Bug Lady Blog – Azalea Sphinx

Salutations, BugFans,


Seasoned BugFans rejoice!  A moth that you can actually see with your naked eye!  The Azalea Sphinx is a member of the Sphinx family, Sphingidae – Sphinx moths have appeared in these pages before, in the person of the White-lined, the Pandorus, the Laurel/Fawn, the Waved, the Walnut, the Five-lined, and the Hog/Virginia creeper sphinxes, as well as the Cinnamon and Bumblebee/snowberry Clearwings.  Sphinx caterpillars are called hornworms for obvious reasons (http://bugguide.net/node/view/35271/bgpage), though in some species, the horn is lost or reduced in their last instar.


Sphinx moth caterpillars are frequently associated with one, or a small group of host plants, for which they are often named (tobacco and tomato hornworms, big poplar, wild cherry, huckleberry, catalpa sphinx, etc.) (some are pests of agricultural or horticultural plantings), and they may have different names than their adults (when it grows up, a tomato hornworm becomes a Five-lined sphinx).  The caterpillars are responsible for the name “Sphinx” – when alarmed, they raise the front half of their body, retract their head like a turtle and pose like an (upside-down) Egyptian sphinx http://bugguide.net/node/view/1129749/bgimage  (OK – so entomologists are an imaginative bunch).  Adults may be called Hawk moths (especially in England) and hummingbird moths (for their feeding style).


These are big moths – some tropical species may have a seven inch wingspread.  North American sphinx moths, some of which may have four inch wingspreads, represent about one-tenth of the approximately 1,500 species worldwide.  They have chunky, scaly, spindle-shaped bodies and long, roughly triangular wings; the wings of some species are decorated with color-blocks http://bugguide.net/node/view/83168/bgimage, and even those that come in muted colors are subtly beautiful.  Many adults have strikingly-colored hind wings or abdomens that are concealed when they are at rest but are flashed in flight to startle predators http://bugguide.net/node/view/34160.  Sphinx moths are terrific flyers; their rapid wingbeats can carry them up to 12 mph, and they can also hover.


In spite of the fact that adults communicate using airborne chemicals (pheromones) they don’t have especially feathery antennae (she calls to him using pheromones, and in some species, he responds with pheromones of his own when he gets close).  Although many are night-flyers, they have no hearing organs/bat detectors.


The caterpillars can be sizeable, too (http://bugguide.net/node/view/428112/bgimage).  Some are cryptically colored, but others have a line of big, attention-getting spots along their sides (http://bugguide.net/node/view/348379).  The caterpillars of closely-related species can be hard to tell apart because they may come in different color phases, but apparently, the size, shape and color of the horn can be diagnostic.  Caterpillars turn darker as they approach pupation, and they overwinter as pupae.


Interesting stuff about Sphinx moths:


  • Many sphinx caterpillars nosh on toxic leaves.  Animals that ingest poisons either sequester them, eliminate them, or live with them.  Although some species are pretty impervious to high toxin concentrations, they also excrete them quickly; other species neutralize harmful substances like nicotine before eliminating them.  In the “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” department, caterpillars regurgitate the noxious contents of their foreguts on aspiring predators and parasites (although this one was unsuccessful http://bugguide.net/node/view/140259 and is parasitized by wasp larvae).  They do not, however, pass any toxicity along to their adult phase.
  • Sphinx moths not only hover, they can move side-to-side (“side-slipping” or “swing-hovering”), which might help them avoid ambushers lurking in the blossoms.
  • Sphinx moths must raise the temperature inside their thorax to about 96 degrees F in order to fly – this they do by quivering the wing muscles, causing the wings to vibrate.  The warm-up takes longer in cooler temperatures, but because of their ability to warm up, they can fly in cool/nighttime temperatures.  They also bask.
  • Adults of a few species don’t eat (they depend on energy socked away during their larval stage), but most have a proboscis that is long enough to uncurl into a tubular flower and harvest its nectar (incidentally, pollinating it).  Like their caterpillars, adults may be associated with specific flowers and be their exclusive pollinators.
  • Darwin once predicted the existence of a hitherto-unknown animal species, based on the size and shape of a tropical orchid.  “[A. sesquipetale hasnectaries 11 and a half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar […] it is, however, surprising, that any insect should be able to reach the nectar: our English sphinxes have probosces as long as their bodies, but in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between 10 and 12 inches!”  When the pollinator – a sphinx moth – was ultimately found, its subspecies name (praedicta, “the predicted one,” reflected his observation.
  • Not all sphinx moths feed on plant nectar (the Faint of Heart should turn away right about now); one species robs honeybees, but about 100 species, mostly in Southeast Asia, sip “eye secretions”.  From the Medical and Veterinary Entomology, by Mullen and Durden, we learn that “It feeds while hovering about the eyes of horses, mules, and humans.  It also has been observed inserting its proboscis between the lips and into the nostrils of humans to feed on saliva and nasal secretions.  The latter has been described as causing a tickling sensation.  Only mild discomfort is experienced when they feed on eyes.”  And yes, there is a vocabulary word for that – lachryphagous.

(OK, you can turn back now.)


