Bug o’the Week – Melanoplus Grasshoppers redux

Howdy, BugFans,


These days the BugLady’s walks are punctuated by the small “pop” of grasshoppers taking off and landing, and by the whir of their wings.  Grasshoppers and bumblebees seem to dominate the landscape in the weeks leading up to official autumn.


The BugLady first posted this BOTW (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) in the summer of 2009, titling it “Red-legged Grasshoppers” (OK – it was because she incorrectly-identified a Two-lined grasshopper).  She has never developed an eye for grasshoppers, since they are uncooperative photographic subjects that she mostly sees from the rear, so the labels on many of her grasshopper pictures are tentative.  This episode has been renamed and spruced up with some new info and new pictures.

Red-legged grasshopper

Two-lined grasshopper

The Short-horned (short-antenna-ed) grasshopper family (Acrididae) includes insects called grasshoppers and insects called locusts, and the common names seem to be used interchangeably.  For example, the Carolina locust, in the band-winged grasshopper group, is almost always called a locust, but grasshoppers in the genus Melanoplus may be called either or both.  For more about the locust-grasshopper debate, see the link to the green-legged grasshopper bio, below.


Short-horned grasshoppers are insects of open spaces – medium to large-sized grasshoppers and locusts that are an important food source for birds, including some birds of prey (to whom they may transmit tapeworms and other parasites).  Skunks, snakes, and toads eat the adults; and skunks, shrews, mice and moles find eggs laid in soil and eat them.


Melanoplus grasshoppers are in the Spur-throated grasshopper subfamily Melanoplinae, so-named for the spur that protrudes from the underside of their body, between the front pair of legs.  Bugguide.net says that the genus name means “clad in dark armor.”  Melanoplus is a large genus that occurs around the world, but most of the 240 or so species are found in fields, cities, suburbs, and open woods in North America.  Largely vegetarian and largely feeding on herbaceous plants, the genus (and family) includes some notorious agricultural pests (though most are not), so a lot of internet hits are from State Entomology departments.

Green-legged grasshopper

As bugguide.net says of the genus Melanoplus: “Many of the species look very similar, while only a relative few are uniquely distinctive looking. Positive identifications for many species can only be achieved by examining the male genitalia on an actual specimen. Images alone are often not enough to reach a conclusion.”  There are a number of distinctive/semi-distinctive species of Melanoplus on the BugLady’s landscape, a few of which already have their own BOTWs – Green-legged grasshoppers (the M. viridipes species group) http://uwm.edu/field-station/green-legged-grasshopper/, Pine tree spur-throated grasshopper (M. punctulatushttp://uwm.edu/field-station/pine-tree-spur-throated-grasshopper/, and Differential (M. differentialis), Two-lined (M. bivittatus), and Red-legged grasshoppers (M. femurrubrum).

Pine tree spur-throated grasshopper

When a young Melanoplus grasshopper’s fancy turns to love, he doesn’t stridulate (make noise by friction) or crepitate (leap into the air, hover, and rattle his wings), he simply grabs a female and introduces himself by shaking his legs in a characteristic way.  If she is of a different species, she won’t recognize the sign language and will rebuff him.  Females use their abdomens to drill holes in soil or other soft material, and they lay about 20 eggs in each hole.  This female Two-lined grasshopper excavated in a pretty firm dirt road surface, and while she was ovipositing, she often had her two hind legs off the ground.  The BugLady wondered if “pumping” the legs aided in ovipositing.  The eggs overwinter; nymphs appear in late spring and mature by early summer.

Grasshopper differential nymph

The extinct Rocky Mountain locust/grasshopper (Melanoplus spretus) produced what were possibly the largest assemblages of locusts anywhere.  A swarm in 1875 was measured at 1,800 miles long by 110 miles wide (198,000 square miles), covering the equivalent of the northeastern US from Maine through Pennsylvania and Delaware and containing an estimated 12.5 trillion grasshoppers (which was good enough to set a posthumous Guinness World Record).  According to Wikipedia, “The locusts ate not only the grass and valuable crops, but also leather, wood, sheep’s wool, and in extreme cases, even clothes off peoples’ backs,” and several states passed laws offering bounties and requiring the populace to spend some time each week eradicating grasshoppers.  One entomologist came up with a recipe for grasshoppers sautéed in butter, but it was not embraced.  It’s not known for sure why they crashed; but several possibilities are suggested here: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/23/science/looking-back-at-the-days-of-the-locust.html?mcubz=1


According to The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, the “Grasshopper Glacier,” near Cooke, MT, contains the bodies of millions of Rocky Mountain and other grasshoppers that have been embedded there, some for millennia.  It is speculated that swarms of the grasshoppers landed on the glacier and froze, or they were caught in storms and forced down on the glacier, or, theorizes Elizabeth Lawlor in Discovering Nature at Sundown, an updraft off the frigid glacier “flash-froze” flying grasshoppers, causing them to fall onto the surface of the glacier and get covered with snow.  At any rate, each year, to the delight of paleontologists and grasshopperologists, melting at the leading edge of the glacier releases thousands of grasshopper corpses for carbon-dating and other study.  The remains from one large event produced a dark band that can be seen in today’s ice.


Lawlor also reports on the dramatic population explosions experienced by some arid-country species of Melanoplus grasshoppers when unusually high rainfall results in lots of vegetation and in extraordinary numbers of eggs being laid.  This “boomer” generation is dark-colored where their parents were light, and social where their parents were shy, and ravenous – wiping out the vegetation where they sit.  Though they are not strong fliers, they are blown downwind in great numbers (and have been recorded at an altitude of 20,000 feet), looking like a “hungry black snowstorm” that is “virtually unstoppable.”


A ton of locusts (the BugLady finds it hard to wrap her mind around “a ton of locusts”) can eat as much as can 250 people – or 10 elephants.


FAQ: “Tobacco juice” is just a grasshopper’s stomach contents.  Harmless.


The BugLady remembers BugFan Mary telling a school class in fall that the grasshoppers they were netting were (as are the BugLady’s walking companions) “dead, but they didn’t know it yet.”  Why?  See http://uwm.edu/field-station/nematodes/.


