Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ecology: How It All Works Together.

For today's ecology lesson, we'll look at a tree, some bugs and a bird...

First, we start with the tree; a Tulip Tree in this case. (Once known as "tulip poplar" but we try not to use that name anymore as it isn't, in fact, a poplar. It's actually related to magnolias.)

Second: Tulip Tree Scale. Just like the scale that attacks your houseplants, only this not-as-little sap-sucking insect (the pinkish-orangish blobs) favors tulip trees.

A couple of summers ago, my tulip tree suffered a rather heavy infestation of tulip tree scale. "Not good for the tree," we humans would believe, but the scale insects were having a party. And what the scale excreted provided food for all sorts of nectar-eating insects such as this male Velvet Ant. (Which isn't really an ant, it's a wasp. It's the wingless female who scurries around on the ground that earned the species that particular common name.)

The tree survived very well, thank you, but it did lose the limbs that were most heavily affected by the scale. Despite winter wind and hurricanes, many of the dead branches remained on the tree. They started to rot where they were, and the outer bark started to peel away this year. Then the fun began again...

Tulip Trees are wonderfully useful to humans. Their typical tall, straight trunks were once much used for ship masts. (For trees growing close together there's competition for light, so they grow straight and tall and you don't see much branching off the main lower trunk--the leaves would be too shaded. Trees growing in the open, however, develop a different shape--more broad and branching and therefore less useful as timber.)

The inner bark of a Tulip Tree branch that is in the early stages of decay peels/can be peeled into long strips which can then be twisted into relatively strong rope. I can't say as to whether this ever achieved any commercial value, but it's fun to hand twist a bit of bark into rope for a necklace or lacing.

Animals, naturally, figured out the benefits of Tulip Tree bark a long, long time ago... First the squirrels started stripping the dead branches of my tree for stuffing to use in their late-winter nests. As the spring songbird nesting season came into full swing, the Carolina Wrens started grabbing their share.

This weekend, a pair of Cedar Waxwings were in the Tulip Tree, wrestling (with more or less success) their own fibers off the branches to be woven into their nest.

Moral of the story? Don't panic if a tree suffers an infestation; Mother Nature knows what she's doing. A healthy tree will survive, and much benefit can come out of what seems like a great harm.