THE AZALEA SPHINX (Darapsa choerilus) (formerly Darapsa pholus) is one of three species in its genus in the Nearctic ecozone and is found in deciduous woodlands and edges from the Great Plains, east.  Wagner, in Caterpillars of Eastern North America, says that the three Darapsas (the Azalea, the Hydrangea, and the Virginia creeper sphinx) “usually can be identified by their foodplant associations.”  Both the adult Azalea sphinx and its larva (http://bugguide.net/node/view/943281/bgimage) are similar to the related Hog sphinx, but the Azalea sphinx’s horn is straighter and bluer.


Because of its more-catholic-than-usual diet, the Azalea sphinx could also be called the Blueberry, Sour gum, or Viburnum sphinx, (multiple sources continued “and other host plant families” but didn’t name them).  Adults nectar on a variety of flowers, tubular and not, that are open during the evening and at night, like honeysuckle, bladder campion, EupatoriumSpiraea (and, apparently, milkweed).


There are probably two generations each summer here in Wisconsin (possibly eight per year along the Gulf Coast).  The young are solitary feeders that snug up against the midrib of the leaf they’re eating when at rest.  When they’re ready to pupate, they use silk to fasten a few leaves together loosely on the ground.


Gratuitous caterpillar picture that the BugLady wishes she had taken: http://bugguide.net/node/view/996714.


Unrelated Nature Note:  Although the temperatures have been in the single digits above and below zero for a few days, one BugFan has had two Yellow-rumped Warblers at her feeder.  Warblers are a largely insectivorous lot, so 99.99 of them departed for warmer climes a few months ago.  The Yellow-rumped is the hardiest because it will supplement its diet with berries (the BugLady still clings to their old name, Myrtle Warbler, because the early settlers observed these birds feeding in myrtle bushes along the seacoast).


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug Lady Blog – Meadow Grasshopper

Salutations, BugFans,


The BugLady’s usual sensory experience with grasshoppers is a small “tssssp” sound as they launch themselves out of her path and land on the undergrowth.  So – it’s a good thing that the BugLady couldn’t see this well-camouflaged Meadow Grasshopper, frozen on the tree bark (the literature says that these grass-top-perchers are skittish and are more apt to take cover behind vegetation or to drop to the ground and then tiptoe away).


Meadow/Marsh Meadow/Short-winged Brown grasshoppers (Chorthippus curtipennis) are the only members of their genus in the Nearctic ecozone (North and South America); the other species members inhabit the Palearctic ecozone (a large chunk of the Old World).  They are members of the Slant-faced/Tooth-legged grasshopper subfamily within the Short-horned grasshopper family, Acrididae.  Bugguide.net describes their habitat as “tall grass in damp areas” from Alaska and Canada, throughout most of the Lower 48 except for the far Southeastern states (one source said that they are the most-widely distributed of our grasshoppers).  They’re listed in a Key to Semi-Aquatic Orthoptera of Michigan; the BugLady didn’t find any mention in their biographies of interaction with water, only that they reside in periaquatic environments (“damp edge” situations that transition readily from aquatic to terrestrial and back).  Here in God’s Country, they are out and about during the daytime throughout the summer and into fall.

grasshopper meadow11 9bsm (1)

Meadow grasshoppers are brownish and typically have reddish/yellowish-brown femora (thighs) and black “knees,” and, yellow tibiae (shins).  They have, as their name suggests, slanted faces.  Like other members of their family, they have tympana (hearing organs) on the abdomen, near the attachment of the hind pair of legs.  Males are about a half-inch long, and females are about an inch; the wings of most males are as long as their abdomen, but most females’ wings about three-quarters as long.


Unlike other species of grasshoppers that are polyphagous (feeding on a variety of plants) (the BugLady is checking to make sure that there was no vocabulary lapse during the holidays), the Meadow Grasshopper is reputed to eat only grasses and sedges (although the very thorough biography published by the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station suggests that the grasshopper’s complete menu isn’t known and may include “forbs, pollen, fungi, and arthropod parts.”).  By itself, it’s not considered a crop pest, but it often feeds with the more damaging red-legged and clear-winged grasshoppers.


Meadow grasshoppers are eaten by the usual suspects – birds, coyotes, skunks, rodents, beetles, spiders, and more (they may have been among the grasshopper species historically eaten by American Indians on the Great Plains, too), and they are afflicted by parasitoid larvae of a number of flies.


When a young grasshopper’s fancy turns to love, he stridulates (makes sound by friction) from a grass blade, rasping his hind legs against his wings.  If she is interested, she answers http://musicofnature.org/songsofinsects/iframes/locusts/popup_marshmeadowgh.html.  Eggs are laid in fall, in egg pods, in a hole that she excavates in the soil with her ovipositor.  The eggs enter a resting state called diapause (still checking) without hatching so that there are no energy demands from developing embryos, and (usually) the nymphs emerge late in the following spring.  These hardy grasshoppers have developed an adaptation that allows them to survive in the tundra and in mountain meadows – in cold climates they get off to a really slow start, sometimes spending three years in the egg before hatching.  Once hatched, they attain adulthood within a month.


Meadow grasshoppers are mostly homebodies, not venturing far from their natal fields.  They are athletic jumpers, but while males can fly for about ten feet, the females’ shorter wings render them flightless.  How do they expand into new territories?  Most don’t.  Only a small percent of meadow grasshoppers annually (about 2%) are equipped with extra-long wings and can initiate dispersal flights.


From the Canadian Geographic magazine’s “Fascinating Grasshopper Facts” we learn that a grasshopper’s mandibles (with which they chew from side to side) are so tough that “they are not damaged when the grasshopper is eaten by a burrowing owl. For example, when an owl eats 50 grasshoppers, almost the only grasshopper remains found in the pellet (which is coughed up by the owl after grinding and digesting the food) will be a few legs, 100 mandibles, and some other smaller grasshopper mouthparts.”


Here’s Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 912: http://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/grasshopper/nonkey/html/FactSheets/meadow.htm).


And here’s a key to Wisconsin grasshoppers: http://dnr.wi.gov/files/pdf/pubs/ss/ss1008.pdf


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Christmas Bird Count Flies High

Each year, Riveredge helps lead the Newburg Christmas Bird Count. Dedicated volunteers spend a day counting as many bird species and individuals as they can find in our local search area. The results are sent to the National Audubon Society who compile data from around the US for the longest running citizen science project in the country. Here’s a recap of this year’s count from Mary Holleback, our Adult Programs Manager. 

December 2015 was the warmest on record in the Milwaukee area thanks to the El Nino weather pattern affecting the entire U.S. this winter.  It was also to blame or credit for many of the unusual birds seen on December 19th during our annual Christmas Bird Count.   One such sighting in the Cedarburg area (7A) was an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD.  Yes!  I said hummingbird!  It’s only the second time in the 115 year history of the Wisconsin Christmas Bird Count that this western species has been documented.  The bird was reported and photographed by Dan Panetti, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Mequon.  He helped the home owner create a nectar feeder that wouldn’t freeze by modifying a heated bird bath.  Local bander, Mickey O’Connor, from the Milwaukee County Zoo banded the bird earlier in the season.  (See the January 2016 issue of the Badger Birder for more information about anna’s hummingbird sightings in WI).

Birders also saw seven bald eagles, the highest number ever, in our count circle.  Three of them (a family of two adults & one immature) were sighted feeding together on a carcass in the Little Kohler area.  Jeannie Lord, owner of Pineview Rehabilitation Center, stated that there was an active nest near the river this past summer.  The Natural Heritage Conservation Program has been conducting aerial surveys over Wisconsin for the past 42 years in search of eagle and osprey nests.  In 2015 they found a record number of 1,465 eagle nests, at least one nest in every county except Milwaukee and Kenosha.  Nationally, eagles and ospreys have made a big comeback since the use of DDT was outlawed in this country in the 1970’s.

Five melanistic mutant Chinese ring-necked pheasants were also reported in the same area.  These large pheasants with iridescent, greenish-black plumage are one of 49 species brought here from Asia and released for hunting purposes.  They survive and reproduce well in crop fields, wetlands, grasslands and brushy thickets. Look here for pictures and more information.

Fifty-nine field counters logged a cumulative 193 hours and 1,140 miles looking for birds.  While 34 feeder counters in 28 households put in a total of 46 hours documenting birds in their yards.  Eighteen households watched for two hours in hopes of adding additional species to their lists.  Due to the efforts of all of these birders we saw a total of 65 species and 15,337 individuals which was just a little below average for our count circle.

Prolonged warm weather enticed a few summer residents into staying longer.  Included in that group were: sandhill cranes (36- highest #), turkey vultures (3-highest #), great blue herons (3), northern flickers (8), American robins (149), belted kingfishers (4), chipping sparrows (2), fox sparrows (2), song sparrows (3), northern harriers (6), and northern flickers (8).

Birds were widely dispersed due to the lack of snow cover and mild temperatures.  We didn’t see any of these somewhat nomadic winter birds: common redpolls, lapland longspurs, snow buntings, or horned larks.  We did however encounter these common winter birds: two rough-legged hawks, 24 pine siskins, nine red-breasted nuthatches, seven brown creepers and three tufted titmice.

Clear blue skies made it easy for us to identify ten species of waterfowl, seven species of hawks, and six species of sparrows.  Only a single individual of each of the following species were found: wood duck, ring-necked duck, merlin, northern saw-whet owl (heard), northern shrike, and golden-crowned kinglet.

If you participated in or wish you could have participated in the Newburg Christmas Bird Count you may enjoy Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count being held February 12 – 15, 2016. Visit their website at birdcount.org for more information.  Then continue counting during Wisconsin’s second Breeding Bird Atlas by reporting breeding bird activities near you.  Details can be found at WSObirds.org/atlas.

Thanks to all those who participated in our annual count and start recruiting your friends to help you in the 2016 count.

Happy Birding!

Bug Lady Blog – Shadow Darner

Salutations, BugFans,


What better way to end the old year than with a spectacular dragonfly (charismatic megafauna), and many thanks to BugFan Freda, guest photographer.


The BugLady is yearning for a Shadow darner.  The books say they’re “common,” and other people are up to their ankles in them, but not the BugLady, although she scared up some big, dark darners in early fall that didn’t stick around to have their pictures taken.  She has read that Shadow darners may collect in small groups on tree trunks, but really, one would be enough.


