Scents, sights, sounds of spring in Lowcountry

Dragonflies expertly snatch up winged fire ants that typically swarm in the spring.

Last March, I was on the back deck mid-morning deciding on a topic for the gardening column. It was a perfect spring day in the Lowcountry. At that moment, I was distracted by a strutting lizard.

Dew still wet the strawberry plants in our window boxes where a bright green anole dashed wind sprints, stopping every 30 inches to bob his head up and down and display his throat. This bright pink flap, called the dewlap, folds beneath the chin and is extended to court a mate or warn another male competitor that the strawberry window boxes were his turf.

He scuttled down the handrail and into the garden where native bumblebees hovered around broccoli plants. Typically, we don’t harvest a few broccoli heads and let them flower. When left unharvested, broccoli florets bloom yellow on cascading whips that bring all the pollinators to the yard.

Native bumblebees are the hardest working bees around, starting early in the morning and working late in the day. Many bumblebee species are social but only the queen survives the winter, building her colony of workers from scratch each spring. They are immune to the colony collapse disorder that is affecting the European honeybees.

In addition to gathering nectar, a few bumblebees were hovering around a nearby bee box of hollow bamboo culms. Many species of solitary native bee species lay eggs in narrow holes. Alphonse Karr clumping bamboo grows in the corner of our yard.

The yellow and green striped canes make a great screen and the canes can be used as stakes or other structural elements. In this case, they have been cut into 12 sections and stacked in an open box with the holes exposed. That morning, solitary bees were busying packing them with food and eggs.

An aromatic breeze rustled through the clumping bamboo from another part of our yard. A swallowtail butterfly sunned herself on a pink knock-out rose, but that wasn’t what I was smelling. Tea olives are nondescript shrubs with inconspicuous white flowers that sporadically bloom for months in late winter and early spring. The smell is closer to sweet apricots than the perfume-y scent of gardenias.

In the first week of May, an equally intoxicating aroma pervades Confederate jasmine. White starry flowers blankets the vine growing over the pergola in the backyard. Today, it’s still recovering from last year’s severe pruning. It had grown into a thick 24-inch layer that provided excellent shade and the perfect home for vermin. Occasionally, we’d see a rat scurry down a post too fast for the dogs to catch. Then one day the rat fell out of the vine in a death match with a snake. We cut it down the next day.

As the breeze picked up that March morning, I was bombarded with red clumps of spent flowers from overhanging red maples. These were mixed with stringy catkins tossed from a towering oak. Occasionally, clear-winged insects fluttered from the ground like rising puffs of smoke. These were winged fire ants that typically swarm in the spring.

Unlike wingless red ants, the bulky males and females fly from the colony in search of the opposite sex. Should they avoid predation, which most of them don’t, the female will start her own colony. She starts by eating her wings for nutrition because she’ll never fly again. After laying a few eggs, her workers will feed and groom her for the rest of her life as well as sting anyone standing on their mound.

As I watched these future foot-stingers fly skyward, death came swiftly from above as dragonflies expertly snatched up them in mid-flight and I cheered. Dragonflies are the hawks of the insect world, perching on tips of limbs and the ends of antennae. With wraparound compound eyes, these hunting machines experience the world with 360-degree vision.

Still without a topic, a pair of gnats fell on my notepad locked in deadly battle or a rough mating ritual. At that point, it was obvious what I should write.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony.