Why Scarecrows?

Why scarecrows?

Because they are just plain fun! Once built to scare birds away from our crops, they a great addition to any garden and have come to represent the fall harvest and our creative imagination. I have created many scare crows over the years with summer campers for the Riveredge garden. There are so many possibilities, and the kids love the creative process. They put a little bit of themselves and some creative touches into every scare crow, giving each one its own personality. We have created conventional scarecrows out of straw, and have also used different materials to craft unique creations. Each one gets a name, like Mrs Potts with her head of lettuce.

The possibilities are endless. The creative process can start with any idea, like using a natural animal as a model, and then going wild!

You can also create a scarecrow from your favorite TV and movie characters.

Or

They Or they could be scary…….

Can be cute…..

They could have a theme

Or they could come solely from your imagination.

Come to the Fall Festival & Night Hike at Riveredge this Saturday, October 18th, to build your own family scarecrow!  Remember to pre-register so we can ensure enough scarecrow parts and pumpkins to go around!

At Riveredge, the goal is to work together with your family or friends, get creative and have fun building your scare crow creation. Bring your own materials and props, or use ours. The contest categories are: most creative, most colorful, best themed, most eco-friendly, and the best grab bag scare crow build from materials we provide.

The possibilities are endless, so go for it & have fun!

Bug o’ the Week – Velvet Ant

Salutations, BugFans,

 

Earlier this summer, the BugLady was wondering about the value of mimicking a velvet ant in an area where velvet ants are absent.  Two months later she found out – there are velvet ants around!  Other people knew – Jonathan Neal wrote in his livingwithinsects blog about encountering VAs at the “Wisconsin ‘Desert’ Prairie” (The beautiful Spring Green Preserve http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/wisconsin/placesweprotect/spring-green-preserve.xml).  Publish in haste; repent at leisure.

 

At the end of August, when the BugLady was walking slowly up a sandy trail at Riveredge Nature Center to check for a feeding swarm of Common Green darners, she noticed a very colorful “ant” zipping across the sand.  The busy, perpetual motion of the “ant” rang a very distant bell, and she had an OMG moment.

 

Velvet ants, as every on-line and paper resource tells us up front, are not ants at all, but are flightless female wasps in the family Mutillidae (and like ants, they’re in the order Hymenoptera).  Most of the on-line information is about the large, furry, very impressive eastern species, Dasymutilla occidentalis (http://bugguide.net/node/view/713511/bgimage), whose sting is so painful that its nickname is (probably hyperbolically) “cow killer ant.”  Their sting is ranked at a 3 out of 4 on the Schmidt Pain Scale and is considered painful, but not dangerous/venomous.

 

[av_Digression: Entomologist Justin Schmidt, that connoisseur of pain, devised a scale to evaluate Hymenopteran stings that starts at zero (unable to puncture skin) and maxes out at five (he hasn’t assigned a “5” yet, but the Central American bullet ant earned a 4+ and Schmidt’s comment “Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.”).  By comparison, sweat bees are a 1 (“Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.”); fire ants a 1.2 (“Sharp, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.”) (He’s talking about a single bite, but nobody gets bitten by just one fire ant); honeybees a 2 (“The sensation is like a match head that flips off and burns on your skin”); ditto yellowjackets (“Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”); and paper wasps a 3 (“Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”).  (The BugLady is not making this up.  Really!).  For more on insect stings, see http://discovermagazine.com/2003/jun/featstung/.]

 

The BugLady’s VAs are a thatch ant-sized species (a shade less than one-half-inch) that she suspects may be Dasymutilla vesta, based on pictures and general range.  [av_Quick digression: The BugLady wishes that more states had a comprehensive on-line Insect site like Minnesota’s wonderful Cedar Creek Insects (http://cedarcreek.umn.edu/insects/).  If there is such a site in Wisconsin, she hasn’t stumbled across it yet.].  VAs are found in dry habitats where their host species build their nest tunnels, and they have extra-tough exoskeletons that help to prevent internal water loss in their xeric surroundings.  Most of the 400+ North American species are found in the desert Southwest and Mexico, but VAs can be found throughout the Upper Midwestern and Western states and north into Canada.  Away from the desert they occupy sandy-soiled fields, lawns and cemeteries.

