Sumac, sex, and survival

As is my usual habit, every couple of days I go out to our meadow here at Pokeberry Pines to check on a small colony of winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) growing there. It is a favorite wild food of mine, being high in Vitamin C, antioxidants, and anti-microbial compounds called gallic acids. Its terminal clusters of ripe red berries make a lovely tart tea, often called sumac-ade, and I was delighted to find it growing in abundance on our property.

A few weeks back I noticed the sumac flower stalks were beginning to form, and I got excited just imagining drinking my sumac tea this fall (if the deer don’t eat all the berries first!). I also saw some new (to me) beetles and some slimy, odd-looking larvae under a few of its leaves. A few of the beetles were all alone, but most were hanging out in tandem, doing what beetles do.

A pair of sumac flea beetles on winged sumac.

I eventually identified them as sumac flea beetles (Blepharida rhois) and their larvae, but all the larvae looked a bit odd. They all had something dark and slimy-looking attached to their backs.

Sumac flea beetle larva with feces on its back

Remember the golden tortoise beetle larvae and their fecal parasols I wrote about a few weeks ago? Well, the sumac flea beetle larvae use that same strategy – fecal shields – to protect themselves! It’s not a very pleasant idea, but they do pile feces on their backs. The feces contains chemical compounds derived from eating the sumac, which deters ants and other would-be predators. Pretty clever, I guess.

This week there were even more larvae with some interesting fecal formations…

Sumac flea beetle larvae with fecal shield
Another sumac flea beetle larvae with a fecal shield

The sumac flea beetle is also sometimes called the sumac jumping beetle because it has strong rear legs that allow it to jump. It is quite striking in color and pattern as you can see.

I love the colors on this sumac flea beetle.

Those orange heads are hard to miss, don’t you think?

This week, the sumac’s green- and yellow-colored flowers were opening up and loaded with busy pollinators. Bees big and small, flies of several varieties, and other beetles and ants were noisily buzzing their way through the many small flowers, filling their pollen sacs with gold and brushing their abdomens so that yellow became the predominant color on some of their undersides. It was a sight to behold for sure.

Bee with full pollen sacs, pollinating sumac flowers

Here are two quick videos showing two different species of pollinators at work on the sumac:

Listen to that buzzing!

Don’t you love how it flashes that yellow underbelly at the end?

In the dance of survival, fecal parasols, sex on a sumac flower, and pollinator prancing all play a role. It’s a fun and fascinating thing to observe. I’m just honored and grateful to have the opportunity to watch it happen here at Pokeberry Pines!

What fun critter activities did you see today?

7 comments

  1. Fascinating. Your recent posts have given me an entirely new perspective on the various functions of poop! So this variety of sumac is not poisonous or skin-irritating to humans?

    • It’s not poison sumac, which is in a different genus (the same one as poison ivy) and winged sumac is edible, however some people are sensitive to all sumacs. I agree with you on the poop perspective!

      • Thanks for the clarification. I’ve always heard to look for the whitish or light green clusters of berries to identify poison sumac.

      • Steve, poison sumac berries form at the base of the leaves instead of on a terminal upright stalk at the end of the stem like the winged sumac or staghorn sumac. Poison sumac is also generally found in very wet areas whereas winged (also called shining) sumac is generally found in drier, open meadows and waste areas… As you know, habitat is often a key to identifying plants. Great question!

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