Tag Archives: Biology

Assassin in the Garden

A Wheel Bug hangs out on a bronze fennel, which is the home of one of his favorite meals, the soft bodies of Black Swallowtail Caterpillars.

A Wheel Bug, an assassin bug, hangs out on a bronze fennel, which is the home of one of his favorite meals -- Black Swallowtail Caterpillars. This is a young Wheel Bug, which hasn't yet formed the characteristic wheel protrusion on its back.

Every day, I watch the progress of the Black Swallowtail (BST) caterpillars on my huge bronze fennel plant, which is home to a lot of other insects, including this character (see photo) who seemed to be hanging out and doing nothing while sitting on a fennel flower.  Very suspicious.  I thought he was up to no good.  He gave me this look that said:  “Hey, Lady, Don’t look at me.  I’m just minding my own business.”  Yes, exactly. What was his business?  What did he eat?  He wasn’t sipping flower nectar like the bees and wasps and occasional butterfly.  I confess after a couple of days, I gave the fennel a shake and this bug tumbled to the earth.  The next day I saw him slowly making his way back to the top.  I don’t know how much I should interfere to protect “my” BST caterpillars. Was this a “good” bug or a “bad” bug?

I emailed Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas about this bug.  Jim Lovett replied: “Looks like an immature wheel bug to me (Order: Hemiptera; Family: Reduviidae)…if you’re not familiar with this bug be sure to check out some images of the adult. It’s a neat little critter that always captures people’s attention – “little” of course is relative; adults wheel bugs can be 1.5 inches long. They use that piercing/sucking beak to puncture their prey (and can inflict a painful “bite” on us humans if mishandled). FYI – all hemipterans (the “true bugs”) have piercing/sucking mouthparts.”

I asked whether this bug would eat a BST caterpillar.

 Jim’s answer:  “Yes, it would. It is a common predator on caterpillars (and other soft-bodied insects) of all sorts.”

Here’s a link Jim suggested: Wheel Bug.  The Wheel Bug is the largest member of the Assassin Bug family and is related to stink bugs.  Mean and smelly!  But useful, too, because they eat a lot of damaging caterpillars.

 The next day, the Wheel Bug disappeared and so did a few of my smaller BST caterpillars.  I hope Mr. Wheely didn’t eat my caterpillars! 

To learn more about butterflies and caterpillars, click on Monarch Watch.   My most recent post on raising BST and Monarch caterpillars is here:  Survivor — Caterpillar Version.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Butterflies, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Kansas City, Life, Natural History, Nature, Photography, Science, University of Kansas

Stoned Wallabies Make Crop Circles in Tasmania

Tasmania produces about 40 percent of the world's medicinal opium poppies, under strict regulation.

Tasmania produces about half of the world's medicinal opium poppies, under strict regulation. But they can't keep the wallabies out.

My friend Anita, who lives in Canberra,  emailed me this story.  We traveled together in Tasmania in January of this year and saw these poppy fields, and we saw wallabies lounging in rutabaga fields, but we didn’t get to see this!

Stoned wallabies make crop circles
Thu Jun 25, 2009 1:30pm EDT
SYDNEY (Reuters) – The mystery of crop circles in poppy fields in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania has been solved — stoned wallabies are eating the poppy heads and hopping around in circles.
“We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles,” the state’s top lawmaker Lara Giddings told local media on Thursday.
“Then they crash. We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high,” she said.
Many people believe crop circles that mysteriously appear in fields around the world are created by aliens.
Poppy producer Tasmanian Alkaloids said livestock which ate the poppies were known to “act weird” — including deer and sheep in the state’s highlands.
“There have been many stories about sheep that have eaten some of the poppies after harvesting and they all walk around in circles,” said field operations manager Rick Rockliff.
Australia produces about 50 percent of the world’s raw material for morphine and related opiates.

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Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Life, Nature, Personal, Travel

Life and Death in the Garden

 

A crab spider grabs a honeybee that has visited a common milkweed flower.
A crab spider grabbed a honey bee that visited a common milkweed flower.
This honey bee was lucky it didn't encounter any crab spiders hiding in the milkweed flowers.

This honey bee was lucky it didn't encounter any crab spiders hiding in the milkweed flowers.

In the Midwest, Master Gardener J. G. has planted a complete banquet for pollinating insects, such as bees and butterflies.   There are plants for all stages in an insect’s life.  One section of her garden is devoted to native prairie plants, such as the common milkweed, which has a wonderful fragrance and beautiful flowers.  Monarch caterpillars are dependent on milkweed leaves and flowers for food, and other insects drink the nectar.  The garden is a certified Monarch Watch monarch butterfly waystation that provides milkweed, nectar sources and shelter for monarchs as they migrate through North America.

Monarch Butterfly Waystation.

J. G.'s garden is a certified Monarch Butterfly Waystation that provides plants for nectar, milkweed and shelter for migrating Monarch butterflies.

Honey bees were busy getting nectar and pollen in the milkweed flowers when we toured J.G.’s garden.  One honey bee wasn’t so lucky.   A crab spider grabbed it and paralyzed it for its own dinner.  Crab spiders don’t spin webs but hide on plants, waiting for prey to visit.

It was a hot, humid day, and few butterflies appeared.  J.G. called out the names of the few that passed through — fritillary, painted lady, skipper.  I recognized a Monarch butterfly that flitted over the milkweed, settling just for a moment, before leaving.

To learn more about butterflies in the Kansas City area click on this links and do a search on butterflies: Johnson County Extension Office.    Other useful links: Monarch Watch and look for Bug Girl’s Blog, Anna’s Bee World and Pollinator Partnership in  my blog roll. If you’re buying from Amazon.com, use the Monarch Watch portal on my blogroll.  I’ll be posting more about J.G’s garden, including her leaf cutter bee boxes.

A honey bee visits a rose blossom.  You can see how closely these wild roses resemble apple blossoms, members of the same family.

A honey bee visits a rose blossom. You can see how closely these wild-looking roses resemble apple blossoms, members of the same family.

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Filed under Biology, Butterflies, Conservation, Education, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Science, University of Kansas

Kookaburra Chorus

Kookaburra Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Merry merry king of the bush is he
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra
Gay your life must be

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Eating all the gumdrops he can see
Stop Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra
Leave some gums for me

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Counting all the monkeys he can see
Stop Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra
That’s no monkey, that’s ME!!!
 

At Girl Scout camp in Kansas, we roasted marshmallows and sang about the Kookaburra.  I had no idea what a kookaburra was.  And a gum tree?  What was that?  Was it spearmint, doublemint or Juicy Fruit? 

Laughing Kookaburra.

Laughing Kookaburra.

Finally, I got to Australia and met this large laughing bird, which sits high in eucalyptus (gum) trees on the lookout for snakes, lizards and baby birds (ugh).  It’s also called the “Laughing Jackass.” It gets to be about 17 inches long and will smash its food, whether a snake or a baby bird, against a rock to break its bones to make the prey easier to swallow.  The kookaburra is an essential part of the Australian ecosystem, especially when it eats those very poisonous Aussie snakes.  The bird at work, though, doesn’t paint a lovely lyrical picture for me.

The song was written by an Australian woman, but kookaburras don’t eat gum drops or any seeds, and there aren’t any monkeys in Australia, except in zoos.  What kind of a song is that to teach to children!

You won’t see the kookaburra at the bird feeder with the cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets and the rosellas, but it might swoop into an Aussie backyard (or “garden”) for some barbecue. 

In Sydney at the house of friends who lived in a wooded area, we awoke at daybreak every morning to a chorus of kookaburras, otherwise known as the bushman’s alarm clock.   