Kate Redmond, The BugLady 

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Once Upon an Ash Tree

Greetings, BugFans,

Today’s saga could also be called “The Hemiptera Mystery,” though one of the Hemipterans appears only in a supporting role.  The main character is a decent-sized true bug (Hemipteran) named Acanthosephala terminalis.  For an insect that has a wide range (much of eastern North America), is conspicuous, and is not a shrinking violet, it’s surprising that the AT doesn’t have a common name.

Quick review: members of the order Hemiptera are the only ones that can “legally” be called bugs, though they loan out the name to other groups.  The order has been massively reconfigured – lumped.  It now includes a bunch of bugs like leaf/plant/treehoppers, aphids, cicadas, scales, etc. that used to be in their own, separate order (Homoptera), plus the original Hemipteran insects (stink, leaf-footed, assassin, seed, and aquatic bugs, etc.), which are now tucked into a suborder called Heteroptera within the order Hemiptera.  Hemipterans (the name means “half-wing”) have wings that are membranous (like a fly’s wing) at the tip but leathery at the base.  They have piercing-sucking mouthparts, which some species apply to plants, and some apply to other animals.

“Acanthocephala terminalis.”  “Thorny-head” (there’s a short spine that protrudes from the front of the head, easily seen here http://bugguide.net/node/view/1428294/bgimage) with the terminal segment of the antennae different from the rest (in this case, in its color) (its six “socks” match, too).  There are four species of Acanthocephala in North America, and AT is the one that ventures north into God’s Country.  It’s in the Leaf-footed bug family Coreidae, though not all Coreids have the little flange on the hind tibia that gives the group its name.

Although it feeds on woody plants, AT is found in a wide variety of habitats including woods, edges, and grasslands.

AT overwinters as an adult, and mates and lays eggs in spring.  The infants are pale at first http://bugguide.net/node/view/972849/bgimage but change color as they get older (see http://bugguide.net/node/view/1149565/bgimage for a great series of pictures of an older nymph molting – some other bugs are also pink/red immediately and temporarily after they molt).  The upturned abdomen is a typical posture for the nymph.

Adults are generalist sap feeders, but AT nymphs’ sip sap from their main host plants – sumac, wild grape, and ninebark.  The nymphs are found on a variety of trees, though it’s not known if they actually feed on them, and they seem to have a special affinity for collecting on ash trees.  The BugLady sees AT nymphs as well as those of the related Helmeted Squash bug on leaves with bird droppings on them, and she always wonders if they get minerals from the whitewash.

If you try to take its picture, a Coreid nymph will often sneak around to the other side of a leaf or stem, and adults will fly readily and can fly well.  In aid of their defense, they have the ability to produce and spray a nasty-smelling/tasting chemical.

(Googling Anthocephala terminalis results in a surprising number of hits from homeopathy sites, but the BugLady doesn’t know what that’s all about.)

OK – so where’s the mystery?  And what about the other two bugs?

Recently, the BugLady came across a young ash tree that was wounded in some way – whether by being pierced by the beaks of ATs or nicked by something larger (or both), she cannot say.  The trunk was being visited by a small, emerald-green solitary bee, as well as by ants and yellow jackets, all of which have a sweet tooth.

The books say that ATs seem to be somewhat gregarious and that they can be found in mixed-age groupings, and that’s what the BugLady saw on the ash tree.  One source mentioned that males (presumably adults) will fight with other males, but as the BugLady watched, she saw several nymphs that just couldn’t walk past each other without throwing a few kicks.

The BugLady also saw an adult Helmeted Squash bug on an adjacent blackberry stem, being checked out by an AT nymph.

But all of this came later.  What attracted her eye in the first place was two bugs on a leaf, one an AT nymph and the other a Rough stink bug (Brochymena) (coincidentally or not, they were standing over a bit of bird poop).

The books say that ATs are, as are other Coreids, drinkers only of plant sap, although a few references say that although there is some anecdotal testimony about predaceous leaf-footed bugs, they are probably misidentified assassin bugs.  They do not have a carnivorous, nymphal, Rumspringa-like fling. 


And yet.  Here’s what the BugLady saw through her lens.  The AT and the Brochymena, standing an angle to each other, never budged during five minutes of close-ups.  Right from the start, the BugLady had the feeling that the AT was piercing the Brochymena, though the pictures aren’t clear enough to show a connection.  In one of the pictures, it’s obvious that one of the Brochymena’s front feet is off the leaf.  And, oh yeah – several times while she was focusing on the pair, she saw the Brochymena gave a little shiver. 


Each observation, however, has raised more questions than it answers, so the sum of my watching has caused me to grow in ignorance, not in knowledge.”  Sue Hubbell, in Broadsides from the Other Orders. 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Goldenrod Watch Act II

Howdy, BugFans,


The BugLady keeps hearing that the summer movie season produced no blockbusters, so she’s running a second blockbuster BOTW in a row.


The goldenrods in the BugLady’s field are exuberant, with new, brilliant yellow flowers opening daily.  Goldenrod blooms late, produces a bonanza of pollen (there’s not much nectar there), and is the embodiment of the insect enthusiast’s credo – “Looking for insects?  Check the flowers.”  Insects – especially flies, bees and wasps – are so excited about it that they’re bouncing off of each other in an effort to reach the flowers (there seems to be a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy to who bumps whom from a flower.  Hint: stingers rule).  The BugLady wrote about goldenrod’s insect community in 2010; to see who starred in Act I, check http://uwm.edu/field-station/goldenrod-watch/.


Visitors come to goldenrod for the pollen, to leave eggs, to ambush their prey, and sometimes just to sit a spell.  The BugLady stands in the goldenrod patch looking for new additions to her goldenrod list and being thankful, once again, that she has no close neighbors to notify her family that she’s finally lost it.


Interesting goldenrod facts:


1)     Various goldenrod species have a long history as dye, food, and beverage plants, and they were used medicinally both internally and externally to treat problems from snake bites to sore throats to toothaches to wounds (there was only one species in Europe before 1492, and its common name was Crusader’s Wound-wort).  The Ojibwe name for goldenrods means “sun medicine,” and the Mesquaki (Fox and Sac) mixed it with other herbs to make a wash for a baby who had not learned to talk or laugh so that the baby “would grow up with its faculties intact,” (and in the BugLady’s humble opinion, we could use a little more of that).


