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Phenology Report: Latimer discovers drunken hornets

A bald-faced hornet cleans its legs. The image is super--close up with the face and front leg in great detail, and the rest of the insect blurry.
Contributed
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iNaturalist user zdanko
A bald-faced hornet cleans its legs.

KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer provides his weekly assessment of nature in Northern Minnesota. This is the week of Sept. 19, 2023.

As we creep up on the fall equinox Saturday, Sept. 23, KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer is watching the daylight slowly diminish.

Currently, we’re losing about three to three and a half minutes of daylight each day. As we approach the winter solstice the rate will diminish, “but let’s not bother ourselves with that right now,” John said.

Fall colors

In the meantime, John’s keeping an eye on all those beautiful fall colors! Along the roads, he’s spotting 6- to 10-foot-tall round-leaved dogwood shrubs, which have turned a beautiful burgundy color. Shorter burgundy-red plants are likely to be downy arrowwoods (look for their smaller, toothed leaves to confirm).

Pagoda dogwoods don’t turn color all at once: a leaf or two will start turning yellow, then fade to purple and fall. The leaves surrounding it may still be green: about half the leaves John sees on the pagoda dogwoods are green right now, with the other half yellow or purple. Habitat also matters: dogwoods in the open will drop their leaves more quickly than those in the forest.

John’s impressed by the level of red in the maple leaves, given the dry summer. Generally, a wet summer is needed to produce the chemicals which cause red color: however, the maples are putting on a great show regardless! John suspects the maples in Grand Rapids will reach their peak color before next Tuesday.

Migration markers

John is still seeing Turkey Vultures soaring above Grand Rapids. They’re joined in the sky by large “V” and checkmark-shaped flocks of geese. John saw one lopsided flock with just five on one side and about 45 on the other side of the “V.”

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits a cardinal flower before heading south for winter. It is relatively large for a hummingbird, and is hovering next to a red flower. The neck, chest and belly are cream-colored, and the back is green.
Contributed
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USFWS Midwest Region
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits a cardinal flower before heading south for winter.

John is still seeing Turkey Vultures soaring above Grand Rapids. They’re joined in the sky by large “V” and checkmark-shaped flocks of geese. John saw one lopsided flock with just five on one side and about 45 on the other side of the “V.”

John saw his last Rose-breasted Grosbeak Sept. 14, and the last Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Sept. 17. He suspects more hummingbirds may come through, though, and is keeping the nectar stocked (and measured) so he can determine if any hummingbirds stop by.

John’s friend Greg Stevens shared an interesting observation. The last hummingbird to visit his feeder was a large (for a hummingbird) female. John has also noticed these large, experienced females are the last to leave. They seem to have the migrating experience to know where to stay and for how long to build up the most energy reserves for the long journey!

Darner dragonflies are on the move, and meadowhawk dragonflies are still soaring above fields and waterways. Male meadowhawks tend to gravitate toward red colors, while females tend to golds and yellows.

A nip of needle nectar nullifies insect antagonism

How’s this for a new fun fact: hornets can get a wee bit tipsy on Jack pine sap! Over the years, John has noticed hornets, yellow jackets and even bumblebees congregating around Jack pines at this time of year. The needles produce some black exudate (new word alert: exudate means a substance secreted by a plant or insect), which John suspects contains alcohol.

A Jack pine cone sits at the end of a twig in Brainerd, Minn. The needles are short and green, and the pine cone is waxy and fully shut.
Contributed
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Lorie Shaull
A Jack pine cone sits at the end of a twig in Brainerd, Minn.

As he was investigating, he bumped one of the hornets off the needle it was perched on. Instead of flying off (or stinging him in an insectile fit of rage), it flopped 5 feet to the deck without batting a wing. After its crash landing, it righted itself and started walking off. The other insects on the tree were busy collecting the exudate, completely ignoring John and merely bouncing from needle to needle.

John has only found these drunken insects on Jack pines, not white pines or Norway pines. He suspects there must be just enough sugar in the Jack pine exudate that airborne yeast is able to land and metabolize the sugar into alcohol. It doesn’t produce a lot of alcohol — just enough to make the bee’s knees a little wobbly!

(John tasted it, of course, but couldn’t detect any alcohol or sweetness. I think he’d have to lick a lot of needles to feel the effects!)

Whether feasting on questionable Jack pine nectar or not, stinging insects tend to be quite mild at this time of year. With the new queens out of the nest, the remaining insects have no need to defend the nest and spend the fall feasting on what’s left of the nectar and pollen. John and his family had a number of hornets flying around them during a beautiful autumn day this week, and the insects would leave them alone with just a friendly push in the right direction.

A perennial sow thistle blooms in Golden Valley, Minn. It has many yellow dandelion-like blooms and a few white, fuzzy mature seedheads. The background is blurry but appears to show a shallow pond.
Contributed
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iNaturalist user kevindalesmith
A perennial sow thistle blooms in Golden Valley, Minn.

A closer look

One bloom John’s enjoyed over the last week is the dandelion-like flower of the sow thistle.

It grows 5-7 feet off the ground and is bright yellow, surrounded by pure white fluffs (the mature seedheads of other sow thistle flowers). This majestic display is thanks to its indeterminate flowering pattern, where it spreads its flowering season out and continues to produce new flowers even as old ones develop and disperse their seeds.

Plant progression

  • Turning color: Round-leaved dogwood (burgundy red), downy arrowwood (burgundy red), maples (orange, yellow, red), black ash, sumacs, spreading dogbane (yellow), and bracken ferns (yellow to brown). 
  • Nearly fruiting: Labrador tea. 
  • End of flowering: Flat-topped aster, Lindsay’s aster, and goldenrods. 
  • Flowering: Sow thistle, white sweet clover, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, red clover, New England aster, Northern heart-leaved aster, and white campion. 

That does it for this week! For more phenology, subscribe to our Season Watch Newsletter or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR)

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Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined KAXE in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, produces the Phenology Talkbacks show, coordinates the Phenology in the Classroom program, and writes nature-related stories for KAXE's website. Essentailly, Charlie is John Latimer's faithful sidekick and makes sure all of KAXE's nature/phenology programs find a second life online and in podcast form.<br/><br/><br/>With a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, Charlie enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, or the star-nosed mole. (Fun fact: Moles store fat in their tails, so they don't outgrow their tunnels every time conditions are good.)