Wool Carder Bees

Silene coronaria

Mullein Pink

I saw an insect in my yard today that I did not recognize. Hovering as if it were a fly, it darted around a Mullein Pink (Silene coronaria). When it landed I could see it was a bee of some type; however, bees are not normally this jumpy or skittish. It rolled the Mullein Pink’s white, felt-like fuzz into a little ball. Eventually it flew away carrying the ball gripped in four of its legs. If alarmed, it flew off abandoning its little rolled ball.

Silene coronaria

Abandoned ball of plant fuzz – L                                      Stem of Mullein Pink showing fuzz – R

It was a European Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) gathering plant material from a species which naturally grew within its native range. They pack their brood cells with plant hairs, add pollen and nectar, then lay an egg. They nest in a pre-existing cavity or on a building.

Anthidium manicatum

Wool Carder Bee collecting plant material from Mullein Pink

This species is black and yellow and could be confused with a Yellowjacket. Wool Carder Bees have more black than a Yellowjacket, orange legs, and tend to hold their wings over their abdomen.  Also, they are solitary bees not social nesters like Yellowjackets.

Insects are fascinating to observe. They are diverse and I still find new species in my yard, even after 25-years. I wonder where the nest is.


Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Spittlebugs: Nature’s Meringue Makers


Spittlebug foam masses on host plants

Recently, I was asked what causes the frothy masses on the stems of some plants. They are formed by the nymphs of Froghoppers and are known as Spittlebugs. In North America there are approximately 30 species in seven genera and they are part of the family Aphrophora. Nymphs are 4mm [3/16 inch] long. Adult forms are inconspicuous and if I have seen them I did not identify them.


Spittlebug nymphs with foam removed

Spittlebugs drain fluids from the plant, combine it with a glandular secretion, and then blow it out of their anus. Foam is a combination of bubbles created when this mixture is blown out and added bubbles formed by the flexing of plates along the body of the nymph. Extending its body causes plates to separate, then they are rapidly contracted which whips the solution. This results in a foam that is stiff and difficult to remove. The foam protects them from predators and I believe shields them from sunlight. When under my photographic floodlights the nymph kept moving to the side of the stem opposite the light.


Spittlebug nymph generating foam by extending and contracting its abdomen.

Spittlebugs feed on a wide range of herbaceous plants and also on pines (Pinus spp.) While the stem may become stunted I can see no real damage to the overall plant. Spittlebugs raise only one generation a year in the Great Lakes region. In mid-summer the foamy masses disappear as the nymphs mature.

Spittlebugs should be around for the next few weeks. Get out and look for them. You might find some in your own yard. If you remove the foam from one please do it only once. Nature is fascinating to study but we must do it without causing her harm.

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Botrychium matricariifolium

Moonwort habitat – L                                                             Daisy-leaved Moonwort – R

Moonworts or Grape Ferns are small ferns. Most are less than 10cm [4 inches] tall. Herb Wagner called them “belly plants.” They have a vegetative blade, called a trophophore, and a separate fertile segment, called a sporophore. Sporophores resemble tiny clusters of grapes hence the common name. Characteristics of the vegetative blade help to distinguish the species. As you learn the plants other subtle features become apparent such as the color of the plant, timing of spore dispersal, and branching of the fertile segment. The Michigan Flora website has a workable key and range maps. Another great resource is Dr. Farrar’s work found on the Ada Hayden Herbarium website. This site includes species treatments of all of our Moonworts.

Moonworts grow along stable sand dunes or in fields that have had mild disturbances. I find them growing under Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) or Apple (Malus spp.) trees with Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron spp), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), Hawkweed (Hieracium spp.), or Wild Strawberry (Fragaria spp.). These habitats are not where most botanists look for native ferns. They also grow along stream banks and along deer paths and old dirt roads through woods. The plants cannot withstand competition from other vegetation and require some type of minor disturbance in order to survive.


Daisy-leaved Moonwort             (Botrychium matricariifolium)

When I began studying this genus there were five species known from Michigan. Now there are eleven species and perhaps one more still unnamed.

Botrychium simplex

Least Moonwort   (B. simplex)

I recently visited a colony that once had seven different species but now could only find Daisy-leaved Moonwort (Botrychium matricariifolium) and Least Moonwort (B. simplex). Dense grass moved into this old orchard choking out Moonworts. At one time there were 15,000 individuals in this colony. Now there are no more than 500 plants. The National Guard used this field for helicopter gunship firing which tore up the sod slightly, allowing the plants to flourish. After we discovered two threatened Moonworts species, Michigan Moonwort (B. michiganense), and Prairie Moonwort (B. campestre), the Guard discontinued firing to “protect” the area. Currently the sod is too dense and Moonworts are dying out.

Botrychium minganense

Mingan Moonwort                       (B. minganense)

In the 1990s we discovered a colony of 20,000-30,000 Moonworts along ten miles of forest service road in the Upper Peninsula. We visited the area in 2003 and noticed that the road shoulders were growing up. Last weekend we found about fifty plants of four species, Daisy-leaved Moonwort,  Moonwort (B. neolunaria), Mingan Moonwort (B. minganense), and Spatulate Moonwort (B. spathulatum) along the road. Plants occurred mostly on sandbanks kept a little raw by erosion. Lumbering is not happening in the area so road grading is not disturbing the road shoulders and keeping them open.

Botrychium neolunaria

Moonwort               (B. neolunaria)

Moonworts are more difficult to find now than they were 25-years ago. Tony Reznicek stated that Michigan’s open areas are growing up. I believe he is correct.

For such an inconspicuous plant a great deal of lore surrounds it. If you place a Moonwort into a box and leave it overnight it will produce silver. Herb and I tried it and it did not work. Herb said it would have been easier than getting National Science Foundation grants.  Moonwort opens any lock that its spores are placed into. If a horse walks over a plant it will throw a shoe. It is also an ingredient in several love potions.

June and July are the best months for hunting Moonworts. Most species disperse their spores and  wither away before August. Get out and look for plants. They might be difficult to identify to species but they are still fun to find.


Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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