Lone Star State has spiders, bats and pumpkins

From bats and spiders to pumpkins, the Lone Star State is home to some of the most iconic symbols of Halloween. Here are some interesting facts about some of these seemingly spooky Texas residents, as provided by Texas A&M AgriLife experts:

Tarantulas — More hairy than scary

Tarantulas are actually very docile. 

Molly Keck, an entomologist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service office in Bexar County and long-time tarantula enthusiast, said while tarantulas are large and eerie looking, they are actually very docile and rarely bite.

“The exceptions are when they paralyze their prey to eat it—or they may bite if threatened,” she said. “But though their venom can paralyze an insect or very small animal, it rarely causes a severe reaction in humans.”

Keck said when in danger some species of tarantula can rapidly dislodge prickly hairs from the top of their abdomen with their hind legs, and these hairs irritate the eyes or skin of the attacker.

“But tarantulas, like most spiders, are beneficial predators that feed on other insects,” she said. “Some species even make good pets. But native species, like the Texas tan, are short-lived in captivity. Generally, however, tarantulas are low-maintenance and make good starter pets.”

Black widows — They’re not (really) that bad

Texas is also home to another arachnid often associated with Halloween—the black widow spider.

“This spider is most commonly identified by the red hourglass-shaped mark on its underside,” said Wizzie Brown, AgriLife Extension entomologist, Travis County. “But even though its venom is highly virulent, the spider itself is very timid. Even if disturbed while it’s in its web, it tries to escape rather than attack.”

She said Texas has southern black widows, northern black widows, western black widows and brown widows, but the brown widows are not native to the state.

Black widows can be found year-round in buildings and sheltered areas such as sheds, garages, attics and crawl spaces, she said.

“Contrary to popular belief, female black widows do not usually eat males unless they are kept together in confined spaces where the male cannot escape,” Brown said.

However, she noted, their scary reputation is at least partly deserved because the venom from the black widow is a neurotoxin that can cause anything from elevated temperature, nausea and sweating to a painful cramping and constriction of the abdominal muscles and the chest, and even death.

“Death from a black widow bite occurs very rarely, and it is more likely to happen if the person bitten is either very young or elderly,” she said. But no matter your age, it’s important to seek medical attention if bitten by a black widow.”

Daddy longlegs — Just don’t call me ‘spidey’

Daddy longlegs are not spiders, but arachnids more closely related to scorpions. They belong to a unique order called Opiliones, or harvestmen.

“While both daddy longlegs and spiders have eight legs, they are easy to tell apart,” said Mike Merchant, Ph.D.,  AgriLife extension entomologist, Dallas. “Spiders have a two-part body, while daddy long-legs have a single, fused body. And unlike spiders, daddy longlegs do not make silk and can’t spin webs.”

Merchant said contrary to urban legend, daddy longlegs are not dangerous to people because they lack venom glands.

“Harvestmen can be found on every continent except Antarctica and can be found throughout Texas, from the piney woods in the east to the deserts of the western parts of the state,” he said. “They live for about one year and feed on invertebrates and dead plant material.”

Merchant said they are called harvestmen because they are typically seen around harvest time in the late summer and fall.

“They are also called ‘shepherd spiders’ due to the males guarding the females as they lay their eggs,” he noted.

Daddy longlegs are primarily night prowlers and are usually solitary, but at times a large group will amass and form a wicked-looking dark cluster that resembles a beard. However, their most compelling feature is their legs.

“While most harvestmen species have very long legs, there are some short-legged species that closely resemble mites,” Merchant said. “Daddy longlegs have eight long legs — from one to two inches in length — extending from the body. If humans had a similarly proportioned torso, our legs would extend to a span of some 40 to 50 feet.”

He said the legs are very delicate and also serve as a means of protection.

“When a predator takes hold of a leg, it can easily detach and then continues to twitch, which both confuses the predator and gives the daddy longlegs an opportunity to escape,” he said.

Another way they protect themselves is by using their scent glands, which produce a foul-smelling fluid that helps ward off the predator.

“Alone or in clusters, daddy longlegs can look strange or even ominous, but they are completely harmless,” he said.

FACTOID: In frontier days, it was believed daddy longlegs could find lost cattle. If one was picked up by seven of its eight legs, the remaining leg would point in the direction of the missing livestock.

The bats at night… not such a fright… deep in the heart of Texas 

Texas also boasts one of the most diverse populations in the U.S. of another well-known Halloween symbol – the bat.

There are 33 permanent or migratory bat species in Texas, the most prevalent of these being the Mexican free-tail, said Samantha Leiver, Ph.D., research associate with Texas A&M AgriLife Research at the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute in College Station.

“The freetail has a huge range throughout North and South America,” she said. “In fact, some years back we had a few hundred thousand of them take up residence in our stadium here at Texas A&M. Some of the other bats that call Texas home are Eastern red bat and tricolored bat, though we are seeing fewer tricolored bats due to white-nose syndrome.”

She said the largest biodiversity of bats is in Central Texas, but a few of the more rare or exotic bat species can sometimes be found along the Texas-Mexico border.

“Vampire bats are seen on rare occasion in the lower Rio Grande Valley, but mainly reside in South America and take the blood from livestock, not humans,” Leiver said. “Texas does, however, have a reddish-brown bat called the ghost-faced bat because of the many folds of skin on its face. It looks pretty scary and has a scary name, but it’s basically harmless.”

She also noted Texas has pollinator bats, including the Mexican long-nosed bat found in far West Texas, which feeds on agave plants.

“So in addition to bats being good for the environment by providing pest control by eating massive amounts of pesky insects, these particular bats also benefit the tequila industry,” she said.

Leiver said a bat can eat half its body weight in insects each evening and night, and freetail bats alone provide at least $750,000 in value to Texas agriculture, primarily in insect control.

“Nationally, bats provide at least $3 billion or more annually in agricultural value,” she said. “They will leave you alone and prefer to be left alone, but never touch a bat as it may have rabies.”

Pumpkin Ties

The pumpkin is another Halloween symbol associated with Texas.

“In 2018, Texas was the fifth-largest commercial pumpkin producer among states in the U.S.,” said Dr. Juan Anciso, AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist. “This resulted in a $24 million economic impact to the state.”

Anciso said about 5,400 acres of pumpkins were planted in Texas last year, with the vast majority of these being grown in two West Texas counties.

“The pumpkin is a cucurbit, which is a family of plants that includes melons, squashes and cucumbers,” Anciso explained. “More than 90 percent of the pumpkins produced statewide are used for seasonal ornamental purposes such as jack-o’-lanterns.”

Florida citrus season is here! How's the forecast?

For the Florida citrus industry, last year was considered a rebound season after the big blow Hurricane Irma dealt in September 2017. And it was. The 2019-2020 citrus season is now officially underway in the Sunshine State with USDA’s initial citrus crop estimate in the books. Pre-season predictions from citrus economist Elizabeth Steger pegged the orange crop at 73 million boxes—a touch above last season’s final tally of 71 million boxes and change. So, what do USDA forecasters see?

The government agency is estimating all oranges to come in at 74 million boxes, which forecasters break down as 42 million boxes of Valencias plus 32 million boxes of early/mid-season varieties.

“This incremental increase is good news for the industry as we continue to recover from Hurricane Irma and the devastating effects of citrus greening,” Mike Sparks, Executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, said in response to the USDA’s outlook. “We believe that this number – if it holds throughout the year – will strike a nice balance of getting the processors the oranges they need while firming up prices to the Florida citrus grower.”

In addition, USDA is raising the stakes—just at tad—on the grapefruit haul, increasing it to 4.6 million boxes over last season’s total that came in at about 4.5 million boxes. Recently, an announcement was made indicating what is to be the state’s largest grapefruit planting since the onset of citrus greening.

“This reflects what we’ve been hearing from growers,” Shannon Shepp, executive director for the Florida Department of Citrus, added. “Florida Citrus is here to stay.”

The next citrus crop forecast is scheduled to release on Nov. 8.

Paul Rusnak is the Senior Managing Online Editor of Florida Grower, American Vegetable Grower, American Fruit Grower and Greenhouse Grower magazines

Competition is driving innovation in blueberry harvest

This past season saw Florida’s blueberry market window being squeezed from both sides, with Mexican blueberries coming in the front end and Georgia on the back end. This dynamic will change from year to year based on the weather, but what is for certain the days of a wide open, competition-free window are over.

