Bug o’the Week – Prince Baskettail Dragonfly

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady finds this wonderful dragonfly cruising tirelessly over cattails at the edges of lakes or patrolling long stretches of the Milwaukee River about six feet above the surface.  She takes a lot of Hail Mary shots, and this is the best she’s done (so far).

Like their smaller cousins (Beaverpond, Spiny, and Common Baskettails), Prince Baskettails are in the Emerald family Corduliidae and the genus Epitheca (from the Greek “epi “above, upon” and theca “pouch, basket, receptacle.”  Unlike other odonates, which oviposit by inserting an egg into a slit they cut in vegetation or by tapping the water with their abdomen to release the eggs within, baskettails large and small fly around with a clump of eggs at the tip of their abdomen.  These they drop into the water, either all at once, or by flying inches above the surface, dragging and snagging the egg mass on aquatic vegetation.  The glob of eggs reacts like those kids’ toys that instruct “Just add water;” the strand swells and uncoils, and it may reach 20” long and enclose as many as 1,000 eggs.

While the other baskettails measure about 2” or less, the Prince Baskettail (Epitheca princeps) is 2 ¼” to 3 ¼” long (darner-sized) – the largest baskettail and the largest member of its family.  It’s slim-bodied, with three dark spots on each wing (some, especially in the South, are larger and spottier https://bugguide.net/node/view/1351143/bgimage https://bugguide.net/node/view/1078959/bgimage).  Mature males have the bright green eyes that are characteristic of their family https://bugguide.net/node/view/398259/bgimage.  The only dragonfly you might confuse it with is the female Twelve-spotted Skimmer, which is shorter and has a heavier body and a pale line running along each side of its abdomen https://bugguide.net/node/view/1959162/bgimage.

Adults prey on small, flying insects, often hunting for mayflies high above the trees, and they may form feeding swarms at the end of the day.  Though they are large and feisty, they are not quite at the top of the food chain – here’s a Dragonhunter with a Prince Baskettail https://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/econotes/2007/dragonhunter.htm.  The large https://bugguide.net/node/view/935963/bgimage and spiny naiads (immatures) nab underwater critters with their extendable mouthparts.

Male Prince Baskettails patrol a large territory, as do some females when they’re looking for a place to oviposit.  Naiads hatch in a few weeks, using a hard bump on their heads to break out of the egg.  They may live in the water for a year or two before emerging, spending their final winter as naiads in deep water where temperatures are more constant.  The half-hour that it takes for them to emerge from the water, pull out of their exoskeleton, and lengthen and harden their wings for flight is a dangerous one, and one source said that only 1% of the naiads achieve adulthood.

Here’s a series of pictures of a Prince Baskettail emerging – https://bugguide.net/node/view/457838/bgimage and a picture of the exuvia (shed skin) https://bugguide.net/node/view/1442425/bgimage.

They rarely perch, and when they do, they hang vertically from a twig, and they often curve their abdomen https://bugguide.net/node/view/1675349/bgimage). The BugLady has never seen a perched Prince Baskettail (unless, of course, she glanced at one and dismissed it as a Twelve-spotted Skimmer), but she read that they are more likely to be perched on cloudy days.

On another topic completely, the BugLady is offering this without comment.  There is a similar movement in the bird world https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/these-moths-will-be-renamed-stop-use-ethnic-slur-180978151/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210712-daily-responsive&spMailingID=45289685&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2043035771&spReportId=MjA0MzAzNTc3MQS2.  Who says we don’t do cutting-edge entomology here!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Red-blue Checkered beetle

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady is always amazed at how masses of Coreopsis flowers paint the Riveredge prairies gold in June, and she’s equally amazed at how few of them are entertaining insects.  The books say that that Coreopsis is visited by a number of small, native bees, plus some butterflies and beetles, but she rarely sees much action on the flowers (sometimes a camouflaged crab spider waiting for incoming pollinators).  Which is why this Red-blue checkered beetle was a pleasant (and colorful) surprise.

Fun facts about Coreopsis:

  • Members of some Great Plains tribes boiled Coreopsis flowers for a few minutes to make a beverage that was red.  Pregnant women in one tribe drank a tea made from Coreopsis plants to increase their chances of bearing a girl child.

Checkered beetles are in the family Cleridae.  We visited the Clerids seven years ago in the form of a cute little beetle that the BugLady found on a wild sunflower – see that episode for general info about the family https://uwm.edu/field-station/checkered-beetle/.  There are about 300 species of Checkered beetles in North America; many are colorful, and they lead diverse lifestyles, and some are biological controls of bark beetles.


Red-blue Checkered beetles (Trichodes nuttalli) (aka Nuttall’s shaggy beetle) are found east-of-the-Rockies https://bugguide.net/node/view/3405/data in grasslands and edges.  They’re about 1/3” long, and in Beetles of Eastern North America, Evans describes them as elongate, robust, sparsely clothed in light-colored setae, metallic blue or green, antennae and mouthparts brown, and bicolored elytra” https://bugguide.net/node/view/213154/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1105035/bgimage.

One of the really basic questions we can ask about an insect (or any animal) is “What does it eat?”  On this subject, the reports on the RBCB are contradictory.  Reputable sources say that the adults eat pollen from a variety of grassland, edge, and wetland flowers and are not predaceous – or that they feed on pollen and on small insects they find on the flower tops.  Yes, the larvae are carnivores.  But – do they feed only on the eggs and nymphs of the Sprinkled grasshopper https://bugguide.net/node/view/619072/bgimage, as some scholarly publications attest?  Or, as other, equally scholarly sources say, do RBCB eggs stick to foraging bees and wasps and get taken back to their nests, where they hatch and feed on the bee larvae in the nest (and maybe on cached pollen, too)?  Or do the eggs hatch on the flower and the larvae grab hold and ride back to wasp and bee nests?  As several authors noted – this species needs more study.

RBCBs are beetles of early summer.  Eggs are laid on flowers where the adults feed (or, if you’re in the Grasshopper Camp, in crevices on the ground).  The larvae may overwinter as larvae, pupae, or pre-pupae.

Fun Facts about RBCBs:

  • If you need a (dead) RBCB for your collection, several online stores will sell you one for about $3.00.

  • According to the journal Biophilately, the RBCB was one of four insects illustrated in a block of “Garden Insects” stamps issued in the Seychelles in 2014.

Author Jeff Mitton poses some interesting questions about RBCBs in his article in the Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine https://www.colorado.edu/asmagazine-archive/node/1017.  First of all, considering its coloration [and its daytime feeding habits], it’s logical that the beetle enjoys some chemical defenses, but there’s no information Yea or Nay.

Second, this beetle a pretty much of a generalist, both in the variety of flowers the adults feed on and in the variety of hymenopterans the eggs/larvae hitchhike on.  But [and Mitton is in the Bees and Wasps Camp] it’s one of a number of insects whose continued existence depends on the behavior of another insect – in this case, the bee that unwittingly carries it home.  It’s a big gamble.  He suggests that if its hosts became more fastid13 – red-blue checkered beetle13ious and groomed the beetle eggs/larvae off their bodies, or if they were able to recognize the larvae in the hive and dispose of them, or if the hosts became extinct, the beetle would soon be on the road to extinction itself.

Speaking of beetles and “extinct,” here’s an interesting blog post on ladybugs (thanks to BugFan Molly) – https://prairieecologist.com/2021/06/19/losing-ladybugs/.  Be sure to click on the “Ladybugs of South Dakota” poster.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Insects and Plants

Greetings, BugFans,

There’s a “chicken-or-the-egg” question about pollinators – do pollinators adapt to the flowers they visit, or do flowers adapt to their pollinators?  Yes, pollinators do visit flowers that are a good fit for their various feeding apparatuses, but in an effort to extract nectar from tricky places, insects adapt and specialize https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZhRuo1CPq8.

Despite the popularity of wild orchids and all of the time that is spent looking at and photographing them, the pollinators for many species aren’t known.  Some of our native orchids produce pollen but no nectar, and newly-emerged, “naïve bumble bees” are listed as pollinators for several of these.  “Naïve” because they are attracted by scent or color to a nectar-less flower, and as they look (unsuccessfully) for a food reward, they inadvertently pick up masses of pollen.  After getting the same results at a few more flowers they wise up and (no longer naïve) look for nectar elsewhere.  In the meantime, some flowers get pollinated.

The “upper lip” of the Calopogon/Grass pink orchid has filaments on it that look like they might carry some pollen (a “pseudopollen lure”).   When a naïve bee lands on it, the bee’s weight causes the structure to bend forward, planting the bee on its back on the pollen-producing structure.  Mission accomplished – until the bee stops playing.  Darwin wrote a book about the ways that orchids trick insects into visiting them.

Insect-flower relationships are a gigantic topic.  Here are just a few of the intricate ways that plants and insects interact:

The BugLady mentioned recently that bumble bees can sense when a flower’s pollen has been raided by another insect.  This research shows that at least one of the evening primroses can sense the bee and produce sweeter nectar when pollinators are near.  If the whole article is TMI, then you can get the gist of it from the abstract.  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ele.13331?fbclid=IwAR23dBgR01xIOEyywLxgh0pGbXl5q59iNquJq3jhnpTYJjPzINXS17enHjk.

How do you avoid being harmed by a plant’s defensive chemicals?  By being a plant, of course – or a chimera. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews-science/insect-has-plant-dna-its-genome-180977366/?utm_source=&utm_medium=&utm_campaign=&spMailingID=44717298&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1962608328&spReportId=MTk2MjYwODMyOAS2

And a pretty unique, X-rated way that one orchid attracts beetles https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/extremely-rare-orchid-tricks-horny-beetles-carrying-its-pollen-180977332/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210325-daily-responsive&spMailingID=44689191&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1962163522&spReportId=MTk2MjE2MzUyMgS2.

And finally (speaking of orchids), we all gotta eat.  Pollinators make dandy prey, and smart predators hang around flowers.  Here’s one of the best predators ever! https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/unraveling-the-orchid-mantis-mystery/.

Go outside – look at insects and flowers!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Mourning Cloak Revisited

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady walked in the woods, recently, on an unseasonably warm, spring day, accompanied by Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma butterflies (so cool to look down on the trail and see the shadows of butterflies!).  No, they had not telescoped their caterpillar and chrysalis stages into the leafless period after the Equinox – these are species that overwinter as adults and are the first to fly into the spring sunlight.  This is a rewrite of an episode from March of 2009 – new words, new pictures.

Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa), in the brush-footed butterfly family Nymphalidae, are large and strikingly-patterned butterflies whose name comes from the dark cloak worn by someone who is bereaved.  According to Wikipedia, Grand Surprise and White Petticoat are older names for the adults, and the caterpillars are sometimes called Spiny elm caterpillars.  They are the state butterfly of Montana (Wisconsin doesn’t have a state butterfly, but we do celebrate the honeybee).

The first Mourning Cloak of the season is a welcome harbinger of spring in North America, the UK, Europe, and parts of Asia; they range as far north as the Arctic Circle, and they’re found (sporadically) in northern South America.

Mourning Cloaks live longer than most butterflies – 10 months or more – and a complicated life story it is!  Newly-minted adults emerge around the summer solstice, forage for a while, and then aestivate (suspend all activity) until early fall.  It’s speculated that this reduces both predation and wear-and-tear.  After a fall feeding period, they select a sheltered spot (a hibernaculum) to overwinter in.  Even though they’re protected, getting frozen is a given, but glycerol (antifreeze) in their blood prevents their cells from being damaged by freezing and thawing, and high sugar levels lower their freezing point.  Sometimes they emerge to fly during a winter thaw – and visit sap buckets in the sugar bush – before re-entering aestivation when the temperature dips again.  According to Butterflies of the Great Lakes Region, by Douglas and Douglas, if their hibernaculum doesn’t provide them with the right mix of moisture and cold, they may become fatally desiccated in winter.

They are among the hairiest of butterflies https://bugguide.net/node/view/635747/bgimage (Commas are hairy, too https://bugguide.net/node/view/1560697/bgimage), and in spring, the hairs’ insulating value allows them to fly when the temperature sags below 50 degrees.  In addition, by using a combination of basking (their dark bodies absorb heat) and isometric exercise of some flight muscles, a Mourning cloak can raise the temperature in its thorax about 5 degrees (a handy skill, since the thorax houses both wings and legs).

These early butterflies don’t need flowers for sustenance, they eat rotting fruit and feed (head down) at sap drips, especially on high-sugar species like willow, birch, maple, and oak (Larry Weber, in Butterflies of the North Woods says they take advantage of sapsucker holes, too).  Even in summer and fall, they’re seldom seen on flowers (but they like aphid honeydew).

Adults that have overwintered mate in the early days of spring.  Males display for females, often in a defended territory along a sunny path or woods edge or opening.  Hikers may be confronted by amorous male Mourning Cloaks; when you enter his territory, the male will check you out and see if you have courtship in mind.  If you don’t respond appropriately to his signals, he will depart and wait for more receptive company.  Females lay masses of eggs around the twigs of host plants (willow, elm, hackberry, cottonwood, poplar, rose, birch, hawthorn, and mulberry) https://bugguide.net/node/view/617675/bgimage.  For the Mourning Cloaks who survived the winter, the show is over by the start of summer.

The eggs hatch (the first caterpillars out may reduce competition by eating their unhatched siblings – “siblicide”).  The surviving caterpillars live and feed gregariously on fresh leaves https://bugguide.net/node/view/743419/bgimage – initially within a web.  Like Monarch caterpillars, they often take a hike away from their natal plant before forming a chrysalis https://bugguide.net/node/view/325177.

Mourning Cloaks are preyed on by the usual suspects.  The eggs are eaten by beetles, bugs, ants, and mites.  Adults are hunted by aerial predators like birds and dragonflies and, because they often perch on the ground, by some mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  The caterpillar mass defends itself behaviorally by thrashing around noisily at the sight of predators (their chrysalis does that, too), but a variety of wasp and fly parasitoids lay their eggs on them just the same.  The caterpillars have an additional defense – don’t touch these pretty larvae, they wear “urticating (but not venomous) spines.”

Adults are protected by the bark-like color of their folded wings, and as they launch themselves into their flap-and-glide flight, Mourning cloaks may produce an audible “click” that startles predators.  When it’s surprised, a Mourning Cloak may play dead and fall into the leaf litter, where it is well camouflaged.

There are tantalizing suggestions that at least some of the North American population of Mourning Cloaks may migrate (at least one way).

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Bugs in the News X

Howdy, BugFans,

While we’ve been quietly going about our business during this way-too-long pandemic (you know things are bad when you fantasize about going to a board meeting in person), the bugs have been perking along, too.  Here’s what they’ve been up to.

LIFE IN THE WATER IN THE WINTER http://www.agatemag.com/2021/03/where-wonders-never-freeze/.  For those BugFans who aren’t from God’s Country, the (incredibly beautiful) Driftless Area is a region of deep valleys and high ridges on either side of the Mississippi River around the juncture of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  During the peak of the Wisconsin Glaciation, the Laurentide Ice Sheet extended well into Illinois, but it missed the Driftless Area.

MURDER HORNETS 2021 – the obligatory murder hornet story. https://www.kuow.org/stories/key-weapons-in-the-fight-against-asian-murder-hornets-orange-juice-and-rice-wine

On the face of it, a really NICE PICTURE STORY ABOUT THE HUNTING BEHAVIOR OF A FISHING SPIDER https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/02/09/readers-wildlife-photos-1220/.  But then there’s the video….

[Nota Bene:  One of the BugLady’s pet peeves is the subliminal indoctrination that is communicated by the narrator’s tone or by the background music in videos showing predators.  This one has it all, except for prey in the form of a cute, bright-eyed bunny or mouse (harder to sympathize with a minnow)]

Remember – HONEYBEES ARE FOREIGN BEES that were imported in the 1600s to pollinate foreign crops.  Turns out that there were already plenty of native pollinators, and both the native and the honeybees are really important.  Turns out, both are also in trouble.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/thousands-wild-bee-species-havent-been-seen-1990-180976901/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210202-daily-responsive&spMailingID=44375570&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1940179039&spReportId=MTk0MDE3OTAzOQS2

IN WHICH SPIDERS DO PHYSICS:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/small-spiders-big-appetites-use-pulley-system-catch-large-prey-180976939/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210205-daily-responsive&spMailingID=44397663&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1940462241&spReportId=MTk0MDQ2MjI0MQS2

HOW CAN YOU “SEE” WHEN YOU CAN’T SEE?  Ask these caterpillars: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/these-caterpillars-can-detect-color-using-their-skin-180972996/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20190827-daily-responsive&spMailingID=40517582&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1582561816&spReportId=MTU4MjU2MTgxNgS2

HOW BUTTERFLIES FLY (a little more Physics) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/study-reveals-secrets-butterfly-flight-180976808/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210122-daily-responsive&spMailingID=44313349&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1921850282&spReportId=MTkyMTg1MDI4MgS2

PEACOCK SPIDERS are a genus (Maratus) of jumping spiders, almost all of which live in Australia.  “Peacock” because they are ridiculously colorful, and the male’s courtship dance involves flashing his abdominal flaps at skeptical females.  Here are some new species of peacock spider – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/meet-seven-newly-discovered-species-peacock-spiders-180974549/, and if you can’t get enough of peacock spiders, see https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/62195/5-flashy-facts-about-peacock-spiders.

PERIODICAL CICADA BROOD X, last seen in 2004, is scheduled to emerge over parts of 15 states in 2021 (they barely make it over the Illinois border into Wisconsin – most of our cicadas are Dog day types https://bugguide.net/node/view/1884528/bgimage, which look pretty different than Periodical cicadas).  Remember – the immature cicada (nymph) lives below-ground, biding its time, feeding on root juices, until the appointed hour, it’s internal calendar ticking off 3 or 7 or more years, depending on species.  Cicada cooking contests abound during big years https://evolutionarythought.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/how-far-weve-come-a-case-study-in-arthropods/

https://www.washingtonian.com/2021/03/08/apparently-brood-x-cicadas-are-edible-and-taste-like-shrimp/?fbclid=IwAR0mOS4BehVwG9tfiXTGUdpdlJYIE878Z7GHKBgDDZnLxEc1zKoDr_TzcjE (but, points subtracted for saying that they’re related to shrimp, which they are, but not closely).  Where can you view Brood X?  Scroll down: https://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/periodical-cicada-brood-x-10-will-emerge-in-15-states-in-2021/.

Finally – TREEHOPPERS ARE JUST SO COOL!! https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/treehoppers-bizarre-wondrous-helmets-use-wing-genes-grow-180973713/

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Milbert’sTortoiseshell Butterfly

Greetings, BugFans,

When the BugLady started this little enterprise back in the summer of 2007, her main criteria for an episode were that she had taken a respectable picture of the bug, and that it had a good story to tell.  She doesn’t have any digital shots of a Milbert’s Tortoise at all, because she hasn’t seen one in at least 20 years (they were last recorded on the Riveredge Nature Center Butterfly count in 1998).  She may have an ancient color slide of one, but when she tries scanning slides, the results are always murky.  Thank goodness (once again) for bugguide.net.

Milbert’s Tortoiseshells (Aglais milberti.) are in the family Nymphalidae, the largest butterfly family.  A distinctive family trait is that their front pair of legs is hairy and much-reduced in size, which has earned them the nicknames “brush-footed” and “four-footed” butterflies (they get around just fine on their second and third pairs of legs).  Although some are very colorful, the upper wing surfaces of many family members are variations in orange and brown, and their underwing surfaces look like dried leaves (allowing them to disappear when they fold their wings https://bugguide.net/node/view/1730918/bgimage).

There are about 6,000 species of Nymphalids worldwide (only 209 in North America); for an introduction to the family, see http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Nymphalidae/ (one of the BugLady’s favorite sources of information).

The spectacular Milbert’s Tortoiseshell https://bugguide.net/node/view/46852/bgimage https://bugguide.net/node/view/476935/bgimage, is also known as the Fire-rim Tortoiseshell (males and females look similar).  It’s pretty unmistakable (but at a very quick glance, might be mistaken in flight for a Red Admiral https://bugguide.net/node/view/1682166/bgimage).

MTs are found across North America, but their range skews north and they’re absent from the Southeast https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Aglais-milberti.  MT numbers are unpredictable from year to year, their distribution is described as “locally common,” and they like moist grasslands, roadsides, woods openings, the edges of wetlands, and higher elevations – anywhere nettle grows.

They are quick and alert.  Male MTs scan for flying females from perches in their territories, often sitting with their wings open.  Females deposit eggs in clusters on the undersides of leaves of nettle plants in the genus Urtica (she may lay as many as 900 but 150 is more likely) https://bugguide.net/node/view/1675002/bgimage.  The young caterpillars stay together, creating communal, silken nests and feeding within them, and older caterpillars https://bugguide.net/node/view/1367818/bgimage fold leaves around themselves.  They may form chrysalises gregariously, and, say Douglas and Douglas in Butterflies of the Great Lakes Region, and “when the butterflies emerge, their communal meconium stains surrounding areas red.”

There are at least two generations a year, maybe three.  Some of the final brood will overwinter as chrysalises https://bugguide.net/node/view/1459379/bgimage (“chrysalis” describes both the life stage and the exterior case), to emerge in early spring, but some fall butterflies will overwinter as adults in sheltered spots, often with a group of their confreres, flying on warm winter days and emerging, battered, even earlier in spring to heed the reproductive imperative.

The excellent Butterflies of Massachusetts website tells us that MTs are probably a species whose numbers increased as the European settlers cut the forests and established agricultural fields and pastures https://www.butterfliesofmassachusetts.net/milberts-tortoiseshell.htm They were given a boost, too, because the Europeans arrived with the common or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), a food/medicine/fiber plant that loves disturbed soils and that quickly made itself at home in the New World, outcompeting the native nettle.  In 1899 Scudder described roadside nettles in Massachusetts as being black with MT caterpillars https://www.buglifecycle.com/?p=278.  Climate change could cause MTs to retreat to the more northern parts of their range.

Depending on the time of year, adults feed on sap drips, animal droppings, fermenting fruit or flower nectar.

MTs are “obligate dorsal baskers.”  Some insects can heat up their thorax by quivering their flight muscles in preparation for flight, but on cooler days, MTs have to warm their thorax by basking with open wings in order activate their wing muscles.

The MT is the only North American species in its much-fought-over genus (depending on the sources you look at, you can find them in three genera), but two non-native genus members have also been reported.  There are sporadic records along the East Coast of the very similar European Small Tortoiseshell https://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/species.php?species=urticae, which ranges across Eurasia (there’s a great anecdote of a Small Tortoiseshell in Nova Scotia flying out of a box that had recently arrived from England).  The Peacock butterfly, a western European butterfly, arrived in Montreal in 1997 and is establishing a small population there https://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/species.php?species=io.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – And Now for Somethinga Little Different X – Pileated Woodpeckers

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady has been hearing Pileated Woodpeckers recently – a few vocalizations here and there, and a bunch of territorial drumming.  Some owls have a very early courtship – Great-horned Owls are already incubating – and some hawks start early, too, building the pair bond with breathtaking aerial maneuvers.  But the BugLady is always surprised when Pileateds, the largest of our woodpeckers, begin announcing their intentions in mid-February.

This essay was originally written for the BogHaunter, the newsletter of the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog.  The Bog is a 2300 acre wetland in Ozaukee County in Southeastern Wisconsin.  Actually, it’s a wetland within a wetland within a wetland within….  Conifer and hardwood swamps surrounding a cattail marsh surrounding both an eyed, acid, floating-mat bog and a large, central, alkaline fen, the southernmost string/patterned bog (strangmoor) in North America, with alternating strings and flarks (not a typo, despite what Spellcheck says).  The Bog is the BugLady’s church and her shrink.  Adjacent to the Bog is the Cedarburg Beechwoods State Natural Area.

The clamor of Cranes and Geese may define the Bog’s wetlands, but the Pileated Woodpecker speaks for its uplands.  Similar to a Flicker’s call, its big, whooping sounds have more depth and resonance https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds.  It also communicates by drumming rapidly on a hollow tree with its bill, a sound that can be heard at some distance.  Both the males and females drum.

Seeing or hearing this Crow-sized woodpecker with its black and white, 30 inch wingspan, is often a matter of luck.  Found throughout much of the United States, in dry uplands and wet swamplands, it is a secretive bird of mature woodlots.  Signs of its woodworking efforts are seen more frequently than is the bird itself.

Its scientific name, Drycopus pileatus, defines it well.  The Greek “Drycopus” means “tree cleaver,” and the Latin “pileatus” means “capped” and refers to the bird’s red crest.  The pronunciation of its common name causes confusion for birders – some say “pie’-lee-a-ted” and others “pill’-ee-a ted” (we Midwesterners tend to use the latter), and both are OK.  Like its slightly larger southern relative the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, with whom it shares/shared the southern swamps, the Pileated was sometimes called the “Good God” or “Lord God” bird.

Pileated Woodpeckers are not migratory, and although they are somewhat more relaxed about it in winter, they are territorial year-round.  A serious dispute involves vocalizations and chasing and may escalate to striking at a rival with wings and bill.

The male courts by perched and aerial displays of his striking plumage patterns.  Pairs are monogamous, but the birds will find another partner if one dies.

For its nest, it needs mature trees.  The round hole it excavates for its eggs faces east or south and is three to four inches across, about 45 feet off the ground, in a trunk that is at least 15 to 20 inches in diameter.  The male does much of the nest excavation, digging down a foot or more into the trunk and clearing the accumulating wood chips by tossing them out of the entrance hole.  Once finished, the female lays four eggs, which are cushioned only by wood chips.  Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young.  Because these are big birds, and two adults (plus young) would more than fill a nest hole, they also make separate roosting holes.

Other birds may try to usurp their nests in summer, and old nest holes provide housing for wood ducks, screech owls and a variety of cavity-nesting mammals, but Pileateds themselves rarely use a nest hole more than once.  They will also use man-made nest boxes.

In search of food they carve a deep rectangle, sometimes a foot long and several inches deep, into dead or dying tree trunks, giving new meaning to the phrase “let the chips fall where they may.” Carpenter ants are the main item on their menu; they pinpoint accurately the location of an ant nest, excavate a fresh crevice in the wood, extend a long tongue, and lick up the ants.  Sources say that songbirds like wrens and flycatchers often visit feeding holes to take advantage of insects uncovered by the woodpeckers.

Pileated Woodpeckers also eat beetle grubs and a variety of other small insects and some nuts and fruits (even poison ivy berries).  The BugLady has seen pictures of Pileated Woodpeckers at suet feeders (but not at hers), and as with all woodpecker species, if they’re checking out the siding of your house, you may have an ant problem.  They often feed on or near the ground, where they’re vulnerable to predation by mammals, including house cats.  Weasels, rat snakes, squirrels and grey foxes (our tree-climbing fox) are nest predators, and they are preyed on in the air by hawks, owls, and eagles!

Both hunting and logging took their toll on Pileated Woodpeckers, and their numbers plummeted in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the 1800’s they were shot as trophies and for food, although John James Audubon and others had reported that they tasted like the worms and ants they eat and were “extremely unpalatable.”  The harvesting and fragmentation of mature forests not only removed the large dead trees that served as nest sites, it also broke up vast stands of trees into units too small to support a pair of woodpeckers.

But the birds adapted to life in smaller trees (even utility poles!), and both woodlands and woodpeckers are making a comeback.  Most importantly, they have become more tolerant of human neighbors.  Fifty years ago, Ozaukee County had a single breeding pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, recorded annually in the Cedarburg Beechwoods State Natural Area.  Although they are more common in the north, they are now seen all over the state, and they continue to move into southern Wisconsin.

[The BugLady took these shots through her patio door at her old house.  The same patio door she intended to wash each season so that she could take pictures through it……  See a nice slide show at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/id.]

Fun facts about Pileated Woodpeckers:

  • Thank you, Linnaeus.  Before Linnaeus standardized classification of living things in the mid-1700’s, the Pileated Woodpecker was known as the larger red-crested Wood-pecker,” Picus niger maximus capite rubro.
  • In less than a second, they can drum from 11 to 30 times!
  • Despite its impressive 30” wingspan, it weighs only a little more than a half-pound.
  • According to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Woody the Woodpecker was inspired by cartoonist Walter Lantz’s encounter with a particularly persistent Acorn Woodpecker https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Acorn_Woodpecker/overview, not a Pileated.  As Lantz developed Woody, he used a little poetic license and exaggerated the crest, and Woody ended up looking more like a hybrid.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Straight-toothed sallow moth

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady found this velvety, deeply maroon caterpillar at the Land Trust’s CESA site on a fine June day.  It’s the larva of a Straight-toothed sallow moth (Eupsilia vinulenta) (probably) (full disclosure – the experts caution us that the only way to positively ID an Eupsilia caterpillar is by rearing it to an adult).

Sallows are a group of Owlet moths (family Noctuidae) that are pretty hardy – depending on the latitude, moths may be active all winter, or overwintering adults may emerge from hibernation, fly around, and visit maple sugaring operations on balmy winter days when the temperature climbs above freezing (For a scenic side trip, see “Insects attracted to Maple Sap: Observations from Prince Edward Island, Canada” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3088023/).  One source reported seeing the moths searching for warmer shelters on sub-freezing nights, shelters they locate using their antennae.

In Caterpillars of Eastern North America, David Wagner notes that sallows readily come to sugar baits (Eupsilia species “gather by the hundreds at beer or sugar or other baits”).  He recommends to us Holland’s description of baiting moths, and the BugLady is grateful to the Alberta Lepidopterists Guild for posting it http://www.albertalepguild.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Moth_Sugaring.pdf.  They just don’t write science like that anymore.

The Moth Book by W.J. Holland was published in 1904, and with 48 (XLVIII) plates crammed with images, it was for decades the moth Bible (the down side was that moths are pictured like the pinned specimens that they are, with their wings spread, rather than perched naturally).  By 1926, it had joined five other books in a set called The Nature Library, and the set that the BugLady grew up with her nose in probably belonged to her Mom.

Kirk Mona, in his Twin Cities Naturalist blog found an alternate name for the Straight-toothed sallow – he says “The name the Satellite comes from the little spots that seem to orbit like satellites around the larger spot on the fore wings. What a cool name! It is much cooler than “Straight-toothed Sallow.” https://bugguide.net/node/view/1000248/bgimage.

Adults are variable in color, from pale https://bugguide.net/node/view/1051398/bgimage to brown, to rust https://bugguide.net/node/view/1008427/bgimage.  They mate in late winter and early spring; here are the eggs – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1220586/bgimage.  Adults nectar on early tree flowers like red maple.

Caterpillars https://bugguide.net/node/view/38981/bgimage are somewhat generalist feeders, found on the leaves of an assortment of shrubs and trees like box elder, oak, cherry and maple.  Wagner says that younger larvae are “new-leaf specialists that fashion crude leaf shelters in young leaves,” and they may use the abandoned shelters made by other caterpillars.  According to Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America, older caterpillars are found on the in leaf litter on the ground and may feed on low-growing plants or on plant material (like old flowers and catkins) that’s fallen off of trees.

On another front, Monarch butterflies are starting to reach our southern borders.  Here’s info about the status of Monarch populations in 2021: https://www.npr.org/2021/02/26/971650046/climate-change-deforestation-threaten-monarch-butterfly-migration?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20210226&utm_term=5204798&utm_campaign=news&utm_id=2548916&orgid=675.  And here’s an animated 2021 Monarch migration map: https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=monarch-adult-spring&year=2021

Go outside – look for moths (and listen for owls, too)!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Bugs without Bios XVI

Greetings, BugFans,

It’s time again to celebrate the bugs that fly under the radar – bugs that are neither famous nor infamous and that live alongside of us, about whom not much has been written.  All three of these species, coincidentally, have their flight periods in the first half of the summer.


This beetle is a poster child for insects that are barely visible online, although unlike many, it has picked up a common name along the way.

The Currant tip borer (Psenocerus supernotatus) is a not-very-long-horned member of the long-horned beetle family Cerambycidae.  The long-horned (long-antennaed) beetles are divided, uneasily and depending on whose book you read, into 10 subfamilies, and the Currant tip borer’s subfamily, Lamiinae, the Flat-faced Longhorns, includes about 20,000 of the 30,000 species of Cerambycid worldwide.  There are 5,000 species in the New World, but only 250 of them occur in North America.

This little beetle (about 1/3”) can be found in early summer, east of a line from Manitoba to Texas.  Its larvae feed within the dead branches of a variety of woody plants, and it’s been found on oak, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, sumac, catalpa, and mulberry as well as currant and gooseberry.  Considering its name, the BugLady was expecting to find a bunch of Extension Bulletins telling us how to protect our gooseberries and currants, but she found none.

Mr. R. P. Dow, writing in the Bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society in 1916, recounts how he found some Currant tip borer larvae in sumac pith.  First to hatch were two males that, after exploring their surroundings, began to fight by a specific spot on the twig.  Two days later, a female emerged from that spot.  He wrote, “It is evident that some sense organ revealed the female to the males not less than 36 hours before her emergence from the unmarked wood.”

One source writes that the adults look ant-like.  Hmmm – the BugLady doesn’t see it



The BugLady automatically surveys butterflies and dragonflies as she walks – it’s like breathing.  From mid-summer on, she sees Clouded Sulphurs over the grasslands (bugguide.net informs the BugLady’s spellcheck that “both spellings of “sulphur” or “sulfur” are seen frequently. The first prevalent in older works, with the second becoming more common in recent decades”).  With black-bordered, lemon-yellow wings, the butterflies are almost unmistakable (this is a remarkable shot, and not just because it shows the black edges on the upper surface of the wings https://bugguide.net/node/view/1452733/bgimage.  Sulphurs perch with their wings closed, so the black border is seldom photographed).

Almost unmistakable – the Sulphur-winged grasshopper (Arphia sulphurea) always makes her do a double-take https://bugguide.net/node/view/640715/bgimage.  Members of the genus Arphia are found across North America; they’re in the Short-horned grasshopper family Acrididae and in the Band-winged grasshopper subfamily Oedipodinae, some of which are pretty fancy https://bugguide.net/node/view/1673548/bgpage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1298160/bgimage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/238831/bgimage.

Most of the grasshoppers that the BugLady researches have extensive rap sheets due to their fondness for plants that grow in ag-lands and pastures, but she could find no wanted posters for the Sulphur-winged grasshopper, alias the Yellow-winged/Spring yellow-winged grasshopper.

Sulphur-winged grasshoppers are found in grasslands, edges, and sometimes in open woodlands east of that Manitoba-to-Texas line, and north just into Canada.  They feed primarily on grasses, with a few wildflowers thrown in for good measure, and unlike many grasshoppers, they don’t eat any animal material.  Bugguide.net tells us that both males and females “crepitate” – make snapping/crackling/popping sounds with their wings – during courtship displays.  Adults can be seen starting in early spring and are gone by mid-summer.

They overwinter as late-stage nymphs (and they have the best nymphs ever! https://bugguide.net/node/view/1593959/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/510468/bgimage).


In early summer, the BugLady spied this impressive male horsefly eyeing her from a lily pad (male, because its huge eyes meet in the middle – all the better to see you with…..).  Horse flies and deer flies are in the family Tabanidae.  For “Horse fly 101,” see https://uwm.edu/field-station/horsefly/.  Many species are also called Greenhead flies https://bugguide.net/node/view/327405/bgimage (visit the Atlantic coast in summer to get the full Greenhead experience), and many have spectacular, Technicolor eyes that make them the darlings of macro photographers https://bugguide.net/node/view/953808/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/601725/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1510950https://bugguide.net/node/view/1794820/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/775055/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1263543/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/241452 (sorry – they’re just so cool).

They’re the flies we love to hate.  In “The Tabanidae of Minnesota” (1930), author Cornelius B. Philip anthropomorphizes, “After feeding to satisfaction, the fly may withdraw and make new stabs, apparently for the pure love of it…….

The Three-spotted horse fly (Tabanus trimaculatus) is one of about 100 genus members in North America, and it will not surprise southern BugFans to read that the genus is most diverse in the their neck of the US.  According to bugguide.nettabanus was “a name used by the Romans for a kind of biting fly.

Horse flies lay their eggs in clumps https://bugguide.net/node/view/863583/bgimage on vegetation, in damp areas.  When the eggs hatch, the tiny, carnivorous larvae https://bugguide.net/node/view/864099/bgimage drop to the ground or into a “semiaquatic habitat” and burrow into the soft soil, where they find small invertebrates to eat.  They’re eaten, in turn, by nematodes and mud-probing birds, and they’re parasitized by sand wasps, tachinid flies, and chalcid wasps.  Here’s an interesting shot of a ladybug larva grazing on horse/deer fly eggs https://bugguide.net/node/view/193565/bgimage, and a shot of an older, generic Tabanid larva https://bugguide.net/node/view/854957.

TSHFs are fairly early-season horse flies that seem to prefer woodsy settings – researchers in the Minnesota study found that “the larvae outnumber by far any other species taken but the adults seem to have retiring habits in Minnesota.”

From what the BugLady could find, the TSHF is not a notorious scourge of man or beast.  Yes, female horse flies need the protein from a blood meal in order to produce eggs, but both females and males also feed on nectar.  In a study to discover which species of horse flies were most annoying to deer in Oklahoma, four species made up 95% of the horse fly attacks, and although the TSHF was abundant, it was not seen feeding on deer.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Thick-clubbed Sawfly

Howdy, BugFans,

Sawflies appear infrequently in these pages, the most recently a year ago, in the person of the spectacular Elm sawfly (https://uwm.edu/field-station/elm-sawfly/).  The sawflies that the BugLady typically sees (recognizes) are usually the wasp mimics that looks like this https://bugguide.net/node/view/26145.  About sawflies in general, much has been written, but the information often peters out as you zero in on species.  A little taxonomy first – they are in the sawfly-horntail-wasp-bee-hornet-yellowjacket-ant order Hymenoptera.  Sawflies are filed in a group called Symphyta, which is divided into 14 families and 8,000 species worldwide, and 1,245 species in 13 families in North America.

Sawflies are usually described as “primitive wasps,” but where a wasp has, well, a “wasp waist,” the connection between a sawfly’s thorax and abdomen is thick.  The “saw” refers to the serrated ovipositor that the female uses to incise leaves or bark so she can lay her eggs (but she doesn’t sting with it) https://bugguide.net/node/view/619563/bgimage.

Eggs are laid in groups called rafts or pods.  They start out tucked inconspicuously inside a slit in a plant, but the egg grows along with the developing larva, and the eggs may bulge from their hiding places by the time they hatch.  In general, the larvae feed on leaves; often feeding in groups, and they have some very cool synchronized alarm displays https://bugguide.net/node/view/1278507/bgimage.  Sawflies tend to be very specific about the host plants for their eggs, and a number are agricultural/silvicultural/horticultural pests.  The sluggish adults feed on pollen and nectar, and sometimes at sap seeps.

Sawfly larvae are easily mistaken for moth or butterfly caterpillars.  The secret handshake?  Count the feet https://bugguide.net/node/view/1279016/bgimage.  Like the adults, larval Lepidoptera have three pairs of (real) legs on the thorax, and they also have two to five pairs of hook-tipped prolegs spaced along the abdomen that support and anchor it. Many sawfly larvae have prolegs, too, but those that do, have six or more pairs of them.

There’s usually only one generation a year, with immature sawflies spending the winter on the ground as a pre-pupa in a cocoon or as a pupa in a pupal case, finally finishing their development in spring or early summer.  The adults live a week or so.  Some species are parthenogenic (meaning “virgin birth”), with females producing only female offspring, and no males in sight.

The Thick-clubbed sawfly (Abia inflata) is in the family Cimbicidae, a small family with about 12 species in four genera in North America and more elsewhere.  Cimbicids have noticeably clubbed antennae and tend to be bumble bee mimics.  Depending on the genus, the larvae feed (alone) on elm, cherry, or honeysuckle, and they often curl up on the undersides of leaves where they’re hard to spot (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1801346/bgimage – or not https://bugguide.net/node/view/371247/bgimage).

Abia like honeysuckle.  The Thick-clubbed sawfly is also called the American Honeysuckle sawfly, but the name also belongs to an American Honeysuckle sawfly that is a native species in the western US, and a non-native sawfly called the Honeysuckle sawfly is making itself at home on the East Coast, all of them in the genus Abia.  Abia inflata is found in the eastern part of the continent.

Females deposit eggs, only one or two at a time, in honeysuckle leaf edges, and the larvae eat the tender parts of the leaves between the main veins.  The speckled larvae may grow to 1 ¼” when mature.  Here are some life stages – note the cute little springtails by the curled up larva https://bugguide.net/node/view/410428.  Since they feed alone, they defend themselves by “reflex bleeding” rather than displays, oozing an offensive liquid from their joints that they sequester from chemicals in the leaves.

Abia inflata feeds on native honeysuckles, but grad student Loren Elizabeth Shewhart of Wright State University wondered if the species might be a potential biological control of the invasive Amur and other non-native honeysuckles that are taking over our landscapes.  In a series of experiments in which she fed whole and damaged leaves of native and exotic honeysuckles to Abia inflata and three other sawfly species, she determined (among other things) that Abia inflata will eat exotics and will mature and even thrive in laboratory settings, but it’s seldom found on Amur honeysuckle in the field.

Why damaged leaves?  Honeysuckle leaves that have been torn or chewed may produce more defensive chemicals than whole leaves; damaged leaves look “grazed” and give off aromatics, both of which attract predators and parasites.  Anyway, Shewhart speculates that Abia inflata simply doesn’t recognize the Amur honeysuckle as a potential host plant (yet), and this coupled with its preference for native species may cause natives to decline further as the exotics thrive in the absence of their natural grazers.

This is the big question in the control of any invasive plant – how long will it take for the native herbivores to figure out that all those new plants are a giant smorgasbord?

Thanks to Honorary BugFan PJ for identifying this sawfly.  It does take a village.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

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