Bug o’the Week – Ailanthus Webworm Moth

Greetings, BugFans,

It’s always a treat to find one of these jewel-like insects nectaring, usually on goldenrod.  They are day-flying moths, though their tendency to sit with wings wrapped around their bodies makes them look like beetles, and their bright colors make them wasp-like in flight.

Ailanthus webworm moths (Atteva aurea) (“aurea” means “golden”) are in the family Attevidae, the tropical ermine moths.  And tropical they are, except for the AWM (Ailanthus webworm moth, not “angry white men”), which has shed some of its southern proclivities.

Before 1784, AWMs were found in southern Florida and points south, their caterpillars feeding peacefully on the leaves of several species of native trees in the genus Simarouba in the Quassia family (Simaroubaceae).  In 1784, a related Chinese tree called the Ailanthus tree or Tree of Heaven (Aitanthus altissima) was introduced into Philadelphia.  On the plus side, it grows like crazy and tolerates city pollution well.  On the minus side, it grows like crazy, producing suckers by the bushel and killing neighboring trees via allelopathic chemicals.  And it stinks – it’s sometimes called “Stinking sumac” (it’s not related to our common sumacs), and the Chinese name for the species (“chouchun”) translates as “foul-smelling tree.”  It’s considered a noxious weed in parts of Europe, the US, and Down Under, and it’s sometimes called “Tree from Hell.”

It turned out that Tree of Heaven can thrive in colder climates than its Florida relatives and that it was acceptable fare for the AWMs.  So, when Ailanthus trees eventually extended their range south into Florida, the moth hopped on board and moved north.

Though it still can’t survive a Polar Vortex, the AWM has extended its range considerably; the moths recolonize the northeastern parts of North America each summer, and climate change is allowing it to establish resident populations farther north.

As its name suggests, the larva https://bugguide.net/node/view/693752/bgimage is a dietary specialist, feeding (almost) exclusively on Tree of Heaven (bugguide.net contributors also report seeing it on sumac).  Ailanthus leaves are a veritable pharmacy of chemicals, including substances that retard growth, feeding, and reproduction.  There are three ways that insects deal with toxic food plants – they don’t eat them, they’re really good at eliminating the chemicals quickly, or they’re able to sequester poisons in special organs where they don’t bother the caterpillar but can harm its predators.  AWMs can get away with those striking colors because, due to their caterpillar’s diet, they taste bad, and birds avoid them.  The presumably-more-edible Gold-banded cydosia moth dodges predators by mimicking the AWM (https://bugguide.net/node/view/314682).

The gregarious AWM larvae throw a web of silk around a bunch of leaflets and then feed inside this shelter https://bugguide.net/node/view/1043954/bgimage; their short, stiff hairs keep them from falling out of it (although an alarmed caterpillar will back out of the webbing and drop, attached to its home by a strand of silk).  It’s an all-purpose abode – they feed inside the webbing (and some sources said they feed outside it at night), they make their pupal cases in it, and they lay their eggs on the silk “tent,” too (on their natal web or on someone else’s) https://bugguide.net/node/view/1043971/bgimage.  The journey from egg to adult takes about a month, the adults are long-lived, and there are several generations per year.  For some nice pictures of life cycle, see https://bygl.osu.edu/index.php/node/381.

It wasn’t until 1911 that a chance observation by a Philadelphia entomologist connected the moth to the tree.  The next question was, “If the tree was introduced, where did the moth come from?”  For that story, see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309678701_AILANTHUS_WEBWORM_MOTH_Atteva_aurea.