 

A VA’s “waist,” between its thorax and abdomen, is not as constricted as an ant’s, and its antennae are straight, not “elbowed” like an ant’s.  Female VAs are wingless, and the winged, males, harmless and short-lived, look “waspy” (http://bugguide.net/node/view/547950/bgimage) (sexual dimorphism).  The sexes look so different, in fact, that it can be very difficult to match up males and females of the same species in insect collections unless they’re captured flagrante delicto.  There are a number of VAs in several genera that have this general color scheme – red and black being one of Mother Nature’s warning combinations.  These are solitary wasps (no queens, workers, or drones).

 

When a male VA is feeling amorous, he takes to the air, scouting from above (males of some species stage large courtship aggregations).  It is theorized that he uses sight and smell to locate her (she gives off attractive pheromones), and possibly, hearing; both male and female VAs produce sound by “stridulation,” rubbing together rough areas on the second and third abdominal segments.  He swoops down and, in some species, picks her up – mating may happen in mid-air – after which she continues her ceaseless hunting, looking for concealed tunnels, tapping with her antennae.

 

When she finds the tunnel of a ground-nesting bee (whether solitary, like herself, or colonial, like a bumblebee), she enters it, locates a pupa (she sometimes targets the pupa of a cockroach, moth, beetle, or fly), stings it, and then deposits an egg in the host’s pupal case.  That strong, desiccation-proof exoskeleton stands her in good stead; if she encounters the nest’s (hostile) rightful owner, she is impervious to the stings.  Her armor protects her from predators and also from entomologists, who find it difficult to impale a VA on an insect pin.

 

Her young are classified as ectoparasitoids – they feed on their hosts from the outside, and develop quickly, timing the death of their host to coincide with their own pupation.  VA larvae are considered pests when they go after native pollinators, and biological controls of pests when they feed on white grubs.  Because she is a “cuckoo” that lays her eggs and then leaves, she lacks the strong mandibles needed by other wasps to tenderize food for their young.  Adult VAs feed on nectar.

 

Her ovipositor doubles as a stinger, and it’s a formidable weapon, indeed (one source referred to her stinger as “concealed.”).  It’s long and maneuverable: she can angle it whichever direction she wants and keep on stinging until she gets the job done (http://bugguide.net/node/view/166261/bgimage).   She may stridulate when she’s upset and before stinging.

 

Naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote about being stung by a VA in his youth, “I was holding it, trying to decide what it was, when it went into action. The effect of its sting was like a series of powerful electric shocks following each other in quick succession.”

 

The BugLady expected the exterminator sites to have a field day with VAs, but the ones she looked at were pretty laid-back.  Don’t go barefoot.  Educate the kids.  Relocate excess VAs.  Apply grass seed and deprive the ground-nesting bees of a nesting site.  Chemicals are useless, because there are no VA nests to treat.  And, over and over, Leave them alone.

 

Are the BugLady’s pictures a touch out of focus?  As Ted MacRae says in his beetlesinthebush blog, “As a caveat, I shall add that this mutillid was the… most… uncooperative… insect… that I have ever tried to photograph!  They really never stop moving, so you have to track the moving insect through the lens and fire shots when you think you’ve got it centered and focused.  Most of the time you don’t!  ….”

 

A reminder that last week’s BOTW was sent from a different email address (the BugLady’s first encounter with computers, back in the early ‘70’s when they took up the whole wall of a small room, was not a happy one, and she is convinced that, in the Race Memory of all computers, the experience is still stored).  If you didn’t see it, check your spam/junk mail, and it will be posted at the Field Station website soon.

 

The BugLady

The Importance (& Fun) of Sturgeon Fest

I could start this short editorial about how amazing it feels to be part of a project that is restoring a breeding population of Lake Sturgeon to the Milwaukee River for the first time since the late 1800’s.  That would be a good beginning.

Or, I could easily speak about the good feelings we all get when we help the environment through positive activities, such as repairing the damage mistakenly, and unintentional, done by generations long passed.  That would be honest.

Perhaps, I could tell the story about the hopes that go into the season of sturgeon rearing which begins in the spring, continues through hours of love and dedication by the sturgeon rearing volunteers at Riveredge, and finishes with a bittersweet release the last Saturday in September.  That couldn’t be more true.