This is forcing growers to seriously consider mechanical harvest. Considering that nearly half of production costs are wrapped up in hand harvest, machine harvest could considerably enhance profitability. Much of the UF/IFAS breeding program is now working on varieties that are suitable for machine harvest.

Last season, Kyle Hill, from Southern Hill Farms, launched a blueberry custom harvest business using two Oxbo 8000 over-the-row machines. He says the first season went great with 800,000 pounds of blueberries harvested. He says the machines performed well, especially during the peak and late season.

“In our observation, all the varieties did well with machine harvest with the exception of ‘Jewel,’ ‘Springhigh,’ and ‘Windsor,” he says. “Even the evergreen varieties did well. You just have to wait later in the season when there are not as many greens left on the bushes.”

He added a critical factor in the success is properly training bushes to be upright. That training begins from planting, as evidenced by the cartons around young bushes common in many fields these days.

Most of Hill’s customers switched to machine harvest when the price fell to about $3.50 per pound. However, he had a number of customers who set up their farms to switch to machine picking when about 50 percent of the crop was left on the bushes, regardless of price.

Kudos to Hill for being on the cutting edge of keeping the state’s blueberry crop viable in an every-changing marketplace for years to come.

Frank Giles is editor of Florida Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication

Tomato virus has Florida on high alert

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has issued a red alert after tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV) was recently detected by local plant inspectors. The malady is highly virulent and can cause severe fruit loss in tomatoes and peppers.

According to FDACS, inspectors intercepted the ToBRFV tobamovirus from packaged Mexican tomatoes in Naples and Gainesville. These tomatoes have since been destroyed.

The virus was first found in Israel in 2014. Since then, ToBRFV has been detected in several areas, including Europe, the Middle East, and North America (Mexico and the U.S.). How ToBRFV was introduced to the U.S. and/or Mexico has not been determined, although a report from the American Phytopathogical Society outlines the results of tests in a California greenhouse in September 2018.

Imported tomatoes potentially carrying ToBRFV pose a risk to not only Florida’s fresh-market tomato supply, but also other U.S. states. The following from the FDACS-Division of Plant Industry (DPI) warns what growers should watch for.

Symptoms: Tomatoes and peppers are the two major hosts for this virus, which causes yellowing of leaf veins, and yellow spots, brown rugose (wrinkled) patches, and necrotic (dead) lesions on tomato fruit. Symptoms in fruit develop within 12 to 18 days of infection.

Transmission: The ToBRFV virus can be easily transmitted by contaminated tools, hands, clothing, soil, and directly plant-to-plant, as the virus as highly stable. The virus also may be spread by pollinators like honeybees and bumblebees. The genetic resistance in tomatoes that protects against many tobamoviruses is not effective against ToBRFV.

Impacts: There are no known human health impacts from ToBRFV. However, the virus can cause 30% to 70% loss of tomato yield on plants. The virus also might make infected fruit less desirable to consumers.

Prevention: Once the ToBRFV virus is introduced in an area, control measures are very limited. Prevention mainly relies on destroying infected plants and following strict decontamination measures for workers, such as sanitizing tools, frequent handwashing, and cleaning boots before entering greenhouses.

For Retailers: Grocers and retailers who suspect tomatoes in their inventories with ToBRFV infection should report the products to the FDACS-DPI at DPIHelpline@FDACS.gov.

“For the past six months, our inspectors have been watching vigilantly for the ToBRFV virus and are moving swiftly to prevent its introduction in our state,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said. “We need the USDA to step up, initiate tracebacks to Mexican producers, and fulfill its responsibility to protect American growers and consumers.”

Michael Schadler, Executive VP of the Florida Tomato Exchange, sent out a memo to the industry on behalf of the association also urging action from the USDA regarding this new threat. A portion of the memo reads as follows: “USDA should immediately suspend the importation of tomatoes from any operation that is confirmed to have shipped infected tomatoes to the U.S. Such suspension should only be lifted after USDA can confirm that the disease has been 100% eradicated from the operation in question. USDA should also significantly ramp up inspections for the virus on all imported tomatoes and peppers.”

Paul Rusnak is the Senior Managing Online Editor of Florida Grower, American Vegetable Grower, American Fruit Grower, and Greenhouse Grower magazines

How to take on spotted wing drosophila with IPM

When spotted wing drosophila (SWD) arrived in the U.S. and Europe, a lot of small fruit growers were forced to abandon their integrated pest management (IPM) programs in order to continue to harvest their crops. However, growing research around the globe is revisiting the concept of integrated pest management within the guise of spotted wing drosophila control.

Dr. Lukas Seehausen, a research scientist in Risk Analysis and Invasion Ecology with Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) in Delémont, Switzerland, is a part of a team of researchers across the globe looking at current SWD IPM practices and their effectiveness. While their initial findings were published in the Journal of Pest Science in 2016, the research continues as the threat of SWD grows. Seehausen says when it comes to what the team has learned so far in their work with SWD, IPM is essentially the best and only approach.

“There is no ‘silver bullet’ against SWD and for most invasive pests,” he says. “There is no single solution for its control. Integrative combinations of control measures are needed to bring damage to an economically acceptable level.”

Initial Findings

It’s critical to understand SWD’s habits to make informed crop and variety choices. Researchers around the globe have identified red or darker-colored fruit with thin skin as SWD favorites for oviposition, so selecting varieties that might be less desirable to the pest can give you a leg up on control. Also, Seehausen says growers can implement things like exclusion netting and lure traps, as well as sanitary measures to remove fallen or overripe fruits to control SWD populations.

“Mass trapping of flies in open crops has so far not been shown to be an effective measure,” he says.

Instead, as others’ research indicates, a more effective control measure would be to harvest in intervals to keep the pest out of the perfect fruits.

“SWD adults preferentially lay eggs in ripe or slightly overripe fruits,” he says. “Short harvesting intervals can therefore reduce the number of infested fruits.”

Seehausen says that traditional chemical controls are effective for short-term local pest control, but some traditional chemical sprays and biopesticides should be limited to prevent pest resistance. Research has shown some promising alternatives to broad-spectrum pyrethroids and organophosphates.

“The application of calcium hydroxide or kaolin on ripening fruits has been shown to successfully prevent oviposition by SWD adults,” he says. “These products do not kill beneficial insects and are harmless to humans and, therefore, can be incorporated into an IPM program for certain crops.”

Classical Biological Control

Seehausen’s research team has examined the prospects of natural enemies for a biological control program. After studying several species of parasitoid wasps from Asia, the most promising has been from the genus Ganaspis. The challenge has been that the suitability for biological control can vary because there are at least two different, but very similar, species of this wasp. The hope, though, is as researchers zero in on the feeding habits of this species of wasp, natural enemies can help contain and control populations within and outside the farm, in natural environments.

“Even if effective, such a natural enemy will not eradicate SWD. The combination of several pest management approaches within an IPM program will likely be necessary to lower damage to an economically acceptable level,” he says. “Given natural dynamics between parasitoids and their hosts, the control imposed by the parasitoids is most likely to not work everywhere and at all times. In some locations, and when parasitoid populations are low, additional measures will have to be taken in order to prevent and reduce damage caused by the SWD.”

While it’s not a new finding, Seehausen says growers need to understand the difference between area-wide pest control and targeted control, and the difference between short- and long-term control. It’s easy for growers to consider controlling the pest on their farm, but to truly control SWD, you must think more broadly.

“Growers have to think long-term and beyond the borders of their own property,” he says. “SWD attacks wild fruits, too, and re-infests crops effectively from the natural environment,” he says. “Measures taken against the fly in a crop only provide local and short-term control.”

This is where Seehausen says using combinations of IPM methods is more effective throughout the season, with the hopes of reducing the overall pest pressure and population.

Benefits to IPM

While growers are familiar with the reasons behind implementing an IPM program, Seehausen says the best way to understand the concept of IPM is to liken it to a toolbox—whether that be parasitoid wasps, exclusion netting, trapping thresholds, environmental controls, etc.

“A carefully planned IPM program allows growers to use several tools from this box, which together will be more useful and effective in handling the problem. IPM is also about not carrying all eggs in one basket, so that if one pest management option turns out to not work very well, other control measures are in place.”

But your IPM program is only as good as you know how to use it.

Knowing when and where SWD is present on your farm is critical, which means using lure traps and monitoring. It’s also a good idea to stay informed as to what kind of new control options are available in case you need them, because, as Seehausen likes to say, there’s no one-shot solution for SWD.

“SWD is here to stay, and we have to learn how to deal with it in the long term,” he says.

Christina Herrick is a former Senior Editor of American Fruit Grower magazine

Florida Forest Service's Jim Karels named to the Florida Foresters Hall of Fame

Overseen by the Florida Division, Southeastern Society of American Foresters, the Hall of Fame honors foresters who have made outstanding and significant contributions to the forestry profession in Florida, other states, or internationally.

“With Florida’s year-round fire season and nearly half of our state covered in forests, our Florida Forest Service wildland firefighters and foresters under State Forester Jim Karels are a critical part of our Department family,” said Agriculture commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried. “Jim is both an exemplary leader and one of the foremost experts in the nation on wildfire suppression, prescribed burning, and land management. We are fortunate for Jim’s service and leadership that goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect lives, property, and lands in Florida.”

Election to the Florida Foresters Hall of Fame is the highest honor and recognition of professional service a forester may receive in Florida. Karels joins just 25 foresters previously receiving the honor.

“I am humbled by this recognition and grateful for the opportunity the Florida Forest Service has provided me to serve alongside some of the greatest partners, landowners, and industry leaders in the state and nation,” said Karels.

James R. “Jim” Karels began his career with the U.S. Forest Service in 1981 and joined the Florida Forest Service as a Forest Ranger in 1985. He served as Senior Forester, Forest Protection Bureau Chief, and ultimately was appointed Director of the Florida Forest Service and State Forester in May 2008.

State Forester Karels has served on a variety of national boards and associations dealing with wildland fire suppression and forest land management. He served as President of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) in 2015, a member of Wildland Fire Leadership Council, Chair of the Southern Group of State Foresters, and a member of the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council. In 2013, he was called on by the state of Arizona to lead the review of the Yarnell Hill Fire which took the lives of 19 wildland firefighters.

In 2015, Karels received the Award of Excellence in General Forestry from the Southeastern Society of American Foresters. Last month, Karels was recognized by the NASF and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), receiving the 2019 Jeff Jahnke Current Achievement Award for Leadership and NWCG Paul Gleason Lead by Example Lifetime Achievement Award.

Among this year’s inductees to the Florida Foresters Hall of Fame are foresters with notable careers in academia, state government, and business. Along with State Forester Karels, the organization is inducting into its Hall of Fame University of Florida professor emeritus Dr. Eric Jokela and president of F4 Tech Mark Milligan.

The Florida Forest Service, a division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, manages more than 1 million acres of state forests and provides forest management assistance on more than 17 million acres of private and community forests. The Florida Forest Service is also responsible for protecting homes, forestland and natural resources from the devastating effects of wildfire on more than 26 million acres.


Florida Spiny Lobster Tomato Mac & Cheese


1 pound Florida spiny lobster, cooked and cut into medium sized chunks

3 large Florida tomatoes, sliced

1 pound pasta (your favorite shape) cooked

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 large garlic cloves, minced

½ cup red onion, chopped fine

¼ cup all-purpose flour

3 cups milk, at room temperature

1 ½ cups sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (or your favorite)

1 ½ cups grated Gruyere cheese, grated (or your favorite)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

½ cup fresh chives, chopped fine

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped fine

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste


Cook pasta until al dente according to package directions. Drain and set aside. Place 4 tablespoons melted butter in a saucepot over medium-low heat, add garlic and onion and cook until onion is translucent. Next, whisk in flour and cook flour for several minutes. Carefully pour in milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Continue to cook and whisk until sauce is smooth and thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove sauce from heat and slowly whisk in cheese, a handful at a time. Season cheese sauce with mustard, chives, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper, to taste. In a large mixing bowl combine cheese sauce and cooked pasta then fold in chopped lobster. Lightly spray a baking dish with pan release spray. Pour pasta mixture into baking dish. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of the pasta mixture. In a small bowl combine panko, olive oil and parsley and sprinkle over the tomatoes. Bake the lobster-tomato mac & cheese in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 10 to 20 minutes or until topping is crisp and cheese sauce is bubbly. Let cool slightly before serving.



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