According to the great website Illinois Wildflowers, (http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/) which includes information about the “Faunal Associations” of plants, the Tree of Heaven/Hell is also a host of the spectacular Ailanthus Silkworm/Cynthia moth (Samia cynthia) (https://bugguide.net/node/view/313264/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/330267/bgimage) whose story turned out quite differently than the AWM’s.  It was brought here from China in the 1860’s to produce silk, and, of course, it escaped.  Despite its caterpillar’s diet, neither the adult silk moth nor its larvae is chemically protected.  The Ailanthus silkworm is mostly found in the urban areas along the Atlantic Coast where its host lives, but its distribution is spotty, and bugguide.net questions whether any wild populations remain.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – September Scenes

Howdy, BugFans,

The leaves are starting to fall here in God’s Country, the birds are moving, and as of yesterday it’s officially autumn (Yikes!).  But there are still some bugs out there – like wildflowers, some species of insects bloom in the spring, some in the summer, and others in the fall.  The imperative to reproduce is strong as the days get shorter; most insects live for about a calendar year, mainly in their immature stages, with a short-but-productive adult stage.  Most leave behind eggs or pupae or partly-grown offspring to weather the winter.

ROYAL ANTS   As the BugLady walked along a prairie path recently, she found several mounds of ants celebrating their nuptial flight – large queens were climbing on vegetation to launch themselves into the air, accompanied by workers and small, winged males. Read all about it at https://uwm.edu/field-station/flying-ants/.

The MONARCH migration is winding down – they are still filtering south slowly, nectaring as they go.  A Monarch that arrives in Mexico has six times more fat stored in its body than it had when it came out of its chrysalis, fat that it needs to survive the winter. The BugLady counted 411 monarchs along the trails at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve on September 18 – clouds of butterflies rose up from goldenrod and aster clumps as she walked by.

Five days later she found only 56, and the shadows that fell on the trail were those of thousands of migrating Common Green Darners.

This YELLOW AND BLACK ARGIOPE/ORBWEAVER is doing her part to rid the world of Japanese beetles.  Keep an eye out for the large orb-weavers in fall – some are pretty spectacular https://uwm.edu/field-station/big-orb-weaving-spiders/.

The END BAND NET-WINGED BEETLE (What a mouthful!  ) (Calopteron terminale – probably – there’s another species that usually has two black bars, but sometimes has just one).  These brightly-colored beetles are advertising that they contain chemicals that make them smell and taste bad.  When startled, they raise and flash their wings at us in case we missed the point.  They have awesome larvae that congregate in large masses – here’s a small pile of larvae of a different species https://bugguide.net/node/view/823227/bgimage, and good pictures of another species http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/beetles/banded_net-winged_beetle.htm.

MEADOWHAWK dragonflies see us through from July until the first frost and sometimes beyond.  After mating, the female White-faced Meadowhawk will gamble – dropping eggs onto an area that looks like it may get wet later in the future.  Win big or lose big.  There are a half-dozen species of meadowhawks flying around these days https://uwm.edu/field-station/meadowhawks/.

GIANT SWALLOWTAILS are a southern species whose chrysalises (according to the books) are not able to survive Wisconsin winters, and the butterflies drift north each summer.  The BugLady isn’t so sure about that; she sees very fresh-looking Giant swallowtails butterflies here in mid-May, and finds their caterpillars browsing on prickly ash leaves in fall (the caterpillars feed on plants in the orange family and are called “orange dogs” in the south).

BUMBLEBEE ON SPOTTED TOUCH-ME-NOT – bumblebees are famous for their “buzz-pollination” and for being muscly enough to force their way into tubular flowers.  https://uwm.edu/field-station/celebrating-bumblebees/.  Spotted jewelweed flowers don’t present much of a challenge for them, even honeybees can get in.

The BugLady loves stalking these elegant FESTIVE TIGER BEETLES on the trail to the prairie at Riveredge; the beetles let her get close enough to attempt a few pictures and then fly forward a few yards (and wait).  She does the same thing in early summer with the very-spiffy Six-spotted tiger beetles https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/tigerbeetle/species/266-six-spotted-tiger-beetle.

