What’s around – mid October

Still no rain* – at all** – and any area which doesn’t get watered by people is tinder dry or has already gone up in flames. People in one of our outer southern suburbs were under evacuation warning earlier this week but fortunately the threat was averted. We had a couple of days in the mid-thirties a couple of weeks ago, and then temperatures dropped again for a while but they are back up now and many of us suspect they are going to stay up – meaning daily highs of 32 – 36C and overnight lows around 20C. Humidity is up a little, too.

Hervey's Range Road
Hervey's Range Road, near the foot of the range: the undergrowth has been burnt out leaving the trees almost unharmed, and the grass will regrow with the first rain.

With all that, we are seeing a wider variety of insect life in the garden but not much increase in absolute numbers. Amongst the butterflies, Lemon Migrants, Ulysses, Orchard Swallowtail, Clearwing Swallowtail and Pale Triangle have joined Cairns Birdwings as frequent visitors, and all our recent residents – Chocolate Soldier, Crow and Eggfly – are still around (although still mostly male Eggfly; I have only seen one female). There are still Magpie Moths and the little grass moths, and a few more Hesperidae than we have been seeing.

Striped ichneumonid wasp
Ichneumonid wasp 1
White-tailed ichneumonid wasp
Ichneumonid wasp 2

Of the wasps and bees, the success stories are ichneumonid wasps, colourful mid-size to small critters with unpleasant baby-feeding habits, and my Blue-bum Bee, Amegilla. Of the flies, hover-flies still rule but there are lots of others as well; and I saw a Crane-fly pogo-ing around laying eggs in the soft dirt recently. Dragonflies have been returning intermittently and we have seen some of the smaller grasshopper species, a mating pair of giant grasshoppers, some ladybirds and a few shield bugs and pod-sucking bugs. Also, I’m less happy to report, a noticeable build-up of mozzie numbers. Oh well, the wonderful winter makes up for the less-wonderful summer.

I’ve been tracking spider numbers after a conversation with a southerner about the best time for a collecting trip up here in relation to our Wet/Dry seasons, and it’s looking tricky: we have had hardly any of the orb-weavers for a couple of months now but in the last few weeks I have been seeing lots of little ambush predators – Lynx and Flower Spiders (1, 2)in particular.

* What does ‘no rain’ look like on the map?

  • Qld July 1 – Sept 30 shows Townsville having had less than 25 mm in three months. (Compare it to the Jan 1 – March 31 map and you really see the Wet and the Dry.)
  • Qld September is even more impressive: Townsville is just on the edge of the white 0 – 1 mm area.

** Until after I finished writing the above. Let history record that on the evening of October 14, we had our first rain in six weeks and a pretty good thunderstorm. But I’m not going to rewrite my blog post!!

Native bees

Native bee on stamen of red lily
Native bee collecting pollen from the stamen of a lily.

To most people a bee is the common honey bee which Europeans domesticated centuries ago and brought with them to Australia, but there are many kinds of native bees here.

Most are solitary but some forms colonies (hives or nests, usually in tree hollows) like the European bee, and make honey to feed their young. Aboriginal people have raided their nests since the Dreamtime and European settlers in northern Australia followed suit – my wife grew up on a sheep property near Hughenden and recalls her father cutting nests from their trees, bringing them home and straining out the honey by hanging it in a muslin bag.

These days some people are keeping hives of native bees the same way they would keep European bees – ‘Bob the Bee Man‘, for instance (and there is lots of how-to info at Aussie Bee). One of our local primary schools, Hermit Park SS, has even kept some as an environmental studies project.

The bees in question are variously called ‘Native bees’ (because they are), ‘Stingless bees’ (because they are, but they will bite instead if threatened) or ‘Sweat bees’ (because they will land on bare skin to drink your sweat). The one in my photos here is either Trigona carbonaria or its close relation Trigona hockingsi. They are much smaller than European bees – only about 4 mm long, around the size of an ordinary house fly.

Native bee flying towards lily
Coming back for more – although already heavily loaded

P.S. I said ‘many’ kinds of native bees – then I found this site and discovered just how many: 2000 species and counting!

Red lily
The lily

What’s around – mid September

Shield Bug on trunk of paperbark tree
Shield Bug on trunk of paperbark tree - quite well camouflaged, but he won't get any sap out of it!

Still no rain to speak of, in spite of indications to the contrary, so there is little change in the insect life except a continued dwindling of numbers. The garden is presently dominated by wasps and flies – hover-flies are doing particularly well, and we have more orange-and-black Plecia flies than I have ever seen before – while spiders are almost absent; there are no Silver Orb-weavers or St Andrew’s Cross spiders and even the spiky Austracantha have almost vanished.

Looking for butterflies I see (still) plenty of Junonia hedonia, quite a few Crows, Evening Browns and Dingy Bush Browns but (still) no Eurema. There are increasing numbers of Eggfly, both Common and Blue-banded but (curiously) all male. There are one or two male Cairns Birdwings around, too, but no females. I wonder why? My best guess is that gender balance is somehow controlled by humidity, so that there are not too many caterpillars until there is ample food for them.

What else do we have? A few sap-sucking Shield Bugs, like the one above but smarter; the occasional Ladybird and Giant Grasshopper; just one dragonfly and one praying mantis in the last couple of weeks; and quite a few tiny moths, although the only moth big enough to notice is the Magpie Moth. And so it goes … I think we’ll need some good rain before we see more activity. Latest predictions are that we’ll get quite a lot from La Nina, though not as much as we had last year.

What’s around – mid August

The days are gradually lengthening and warming, although not by much: we are now reaching 27-29C some days instead of 25 a month ago, but nights are still dropping to 12C. There is still very little rain, which means that grass fires have continued around Townsville – and as far South as Rockhampton, too. Up here, grass fires end when the Wet arrives, around November, but South of the Sunshine Coast they are only beginning at that time of year.

Chocolate Soldiers (Junonia hedonia) are still the most common butterfly in our garden, with the Dingy Bush Brown (Mycalesis perseus) runner-up; the Common Crow probably comes third, with occasional Cairns Birdwings, Migrants, Blue-banded Eggfly and Common Eggfly making up the remainder of the field – oh, and a few Hesperiidae, the tribe of smallish butterflies which I wrote about in my previous post.

Moving away from butterflies …

Small spiky spiders (Gasteracantha and Austracantha) are still spreading their webs across every path in the garden, while a few Silver Orb-weavers and St Andrews Cross spiders keep their species going. It’s the same story with wasps and bees: a few representatives of most species (Delta mud-daubers, Polistes paper wasps, a tiny Chalcid, the blue-banded Amegilla, etc) but not many of any of them. Giant grasshoppers, ‘true bugs’ (Hemiptera) and beetles (Coleoptera) are likewise still around but in small numbers.

Flies, however, are going strong, especially hover-flies (Syrphidae). There are around 6000 species of hover-flies worldwide. Many of them mimic wasps or bees but they are all quite harmless and most are nectar and pollen feeders. Larvae (yes, maggots) of some species are useful to us because they eat insect pests such as aphids and thrips, while others recycle decaying plant matter.

Hover-fly on begonia
Hover-fly on begonia

Neon Cuckoo Bee

Bright blue and black bee feeding on sweet basil flower
Neon Cuckoo Bee feeding on Sweet Basil flower

This is an insect which has been eluding me for at least a year, since I first saw a very bright blue insect (wasp? fly? bee?) flying around my lawn. I have only seen them occasionally since then – perhaps half a dozen times altogether – and they always vanished too fast to identify. All I was sure of, until this one was good enough to permit a photo, was that they were about the size of a honey bee.

As the common name says, it is a bee – a native Australian bee, in fact – and ‘Neon’ obviously comes from its colour, but what about ‘Cuckoo’?

Well, it lays eggs in another species’ nest, just as real cuckoos do. To quote Wikipedia, “The female neon cuckoo bee seeks out the burrow nests of the blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata), and lays an egg into a partly completed brood cell while it is unguarded. The larval cuckoo bee then consumes the larder and later emerges from the cell.” Its victim, the Blue-banded Bee, is a common sight in my garden and a photo appeared in this recent post.

The Cuckoo Wasp I wrote about in March uses the same reproductive strategy (see the Brisbane Insects page about them for more information). I wonder if any other kinds of animal do?