2)    Thomas Edison believed that goldenrod sap contained enough latex that it would be commercially viable should our traditional sources of rubber be cut off.  To this end, he selectively bred goldenrod, producing 12-foot tall plants.  The idea didn’t prove to be as popular as some of his other dabbling, but Henry Ford once gave Edison a Model A Ford with tires made of goldenrod rubber.


3)    There are about 100 species of goldenrod in North America (on a good day, the BugLady knows maybe a half dozen of them), and they happily hybridize.

4)    And it can’t be said often enough – goldenrod has heavy, sticky pollen that is not airborne; ragweed has tiny pollen that blows all over the place.  Goldenrod has bright, showy flowers; ragweed has tiny, green ones, and they bloom at the same time.  Guess which is falsely accused of causing your hay fever woes?


A photography note – the BugLady’s workhorse Pentax has, alas, never met a yellow it didn’t embrace (especially when the sun is out), and stripping the excess from the pictures has been only moderately successful (lots of yellow on the cutting room floor).  At least BugFans won’t have to grope around for their eclipse glasses.


What might you see if you take yourself out to a goldenrod patch?

Gangs of female APHIDS (family Aphididae) sucking plant juices and popping out little aphids parthenogenetically all summer.

BALD-FACED HORNETS (Vespula maculata) looking for nectar – and possibly for tiny insects to masticate and feed to the larvae that wait in one of those football sized/shaped colonial nests.

BEE FLIES (family Bombyliidae) that sometimes hover over the flowers as they extract pollen and nectar with a long proboscis.

CRAB SPIDER (family Thomisidae), all tucked in, business end up.

DADDY LONGLEGS (family Phalangiidae) – not true spiders, but spider relatives that stalk their prey on foot and do not spin webs.  They also do not (NOT) bite people.  One source describes them as “a Rice Krispies with legs.”

FEATHER-LEGGED FLY (Trichopoda sp.) walking across the spray of goldenrod, dipping the tip of her abdomen to touch the flowers.  The eggs she deposits will hatch into larvae that will jump aboard the next stinkbug, seed bug, or squash bug that comes along and will parasitize them.

GREENBOTTLE FLIES (Lucilia sericata) that, despite the unsavory reputation of their larvae in service of the CSI folks and the medical profession, keep their feet clean (mostly), feeding on nectar and pollinating flowers (when they’re not laying eggs on something dead).

JAPANESE BEETLES (Popillia japonica), which include goldenrod on the list of more-than-300 plants that they will eat.

A female MOSQUITO (family Culicidae) taking nourishment from plant juices.

NORTHERN CORN ROOT WORM (Diabrotica barberi).  The corn in the field next door, close to nine feet tall, may be the origin of this beetle.  Or it may not, since they also eat other grasses, and also members of the squash, bean, and aster families.

An ORANGE/YELLOW-COLLARED SCAPE MOTH (Cisseps fulvicollis), which graces the flowers both day and night.  Smaller than the similar-looking, earlier-flying Virginia Ctenucha (the “C” is silent like the “R” in “fish.”), the adults are nectar feeders, and the caterpillars eat grasses, rushes and lichens.

SWEAT BEES – Some insects dine-in, and others come for carry-out (usually because they need pollen to provision nest chambers for their eggs).  Special sacs on the legs are one way to transport pollen; other kinds of bees may carry it in bristles on their legs or abdomens.


PINE TREE CRICKET (Oecanthus pini), here hiding in a clump of flowers on a chilly afternoon, part of the delicious chorus of tree crickets and katydids and field crickets that sings in the BugLady’s field day and night. Hear it at http://songsofinsects.com/crickets/pine-tree-cricket.


You know the drill by now – Go Outside – find some goldenrods!


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Way Out on the Lonesome Prairie

Salutations, BugFans,


The BugLady has always been in love with wetlands – the pterodactyl lift-off of Great-blue Herons, a glint of dragonflies, the quiet splash of sun-warmed turtles sliding off a log, frogs’ exuberant announcements of spring, the rich odor of a wetland’s primordial soup.



But lately, she’s been thinking about prairies.  She led a walk at Riveredge Nature Center’s excellent “Knee Deep in Prairies” celebration, and she spends a lot of quality time on the prairie because she loves its ever-changing palettes and patterns.


Early explorers had no word for the landscape they found west of the Mississippi – “prairie” comes from the French word for “meadow,” and it was surely the biggest meadow they had ever seen.


The recipe for making a prairie starts with hot summers and cold winters; stir in a little fire (set by Nature or by man) and add lots of evaporation (BugFan Dan once asked a group of 5th graders why a prairie is a prairie, and one kid piped up “because of the high rate of evapotranspiration.”  Yep).  Allow to sit for a long time.


There are two important dates in the history of prairies.  The first is a massive drought that followed the retreat of our most recent glacier.  Prairies were formed during a “dry spell” that lasted from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago – shortgrass prairies grew in the rain shadow on the east side of the Rockies, mixed-grass prairie ranged through much of the Great Plains north of central Texas, and tallgrass prairie butted up against the great Eastern forests.


Then, for five thousand years, there was a tug-of-war.  Wet periods encouraged trees, and the forests marched westward.  Dry periods favored the grasslands, and tongues of the prairie peninsula pushed east into (future) Michigan and Ohio, leaving prairie remnants behind when they retreated.  At their peak, tallgrass prairies covered more than 200 million acres, including 2.1 million acres here in Wisconsin.  Depending on climate, plant community, soil organisms, and parent material, it takes between 200 and 1000 years to produce an inch of soil, and the soil formed by the decomposing leaves and roots of prairie plants was some of the richest and deepest ever known.


The second critical date is 1837, the year John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow that allowed the settlers to turn the deep prairie sod for the first time.  The 300 pound plow, pulled by eight or ten oxen, ripped through the soil and the plant roots, many of which extend more than six feet below the surface (there’s as much going on below-ground in a prairie as there is above http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2015/10/15/digging-deep-reveals-the-intricate-world-of-roots/).


