Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Birds, bees and frogs - Readers ask about carpenter bees, milkweed


Q: I got some pictures of a carpenter bee attacking and flying off with an insect. The insect, I believe, was one of those large bugs of the leaf-footed family. Do carpenter bees use other insects as food for their larvae like wasps?

— Francis

A: This gentle giant bee provides food called "bee bread" for its larva in a sealed brood chamber. Recipe? Pollen and regurgitated nectar. Guess I have no suggestion as to what it was doing with an insect. I have passed your question along to an entomologist friend for advice.

Q: Is there more than one native milkweed in the Berkshires? I think I saw a monarch caterpillar on a plant with pointed leaves, unlike the common milkweed.

— Cynthia, Stockbridge (visitor)

A: According to Pamela B. Weatherbee's "Flora of Berkshire County Massachusetts," there are seven species of milkweed in Berkshire County. One is rare, two are common and another is frequent, the remaining three are uncommon.

The common milkweed is most abundant in both Vermont and Massachusetts and neighboring New York. I believe the one with pointed leaves is the swamp milkweed, one I planted last season in our yard that is thriving this summer. Both are seen in New York and New England. Another that we have in our garden is the butterfly-weed, in addition to the common milkweed.

Q: My experience with catbirds has always been that they are heard more often than they are seen, always giving their distinctive call from bushes and briars where they are well-hidden.

However, when I visit Berkshire South Regional Community Center every morning, I encounter a catbird that is always out in the open, in full view, on the ground apparently searching for insects and doesn't seem to be shy of human contact. I've been able to approach fairly close before it scampers away.

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I must add that there doesn't seem to be any really thick shrubs around and it seems to be content in small trees.

I guess its food source, which appears plentiful, is determining this behavior more than a need for a secure hiding place. I will keep my eyes out for a nest, which must be close by.

— Michael, Great Barrington, Mass.

A: Not all birds are skittish to the same degree. Catbirds that are often yard birds become used to us in their midst. They are the next best thing to ground birds, often nesting as low as four feet, (although some do nest much higher) and are often seen on the ground catching and eating ants, crickets and grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and other insects. They also are sometimes attracted to oranges (halved) as do orioles, in addition to various berries and fruits. I have read that they find blueberries most acceptable, and hope none find the three new blueberry bushes, now with nearly ripe fruit, that we planted last spring. They also relish dogwood, serviceberry that I also planted last spring, but may not be still living here by the time they begin fruiting, as they are 1-foot saplings. They feed on winterberry also, although I have only seen bluebirds and robins feeding on those. And the word is out that they eat grape jam.

Catbirds are medium-size songbirds, predominantly gray in color with a charcoal gray to black cap and cinnamon color under its tail. I will admit, when we lived in Dalton, we had a tangle of shrubs along the back-fence line that catbirds raised a family or two every summer, and never found the nests. I often had at least one intently watching me as I worked in the garden not many feet away.

Q: Maybe this is a dumb question, but why did the peeper frogs stop singing suddenly?

— Maria, Pownal, Vt.

A: This is not a dumb question at all. As I understand it, this tree frog's call or song is an attempt to attract a mate. When mating has concluded for the season, they remain pretty quiet, although you may hear a peep now and then, even on hot summer afternoons, emanating from nearby woods.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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