Discovering more creepy crawlies

While pumping gas in Arcadia late one night, I noticed something brown and leggy hop underneath my car. Trying to figure out what it was, I began glancing around me with the feeling that tiny legs were crawling over my skin.
There were more scattered across the top of the gas pump. The guts of one were smeared underneath the heel of my stiletto. And, more flattened specimens were littered around the gas station’s parking lot.
It looked like a grasshopper, but there was something mutated about its body. I immediately went searching for answers, and the best place to go for answers in this town is Luke Wilson.
Wilson, our paper’s columnist and cartoonist, is a man with a wealth of fast facts, historical tales and do-it-yourself anecdotes that could fill a few encyclopedias. I asked him what I’d seen the other night, describing it as “a very bizarre form of grasshopper” and his answer, without any type of hesitation, was “the lubber grasshopper.”
There are two types of lubber grasshoppers in Florida, according to the website for Insect Identification, a place to find out what the heck that six-legged thing is on the wall “for the casual observer,” it says.
The horse lubber grasshopper is a large specimen that will create “a noxious frothy substance” and “drop to the ground and ‘hiss’ when disturbed” in order to deter predators.
The eastern lubber grasshopper causes economic destruction throughout Florida as it consumes citrus and vegetable crops, according to the Entomology (study of insects) and Nematology (study of nematode worms) Department at University of Florida/Institute Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Both of these grasshoppers are black when they reach maturity (and while currently looking at their photos, I am brushing at my skin because it feels like something is crawling over me). However, the eastern lubber grasshopper goes through a “light color phase” where it appears an orange-brown color. They can also change into a yellow-golden color. This boy is absolutely huge in grasshopper standards with tall pointy hind legs and a very crunchy-looking body. It looks about like what I remember seeing at the gas station. Ugly in appearance by my standards, this guy also has a nasty habit of destroying crops. It makes a huge impact here in Florida.

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Eastern lubber grasshopper from Google Images

According to UF/IFAS, lubber grasshoppers “can completely strip foliage from plants. More commonly, however, they will eat irregular holes in vegetation and then move on to another leaf or plant.” And because Florida is typically always warm, we may have to battle several generations at a time because there was no cold weather to kill off the older breeding adults, according to Insect Identification.
I must say Florida has some bizarre insect life. From the horror of the Palmetto bugs, now I’m faced with something that can jump through the air and appears to be the stallion of the grasshopper family. And then, it does the hissing thing like its cousin. If I ever hear a grasshopper hiss at me, that’s the day I never step out of my house again. Amazon Prime Pantry, here I come.
I had finally come to terms with the Palmetto bug that I can kill one without screaming. Now, there’s this thing. Also, while working on this column, I saw photos of the Carolina locust, the spotted camel cricket, the northern mole cricket and the tawny mole cricket, whom all live in Florida with us. I cannot even begin to describe the horrors. I think I’m just going to stay indoors after dark for awhile until I can face my fears.

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Photo from NC State University

 

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Sandspurs — a downside to fall in Florida

‘Ouch! What the—? OW!”
These are words I’ve been regularly saying over the past month as tiny balls of thorny spikes prick and poke me whenever I step outside. They can be green or brown, but they hurt like the dickens no matter the color. What on earth is this creation of torture?
I first noticed the plant of pain when my dog, Bindi, started limping on our walks. She’d walk along quite happily, suddenly stumble then hobble forward. I’d bend down with her looking at me with sad eyes as I examined her paw. Sure enough, somewhere either between her toes or on her paw pad or on her heel would be a spiky ball, or even two. As she would yelp, I’d pluck them off as fast as possible, apologizing to her for her unwarranted pain.

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Now, the little bundles of thorns are everywhere. I’ve found them on the porch, my living room floor, in my bathtub and even wedged on the inside of my shoe where my toes sit. I have whelped, cursed and shrieked as I’ve unknowingly sat, squished or stepped on one of these painful menaces.
They are known as sandspurs, but also go by bufflegrasses or sandburs, according to Wikipedia. And, apparently they are a sign that autumn has arrived in Florida.
In North Carolina, we have what are known as “gumballs,” a sort of larger version of the sandspur. They are the seed pod that falls from an American sweetgum tree. However, they are significantly larger, easier to spot and are not sticky like the sandspur.

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Some “gumballs.” Photo from bobklips.com

According to the Okeechobee County Extension Services’ article about sandspurs, author Dan Culbert writes that the sandspur is the “fruit” of the Cenchrus echinatus grass or the C. spinifex plant. During the spring, the plant begins growing seeds and is mostly ignored as it looks like any other blade of grass. When fall comes around, the sandspurs begin emerging and causing havoc. By the time this happens, it’s too late, Culbert writes. You just have to live with it.
“There are no weed killers that will make the sandspurs disappear in the fall. The better approach is to use what are called ‘pre-emergent’ herbicides in the spring — and this means mid February in our area. Then next fall, you’ll be enjoying your Florida yard rather than pulling spines from your socks and Fido’s fur,” Culbert writes.
Sandspurs can also be combated by mowing one’s lawn a particular way before the grass begins producing the sandspurs, once again in February and March.

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A sandspur. Photo from shellkey.org

They have become so numerous because of a change in the Florida landscape, according to an article published by Shell Key in Pinellas County’s Web site by Jack Coletti. In the case of Shell Key, an Australian pine forest was removed because the tree is an invasive species.
“When they were cut, the richer soil was exposed to sunlight, and the sandspurs had a field day (pun intended). Sandspurs are one of those ‘pioneer’ species that will move in to an immature, bare or newly disturbed environment — to restart the eventual progression to a forested area. Once the trees that were planted to replace the pines have matured in a few decades, the sandspurs will eventually die back in numbers out-competed by a balanced and mature ecosystem,” the article states.
Well, I for one, am not planning on planting a forest in my yard. However, hope is on the horizon. The same article says that, “the majority of the burs will have lost most of their sharp points” by the time winter arrives.
This may be the first time in my life I have wished for winter to hurry up and get here. And now, I have learned my lesson and will keep tighter control on how long I let my grass grow and decide on an “eradication plan” for next year’s fruit.

Beating the heat

North Carolina gets hot. That may sound funny to you all here, but I promise you my home can become sweltering, especially in July and August.
However, in the mountains, the breezes are cool, and there isn’t near as much humidity as there is in Florida. I enjoy being outdoors, and so my dog Bindi and I would go hiking in the mountains and Foothills even in the middle of the summer. If you needed to cool off, you just dipped your toes (or your whole body if you’re my dog) into a cool mountain stream or lake. Paradise! In all my times hiking throughout the summer in North Carolina, I never had a problem with the heat.
I stupidly thought I could do the same here. One weekend, I was tired of unpacking, cleaning and sitting around my new house. I Googled some places to hike that would take longer than a time or two around a walking track at a park. I found Myakka River State Park in Sarasota. The Web site told me I’d get to see alligators, birds, deer, raccoons and all sorts of wildlife. I was particularly excited about the alligators because I hadn’t seen one yet since moving here. So I packed up a bag of two bottles of water, snacks, sunscreen and rain ponchos for both me and Bindi then set off in my car, “Little Honda,” with Bindi in the backseat.
As we entered the park early in the morning, we stopped by the attendant’s shelter to pay the entry fee and get a park map.
“So, where are the trail heads? I’ve never been here before. We’re here to hike,” I said.
He grimaced. “Oh! It’s a bad time for hiking.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve gotten so much rain that everything is flooded,”  he responded.
At first, I thought he meant I was going to have to go back and find something else to do. My heart sank with disappointment.
“All the trails are underwater, but you can walk along the paved road,” he added.13403346_10154256003117500_7355071886824491563_o
I thanked him and continued into the park. I decided to drive along the road until I reached the center of the park where there’s a restaurant, air boat rides and equipment rentals. Then, Bindi and I could continue walking along the paved road through the scenery. Sure enough, water was lapping both sides of the road from all the rain. There’s something unsettling and eerie about seeing dark water along the sides of the road, which snakes between thick trees, bushes and Spanish moss dangling down. I felt like something big with lots of teeth was watching me from the murkiness.
When we reached the large parking lot next to the general store and air boat rides, Bindi, who was already panting, and I got out of the car and set off on our hike. Not two minutes down the road, I was sweating. My short-sleeved shirt was stuck to me, and the backpack was like a heating pad on high pressed against my back. We stopped after 10 minutes for a water break. Still, it didn’t feel too terrible, especially in the shade.
The thing with dehydration is it sneaks up on you. One minute, I was walking along thinking, “Hmm, it’s really hot out, but wow, that prairie is beautiful.” The next minute, my legs were shaking, my brain felt like it was pounding against my skull, and I could barely keep my eyes open. As I described it to my boyfriend later, “There could have been an alligator sitting right there and I still could have curled up and fallen asleep on the road.” Bindi, the poor dog, had her tongue hanging out nearly to the grass. While there was lots of water around and Bindi desperately wanted to go swimming, I wasn’t taking the risk of letting her cool off in one of the flooded pools! Just because I didn’t see an alligator didn’t mean there wasn’t one hiding under the deep brown surface of the overflowing lakes. Bindi is the perfect gator-sized snack!
We stopped for another water break, and I poured water all down Bindi’s back and over her ears. Bindi and I are used to hiking uphill over rocks, wooden stairs and fallen tree trucks to the top of a waterfall every weekend for an hour to three hours. Now, a flat, paved road had us beat in 30 minutes. It was embarrassing, but we turned around all the same. If Bindi decided she couldn’t walk back because of the heat, I knew there was no way I could carry a 55-pound dog down the road.
As we stumbled into the parking lot, I thought maybe stopping at the general store would be fun. Little Honda’s air conditioning isn’t great, so I knew we’d at least have a nice, cool reprieve in the store. Sure enough, it felt like Canada in there! Bindi collapsed on the cool floor while I looked around at the hats, shirts, snacks and postcards. The guy behind the counter was very friendly.
“Would you like some ice cubes for your dog?” he asked.
“That would be great!” I answered.
He handed me a small plastic cup of ice cubes, which Bindi lapped at while laying on the floor. The man just loved her funky patterns on her coat and engaged me in conversation for nearly the entire half-hour we hung out at the store. His conversation alone was worth the drive.
I must say that to any newcomers, like myself, Myakka River State Park is definitely an enjoyable place to visit. From what I hear, the trails — when they’re not underwater — are incredible and packed full of wildlife (we did see four alligators on our drive out). That day, Bindi and I learned the hard way that not all heat is the same.

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Bindi in Myakka River State Park