The men who first turned the sod told of the eerie noise that was made as the deep roots tore – one described it as “the most sickening sound he had ever heard.”  Today, much of that astonishing soil lies at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and, at less than 1% of their original area, tallgrass prairies are considered an endangered ecosystem.  As the poet Wendell Berry said, “We plowed the prairie and never knew what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing.”


For the most part, Southeastern Wisconsin wants to be a forest, so establishing prairie here takes work and vigilance.  And insects – by some estimates, the biomass of the insects on pre-settlement American prairies equaled that of the bison.  The first director of Riveredge used to say that until the insect partnerships are established, you have a prairie planting, not a prairie.


Here are some pollinators and predators and plant feeders of the prairie – and the flowers they visit.

Two-lined grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus) – a large and handsome member of the spur-throated grasshopper subfamily (Melanoplinae) and an eater of plants, a sometime agricultural pest and a sometime scavenger on dead animals http://uwm.edu/field-station/melanoplus-grasshopper/.

Ambush bug (Phymata sp.) – Well-camouflaged on many flower heads (but not so much on this one) this small predator regularly nabs insects many times its size.  In this it is aided by pincer-like front legs and an injectable, toxic, meat-tenderizing saliva.  According to bugguide.net, “Coupling may involve several males riding around on a single female. Sometimes it allows them to take down larger prey, although coupling individuals have been found each with their own prey as well.”  For more information, see http://uwm.edu/field-station/ambush-bugs/.  Flower: gray-headed coneflower.

Black-horned tree cricket (Oecanthus nigricornis) (probably) – It still amazes the BugLady to find out that some Orthopterans (grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, etc.) eat meat – she would have guessed that they didn’t have a carnivorous bone in their bodies.  However, tree crickets are omnivores that feed on leaves and fruits, and also on nearby soft-bodied insects.  Tree crickets are raising a ruckus in the BugLady’s fields right now.  For the ultimate cricket and katydid experience, try the U of Florida’s recordings of crickets and katydids north of Mexico at http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/walker/buzz/cricklist.htm.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) – While their living arrangements are not as famous as those of the very-communal honeybee, bumblebees live socially in a (generally) less-populated nest where a queen and her brood are cared for by workers that collect nectar and pollen to feed to the developing young.  Adults eat nectar.  http://uwm.edu/field-station/celebrating-bumblebees/.  Flower: rattlesnake master.

Sword-bearing conehead (Neoconocephalus ensiger) – Coneheads are large katydids that mainly feed on grass seeds.  To find out why they groom their antennae so religiously, see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/tag/sword-bearing-conehead-katydid/, and to hear what they sound like, turn your volume up and check http://listeninginnature.blogspot.com/2013/07/its-time-for-coneheads.html.  Look but don’t touch – according to the Field Guide to Insects of North America, they can bite – hard.

Wavy-lined emerald – The caterpillar of a delicate, green moth, while it eats other flower parts, it glues pieces of plant material to itself in hopes of escaping notice.  Flower: black-eyed Susan.

Great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) – Both pollinator and predator, this solitary wasp collects a variety of grasshoppers, including bush katydids larger than the wasp itself to provision underground egg chambers.  She is a nectar feeder. For more about this impressive wasp, see http://uwm.edu/field-station/great-black-wasp/.  Flower: lemon horsemint.

Ladybug – Most insects with Complete metamorphosis change mouthparts – and therefore diets – when they become adults.  Behold, the ladybug – an aphid scourge as larvae and as adults (the little alligator-ish-looking, spotted guy on the right is a larva).  This one happens to be an Asian multicolored ladybug (Harmonia axyridis).  Flower: goldenrod.

Red-banded leafhopper – Prairie leaves + sunlight = a massive amount of fuel.  Leafhoppers and planthoppers are among the plant-eaters that translate plant energy into animal energy, which makes it available to meat-eaters.  Leafhoppers are sap-suckers.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) – Generation (Gen) 5, the Monarchs that will migrate to Mexico, are filing the air now.  Like most (but not all) butterflies, they are vegetarians both as caterpillars and as adults, and they’re poisonous, to boot.  Here’s a BOTW from two years ago about their status http://uwm.edu/field-station/the-state-of-the-monarch/.  The folks at monarch watch are optimistic about this year’s crophttp://www.monarchwatch.org/.  Flower: blazing star (Liatris).

Orbweaver – True spiders in the family Araneidae, the orb-weavers are some of our more conspicuous spiders – partly because of their beautiful, webs, and partly because many get to lunker size by fall.  Orb weavers are carnivores, all http://uwm.edu/field-station/big-orb-weaving-spiders/.

Gnat ogre robber fly (Holcocephala sp.) – A small insect (less than ½”) that hunts, flycatcher-style, from the tips of grass and leaves, this Gnat ogre lives up to its name.  They are a bit more tolerant of having their portrait made than are some of the other (equally carnivorous) robber flies.

Tiger swallowtail – Although its caterpillars feed on the leaves of a variety of woody plants, adults enjoy the prairie flowers http://uwm.edu/field-station/eastern-tiger-swallowtail-butterfly/.  There may be a big tie for the BugLady’s second-favorite bug, but this is her favorite.  Flower: cup plant.

Tachinid fly (family Tachinidae) – These large and noisy flies with bristly butts are nectar-feeders – as adults.  They multitask – using their foraging trips to deposit eggs on fellow flower-visitors like caterpillars and true bugs.  For the hand-picked host of the fly larva, it’s all downhill from there; the larva is a parasitoid that will feed on its host, keeping it alive until the fly larva is ready to pupate http://uwm.edu/field-station/tachinid-fly/.


Visit a prairie near you.


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Share Your Heart








Heart of Canal Street is Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s signature community program that raises funds for children’s charities – and Riveredge is in the running to be a beneficiary!

Heart of Canal Street has raised nearly $17 million for hundreds of area children’s charities since 1994. The program honors the Potawatomi tradition of nurturing younger generations so they grow to lead healthy, productive lives.

Half of each $3 or $7 Canal Street Bingo game purchased goes to the Heart of Canal Street fund, which totaled more than $1.1 million last year! Share your heart by playing the Canal Street Bingo game now through Dec. 14. Visit paysbig.com/heart to learn more. 

