Bug o’the Week – Phantom Crane Fly rerun

Salutations, BugFans,

Here’s a rerun from August of 2014.

What a magical little fly!

Most BugFans are familiar with crane flies, those giant, non-biting “mosquitoes” in the family Tipulidae https://bugguide.net/node/view/1895587/bgimage (some of the fall-flying crane flies in the family Pediciidae (the Hairy-eyed Crane Flies) are pretty spectacular too https://bugguide.net/node/view/147834/bgimage).   Phantom crane flies belong in the small family Ptychopteridae (only three genera).  Crane flies were named for their long legs, and most authors attribute the “phantom” part of the name to the way Phantom crane flies drift through the air, appearing and disappearing in patches of light and shadow.  Our Phantom crane fly (Bittacomorpha clavipes) can be seen east of the Rockies, from late spring to early autumn, in the fairly dense vegetation along the shady edges of wetlands.

They aren’t huge.  If you join the tips of your thumb and forefinger, you’d be approximating the leg-span.  They’re like a flying daddy long-legs, but without the bulk – a Phantom crane fly’s body is a slender half-inch.  Sources describe them as floating through the air, legs spread, flapping their wings minimally, assisted aerodynamically by the flared areas on their legs.  Can they fly up-wind?  Yes, if the breeze isn’t too strong, but most of the time, they appear to move randomly through the vegetation, two or three feet off the ground, ricocheting off of leaves.

The odd flanges on the legs are a characteristic of this species.  Twentieth century entomologist C. P. Alexander (who described more than 11,000 species and genera of flies during his long career) said of the Phantom crane fly that “This species is one of the most conspicuous and interesting of all Nearctic Diptera. The first tarsomere of the legs is dilated and filled with tracheae, a characteristic which enables the flies to drift in the wind with their long legs extended to catch the breeze.

Let’s “unpack” the trachea-tarsomere thing.  The tarsus is the lower part of an insect’s leg – its “foot” – located below the tibia.  It’s made up of a series of small segments (usually five) called tarsomeres; the top segment is called the metatarsus, and the bottom segment usually bears a claw or two.  The insect walks or hops on its tarsus.

Insects breathe largely by diffusion, and their respiration is mostly passive (although muscle contractions can push air through the respiratory system more quickly).  Air floats through openings called spiracles into tubes called trachea.  It moves through a network of increasingly minute respiratory tubing that divides and subdivides and ends in moist pockets called tracheoles where the cells can exchange waste gases for fresh.  Trachea may be strengthened by spiral fibers called taenidia that are embedded in their walls; taenidia have been likened to the coils in a dryer vent tube.  In the absence of taenidia, a tracheal wall may bulge out like an aneurism and form an air sac.

Still unpacking.  In his article called “Peculiar Tracheal Dilations in Bittacomorpha clavipes,” published in the Biological Bulletin in 1900, Charles Thomas Brues explains further.  “In both sexes, the metatarsi are very much enlarged and quite conspicuous on account of their great color contrast. The whole tibia is completely filled up by the trachea.  In the enlarged metatarsus, the trachea is enormously distended and almost completely fills the cavity of this joint as well as that of the second and third joints of the tarsus.”  In Tipulidae, the tracheal tube is delicate-to-obsolete in the tarsus.  “it is impossible that they [immense vesicles in the metatarsi] should be used as reservoirs for air for respiration, on account of their distance from the body of the insect.  It is more probable that they may bear some relation to the insect’s method of locomotion.  When flying, Bittacomorpha uses the wings scarcely at all, relying in great measure upon wind currents for transportation.  The legs are exceedingly light, as the exoskeleton is light and delicate, and encloses practically no tissue that can serve to increase their weight.  As they expose a large surface, they offer great resistance to the air without adding appreciably to the insect’s weight.

So, the hollow legs lighten the insect, and the inflated sacs increase buoyancy and provide surface area for the wind to push on.

How do Phantom crane flies get away with their striking, black and white patterns?  Aposematic/warning coloration has been suggested, but the folks who keep track of these things tell us that the rest of the crane flies taste OK, and there’s no reason to suspect that Phantom crane flies taste otherwise (the aquatic larvae scavenge on organic detritus in the water that surrounds them, and the adults eat little or nothing (though the one on the white flowers looks like it might be nectaring), and they’re not blood suckers!.  Nothing suspicious there).  As previously noted, black and white coloration is a good plan for an animal that inhabits the light-speckled thickets, and the BugLady assumes that they’re as tough for predators to see as they are for photographers.  A blogger in Michigan suggests that Crane fly legs are oh-so-easily detachable, and that a Phantom crane fly may sacrifice a conspicuously-striped leg to save its life.

Clearly, Phantom crane flies have caught our fancy, and it’s fun to note the words that are used to describe them and their flight:

  • They resemble a spider web or a thistle seed drifting about.”
  • It looks a bit like a flying snowflake.”
  • It hangs or floats in the air rather than flies, spreading its long legs to catch the breeze, a little like ballooning in spiders.”
  • They appear like parachutes floating above streamside grasses and sedges.”
  •  “When the legs are vibrate, this insect indeed lives up to its name, giving the beholders a sensation of “spots before the eyes.”
  • The same Michigan blogger notes, interestingly, that “When it flies, it looks like a tight swarm of up to seven small flies, rather than a single large one.”

If the BugLady were to pick an adjective, it would be “flickering,” and she thinks they look like tiny sparklers.

The BugLady was lucky enough to witness a few happy Phantom crane fly couples flying around in tandem.  Both in flight and when hanging from a leaf, the female does the heavy lifting.  Twice, as the BugLady was (voyeuristically) photographing a mating pair, a third Phantom crane fly flew in and hassled the female.

Subsequently, the female dips the tip of her abdomen into the water, depositing eggs (as many as 300 of them) singly or in small bunches.  The larvae live in the top inch or so of muck and feed on decaying material they find there.  It’s not exactly an oxygen-rich environment, and although they can pick up gases through their soft exoskeleton, they get the bulk of their air through a long, retractable breathing tube (caudal respiratory siphon) that they extend up through the surface film from the rear of their body.  According to Voshell in A Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America, the larvae “burrow deep into sediment during periods of the winter when the water freezes over.  Pupation occurs in the same habitat where the larvae develop, without any special preparation.  Pupae have long, breathing tube on the thorax.”  There are reportedly two broods in the northern part of its range.

Phantom crane flies have been putting on small but exquisite performances since Eocene times, and they’re now showing at a wetland near you!

On another note – the BugLady has been enjoying the sweet serenades of the tree crickets recently.  Here are links to two audio sites from last year’s BOTW on tree crickets:  Go to http://www.oecanthinae.com/4099.html, turn up the volume on your speakers, and scroll down slowly.  And, try the U of Florida’s recordings of crickets and katydids north of Mexico at http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/walker/buzz/cricklist.htm.  Fair warning – you have to listen pretty hard to hear some tree crickets.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug of the Week – Wooly Bear Caterpillar Re-do

Howdy, BugFans,

Last week’s episode was the 600th original (not rerun or tweaked) episode, and the BugLady is going to take a two-week victory lap (but she will fill the space with tasteful reruns).

The BugLady has been hanging out on the hawk tower this fall, logging migrating raptors for the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.  We’ve counted just under 800 birds since early September, and some of the weather has been – interesting.  On Sunday, the temperature was in the high 30’s (-ish), and we clocked a few wind gusts around 40 – and got 37 birds.  The BugLady was amazed to see, on the walk back to the car, a few wooly bear caterpillars crossing the mowed trail.  Those little fur coats must be a lot warmer than they look.

Without further ado, here’s a slightly up-dated version (some new words, a few new pictures) of a rerun from 2015, which was a slightly up-dated version of the 2009 original.


Greetings, BugFans,

As often happens with the moths, one life stage may be more conspicuous, and the adults and caterpillars may even have different names.  In this case, the ubiquitous, rust-and-black-banded Wooly bear caterpillar turns into a lovely, less-common, caramel-colored, or cream https://bugguide.net/node/view/1636191/bgimage, or yellow https://bugguide.net/node/view/1237224/bgimage) moth called the Isabella Tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella).  Pyrrharctia is a “monotypic genus” – there’s only this single species in it – and they’re only found in North America.

Tiger moths are in the family Erebidae, a diverse group that includes about 250 species of tiger, underwing, Zale, tussock moths, etc. in North America and many more worldwide (except Antarctica).  If you have an older insect guide, they’re in their own family, Arctiidae, but everything that was once in Arctiidae is now in subfamily Arctiinae.

Tiger moths are unusual in that they have an organ on their thorax that vibrates to produce ultrasonic sound.  They “vocalize” to attract mates and to defend against predators.  If you have sound-making ability, you also need “ears,” and those are on the thorax, too.  Like the feline tigers, the adults of many species are hairy and sport bold color patches, stripes or patterns (consider the striking Leconte’s Haploa https://bugguide.net/node/view/954015).

Many tiger moth caterpillars are fuzzy, earning a group name of wooly bears or wooly worms. There is an amazing amount of information out there about wooly bear caterpillars, and much of it is contradictory, which is explained by the fact that there are many different kinds of caterpillars that are called Wooly bears.

The Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar is called the (generic) Wooly Bear, the Black-ended Bear, and the Banded Wooly Bear (they’re not as distinctive in their early stages https://bugguide.net/node/view/1617463/bgimage).

A mature female Isabella Tiger Moth “calls” to males by emitting pheromones (chemical signals) at night, and males use their sensory antennae to zero in on her https://bugguide.net/node/view/1837707/bgimage.  Isabella Tiger Moths lay their eggs https://bugguide.net/node/view/1186437/bgimage on a wide variety of plants during the warm months.  While some caterpillars are known for their picky eating, Wooly bears are generalists.  They feed during the day, munching on handy, low-growing plants like grasses, “weeds,” and wildflowers (cannibalism has also been reported).  Their catholic eating habits ensure that they’re constantly surrounded by food during their autumnal wanderings in search of wintering sites.

They spend the winter as caterpillars, sheltered from the weather under tree bark or debris, or in your garage.  Do they become “bug-cicles”?  Yes, indeed – they’ve even been found frozen into a chunk of ice.  But, like other organisms that are dormant in the dead of winter, Wooly bear caterpillars produce a chemical cryoprotectant (antifreeze) that safeguards living tissue against damage from freezing and thawing.  They will stir and walk around on mild winter days and go back into hiding when the temperatures drop again.  They wake up with the warm weather, resume eating, and then pupate in late spring in a fuzzy cocoon into which they incorporate their own “hairs.”  According to Wikipedia, Arctic summers are so short that Arctic Wooly bears may need to live through several of them to become mature enough to pupate.

One area of disagreement among sources is whether Wooly bears’ wool/setae/hairs/bristles are irritants (remember: one common name – numerous species).  Having a bristly covering discourages some predators, although in the Fieldbook of Natural History, E. L. Palmer says that “skunks and a few other animals roll hairs off the caterpillars before they eat them.”  Certainly, the stiff hairs make it a harder to pick a Wooly bear up, and when you do pick one up and it curls into a defensive ball https://bugguide.net/node/view/1454009/bgimage, it’s pretty slippery.  Some sources say that the setae contain a stinging/irritating/venomous chemical, and other sources specifically say they do not.  Still other references say the setae may cause dermatitis mechanically – that they might break off in your skin (like one of those wretched, furry cacti); and others say that that unlike many hairy caterpillars, Wooly bears are harmless.  The BugLady has never suffered any ill effects from handling the familiar, rust-and-black Wooly bears.

Wooly bears have been famous since Colonial times for two things: 1) their habit of crossing the roads in fall (the BugLady wonders what they crossed before the Colonists arrived and started making roads); and 2) their (alleged) ability to predict the weather.

The weather lore angle was initiated by those same, road-building Colonists, who needed some forecasting done in the pre-Weather Channel days so they could figure out when to plant and harvest crops.  If its rust-colored middle band is wide, says the Almanac, the winter will be a mild one; if there is lots of black, batten down the hatches (except for a few sources that say the opposite – that lots of rust means lots of cold).

A surprising number of scientists have felt obligated to leap in and deflate the weather story.  To them the BugLady says “Lighten up, Party Poopers, and let a little fantasy into your lives.”  They tell us that the widening middle band is a result of age; that each time a Wooly bear molts, a black band becomes a rust band (except, of course, for a few who say the opposite – that rust turns to black).  So, a rustier caterpillar is an older caterpillar.  The BugLady had been curious about why the early fall Wooly bears seemed more pessimistic than the later fall Wooly bears and is happy to have that one resolved. According to that school of thought, if you see a blacker caterpillar in spring, it’s one that became dormant prematurely, and so may be telling the weather of the previous fall.  Other research suggests that a caterpillar with lots of rust lived in dry conditions, and one source says that a Wooly bear with wide black bands grew up where the habitat was wetter.  Still other scientists say that there is considerable variation in color even within newly-hatched individuals from a single clutch of eggs, and that the variation persists as they age.

We have Dr. Curran, a curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History, to thank for popularizing the Wooly bear.  For eight years in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Dr. Curran drove north from New York City along the Hudson to Bear Mountain State Park to measure the coloration of the Wooly bears he found there.  During those years, the rusty bands predicted mild winters.  He “leaked” the forecasts via a friend at a NYC newspaper, and the publicity his reports generated put Wooly bears on the map.  But Dr. Curran’s only real hypothesis was that Scientists Just Want to Have Fun.  He and his friends enjoyed the scenery, the foliage, and the caterpillars on their annual fall forays and formed “The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.”  Thirty years after Dr. Curran’s outings ceased, the folks at Bear Mountain State Park resurrected the Friends organization and the wooly bear count.

Wooly bears are embraced by children and adults alike, and Annual Wooly Bear Festivals are observed in fall (though the pandemic has shuttered many):

By the way – both “wooly” and “woolly” are accepted spellings, but in countries that are not the US, “wooly” is likely to be spelled “woolly.”

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Bugs without Bios XV

Howdy, BugFans,

Bugs without Bios are bugs who have no fan clubs or t-shirts or Wanted posters and who go about their daily lives without attracting too much attention, yet are still worthy of our admiration..

Actually, there probably is a BANDED LONGHORN BEETLE t-shirt out there somewhere.  It’s in the charismatic Long-horned beetle family Cerambycidae, whose extra-long-antennaed members are favorites of insect enthusiasts everywhere.  They’re in the flower longhorn subfamily Lepturinae – long, skinny, “broad-shouldered” beetles that can be seen crawling across blossoms in the daytime, feeding on nectar (carbs) and pollen (protein) without demolishing the flowers.  Flower longhorn larvae stay out of sight, burrowing in decaying tree trunks.

For a nice overview of the flower longhorns, see this article in the other Bug of the Week: http://bugoftheweek.squarespace.com/blog/2019/8/2/blossom-beetles-flower-longhorn-beetles-subfamily-lepturinae


Banded longhorns (Typocerus velutinus) (velutinus refers to the beetle’s golden “downiness”) are found in grasslands, prairies, pastures, or woody openings with wildflowers in eastern North America.  There must be dead hardwoods like oak and hickory nearby for its larvae.  Adults are often associated with Queen Anne’s lace (this one was on Water hemlock, which is in the same family) but they’ve been recorded on plants in the rose, elderberry, aster, viburnum, sumac, and dogbane families, where their downiness makes them good pollinators.

The delicate little GRASS BUG Arhyssus nigristernum (probably) is in the Scentless Plant bug family Rhopalidae, a family we have encountered before in the form of the Box elder bug.  There are 14 species in this New World genus, but only three occur in the weedy fields of the East.

There’s not much out there about Arhyssus nigristernum (no common name).  A different Arhyssus species is known to overwinter as an adult, and another genus member that lives in the Northwest is infamous, like the Box elder bug, for moving (harmlessly) inside for the winter (“home invasions,” says one newspaper article), and despite its family name, this species is said to smell “piney.”

The BugLady found this pretty and remarkably cooperative STRIPED SEDGE GRASSHOPPER (Stethophyma lineata) (or lineatum) in her favorite wetland this summer.  It’s in the Short-horned grasshopper family Acrididae and in the Band-winged grasshopper subfamily.  The Striped sedge grasshopper has northern affiliations – it’s found across North America as far north as Alaska and as far south as Colorado and New Jersey, although according to bugguide.net it seems to be getting scarce in the southern part of its range (it’s listed for northeastern but not for southeastern Wisconsin).

