Bug o’the Week – Red-cross shield bug

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady found this beautiful, rosy Red-cross shield bug while she was wandering around at the north end of the Bog on a fine day in May.  Once upon a time, she would have been correct if she had called this a stink bug.  Stink bugs are in the family Pentatomidae, a large bunch (5,000 species worldwide) of true bugs that defend themselves, as both nymphs and adults, by producing and deploying a smelly liquid from glands in their thorax (the “penta” refers to the five segments in their antennae).  They have a conspicuous “scutellum,” that triangular-to-oblong bit of the thorax that extends back over the abdomen; their lower legs (tarsi) usually have three segments; and they have piercing/drinking straw mouthparts for sucking plant juices.

Here are some common species of Wisconsin stink bugs:

the green stink bug https://bugguide.net/node/view/1330776/bgimage;

the brown stink bug https://bugguide.net/node/view/228181/bgimage;

and a Rough stink bug https://bugguide.net/node/view/1430154/bgimage;

(and some spectacular Southern stinkbugs – https://bugguide.net/node/view/158742/bgpagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/837817/bgpage, and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1329274/bgimage).

Because of the shape of the adults, Pentatomids have also been called shield bugs, but these days, that name is more properly attached to the family Acanthosomatidae, a group that, you guessed it, was moved out of Pentatomidae and elevated to family level.

Acanthosomatidae is a small family (only six of the 180 species live in North America) that favors northern/temperate climes (and in the south, higher elevations).  Their shape is oval, their scutellum moderate, and while their antennae have five segments, their tarsi have only two.  They also have piercing mouthparts https://bugguide.net/node/view/296169/bgimage, and they can also make a stink, though the operative glands are on the abdomen.  Shield bugs have carved out a feeding niche for themselves – unlike their stink bug brethren, most of which (except the predaceous species) feed on juices of herbaceous plants, they’re found on woody plants.

Their family name comes from Greek words acanthos for “spine/thorn” and soma for “body,” which refers to a forward-pointing spine on the underside of the abdomen.  The BugLady couldn’t find a super picture of it, but she thinks you can see it right smack in the middle of this bug https://bugguide.net/node/view/643681/bgimage, near the dark tip of the mouthparts.

Another common name for the Acanthosomatidae is “Parent bugs.”

Parental care is uncommon in insects, whose usual approach to ovipositing is “lay ‘em and leave ‘em.”  Although there are instances of paternal care, most is maternal (isn’t it cool that paternal and parental have the same letters in them?).  Some species of Parent bugs protect both their eggs and the early nymphal instars from predators and parasites, which really boosts survival rates https://bugguide.net/node/view/118724.

If it’s such a good idea, why doesn’t everybody do it?  Not all family members provide hands-on care, but their eggs are not without resources – before they depart, females smear the egg surface with a substance that repels potential marauders.  The goo is created in paired, abdominal organs called Pendergrast’s organs (your esoterica for the day), and the female spreads it on the eggs with her hind legs.  Hanging around and protecting offspring can be costly physically, but producing the protective egg coating is costly, physiologically.  Research by Tsai, Kudo and Yoshizawa demonstrates that the bugs don’t do both, and that Pendergrast’s organs are reduced or absent in species that practice maternal care (which is interesting because some scientists have suggested that the organs also produce pheromones that are part of the courtship).

The BugLady couldn’t find a lot of life history information about the Red-cross shield bug (Elasmostethus cruciatus) (cruciatus means “crossed” and refers to dorsal markings).  They’re found across the continent as far south as northern Georgia and far north into Canada, but uncommonly on the Great Plains.  Their host plants are alder, with maybe some birch thrown in.

Elasmostethus genus members do not provide maternal care for their young.  Based on biographies of other genus members, the RCSB does not put all of her eggs in one basket; she lays lots of small batches of eggs (predators may find some, but not all), and she places them near the developing fruits of alders (a European member of the genus sometimes cannibalizes the eggs of her sisters).  A group of newly-hatched nymphs will hang around their empty eggs until their first molt, and then they start puncturing the fruits.  Here’s a nice collection of pictures http://somethingscrawlinginmyhair.com/2015/03/28/red-cross-shield-bug/.

The Red-cross shield bug that the BugLady spied in May was nearing the end of its life cycle.  They overwinter as adults in sheltered spots, and procreate and die when the warm spring air wakes the plants.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Riveredge Re-Member December Promotion!

Get outdoors and explore during this winter and beyond with a membership to Riveredge Nature Center! Enjoy 10 miles of trails on 379 acres of gorgeous wild habitat to explore any day you wish all year round. Additionally, Riveredge members receive discounts on programs, early registration for Summer Camp, access to member-only events, and more.

Become a Riveredge Nature Center member (or renew your current membership) by the end of the year and * BONUS * keep warm while exploring all winter long with your choice of a FREE Riveredge stocking cap or neck gaiter! Additionally, anyone who purchases an All Access Riveredge membership will receive a $10 coupon toward purchases of $25 or more in the Riveredge Nature Store! Happy Holidays indeed!

If you’d like to ensure that you receive your Riveredge swag by Christmas, please join by December 15th to allow time for processing and shipping.

Giving Tuesday Update: THANK YOU Riveredge Community!

Dear Riveredge Community,


Wow. I have to tell you, this morning I feel a combination of gratitude and astonishment that is hard to put into words.

For Giving Tuesday, we created an initial goal of fundraising $5,000. Then based on your commitment, your leadership, we felt emboldened to double that goal to $10,000. Well…you completely surpassed that benchmark, and you’ve successfully tripled the Riveredge Giving Tuesday fundraising goal and reached a grand total of MORE THAN $15,000! 

This year has been a challenge for Riveredge, just as it has been for everyone. I can’t tell you how much this means to the Riveredge staff to have you in our corner. We’re so excited to begin maximizing these funds to improve our programs and experiences for students and families, and to increase our efforts to restore the land.

Just as we’ve welcomed families to learn and explore across these trails, invited school field trip groups and homeschoolers to embrace this outdoor learning laboratory, and empowered local educators through our Scientist in Residence program – you’ve responded with that same commitment to community.

THANK YOU for being a part of Riveredge, and for supporting the growth that radiates from this vital 379-acre community asset. When it matters most, you’ve come together and offered more support than we even imagined.

From all of us at Riveredge, a heartfelt THANK YOU!

Keep Smiling and Get Outside!


Jessica Jens
Riveredge Executive Director

Bug o’the Week – Bugs in the News IX

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady’s file of insect-related media stories runneth over, and it’s time to share.  Here’s a potpourri of items on invasive insect species, insect behavior, spectacular insects, and on people discovering new things about insects.  Enjoy (fingers crossed that NatGeo and the New York Times aren’t feeling too proprietary).

Six years ago, the BugLady wrote about the (slowly) growing interest in eating insects (https://uwm.edu/field-station/entomophagy/).  What’s sauce for the goose is apparently sauce for the family pet:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/fido-how-about-some-fly-larvae-dinner-180976270/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20201112-daily-responsive&spMailingID=43896066&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1881004916&spReportId=MTg4MTAwNDkxNgS2.

What do Monarch caterpillars do when food gets scarce?  They get feisty, that’s what.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/monarch-caterpillars-butt-heads-over-milkweed-180976405/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20201125-daily-responsive&spMailingID=43984386&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1882182288&spReportId=MTg4MjE4MjI4OAS2.

In 2011, the BugLady included the alien and invasive (remember – some species are both, but those terms are not synonyms) Brown marmorated stink bug in a Stink bug overview (https://uwm.edu/field-station/stink-bugs-revisited/) and she plans to revisit it someday.  Meanwhile, here’s a story of a potential biological control.  https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/scientists-spent-years-plan-import-wasp-kill-stinkbugs-then-it-showed-its-own.

Another invasive, the newly-arrived (2014) Spotted lanternfly, is poised to do a lot of damage in North America.  While it may look like a butterfly https://bugguide.net/node/view/1916873/bgimage, the Spotted Lanternfly is an actual “bug,” – a planthopper https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-is-the-spotted-lanternfly-180975778/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200922-daily-responsive&spMailingID=43523226&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1841889851&spReportId=MTg0MTg4OTg1MQS2.

Would a “Bugs in the News” episode be complete without the Murder Hornet?  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-live-murder-hornet-captured-us-180975987/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20201005-daily-responsive&spMailingID=43617656&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1860410574&spReportId=MTg2MDQxMDU3NAS2.

Beautiful!!!! https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/worlds-most-interesting-insects-180974748/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200429-daily-responsive&spMailingID=42388948&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=1743054653&spReportId=MTc0MzA1NDY1MwS2.

Plus a great story about Leaf/stick insects – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/01/science/leaf-stick-insects-phyllium-asekiense.html?campaign_id=61&emc=edit_ts_20201201&instance_id=24610&nl=the-great-read&regi_id=106911568&segment_id=45778&te=1&user_id=48ae4cbec4a693ab58f7a257b0a261ad.

And finally – this is one of the BEST VIDEOS EVER – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/ghost-orchids-florida-surprising-pollinators-moths/.

Stay healthy,

The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Square-headed wasp

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady is living proof that there’s a big difference between looking and seeing.  For years, she’s been photographing these little black and yellow wasps and filing them under “Potter wasps,” but she had an “Oh Duh” moment this summer, and yeah, yeah – she sees it now.  As Henry David Thoreau once said, “We must look a long time before we can see.”

So – not potter wasps https://bugguide.net/node/view/1906174/bgimage – these are Square-headed wasps in the family Crabronidae.  Members of the family were formerly placed in the Thread-waisted wasp family Sphecidae, a family that includes some conspicuous beauties like the Blue mud dauber, the Black and yellow mud dauber, the Great golden digger wasp, and the Great black wasp, but now they’re viewed as a separate family.  Stand by for further taxonomic tweaking.

We have visited the Crabronidae before, in the form of the organ-pipe mud daubers (https://uwm.edu/field-station/organ-pipe-mud-dauber/) and the sand wasps (https://uwm.edu/field-station/sand-wasps/).  It’s a large and diverse bunch, with about 9,000 species worldwide (1,225 in North America).

The name “Square-headed wasps” only applies to species in the subfamily Crabroninae, which has 4,700 species (520 here) – a number of sources call them digger wasps.

Square-headed wasps are solitary wasps that use their impressive jaws (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1684606/bgimage) to make nests in the ground, in hollow stems, in the pith of broken stems, and in old galleries (tunnels) chewed in wood by beetle larvae.

Solitary wasps typically create an egg chamber and stuff killed/stunned/bitten/stung spiders and/or small insects into it (scroll down to the fly-stuffed stem https://prairieecologist.com/tag/ectemnius/).  Here’s a Square-headed wasp with a crane fly https://bugguide.net/node/view/110413/bgimage.  Mom lays an egg on one of the bodies, closes the chamber up, and moves on.  The carnivorous larva hatches out into its own personal pantry stocked with enough food to get it to the pupal stage.  Some species of Crabronids, like the sand wasp above, do what’s called “progressive provisioning” – instead of providing a cache, the female sticks around her egg tunnels and brings food to her developing young – but Square-headed wasps seem to use the standard method.  Many Square-headed wasps are very specific about the kinds of insects they pursue.  Adults feed on nectar.

The first question (but never the last, of course) is “which Square-headed wasp is this?” Alas, the BugLady can’t provide a definitive answer.  She thinks she’s photographed several species, and she’s been squinting at pictures until she’s cross-eyed, and she’s guessing that her wasps are either in the genus Lestica https://bugguide.net/node/view/624516/bgimage (three species in North America) or Ectimnius https://bugguide.net/node/view/1406440 (27 species), or Crossocerus https://bugguide.net/node/view/214928/bgimage the Equilateral Square-headed Wasps (!) (40 species in North America but only a few have yellow markings on the abdomen).  They are differentiated by field marks like the sharpness of the longitudinal grooves along the inner eye margin.  BugFans are always welcome to weigh in.

Their MO’s are similar, differing slightly in the medium they pick for their egg chambers and the type of insect they hunt in behalf of their young.

The BugLady gives Thanks for the six-legged and the eight-legged and the no-legged.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Riveredge Nature Center and MMSD Help Protect 287-acre Saukville property with Conservation Easement

Riveredge Nature Center and MMSD Help Protect 287-acre Saukville property with Conservation Easement.

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