But for me, and my family, the “Return the Sturgeon” restoration project at Riveredge Nature Center IS all those things and so much more.  There’s just something about these ‘so ugly they’re ridiculously cute’ fish.  There’s something about the way that baby fish wiggles its nose at you from its personal ice cream bucket; just something about the way it swishes its tail before it disappears into the depths of Lake Michigan that just touches me in the depth of my gut.  There’s just something about knowing you are part of releasing a prehistoric fish that has a good chance of continuing to live and thrive in Lake Michigan when your great-great grandchildren play on its shores decades from now.

For those that have been to Sturgeon Fest, the celebration of the release of over 1,000 of this year’s baby Lake Sturgeon, you can relate.  For those of you who haven’t take the chance yet, I encourage you to find the time to come.

Sturgeon Fest is arriving quickly on Saturday, September 27th from 11 am – 3 pm at Lakeshore State Park.  It’s a free community festival (with free parking) – including lots of hands-on activities for adults and kids alike, kayaking, food, and, of course, the sturgeon release.  It’s an experience for all ages and all stages of life.  And, certainly, one that you are unlikely to forget.

To learn more about Sturgeon Fest this year, just visit the website.  You can even pre-reserve a sturgeon to release online.  The $10 donation helps support Riveredge Nature Center’s contribution to this 25-year restoration project.

P.S. – the baby sturgeon will be tagged by the DNR at Riveredge this coming Monday or Tuesday.  These tags (similar to the microchips we put in our pets) help researchers track the fish.  It’s quite a site.  If you are interested in watching, give Riveredge a call at 262-375-2715 for more information.

I hope to see you at Sturgeon Fest!  I’ll be there with my family, releasing those prehistoric fish, and enjoying every minute of it.

Jessica Jens, Executive Director

Bug o’ the Week – Robber Fly

 

Howdy, BugFans,

 

Some of the larger species of Robber fly are out and about these days, rising up from the tall grass with an annoyed buzz as the BugLady passes.  Flies with “attitude.”  The BugLady has nibbled at the topic of Robber flies (order Diptera ((“two-wings”)), family Asilidae), mentioning them briefly in a number of “group” BOTWs over the past five years, most recently with a report of an RF chasing a mid-sized dragonfly across a clearing.  They are fascinating flies that come in a wide variety of flavors, and they have lots of serious fans, websites (http://www.geller-grimm.de/asilidae.htm) and photo pages.  Deservedly so – the larger species are pretty impressive critters (and the BugLady is a big fan of carnivores).

 

RFs occur world-wide (except Antarctica), and although their diversity is greatest in warm, tropical/sub-tropical/semi-arid regions, they can survive north to the tundra.  There are about 7,000 species total, just over 1,000 of which are found in North America, and according to Gary Dunn in Insects of the Great Lakes Region, about 100 species in the Great Lakes states and contiguous Canada.  They’ve been around since the Eocene epoch (50 million years, give or take).  As a group, RFs are sun lovers that occupy open habitats, woody edges and forest glades.  They tend to be active during the hottest parts of the day and to shelter in the vegetation at night (although one summer, the BugLady had an RF that worked the field under the yard light until well after dark).

 

Their appearance and lifestyles have earned them a bunch of common names – Bearded robber flies (awesome facial hair!), Hanging thieves (some dangle from vegetation http://bugguide.net/node/view/417839/bgimage), Bee killers, Bee wolves (there’s a group of wasps by that name, too), and Assassin flies.  RF appearance varies widely from small-and-roundish to small-and-slim to bumblebee-mimics to large-and-slim (almost dragonfly-like).  Some of the smaller species have impossible, angular back legs.  What they all have in common is two, large, compound eyes with a big dent between them, a beard (mystax) (from the Greek for “upper lip” or “moustache”), and legs with bristles (macrochaetae) that allow RFs to catch and hold their prey in flight.  They range from ¼” to 1 ¼+” in length.  Check out the various RF incarnations at Mike Reese’s Butterflies of Wisconsin site https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/.

 

They feed on other insects and are applauded as biological controls, although they do not discriminate between the species we love and those we call pests (the asktheexterminator website gives them a big “thumbs-up” and suggests watching, but not handling them – more about that later).  Generic fly mouthparts are designed for piercing, lapping, or sucking fluids, not for chewing, so in order to feed, an RF must convert its food source from solid to liquid.  RFs perch and watch for the glitter of wings in the air.  They fly out, grab their prey with those bristly legs, and inject a mixture of neurotoxins (to immobilize) and enzymes (to tenderize), and then return to their perch, prey in hand, to wait until its innards are properly softened.  They sometimes take sitting prey, like spiders.

 

RFs tend to be opportunistic predators that feed on butterflies, moths, dragon and damselflies, grasshoppers, true bugs up to the size of cicadas, bees and wasps (the mystax apparently protects them from prey that tries to bite or sting them), and even other RFs.  The diversity of prey depends on an RF’s size – the bigger the RF, the longer its list of available food items – and they routinely tackle insects that are larger than they are.  The BugLady read one source that said that the proboscis is strong enough to penetrate the elytra of some beetles, but Dunn, in Insects of the Great Lakes Region, notes that beetles are captured on the wing, with their elytra spread, which gives the RF quick access to the beetle’s more tender parts.  They do not seem to be deterred by the “repugnatorial chemicals” produced by bad-tasting or toxic prey.

 

The BugLady found an amazing account at the excellent Hilton Pond website about a large RF and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Go to http://www.hiltonpond.org/ThisWeek070901.html and scroll down about half way; the story starts one paragraph after the picture of the two people.

 

To the inevitable “Do they bite?” the answer is a resounding “Yes!”  NOT to get a blood meal, like mosquitoes, but to defend themselves from who/whatever tries to handle them.  One of the Hilton Pond crew, in an attempt to see what the hummingbird had been up against, allowed a large RF to bite her and wrote “The Robber Fly packs a wallop.  I have a small hole in the pad of my middle finger, which has swollen, become red, and hurts.  The Robber Fly also wrapped its legs around my finger as it jabbed me–much like it had held the hummer.”

 

The pale and legless RF larvae (http://bugguide.net/node/view/100549/bgimage), denizens of soil and rotting logs, are seldom seen and not thoroughly studied.  They have historically been assumed to be carnivores, dining on small soil creatures (including the pesky “white grubs”) and on the eggs of other insects, and being dined upon in turn by larger soil critters.  But, research from the early 1900’s suggested that some larvae eat meat when veggies are in short supply, and others wonder if the larvae of some groups may change diets between the start and end of their larval stage, starting as ectoparasites (feeding on a host from the outside) and ending up as predators.

 

RF courtship is minimal and more resembles hunting activity (when the BugLady sees the fierce-looking Promachus pairs perched in the grass, she hears Star Trek’s Mr. Worf saying, “This is the way a Klingon takes a mate.”).  Eggs are deposited on plants, wood or in soil (an exceedingly friendly RF buzzed in and oviposited in the BugLady’s hat brim recently) and the female may coat them with a protective cover.  They hatch and the larvae drop to the ground (or remain in rotting wood), where they may stay for one to several years, eventually pupating in the soil.

 

A number of species of RFs can thermoregulate (thermoregulation helps an insect get going on cold days and keeps it from overheating on warm ones).  There are two methods to accomplish this.  Using behavioral thermoregulation, an RF gets a jump-start in cool weather by sitting on sun-warmed surfaces or basking with its body orientated maximally to the sun; or it sits where air can circulate all around to cool down.  Biologist Bernd Heinrich also documented physiological thermoregulation in some species in the genera Promachus and Efferia.  An extra-large dorsal aorta allows them to dump excess thoracic heat into the abdomen, which has a larger surface area to disperse it (it gets warm in the thorax because of the action of wing and leg muscles).

 

Hats off to the Galveston County Master Gardeners and their “Beneficial in the Garden” website http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/beneficials/index.htm.  Great project!

 

The BugLady would like to see this one, please http://bugguide.net/node/view/908724/bgimage

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Moth Collection

Howdy, BugFans,

 

Butterflies, those “Charismatic Insecto-fauna,” have lots of fans, and some of the more popular species even have their own websites and Citizen Science projects.  Along with moths, they belong to the order Lepidoptera (“scale-wings” – a nod to the flattened hairs that cover them).  But fewer than 10% of the 175,000 (or so) species of Lepidopterans in the world are butterflies, and of the approximately 18,000 species in North America, only about 700 are butterflies.

 

The rest are moths, a sometimes spectacular, sometimes anonymous bunch of insects.  Compared with butterflies, moths usually seem “hairier,” have feathery antennae, operate by night, and fold/tent their wings over their bodies when at rest.  Usually.  And they tend to spin a silken cocoon within their pupal case.  Within the Leptdoptera is a group called the “Microlepidoptera,” an artificial (not anatomical) grouping of smaller moths with wingspreads under ¾ inch (sometimes way under).  Field guides get a little “iffy” for the microlepidoptera.

 

Most of the moths in today’s collection showed up on or near the BugLady’s front porch recently.  Outside of their presence on a variety of collection lists, biodiversity surveys, and photo sites, the BugLady can’t find a lot of natural history information about them in her library or on the web.  They are small moths looking for their 15 minutes of fame  Here, just a month late for National Moth Week, are:

 

Jumpy pairs of YELLOW NUTSEDGE MOTHS (Diploschizia impigritella) (a.k.a. the Five-barred sedge moth) occupied leaves in the wet prairie in July, not far from their caterpillars’ main food plant, Yellow nutsedge/Chuffa.  Caterpillars bore into the stems of yellow nutsedge and several other sedge species.  According to bugguide.net, the genus name comes from the Latin impiger meaning “active, quick, energetic,” which certainly describes the moths that the BugLady was chasing around.  The spread of their fringed wings is about ½ inch.  They are in the Sedge moth family Glyphipteridae (“notched wing”) and are found over much of North America, except the Great Plains.

 

Yes, the BugLady often takes the camera out into the field when she is watering the dog, and that’s how she photographed this lovely ORANGE-SPOTTED PYRAUSTA  (Pyrausta orphisalis) (a.k.a. the Orange Mint moth), in the Crambid Snout moth family Crambidae.  OSP caterpillars feed on leaves of members of the mint family, like Monarda, throughout North America.  One paper suggested that they are actually beneficial to commercial mint/mint oil operations because leaf-grazing by the first generation of caterpillars stimulates the plants to produce more mint oils, while the subsequent generations prefer the flower heads (and oils from the flowers are less desirable than leaf oils).

 

Lots of moths with fancy forewings have drab hind wings (and vice-versa), but not this beauty!  The BOG LYGROPIA (Lygropia rivularis), also a Crambid moth, favors wet areas from southern Canada to the Near South (but possibly not the Deep South), and it apparently flew at least a quarter-mile from the nearest wetland to the BugLady’s porch light.  The host plant of BL caterpillars is unknown.  That’s it – that’s all the information that the BugLady could find about the BL.

 

Words like “sleek” and “silky” aren’t typically used to describe moths, but doesn’t the SNOWY UROLA look touchable!  (For a really classy picture, check http://www.americaninsects.net/lep/urola-nivalis.html).  The Snowy urola (Urola nivalis), another Crambid moth, is found from Maine to Texas.  Its caterpillars are considered pests on a non-native ornamental shrub called Privet, but they are also said to feed on grasses.  The BugLady’s “ornamental plantings” are not the type that are regularly visited by the “House and Gardens” crew, and she has no idea where this quirky little moth is finding Privet.

 

The aptly-named, day-flying WHITE-STRIPED BLACK moth (Trichodezia albovittata) (“white line/stripe”), in the family Geometridae (“earth measurers”), is easily mistaken for a butterfly.  Geometrid caterpillars are often called “inchworms” because of the way they move across the landscape; the WSB caterpillar’s landscape of choice is primarily leaves of plants in the Impatiens/Touch-me-not family.  Adult Geometrids are equipped with tympanal hearing organs (“ears”) on their abdomen but no “vocal” ability.  They hear but they do not speak.  In Moths and Caterpillars of the North Woods Jim Sogaard says that “This moth still has very sensitive ‘bat detectors’ (ears) suggesting that it has become day-flying relatively recently.  A good candidate for key-jingling.  In flight the boldly contrasting pattern creates an elusive flickering effect.”  (about “key-jingling” Sogaard says “you can trigger bat-evasion behaviors by jingling a ring of keys near flying moths.  The key-jingling sound contains ultrasound which can cause dropping, diving or spiraling flight in moths with ears.  Bat detectors can make the ultrasonic calls of bats and moths audible.”)

 

What a spiffy little moth!  The BOXWOOD LEAFTIER (Galasa nigrinodis) is in the Snout moth family Pyralidae, and it is found from the Rockies to the Atlantic.  Its species name, nigrinodis, means “black knot,” possibly a reference to the Percheron-like tufts of hair on its front legs.  Again, in a landscape without decorative hedges, the BugLady can’t imagine where this quirky little moth is finding the non-native boxwood shrubs that are its sole larval host (although there are suspicions that the related native, Alleghany spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), which is planted horticulturally in some parts of the country, may also host the caterpillar) (the BugLady doesn’t have any of that, either).  Caterpillars tie the leaves of their host shrub together and then feed on them.

 

With a nod to the drawbacks of “picture-keying,” the BugLady recommends the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Northeastern North America by Beadle and Leckie and Moths and Caterpillars of the North Woods by Sogaard for your moth adventures.  Not much natural history info in the Peterson, but great pictures of a whole lot of species, large and small, that may help you to ID a moth so you can find out more about it.

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Phantom Crane Fly

Salutations, BugFans,

 

What an excellent fly!

 

Most BugFans are familiar with crane flies (those giant, non-biting “mosquitoes” in the family Tipulidae) (keep an eye out – some of the fall-flying Tipulids are pretty spectacular).  Phantom crane flies belong in the small family Ptychopteridae (only three genera).  Crane flies of both families were named for their long legs, and most authors attribute the “phantom” part of the name to the way PCFs drift through the air, appearing and disappearing in patches of light and shadow.  Our PCF (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 PCF 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 PCF 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; 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 tracheaIn 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 [av_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 PCFs 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 PCFs taste otherwise (the aquatic larvae scavenge on organic detritus in the water that surrounds them, and the adults eat little or nothing – 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 the PCF may sacrifice a conspicuously-striped leg to save its life.

 

Clearly, PCFs 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 PCF couples flying around in tandem.  Both in flight and when hanging from a leaf, the female provides the muscle.  Twice, as the BugLady was (voyeuristically) photographing a mating pair, a third PCF 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.

 

PCFs 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.

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Wooly Alder Aphid

Salutations, BugFans,

 

We have already met the Wooly Alder Aphid (Prociphilus tessellatus) (tessellateto form or arrange in a checkered or mosaic pattern), through the eyes of one of its predators, the carnivorous caterpillar of the Harvester butterfly, but it has its own story to tell.  Wooly Alder Aphids (wooly or woolly – both spellings are correct) are not the only wooly

aphids, but they are a common species that can be particularly noticeable in autumn, as leaves fall (the BugLady has also included a picture of some wooly “beech blight aphids” that she found last fall.  They were doing the most astonishing alarm behavior, a behavior that has earned them the name “Boogie Woogie aphid.”  Watch the video at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech_blight_aphid).

 

Wooly aphids (family Aphididae, subfamily Eriosomatinae) are spectacular when sitting on twigs in large assemblages, and startling as individuals, flying through the air like bits of fluff or feathers.  Their aerial appearance has earned them common names like fairy flies, fluff bugs, and angel bugs.  They’ve also been given the slightly less flattering name “maple blight aphids.”

 

The “wool” on a wooly aphid is wax, produced by abdominal glands in order to make the aphid look less like a Happy Meal to its predators.  The wax streamers shed water, make the aphid look like mold, and are distasteful and distracting (the Harvester caterpillar covers itself in aphid wax, too, and so does the marauding green lacewing larva).  Several sources suggested that the strands also assist a wooly aphid when it’s aloft, helping it float in the breezes and disguising it as an airborne plant seed.  Some, but not all adults are wooly.

 

Like many other WAs, a WAA’s lifestyle is complicated, involving two host plants at two different stages of its life.  For much of her life, a female aphid reproduces parthenogenetically, popping out live young (clones) all over her host plant without benefit of male companionship and without eggs (no-frills reproduction).  Her young can reproduce at an early age, and it’s jokingly said that a female aphid who starts at the bottom of a plant stem is a great-great-grandmother by the time she reaches the top.  Someone once calculated that in optimal conditions – good food, balmy days, and no predators – an aphid could have six billion offspring by the end of the season!  In times of stress – when they’ve sucked a plant dry, or frosty weather is approaching – a winged generation of both males and females is produced and bodily fluids are exchanged (and genetic diversity is boosted).

 

WAAs lay their eggs on Silver maple trees (Acer saccharinum) (the eggs have woolly coats, too).  The eggs, all female, hatch in spring as leaves are bursting, and the aphids feed along the midrib of the maple leaves.  In early summer, as maple leaves are toughening up, a winged generation flies from maple trees to alder shrubs (Alnus sp.).  There, they tuck in again, imbibing alder juices.

 

Decreasing day length signals the alder crowd to produce winged generation (alternatively, they may start producing both males and females when they arrive on the alders, but these reproductive aphids don’t mature until signaled by the end of the growing season), and they make for the maples again.  Eggs are laid (just one per female!) in crevices in the bark.  Most sources state that the WWA overwinters in the egg stage, but they also mention adults overwintering on maples in fuzzy clumps.  WAAs are found in North America east of the Mississippi, and maybe adults of southern populations can overwinter successfully.

 

Aphids are plant-juice-suckers.  They stick their mouthparts in the plant of their choice and drink far more sap than a critter that size would seem to need (it comes out under pressure, too).  Why?  They’re after the sugars (the carbs) in the sap, but they also need nitrogen, which is present in very small quantities.  Young insects, especially, need nitrogen to build proteins – protein is made up of amino acids, and nitrogen is an ingredient of amino acids.  The strategy – drink LOTS AND LOTS of plant juices in order to pick up sufficient nitrogen, and jettison the unwanted carbs in the form of a sweet substance called honeydew.

 

Honeydew is a desirable commodity in the world of invertebrates.  If left alone, aphids simply drop their honeydew on surrounding leaves, where it acts like a shiny magnet for flies, wasps, bees, and other vegetarians.  But aphids, and other Homopterans like treehoppers and scales, are often seen in the company of ants.  These ant guardians care for their flocks, defend them from predators, and even transport them to greener pastures.  The payoff is that the ants may “milk” the aphids, harvesting the honeydew directly from the source and transporting it to their nests (some ant species have specialized “tanker ants”).  Research has shown that a “farmed” aphid produces more honeydew during its life than an “unfarmed” one, and according to entomologist Debbie Hadley “Some aphid species have lost the ability to poop on their own, and now depend on their caretaker ants to milk them.”  The Minnesota DNR cautions us that “while the honeydew excreted by the aphids is very sweet, it is mixed with aphid waste materials, so licking the honeydew off your car windshield is not recommended.

 

For all the plant juices that are consumed by WAAs, individually and communally, most sources agree that damage is minimal and WAA control is unnecessary (a big crowd of WAAs might cause some maple leaves to shrivel, but some other species of WAs have a much greater impact on their hosts).  As Iowa State University notes in one of its “Iowa Insect Information Notes,” “Woolly aphids are an important resource for natural biological controls such as lacewings, lady beetles, hover flies, and parasitic wasps.  Tolerance of aphid presence is one way to encourage beneficial insects.”  They go on to say “Flying adults are a wonderment.  They are intriguing, not harmful.  When adults are migrating, the feeding and honeydew production on the maples has been accomplished and no control is needed.  Relax and enjoy the fascination of Nature.”

 

That being said, there are several “down-sides” to having WAAs, and honeydew is at the top of the list.  It’s sticky, and objects that it falls on (like sidewalks, lawn furniture and cars) get sticky, too.  The wasps and bees that are attracted to honeydew have stingers.  Thick deposits of honeydew turn out to be the perfect culture medium to grow a “sooty mold,” a creepy looking crusty fungus that can cut off sunlight to a leaf surface.

 

To read about the Harvester caterpillar, check http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/harvesterbutterfly.cfm.

 

World Wide Web note:  The BugLady can never resist, when she’s doing a search for something like Prociphilus tessellatus, clicking on the inevitable “Lyrics containing the term Prociphilus tessellatus” site.  Surprisingly, there weren’t any.

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Checkered Beetle

Salutations, BugFans,

 

The BugLady chased this speedy little Checkered beetle (probably Enoclerus rosmarus) around a wild sunflower stalk for a while, and these are the best pictures she could get.  When she first saw it out of the corner of her eye, she thought that it was a particularly colorful ant, and that’s the point.  There’s a group of wasps called “Velvet Ants” whose females are wingless (and furry) http://bugguide.net/node/view/956650/bgimage.  They occur in dry, sandy areas from the Southwest and southern Great Plains, through the Gulf States and up the Atlantic coast as far as Connecticut (the BugLady has seen them in Texas and southern New Jersey).  The fact that they are also called “Cow-killer ants” hints at how their sting feels.  This genus of checkered beetles has picked a good group to mimic, because nobody messes with Velvet Ants.

 

About 300 species of checkered beetles (family Cleridae) live in a variety of habitats in North America (there are about 3,500 species worldwide).  As a group they are small-ish, hairy, long and narrow, and brightly-patterned.  Their head is wide, their thorax tapers, and the elytra (hard wing covers) are broader than the thorax.

 

CBs can be seen on flowers and in trees.  Most species are meat eaters as both larvae and adults.  Adult Clerids practice their carnivorous lifestyles in a variety of ways – the majority hunt on and under the bark of trees; some sit on flowers or sap flows and prey on visiting insects (they occasionally stop and sip the nectar and pollen themselves; adults of some species eat it exclusively and are considered noteworthy pollinators).  Still others consume insect eggs.  There are a few scavengers in the bunch, too, and some that “prey on” processed foods or on pests of processed foods.

 

Some of the under-the-bark species are considered important biological controls of the bark and wood-boring beetles whose galleries (tunnels) devalue cut timber.  If, like bark beetles, you live under bark, in the dark, you can’t use visual signals to find a mate.  You can use chemical signals called aggregation pheromones to gather a like-minded crowd, and the clever CB can tune into these pheromones to locate its meals.  Clever foresters can buy synthetic bark beetle pheromones and deploy them to attract more Clerids.

 

In general, adult CBs eat adult beetles, and their larvae feed on beetle larvae.  Ralph Swain, in The Insect Guide, calls CB larvae “the ferrets of the insect world, preying upon the larvae of bark beetles and other wood-boring beetles, moths, wasps and bees” (they can be a problem in honeybee hives), and even on gall insects.  They are able to excavate their own tunnels but are more likely to follow their prey down its tunnel.  The larvae of vegetarian CBs tend to be scavengers.

 

Females lay their eggs, a few dozen at a time, usually under the bark of a dead/dying tree that contains their larva’s prey, or in the soil.  The larvae are described as vigorous feeders – indeed, egg-laying requires so much energy that females often eat vigorously even as they’re mating.  CBs tend to overwinter in the larval stage, pupating in spring in cells they prepare in the soil or in their prey’s tunnel and emerging in summer.

 

Enoclerus rosmarus (no common name) is just under a half-inch long, covered with bristly hairs that are more dense aft than fore.  It lives in the eastern half of the US and its range extends south into Central America.  Unlike its tree-loving relatives, Er loves flowers and is found on a variety of prairie plants (one study linked them with horseweeds in the genus Conyza) and sumac, and its favorite food is nectar.  Er larvae overwinter burrowed into the stems of prairie plants, especially those in the Aster family.

 

As alert BugFans have probably noticed from the BugLady’s verbal tap-dancing, there was a dearth of specific life history information about this lovely species, but its name did come up in tantalizing references from a variety of research projects:

  • In a study by Senchina and Summerville to enumerate the insects that are associated with poison ivy.  Apparently, poison ivy is an under-studied plant (go figure!) but the Er was one species of the 37 “floral associates” noted during the study.  Poison ivy’s multitude of pollinators help it to spread.
  • Ers apparently overwinter as “inquilines” (Latin for “boarders”) in a rose stem gall (scientists bring a gall inside in the winter, put it in a screened container, and record who eventually emerges – besides the gall-maker itself.  In one study involving Willow pine cone galls, 23 galls were collected, and 564 insects were reared from them – but only 15 of the galls contained the original host gnat) (some inquilines live not-so-peaceably with their hosts).  Ers were also reared from several oak galls; a few CBs feed on gall-makers, but it wasn’t clear if the Er’s were dining, or just using the guest room.
  • In a publication called “Fauna Overwintering in or on the Stems of Wisconsin Prairie Forbs” (wildflowers), Williams reports that Ers and a surprising number of other arthropods – adults and immatures, from several rungs on the food chain – overwinter on or within the stems of Joe-Pye weed, Blazing star, etc.  This becomes important as prairie management techniques are selected – fire, mowing and grazing are hard on these highly specialized prairie invertebrates.  As Riveredge’s Andy Larsen used to say, you can try to establish a prairie, but until the sustainable partnerships of native plants and-insects are in place, all you have is prairie plantings.

 

The BugLady

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