PAINTED LADIES are putting on quite a show these days – the BugLady counted more than 100 of them on a recent 1 ½ mile stroll around the grasslands at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve and gave up counting them at Lion’s Den Gorge this afternoon.  Groups of insects big enough to appear on weather radar have been making the news this year, starting with a swarm of Painted ladies that was tracked leaving California in early summer (other acceptable collective nouns for butterflies are flutter, kaleidoscope, rainbow, and, inexplicably, rabble).  Painted Ladies disperse from their southwestern homelands and come to Wisconsin in varying numbers each year https://uwm.edu/field-station/cherish-the-butterfly-ladies/.

EASTERN FORKTAILS have a long “flight period” – these small damselflies grace wetland edges from May through September.  Forktails oviposit in submerged aquatic vegetation, and this one is, alas, placing her eggs in the stem of a Common bladderwort, a carnivorous plant that will probably eat some of her young when they emerge https://uwm.edu/field-station/forktails-two/.

WOOLY BEAR CATERPILLARS are crossing the roads these days, only one of several fuzzy, fall tussock and tiger moth caterpillars.  Wooly bears will spend the winter as caterpillars, and you may see them abroad during a thaw.  Their winter weather forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt (the BugLady’s Sainted Grandma used to predict the winter based on how thick the squirrels’ winter coats were).  They wait until spring to pupate, and they use some of their hairs to make their pupal case https://uwm.edu/field-station/woolly-bears/.

CRAB SPIDER IN FRINGED GENTIAN FLOWER – hey – a gal’s gotta eat!

Go outside – look for bugs, and remember – “For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace. (Edwin Way Teale).

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Adventures at Forest Beach

Greetings, BugFans,

Forest Beach Migratory Preserve is a repurposed golf course north of Port Washington (WI), owned by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.  It’s mainly grassland, with woods and some brushy areas, and it was designed to serve as a stopover/refueling “bed and breakfast” for migrating birds.  Water hazards were turned into small ponds, more ponds were dug, and tall grass prairie plants were planted.  It glows with goldenrod and brown-eyed Susan these days, punctuated by New England aster and the last of the blazing star.

Creating a good place for birds has helped insects, too.

There’s a sand scrape near one pond (maybe an old sand trap) that the BugLady always checks – poor soil with horseweed (Erigeron), Queen Anne’s lace, willow sprouts and bare spots –and there she found a small drama playing out.

Communal wasps and bees get a lot of press because of their interesting behaviors and social hierarchies and because of the dangers of stumbling into one of their nests by accident.  The vast majority of wasp and bee species, though, are solitary; and in the absence of a big crew of workers to share the child care duties, most have devised a system where their larvae take care of themselves – with a little prep from Mom.  She makes a tunnel in wood or soil, often with several chambers for several young, caches each with a bunch of food (stunned invertebrates), lays an egg on/near the food, closes up the chamber, and departs.  When the egg hatches, dinner is served, and the larva exits the tunnel after pupation, as an adult.  Various species of wasp target various types of prey – caterpillars, stink bugs, cicadas, spiders, and even other wasps.

In the sand scrape, the BugLady saw a small-ish wasp hauling a banded orbweaver spider across the sand toward a hole she had dug.  It was a tough slog – the spider was bigger than the wasp was, but it had been stung and paralyzed and was not resisting.  At one point, the wasp stopped and fussed at something on the spider’s legs – an ant, just visible in the pictures, was interested in the spider.

She dragged the spider past the hole and into a stand of horseweed about 18” tall, picked a fairly bare stalk, and hoisted the spider up behind her.  She pulled it all the way to the top of the plant and carried it back down again, and part-way up a neighboring, leafier stalk, where she wedged it into the angle between a leaf and the stem.  Then she returned to the ground without it and fussed around the opening of the hole for a bit, removing a piece of dry grass stem that had blown across it.  The BugLady wondered (anthropomorphically) if the wasp was trying to hide the spider from the ants, but she found a note about a One/Two-spotted spider wasp stashing prey on plant leaves while she continued to work on a tunnel.

The wasp is a spider wasp (family Pampilidae) called Episyron biguttatus (probably), which Wikipedia calls the Two-spotted spider wasp and “Why Evolution is True” calls the One-spotted spider wasp.  Genus members are found throughout North America in sandy, easily excavated soil that they dig by biting it and then sweeping the loosened particles aside with their (combed) front legs.  Adults haunt the flower tops looking for orb-weavers and wolf spiders.

As the BugLady watched the spider, a bird swooped past her, and she turned in time to see a falcon heading for a dead tree.  It was a Merlin (the falcon formerly known as Pigeon Hawk), and it sat on a dead branch preening and watching the crazy woman photographing spiders and wasps (sorry, terrible light conditions + insufficient lens power = Hail Mary shot).

It was not surprising to see this bird.  Hawk migration is warming up, and both Merlins and their smaller relatives, the Kestrels, time their migration to coincide with that of Common Green Darners and Black Saddlebags.  Their migration is fueled by dragonflies, and the air at Forest Beach has been full of darners lately.  Merlins, whose diet also includes lots of small birds, grab darners out of the sky.

The soundtrack of the BugLady’s walk was provided by meadow katydids and tree crickets (http://songsofinsects.com/).  For more about tree crickets, see https://uwm.edu/field-station/tree-crickets/.  The voices of insects and the changing color of the leaves are a little gift from Mother Nature to make up for the upcoming quiet and monochromatic months.

Go outside – listen to bugs!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Welcome to The New River Outpost!


The River Outpost opens Friday, September 20!

The River Outpost provides an educational and support facility near the bank of the Milwaukee River, as well as a Watershed Interactive Table to support water quality citizen science efforts, the Lake Sturgeon restoration project, and educational programs for youth and adults. The goal of this exciting, new space is to serve as a watershed education hub for the Milwaukee River through education, river interaction experiences, and restoring Lake Sturgeon to local waterways.

Vital Community Partners

Students of The Riveredge School explore along the Milwaukee River.

The River Outpost was made possible by significant generous gifts from both West Bend Mutual Insurance Company and the Fund For Lake Michigan, as well as other generous community donors. Riveredge is fortunate to partner with community partners that value watershed education and protecting our local resources, including the Milwaukee River, Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. These partners appreciate the impact of human land and water use on the ecosystems we all share.

River Outpost Celebration

To celebrate the opening of The River Outpost, Riveredge Nature Center is hosting a Community Celebration on Friday, September 20 from 4:00pm – 7:00pm, featuring a classic Wisconsin Friday Night Perch Fry (tickets for perch fry or baked cod dinners must be purchased in advance) and a live performance from Polka Fusion. Guests can explore the new facility, discover water critters in the Milwaukee River and through microscopes in the classroom, experience the watershed interactive technology table, sculpt artwork alongside the resident River Outpost artist Sally Duback, wander the Milwaukee River trails, and more. 

The River Outpost will be a hub for Milwaukee River and water quality education for all ages.

Additionally, everyone in attendance can meet the young Lake Sturgeon being raised in the Sturgeon Trailer that will be released into Lake Michigan during Sturgeon Fest on Saturday, September 28 at Lakeshore State Park in Milwaukee. 

The River Outpost Location

Comprising 379 acres of wild Wisconsin, Riveredge has been working to increase its educational impacts with facilities that are usable in all four seasons, while identifying building sites that won’t negatively affect habitat. The River Outpost is located in a previously disturbed building site near the Milwaukee River, providing optimum proximity for guest experience without impacting existing flora and fauna.

Riveredge Announces Artist Sally Duback for River Outpost Artwork

Original architectural rendering of The River Outpost facility at Riveredge Nature Center.

Riveredge Nature Center has selected Mequon-based artist Sally Duback to create community-based artwork for display surrounding its new River Outpost Building. Duback has spent the last 30 years creating her own artworks, as well as engaging in community art collaborations throughout the region. Some of her prior community-based artworks can be seen at Virmond Park, the Niederkorn Public Library, Prairie Springs Environmental Education Center, Messmer Elementary School, and the Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

Artist Sally Duback

For this project, community participants are invited to mold and paint clay artworks that relate to their experiences with the Milwaukee River and Watershed, which Duback will then fire, arrange, and incorporate into sculptural pieces to be installed permanently near the River Outpost Building. “I am so pleased to have the opportunity to create this work with the Riveredge community and to engage participants in the project as a visual conversation about the Milwaukee River watershed. Any time I am able to create a work of public art that deals with environmental issues is a win/win for me,” said Duback.

