What’s Blooming This Week?

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

New England Aster (photo by M.Zopp)

New England Aster (photo by M.Zopp)

New England aster is native to almost every area in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, but excluding the some of the southern United States. The plant grows up to 120 cm (47 inches) with a stout, hairy stem and lance-shaped leaves with entire margins. The flower heads are showy with yellow centers and flower petals that range from a deep purple or rose to rarely white. This species inhabits a wide variety of habitats and soil types, preferring full or partial sun over shade, and moist to average conditions. This plant can become stressed out by hot dry weather, often dropping its lower leaves in response, while the remaining leaves may turn yellow or brown

 

Indian Pipe(Monotropa uniflora)

Indian Pipe (photo by M.Zopp)

Indian Pipe (photo by M.Zopp)

 Indian pipe, also known as Corpse Plant or Ghost Plant, is one of the easiest plants to recognize. Unlike most plants, Indian Pipe doesn’t

have chlorophyll, the stuff that makes plants green. Indian pipe is waxy, whitish color turning black as it ages and only grows 4-10 inches tall.  This plant can typically be found from June to September growing in shady woods in areas near dead tree stumps and decaying plant matter. Due to the lack of chlorophyll, this plant parasitizes fungus growing on decaying material (or trees) to acquire its energy.

 

Beechdrops (Epifagus americana)

Beech Drops (photo by M.Zopp)

Beechdrops (photo by M.Zopp)

Beechdrops are parasitic plants on beech trees. Due to the lack of chlorophyll in this plant, it finds it’s nutrients not from photosynthesis but from the roots of beech trees. The plant grows 6-20 inches and produces very small reddish brown flowers.  Bloom time for beech drops is from August to October. Beechdrops look like the dying stems of some small forest herb and are easily overlooked – especially since they only appear aboveground to flower for a few weeks in the fall.

 

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Indian Grass (photo by M.Zopp)

Indian Grass            (photo by M.Zopp)

Indian grass is one of the beautiful, and often dominant, autumn grasses often seen prairie ecosystems.   This native perennial grass grows 3-7 ft. tall and displays a reddish-golden brown color.  The blooming period occurs during late summer to early fall.  Several species of grasshoppers feed on the foliage of Indian grass; these grasshoppers are an important source of food to many songbirds and upland game birds.

Bug o’ the Week – Snipe Fly

Howdy, BugFans,

 

Flies (which we tend to view as mangled objects at the business end of a flyswatter) belong to the large order, Diptera (“two wings”) – 100,000-plus species have been described and probably another 100,000-plus species are waiting in line for scientific attention (one out of every ten animals is a fly) (and one in every five living things is a beetle).  Members of the order are remarkably diverse (and isn’t the Class Insecta a grand study in variations on the theme of three body parts, six legs, and maybe some wings!).  Flies come in all colors, with a variety of body shapes and leg lengths, and some have astonishing eyes, but the word “beautiful” is seldom applied to them.  Except in early summer when the Gold/golden-backed snipe flies are in flight.

 

It is thought that snipe flies (family Rhagionidae) got their name from some imaginative entomologist who believed that the rather prominent proboscis that adorns some species looked like the bill of an avian snipe (and for BugFans who once endured some hazing in the classic form of a “snipe hunt,” there are, indeed, avian snipes).  SFs tend to be found on vegetation in damp, shady places, where they often perch head down; they’re slow flyers that happily dart off on foot when alarmed.

 

Adult SFs are long-legged with a round head and a tapering abdomen, and many are patterned.  They have piercing mouthparts that they may use to prey on other insects (mainly smaller flies) or to grab a blood meal from a variety of vertebrates.  Members of one SF genus (Symphoromyia) are merciless pests of bison in summer, when the bison are vulnerable because they’ve shed their thick coats.  In the West and in parts of the eastern US, females of some species bite humans.  The BugLady inhabits snipe fly habitats regularly and has never seen one on her skin.

 

The larvae (maggots) of some species of SFs are aquatic, but most others can be found in moist soil or moss or decaying logs.  They are carnivores, and in aid of that, the larvae of some western SFs do an “ant-lion” thing (and so are called “worm-lions”) – digging cone-shaped pits in slippery sand/dust and then lurking at the bottom, waiting for insects to drop in for supper.  In the “Man bites Dog” category, snipe fly egg masses were, according to one source, collected, cooked and eaten by some Native Americans.  

 

GOLD(EN)-BACKED SNIPE FLIES (Chrysopilus thoracicus) (Chrysopilus means “golden hair” and thoracicus refers to the thorax) ply the tall grasses, sedges and thickets around wetlands east of the Great Plains.  Look down – the BugLady rarely sees them higher than two feet off the ground.  With their striking gold thorax, white chevrons on the abdomen, and smoky, patterned wings, these half-inch flies are an eyeful.  Speaking of eyes, a male SF’s are much larger than the female’s.  There are 30-some members of the genus in North America, and the GBSF is the most dramatically colored.  Some sources consider them to be wasp-mimics, but the BugLady doesn’t see it.

