Thursday, June 25, 2009

When pillbugs come marching in

The heat is on across the Rolling Plains, and we two-legged critters are not the only creatures affected by these triple-digit days. If you live with domestic animals, dear reader, please insure that they have access to shade, to whatever breeze may blow and to fresh water!

Critters of the wild suffer as well through the dog days of summer. Most of us who feed wild birds also put out fresh water, typically several times a day, for the birds. In fact, if you want to attract birds to your yard, water attracts far more birds than food, no matter what time of year.

And then there are
Armadillidium vulgare, a.k.a. pillbugs, sowbugs, roly polies, woodlice and even Armadillo bugs. Our entire 15 acres down at the nature center are crawling with them, and just this past week or so since the outside temperatures have been cranking up, these little isopods have been invading our air-conditioned buildings in impressive numbers.

Yes, I said "isopods", for the common pillbug is not a bug at all. Like I tell the kids, put one in your hand on its back, and wait for it to open up from its tight ball posture. Look close and you will see seven pairs of legs! By my 3rd-grade arithmetic that's 14 legs in all; and the last time I checked, insects still have but six.

In fact, the lowly pillbug as a group is the most successful of all land-dwelling crustaceans, numbering some 5,000 species. As crustaceans they are kin to shrimp, crawfish, lobsters and the like, and therein lies a connection as to why these guys come marching into all manner of man-made structures each summer. They, too, are looking for water!

Isopods go back at least 300 million years to the primordial seas of the Pennsylvanian epoch. Today their breathing organs remain more like gills than lungs, so they must have a moist habitat in order to survive. Therefore, these little guys are not invading your house to get to your house plants! They just need a cool, damp place to breathe.

Okay, IF they happen to find your house plants, they are not above snacking on them. But for the most part pillbugs and other kinds of woodlice dine on organic debris, helping to breakdown plant material into soil. As such they pose positively no threat to people nor any other animals, with the possible exception of nature center field guides.

You see, once a kid on a field tour discovers the roly polies, it's nigh on to impossible for the guide to get the groups' attention focused anywhere else!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Red ants never say die

Back in the day, what's now called Gordon Lake over at Iowa Park had no name. What it did have was shrub mesquite, grass burs, yellowjackets, huge red ants and some of the best fishing in this part of the country. To hear my folks tell it at the time, the fishing more than compensated for the stickers, stabbers, scratchers, stingers and little red bastards bent on feasting on five-year-old human flesh.

That first encounter with Pogonomyrmex barbatus, or, red harvester ant, on the banks of Lake Gordon gave me a healthy respect for the breed. From that day forward I always gave a red ant bed a wide berth.

Fast forward some 55 years and the familiar ant beds of yesteryear are few and far between. Widespread application of agricultural and residential pesticides have all but wiped out the red ant and with it the Texas horned lizard.

Last year I was heartened to discover no less than three red ant colonies thriving on the grounds of River Bend Nature Center. Having established ant colonies meant that one day we might be able to have horned lizards, long a dream of mine for the nature center.

Unfortunately, our red ants were living where new parking lots were to be constructed around our new learning center. Anyone who has tried to relocate a colony of ants knows that the project is doomed to failure. Anyone who has tried to forestall "progress" for the sake of an ant has about the same dismal chance for success. I tried the latter and my appeal never even made it as far as the board of directors.

All three ant colonies were buried beneath rebar and concrete. I figured that was that.

Earlier this spring as I was walking across the new parking lot, a scurrying movement at the curb caught my attention. After some fairly decent warm days, the weather had returned to cold and miserable, yet there at my feet a red harvester ant scout snooped along the concrete gutter. I stood motionless for several minutes, scanning the pavement. Only a few were out and about, but there were enough to track them back to their colony in the southeast corner of the lot.

We may not ever get a resident population of horned lizards here at the nature center. But I am proud to report all three ant colonies survived and are thriving today. Maybe that will have to be good enough, I don't know.