Bug o’the Week – Biting Gnats

Howdy, BugFans,


This one has “bugged” the BugLady for a while – a nemesis-bug.  It photobombed shots of other insects and is so small (less than 1/8”) that the BugLady didn’t see it until she put a picture up on the screen, and then it defied identification.  She could find insects with similar mouthparts and with similar antennae, but not on the same model.  Thanks to Entomologist Dan for pointing the BugLady in the right direction.

Turns out that it’s a fly (order Diptera) in the Biting Midge family Ceratopogonidae.  BugFans from coast-to-coast who spend time outdoors in biting midge country (where “extra-fine” screens and netting called “biting midge screening” are required to keep them out of houses and tents) may know them as no-see-ums, midgies, punkies, moose flies, pinyon gnats and a few more colorful names.  They are closely related (no surprise) to black flies, of previous BOTW fame.  The BugLady is going out on her well-worn taxonomic limb and guessing that the flies she photographed are male Forcipomyia brevipennis (no common name).  Here’s a better picture of a male http://bugguide.net/node/view/791128/bgimage, and here’s a female http://bugguide.net/node/view/400593/bgimage.


For the etymologists among us, Ceratopogonidae comes from the Greek “keratos” (horn) and “pogon” (beard) – bugguide.net speculates that this may be a reference to the male’s hairy antennae.


It’s a big family, with 600-plus species in North America and 6,000 worldwide.  Like mosquitoes, the females of many species may eat plant nectar, but they need the protein from a blood meal to produce viable eggs (adults are described as grayish in color, except when engorged with blood).  Ceratopogonids that don’t bite humans and other large mammals (and most don’t) may get their protein boost from other insects (one species sucks blood from the wing veins of butterflies) or from reptiles, amphibians, and birds – the hosts’ carbon dioxide trail helps the midges find them.  Some are generalist/opportunistic feeders, but others target specific types of hosts.  The biters may be abroad in large numbers (the word “swarm” is commonly used), and the bite-ee’s are left with irritating/burning punctures and reddish welts.


Our domestic biting gnats are also related to some groups like sand flies (sub-family Phlebotominae!!), which, besides being annoying, spread some pretty nasty diseases in tropical countries.  Biting gnats in the US do transmit Blue tongue virus to livestock in the West.


Males eat only nectar/sugars, which suggests that the individuals that landed on the moth and katydid were just passing through.  Biting midges are considered important pollinators of some tropical commercial crops, including mangoes, avocadoes, cocoa, and rubber, and they also pollinate elderberries.  Most biting midge larvae are carnivores, but others are omnivores or detritivores, and some eat bacteria, algae, and fungi.  The adults tend to live around water but are also found in higher and dryer habitats like mountains and scrubland.

Biting midges lay their eggs in damp-to-wet spots like moist soil, mud, rotting vegetation, compost, tree holes, and in wetlands.  Development is speedy, and there may be several generations over a year, with the final stage overwintering as larvae and becoming adults in spring.  The almost-invisible-to-the-naked-eye larva pictured here was found while the BugLady was photographing ephemeral pond critters and is not the same species as the adults pictured.


With 60 species here and 1,125 worldwide, Forcipomyia is the biggest genus in the family.  The range of Forcipomyia brevipennis (“brevi” means short, and “pennis” means wing or feather) is described as “Holarctic,” which means that it can be found around the globe, north of about 22 degrees north latitude.  The BugLady found articles about it from Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, England, and Honduras.  It is described in bugguide as “a dark species with dark hairs;” males have long hairs on their antennae and females have short ones.


Forcipomyia larvae are terrestrial – eggs are laid in damp moss, rotting bark and logs, and even in anthills; Forcipomyia brevipennis eggs are generally found in manure, including under cow pies, and the larvae develop there.


Forcipomyia larvae have an interesting superpower.  These terrestrial larvae take in oxygen through their skin by diffusion instead of through spiracles like many land-loving insects.  The larvae live in pretty humid spaces – close to 100% saturated.  They have two rows of setae/bristles along the dorsal surface of the body, and these setae have a secretory function.  The substance they produce is sticky and hygroscopic (moisture-loving).  It drips down over the top and sides of the body and forms a film that keeps the cuticle damp, which allows respiration to happen.  It has been suggested that the fluid may also be both an anti-bacterial and an ant repellent.


In an article called “Morphology and histology of secretory setae in terrestrial larvae of biting midges of the genus Forcipomyia (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae),” researchers Urbanek, Richert, Gilka, and Szadziewski suggest that because Forcipomyia larvae are often found living in groups, there may be a shared effect of having all those sticky little bodies in one spot (though they may not have phrased it exactly that way).  They report that “This [gregarious] behavior also facilitates the spread of the hygroscopic secretion from one larva onto another and these [sic] substrate when the larvae crawl in their microhabitats of small cavities under the tree bark or in the debris.  The air-dried secretion forms net-like strands, which also collect water from the atmosphere. This way, the insects maintain a high humidity in their microhabitats. In addition, the pupae keep the larval skin (exuviae) on the abdominal segments, which prevents dehydration, while the larval cuticle and secretory setae covered by the secretion still absorb water from the atmosphere.”

All of which begs the Metaphysical question – How many biting gnats can dance on the head of a gypsy moth.


The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Slug Moths – a Tale in Two Parts

Howdy, BugFans,


Towards the end of June, the BugLady photographed this lovely little moth on her front porch.  She took a quick peek in the moth book – nada – and relegated it to the “X-Files.”  About six weeks later, she photographed an unusual caterpillar at Riveredge Nature Center and ID’d it, and in searching for the story of the second, found the identity of the first.  Love this job!

monkey slug/hag moth

Slug moths belong in the family Limacodidae (“snail/slug form”); the larvae are called slug caterpillars, and the adults are called slug caterpillar moths.  A number of species occur here in God’s Country (the BugLady wrote briefly in 2012 about the monkey slug/hag moth, whose shed larval skin she photographed locally), but they are a group that she associates with the South.  Her first experience with them involved driving a camp counselor to the ER in Florida after a related puss caterpillar, our most venomous caterpillar, (different family, same super family) http://bugguide.net/node/view/64384, dropped out of a tree onto her.


