Archive for October, 2016

Woolly Bear

I couldn’t help re-posting this!

The fuzzy little travelers are all over the road these days! I’m sad that most of the ones I have seen are more brown than black. I hope they are wrong! I’d love to see some big snowstorms this winter! Read on and enjoy!

Happy Fall everyone!


Why does the woolly bear cross the road?

The woolly bears seem to be on a mission! So many are crossing the road these days – and they’re not dilly-dallying either! They’re moving along at a pretty good clip – for a caterpillar that is! I find it very curious.

Woolly bears curl up in a tight ball when disturbed.

Woolly bears curl up in a tight ball
when they are disturbed.

Driving to work in the morning, I’ll see four or five at a time crawling across the highway. Then I’ll go a little further and find several more booking it across the road. I try to avoid them but there is only so much you can do. They seem to be everywhere.

So, why DO woolly bears cross the road? Good question! Most of what I’ve read says that they are just looking for a place to overwinter and the road just happens to cross their path. I suppose that is as good an explanation as any but if I walked through the woods or through a field, would I come across as many as I see on the road? I wonder …

A solid black leopard moth caterpillar. The bright red bands become obvious when they curl up.

A solid black leopard moth caterpillar.
The bright red bands become obvious
when they curl up.

I did see several in one of my gardens this weekend when I was doing some weeding and mulching. I picked one up and he immediately curled up in a tight little ball so characteristic of these caterpillars. I even found a large solid black “woolly bear”. This guy was a different species from the banded woolly bears that I was used to seeing. It turns out that he was the larval form of the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribionia), a really pretty white tiger moth with a beautiful pattern of black circles and rings covering its wings. You can definitely tell where its name comes from! The caterpillar is solid black with narrow bands of red between the segments.

The characteristic red bands are difficult to see when the caterpillar isn't curled up in its defensive posture.

The characteristic red bands of the giant leopard moth caterpillar
are difficult to see when it isn’t curled up in its defensive posture.

Banded woolly bears are the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella). The adult moth of this species isn’t nearly as colorful as the beautiful giant leopard moth but its caterpillars are pretty adorable! There are usually at least two generations of these moths during the season. The last generation normally hatches out around August and these will overwinter in the larval caterpillar stage – the familiar, loveable woolly bears. Fortunately, these guys are not considered to be major pests in the garden.

A woolly bear crosses the gravel driveway at the nursery.

A woolly bear crosses the gravel
driveway at the nursery.

In the fall, the woolly bears become very active and quite visible as they begin to move from their summer feeding grounds in meadows and fields to woodland areas where they will hibernate during the winter months. This is when they are seen crossing roads, sidewalks, woodland trails, your driveway …

I guess we notice them in these places because that’s where WE are and they just happen to be on the move! Most of these caterpillars will spend the winter curled up under leaf litter on the forest floor, under stones or rotting logs, or nestled down in piles of wood.

During the winter, woolly bears are able to survive freezing temperatures by producing a type of “antifreeze” or cryoprotectant in their circulatory system that protects their cells and vital organs from the damage which would occur if ice crystals formed. So they survive in a frozen state all winter long – at least in the colder parts of their range. These guys are found as far north as the arctic!
That’s pretty neat!

In the spring, the frosty caterpillars thaw out and wander around eating a little before settling down to spin a cocoon. The adult moths emerge about a month later, mate, lay eggs, and a new generation begins.

So now you know why the woolly bear crosses the road – maybe!

Oh, and their notorious ability to forecast the winter? That’s another story and was the subject of a post I wrote a while ago. Check it out …

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Cyclamen mite damage on sweet peppers

We sure didn’t have much luck with our vegetable garden this year. The tomatoes produced half-heartedly, the summer squash succumbed to disease and vine borers before providing very many squash, and the corn was torn down and destroyed by some critter before the ears had completely filled out!

Rattlesnake pole beans - my favorite!

Rattlesnake pole beans – my favorite!

We did get quite a few cucumbers before disease claimed the vines and I was able to can 42 pints of pickles. The rattlesnake and purple pole beans have also done very well. We were, however, disappointed in the ‘Lazy Housewife’ pole beans that we tried this year. They were very slow to develop and when they did, the beans were tough and leathery. We are just letting them dry on the vines and will use them for dried beans.

Last weekend we harvested all our butternut squash. There weren’t as many as last year but I hope they are as good. The other winter squash we grew was Buttercup. This variety was new to us but it is absolutely delicious! The flesh is a beautiful bright orange and couldn’t be sweeter! This one is definitely a keeper – we will be planting it again next year.

Close up of the rough, scaly skin of one of the affected peppers

Close up of the rough, scaly skin of
one of the affected peppers

Our bell peppers provided some of the strangest looking fruits in the garden. From the top (at the stem end), they looked fairly normal but at the blossom end, the skin was light brown, rough, and hard. In many cases, the whole bottom half of the pepper was like this. I knew it wasn’t blossom end rot because the flesh wasn’t really damaged – it was quite superficial. I had never seen anything like it before.

I thought perhaps it was environmental or maybe a mosaic virus but nothing really fit. Then I wondered if it had something to do with the herbicide drift that injured our tomato plants back in the early summer but the descriptions of herbicide damage to peppers didn’t really match what was going on with our peppers.

Finally, after reviewing photos of pests and diseases of sweet peppers, I found the answer – cyclamen mites! I never would have thought that this was an insect problem. Well, actually, mites aren’t insects but you know what I mean.

Russeted skin covers the whole bottom half of this pepper.

Tough, russeted skin covers the
bottom half of this pepper.

Cyclamen mites (Phytonemus pallidus) are tiny mites that attack many different plants including peppers and tomatoes. As these little pests feed, they inject chemicals into the plant tissue. These chemicals act as growth regulators and cause abnormalities in the foliage and fruit.

Feeding in the foliage causes crinkling and twisting of the leaves and sometimes leads to the formation of larger than normal leaves. I wish I had taken a picture of the foliage because that was another thing I noticed about these pepper plants; their leaves were huge and puckered.

The damage is only skin deep!

The damage is only skin deep!

When cyclamen mites feed on the developing fruit, their salivary secretions cause the skin of the fruit to become tough and russeted. This tan, rough skin was very obvious and fairly extensive on many of our peppers. It mostly occurred at the blossom end and seemed to restrict the normal growth/expansion of the fruit – almost like the pepper was constricted by tight netting.

Though the russeting is superficial, it essentially ruins the part of the fruit that it covers. I did peel some of the tough skin off one of my peppers and tasted it to see if the flavor was affected. I thought it tasted a bit weird but that could have been all in my head. Still, I ended up tossing the majority of the defective portions in the compost.

Some of the peppers had less of the russeting over the skin.

Some of the peppers had less of
the russeting over the skin.

University of Maryland Extension says that cyclamen mites can be a “minor pest of pepper and tomato”. When we lost so many peppers this year, it didn’t seem like a minor problem to me!

I’m sure what they meant is that they aren’t common pests of peppers in the vegetable garden. Apparently, these pests are more common in greenhouse situations. We did purchase a few of our pepper plants from a greenhouse so perhaps we introduced them to the garden that way.

Despite the russeted skin, the walls of the peppers were thick and healthy looking.

Despite the damaged skin,
the walls of the peppers were
thick and healthy looking.

If you notice the damage early on (and recognize it as mite damage), you can control cyclamen mites with a miticide such as Bonide Mite-X and still have a good harvest later in the season.

Even though these mites did a lot of damage to our pepper crop, I must say it was pretty interesting to learn about them. It’s amazing to me that such a tiny critter could cause such dramatic abnormalities in the peppers and their foliage!

I’m just trying to look on the positive side!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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