Monday, September 26, 2011

Little Green Farm Workers

With the greens of the farm plants fading, two bright green animals brought themselves to our attention on the farm this week.  Both of them are welcome creatures that help us keep the numbers of pest insects low. 

The first green creature of the week, a rough green snake, was hanging out in the barn.  I found him in a basket I was about to use for eggplants.  We quickly caught him and put him in this jar (with air holes), so that the farm owner's son could see him too.  These little green snakes are a rare sight on the farm, and they hold a special place in the hearts of this farm family.  We marveled and the bright emerald luminescent color of this sleek, friendly snake.

Rough Green Snake with grass- we released him quickly!
Rough green snakes don't get large.  They can grow to almost 3 feet long, but they always stay skinny.  They are great climbers and spend their time hunting insects and spiders in any kind of vegetation from grass to trees, but they prefer to be higher up rather than on the ground.  Green snakes are well camouflaged for their preferred habitat, and I've probably seen dozens of them without realizing it.  They coil up in branches to sleep at night, and in the cooler weather, they seek refuge under logs or other debris.  This may be why our green snake ventured into the barn.  He probably thought he found a good place to overwinter.
Later in the week, we were working in the greenhouse, and we found two gigantic praying mantises, both the brightest of green.  One of the mantises was half brown and the other was all green.  I wrote a little about mantids earlier, but here's some more information about them.

In Tennessee, our most noticeable mantids come in three color variations: green, brown, and green plus brown.  The green ones are European mantids, the brown are Carolina mantids, and the green plus brown are Chinese mantids.  Only the Carolina ones are native, and the other two were introduced to the US to help control garden pests.  These introduced species do not appear to be particularly invasive, though they can reduce numbers of helpful organisms like wolf spiders.  People generally regard them as welcome workers in farms and gardens.   There are several other mantis species that are illegal to import because they pose a threat to native ecosystems.  They can probably reproduce very quickly and overeat beneficial insects.

European mantis, about 6" long.
Female mantises are disconcertingly large this time of year.  They grow big from hunting all season, and their abdomens are filled with eggs.  Now they are laying their egg cases on vegetation.  The egg cases look like brown trilobytes - they are oblong with ridges and about 1-2" long.  They are eggs encased in a foamy mass that hardens after it is laid.  The eggs overwinter to hatch in the spring, releasing hundreds of tiny, springy green mantises into the area.  The tiny, thin mantises need to disperse fast, because their siblings pose a significant predation threat.

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