Half asleep,  I dreamed I was on the jungle ride at Disney World.  The kookaburra’s laugh is the iconic jungle sound on a number of movie soundtracks, although the kookaburras live only in Australia, New Guinea and the Aru Islands.  The kookaburra laugh, on high speed, was also used as Flipper’s “voice” on the television show about the dolphin “Flipper.”

Now, I can’t get that darned song out of my head!  Or the kookaburra’s chorus, either.  You can find many versions of the song on YouTube.com.  Listen to it, if you don’t mind it taking over your brain.

More about the kookaburra, including a link to its call.

About the origin of the Girl Guide (and Girl Scout) song “Kookaburra.”

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Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Humor, Life, Nature, Personal, Random, Travel

More Deviltry

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils are nocturnal, but they don't mind a little rest and relaxation in the sun.

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils are nocturnal hunters and scavengers. However, they don't mind a little rest and relaxation in the sun, especially after an exhausting tussle over some wallaby chops.

My friends and I fell in love with Tasmanian Devils, irascible carnivorous marsupials that live in the wild only on the island of Tasmania, an Australian state south of the mainland of Australia. 

I'm petting the nice Tasmanian Devil. "Nice devil, nice devil....."

I'm petting the nice Tasmanian Devil. "Nice devil, nice devil....." Though they have a reputation for fighting, they aren't aggressive toward humans if handled correctly.

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils usually are only active at night, when they hunt or seek out carrion.  They can be very nasty-tempered and make a huge noisy fuss when they eat.   You can see why I find them so adorable!  They have their own personalities and are inquisitive.  (Their main inquiry probably is “When is feeding time?”)  Their keepers and the scientists who study them become very fond of the little devils.

A devil gets peeved when a young man's hand got too close to the devil's head.  We both had to count our fingers after that close encounter.  The keeper has raised this devil from joeyhood, and he's used to people, but a devil is a devil, after all!

A devil gets peeved when a young man's hand got too close to the devil's head. We both had to count our fingers after that close encounter. The keeper raised this devil from joeyhood, so the devil is used to people, but a devil is a devil, after all!

If you want to see Tasmanian Devils, you’ll need to visit a wildlife park or zoo in Australia.   There, the devils are happy to greet you during the day.  At some parks, you can even pet a devil.  Just be careful that you don’t reach too close to its head.  We saw devils and many other unique-to-Australia animals at East Coast Natureworld near Bicheno and Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park near Taranna, both in Tasmania.

The only other place outside of Australia where devils can be seen is the Copenhagen Zoo, where they were a gift to Denmark, because Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark,  is from Tasmania.

Many Australian zoos and parks, particularly in Tasmania, are breeding the devils in special quarantined areas so they won’t contract Devil Facial Tumor Disease, an infectious cancer that affects many wild devils.  So far, the disease is incurable.  Scientists estimate that half or more of the devil population has disappeared in the past dozen years because of the disease.

Tasmanian Devils often eat roadkill, such as wallabies, but can also become roadkill themselves.  They travel widely in search of food.

Tasmanian Devils often eat roadkill, such as wallabies, but can also become roadkill themselves. They travel widely in search of food.

Tasmanian Devils play an important role in the Tasmanian environment, plus they are so cute.  You can read more about devils in my previous post, I’m a Friend of the Tasmanian Devil.   That post includes a Discovery Channel video and links to more information.  Below are some videos from our visit to a wildlife park to see the devils.

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Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Conservation, Environment, Humor, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, Travel

I’m a Friend of the Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian Devils are good climbers when they're young.

Young Tasmanian Devils are good climbers. These irascible marsupials can be charming. Isn't he cute!

When my friend Anita told me we could tour Tasmania when we visited her and her husband in Australia, I thought:  “Great, I can see some Tasmanian Devils.” 

I told my daughter (she stayed behind) about the itinerary that included these irascible marsupials, and then I added, “The Tasmanian Devils are dying out.”  Just to say that made both of us tear up.  Thousands of types of animals are threatened with extinction, but the devils could be gone in only a few decades.