According to An Annotated List of Lepidoptera of Alberta (2010), “The family is in need of revision, as no taxonomic works have been published since the original descriptions of species, most of which appeared more than 100 years ago.  Recent publications focus on public health issues associated with some caterpillars’ ability to sting.


There are about 50 species of slug caterpillars/moths in North America (1,700 worldwide, mostly tropical, 125 or so in Costa Rica alone).  Adults typically sit with their wings angled out like a tent, and some species curve their abdomens up.  In the words of Jim Sogaard, in Moths & Caterpillars of the North Woods, “The celebrities of this family are the caterpillars, a weird and wild menagerie of colors, shapes, patterns, textures and venoms….”  Like these – http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/larva.php?plate=02.0&page=4&size=m&sort=h (through the saddleback moth pictures).  The stocky, sometimes-spiny larvae turn into stocky, extra-hairy adults that do not eat – here’s a collection of pictures of adults (except for the last few species) http://fieldbioinohio.blogspot.com/2011/07/slug-moths-of-ohio.html.


The eggs are so transparent that you can watch a larva develop inside.  Dyer, in The Life Histories of New York Slug Caterpillars (Conclusion) (1899) says “The appearance of the eggs is that of shining elliptical spots of moisture, rather than that of any ordinary lepidopterous egg.”  They are laid on the undersurface of leaves, and that’s where the caterpillars start eating.


The caterpillars are generalist feeders (most species have at least eight host plants) that skeletonize leaves from below in their early stages and attack the whole leaf when they’re larger.  Last-stage larvae spend the winter in a state of diapause (suspended animation) in a silken cocoon that has been solidified by the secretion of calcium oxalate crystals; caterpillar species with toxic spines may incorporate some into the cocoon for added protection.  They form a pupa within the cocoon in spring.  Another common name for the family – cup moths – refers to the shape of the cocoon.


The spiny species of slug caterpillars are not spiny right out of the box.  In a paper called “Natural History of Limacodid Moths (Zygaenoidea) in the Environs of Washington, D.C.”(2010) authors Murphy, Lill and Epstein tell us that the spines don’t make an appearance until the second instar (after the larva sheds once) and postulate that this may be an adaptation that allows the extra-thin eggshell to stay intact.


The caterpillar’s head is recessed into its thorax – a slit “under its chin” allows it to feed.  “Slug” refers to the way the caterpillars locomote.  “Main-stream” caterpillars have three sets of true legs under the thorax; the rest are prolegs that support the long abdomen and are mostly powered hydraulically, rather than by muscles.  Slug caterpillars have suckers instead of prolegs, so they undulate or glide across the leaf on a “semi-fluid silk ribbon.”  For this reason, they prefer food plants with smooth, rather than hairy, leaves.


About raising slug moths in captivity, Dyer tells us that “In raising any numbers of one species it will be found useful to place them on the growing tree, covered with a large bag of cheesecloth.  This method is often attended with great loss from the accidental inclusion of parasites, especially the predaceous Hemiptera, which as eggs easily escape observation.”


Part One – the Moth

The Early Button Slug Moth, aka the Warm-chevroned Moth (Tortricidia testacea) is a posterchild for the perils of using pictures of pinned specimens to ID a moth that has a unique posture http://bugguide.net/node/view/1253571/bgimage.  The BugLady has never seen its half-inch long caterpillar (scroll down at http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=4652) but will start looking for them under the leaves of (especially) basswood, cherry, maple and oak, but also beech, birch, hickory, and witch hazel.


Wagner (Caterpillars of Eastern North America) describes its range as “woodlands and forests from Pacific Coast to Maine south to Georgia (in mountains) and Mississippi.”


Females lay eggs singly rather than in clusters, and there is one generation per year.


Part Two – The Caterpillar

At first, the BugLady thought she was looking at the caterpillar of a hairstreak or azure butterfly http://bugguide.net/node/view/560113, but it turned out to be that of a Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth (Lithacodes fasciola), aka the Ochre-winged Hag Moth http://bugguide.net/node/view/671775/bgimage.


Maps show their range as eastern North America, mostly east of the Great Plains, but according to Dyer, YSSMs range into South America.  They are found in woodlands and forests, where they eat apple, beech, blueberry, hickory, hop hornbeam, maple, oak, willow, and more.


Wagner reports that in one study, two-thirds of the YSSM caterpillars he collected turned out to be occupied by parasitoids – the larvae of a tachinid fly.  They are also troubled by braconid wasps and stinkbugs.


There is one generation in the North and two in the South.


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Common Silverfish redux

Salutations, BugFans,

Summer reruns. Here’s an enhanced version (more fun silverfish facts) of an episode that first aired in the spring of 2009.

Silverfish, in the Order Zygentoma (formerly in the order Thysanura, with the bristletails, of previous BOTW fame), have been around for a very long time. They’re tied, in fact, with springtails for the title of “Oldest Insect Fossil” (depending on how liberally you define insects). About 400 million years.

Most insects have wings, and the ancestors of most of today’s wingless insects once had wings. Insects like silverfish are called “primitively wingless” because neither they nor their ancestors ever had wings. They do have 6 short legs and 3 body parts and segmented bodies, and although their status has been debated for a long time, they are generally considered to be a primitive insect.

Silverfish are spindle/carrot-shaped and flat (the better to squeeze through snug spots), and their antennae and “tails” (two lateral, sensory cerci and a medial filament) are shorter than their body. They’re covered with scales that give them a metallic gray “finish” (the English call them “silver ladies”) and that detach easily when predators try to grab them. They locomote pretty fast on a horizontal surface but don’t jump or climb up walls. Sue Hubbell, in Broadsides from the Other Orders, calls them the “greased pig of bug-dom.” She says that they have a “practical form that enabled them to get on in the world, suited to the changes and challenges the world has offered.” She labels them conservative and successful, socially gregarious and “eagerly cannibalistic.” In short – they’ll probably be here when we are not.

There are about 120 species of silverfish worldwide, 18 in North America. Your common, household silverfish – the one that caused the BugLady’s Sainted Granny to store her daughters’ luggage in the garage when they came home from college – is Lepisma saccharina (“sugar-taker”), the only species in its genus in the US. It lives in damp (relative humidity 75% to 95%), cool places, preferably indoors, where it feeds on house dust, bits of dried vegetation, dandruff, sawdust, starch (which it gleans from wallpaper paste and from the glues used in book-binding), and on those small insect body parts that get restaurants in trouble. Silverfish can go without food and water for weeks, and without food for a year if they have water. Hubbell says that back in the olden days, when men wore heavily-starched, detachable collars, it was common to open the collar drawer and watch multitudes of silverfish racing for the shadows (and that a lot of what has been written about them is more than 60 years old). They are eaten by spiders, house centipedes, and earwigs.

The humble silverfish possesses an astonishing sensory system, much of which can be regenerated if necessary. According to Hubbell, it is essentially deaf and has eyes that indicate only light and dark (it prefers dark), but approximately six kinds of sense receptors in its antennae tell it about the size and shape of the spaces it moves through, along with “many other things that are unknown to us in our largely visual and aural world.” She goes on to say that it possesses “an array of chemical and tactile sensitivities so varied and precise that we…… can have no real understanding of what a silverfish’s world is like.” In addition, the “slightest change in air current sets off sensory hairs” on a silverfish’s body. As its antennae navigate the dark spaces, its tail filaments drag behind, analyzing the substrate!

Scientists have discovered that silverfish can learn their way through a maze – unless their antennae or cerci have been removed.

And then there’s its ardent courtship – a dance in three parts. Advancing and retreating, with antennae and tail filaments waving and quivering, whirling their abdomens in a torrid choreography, the male and female court, part, and resume. Eventually, he spins threads from the tip of his abdomen and encloses a spermatophore (sperm packet). At his touch, the female advances into his web, picks up the spermatophore, and uses it to fertilize her eggs. She must dance each time she lays eggs.

She lays her eggs (as many as 100) in cracks and crevices, a few at a time. If she picks a hospitable microclimate, her eggs will hatch looking like mini adults (XX and grow slowly (extra slowly here in the North). If not, her young will not develop properly within their eggs and will die while hatching. Silverfish live several years and molt more than a dozen times (as many as 60 times, some sources say). They are unusual among insects because they continue to shed their exoskeletons after becoming adults. A molting silverfish is, momentarily, a helpless silverfish, and it might get cannibalized if one of its confreres discovers it thus incapacitated.

Yes, they are considered pests (lots of folks just don’t like seeing something moving out of the corner of their eye, or the sight of critters making a break for the shadows when the lights go on, or the sight of a silverfish exiting a plate of cookies). One source points out that repeated use of chemicals to exterminate them results in tiny silverfish corpses and body parts decomposing in the carpet, which may be allergenic and which attract carpet beetles, “and the last state shall be worse than the first.”

Small miracles.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – An Inordinate Fondness for Dragonflies

Howdy, BugFans,


Dragonflies again.  The BugLady confesses to playing hooky recently (if going out and looking for insects is “playing hooky” for a BugLady), mostly surveying and photographing dragonflies.


Dragonfly ancestors came on the scene some 325 million years ago, and the BugLady is certain that people were admiring them as soon as there were people.  They are woven into the fabric of myth and legend in many cultures and religions and have even been used for medicine and food (they may exact their revenge by transmitting intestinal parasites).  There are dragonfly pictographs and petroglyphs (http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/dragonfly-petroglyph-dragonfly-trail-gila.html), and they’ve inspired painters, poets and artisans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragonfly#/media/File:After_Kitagawa_Utamaro_001.jpg).  And photographers.  And writers.


What’s not to like?  They come in a rainbow of colors and range in size from damselflies that are less than an inch long to hummingbird-sized darners.  As in the dogbane leaf beetle, their iridescent and metallic hues are the result of physics – the play of light on tiny microstructures below the insect’s cuticle; other colors are produced by a full palette of pigments.


Quick dragonfly review:  Dragonflies and damselflies are members of the order Odonata (“toothed ones,” because of their toothed labium or “lower lip”).  Odonates are divided into two sub-orders – dragonflies, Anisoptera (“different wings,” whose front and hind wings are different in size and shape, and damselflies Zygoptera (“same wings”), whose four wings are similar in shape and size.  Dragonflies tend to be bigger and bulkier than damselflies; their compound eyes wrap around the sides of their heads, and they perch with their wings at right angles to the sides.  Damselflies are slimmer (our smallest dragonfly is actually shorter than many of our damsels but is much stouter); they hold their wings out to the sides in a “V” or fold them over their backs at rest, and their “bug-eyes” stick out to the sides of their heads like little knobs.


Odonates practice “incomplete metamorphosis,” which means that young Odonates come out of the egg looking somewhat like the adults they will become (admittedly, the resemblance of young to adult is harder to see in a dragonfly than in a grasshopper, which also has incomplete metamorphosis).  The young (naiads) are aquatic; when they are ready to emerge, naiads climb out of the water, split the “skin” on the back of the thorax, and climb out.  They deploy fluids (hemolymph) to lengthen and harden the wings, and some are able to take to the air in as little as 45 minutes.


They eat flying insects (think “Mosquito Control”) and may feed far from water, but the shore is where the action is.  Although they are exquisitely fierce-looking, dragonflies are harmless (though a dragonfly in the hand may probe your fingers with its abdomen tip).


About those myths and legends.  In general, Asian and Native American cultures are more inclined to view dragonflies positively than Western civilizations.  Dragonflies symbolize strength, courage, prosperity, good luck, success in battle, and harmony in various Asian countries.  Interesting side note as the meadowhawk season heats up – according to one source, the Japanese believed that red dragonflies carry the souls of departed ones.  For Native American tribes, especially in the southwest and Great Plains, dragonflies represented purity, swiftness, happiness, transformation, healing, invincibility, and fresh water, and their presence was linked with the success of the corn crops (killing one was taboo in several tribes).


In Europe, dragonflies were called devil’s darning needle, ear-cutter, horse stinger, eye-poker, eye-snatcher, and adder’s servant/snake doctor (because they follow snakes around and tend to their wounds, stitching them back together if needed).  Dragonflies sewed shut the eyes, lips and/or ears of people who told lies or swore or scolded, and they were believed to be in association with the Devil to weigh/harvest people’s souls (these beliefs seem to have traveled to places that the Europeans subsequently colonized, like America).  Check Dragonfly Woman’s blog https://thedragonflywoman.com/2012/11/02/friday-5-scary-myths-about-dragonflies/ to find out about five bits of dragonfly folklore.