It lives on the edges of lakes, marshes, bogs, and wet meadows, and as its name suggests, its food is mostly sedges.

Many of the Band-winged grasshoppers have dramatically-striped wings, but this one’s wings are a sedate cocoa color https://bugguide.net/node/view/1882582/bgimage; it has great gams https://bugguide.net/node/view/311225/bgimage!

Fun Fact about the Striped sedge grasshopper: according to GRASSHOPPERS OF NORTHWEST TERRITORIES and adjacent regions, “This relatively large species is sometimes locally abundant and may be important in the diet of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes.”


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Fresh Riveredge Farm Produce for Sale!

Many people know about Riveredge Nature Center as a place to visit for a hike to see wildlife or visit for a field trip, but you may not know that we also have The Riveredge Farm: an onsite 4-acre organic permaculture farm. We sell produce in our Visitor’s Center, and you can also purchase produce for future pickup from our online store. Here is a list of our fresh offerings available for purchase right now at Riveredge.

-Starry Night Acorn Squash

-Butternut Squash

-Apple Cider

-Dehydrated Shiitake Mushrooms

-Canned Tomatoes


-Black Currant Preserves

-Red Currant Preserves

-Gold Potatoes

-Austrian Crescent Fingerlings

Bug o’the Week – Morning Glory Prominent Moth

Howdy, BugFans,

As she cruises through her moth books trying to identify what she’s photographed, the BugLady sees pictures of AMAZING caterpillars – not drab brown or grass-green caterpillars, but caterpillars that eschew camouflage in favor of some pretty gaudy togs (she has a Caterpillar Wish List that may require a Caterpillar Road Trip).  For example:

The Imperial moth https://bugguide.net/node/view/7718;

The venomous Crown Slug https://bugguide.net/node/view/1434824/bgimage;

The astounding Hickory horned Devil https://bugguide.net/node/view/1550971/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1757001/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1757013/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1757026/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/992138/bgimage;

The Faithful Beauty https://bugguide.net/node/view/6266;

The Curve-lined Owlet https://bugguide.net/node/view/862030/bgimage;

The Fawn Sphinx https://bugguide.net/node/view/1785681/bgimage;

The Paddle Dagger https://bugguide.net/node/view/1825/bgimage; and

The Bravo https://bugguide.net/node/view/1895198/bgimage.

Some brightly-patterned caterpillars advertise their toxicity, but others blend in because their color patches break up the outline of their body.

She thought she had checked off one of the caterpillars on her list this summer.  It was head-high and moving smartly up a tree trunk at the Bog when she saw it, and her preliminary (and secondary) ID was a Unicorn moth caterpillar.  Then she checked other genus members and changed her mind (and is hoping that she dodged a “publish in haste; repent at leisure” moment).  It’s (probably) the closely-related Morning-glory Prominent (Schizura ipomoeae) (Ipomoea is the genus of morning-glory).  Unicorn caterpillars lack the striped head and that extra hump on mid-abdomen that the Morning-glory Prominent has, and the hairs on their abdomen are shorter.  Here’s a better shot of the Morning-glory https://bugguide.net/node/view/1292330/bgimage, and here’s the Unicorn https://bugguide.net/node/view/1446998.

No road trip is needed for the Morning Glory Prominent – it lives in deciduous woodlands across the US and southern Canada.  One reference called it “common,” and it well may be, but both caterpillar and adult are awesomely camouflaged.

There are eight species in the genus Schizura in North America north of the Rio Grande.  They’re in the family Notodontidae (the Prominent moths), a family that, according to Wagner in Caterpillars of Eastern North America “includes many of the most handsome and behaviorally interesting caterpillars in the temperate zone.”

Notodontid/Prominent caterpillars are pretty cool.  They’re big, with large heads, and some sport a variety of lumps and spines and decorations on their sometimes-whimsically-shaped bodies.  You can find them perched on leaves in the daytime.  Maybe.  A “work-around” practiced by some Notodontid caterpillars involves girdling a tree stem and spreading liquid on the cuts; substances in the liquid depress a plant’s usual chemical defenses to grazing.

Caterpillars in the genus Schizura have a gland that produces a mixture of formic and acetic acids along with “lipophilic” (fat-loving) compounds.  This concoction is delivered as a spray that the caterpillar can direct with accuracy up to six inches away.  The gland is located right behind the head, and the spray comes through a slit in the “neck” (though some sources said it was in one of the humps).  In his write-up about the Unicorn caterpillar in Moths and Caterpillars of the North Woods, Sogaard says that these glands may be so large that they “can occupy a tenth of the caterpillar’s volume,” and the BugLady assumes the Morning-glory Prominent is similar.  The lipophilic compounds help the liquid to spread on and penetrate the victim’s exoskeleton/skin (it can raise a painful blister on humans).

Adult Morning-glory Prominents have wingspans of 1 ¾” and they’re somewhat variable in color http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=8005.  A rolled-up posture https://bugguide.net/node/view/404222/bgimage makes them look like broken twigs.

According to bugguide.net, caterpillars of the Morning-glory Prominent “feed on the leaves of beech, birch, elm, maple, oak, rose [including apple trees], and other woody plants; probably not on morning-glory.”  Which is probably why it has alternative names like False Unicorn Caterpillar and Checkered-fringe Prominent.  They are gregarious as young caterpillars and loners later – the young caterpillars feed on the leaf’s under-surface, skeletonizing it; and the older stages eat inward from the leaf edge, carving a half-circle out of the edge and curling into it, looking like a damaged leaf https://bugguide.net/node/view/1615595/bgimage.  They overwinter in suspended animation as pre-pupae, ready to pupate in spring.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Wildflower Watch – Wild Bergamot

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady loves wild bergamot – first, because it has classy flowers, and second, because she loves the clearwing moths that dance around their edges, leading her on an annual, merry chase.  She decided to see who else uses bergamot (with goldenrods and asters in their final inning, the BugLady is missing wildflowers already).

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is sometimes called Bee balm, a name that’s also applied to a red species of bergamot in the eastern US.  It has a long history of human use – native peoples used it as an antiseptic on wounds and sores, to treat gum disease, colds, flu, and intestinal parasites, and like other members of the mint family, indigestion.  The leaves were brewed for tea (after the Boston Tea Party, bergamot was one of the settlers’ go-to tea substitutes), and they were added to stews for flavoring.  It makes a strong and distinctive honey, and the oil was used on acne and as a hair dressing.  The BugLady discovered an “off-label” use for it one day after she helped a small garter snake cross the road.  The snake obliged by musking her hands, so she grabbed a bunch of bergamot leaves and pulverized them in her hands, trading musk for mint.

It isn’t an easy plant for insects to use.  The flowers are long tubes (fistulosa means “reed,” or “pipe”), and even though the pollen-producing stamens are accessible, an insect must be specially equipped to get to the nectar (some wasps cheat by chewing through the sides).  Butterflies, moths, bee flies, and long-tongued bees like mining bees, cuckoo bees, and some bumble bees are the chief pollinators, but hummingbirds lend a hand, too.  Mint flowers have a protruding “lower lip” that insects use as a landing strip.  Some grazers find the strong, mint-flavored chemicals off-putting.

The wonderful Illinois Wildflowers website describes their blooming thus: “At the top of major stems are rounded heads of flowers about 1-3″ across. The flowers begin blooming in the center of the head, gradually moving toward its periphery, forming a wreath of flowers.”  Among the insects listed in the Illinois site’s “Faunal Associations” section is a specialist called the Beebalm shortface bee https://bugguide.net/node/view/1413882/bgimage that bugguide.net say lives in Wisconsin and Tennessee “Although maps show wider distribution.”  Something to look for next year.

The BugLady was surprised to learn that Wild bergamot is considered a weed in Nebraska.

Here are some of the insects and spiders the BugLady has spotted on bergamot over the years.  As always, there are bugs that come to dine, bugs that only visit for a brief rest, and others that come to stalk their prey.

This CABBAGE WHITE butterfly is showing us how it’s done – picking a flower and unrolling its curled proboscis to reach for nectar at the bottom of the tube.

JAGGED AMBUSH BUG – If you’re having trouble seeing it, so will its next meal (hint – its head is down and angled slightly to the left).

CRAB SPIDER –ditto – you can spot this goldenrod crab spider by looking for the red lines on either side of its abdomen – or by looking for its dangling prey.

And another CRAB SPIDER, but with a different camouflage strategy.

SNOWBERRY/BUMBLEBEE CLEARWING and CINNAMON CLEARWING MOTHS are members of the sphinx moth family (aka the hawk moths), a group of powerful flyers that often have dramatic color patterns https://bugguide.net/node/view/1810671/bgpage and an exaggerated spindle shape https://bugguide.net/node/view/1726114/bgimage.  Some species, like these, are day-flying, and they’re often mistaken for mini-hummingbirds.

The lovely HORSEMINT TORTOISE BEETLE eats bergamot and other members of the genus Monarda (https://uwm.edu/field-station/horsemint-tortoise-beetle/).  Like other tortoise beetles, its slightly-less-lovely larvae, which are Monarda leaf feeders, protect themselves both passively and actively by creating a “fecal shield.”  Read all about it at https://www.colorado.edu/asmagazine-archive/node/513.

SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPERS are the biggest skippers in Wisconsin, but they’re not the only ones that nectar on bergamot – the BugLady has pictures of a half-dozen smaller (and more confusing) skipper species in the flowers.

The BugLady watched this BLACK SWALLOWTAIL throw itself at the bergamot over and over with total abandon.  She tries (probably not hard enough) to avoid anthropomorphism, but this butterfly’s actions seemed so exuberant!

BUMBLE BEES are strong enough to pry open tubular flowers – like mints, columbines, gentians, and peas – that are inaccessible to lesser insects.  This bumble bee seems to be one of the long-tongued species, but the BugLady isn’t sure whether bergamot flowers require force or finesse.

PENNSYLVANIA LEATHERWING BEETLES, members of the Soldier beetle family, are a fixture on goldenrods and nearby prairie plants during the month of August.  Adults are omnivores, feeding on nectar, pollen, and tiny invertebrates; and their larvae are carnivores.  This one looks a little rumpled, like it got out of the wrong side of the bed.

QUESTION MARKS have a silvery punctuation mark on the underside of the hind wing.  There are two generations each year and two color forms – the longer-tailed, “violet-tipped,” orange winter form https://bugguide.net/node/view/1306098/bgimage, and the darker-winged summer form https://bugguide.net/node/view/1302365/bgimage.  Spectacular caterpillar http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=4420.  Question marks and Commas, the anglewings, overwinter as adults in sheltered places.

And, of course, a SYRPHID FLY.

Also seen were a two-lined grasshopper, monarch butterfly, Virginia ctenucha moth, ants, and a bush katydid.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Selected Syrphid Flies

Howdy BugFans,

It’s no secret that the BugLady is enthralled by syrphid/hover/flower flies (family Syrphidae), those often-exquisitely-decorated little flies https://bugguide.net/node/view/407691/bgpage that mimic a variety of wasps and bees and are featured in so many of her “Summer Survey” episodes.  This summer she photographed several different “flavors” of syrphids, and so she’s sticking her toe into the shallow end of syrphid fly identification.  There are 6,000 species of syrphid flies worldwide –including 813 in North America, with more than 150 species around the Great Lakes alone, so she’s got her work cut out for her.

Despite their resemblance to insects with stingers, syrphids are innocent.  It’s called Batesian mimicry – something that’s harmless protects itself by resembling something that’s not.  It’s easy to tell the difference when they’re at rest – they don’t have stingers (a female’s tapered abdomen may make it look like she does https://bugguide.net/node/view/138871/bgimage), and where wasps and bees have four wings, flies only have two.  You can often see that a syrphid’s abdomen looks “deflated” https://bugguide.net/node/view/580219/bgimage.  Syrphid flies range in size from ¼” to the size of a small bumble bee.

Adults of many species feed on nectar and pollen that they sponge up with tubular mouthparts.  They’re good little pollinators (especially the hairier species), although most feed randomly on white or yellow flowers (unlike bumble bees, which target flowers of a particular species on each outing – flower constancy – ensuring that pollen gets delivered to the right place).

Their larvae (maggots) live a variety of lifestyles; some are decomposers, eating decaying organic bits or wet wood; some eat living plant material like ornamental flower bulbs (and are unwelcome in greenhouses), and others, although eyeless and with only rudimentary legs, prey on small invertebrates like aphids https://bugguide.net/node/view/1386581/bgimage.  The aquatic larvae of some species feed on tiny organisms and organic detritus in shallow waters and are called rat-tailed maggots (https://bugguide.net/node/view/166995/bgpage – the “tail” is a breathing tube), and a few live in ant or bumble bee nests.  The BugLady wonders if the syrphid larva in her picture escaped the lurking crab spider.

Adults find each other by sight and probably by sound – they can make a soft “hum” by vibrating some structures in their thorax that are independent of flight.  The BugLady couldn’t find anything about courtship https://bugguide.net/node/view/697135/bgimage, but females of carnivorous species lay eggs on vegetation near aphid colonies, and when the larvae hatch, they go to work.  After two or three weeks and around 400 aphids, the larvae are ready to form a pupal case inside of their hardened final larval skin (puparium) (looks like a slipper shell), and there they overwinter.

These are Fair-weather Flies – if you see one, it’s probably warm and sunny.  Most are also home-bodies, seldom leaving the area where they hatched.

The BugLady found an amazing paper about syrphid fly migration.  It’s a known phenomenon among some European species, and it had been recorded on the East Coast of North America nearly 100 years ago, but it had not been noted in the literature since then.  In the paper, researchers Menz, Brown, and Wotton discuss a migratory event that occurred in California in 2017 in which it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of syrphid flies passed over a 200 meter-long stretch of trail in 30 minutes.

Here are some of the syrphid flies that the BugLady saw this summer (for most, she’s resisting going out on her usual taxonomic limb and guessing their species).  Check them out – they’re all different!

TEMNOSTOMA adds a behavioral component to its deception – it extends its dark, front legs to look like antennae https://uwm.edu/field-station/wasp-mimics-family-syrphidae/.  There are eight species in the genus in North America.

NEOASCIA, bronze and lustrous, has aquatic larvae, so adults are found around wetlands.  There are only seven species in the area, and they’ve been blessed with great names like Black-margined fen fly, Black-kneed fen fly, Spotted fen fly, etc.

MILESIA – The BugLady went out her back door one day and found this big (3/4”) beautiful Virginia flower fly (Milesia virginiensis) sitting on the stoop.  There are only three species in this genus in the area; they’re dynamite wasp mimics, and they have a buzzy flight sound that contributes to the illusion (one common name is Yellowjacket hover fly).  The Southern yellowjacket is their doppelganger https://bugguide.net/node/view/1641780/bgimage, and a Southern nickname for these syrphids is the “News bee,” because of their habit of hovering in front of people as if conversing.  Here’s more information about this lovely fly: http://bugeric.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-news-bee.html.

HELOPHILUS flies have vertical stripes on their thorax and horizontal stripes on their abdomens (if you’re peeking over their shoulders).  Bugguide.net tells us that Helophilus means “marsh lover.”  There are nine species in the genus in North America, and a number are restricted to the very far north.  Eggs are laid on leaves above a pond, and the larvae drop into the water after hatching, where they feed on submerged, dead leaves.

ERISTALIS – She found two pretty different-looking members of the genus Eristalis – one native and one not.  According to bugguide.net, members of this genus are called Drone flies, though some reserve that name for Eristalis tenex.  There are 20 species in the genus in North America (several are non-native), and many are on the larger end of the syrphid fly size continuum.  According to bugguide.net, the genus name comes from the “Latin eristalis, a kind of gemstone, maybe opal.”

Eristalis tenax (the Drone fly) is non-native; it’s Eurasian in origin but has been here at least since the Civil War and is now found over most of the continent.  You may have to look twice (or thrice) to tell it’s not a honeybee, partly because of the color and partly because of behavior – this hover fly doesn’t hover, it flies like a bee.  Like the bees that they resemble, Drone flies can trap pollen grains in the hairs on their bodies and use their legs move the pollen to special bristles on their front and rear legs.  Unlike the bees they resemble, Drone flies eat the pollen off of their legs instead of bringing it home for a brood.

Eristalis flavipes gave the BugLady quite a start one day in the Bog when she realized that the “bumble bee” that she was chasing had a big rusty patch on its abdomen (https://uwm.edu/field-station/rusty-patched-bumble-bee/), but as soon as she looked at its tiny, round antennae and its big eyes, she knew it was a fly.  Not all individuals have the rusty patch.  Flavipes means “yellow-footed” so let’s call it the Yellow-footed flower fly.  The Yellow-footed flower fly fooled the BugLady because it forages like a bee rather than a fly, and because it has even adopted the bumble bee’s tone of voice.  It’s found in the northern two-thirds of North America.

See – they DO look different!  We can do this!

The BugLady

Making a Habit of Adventure Throughout the Seasons

If I learned anything this spring, it’s that our lives are an accumulation of habits sprinkled with a few deviations and vacations throughout the years. The contents of these habits, and what orients our pursuits, becomes our days and years and lifetimes.

Exploring outdoors during a Pandemic

The autumn leaves are starting to turn along the Milwaukee River

When this Coronavirus came calling in March, our field trips and programs were cancelled and Riveredge (aside from trails remaining open) overall closed down. Like many of us, I performed the bulk of my work from home. For months, I was removed from my conventions of stepping outside to take a video for our Instagram account, walking the trails to photograph blooms and landscapes, running into students on field trips delighted to explore the sanctuary.

As Covid research progressed, scientists published that the overall safest place to be is outdoors in nature. I rejoiced, and gradually returned to my regular jaunts throughout the 379 acres of Riveredge, gradually reacquainting my habit of walking out the door to discover what next wild creature or flower or unexpected insect was around the next trail bend. I reclaimed my habit of instilling my days with adventure and discovery.

Making a plan to flourish during the cold winter months

Plenty of wonder and awe to experience throughout winter at Riveredge.

As we go into another potential season of relative radio silence (whether due to pandemic or our cold weather conventions), I find myself considering which habits to keep and which to shed. We Midwesterners tend to turn inwardly home and hibernate for the cold months. Throughout the snowy season, many of us leave for work in the morning and it’s dark and when we return home the sky is again dark, save for eventual star reflections twinkling against the snow.

In this autumn season that transitions from flannels and warming palms by rubbing hands together into coats and hats and gloves, habits strike me as especially important. I invite you to join me in finding ways to inject a sense of cold weather adventure into your days. The trails at Riveredge are open to you, as they have been for 50 years. Think of these autumn brass-patina prairies and flowing kettle rising moraine forests as your restorative playground to breathe in. A Riveredge membership provides both motivation and opportunity to get outdoors year-round.

Sure, it takes a little extra planning to put on the socks and boots and ear coverings. But the reward – the sounds of rustling leaves, treetop owl echoes, and creaking oaks and maples singing through your soul – will be worth it your time. Think of it as an investment. The investment of your lifetime.

By Ed Makowski, Riveredge Marketing & Communications Manager



Bug o’the Week – End of Summer Scenes

Howdy, BugFans,

Wow!  The first day of fall!  Much as she loves a nice fall day, the BugLady clings to summer (maybe that’s why she keeps buying peaches even though she knows she’ll be disappointed).  If you want to find bugs, look at flowers, so the BugLady has been searching the riot of wild sunflowers, asters, brown-eyed susans, and goldenrod.  Here are some of the bugs that have posed for her in the past month.

This mothy-looking CADDISFLY is actually not too distantly related to moths and butterflies.  Caddisflies’ aquatic larvae use silk to form a portable shelter from bits of vegetation or tiny stones (https://curious.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/caddisfly-architecture/), though some skip the case and spin a net on a submerged rock so they can stay put in swift currents.  What are they good for?  Two words – Fish.  Food.  Fish prey on the larvae and on the emerging adults, and fly-tiers copy the caddisfly hatch https://www.orvis.com/p/slow-water-caddis/12a9.

Tiny (wingspread under an inch) EASTERN TAILED-BLUES have several broods throughout the summer.  They’re on the scene from May through September, and according to the Wisconsin Butterflies website (https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly), a few hardy individuals have been recorded into the first week of November!  In September, look for them close to the ground, ovipositing on white clover in mowed paths.  If your eyes are spry, you can see the contrast between their slate blue upper wings and their pale blue underwings in flight.

OBLONG-WINGED KATYDIDS should be green, right?  It turns out that color is negotiable in some Orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, etc.).  This species comes in brown, orange,

tan https://bugguide.net/node/view/273155/bgimage,

yellow https://bugguide.net/node/view/139882/bgimage,

and Pepto pink https://bugguide.net/node/view/126381/bgimage.

Here’s a paper about their colors https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/running-ponies/in-north-american-katydids-green-isne28099t-the-dominant-colour-pink-is/, and here’s what they sound like https://songsofinsects.com/katydids/oblong-winged-katydid.

A female SWAMP SPREADWING damselfly deposits eggs into a plant stem as the male guards her by clinging to the back of her head.

This small TREE FROG bit off a little more than it could chew.  It managed to swallow the front half of a meadowhawk dragonfly, but it doesn’t seem to have enough room to swallow the rear half.  Lots of roughage in dragonflies.

OAK SAWFLY LARVAE – If you turn over a partially-skeletonized oak leaf in summer, you may find these cute little skeletonizers, which look like slightly gooey caterpillars but are actually the larvae of members of a primitive wasp family.  They eat the tender leaf tissue and leave the tough veins, and the end result looks like a macramé project.

A MELOE BEETLE, a male, based on that crook in mid-antenna, descended the side of the log and joined another Meloe beetle, and hanky-panky ensued.  Meloe/Oil beetles, in the genus Meloe, are members of the blister beetle family.  “Oil beetles” because when they’re alarmed, they secrete oily drops from their joints that contain poisonous cantharidin, which causes nasty blisters on skin and does serious damage if taken internally.

AUTUMN MEADOWHAWKS are the last dragonflies of the season, able to survive a few light frosts and operate in daytime temperatures down to about 50 degrees (although by then, there’s not much prey in the air).  This one chose a backdrop of colorful dogwood leaves.

The BugLady found this handsome JUMPING SPIDER, Marpisa bina, at a nearby State Natural Area (thanks, as always, to BugFan Mike for the ID).  Not a lot is known about the 10 species in the genus, but most are wetland-dwellers.

Well-camouflaged CAROLINA LOCUSTS hunker on the trails, waiting until the BugLady practically steps on them before taking off on yellow-trimmed, black wings, and imitating, briefly, butterflies.

BUMBLE BEES, honey bees, and wasps of all stripes are abundant on flowers these days.  Honeybees maintain their hives throughout the winter, but bumble bee and paper wasp nests are annual affairs – started from scratch by new queens every spring.  The activities of the nest will cease with the frosts, but nobody’s told the workers.

MULTICOLORED ASIAN LADYBUG – Oh sure, it’s cute now, but pretty soon it will be looking for a way into your house https://uwm.edu/field-station/asian-multicolored-ladybug-redux/.

MONARCH – What would a late summer round-up be without Monarchs?  About a week ago, the BugLady walked the prairie trails at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve and saw 249 crisp, new Gen 5 monarchs (the migratory generation), most nectaring on asters and goldenrods, sometimes 10 or 20 butterflies on a single clump of plants.  Quality nectar plants are critical on the leisurely trip south – a newly-emerged Monarch has about 20 milligrams of fat in its body, but it needs to pack in another 100 milligrams of fat before it arrives in Mexico (trace that journey here https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=monarch-peak-migration&year=2020).  These fat reserves sustain it during the winter (if you never click on any of the BOTW links, please try this one https://fstoppers.com/documentary/drone-disguised-hummingbird-captures-incredible-footage-monarch-butterfly-swarm-480714).

Go outside – it ain’t over until it’s over.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

For Educators: Simple Steps for Mapping Your Schoolyard


Now that school is underway, you may be trying to incorporate what you gained from participating in Taking Education Outside the School Walls. We covered a lot of ground and I hope everyone walked away with a few nuggets of worthwhile information.

Let’s circle back to how valuable it can be to scout your school grounds – all of it – gravel, pavement, grass, trees, playgrounds, and the space around the school. Intentional observations on how and where you can teach outside. Here are the simple steps to do so.

Mapping Your Outdoor Areas

Grab a few items:

  • Printed view of your school grounds
  • Notepad
  • Pencil
  • List of topics you cover in all subjects

Here is an example of an Outdoor Map I’ve created. Start walking around your school and find spots where your whole class would be able to congregate as a group. Find multiple environments: shaded or covered areas; covered by trees or buildings in case it rains, locations out in the sun, and maybe a mix of them all. What does the area look like around these spaces? Are there playgrounds, trees, exposed soil, grass, prairie, pond, asphalt, hills, and landscaped areas? You do not need huge open green areas to teach outside, work with whatever assets your school has to offer. Consider how you can bring your lessons outside and teach in the space you have before you. Need materials? Students can carry materials outside – this gives them both purpose and responsibility.

Matching Lessons with Outdoor Spaces

What lessons and topics do you cover with your students throughout the year? Are you working on addition or subtraction? Maybe you could you use sidewalk blocks, pine cones, trees, or work on that worksheet while sitting under a tree. If they are learning about insects seek a spot in the school yard where plants grow or ant hills spring forth, bring magnifying glasses out to explore these locations. Is there a great shade tree to read to your class beneath?

If learning about creating graphs, you can count birds during different times of the day. Are there spaces to take a sensory walk? Students can learn about human impact, plant identification, and soil all within your school yard. What material is your parking lot made of? In exploring this you can you teach about different surfaces, permeability, how water interacts with and absorbs (or doesn’t!) through them. You can explore the sun and moon while learning about shadows coming from any part of the building, structure, or landscaping.

Silent sit spots are a great way to make seasonal observations, and students can learn about how the natural world changes (what we call phenology) by going back to the same spot multiple times. Is there a pond nearby…if not you can observe puddles at a safe parking lot location where water pools. If learning about animals you can take students on an observation walk. Additionally, outdoor space is great for brain break movement activities. After all, there’s a reason why recess takes place outside!

You can move your teaching outside in many ways – one way is just to determine a new environment for teaching to take place and the second step is to incorporate that environment into your lessons.

If you have yet to map your school yard so you can have a quick reference to look at through the year, I highly recommend that you create one. It is easier to look at your map and remember spots then try to do it on the spot before a lesson. Enjoy whatever outdoor space you have!

Written by Rachel Feerick, the Riveredge Cedarburg School District Scientist in Residence