 

GBSFs are predators on aphids and other small insects.  Their eggs are laid in bunches in leaf litter and at the soil surface, and their larvae feed on small invertebrates that they find in moss or decaying wood.

 

Since the GBSF has always been the BugLady’s mental image of “Snipe fly,” it took her a while to realize that the brownish fly with spotted wings was also a snipe fly, the COMMON SNIPE FLY (Rhagio mystaceus) (probably).  Because of their habit of surveying the world while perched head-down. a number of Rhagio snipe flies are called “down-looker flies.”

 

For a fly whose “first name” is “Common,” there’s not a lot of information out there about the CSF.  There are 25 species in the genus in North America.  CSFs seem to follow the general SF game plan; their predatory larvae feed on small invertebrates in moist soil.  Internet hits do include species lists from the United Kingdom.

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Glowworm Beetle

Howdy, BugFans,

 

Mike and Jessica were chasing a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee around the lawn one recent night (they live well beyond the streetlights), when they realized that they weren’t alone.  There were small, luminous spots in the grass that, when they looked closer, turned out to be grub-like insects (good spotting, folks!).  They carefully picked some up, made a terrarium for them, and sent some pictures to the UWM Field Station, accompanied by a gracious invitation to see the “worms” in person.  The BugLady visited; she, Mike, Jessica, bug enthusiast Marie, and another friend admired the beetles; and the BugLady’s camera celebrated the occasion by going into a brief funk.

 

Mike said that he has seen these GLOWWORM BEETLES (most likely Phengodes plumosa, unless they’re Phengodes fusciceps) off and on over the past 20 years or so, but there’s an unusually large crop of them this year.  Many of the grubs have been found under two huge maple trees.  The BugLady hasn’t found anything in her reading to suggest that there’s a specific connection to maples or to the microclimate produced by the dense shade under the trees.  The GwBs’ typical habitat is listed as marshes, lawns and fields, damp soil with some leaf litter, and dirt beneath decaying logs.  They are nocturnal – why produce light if the sun is out?

 

Glowworm Beetles are in the glowworm beetle family Phengodidae, a New World family of about 250 species with representatives living from the southern edge of Canada all the way to Chile.  Most species live south of the Rio Grande.  Other common names include “glow-worms” (a name shared with larval Lightning beetles) and “railroad worms.”  Many species have not been thoroughly studied, Marie, and they are tricky to raise in captivity.  And, their biology and natural history embody lots of good, rich science words.

 

In the “Never-throw-anything-away” category, when the BugLady was looking at some pictures of Phengodid larvae on-line, she realized that she had photographed one in Dallas, in 1976, and that she still has the color slide (as a wise man once said, “You are what you can’t throw away.”).  It looked like this,  http://bugguide.net/node/view/583681/bgimage, but this series of pictures is much better than the BugLady’s.

 

Adult males are smallish, “bug-eyed,” glow-in-the-dark beetles with very short wing covers (elytra) and phenomenal, bipectinate antennae (their fringes have fringes).  http://bugguide.net/node/view/167293/bgimage.  Males sometimes come to lights at night, so the BugLady is checking her porch lights extra carefully.  The larvae look like fairly typical beetle grubs, and the females look like the larvae (a condition known as “larviform,” “neotonous,” or “paedomorphic” – all of which mean that “they retain juvenile features into adulthood”).  Female and larval GwBs sport “lanterns” or luminescent organs.  The individual that the BugLady held was just over an inch long, but the females of some species may be twice that.  Adult females are more likely than larvae to be found at the soil’s surface, and they tend to appear after a rain.

 

Adult females come topside to attract males.  Counter-intuitively, they communicate with males via pheromones (chemical “perfumes”) not light, which explains the male’s lovely, sensory antennae.  Eggs are laid in clusters on the ground, and the female encircles and guards them, glowing the whole time, until her death about a week later.  Eggs may not glow immediately but may become luminescent before hatching (the BugLady is wondering if the egg is glowing or the soon-to-emerge larva).  Larvae are active and eventually pupate in the soil.  Males live only briefly and do not eat, but larvae and adult females are unapologetic carnivores, mainly attacking millipedes (and maybe a few other small invertebrates) (it’s hard to come by a continuous supply of millipedes if you’re trying to raise GwBs).

 

OK – Bioluminescence.

 

Who has it?  Because of their similar approach to luminosity, GwBs were originally thought to be relatives of lightning beetles (Lampyridae), but our ability to do molecular studies has disproved that.  Research suggests that luminescence has been “invented” at least four times during the history of insects.

 

In the GwBs, the male is intentionally luminescent, a la lightning beetles; the larvae and females have paired photic organs on the sides of the segments and bands across the tops of the segments.  Some species have “headlights,” and those headlights may be a different color than the sidelights, but the BugLady can’t tell from her reading if that’s universal, and more work seems to have been done on tropical species than on domestic GwBs.  The side spots resemble the lighted windows of a passenger train, hence the term “railroad worm.”