This Tasmanian Devil looks menacing, but he's just yawning. Devils can get peevish, though, particularly at meal time when they have to share.  Devils have the strongest jaws per size of any mammal and can completely devour their meals, bones, fur and all. They are stellar members of the clean plate club!

This Tasmanian Devil is showing his "vicious yawn," one of 20 identified devil postures. You get a good looks at his jaws and sharp teeth. Devils have the strongest jaws per size of any mammal and can completely devour their meals, bones, fur and all. They are stellar members of the clean plate club!

I’d read a heart-breaking story last year in the New York Times about a terrible infectious cancer (Devil Facial Tumor Disease) that could wipe out the Tasmanian Devil.  Some scientists think the devil population may have dropped 50 percent or even more in the last dozen years.  The disease is transmitted from devil to devil by biting, which the devils do while eating and mating.  It’s no accident that they’re called devils, although they can also be very endearing. (See Harper’s Magazine link below.  It’s a great article.)

Scientists and wildlife experts are trying to find a cure, but so far they haven’t come close.   Wildlife experts also have set aside disease-free areas for the devils to live and reproduce.  The devil only exists in the wild in Tasmania, an island that’s one of the states of Australia. Since the extinction of the Thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian Tiger) in 1936, the Tasmanian Devil is now the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.

Study of the devil’s facial tumor is leading to better understanding of the nature of cancer itself.

At the first wildlife park we visited, my first sight of a devil was a sleepy creature in a burrow. 

“Ahhh, so cute!”Tasmanian Devil sticker.

He (or she) and his friends were soon up and chasing each other in a circle and also checking us out.   They gave us the “vicious yawn,” which scientists think means the devil is thinking: “You don’t scare me.”  The devils looked like small, stocky dogs and ran like raccoons.  It wasn’t until the keeper tossed a fleshy bone to three of them, that their cantankerous side appeared.  Their comraderie disappeared, and they grabbed onto the bone and wouldn’t let go.  They made a terrific racket as they ran in circles, all three gripping the meat in their mouths together.  Usually, devils are solitary but will come together when they find something delicious.

See the devils in action below in the YouTube video from the Discovery Channel.

“More Deviltry,” my second post on Tasmanian Devils. Can’t get enough of the Devils!

Harper’s Magazine Story about studying contagious cancer in Tasmanian Devils.

More information about the Tasmanian Devil.

Devil Worshippers Unite.

Sharing isn't on the menu when three Tasmnaina Devils grab onto the same piece of meat.

Sharing isn't on the menu when three Tasmanian Devils grab onto the same piece of meat. You've never heard such a commotion!

Click on these thumbnails to see cards starring Tasmanian Devils on Greeting Card Universe.

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Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Conservation, Education, Entertainment, Environment, Friendship, Humor, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, Travel

Vitamin D — the Sunshine Vitamin

The Sun.  It fuels our world.  It's essential to life. The challenge is find the right balance of sun exposure and sun protection.

The Sun. It fuels our world. It's essential to life. We need sunlight to make Vitamin D in our bodies, but the sun's radiation can also cause skin cancer. The challenge is find the right balance of sun exposure and sun protection.

Avoid the sun.  Wear sunblock.  That’s my summer mantra.  Now that I’ve had some skin cancer removed, I’m even more paranoid about sun exposure. 

The darkest time of the year is here, so you’d think I could relax about sun exposure as I enter my annual winter hermit state, covered up and shivering by the hearth.  But no, I have a new worry:  I actually have to get outside to get some sunshine to make Vitamin D.  

Ten to 15 minutes of sunshine (ultraviolet B radiation) three times a week is supposed to be enough for most people, but this is tough in the winter when we’re swathed in fleece. I don’t even like to walk to the mailbox at the end of my driveway when it’s cold.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium to form strong bones and teeth and has many other important functions in keeping us healthy.   My dermatologist says that Vitamin D is the hot topic at dermatology conferences these days. Yes, I know, we’ve all heard and read about the wonders and miracles of this vitamin and that vitamin, only to find out later that taking extra this or that doesn’t help and can even hurt. I still have a huge jar of Vitamin E capsules that I thought was supposed to be good for me. Then studies reported Vitamin E as a supplement could be harmful.   Now I’m just hanging onto the almost-full bottle in case it comes back into favor. (By then, of course, if will be expired.)

 Researchers are continually finding out more about the importance of Vitamin D, including that we probably need more than previously thought and that it’s even more essential to maintaining good health than we’ve realized.

Vitamin D could play a role in the prevention of colon, prostate and breast cancers, for example.  The amounts in our bodies might affect our mood and our weight.  Vitamin D really could be essential to a sunny disposition and important in keeping us from piling on the pounds. 

Bottom line: Find out how much Vitamin D you need and get a little sunshine at least every other day.

The following information can get a little tedious, but it’s important, so pay attention.

You need sunshine, but not as much as the people in the posters are getting.  This woman is probably getting enough as she walks past posters on a tanning salon while walking from her home in the Seattle area to the grocery store on Dec. 22, 2008.  (AP Photo/Seattle Post-Intelligencer,  Andy Rogers)

You need sunshine, but not as much as the people in the posters are getting. This woman is probably getting enough as she walks past posters on a tanning salon while walking from her home in the Seattle area to the grocery store on Dec. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Andy Rogers)

A multi-vitamin with Vitamin D is probably enough for most people, but one size doesn’t fit all.  As you get older, your body isn’t as efficient at making Vitamin D, so you’ll need more Vitamin D in your diet, usually as an additive or a supplement.  My dermatologist told me to get 1,000 units of Vitamin D and a little sunlight (UV-B) every day, but you need to check with your own physician for the right amount for you. (See link below to article about children’s need for Vitamin D.)

Vitamin D isn’t naturally present in most foods, although it’s added to milk and cereal.  It’s in fish, such as salmon and tuna, in egg yolks and in cheese.  It’s also in cod liver oil, which is why we heard stories of a spoonful of it being forced on children in the past.

There’s also a danger of getting too much, which can cause increased kidney stones, nausea and mental confusion.  Vitamin D is stored in the fat, so if you take excessive amounts it’s difficult to get rid of.

We have to find a balance in protecting our skin from sun damage with the need for sunlight to synthesize Vitamin D.  The darker your skin, the more sunlight you need to make Vitamin D.  One of my biology professors suggested that Vitamin D is so important that it’s probably the main reason for differences in skin color.  The closer you to to the poles, the more difficult it is to get enough sunlight to make Vitamin D.  Conversely, darker skin protects against sun damage.

People with higher skin melanin (pigment) content require more time in sunlight to produce the same amount of vitamin D as do people with lower melanin content. As noted below, the amount of time a person requires to produce a given amount of Vitamin D may also depend upon the person’s distance from the equator and on the season of the year.

These people have the right idea.  Get outside in the winter, even if it's cloudy and snowy.  Just don't get frostbite or sunburned.

These people have the right idea. Get outside in the winter, even if it's cloudy and snowy. Just don't get frostbitten or sunburned. I need to take my own advice, because I don't even like to go to the mailbox when it's cold.

Latitude and altitude determine the intensity of UV light. UV-B is stronger at higher altitudes. Latitudes higher than 30° (both north and south) have insufficient UV-B sunlight two to six months of the year, even at midday, according to researchers.  Latitudes higher than 40° have insufficient sunlight to achieve optimum levels of D during six to eight months of the year. In much of the United States, which is between 30° and 45° latitude, six months or more during each year have insufficient UV-B sunlight to produce optimal D levels. In far northern or southern locations, latitudes 45° and higher, even summer sun is too weak to provide optimum levels of vitamin D.  A simple meter is available to determine UV-B levels where you live.

It’s a complicated, but important, subject.  To read more, here are some websites and articles:

NEW: What do you lack? Probably Vitamin D. (New York Times article)

Vitamin D Deficiency May Lurk in Babies

The Vitamin D Miracle.

What is Vitamin D?

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Filed under Biology, Diet, Family, Health, Life, Medicine, Nature, Personal

Orange Sulphur Butterfly on a Sunflower

Orange Sulfur Butterfly and a soldier beetle rival compete for space on a sunflower. A for sale sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.

Orange Sulfur butterfly and a Soldier beetle compete for space on a sunflower. A "for sale" sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.

Here’s a bright scene for a cold winter day.   An Orange Sulphur butterfly sips nectar from a sunflower in a field in September.  The field was mowed a few weeks later, and the remaining short stubble is brown and lifeless, showing no sign of the lively community of insects, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds that once lived there.   A “for sale” is planted in the center.

I emailed several photographs of yellow butterflies to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.  Any yellow butterfly around here I’ve been calling a Cloudless Sulphur.  Dr. Taylor says this butterfly is an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme.) 

“The butterfly looks like a female – males have solid and females spotted margins,” he wrote. 

Dr. Taylor identified the other insect as a Soldier beetle, which is highly prized by gardeners because it eats pest insects, such as aphids and grasshopper eggs.  It’s also a pollinator.  Pollinators are essential to our food supply, but there are fewer and fewer places for them to live.  Thousands of acres are lost daily to development.

Monarch Watch is dedicated to education about and the conservation and research of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

An Orange Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store.

An Orange Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store. You can see its proboscis.

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Filed under Biology, Butterflies, Conservation, Education, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, University of Kansas

Snow

Paper birch in my front yard.

Snow fell in big, soft flakes this past week, swirling around this river birch tree (Betula nigra) in my front yard. I love the way the bark cracks and peels. So many textures, and the snowflakes add another dimension.

Red Cedar in my back yard.

This red juniper (Juniperus virginiana) is flourishing in my backyard. According to one of my botany professors (long ago), the red juniper (also known as red cedar) is the only evergreen conifer native to Kansas, where I live. Another evergreen fact: Kansas is the only state in the continental United States, plus Alaska, that has no native pine trees, according to my professor. I thought Hawaii also had native pine trees, but thanks to Ed Darrell, I discovered that pines were introduced to Hawaii, as were so many other species. I don't know whether pines will propagate themselves in Hawaii. They don't seem to in Kansas.

 

a cardinal grabs a snack in the snow at the bird feeder outside my kitchen window.

A cardinal grabs a snack in the snow at the bird feeder outside my kitchen window.

 

I didn't venture far to get this photo of snow on a holly bush in my backyard.

Holly berries! After three years of no berries, I thought the original owner of my house had planted only males. What's the point of that? But there were three holly princesses, after all. A holly prince was tucked in a corner (Who needs to see him? He doesn't have berries!) to pollinate this holly harem. I don't know why the romance took so long to blossom.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Environment, Gardening, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Science

Honey Bee and Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly

This honey bee has found a paradise at a local nursery.

This honey bee found a paradise at a local nursery.

After waiting in vain with my camera for butterflies to pass through my neighborhood a few weeks ago, I went to a very large local nursery that features hundreds of thousands of plants.  (It sounds as if I spend way too much time chasing butterflies……)  Even there, I didn’t see many butterflies, so I focused on bees, which were loaded down with bright orange pollen.  For more of my bee and butterfly photos, scroll down to the next post or use my search box for other posts.  Click on the photos for a better view.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you know I’m big on pushing the protection of pollinators.  Here are two informative sites: Monarch Watch and The Pollination Partnership.
So many flowers, so little time.

So many flowers, so little time.

This Cloudless Sulphur butterfly knows where to find lunch.

This Cloudless Sulphur butterfly knows where to find lunch.

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Filed under Biology, Butterflies, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Nature, Photography, Random