A recent collaborative community artwork by Sally Duback, on display in Virmond Park.

This opportunity takes place through a Mary L. Nohl grant awarded to Riveredge to create and display community-based artworks at its River Outpost facility, the focus of which is water-related education. The Mary L. Nohl Fund, among the largest funds created at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, invests in local arts education programs and projects.

Upcoming Public Community Art Engagement Events

Riveredge and Duback welcome people to participate in creating artworks during community events, and which can eventually be displayed along Riveredge’s Milwaukee River trails.

Currently scheduled events include the following dates and locations:

River Outpost Celebration at Riveredge | Friday, September 20

Sturgeon Fest in Milwaukee’s Lakeshore State Park | Saturday, September 28

Music in the Mushroom – A Historic Riverside Celebration at Riveredge | Saturday, October 12

Woodland Pattern Book Center | Saturday, November 9 at 2:00pm

Bug o’the Week – Shaggy-legged Gallinipper

Howdy, BugFans,

Remember the clouds of little floodplain mosquitoes in September of 2018?  Floodplain mosquitoes take advantage of pools left by seasonal rain, and August 0f 2018 was soggy (the BugLady collected more than 7 inches of rain in her rain gauge that month).  Populations of most dragonflies were in their fall decline, so no help from that quarter, and outdoor events in September involved lots of swatting.

For a refresher course on mosquitoes, see https://uwm.edu/field-station/the-mighty-mosquito/.

The BugLady guessed the genus, and an entomologist confirmed that her mosquito is “consistent in appearance with Psorophora ciliata, our largest mosquito in the state, though not a commonly encountered one” (none of the other dozen-of-so members of the genus has erect “hairs” on their hind legs https://bugguide.net/node/view/813964/bgimage).  The SLG is in the fly family Culicidae.

Sadly, Shaggy-legged Gallinipper is not the officially recognized name for Psorophora ciliata (one site offered a pronunciation – sore AH fur uh    silly AHT uh).  Neither is “syringe with wings,” which is what a reporter from the North Country News called it a few years ago.  According to bugguide.net, “The word gallinipper originated as a vernacular term in the southeastern US referring to ‘a large mosquito or other insect that has a painful bite or sting’ and has appeared in folk tales, traditional minstrel songs, and a blues song referencing a large mosquito with a ‘fearsome bite.’” Gallinipper seems like the kind of name that’s whispered around campfires in the dark.

This is a whale of a mosquito (the BugLady’s first impression when she saw it on her hand was “Wow!” not “ouch”).  Males https://bugguide.net/node/view/1599206/bgimage have large, feathery antennae that allow them to detect the whine/vibrational wave pattern of her wingbeats https://bugguide.net/node/view/1599206/bgimage.  Her simple antennae are sufficient to lead her to a source of blood https://bugguide.net/node/view/1603291/bgimage, and her yellowish proboscis is tipped with black https://bugguide.net/node/view/1284682/bgimage.  For more pictures, see https://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/AQUATIC/Ps_ciliata.htm.

The SLG is found over a good chunk of the US east of the Continental Divide, though it has Southern proclivities and occurs as far south as Argentina.

It’s an uncommon mosquito that is more abundant in wet summers.  Like other floodwater or “new water” species, SLGs gamble.  Rather than using established wetlands, they lay their eggs on damp or low grassy ground that may flood in a big rain, and the eggs hatch when water covers them.  The fact that their eggs are designed to withstand long periods of desiccation improves their odds tremendously (an accumulation of years of plant seeds on the ground is called a “seed bank;” one source referred to the SLG’s reproductive strategy as an “egg bank”).  A number of the hits the BugLady found when researching the SLG chronicled their appearance in the wake of hurricanes and floods in the vein of one disaster following another.  Because their natal pools are transient, they must telescope their growth period, emerging as adults in just under a week after the eggs are inundated.  They overwinter as dormant eggs.