 

How do GwBs pull it off?  Their light show is produced by a chemical reaction in which an enzyme called luciferase reacts with luciferin and chemical energy is converted to light energy (History Geeks will recall that some of the original friction matches were called “Lucifers”).  Different luciferase sequences produce different color lights (red vs green), and some species of GwBs make both.  Pretty slick.

 

Why do they do make light?  From a book called Volume 2: Morphology and Systematics (Elateroidea, Bostrichiformia, Cucujiformia partim) by Leschen, Beutel and Lawrence (2010) we learn that “The function of bioluminescence in the phengolids is not well understood.  The continuous glow of the head lanterns when the larva is walking suggests an illumination function, whereas the lateral lanterns may serve a defensive function.  A sudden flash might be used to dispel potential predators…… The dorsolateral locations of the lanterns in a walking insect suggests that the light is to be perceived by predators above them.  Aposematism (warning coloration) associated with distasteful properties is also a possible function for the lateral lantern light.”  The BugLady was going to delete the two “not-in-focus” pictures of an escaping GwB included here until she realized that you can see the green side lanterns as the critter heads underground.

 

Can they turn the light off and on?  The probable adult female we handled glowed constantly, and Marie has noticed that larvae at the bottom of the chunk of sod in the clear plastic “cage” glow, too.  Leschen, et al say that “At night, the shining head lantern can frequently pinpoint them, the lateral lanterns remaining dark.  Larvae were also observed with all lanterns switched on, making it easy to detect them at great distances” (easy for them to say – the BugLady turned out not to be a good GwB spotter).  A report on Phengodes fusciceps in the “Notes and News” section of the Entomological News, Volumes 17 – 18 (1906) states that “During the day they remained coiled and inactive; became active at night and intensely luminous; every segment, spiracle and line, apparently, showing a bead of greenish-yellow phosphorescent light.  This luminosity was present in the three specimens in the same degree, but the larger specimen, for five days, showed not a ray of light.  At the end of this period, it again became luminous.  This would indicate the insects controlled the luminosity.”

 

Older BugFans have permission to hum “Glow little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer…

 

To paraphrase the Bard, “O brave new world, That has such insects in’t!”

 

The BugLady

A camping trip without the work!

Family Camping Overnights @ Riveredge!

At Riveredge, we do our best to take the work and barriers out of going outside with your family. Our family overnights are no different – bring a tent and leave the rest to us!

We’ve polled staff members who have led family camping overnights about some of their favorite moments and memories.  Here’s a couple to give you a taste of the fun and good times our families have had…

Meet new friends!

“Last summer two separate families came to the overnight and they didn’t know each other. But as the families started to talk, it turned out they have so much in common. All their children are adopted. The families live very close to each other and their kids will go to the same school soon. The parents both had similar interests in biking and hiking and have been sight-seeing in similar places almost around the same times. I remember sitting at the table while the parents talked just in awe of how these two families connected and yet they had never met until RNC campout. I’d like to know if they still get together outside of RNC.”

Explore the night!

“Calling owls. I taught the families to make the barred owl call. We called together as a group and about 30 minutes later we had an owl calling back to us. We were all in our tents later and as we drifted to sleep we could hear two owls calling back and forth nearby. The families talked about it over breakfast in the morning.”

It’s easy and great for beginning campers or experienced folks who just want to take the easy road!

“A lot of parents said the family campout was their first time camping besides their backyard. The family overnight was a nice transition before camping at a campground. Riveredgehas the convenience of staff for questions, toilets, and indoor spaces incase of bad weather, and a breakfast in the morning.”

Join us on one of our upcoming Family Camping Overnights @ Riveredge!

Family Adventures: Family Overnight @ Riveredge

All Ages

Saturday, August 2, 5 pm – Sunday, August 3, 9 am  Theme: Creatures of the Night; led by Jessica Jens, Executive Director

Saturday, August 30, 5 pm – Sunday, August 31, 9 am  Theme: Exploring the Night Sky; led by Moriah Butler, Environmental Educator

Fee (per family): Member $45   Non-member $60

Join a Riveredge Naturalist for a unique opportunity to experience Riveredge after hours. Spend the evening exploring the trails, looking for night creatures, catching fireflies or relaxing at the campfire. Pitch your tent on the Riveredge lawn and slumber to the sound of the night choir. Bring a picnic supper, and in the morning you’ll enjoy pancakes with Riveredge maple syrup. Space is limited so register early. Each family is limited to one tent. Please note: At Creatures of the Night we’ll camp at Woodland Harvest; Exploring the Night Sky we’ll camp near the main building.

To register, visit our Summer Camp page and click on the “Register Now” button.  Hope to see you soon!

Bug o’ the Week – The Ants of CESA

Salutations, BugFans,

 

A few years ago, BugFan Marjie had a fantastic idea.  She wanted to get people out on the trails of the natural areas here in Ozaukee County (Wisconsin).  The plan – to staff different sites each year with interpreters, send people on their way with passports to be stamped at each destination, and finish the day with a big party at the Mother Ship – Forest Beach Migratory Preserve.  The event – Treasures of Oz.  Over the past five years, many thousands of people have made the acquaintance of county nature preserves that were not on their radar before.

 

This year, Marjie asked the BugLady to be part of the team at the Cedarburg Environmental Study Area (CESA), a property owned by the excellent Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, which sponsors Treasures of Oz (find descriptions and trail maps of all their preserves at owlt.org.  The CESA site hosts some phenomenal, six-feet-wide ant mounds, and the ant story needed to be told.  The BugLady was dubious – the general population, she has noticed, isn’t that inspired by bugs, and besides, due to a misspent youth, the BugLady is a tiny bit ant-averse.

ant mound cesa14 1rz

First off, what kind of ants are they?  BugFan Tom rounded up an ant guy in Mississippi who, of course, requested some ants.  The BugLady figured that she would place an old film canister (younger BugFans might have to Google “film canister”) on the top of a pretty active mound, and maybe some ants would climb in.  What could go wrong?  As soon as the canister landed on the mound, ants came pouring out, covering the top of the mound and covering the film canister, inside and out.  Now what?  The BugLady fished it off with a stick, managed to cap it, and rolled it around a bit to loosen the exterior ants.

ants cesa14 7rz

The ants were dispatched to Mississippi; the postal worker who asked if the parcel contained “anything liquid, fragile, perishable, etc.” didn’t ask specifically about ants.  Joe, the ant guy, made short work of the ID – the ants are Formica montana, in the wood/thatch/field/mound ant family Formicidae.  The genus Formica includes a bunch of mound-building ants that use different construction strategies in varying habitats.  Besides mounds, they are famous for defending themselves by spraying formic acid and by biting (often using the “bite-first-then-spray-the-irritating-chemical-into-the-wound” strategy).

 

Formica montana, a.k.a. the Prairie Mound Ant, is a pretty neat ant.  While they are important in prairie ecosystems, they are also wetland specialists, and the ground in much of the CESA site is damp.  PMAs build mounds in peaty, wetland soils, and their lives are governed by the water table.  While their prairie relatives may tunnel five feet into the earth, nests in wetlands are shallower, and ants must be prepared to move up above ground level, into the mound, if the water rises.  Considering all the rain we’ve been having, they’ve probably been spending lots of time “upstairs.”

Formica_Wisconsin_headrz       Formica_Wisconsin_siderz

Mounds are formed when ants tunnel into the soil and bring particles to the surface to dispose of them; ants move more dirt than earthworms and are valuable soil mixers and turners.  Young mounds are steep-sided and about 12 to 15 inches tall, and they often have vegetation on top.  As the population increases, the ants build out because, in wetlands, they can’t build down.  One source said that a large mound might have 6,000 ants in it, but the BugLady thinks that number is way low for some of the mega-mounds at CESA.  The tops of PMA mounds may have fifty or more entrances, and the mounds themselves consist of a honeycomb of tunnels and chambers for food and young and for workers to rest in, and the tunnels also effect oxygen exchange.  The average mound takes about six years to build and lasts for about 12 years, but some have been clocked as old as 30 years.  A colony may get larger by “budding’ – forming a smaller colony nearby and then growing toward it, and PMAs may construct small, seasonal feeding mounds.  Mounds are often found growing near red-osier dogwood shrubs; this sun-loving shrub of early succession tolerates the same kinds of soil as the ants – soggy, but not permanently soggy.  The dogwood is also a portent of future shade trees – bad news for the ants.

 

The mounds are solar collectors.  Some Formica ants cover the tops of their mounds with bits of vegetation, and other ants actually plant grass there.  PMA mounds are built in the open or on woody edges, and the tops are kept clear of anything that generates shade.  The ants actively clip any plant that tries to grow.  The domed shape makes mounds more efficient at catching the sun’s rays at the start and end of the day.  PMAs like it warm and humid (100% humidity is just fine with them), and they move their larvae and pupae around to nurseries with the optimal climate.

 

What do all those ants eat?  Protein, in the form of insect larvae and pillbugs.  Lots of carbs.  Their main carbohydrate is honeydew, sugar water that they harvest from aphids and treehoppers that they “farm.”  In close proximity to one mound at CESA were dense herds of ant-tended aphids on dogwood flower/fruit heads, and smaller bunches of ant-tended treehoppers (and their astounding nymphs) on goldenrod stems.  In return for the ants’ protection, the bugs allow ants to “milk” them; stroking the bugs’ abdomen induces them to exude drops of honeydew.  Workers find their way to distant food sources by following “trail pheromones” left by other workers.  The BugLady saw the protein-rich, spore-bearing head of a horsetail/equisetum plant by one nest entrance and guesses that the ants might feed on that, too.

ants, treehppr adults cesa14 6rz

Ant with treehopper

PMAs are very territorial, both with PMAs from different mounds and with other species.  They generally out-compete non-PMAs, and they carve up the habitat neatly so that multiple PMA colonies can live side-by-side without using up the food supply.

 

Ant mounds have generated a new art form.  For a picture of a plaster cast of what’s under the surface, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant_colony#mediaviewer/File:Ant_Nest.jpg.  If you Google “Ant Mound Art” or “Cast aluminum ant tunnels,” or some such, you can see lots of examples.  The ants don’t survive the artistic process (animal lovers have protested).  Many of the mounds so treated have been fire ant mounds.

 

In the end, 120 people visited CESA during the recent Treasures of Oz event, and many left thinking more highly about ants than when they arrived (except for the jerk who walked along poking a hole in each mound he saw with his walking stick).  Nest repair is what ants train for, but it takes time and energy, and recent pounding rains have given them plenty of work.  If BugFans decide to visit the ants of CESA (right now, there is a Bluet Bonus – gazillions of marsh bluet damselflies dripping from the vegetation and making more bluets), they should remember that along with the mound-top itself, there’s a zone of activity at least a foot wide around the base of the mounds, and tunnels that extend outward from the base, under the soil), and active trails to outlying “herds.”  BugFans who stand in awe at the edge of a mound will soon find themselves doing the “ant dance.”

 

Here’s a good article about PMAs: http://images.library.wisc.edu/WI/EFacs/transactions/WT1981/reference/wi.wt1981.jwbruskewitz.pdf

 

Bravo, Joe, at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, for the ID and the super-macro pictures, and thanks, Southern BugFan Tom.  It does, indeed, take a village.  If you’re ever in town……

 

Bravo, Yankee BugFan Tom, for putting in a day of ant-education.

 

Bravo, Marjie and OWLT.

 

Bravo, ants!

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Virgin Tiger Moth

Howdy, BugFans,

 

What a classy-looking moth!

 

It’s a Virgin tiger moth (Grammia virgo) (probably), a member of a large group of sometimes dramatically patterned moths who whose fuzzy offspring are called “wooly bears” or “wooly worms” (the familiar, rust-and-black, “weather-predicting” wooly bear caterpillar is the offspring of the Isabella Tiger Moth).  Depending on whose book you read, VTMs might be placed in the family Arctidae or be listed as a subfamily in the family Erebidae.  Arctidae is the older designation; Erebidae is a newer and not-universally-embraced family that combines the owlet, tiger and tussock moth families.

 

The BugLady is content to let the lepidopterists duke it out; wherever it lands, the VTM is a tiger moth.  Tiger moths are unusual among moths because they have on their thorax tymbal organs, which can be used to produce ultrasonic sound (more about that in a sec), and tympanal (hearing) organs (if you’re going to make sound, it’s nice to be able to hear sound).  “Ears” are somewhat more common in moths, but some (maybe all) tiger moth caterpillars can hear, too, picking up sound through some of their hairs.

 

As far as their predators are concerned, the tiger moth bunch packs a gustatory wallop, both as caterpillars and adults.  TM caterpillars, which are not generally considered plant pests, are fairly catholic feeders on low herbaceous and woody vegetation like plantain, clovers, bedstraw (VTM caterpillars especially like bedstraw), goosefoot, lettuce, and willow, and the toxic chemicals they consume from their food plants are off-putting to predators.  The toxins may remain with them through metamorphosis and into adulthood, and the “toxic edge” continues when females transmit protective chemicals to their eggs.

 

There are about a dozen confusing Grammia tiger moths, and their caterpillars are also difficult to tell apart.  Beneath the VTM’s snappy exterior lies a surprise – brightly-colored hind wings.  Most VTMs have rosy hind wings with black splotches, but a small number of moths wear yellow.  Here’s a moth with its wings open http://bugguide.net/node/view/246414/bgimage, and here’s the caterpillar http://www.pwconserve.org/wildlife/insects/caterpillars/virgintigermoth.html.

 

Tiger moth species get the word out about their inedibility both with their striking colors/patterns (aposematic/warningcoloration) and/or by using their characteristic ultrasonic emanations to startle bats, to warn bats to stay away, or to “jam” the bat radar.  Researchers John Ratcliffe and Marie Nydam studied these “multimodal signals” – visual signals that protect moths during the day and auditory signals for those active in the night.  Multimodal signals might simply deliver a more comprehensive message to a single predator, or they may address multiple predators in the languages they understand.  The researchers correlated the signaling style with the flight periods and the nocturnal/diurnal habits of 26 species of tiger moth.  They found that tiger moths that were active in spring and in the daytime were brightly colored and used visual cues to deter birds; species that emerged later in summer and flew at night used clicking to discourage bats.

 

VTMs can do it all, and more!  They are late season moths (therefore more worried about bats than birds), but they are abroad at any time of the day or night, so they have a striking pattern on the fore wings (the markings of the genus Grammia are said to have given the group its “Tiger Moth” nickname), flashy hind wings (when mistreated, they play possum, flipping over, curling up their abdomen, and showing off their hind wings), and they can click at the bats at night.  In case there are any predators left undecided, VTMs also produce a defensive chemical foam.  Wagner, in “Caterpillars of North America,” says, “Adults, when gently squeezed, may bubble generous amounts of their yellow “blood” out of the front corners of the thorax, yielding a frothy mass that contains alkaloids that the caterpillar has consumed.”

 

Their taste (and their distinctive odor) have elicited comment for some time.  In 1859, the very not-PC Thaddeus William Harris wrote in “A Treatise on Some of the Insects of New England: Which are Injurious to Vegetation” that “The largest and most rare of these moths is the Arctia virgo, or virgin tiger moth.  On account of the peculiarly strong and disagreeable odor it gives out, it might, with greater propriety, have been named the stinking tiger moth.”  In “The Life of North American Insects,” also published in 1859, Jaeger and Preston state that “The Virgin Tiger Moth (Arctia virgo) is one of the handsomest and largest of this genus, but on account of its fetid odor it is very disagreeable to handle. 

 

Sounds and scents figure into tiger moth courtship, too.  Females “call” males by emitting a pheromone (“perfume”) plume that males can sense with their antennae.  Males send out ultrasonic signals to females before releasing their own chemical signals, and when he’s getting close to her, he may click and she may answer.  When males of some species emit certain odors, it demonstrates to the female that he can give her the chemical that will protect her eggs.  There is one generation per year, and VTMs overwinter as caterpillars; waking up to continue eating in spring and eventually incorporating some of their own body hairs into their silken cocoons.

 

The VTM is found in woodland and wetland edges, clearings and fields east of the Rockies, though it’s uncommon in the far South.  Its internet presence consists mainly of its inclusion on lists, surveys and museum collections, but because of its general spiffiness, there are lots of photos and even some artistic renderings.

 

No, the BugLady didn’t see an explanation for the “Virgin” part of the name.

 

The BugLady

How the Boundary Waters Can Change Your Life

Riveredge hosts adventure trips every summer.  This year, we still have some spots open for our Boundary Waters Canoe trip.   Join us (but make sure to register by June 23rd)!  Not only will you have a great time, meet new friends, learn more about yourself and all you are capable of, it may also just inspire your future choices.  Here’s how it did just that for one young person, Elizabeth Garret.

 

“The Riveredge Nature Journeys Questers program is a fantastic way to discover the unknown world of nature and wildlife. The trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) had an unexpected impact on my life. The first year I attended a Questers trip, I had minimal experience with the outdoors. It was my first long camping trip, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. While there, I discovered a whole new side of myself that I had no idea existed – a passion for the environment. I found a new love and appreciation for the serenity and peacefulness of nature. On one of the last days I remember thinking to myself how amazing it would be to work at on outfitter in the BWCA for a summer or two. Little did I realize that exact opportunity opened itself up to me. I recently accepted a job working at an outfitter for this summer.

I also didn’t realize that this single trip would inspire me to look at colleges with an environmental emphasis. I now attend Northland College, which is an environmental liberal arts college, studying Environmental Geosciences. I am also leading a camping trip for new students next fall and becoming certified as a Wilderness First Responder. Riveredge and all of its programs can open many doors. For me, it changed the whole direction of my life. It has taught me life lessons that cannot be found in a classroom or in a textbook. I would recommend to anyone to take advantage of the wonderful leaders and opportunities the Questers offer. The experience will change your life.”

Bug o’ the Week – June Bug Redux

Greetings, BugFans,

 

In honor of the annual reappearance of June beetles/bugs this past week, the BugLady is dusting off and sprucing up a BOTW from six years ago.  A clarification:  a number of different genera of beetles in various regions of America are also popularly called June bugs/May beetles (and there’s even a conspicuous on-line image of a Japanese beetle, genus Popillia, labeled as a June beetle).  OUR June bugs, in the genus Phyllophaga, are the real ones.  Just sayin.’

 

So, today we will consider one of the BugLady’s favorite beetles, and not for the last time, revisit the word “bug.”  The June “bug” is not a True Bug.  True Bugs are in the order Hemiptera (“half-wings”) (because in the original order Hemiptera – not the new, improved, “lumped” order that combines Hemiptera and Homoptera – Hemipterans characteristically had wings that were leathery on the proximal half, with the membranous distal half folded underneath.  Beetles (the order Coleoptera – “sheath wings”), have two pairs of wings.  The front pair, called the elytra, is hardened, but the elytra cover and protect two membranous wings that are used for flying.  In flight, the elytra are held out to the side, which causes beetles to look like tiny bi-planes and to fly and land awkwardly.  After a beetle lands, its flying wings don’t always get tucked in neatly.  When JBs fall off the BugLady’s door and land on their backs, they spin around, glaring up at her, struggling to right themselves.

 

If JBs are “clumsy;” they are also described as “clingy,” in a sticky-legged way.  They love grabbing screens, and they will hold onto clothing with their long, gangly legs (in a totally non-menacing way).

 

JBs are members of the Scarab family (Scarabaeidae), renowned by ancient Egyptians.  Scarabs, no matter what their species or size or shape or color, have small, flat plates at the tips of their antennae and can open those plates like a fan.  June beetles have three plates, which are held at right angles to the antenna.  There are roughly 400 members of the genus Phyllophaga north of Mexico, and many species cannot be distinguished without looking at their “naughty bits.”

 

When they are not eating leaves, the nocturnal JBs come to lights.  They are a species that carries on its affairs in darkness – in fact, Wikipedia cryptically states that adults die after being exposed to the light for too long.  A number of years ago, the local JB population boomed, and the sounds of June bugs as they flew into and fed in the trees at night was loud enough to be mistaken for a breeze rustling the leaves.  June bugs spend the day sheltered under the ground (or in the woven, front door mat) (without tearing their flying wings, thanks to those elytra).  They emerge after sunset over a period of several hours; yet at dawn, the whole population disappears within ten minutes.  A June bug got into the BugLady’s house one night, and the cats found it the next day in the rug, burrowed under the foot of a chair.

 

The diurnal manifestations of the JB generally consist of individuals snagged in spider webs by the porch light (the BugLady can’t help but admire the pluck of these small spiders), or as high-fiber elytra, discarded on the ground, evidence of someone’s midnight snack.

 

According to the excellent A Guide to Observing Insect Lives by Donald Stokes, the females of many species have such short wings that they are essentially flightless (so the beetle that crashes your party is probably a male).  Females attract their mates via an airborne pheromone, which gives the old “Come hither” to males within twenty yards.

 

A female lays 50 to 100 eggs, a few at a time, in “cells” that she excavates in the soil.  The eggs hatch soon afterward, and although some species of JBs may live a total of three or four years, they spend most of that time as grubs.  Insects that live longer than the usual eight or nine months must make plans to survive winters, and they also have the opportunity to develop an immune system.  The JB overwinters as a grub, below the frost line, for its first two years and although pupates at the end of the next summer and emerges as an adult shortly afterward, it spends its third winter underground as an adult.

 

JB larva (the larvae of beetles are often called “grubs”) are known to people who grow lawns and gardens as “white grubs” (an inaccurate generic term).  They are sometimes pests of grasses and agricultural crops (the BugLady has a color slide of a JB grub feeding on a newly-dug potato) and will move on down a row of plants, nibbling the roots of each plant as they go.  Adults eat leaves of a variety of trees (“Phyllophaga” means “leaf eater”).

 

The larvae of the spectacular American Pelecinid wasp are parasitic on some ground-dwelling beetle grubs, including JBs.  Ms. Pelecinid bores her impressive ovipositor into the soil and deposits her eggs on her young’s larvae.  A few flies are parasitoids of the adults.

 

So, to summarize: June bugs are beetles that often appear at the end of May (and so are sometimes called May Beetles) and can be found through part of July (but are never called July Bugs).

 

The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Bald-faced Hornet

Salutations, BugFans,

 

When she was at an Impressionable Age, the BugLady had a teacher who said “Don’t just tell them what it is, tell them ‘What about it’” (because when we know an organism’s name, we don’t know everything about it – knowing the name just allows us to start opening doors).

 

What is it?  A bug of many names – bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, white-faced hornet, white-tailed hornet, blackjacket (a common name that also applies to another wasp) and bull wasp.

 

Is it a bee or a wasp or a hornet or a yellowjacket?  That age-old question is muddied by the tendency of many people (but not BugFans) to call all black and yellow flying objects that are pointy at one end either a bee or yellowjacket.  In a nutshell, bees tend to be thick-waisted and hairy (those hairs enable them to collect pollen), and their young eat pollen.  Wasps/hornets are slimmer and less hairy, hold their longitudinally “folded/grooved” wings along their bodies at rest and are “wasp-waisted” (with a thin stalk between the thorax and the first abdominal segment), and their young eat living, dead, and/or pre-chewed “meat,” mainly spiders and other insects.  There are social, semi-social and solitary species of both bees and wasps.

 

Some anatomical features like the width of the head between the eyes and the shape of the first abdominal segment differentiate wasps from hornets, but again, common usage confuses the matter – we tend to apply the name “hornet” if the paper nest is built above ground and “yellowjacket” if it’s built underground.  And although it’s black and white, the bald-faced hornet is, taxonomically, a yellowjacket.  It’s in the bee/ant/wasp order Hymenoptera and, with the yellowjackets, hornets, paper, potter and mason wasps, in the family Vespidae.

 

What about it?

 

The bald-faced hornet is famous for the football-shaped paper nest that it suspends, between two and forty feet off the ground, from a man-made or natural support.  Nests that are built in trees and shrubs often incorporate the plant’s twigs, which makes the nest both stronger and harder to see.  As a DYI project, the nest is a miracle – this small insect chews on wood fibers, mixes them with saliva, and spits out gray paper, fashioning it into layer upon layer of weatherproof material up to two inches thick, 14 inches across, and two feet high, vented at the top for climate control.  The structure is strong enough to support several hundred inhabitants, with three or four tiers of brood cells.  Not all of its inhabitants are wasps, either – inquilines (from the Latin for “lodger” or “tenant”) like some small Ichneumon wasps and, in some parts of its range, cockroaches, may co-habit in the nest.

hornet nest12 1rz

The nest is initiated by the queen, a fertile female that mated last fall and holed up over the winter while the workers, drones, and old queen died.  She starts the new nest in spring by fashioning a spherical structure that’s open at the bottom.  After she raises her first brood, her daughters take over, enlarging and guarding the nest, foraging for food for the larvae and their queen.  They enclose the nest and relocate the entry to a spot that’s low on one side.  Unlike workers of some social insects, the bald-faced hornet workers don’t “specialize” – they may work in the nursery on one day and on nest-building the next, and they can recognize their sisters away from the nest.  For a thorough account of a hornet nest that was built against the glass of a summer cottage in northern Minnesota in the 1950’s, check http://driftlessprairies.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Observations-on-the-Bald-faced-Hornet.pdf.

 

The eggs that will become future queens and drones are laid at the end of summer (she from fertilized eggs, and he, from unfertilized), and the life of the nest deteriorates after the Royals depart.  Nests are not re-used in the northern part of their range and in the far south, nesting may be on-going.

 

Like other wasps, adult bald-faced hornets dine on nectar, pollen, sap, and other plant juices and on insects and sometimes carrion (somewhere, the BugLady has a picture of a hornet lapping up sugar water at a hummingbird feeder, and they like the grape jelly feeder, too).  They also hunt insects to chew up and feed to their developing larvae.  They eat a lot of caterpillars, flies and smaller species of yellowjackets, and for this they are considered beneficial insects to have around.  As the nest winds down in early fall, adults eat less meat and more carbs.

 

Do these pointy-ended critters have any enemies?  A variety of other insects dine on them, as do frogs, spiders and birds.  Nests are raided by foxes, raccoons, and skunks, though the BugLady wouldn’t consider hornets to be an “easy protein.”  Birds peck apart old nests in winter, looking for frozen workers and leftover larvae and pupae, and for the spiders and other invertebrates that may shelter there.  These beautiful nests are commonly displayed in nature centers and private homes, but the fact that birds routinely find a winter meal in them should provide a cautionary note.  Some people recommend enclosing the nest in a heavy plastic bag for a few months to contain any newly-thawed workers.

 

Berndt Heinrich, biologist extraordinaire, once demonstrated experimentally that these hornets are very efficient at regulating the temperature in their thorax, a talent that allows them to produce heat by muscle contraction and warm up their flying apparatus.  They can and function at cooler temperatures than their competition, and they can fly with agility at temperatures when their prey is still sluggish.

 

Good news, bad news – the bald-faced hornet may be a valuable control on other insects, but close encounters with a bald-faced hornet nest can be memorable, especially if it’s a low nest that is well-hidden.  Hornets/yellowjackets, like many social insects defend hearth and home vigorously, and unlike the barbed, single-use stinger of the honeybee, their stinger is smooth and designed for multiple use.  Because they use their stingers to capture small invertebrates, injecting a toxic, chemical cocktail when they sting, their sting may provoke an allergic reaction in some people (and pain).  Fortunately for us, many hornet nests are high off the ground, so human-hornet interactions are minimized.

 

Bald-faced hornets are widely distributed over North America, but absent from areas that are especially dry.  They have adapted well to encroaching civilization and can be found in urban and suburban areas.

 

Go outside.  Look at bugs.

 

The BugLady

Stan Temple to Talk at Bird Club Meeting

All are welcome to the Noel J. Cutright Bird Club meeting this Tuesday, June 3rd at 7:00 pm for a special presentation by Stan Temple, Senior Fellow and Science Adviser with the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

His talk marks the centennial of the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914. Temple uses the case of the passenger pigeon to call attention to the world’s ongoing extinction crisis and our relationship with other species.

In 1914, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon died in a Cincinnati Zoo, ending a calamitous half-century in which the pigeon declined from billions to one and then to none as a result of uncontrolled market hunting and the resulting disruption of nesting colonies. The loss of one of the world’s most abundant birds stands as the iconic extinction event in our country’s history.

In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected the Passenger Pigeon Monument at Wyalusing State Park, and for the occasion Aldo Leopold penned one of the most poignant essays ever written about extinction, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” which later appeared in his classic book A Sand County Almanac. The society rededicated the monument during its 75th annual convention on May 17, 2014.

For more than 30 years, Temple was the Beers-Bascom Professor in Conservation in the Department of Wildlife Ecology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, a position originally held by Aldo Leopold himself. After earning three degrees from Cornell University, Temple worked with endangered species on islands in the Indian Ocean and then returned to Cornell to lead the peregrine falcon reintroduction program.