Darners are large dragonflies in the family Aeschnidae.  They’re big-eyed and powerful dragonflies that are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different), and the females of many species are called polymorphic (“many forms,” because they come in several different color phases).  Mosaic darners (genus Aeshna) get their names from the blue “mosaic” patches on the abdomens of the males.  Caveat – if you’re using a camera instead of a hand lens to identify some of the mosaic darners, the ID is a “probably.”

Darner Shadow male FvdB 3





Shadow darners (Aeshna umbrosa) live throughout most of North America (except the very southern edges of the US and a few Rocky Mountain states), and their range stretches well north into the boreal forests of Canada.  They’re found in a variety of wetlands, from the still waters of bogs, pools, and ditches, to slow streams.  There is an eastern subspecies (Aeshna umbrosa umbrosa) and a western one (A. umbrosa occidentalis), with slight differences in coloration (the former has small, green abdominal spots and the latter has blue ones).  See an awesome comparison of the subspecies, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/gyr/sets/72157614135970414?view=sm.


Overall, this is a large, brown dragonfly (some sources refer to it as “dull”) that’s around 3” long with a wingspread close to 4.”  The all-important lateral thoracic stripes are straight and generally pale, and an Ohio DNR wildlife website says that “the green mark on fore part of thorax often resembles the Nike ‘swoosh.’”  The face is pale and lacks a conspicuous black stripe across it (males may show a hairline stripe), and the male’s cerci, described as “wedge-shaped” by some references and “paddle-shaped” by others, are spine-tipped.  Females’ wings may be brown-tinted.  Some sources say that the thoracic stripes are outlined in black – not an “in flight” field mark (but see link, above).


As their name suggests, Shadow darners spend most of their lives in shady woods and edges, and they may fly until it’s too dark to see them (though they’re more likely to be active during the daylight when the cooler weather of fall sets in).  Shadow darners are associated with the tail end of the dragonfly season; almost three-quarters of Wisconsin sightings are in August and September, but there are May records and they are seen well into October.


What do bumblebees and Shadow darners have in common?  They push the limits of cold-bloodedness, remaining active in very cool temperatures, when other dragonflies are grounded.  Odonates use a variety of strategies to regulate their body temperature – passively, by basking to collect heat or assuming the obelisk position to avoid it; and actively, by contracting the wing muscles/quivering their wings while perched (“wing whirring”), to warm up the flight muscles (and therefore the thorax), and also by slowing circulation to the abdomen in order to keep heat in the thorax instead of sending it to the abdomen, where the larger surface area allows cooling).  Their colors may darken in cold weather, and dark colors absorb more radiation from the sun.  An overheated Shadow darner may immerse its abdomen in water (“water dipping”).


Shadow darners are agile and active flyers, scooping small, soft-bodied insects (and the occasional fellow-Odonate) out of the air into legs arranged like a basket, discarding the wings, and feeding in flight.  One source said that they consume as much as 20% of their bodily weight daily.  They sometimes form feeding swarms or join other darners in mixed swarms.  They are, in turn, fed upon by raptors, especially the smaller falcons, and by purple martins.  Ovipositing females may fall prey to frogs (one well-annotated source added predation on females by salamanders/newts, which raised the BugLady’s eyebrows.  She consulted her herp guy, and he couldn’t picture a salamander taking on a large darner, either – a salamander lucky enough to grab a dragonfly doesn’t have the equipment to process it into smaller pieces (and many salamanders are in the 3” to 4” size range, themselves) (thanks, BugFan Tom).  Naiads, like their elders, are unapologetic carnivores, feeding underwater on any aquatic invertebrate (or small tadpole, larval salamander or fish) that they can wrap their labium around, and being fed on by a variety of parasites (therefore, warns one site, do not eat dragonflies!) and by fish and birds.


There’s not much of a courtship, and even less of a honeymoon.  Females mate with the owner of the territory they enter (or they don’t, arching their body in the opposite direction to show lack of interest).  He takes her to a promising spot, they separate and she oviposits alone, while he guards his investment from the air.


Paulson, in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, describes the Shadow darner’s strenuous reproductive activity.  “Males fly beats up and down streams and along lake shores, with much hovering while facing the shore, even as long as 30 sec in one spot.  …..May patrol and defend entire small pond, usually for a period of less than 1 hour, and typically move from one patrol area to another, often at different water bodies.  …Females oviposit on logs and twigs in water or on moist tree trunks or earth banks, sometimes well above water and even in rather dry situations.  Less likely to use living plants than most other darners.  Perhaps because of woody oviposition substrates, females much more likely than other mosaic darners to break off cerci as they mature.”  See https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/category/darners/ for a picture of an ovipositing female that didn’t get the “living plants” memo.


In cooler climes, eggs hatch the following spring – and in cooler climes, naiads may overwinter until the year after that, emerging in early summer.


Interesting Shadow darner factoid:  Shadow darner naiads are sometimes introduced into rice fields as a biological control of mosquitos (a task at which their elders excel when both the dragonflies and the mosquitoes emerge from water into adulthood).


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

You covered this boy in mud!