Here are some recent pictures.


The damsels –

Ebony Jewelwing – females have white spots at the wingtips.

American Rubyspot – almost hidden at rest, the male’s ruby spots flash in the sunlight. Along with Jewelwings, they are “river damsels” – found near running water.

Emerald Spreadwing – the spines on her legs help her nab her prey.

Violet Dancer – what an amazing color for an insect!

Powdered Dancers ovipositing – females oviposit in plants below the river’s surface, sometimes completely submerging to do so.  The river is wide and the current is fast, and impossibly, there they are.

Azure Bluet – the name says it.  Naturalist John Acorn calls bluets “floating neon toothpicks.”


And the dragons –

Common Green Darner – one of the canary-sized dragonflies, it patrols above the grass tops on the prairie and over the water, and it may form dramatic feeding and migratory swarms.

Lilypad Clubtail – what amazing eyes, and it’s even on a lilypad!

Common Whitetail male – the poster child for pruinescence, it’s abdomen is dark as a juvenile.

Slaty Skimmer – very classy!  Slaty Skimmers are slowly extending their range into Wisconsin, present in only a few counties.

Blue Dasher – sometimes called the peacock of the dragonfly world.  It chases the Slaty Skimmer around the shore.

Eastern Pondhawk male – a colorful dragonfly catches an equally-colorful damselflies (a Violet Dancer).

Eastern Pondhawk female – she’s pretty intense, herself.

Calico Pennant – “pennant” because they like to sit on grassland plants, streaming off the top like a small flag.

Halloween Pennant – each of those compound eyes is made up of thousands of simple eyes.

Ruby Meadowhawk – females and young males are amber; older males practically vibrate with color.  There are several species of meadowhawks, and they’re everywhere these days, and will be with us through fall.

With apologies to J.B.S. Haldane, who speculated that God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.


Go outside – find some dragonflies.


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’ the Week – Four-toothed Mason Wasp

Greetings, BugFans,


The protocol for BOTW episodes has always been “Start with a usable picture.”  Well…  The solitary wasp that created egg chambers in the BugLady’s wind chimes was having none of that.

She’s a Four-toothed mason wasp (Monobia quadridens).  She belongs in the family Vespidae, along with a whole bunch of solitary species (she is solitary) and some notable social species like the yellowjackets, hornets, and paper wasps (the BugLady is often asked which insects are most likely to cause us grief, and she always answers “insects that live in colonies and have homes to defend and multiple workers to sacrifice.”).  The Four-toothed mason wasp is in the Potter/Mason wasp subfamily Eumeninae.


Monobia quadridens is found throughout eastern North America, edging into southern Ontario to the north, the Great Plains on the west, and northern Mexica to the south.  Monobia is a small genus of seven Neotropical species – three in the US (two of those, just barely).  Here’s one of the others – http://bugguide.net/node/view/154157 – Wow!


This is a medium-sized wasp, with both a length and a wingspan of just under an inch; males are a bit smaller and have a white spot on their face.  Some of the books say it resembles a bald-faced hornet, and that’s what the BugLady thought it was until she saw it climbing down into a pipe on the wind chimes, a distinctly non-bald-faced hornet behavior.  Here’s a better picture of the female http://bugguide.net/node/view/939348/bgimage, and one of the male http://bugguide.net/node/view/851176/bgimage


After a 30 minute liaison with a male (rather lengthy for a wasp), the female four-toothed mason wasp starts to build egg chambers for her eggs.  She will tunnel into dirt or wood; or she will use pre-owned dirt, mud, or wood nests made by a variety of bees and other wasps; and she is also known to usurp active nests of other species, entering them and exterminating any eggs, larvae, pupae, or cocoons within.


She lays an egg at the far end of the tunnel, and then she hunts, stings, and paralyzes caterpillars for provisions until she is satisfied that the larder is full.  She seals the chamber with not one, but two mud walls with an air pocket between (“intercalary cells”).  Repeat until filled.


The eggs hatch in a few days and larvae feed on their cache of caterpillars for about a week before pupating.  Male four-toothed mason wasp have a shorter “gestation period” than their sisters, but Ms. Wasp has that covered – she can selectively lay male or female eggs, so she places the males closer to the entrance, where they can exit without disturbing the females.


It has been postulated that the hollow spaces between cells will fool parasites and also that they provide insulation, but in a paper called “The Cocooning Habit of the Wasp Monobia quadridens” published in 1919 in the Journal of the Brooklyn Entomological Society, author Phil Rau noted that whether meant as insulation or as parasite protection, the double walls of the egg chambers are inefficient (larval mortality due to freezing is high).  Monobia quadridensoverwinters as a “naked” larva rather than spinning a protective cocoon, and Rau considers whether the presence of some silk strands on the inner walls of the chamber is evidence of vestigial web-spinning behavior.  In mulling over whether the building of mini wall-covers harks back to an ancestor that spun a cocoon, Rau postulates that “a more logical explanation of the phenomenon is that it is of physiological necessity to the organism to have the body cleared of this material before transforming.


Larval four-toothed mason wasps may be carnivores, but their parents are vegans, found on flowers, sipping nectar, accidental pollinators.  The caterpillars that are collected by Mom and consumed by the larvae are micromoths from a variety of families.


Four-toothed mason wasps appeared in one of the first insect field guides in this county, a small volume by Frank Lutz called Field Book of Insects, published in 1919.  It’s in a color plate labeled “Insects to be Handled with Caution.”  Why?  The venomous sting of the female is comparable to that of a bald-faced hornet (in other words, you’ll know you’ve been stung).  Fairly unique among wasps, the male Monobia quadridens will use his pointy (but stinger-free) abdomen to defend himself (although he lacks venom), delivering a jab that Rau describes as a pin prick.


In the southern part of their range, four-toothed mason wasps have two generations a year (“bivoltine”); the BugLady isn’t sure if they have two here in Wisconsin or one (“univoltine”).  The wind chimes will have to overwinter outside this year, and the “Ode to Joy” will sound a bit flat for the foreseeable future.


Kate Redmonds, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives: