Bug o’the Week – Striped Hairstreak Butterfly

Howdy, BugFans,

Hairstreaks are spiffy little butterflies that are named for the hair-like markings found on their underwings.  Most have thin, twin tails (sometimes two pairs of tails) on the trailing edge of their hindwings, with bright blue/blue and orange eyespots nearby. Says Clarence Weed, writing about hairstreaks in Butterflies Worth Knowing (1922), “the slender tails, together with the enlargement of wings in back of them give the impression of a false head.  Along with this unusual development of the wing is to be considered the fact that these butterflies nearly always alight head downward so that the false head, furnished with what looks like waving antennae, takes the place that would naturally be occupied by the true head.”  Can you see a “face” here https://bugguide.net/node/view/1727485/bgimage?  Sometimes you see hairstreaks with a chunk of hindwing missing due to a predator thinking it was grabbing the tasty end of the butterfly and getting a less vital part instead.

They’re in the family Lycaenidae, which also includes the Blues/Azures, Coppers, and Harvesters, and they’re in the hairstreak subfamily Theclinae.  These are not big, charismatic butterflies – Wisconsin species tend to be on the quietly-elegant side – but there are brightly-colored species in and near the tropics.  Here’s a brief tour of some hairstreak species: https://bugguide.net/node/view/1753150https://bugguide.net/node/view/1856226/bgpage,

https://bugguide.net/node/view/1463952/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1965965/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1053259/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1561956/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/535699/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/788479/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1713841/bgpage.

The more commonly seen Wisconsin hairstreaks are those that frequent bright flowers (especially butterfly weed) on sunny landscapes, and it’s not uncommon to find several species on one plant.  But some of our species, including the Striped Hairstreak, are also found in the shade.

Look for Striped Hairstreaks (Satyrium liparops) around woody and swampy openings and edges and in grasslands from the Rockies to the Atlantic (including southern Canada).  There are more of them the farther east you get.  Although they are found over more than half of the continent, they’re never common within that range.  “Scattered lightly over the landscape,” say the folks at the excellent Butterflies of Massachusetts website, “widely distributed although nowhere abundant.”  They speculate that Striped Hairstreaks may have benefitted, at least initially, from the clearing of Eastern forests for agriculture in the 1600’s.

These are small butterflies – 1” to 1 ½” – with a long and a short set of tails, and brown upper wings https://bugguide.net/node/view/239864/bgimage (pictures of hairstreaks with their wings spread are hard to get), and their underwings have a scattering of wide, slightly darker bands that are bordered by parenthesis-like white stripes.  The Edwards and the Hickory Hairstreaks have similar markings, so check your field guide.

They’re out and about in mid-summer.  Males scan the landscape for females from perches in the vegetation, and if they see a rival, will battle by flying around each other in an upward spiral.

[Quick aside.  When the BugLady was in grad school, her minor, briefly, was Ethology – Animal Behavior.  In one lecture, the professor was describing bloodless standoffs between two male fish that puff up and flare their fins at each other.  And the BugLady wondered – if you’ve never seen yourself in the mirror, and you (presumably) don’t have a sense of self-awareness, how do you know if your rival is bigger/tougher than you are, and you’d better back off?  Is life one big game of chicken?]

Anyway, females lay eggs, one by one, on the twigs of the caterpillar host trees, which include some species in the rose family like apple, hawthorn, Juneberry, and cherry, plus some species in the heath family (blueberry) plus a few others.  The eggs overwinter, and when they hatch the next spring, the caterpillars https://bugguide.net/node/view/656623/bgimage selectively eat the buds and flowers first (they are anthophagous), and then the tender leaves and fruit.  That sounds dire, but there are too few of them to cause real damage, and there’s only one brood per year.

Adults feed on nectar from wildflowers and from the flowers of shrubs like staghorn sumac, viburnum, and meadowsweet, and from chinquapin oak.  Butterflies of the Great Lakes Region tells us that “Early in the morning, they [adults] will sip dew from leaves as they bask,” and also that “The males perch low to the ground and are more sedentary and less interactive than the males of many hairstreak species. Adults spend a good deal of time walking on foliage and other perches rather than flying from place to place.  On cool mornings, basking males may find curled leaves at the tops of small bushes…and lie nearly flat against the interior leaf surface with closed wings held nearly perpendicular to the sunlight.  Here they absorb the maximal amount of solar radiation as well as energy from the leaf surface by radiation and conduction.  This allows them to warm up quickly and defend their territory from other males…”

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

P.S.

BugFan Molly shared this link with the BugLady recently https://www.thecaterpillarlab.org/.  The BugLady knows nothing about it, and she is not on its board of directors.  But – great pictures, and check out the store!

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Southern Spreadwing Damselfly

Howdy BugFans,

Full disclosure: the BugLady’s copy of Bob Dubois’s Damselflies of the North Woods (aka The Bible) automatically falls open to the page that shows the rear ends of the male Spreadwings.

Male
Female

So – what’s a Spreadwing damselfly? The order Odonata has two sub-orders – Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies).  Damselflies are further divided into the Broad-winged damsels (jewelwings and rubyspots), the Narrow-winged damsels (bluets, dancers, forktails, sprites, and more), the Spreadwings (family Lestidae), and a few other small groups.  “Spreadwing” describes how they perch – with their wings positioned in a backward-trailing “V.”  Usually.  Unless it’s cold and rainy or it’s a teneral (newly-emerged).

Male
Female

Spreadwings are large for damselflies (1.5” to 2”) and are not particularly brightly-colored.  Males have intense blue eyes and females’ eyes are pale blue or brown.  Sources agree that both male and female spreadwings can be tricky to ID – definitive identification requires examination of the damselfly’s nether regions with a microscope or hand lens, and in the field, females are best known by the company they keep.  Male Southern Spreadwings (https://bugguide.net/node/view/43409/bgimage) look a lot like male Northern Spreadwings https://bugguide.net/node/view/820173/bgimage, which look a lot like male Sweetflag Spreadwings (https://bugguide.net/node/view/477197/bgpage).  Photographers, alas, want labels for our pictures, and we sometimes take leaps of faith.

They aren’t strong flyers, and when they perch, it’s often at about a 45 degree angle, not quite as close to the ground as the sprites and bluets often perch.  They’re found near still waters with lots of vegetation, preferably with no predatory fish – the ideal habitats for their aquatic offspring.  A few live in streams or rivers with a very slow current, and some species are adapted for life in an ephemeral or temporary pond.

Male spreadwings hang out in the vegetation along the shoreline, but females stay away from the water until they are ready to reproduce.  Females lay eggs in plant stems above the waterline, sometimes alone https://bugguide.net/node/view/36973/bgimage, but generally in tandem with a male https://bugguide.net/node/view/1555986/bgimage (he’s guarding his genetic investment).  A few spreadwing species follow the general Odonate formula of hatching quickly, feeding, and then spending the winter underwater as a small, partly-grown naiad (immature).  Other species of spreadwings, the Southern Spreadwing among them, overwinter as eggs and push the restart button in spring.

Bob DuBois, in Damselflies of the North Woods describes their egg-laying practices this way, “This egg-wintering strategy allows them to utilize temporary ponds and vernal ponds that dry up during the summer or fall, because the eggs do not need to be wet all the time….The eggs immediately take some of the initial developing steps, but before hatching occurs they slip into a state of embryonic diapause (rest).  In this state, the drying-resistant eggs spend the winter inside plant stems where they withstand temperatures as cold as it gets in our region ….… after the snows melt and water levels rise in the spring, the dead plant is wetted, providing the moisture needed along with the right increasing temperatures and day-length cues to complete the hatching process. ….. The nymph stage is short for these egg-diapausing species – just two or three months in spring and early summer – because the fast-growing nymphs need to complete their development of about ten instars and emerge before the temporary ponds they live in dry up.

The biography of SOUTHERN SPREADWINGS (Lestes australis) is similar to that of other spreadwings.  Adults are found on the shorelines of quiet, weedy ponds and marshes.  They’re the earliest Lestes species on the landscape, and they have a very short flight period, appearing in May and fading before the end of June.  Adults eat small insects that they snag in the air, and naiads feed on the tiny aquatic invertebrates that they swim around with.

One of the reasons that Southern Spreadwings are so hard to distinguish from Northern Spreadwings is that they both used to be subspecies of the same species, the Common Spreadwing, and therein lies what Paul Harvey used to call “The rest of the story.”  Any birder can tell you of the joys of “lumping” and “splitting,” in which the Powers That Be split a species, creating another potential check-off for your life list, or lump two or three species, lowering your total (brace yourself birders – the Red Crossbills are about to explode).

Anyway, the Common Spreadwing was split.  Says Paulson of the Southern Spreadwing, in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, “With some structural differences and a somewhat different flight season, it probably deserves its rank as a full species, but genetic differences between the two are less than those between most species of spreadwings.”  To add to the confusion, Southern Spreadwings, whose historical range as a subspecies is south of Wisconsin, are moving north.

Scientists and citizen scientists are scrambling to define the edges of the range of the two species.  It may be impossible to know which of the early/pre-split Common Spreadwing records were the (now) Northern or the (now) Southern species, especially where the ranges of the subspecies overlapped.  Bugguide.net plots its range maps based on photos submitted by its members, and although they’re here, Wisconsin is not included on the Southern Spreadwing’s map yet.

Do Southern Spreadwings have resident populations here in Wisconsin or do they just migrate here?  DuBois says “It is not known if this species breeds successfully in our region, or if adults seen here move up from the south.”  They’ve been recorded in 13 Wisconsin counties https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/speciesaccounts/SpeciesDetail.cfm?TaxaID=168, and we know there is breeding activity, but are our winters too cold, for too long, to allow the egg in the stem in the open to make it to spring?

Finally, and at the risk of causing Lestes Overload – also moving into our neighborhoods is the Great Spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), a large (up to 2.4”) species native to the west and south whose range now extends to Massachusetts and Ontario (and includes Wisconsin https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/speciesaccounts/SpeciesDetail.cfm?TaxaID=126.  The range expansion may be due to climate change, or it may be explained by a proliferation of ditches and farm ponds (the naiad is tolerant of pollution) that allowed the species to hop-scotch across the continent.  Keep your eyes peeled.

The BugLady recommends this lovely offering from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: https://fieldguides.fieldmuseum.org/sites/default/files/rapid-color-guides-pdfs/388_0.pdf

Also – many thanks to BugFan Freda, whose pictures of the Southern Spreadwing are far better than the BugLady’s.

Think damselflies.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Agreeable Tiger Moth

Greetings, BugFans,

Years ago, the BugLady photographed a Giant Leopard moth https://bugguide.net/node/view/1967163/bgimage.  It was a tough shot – the moth was tucked up under the eaves of a house.  It’s – OK — but she wants another shot at it, and she also wants to photograph its very classy caterpillar https://bugguide.net/node/view/1746675/bgimage.  She fantasizes that when she does find one, the pictures will turn out better than her first attempt (one last amazing Leopard moth picture https://bugguide.net/node/view/924700.

Anyway, when she saw this Agreeable tiger moth caterpillar, she thought maybe it was a Giant Leopard moth, but it lacked the Giant Leopard moth’s scarlet bands around the segments (intersegmental rings).

Agreeable tiger moths (Spilosoma congrua), aka Yellow-legged tiger moths, are in the family Erebidae and the tiger moth tribe Arctini (from a Greek word meaning “bear,” a reference to their woolly caterpillars).  Adults are white, with a few black spots, and with a wingspread of about one-and-one-third inches https://bugguide.net/node/view/1930658/bgimage https://bugguide.net/node/view/1082541/bgimage, and they have pretty cute faces https://bugguide.net/node/view/632611/bgimage. There are a number of related tiger moth species whose adults are white and somewhat spotty, and they can be hard to distinguish http://daytoninsects.com/white-tiger.html.

The caterpillars come in two color morphs – black with yellow/orange intersegmental rings https://bugguide.net/node/view/322343/bgimage, and (like the Giant Leopard moth) black with red decorations https://bugguide.net/node/view/889559/bgimage.  Tiger moth caterpillars are bristly (woolly bears are tiger moths, too), and in some species, the hairs cause skin irritation.  The Agreeable tiger moth’s bristles are, well, agreeable.

They’re mostly found east of the Great Plains in woodlands, grasslands, gardens, etc.  Usually, animals that occupy a huge range are generalist feeders, and the tiger moths certainly are.  Agreeable tiger moth caterpillars eat a variety of herbaceous plants including dandelion and plantain, which are everywhere, and pigweed (Amaranthus sp.), and they also nibble on mushrooms https://bugguide.net/node/view/259755/bgimage.  The BugLady found a paper in which the authors speculated that an Agreeable tiger moth caterpillar that was seen feeding on a bracket fungus was probably eating the algae that grew on the fungus too, but fungi and algae appear to be only a tiny part of the species’ diet.

Some of their food plants contain toxins, chemicals that plants produce in order to discourage grazing (with varying degrees of success).  Insects that eat toxic plants either develop ways to rid their bodies of the poisons quickly, or they develop a way to sequester them in their body.  Agreeable tiger moths sequester chemicals called iridoid glycosides, which make them bitter and distasteful (but probably not lethal) to potential predators.  Sometimes, these chemicals are used in reproduction.

Adults fly from late spring through mid-summer here in God’s Country, and even longer in the South.  Some tiger moths (like the Woolly bear) overwinter as caterpillars, but the Spilosomas spend the winter in a pupal case https://bugguide.net/node/view/335864/bgimage inside a cocoon they construct using some of their own hairs https://bugguide.net/node/view/889561/bgimage.  Here’s a good series of pictures of the whole life cycle https://bugguide.net/node/view/311410/bgimage.

In her research, The BugLady came across an article that (irresistibly) began “This past weekend I attended the third annual “Caterwauling for Caterpillars” night” – a night that included a sighting of an Agreeable tiger moth caterpillar along with some other awesome caterpillars.  Here’s the blog: https://kylefromohio.blogspot.com/2017/09/caterpillar-extravaganza.html.

Bizarre Tiger Moth Fact: The hairs of a species in India are so irritating that they can lead to a serious skin and systemic condition called Lepidopterism when the population of a local tiger moth booms.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Carpenter Ants

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady lives in a log cottage that’s rough cedar on the inside (think splinters), so when, one night, this Carpenter ant queen dropped down from the ceiling onto a book she was reading, she may have overreacted a tiny bit, and the ant met with an unfortunate accident.  Here’s a healthier individual https://bugguide.net/node/view/787312/bgimage. (Thanks to honorary BugFan PJ for confirming the ID)

Disclaimer: the BugLady doesn’t give advice on insect control or eradication.  That being said, if you see carpenter ants in your house, or if you hear the faint, rustling sound of chewing (it’s been likened to cellophane crinkling), get help.

Carpenter ants (called “sugar ants” in Australia) are in the ant family Formicidae and the genus Camponotus (which means “flat back”).  There are about 1,000 species in the genus worldwide – 50 in North America – and since the BugLady doesn’t know which species she had, the term “carpenter ant” here is generic.  They’re usually found where there are trees, but some nest in soil and others enjoy grasslands and even deserts.  They’re active all year round in warmer climates, but here in God’s Country, they enter a state of suspended development called diapause in the winter (unless they’re in the walls of a heated dwelling).

These tend to be large ants, and depending on species, they come in black, yellow, red, or brown, as well as two-toned.  They’re called polymorphic (“multiple-forms”) because there are three sizes of workers https://bugguide.net/node/view/729102/bgimage – minors, medias, and majors – plus large queens and half-sized males.

Like other communal insects, carpenter ants have a complex social system.  A queen mates with as many males as possible during her nuptial flight and uses that stored sperm for the rest of her life, which can be as long as 15 years.  She seals herself into a small cavity in wood or under bark and lays about 20 eggs.  When they hatch, she nourishes the larvae herself, using her fat reserves and protein from her wing muscles, and when they emerge from their pupal cases as adults, these new workers break out of the chamber and take over the nest duties https://bugguide.net/node/view/636620/bgimage.  The larger workers are guards and foragers; the smaller ones excavate and tend to the nest and care for the queen and the nursery (they feed their charges by regurgitating food – trophallaxis).

She lays eggs twice a year.  Some of the early spring eggs, specially nurtured, will become winged, fertile, royal ants (swarmers), and the rest are workers.  The late summer eggs produce workers that emerge the next year.  A nest usually doesn’t produce its first swarm until it’s three or four years old and contains several thousand ants.  A thriving carpenter ant colony often includes a parent nest and one or more satellite nests.  The parent nest is humid, excavated in damp wood, and the ant eggs need this high humidity.  Once the eggs hatch, the workers tote the larvae to satellite nests where the humidity is lower.

What fuels carpenter ants?  They’re omnivores and scavengers and sometimes predators, but the wood they chew is not a part of their diet (unlike termites, they don’t have the proper gut flora to digest cellulose).  Workers mostly eat carbs – sap, fruit, the liquid from extrafloral nectaries (https://uwm.edu/field-station/ants-in-my-plants/), (and discarded candy https://bugguide.net/node/view/1911307/bgimage), and they farm aphids, scales, and treehoppers https://bugguide.net/node/view/1537739/bgimage for the sweet honeydew these insects excrete.

The developing larvae require protein, which workers collect in the form of dead (and sometimes live) insects https://bugguide.net/node/view/957396/bgimage.  When they find one, a group may gather and carry it back to the nest, or they may eat it on the spot, carrying the nutrients back in their crops, and leaving the shell behind.  They usually forage at night.

When they have a long-term food source (like a herd of aphids) carpenter ants lay a pheromone trail for their sisters to follow, and they may use underground tunnels to get to their food source, too.  They can go without food for six months, but they may respond to a food shortage with a little cannibalism.

Who eats carpenter ants?  People do, for one.  The adults and larvae are eaten around the world, and Wikipedia tells us that in the early days of this country, lumberjacks in Maine ate carpenter ants to prevent scurvy.  We share them with wildlife like bears, skunks, big brown bats, salamanders, songbirds, wild turkeys, and, famously, Pileated Woodpeckers.

Carpentry is their raison d’etre, and in their proper place, they are important decomposers (a study in the Northeast determined that 75% of carpenter ants are found in dead trees).  They tunnel in wood that’s been softened up a bit by moisture (an important thing to remember if you’re trying to avoid carpenter ants in your walls), and their tunnels open up a decaying tree to more moisture and to fungi.  They tear the soft wood with their sturdy jaws https://bugguide.net/node/view/1615668/bgimage forming long tunnels called galleries https://bugguide.net/node/view/1783110/bgimage.

The tunnels are clean and are sometimes described as looking “sanded.”  Wood shavings that result from their excavating, along with desiccated bits of food, and deceased ants are removed from the tunnels – dumped out of a hole in the trunk that’s sometimes called a “window.”

Fun Carpenter Ant Fact: when the workers are alarmed, they may warn their sisters by whacking their mandibles and abdomen against the inside of the tunnel walls, making a loud sound that is sometimes audible even to us.

Another Fun Carpenter Ant Fact: they are gentle souls that would rather live to fight another day, but if they are mishandled, they will bite (painfully) and then squirt a little formic acid into the bite for good measure.  They don’t sting.

BugFan Bill invites BugFans who would like to dive a deeper into the world of insects and insect issues to check out the Conservation and Ecology – Insects in the Midwest Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/183261300269413.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Bugs in the News XI

Howdy, BugFans,

Hawks are still flying; bugs, not so much.  Lots of grasshoppers along the trail, and a variety of flies and some sweat bees on the late-blooming dandelions (and just two weeks ago the BugLady was photographing late dragonflies).  It’s definitely feeling like November on the hawk tower.  The BugLady’s trusty 50-year-old hand anemometer measured a 49 mph gust the other day.

Here are some interesting articles and beautiful pictures from the BugLady’s overflowing media folder.

Learn about the 14 WAYS SPIDERS USE SILK – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/fourteen-ways-spiders-use-their-silk-180978354/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20211027-daily-responsive&spMailingID=45847821&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2102995663&spReportId=MjEwMjk5NTY2MwS2

BUMBLEBEE VOMIT – A former Governor of Wisconsin famously referred to honey as “bee poop” (guess what our state insect is?).  Speaking of bodily functions, here’s an article about bumblebee vomit – click on the link in the short, italicized paragraph (“Want to learn more about the science behind bumblebee vomit?  Click here to see some of the resources we used to help write this episode!”):   https://www.npr.org/2020/03/13/815715527/the-buzz-on-bee-barf-sticky-science-behind-bumblebee-vomit?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20200317&utm_term=4464619&utm_campaign=news&utm_id=2548916&orgid=675

And – while we’re at it, HONEY is remarkably good for bees: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science/honey-has-health-benefits-for-bees-180978917/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20211025-daily-responsive&spMailingID=45834577&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2102700229&spReportId=MjEwMjcwMDIyOQS2

AWESOME MOTH SHOTS — https://aeon.co/videos/witness-the-majesty-of-moths-taking-flight-at-6000-frames-per-second.  Thanks, BugFan Bill.

ICE WORMS fall within the BOTW mission (the BugLady thinks maybe she saw the movie…).  https://www.npr.org/2021/07/13/1011376403/its-summer-and-that-means-the-mysterious-return-of-glacier-ice-worms?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20210713&utm_term=5565492&utm_campaign=news&utm_id=2548916&orgid=675&utm_att1=

SPECTACULAR MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY, although, alas, we can’t say “no insect was harmed to make this picture.”  https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2021/08/19/1025545652/military-photography-bugs-pablo-piedra?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20210820&utm_term=5679937&utm_campaign=news&utm_id=2548916&orgid=675&utm_att1=

The SPOTTED LANTERNFLY is established in New York and Pennsylvania and has been seen in Ohio and southeastern Indiana.  Here’s more about the beautiful, invasive insect that will be a game-changer for the fruit-growing industry – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/see-spotted-lanternfly-squash-it-officials-say-180978545/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210830-daily-responsive&spMailingID=45541229&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2067368472&spReportId=MjA2NzM2ODQ3MgS2.

MURDER HORNETS 2021 – the BugLady is blown away by pictures of people in moon suits, vacuuming up Murder hornets.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/entomologists-eradicated-first-asian-giant-murder-hornet-nest-2021-180978543/

DRAGONFLY WINGS – something unexpected to lay at the door of climate change – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/warmer-climate-may-cause-male-dragonflies-lose-their-patchy-wings-180978141/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210712-daily-responsive&spMailingID=45289685&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2043035771&spReportId=MjA0MzAzNTc3MQS2

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Forked Fungus Beetle Redux

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady has been out counting migrating raptors.  Here’s a rerun of an episode about an amazing beetle that the BugLady encountered in the late spring of 2014.

Every once in a while, life hands you a special treat.  Late one recent afternoon, the BugLady was walking through the beech woods, moving far too slowly, considering the size of her mosquito escort, scanning a fallen log that was adorned with a few deteriorating shelf fungi (can you spell “bug-nerd?”).  Suddenly, part of a fungus twitched.

If you’re singing along, we’re on page 192 of your Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America or page 583 of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders – the forked/horned fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) (“crowned”).  The Forked fungus beetle is in the Darkling beetle family Tenebrionidae and is the only species in its genus.  It’s found east of the Mississippi, at night, in the woods, in the company of woody, polypore shelf fungi.

Males look like half-inch long “triceratops.”  Their horns can vary in size quite a bit, and most males have a small, forked, rhino-like horn at the end of their snout https://bugguide.net/node/view/788389/bgimage that the BugLady does not see in her photographs (hers is a bi-ceratops).  Females don’t have horns, but the lower edges of their heads are widened, and they wear an extra bit of armor plate on their opposite ends (more about that later).  They are drab, knobbed, pitted, exceedingly “thick-skinned,” and primordial.  Oh, but then there’s that beautiful gold fringe on the underside of the male’s horns https://bugguide.net/node/view/1864012/bgimage – The Beetle with the Fringe on Top.  It has been suggested that the hairs serve some general sensory function, but the BugLady couldn’t find any corroboration of that, and considering the Forked fungus beetle’s lifestyle, the hairs must take quite a beating.

About the natural history of the Forked fungus beetle we know plenty, thanks to research done in the 1950’s by M. Pferrer Liles and in the ‘60’s by Ann Pace (http://www.americaninsects.net/b/forked-fungus-beetles.html).  All stages of the beetle live, overwinter, reproduce and feed in/on woody shelf fungi (here in God’s Country they like the “artist’s fungus,” Ganoderma applanatumhttps://bugguide.net/node/view/422117/bgimage.  Once they find a good fungus, a small population of beetles may occupy it for as long as nine years, moving on when the fungus is no longer usable.  Larvae https://bugguide.net/node/view/1519099/bgimage turn the fungus into a honeycomb of tunnels.  Though there may be several larvae in a tunnel, they stay out of each other’s way; but if, in its travels, a larva stumbles across a Forked fungus beetle pupa, it might cannibalize the pupa.  M. Pferrer Liles noted that larval tunnels often contained masses of white mycelium (fungal strands) that had grown around and permeated the body cavity of a dead Forked fungus beetle larva.  Fungus mummifies larva – sounds like something the BugLady saw on “The X-Files.”

They have few predators.  A braconid wasp parasitizes the larvae, and a few nocturnal mammals try to eat them (more about that later, too).

So, what was the twitching all about?  The male initiates courtship by climbing onto the female, facing the opposite direction and griping her elytra (hard wing covers).  Scientists have actually measured a Forked fungus beetle’s grip strength, because having won Fair Maid, he may be dislodged by the horns of her other ardent suitors.  Males use the horns in pushing contests, and the guy with the biggest horns usually wins; likewise, bigger beetles have longer legs and a stronger grip.  Anyhow, there he sits, rubbing her head with his feet and, yes, twitching.  In this position, the underneath of his abdomen rubs against two “tubercles” on the top of her thorax.  The friction may produce a rasping sound that can be heard six or more feet away (the BugLady didn’t hear it, but the sound is typically made at night, and the movements can be made without producing the sound).  Courtship may last several hours.

When copulation is imminent, he turns around so they are facing the same direction.  According to one source, females do not pick their suitors, but they can decide which male shares his bodily fluids with them.  If she is not receptive to the male, she can block the transfer of his spermatophore by not opening the heavy plates at her rear.  After mating, the male stays in place for a long time, guarding his investment from other males.

A female lays very few eggs a year (a dozen at most), and before each egg, she must court.  Eggs are laid singly, in the early evening, in cracks on the tops and sides of the fungus.  She picks her nursery carefully – studies have shown that larvae that develop in larger fungi not only have a better survival rate, but the male larvae will have larger horns when they mature (and they’ll get all the girls).  Once laid, each egg is plastered over with what was tactfully described as “a dark, excrement-like material” that is smoothed down by hairs on the female’s abdomen.  Here are some pictures of life stages https://bugguide.net/node/view/97208/bgimage.

Forked fungus beetles lead unhurried lives.  The larvae stay in their eggs for several days after hatching, eating the capsule itself before burrowing into the spore-bearing tissues of the fungus.  New adults stay in their pupal cases for a few days after emerging, until their color darkens (here’s a newly emerged male http://bugguide.net/node/view/97192/bgimage).  An adult may live for four or five years, never venturing far from its natal fungus.  In fact, until 1999 scientists were unsure about whether Forked fungus beetles could even fly (they can), and assumed that FFBs hoofed it across the forest floor to new sites.  There are two generations per year; larvae overwinter within their fungi; adults stay in fungi, decaying stumps, and under tree bark.

It’s hard to imagine that a beetle that looks as though it heaved itself up out of the very wood itself would need a sophisticated defense system, but the Forked fungus beetle has a dandy one.  Oh, sure, a startled adult Forked fungus beetle, like many other kinds of beetles including Tenebrionids, plays dead (death feigning).  It tucks its legs into dedicated grooves on the underside of its body, and blends in with its surroundings.  But, it’s got a chemical trick up its sleeve, too.

When it feels threatened, a Forked fungus beetle releases a nasty-smelling, irritating potion that causes a potential predator to reconsider.  Rather than squirting the liquid like a squeeze bottle, Forked fungus beetles carry the chemical deterrent in two “eversible” abdominal glands that turn inside out like a pocket.  What’s unique is the timing and the trigger.

In Secret Weapons, Eisner says that “An unusual feature of B. cornutus is that it may extrude its glands preemptively, in response to the mere anticipation of an attack.  All you need do to cause the beetle to evert its glands is to breathe on it.  This readiness to deploy its chemical weapons may serve the beetle well, especially in defense against predators such as mice, which could afflict a fatal injury with their very first bite.”  Eisner goes on to say that the Forked fungus beetle defines a “breath” as a warm, moist, pulsing puff of carbon dioxide.  Producing a chemical defense is costly, energy-wise, and the Forked fungus beetle is unusual in using it before its predator actually makes contact.  The unfortunate herbivore that mouths an inhabited fungus may suffer the same fate.  Forked fungus beetles do not use a cannon to kill a gnat – when nibbled by an ant, they depend on the toughness of their exoskeleton.  For many close-up pictures, including some of a beetle spraying, see http://www.performance-vision.com/FungusBeetle/.

Last but not least – yes – phoresy!  Those legged, pink dots on the female’s head are mites!  A number of different species of mites have been documented on Forked fungus beetles.  In one study, researchers checked Forked fungus beetles in a museum collection for phoretic (hitchhiking) mites and found them on about one-third of the beetles.  The mites are species that live in fungi – some eat spores – and they take advantage of the Forked fungus beetle’s longer legs to get around.

Those horns remind the BugLady of one of her favorite cartoon characters, The Tick.  And as the Tick once said, “Mysteries abound.”

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Therion Wasp

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady stood on a boardwalk in a wetland for about half an hour trying to photograph this amazing wasp as it dodged through thickets of sedges, ferns, and orchids, staying below knee-level, never landing.  This is the best picture she got.  She ID’d it as an ichneumon wasp in the genus Therion.

A quick review of Ichneumon wasps, since we haven’t been there for a while.  Ichneumonidae is a very large family indeed, with 25,000 known species worldwide (5,000 of them in North America) and as many as 75,000 additional species that may be waiting to be discovered!  They live everywhere they can find prey (except Antarctica), and there are so many species spread out over so many areas that the life stories of most are not known.

They range in length from 1/8th of an inch to 3 inches, and some are very colorful.  Many have long, slim abdomens that flare at the end, some tipped with impressive ovipositors https://bugguide.net/node/view/2001653/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1950499/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1828581/bgimage.  With a few exceptions, Ichneumons don’t sting, and you have to mess pretty seriously with those that do in order to get them to do it.  Their long antennae (often at least half as long as their body) have lots more segments than do those of other wasps, and many species have a white or yellow band midway along each https://bugguide.net/node/view/1924235/bgimage.  They’re tough to identify – the Field Guide to Insects of North America says that most of the photos submitted to be used in the book could not be identified, even by experts.

“Ichneumon” comes from a Latin word that was derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning “tracker,” so-named because of the way females hunt for other invertebrates.  The larvae of Ichneumons are parasitoids – sometimes on spiders, but mostly on insects that have complete metamorphosis (egg–larva-pupa–adult).

She lays her egg, often accompanied by a shot of venom, on or in her prey, usually the larva of a beetle, butterfly/moth, or another wasp; and many species of ichneumon target particular genera or groups of prey.  When it hatches, her larva starts feeding on the non-essential parts of its host, keeping it alive by leaving the vital organs for last.  Without ichneumons, the world would be overrun by caterpillars.

Adults feed on nectar, sap, and water (some species also eat pollen), and bugguide.net tells us that many adult ichneumons overwinter as adults under loose tree bark.

There’s a genus of Ichneumon wasps that is named Ichneumon, and the resulting confusion between genus and family has caused some Ichneumonid experts to refer to the family as Darwin wasps.  Darwin, along with his Victorian contemporaries, was so horrified by the parasitoid lifestyle that he famously said: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”

Most sources list 14 species in the genus Therion in North America (20 globally), and they can be difficult to tell apart, so the BugLady assumed her well-worn seat, way out on that taxonomic limb and guessed that this is Therion circumflexum (no common name).  She felt better about her guess when she found a 1973 paper by C. N. Slobodchikoff, in which he states that “It has recently been shown that all North American Therion can be considered as members of a single species Therion circumflexum,”and he refers to the rest of the named “species” as morphological types.  Apparently, it’s been re-thought since then.  There’s not a huge amount of information available about the species, but at least the contributors to bugguide.net have gotten better pictures of it than the BugLady did: https://bugguide.net/node/view/644490/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/752769/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/482314/bgimage.

Therion circumflexum (“circumflexum” is Latin for “bent about”) is in the subfamily Anomaloninae, and its posture in flight, with outstretched antennae and an elevated rear, is typical of the subfamily.  Weighing in at a little more than an inch long, it’s one of the larger members of the genus.  It’s found not only in North America but also in the UK, northern Europe, Asia, and even North Africa, and its habitat is listed as “oak-chaparral and willows.”

They often perch vertically, and they spend lots of time grooming – antennae first, then mouth, then legs and wings, and finally, abdomen.

After mating, females fly away, but males lie on the ground for a minute or two, abdomens curled up, wings and legs splayed, looking like dead wasps, before they, too, leave.  Females search for caterpillars during zig-zag flights and also on foot, in vegetation, using their antennae.  They target the larvae of moths and butterflies, and their diet is more catholic than that of many other ichneumons.  Females locate a potential host by smell, and then they sweep their antennae over its exterior, making sure that the caterpillar isn’t hairy or spiny and therefore difficult to deliver an egg into.  If it passes muster, she uses her short ovipositor to insert an egg.  The host larva may undergo its full (though weakened) development before the Therion larva delivers the coup de grace, and the ichneumon matures within the pupa of its dead host.

Nature red in tooth and claw.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – And Now for Something a Little Different XI – Pitcher Plants

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady was on a wetland walk years ago when someone asked the leader “Why do pitcher plants grow here?”  His answer, simple and elegant, “Because they can.”

Indeed, there are lots of seeds that are falling off plants, blowing through the air, and being transported by birds and mammals; they’re looking for a home, but conditions are harsh in the wetlands where pitcher plants grow.  They’re exposed, unsheltered, to heat and cold, and many wetland soils are nutrient-poor – low in nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.  These wetlands may be nutrient-stingy, too.  There’s organic matter in the system from fallen leaves, but it’s hard for plants to access because low oxygen levels in the soggy soil mean fewer bacteria, which means that decay/nutrient turnover takes a long time, and the lack of oxygen also makes water uptake more difficult.  Plants that will thrive in these places must come pre-set with adaptations that allow them to do so.

Part One – The Introductions.

Purple/Northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is a plant of acid bogs and neutral-to-acid fens.  It occurs throughout the East, across Canada, and along parts of the Pacific Coast as a native and as an introduced plant (the BugLady, who does not grow things, was amazed to discover that people also keep it as a house plant).  It was named after a French physician named Michael Sarrazin who lived in Canada in the closing days of the 17th century and who turned his interests to botany.  He was the first to describe the plant’s lifestyle (more about that in a sec), and he documented the Native use of pitcher plants to treat smallpox.  It was also used for fever, kidney and lung ailments, back pain, chills, and whooping cough, and it was an aid in childbirth.  The pitchers were used as drinking cups, berry containers, and in ceremonies, and the outside was sometimes carved like scrimshaw.

The hollow, trumpet/pitcher-shaped leaves – green, maroon, or green with maroon veins – fill with rainwater in spring.  One theory for the different leaf colors is age (older = redder), and another is sunlight – plants in full sun protect themselves from UV radiation by deploying red pigments called anthocyanins, but leaves in the shade don’t need them.  A healthy plant may grow five to ten new pitchers a year, and as the plant ages, multiple leaves sprouting from the same rhizome radiate around it like a rosette.  Purple pitcher plants can live for decades; the evergreen leaves persist into their second season and give energy to the plant as their replacements are growing.

The flower stalk produces a single flower that looks like a wine-red, upside-down tulip and that is pollinated by bumble bees, honey bees, and Pitcher plant flies (Fletcherimyia fletcheri).  After it’s fertilized, the flower straightens up and the petals drop off, and old seed capsules persist through the winter.

Its list of common names tells of people’s fascination with it and of some of its historical uses – Turtle socks, Side-saddle flower, Fever-cup, Smallpox plant, Indian Dipper, Huntsman’s Cup, Adam’s-Pitcher, Frog’s Britches, and Whippoorwill-boots.

Part Two – It Eats Meat.

The pitchers are a trap.  Insects are attracted to sweet nectar that’s produced by glands located in the red veins on the inside surface of the lip (they’re called extra-floral nectaries (EFNs) https://uwm.edu/field-station/ants-in-my-plants/).  Immediately below the lip, there’s a band of small, downward-facing needles that discourage insects from turning around.  Below that, the leaf is lined with slick, waxy cells that send the hapless insect sliding into the water.  An old theory says that insects come to the plant because of the “red meat” color of the veins, and that may be true of some flies, but many insects don’t see in color, so it’s more likely that nectar is the draw.

It’s a great design, but one study estimated that even a well-fed pitcher manages to collect less than 1% of its visitors!

Ants make up about 70% of its prey – their short legs make those downward-pointing needles especially daunting.  Mites, spiders, beetles, snails, millipedes, flies, springtails, wasps, and moths are among a pitcher plant’s other prey, and researchers have even found small spotted salamanders and red-spotted newts in pitchers (one small salamander would satisfy a pitcher’s nutritional needs for a long time).

The plant gets energy through photosynthesis, but the insect prey provide minerals that are missing from the soils (ant bodies, it turns out, are very high in nitrogen).  The water in the pitcher contains some digestive enzymes, though young leaves are better at producing them than older leaves are.  The enzymes do part of the digesting, and now we come to the last piece of the puzzle.

Part Three – A Cast of Thousands.

Seasoned BugFans know that the BugLady is fascinated by inquilines (Latin for “lodger” or “tenant”), those (in this case) invertebrates that shelter in structures built by others, like galls, nests, hives, etc.  Some simply co-exist with their host without interacting, and some perform light housekeeping chores by feeding on debris in a nest.

Larvae of the Purple pitcher plant mosquito (Wyeomyia smithiihttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1241580/bgpage live in the pitcher year round, overwintering in the frozen water and coexisting with the very carnivorous larvae of the Pitcher plant midge https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/225007-Metriocnemus-knabi.  As spring advances, algae arrive in the pitcher, followed by an array of invertebrates that form a food web.

Overall, researchers have logged more than 165 species of inquilines in the water of purple pitcher plants – bacteria, mites, protozoans, copepods, nematode worms, rotifers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habrotrocha_rosa, the larvae of Pitcher plant flies https://bugguide.net/node/view/1978019 and other fly species, and more – almost three times more than in any other species of pitcher plant.  Some of the inquilines live only in pitcher plants; all must be tolerant of poor water quality.

It’s all about recycling.  These invertebrates not only live in the pitcher plant’s water without getting digested (through the magic of “anti-enzymes”), they help to “feed” the pitcher by breaking captured animals into smaller pieces so that they’re easier for the enzymes to digest, and/or by eating the prey (and each other) and then adding nutrients to the water via their excretions.  The midge larva https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/225007-Metriocnemus-knabi feeds on drowned prey at the bottom of the pitcher, and the tiny particles it creates are food for the filter-feeding mosquito larva.

The midge larva is selective.  In one experiment, researchers introduced into the pitchers the larvae of mosquitoes that are not normally found there, and they reported that the midge larvae ate the aliens in short order but left the larvae of the Pitcher plant mosquito alone.  They speculated that if drought conditions were to wipe out the natural inquilines, the stage could be set for the use of the pitcher by exotic species.

Nutrients and CO2 provided by its inquilines are used by the plant, and the oxygen that is released into the water through photosynthesis benefits the critters that live there.  Because the “hood” of the Purple pitcher plant is open (the hoods of some species form an umbrella over the top), nutrients can also enter the system in rainwater.

Spiders oviposit within the pitcher (some spin webs across the pitcher’s opening), and several moth caterpillars feed on the leaves, both from the inside and the outside.  A thread-waisted wasp creates a nest for her egg by chewing a hole at the base of a leaf, draining the pitcher, stuffing it with grass, and provisioning it with caterpillars.

Fun Fact about pitcher plants:

  • A Michigan man who claimed to be 125 years old attributed his longevity to drinking pitcher plant water daily (do not try this at home).

  • A pitcher plant is considered a phytotelmata, “water-filled structure produced by plants” – a mini-aquarium.  Tree holes and the water reservoirs in bromeliads are also phytotelmata.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Late Summer Reflections

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady has been out looking for bugs as the summer winds down; her dragonfly and butterfly surveys have been yielding fewer and fewer species these days.  It has been an odd year, phenology-wise, with many species seeming to start late and wrap up early.  Seasoned BugFans will not be surprised to hear that her camera has been drawn disproportionately to dragonflies and damselflies.

AMBUSH BUG AND PREY – A dynamite little predator and a BugLady favorite.

EASTERN TAILED-BLUE BUTTERFLIES have several generations per year, flying from May through September.  The BugLady sees them along mowed trails until the first frosts, skittering just above the grass, looking for white clover to lay their eggs on (so set your mowers above the height of those clover flowers).  The eggs soon hatch, and the larvae overwinter in the clover’s seed pods.

AZURE BLUET DAMSELFLY – Spilling over into late September, Familiar Bluets are the final bluets of the season, but the lushly-blue Azure Bluets are second-last.  What a treat!

BALD-FACED AERIAL YELLOWJACKETS aka BALD-FACED HORNETS – It’s always exciting, as the leaves start to fall, to see how close we’ve been walking to the hidden nests of Bald-faced hornets https://bugguide.net/node/view/1632691/bgimage.  Apparently, when the BugLady wasn’t paying attention, Bald-faced hornets were renamed to more accurately reflect their taxonomy, and now they’re called Bald-faced Aerial Yellowjackets (as opposed to the regular yellowjackets in the genus Vespula).  People ask the BugLady if there are any insects that she’s afraid of.  She’s not thrilled by ants (due to a misspent youth, during which she discovered that lederhosen offer no protection from an anthill), but these hornets/aerial yellowjackets do give her pause, because if you stumble into a nest, they can advance faster than you can retreat https://bugguide.net/node/view/1577524.

Why did the SWORD-BEARING CONE-HEADED KATYDID cross the road?

The egg that this SLENDER SPREADWING DAMSELFLY is inserting into the bulrush will spend the winter there in diapause (suspended animation).  In spring, it will hatch, and in the form of a “pronymph,” exit the stem and drop into the water to complete its development as a nymph/naiad over the next few months.

AMERICAN PELECINID WASPS are about 2 ½” long, and it’s mostly abdomen.  She’s harmless unless you’re a June beetle grub, living happily out of sight underground looking for potatoes, in which case she will thread that long abdomen into the soil and deposit an egg on your exterior.  She produces that egg via parthenogenesis.  What a fascinating insect!  https://uwm.edu/field-station/american-pelecinid-wasp/

WHITE-FACED MEADOWHAWK DRAGONFLY – There are about a half-dozen species of meadowhawks in the BugLady’s neck of the woods – males are red; females and young males are generally amber; and they can be tricky to tell apart.  One of the things that distinguishes meadowhawks is their sheer abundance – by mid-July, they start to outnumber the rest of the dragonflies.  The BugLady did a dragonfly survey a few years ago in which she stopped counting meadowhawks at 150 and just checked “abundant.”  Not this year.  Not on the trails she walks.

Meadowhawks have a risky reproductive strategy.  Rather than deposit eggs in water or aquatic vegetation, meadowhawks, especially White-faced Meadowhawks, gamble.  Flying in tandem near, but not over, the edge of the pond, the female lobs eggs down onto ground that she hopes will be inundated by fall rains or spring floods.  But parts of Southeastern Wisconsin had a dry fall followed by a dry spring, and the water levels never rose, and the BugLady thinks that lots of eggs got stranded.  She doesn’t think she’s seen even 30 meadowhawks since the beginning of July.

What will happen?  Maybe a wet fall will encourage the eggs of this year’s meadowhawks, but it might take a few years for the population to build back in from the edges.

A small herd of BARK LICE appeared on the BugLady’s porch rail in mid-August.  Bark lice, aka tree cattle, graze harmlessly on fungus, algae, and other little stuff on tree trunks (and porch rails).  Better than bleach.

RED ADMIRAL BUTTERFLIES (historically called Red Admirables) are everywhere – in temperate parts of North Africa, Europe, Asia, New Zealand, North and Central America, and the Caribbean.  They can get away with it because the caterpillar food plants are nettles, which are also everywhere.  Like Monarchs, they’re migratory.  They arrive from the South in May and produce a summer brood here.  The new crop of Red Admirals heads south when the flowers fade, to overwinter there, and their offspring repopulate God’s Country again in the spring.  Their populations are (inexplicably) cyclical; a few years ago we had a monster year for Red Admirals, but the BugLady saw very few this summer.

COMMON GREEN DARNERS also migrate (but it’s a little more complicated than that – Wisconsin has both a migratory and a non-migratory population of Common Green Darners).  At 3” long, these are big dragonflies.  BugLady was surrounded by them as she stood on the hawk tower near the shore of Lake Michigan in early September – she was looking for raptors, but it was all darners and BLACK SADDLEBAGS, as far out as she could scan with her binoculars.

The SPINED SOLDIER BUG is a stink bug in the genus Podisus.  Though many stink bugs are plant feeders and some are crop pests, this soldier bug is cruising the flower tops looking for caterpillars and other juicy items.

Autumnal equinox!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady 

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Two-spotted Tree Cricket

Greetings BugFans,

The BugLady had a visitor at her front door the other day – a Two-spotted tree cricket.  When they think of tree crickets, most people picture a delicate, flat, green member of the genus Oecanthus (https://bugguide.net/node/view/883267/bgpage).  Oecanthus tree crickets, with a brief nod to the Two-spotted tree cricket, were celebrated in a previous BOTW https://uwm.edu/field-station/tree-crickets/.  Today’s story is about that other tree cricket.

The Two-spotted tree cricket (Neoxabea bipunctata) (family Gryllidae) used to be grouped with the Oecanthus but was reclassified into the Neoxabea.  According to bugguide.netNeoxabea means “new tree cricket” – Xabea being yet another tree cricket genus and the one that the TSTC was assigned to before it was an Oecanthus.  Neoxabea are called the “smooth-legged tree crickets” because the Oecanthus have spines on their hind legs and Neoxabea don’t.  There are about a dozen species in the genus Neoxabea worldwide, but the TSTC is the only species north of the Rio Grande unless you count the Brownsville tree cricket (N. formosa), which barely makes it over the border and whose classification is a bit problematic.  Here’s a glamour shot – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1475840/bgimage.

There was a reference to a common name for the TSTC in Ohio – “itch bug” – that the BugLady couldn’t find anything more about.  Tree crickets, though they are (barely) capable of biting human skin, rarely do (in the BugLady’s experience, they’re too busy exiting the scene).

TSTCs, as one reference pointed out, are found over the eastern half of the country in approximately the same footprint as the original, eastern deciduous forests.  They are associated with oak, apple, maple, white pine, and a variety of other trees, and also with wild grape and sunflower.  They aren’t seen as often as their Oecanthus cousins because they tend to live higher off the ground in dense vegetation, and males sing from the undersides of leaves.

The cut of their jib is distinctly different from the other tree crickets.  Unlike the Oecanthus https://bugguide.net/node/view/37247/bgimage, they tend to be pinkish, and the male’s wings are less flared https://bugguide.net/node/view/1611999/bgimage.  Females have two dorsal spots; males don’t.

TSTCs have gradual metamorphosis – nymphs resemble the adults and there’s no resting/changing/pupal stage.  Both adults and nymphs feed at dusk and by night on the same diet of tiny insects, bits of leaves, pollen, and fungi (and the BugLady wonders if maybe the one on the screen was grazing on the algae that grows there).  They are preyed upon by wasps, including grass-carrying wasps, of previous BOTW fame, which collect them to cache for their young.

The male’s song is described as a broken trill (one source described it more authoritatively as “A plaintive, dissonant, buzzy trill at about 3.5 kHz, with a distinctive “screaming” quality.”).  He produces sound by rubbing together the ridges on each wing (a “scraper” and “file”).  In the spirit of cold-bloodedness, the warmer the air is, the more trills he generates, and he hedges his bets by chewing a hole in a leaf and positioning his wings and body over it so that the leaf acts like a megaphone.  The tympanum (hearing organs) on her front legs must be tuned to distinguish his species from others at whatever rate he’s singing.  She prefers males that sing “bass,” because they’re probably bigger and therefore have more sperm.

In a paper called “The Mating of Tree Crickets,” David Funk explains that because the sound is amplified backwards from the male, females tend to approach from the rear. He says that “When a male senses the presence of an approaching female, he stops singing and turns around to touch her with his antennae. It is thought that by “tasting” her in this way, he is able to assure that she is a member of the same species and therefore an appropriate mate.”

Their reproductive strategy includes a practice called courtship feeding. There’s a groove on the top of his thorax, between his wings, and into it oozes a substance produced by the metanotal gland, a substance that is irresistible to the female (sometimes unpaired females approach and try to feed, too).  When the female climbs on his back to reach it, she is positioned so that the male is able to insert a spermatophore into the appropriate opening.  She clings to his back, feeding, as he hangs from the vegetation https://bugguide.net/node/view/1778045/bgimage.

As she feeds, the spermatophore empties into her oviduct, and when she’s finished with the metanotal fluid, she eats the also-nutritional, empty spermatophore, too.  Says Eric Eaton in his bugeric blog, the female would undoubtedly eat it [sooner] if she did not have the more attractive metanotal secretion to lick instead.”

She punches her ovipositor deep into a small branch https://bugguide.net/node/view/238538, inserts an egg and, says Bentley B. Fulton in a 1915 Technical Bulletin for the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, “Just before depositing the egg, and while the ovipositor is embedded for its full length in the bark, the female forces out a drop of excrement, which by stretching out the tip of the abdomen, she fastens to the bark just below the hole.  After withdrawing the ovipositor she moves back, picks up the drop with her mouth and places it over the opening.  Several minutes are then spent packing it in and smoothing it out. https://bugguide.net/node/view/259844.  Fulton’s article includes some lovely, pre-digital illustrations https://orthsoc.org/sina/s576lf15.pdf.

The eggs hatch in spring and the nymphs are pretty cute – the butts-up position is a common pose https://bugguide.net/node/view/1834770/bgimage.  Here’s an excellent set of pictures of ages and stages https://orthsoc.org/sina/601a.htm, plus sounds.

Sometimes the punctures she makes as she’s ovipositing damage woody plants by weakening the twigs, but it’s seldom a problem, and one Exterminator’s website included a link to “detailed information about this fascinating insect.

Go outside.  Listen!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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