Meet The Staff

We’ve got an awesome crew of individuals at Riveredge working to help bring the great outdoors to families, schools, and neighborhoods, and we want to let you know a little more about them. In this edition of our new feature, Meet The Staff, find out who believes in ghosts, who grew up going to Riveredge, and whose pump up song is the Packer Rock Anthem.

Cassie Bauer
Family and Community Programs Manager

What do you do at Riveredge?  I am an instrument of collaborations, connections, and community engagement. I work to welcome all families from surrounding communities to the wealth of programs at Riveredge. Coordinating seasonal family festivities that are organically awesome (such as Fall Family Festival, Frog Fest, and Handmade for the Holidays) are my forte! I am quick to high five local scout groups for their achievements, create a clamor about a birthday celebration, and extend a hand to other community entities committed to the health, development, and merriment of local families and the environment.

What is your favorite spot at Riveredge? The Milwaukee River is certainly my favorite spot at Riveredge. The hike along the River here is one of my favorite and the river is so dynamic. The river is so peaceful and holds so many opportunities to spend quality time in the wild. It is a great spot to see bald eagles flying over, crayfish scurrying under rocks, and kids cross to Trailblazer Island!

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you? I believe in ghosts. 

What words do you try to live your life by? “We do not inherit the earth from our
ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” – Cree Proverb

Pam Uhlein
Seasonal Naturalist

What do you like most about Riveredge? I grew up going to Riveredge and so I love rediscovering the land which has changed SO much over the years. It’s beauty has matured and deepened tremendously. I also really enjoy getting to know the staff and volunteers — there is such a tangible feeling of community at Riveredge!

What do you like to do outside of work? I grew up in Wisconsin but just moved back after being gone for 20 years. So, I love to explore my new/old state and find beautiful spots where I can hike and explore with my family. I’m also one of those strange people who love winter and SNOW – I especially like to cross country ski and go animal tracking. Also high on the list are trail running, traveling, and cooking yummy meals after all that fun outside.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  Exactly what I am today!

Who’s your favorite Disney character? Ms. Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks — she was one heck of a creative problem solver!

Carly Swatek
Educational Technology and Evaluation Specialist

What do you do at Riveredge? My role at Riveredge is that of a “princess of gadgetry to enhance learning and measure social change”. Like many of the educators at Riveredge, I teach programs to area schools, children, and families, but during the other half of my day, I specialize in experimenting with new technology that will innovate and expand our already-high quality educational programming.

What do you like to do when not at Riveredge? It would be accurate to call me a “horse fanatic.” Outside of work, I have the fortunate privilege to live on a horse farm with my boyfriend and Golden Retriever named Hoover.

What’s a quote you try to live your life by? I heard a quote recently from Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm that resonated with me. He said, “a society is only as healthy as the first ten inches of its topsoil.” There is no better way to link the story of environmentalism and land stewardship than through our stomachs.

What is your go to pump up song? Packer Rock Anthem.

Bug Lady Blog – Winter Crane Fly

Salutations, BugFans,


Mild weather has kept insects flying/crawling late into fall this year (some of those anonymous, tan “winter moths” have been decorating the front porch).  This Winter Crane fly was photographed one balmy evening in the fourth week of November.

cranefly wntr15 3

Winter crane flies (family Trichoceridae), like Phantom crane flies (family Ptychopteridae) are not-too -distantly related to the common (and often much larger) crane flies in the family Tipulidae.  Trichoceridae is a small family with just under 200 species worldwide, and of the 27 or 28 species in North America, all except two or three are in the genus Trichocera (as one source points out, because species IDs depend on hand lenses and tiny legs and wings, bugguide.netdoes not differentiate among species photos within the genus Trichocera).


They are variously called winter gnats, winter midges, and winter crane flies (quick reminder – according to convention, in the names of the true flies (order Diptera) (“two wings”) the word “fly” is a separate word.  Deer fly.  House fly.  In non-Dipteran families, it’s usually part of a compound word – dragonfly, mayfly, dobsonfly, scorpionfly, firefly, etc.).  Though they’re very similar to Tipulids, winter crane flies have ocelli (simple eyes) on the top of the head that monitor light/dark http://fineartamerica.com/featured/winter-crane-fly-matthias-lenke.html, and the pattern of veins in their wings is different.  WCFs are about half-again as large as mosquitoes.


Besides the BugLady’s front porch, WCFs perch inside the mouths of caves, mines, hollow trees, and decaying logs in cool/temperate climates.  Many species of WCFs overwinter as adults in sheltered nooks and crannies and are abroad in the chilly (but not freezing) air of early spring and late fall – even during mid-winter thaws, when they may be seen walking on snow.  Other Trichocerids prefer “normal” insect temperatures.  Males form mating swarms, bobbing up and down a few feet off the ground.  In 1984, scientists Pratt and Pratt reported that “swarms of males are seen dancing in the late afternoon sunlight, sometimes thousands of individuals in hundreds of swarms over many acres of lawns and open woodlands.”  Females fly less, but they will join the dance to find a mate before returning to the ground to lay eggs.


While the larvae of many Tipulid crane flies are aquatic, winter crane fly larvae (maggots) are generally found in damp-ish situations with organic decay – under leaf litter, in fungi, caves, manure, rodent burrows, and sometimes in stored root vegetables.  There, they scavenge on rotting plant matter and sometimes on animal material like dung and carrion (the BugLady found a couple of “teasers” about Trichocerid larvae being used in forensic investigations but could discover no details).  The larvae pupate in the ground and, according to http://somethingscrawlinginmyhair.com/2013/10/23/winter-crane-flies/, the pupa moves to the surface before the adult emerges (yes, some “rigid” some pupal cases are mobile – see https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/pupalcases.cfm).

cranefly wntr15 2rz

Adults are said by most sources to eat nothing (there’s precious little fly food available during their flight periods), but they’ve been collected at molasses traps, which suggests otherwise.  They provide a nice (little) morsel of protein for birds in winter, and the BugLady found a nifty paper about the importance of WCFs and Tipulid crane flies in the winter diet of horseshoe bats in Great Britain.


An odd lifestyle – trading the joys of eating for the joys of a relatively short, potentially predator-free life in the cold, but it’s worked for WCFs for about 180 million years (see pictures of some fossil WCFs at http://sciencythoughts.blogspot.com/2014/06/winter-crane-flies-from-middle-jurassic.html).


And a Scanning Electronic Microscope (SEM) image at: http://images.sciencesource.com/preview/15531503/JA5576.html


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

You are rockstars.


Riveredge had a big goal this #GivingTuesday to help fund some big plans to expand our natural playground, buy a new fleet of kayaks to get folks out on the water, sustain our sturgeon reintroduction project, and continue putting a Scientist in Residence in the West Bend School District focused on expanding outdoor learning for students.

We had a big goal. And the Riveredge community came through BIG. We met our goal thanks to contributions from a huge range of people- including many new donors to Riveredge.

You helped prove what nature has long shown us- when individuals work together, incredible things can happen. 

Thanks to you the movement to bring the great outdoors to families, schools, and neighborhoods continues strong. You are rockstars! 

Bug Lady Blog – Headless Moths II

Howdy, BugFans,


“Headless” moth #2 is a Yellow-necked caterpillar moth (probably – Datana moths and their caterpillars can be tricky to ID) that arrived on the BugLady’s porch the night after Headless moth #1, the Cattail borer, of recent BOTW fame.  Yellow-necked caterpillar moths, A.K.A. Yellow-necked Datana moths, and Yellow-necked apple worms are in the Prominent family (Notodontidae).  YNCMs (Datana ministra), whose range is described as “discontinuous” (http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=7902) are found from central California to British Columbia to Nova Scotia and south, and are very much at home in Eastern woodlands.

datana ministra15 1

There are 13 species of Datanas in North America; some are associated with specific host plants like nut trees, sumacs, or azaleas, but the YNC is more of a generalist feeder (adults probably don’t eat).  Its menu includes basswood, apple, oak, birch, willow, elm, blueberry, and others, though some sources say that YNCs are more of a problem in tree nurseries and on ornamental plantings than in forests.


Eggs are laid in clumps of 50 to 300 on the undersides of leaves of their host plants in mid-summer.  Caterpillars feed together – young caterpillars concentrating on the softer tissue of a leaf’s surface and skeletonizing the leaves; older caterpillars consuming the whole leaf, sometimes even the tough petiole (leaf stalk).  The caterpillars feed on the outer ends of branches, causing some defoliation, and when they’re done with one branch, they move en masse to the next http://www.carolinanature.com/moths/datanaministra.html.  In fall, larvae pupate a few inches into the soil below their host tree, and adults emerge in early summer.  There’s a single generation a year here in God’s Country, and two in the South.

datana species10 1

They’re alarming and not usually lethal, but not everyone is alarmed – the author of a blog called 1003gardensblogspot celebrates them: “I love the “gregarious” caterpillars. They’re like a school of fish; they move together. You can conduct them by moving your hand back and forth where they can see it. They shift in unison as though they were watching a tennis match.”


A few bird species eat the larvae (most birds avoid the really fuzzy caterpillars) and they have some insect predators and parasites.  Wagner, in Caterpillars of Eastern North America, writes that “Throughout the Northeast, this species and other Datanas appear to be declining.  Compsilura, a tachinid [fly] parasitoid introduced from Europe to control the Gypsy Moth, may be a factor in its demise.  Over a ten-day period Compsilura attacked 79% of the fourth and fifth instar larvae that Dylan Perry had set out in Massachusetts woodlands.”


Alarmed YNCs respond both behaviorally and chemically.  The picture of the Datana caterpillar attached today is not a YNCM, but it’s a pretty typical Datana in a pretty typical Datana “alarm” posture.  They hang on with their middle prolegs and raise their head and foot ends, which surprises a potential predator and changes the outline of its target – and exposes the openings of some glands at the front of the thorax.  YNCs, it turns out, have “repugnatorial glands,” and researchers who poke at them report that “moisture” is released that is both pungent and acidic.  Scientists aren’t sure whether the chemicals serve to protect the YNCs or are a dispersal pheromone that serves to encourage some distance between individual YNCs and reduce crowding.  Interestingly, the chemicals deployed by the YNC are among those used in the creation of perfumes (no, YNCs are not “milked” for the fluid – there are alternate sources).


This second Headless Moth necessitates another in the “Who was that guy??” series.  The YNCM was named by Dru Drury in 1773.  Drury (b. 1725 – d. 1803) spent 40 years in the family silversmith business, and after his retirement in 1789 he pursued his hobbies – which also included gardening, wine-making, and fishing – full time.  Although he was an amateur entomologist, he knew, corresponded with, and was respected by the important scientists of his time, several of whom named insect species after him.  Drury was one of the first to apply Linnaeus’ new system of taxonomy called binomial nomenclature in his writings.  Biographer T. D. A. Cockerell describes a perfect storm – Linnaeus’ reorganization of plant and animal taxonomy, the mushrooming British global exploration, and Drury’s passion for the natural world – “Living in the time of Linnaeus, when the discovery and description of new forms of life was rapidly increasing the bounds of zoology and botany, he entered fully into the spirit of the new knowledge and contributed largely to it.”  Cockerell continues “Regarding Drury’s life and work as a whole, we have an excellent example of that innate taste or passion for natural history which inspires a certain number of individuals in every generation and which the majority can neither appreciate nor understand.”  (Howard Gardner would describe the Naturalist Intelligence 200 years later.)


He amassed an insect collection of more than 11,000 specimens that was considered one of the most extensive and best-kept in England, and possibly the Continent; according to a circular written by Drury about his collection in 1788, “of considerable value; many [specimens] of which, coming from countries exceedingly unhealthy, where the collectors, in procuring them, have perished by the severity of the climate, give but little room to expect any duplicate will ever be obtained during the present age.”  He was an active collector, and he maintained a network of sea captains, missionaries, and travelers who sent insects back to him from all corners of the globe (he paid a flat fee per bug, whether large or small).  Despite the fact that he flirted with bankruptcy several times during his life, he encouraged and financially supported a number collectors around the world.


Between 1770 and 1787, Drury wrote and published the massive, three-volume Illustrations of Natural History, wherein are exhibited upwards of 240 figures of Exotic Insects, which was posthumously revised and republished asIllustrations of Exotic Entomology.  Hundreds of hand-colored, copperplate illustrations were executed by engraver Moses Harris (“likewise a man of original observation and warmly attached to the study of insects.” said a reviewer of the day); Harris was himself the author of several books about insects.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Harris#/media/File:Two_dragonflies_(Libellul%C3%A6_species);_adults_and_larva._Colou_Wellcome_V0022479EL.jpg.  Of the illustrations, Drury wrote that “the utmost care and nicety has been observed, both in the outlines, and engraving. Nothing is strained, or carried beyond the bounds nature has set.”


Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug Lady Blog: Headless Moths I – the Cattail Borer

Salutations, BugFans,


This Cattail Borer moth showed up in mid-June, another species for the BugLady’s porch light list.  It’s a handsome moth, and another example of a moth that would be hard to identify in a moth book (like the BugLady’s venerable Moth Book, by Holland) that only shows moths with their wings spread open.  Attitude is everything.


Cattail Borer Moths (Bellura obliqua) are in the Owlet moth family Noctuidae.  There are a half-dozen or so species in the genus Bellura in eastern North America, and according to the Peterson moth guide, they might represent a “species complex,” a continuum of very closely-related, yet distinct, species that differ little in appearance or genetically.  Some members of a species complex may be similar enough that they can hybridize, and the fluidity of relationships within a species complex is thought to be an example of speciation – the development of new species – in action.  Not surprisingly, one source said the genus is “in need of revision.”


They’re in the tribe Azamini, which are called “Divers” because their “semiaquatic” larvae http://bugguide.net/node/view/100959/bgimage feed on/in leaves and stems of emergent aquatic plants like cattails, arrowhead, pickerelweed, water hyacinth, bur reeds, water lilies, and even skunk cabbage (the BugLady is always surprised to hear “semiaquatic” in the same sentence as “Lepidoptera”).  They bore in and create galleries in submerged portions of stems, and they also feed on leaves.  One source said that under the right circumstances, the cattail borer could be cannibalistic, and despite their concealment, a few parasites are able to find them.


Larvae are frequently found with their heads in the water, breathing through modified spiracles (breathing pores).  According to Ellen Robertson-Miller’s paper called “Observations on the Bellura” (1922), “A kind of turret – the frass of the larva – about the opening in the leaf usually indicted that a Bellura was living below;…..I removed and examined one of the caterpillars…..The dorsal half of the twelfth segment seemed to have been sliced away, leaving exposed a posterior area on the eleventh segment, where the caudal spiracles, transposed from their normal side position, were located.  These were larger than the other spiracles.  This specialized breathing mechanism for Bellura caterpillars may have required long years in its perfecting, but how clever it is!  A larva can stay concealed all day in the stem of its water plant, just backing to its entrance when its air reservoirs need refilling, or it can remain submerged for hours…”


Ms. Cattail Borer lays her eggs in a frothy/silken/hairy mass within about 12” of the tip of a cattail leaf – Robertson-Miller likens the egg case to a spider egg sac.  The larvae hatch and feed on the chlorophyll-bearing tissues of the leaf, then bore downward into it as far as two feet.  They eventually exit by chewing a hole in the leaf, and then they enter the stem.  When they’re ready to pupate, they emerge from their plant stem (often below the water’s surface), pop up to the surface, and swim for shore by undulating their abdomens.  Robertson-Miller observed “because of the ease with which these Bellura swam through the water, I thought they might pupate on shore in the ground,” and when she supplied them with cans of soil, they did (in nature, they crawl under leaves, soil, bark, debris, or rotting wood).


The cattail borer may or may not be a pest, depending on whether you’re trying to grow cattails or trying to get rid of them.  In the mid-1980’s, Minnesota was testing cattails as a potential plant to cultivate as a biofuel.  One study found that the Cattail borer can reduce cattail productivity because the plants put lots of energy into replacing damaged leaves at the expense of extending the rhizomes, but another concluded that there was little impact from cattail borer grazing.


Cattail borer larvae were among a number of larvae tested for winter hardiness by James S. Hine, who reported on his research in The Ohio Naturalist in 1908.  Overwintering larvae were collected from stems of cattails during the frigid winter of 1893.  They were exposed to overnight temperatures of -2 to –17 degrees Fahrenheit – some in jars of water, and others unprotected, and they were subjected to repeated thawing and refreezing.  “None of the specimens snowed signs of injury from the treatment,” wrote Mr. Hine. “Larvae collected just after daylight on January 20, when the thermometer registered —15 could be snapped in two almost like icicles and crystals of ice were observed within their body cavities. Some of these pieces were alive when thawed out at the end of a week.”  He quotes a paper by P. Bachmetjew in “Zeitschrift fur wissenschaftliche Zoologie” in 1899: “The thawing out of insects after their body fluids have been frozen has no noticeable influence upon their return to life, but only upon the intensity of their vitality.”


As mammologist William Hamilton at Cornell used to say, you don’t have to go to exotic lands to study animals, there’s plenty to discover in your own back yard.  Check out “The Backyard Arthropod Project,” http://somethingscrawlinginmyhair.com/2013/03/09/cattail-borer/ whose author’s mission is to “document every arthropod that I can find on our property – about 9 acres on the north slope of Old Mill Hill in the Keeweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan” (a man after the BugLady’s own heart).  He figures he has decades of material in his back yard.


The Cattail Borer’s full appellation is Bellura obliqua (Walker, 1865).  The BugLady was curious about the scientist who described and named this moth, so here is the third in the occasional sidebar series “Who Were Those Guys??”


Francis Walker (1809 – 1874) is a terrific example of how things can go south, professionally.  Born into a wealthy British family, he was blessed with an early and avid interest in Natural History.  He loved to travel, especially in the mountains, was an inveterate collector, and he contributed many specimens to the prestigious museums of his time.  He was a member of the Entomological Society of London, which was founded in 1833 to be a meeting of “gentlemen and friends of entomological science,” and which admitted women as equal members.


In 1837, Walker was hired by the British Museum to catalog its insect collection, a job he held for the next 25 years.  He was a prolific worker who published more than 300 scientific papers, notes, and catalogs.  The volume of his work was immense, and his literature research was thorough.


So, what was the problem?  During his employment as curator at the Museum, Walker described some 46,000 insects, 10,000 of which were new.  With numbers like that, his work was, inevitably, superficial.  In an era where the rules of taxonomy were not yet firmly set, many of his peers felt that his science was “iffy,” and that he chronically described, named, re-described, and renamed the same species and variants of the same species (although the rumor that he was being paid a shilling per new species and a pound per new genus was not true).  For example, of the 222 new members he added to the Cicada family, only 138 are considered kosher today.  Biographers can’t say why he was singled out for criticism, when others’ methods were similar, but he presented an enormous target.


The author of an anonymous obituary published in the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine in 1874 wrote, “More than twenty years too late for his scientific reputation, and after having done an amount of injury almost inconceivable in its immensity, Francis Walker has passed from among us.”  Ouch!


Criticisms that began during his lifetime turned into a feeding frenzy after his death.

  • This kind of work needs no comment—it sufficiently condemns itself.” (Butler, 1894)
  • In 1894, the practice of assigning many names to a single species was called Walkerism.
  • Walker described the specimen, and not the species, the characters of which he was generally incapable of grasping,” (Austen, 1907).
  • To one who has examined Walkers types, it will be a surprise that so great a degree of accuracy has been obtained, for many of the typical specimens in the British Museum, described by Walker, are so badly denuded that they ought never to have been described at all” (Fernald, 1881).

The vitriol was not universal – Walker had his apologists, and even some colleagues who condemned him professionally appreciated his kindness and generosity.

  • He was one of the quietist and gentlest of men; his sensitive nature was much pained by some of the harsh criticisms that were passed upon his work.  His mistake was in attempting too much.  Had he confined himself to the Diptera, his reputation would probably never have been impaired.” (Smith, 1891).
  • Even those who felt most keenly the disrepute into which he brought the entomological section of our great Natural History Museum, will miss with regret his courteous salutation and simplicity of manner.” (Anonymous, 1874).
  • His friend Edward Newman wrote posthumously that “Throughout my long life I have never met with anyone who possessed more correct, more diversified, or more general information, or who imparted that information to others with more readiness or kindness; I have never met with anyone more unassuming, more utterly unselfish, more uniformly kind and considerate to all with whom he came in contact.”

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives: