, and black (like black/blue berries) go to your kidneys. My impression was that he was well over 70, maybe 80, years old, so I’m certainly going to consider his advice 🙂