SLG larvae https://bugguide.net/node/view/349412/bgimage are aquatic, and they’re typically the largest mosquito larva in their neighborhood.  Immediately after hatching they feed like other mosquitoes by filtering tiny bits of organic matter.  But as they molt and grow, they become carnivorous (an uncommon habit among mosquitoes), pursuing other aquatic invertebrates, including other mosquito larvae.  For this reason, they have been studied as a possible biological control for disease-carrying mosquitoes (apparently SLGs can carry encephalitis and West Nile virus, but there’s no evidence that they transmit them), however 1) SLGs are generally too scarce to be effective; and 2) SLGs themselves bite and annoy people.  Adults feed on nectar, and Mom, of course, must have a blood meal in order to form her eggs.  By most accounts, she targets some livestock (the ruminants) and deer and a number of small mammals like raccoons, but she will also select humans.

A number of sources spoke of the aggressiveness of the SLG and of its painful bite, which the BugLady does not recall as being extraordinary.

Local maritime enthusiasts please note – a schooner by the name of the Gallinipper sank in Lake Michigan off of Manitowoc County in a white squall in 1851 (the state’s first known commercial shipwreck).  Apparently an ill-fated ship, she was originally christened the Nancy Dousman but was renamed after she sank (the first time) in the mid-1840’s.  In the run-up to her final immersion, she foundered in 1848, ran aground in the Milwaukee harbor in 1850, and sank in the Milwaukee harbor a few months before she sank for good http://www.wisconsinshipwrecks.org/Vessel/Details/230?region=ByAttractionType (you can visit her historical marker in Sheboygan).

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Fiery Skipper Butterfly

Greetings, BugFans,

The Fiery Skipper is one of a pair of distinctive skippers that was featured in a BOTW in 2013 (https://uwm.edu/field-station/fiery-and-common-checkered-skippers-family-hesperiidae/).  It’s an uncommon migrant to Wisconsin, but the BugLady saw 11 Fiery Skippers decorating the vervain flowers at Waubedonia Park recently, and they seem to be having a good year statewide, so she decided they deserve a more complete biography.

Skippers, so-named for their rapid, bouncy flight, are butterflies that the Field Guide to Butterflies of North America refers to as a “group of mostly small and confusing creatures” (the majority of skippers are either brown and orange or orange and brown).  They are not moths, but they are often called “moth-like” because they are big-eyed, hairy, and chunky.  Their short-wings have to work extra hard to propel them through the air (at speeds up to 20 mph, according to one source).  Skippers have sometimes been called a transition group between butterflies and moths, but a genetic work-up places them squarely in the Superfamily Papilionoidea along with Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Red-spotted Purples and the rest.  Their antennae are different than a moth’s – ending with an elongate, hooked knob.

They are not moths, and the BugLady is dismayed when someone who should know better, like the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, says in a publication about lawn pests that “Fiery skipper adults resemble butterflies and…..”  Or when an article in the Journal of the Acadian Entomological Society in 2012 says “The Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus Drury, 1773) … is a medium-sized skipper … commonly found on both American continents. Moths typically fly from early September to late October” [emphasis, the BugLady].

Here’s a nicely illustrated “how-to” (though the BugLady was dismayed to learn that there are skippers in Australia, too) https://australianbutterflies.com/whats-difference-butterflies-skippers-moths/.

Fiery Skippers are in the skipper family Hesperiidae and the subfamily Hesperiinae, the Grass skippers (because their larvae eat various kinds of grass).  Grass skippers often sit with their front wings spread partly open and their hind wings a little less so.  Kentucky bluegrass is among the grasses on the Fiery Skipper caterpillar’s menu, and it’s considered a pest species in some areas because of the patches of dead, brown grass where caterpillars feed.  Caterpillars live on grass blades that they fold/roll lengthwise and web into a shelter.  Several sources pointed out that these shelters lie horizontally, close to the ground, below the blade of a lawn mower.  They pupate on the ground, and the adults emerge with only one thing on their mind – females immediately start scoping out good habitat for their eggs, and males sit on the tops of grasses watching for them.  Most reproductive activity takes place within their first few days as adults.  Here’s a nice set of pictures of their life cycle https://bugguide.net/node/view/452219/bgimage.

There is a lot of variation within the species; females’ wings https://bugguide.net/node/view/233966/bgimage are more patterned than males’ https://bugguide.net/node/view/1720496/bgimage, and females can be notably un-fiery https://bugguide.net/node/view/126346/bgimage.

Sometimes, when the BugLady is collecting information for a BOTW, her subject lets her know what story it wants her to tell.  In the case of the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus), the story seems to be about where it lives.  Not in the short term – day-to-day it’s found in sunny, open spaces, often gardens, with flowers to nectar on and grass nearby for the larvae, from Canada to Argentina (with gaps in the Great Plains, Rockies, and Great Basin).  But this is a largely southern-to-tropical butterfly that none-the-less migrates from the southern/resident portions of its range to the northern US and into Canada in varying numbers from year to year.

And that’s a relatively new phenomenon.  According to the Massachusetts Butterfly site (whose data encompass 200+ years), the first Fiery Skippers were recorded in that state in 1940 (Rhode Island in 1911, Canadian Maritime Provinces in 1947).  In Butterflies of Wisconsin (1970), Ebner tells us that the earliest state records here were in 1952 and 1957.  He notes that the specimens “were rather fresh, perhaps being introduced here by stragglers that ventured into Wisconsin earlier during the same summers and layed [sic] their eggs.

In the south, around the Gulf of Mexico and in the desert southwest, they breed most of the year.  The butterflies that arrive here in early summer probably produce one brood that lives through the summer, but it’s too cold here for their caterpillars to survive the winter.  It’s possible that patterns connected to climate change are enhancing the weather that supports the Fiery Skipper’s tendency to travel, and it’s probable that the regions where caterpillars of this exquisite butterfly can overwinter will extend north.

A resource that the BugLady regularly checks includes a section on economic impact in its species information.  Fiery Skippers were given a plus for benefitting local economies via eco-tourism.  Butterfly fans in northern states may travel to Fiery Skipper sites in big years – indeed, the Massachusetts Butterfly folks initially scheduled field trips to the most reliable sites for the skipper.

Nota Bene: one of the hits that came up as the BugLady researched the Fiery Skipper was a range map on the Moth Photographer Group’s site at Mississippi State http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/large_map.php?hodges=4013.  She thought it might be another one of those skipper/moth deals, but it turns out that the group posts range maps for butterflies, just as they do for moths, but not pictures.  Good resource.

And this, by the BugLady’s count, is (drum roll) BOTW #550!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Aster Treehopper

Howdy, BugFans,

One of the things that the BugLady looks for as she skulks around in the underbrush is interactions between ants and other insects.  These are generally food-related – either a bunch of ants is carting a dead bug home, or they are satisfying their need for honeydew, a summertime, carbohydrate-rich specialty.  Aphids are a common source of honeydew because they must ingest a huge amount of dilute plant sap in order to fuel their activities, and the excess has to go somewhere, so it exits to the rear of the aphid.  Ants will “farm” herds of the docile aphids, protecting them from ladybugs and harvesting the sweet liquid in a win-win ecological relationship called mutualism.

Another source of honeydew is treehoppers, which look kind of like lumbering bison compared to aphids.  They are “true bugs” in the treehopper family Membracidae, some of which look dragon-like as nymphs https://bugguide.net/node/view/1181705/bgimage and thorn-like as adults https://bugguide.net/node/view/23335/bgimage.  There are more than 3,000 species of treehoppers, and they live everywhere except Antarctica.

Aster treehoppers (Publilia concava) are found in the eastern half of North America.  The BugLady usually sees them on goldenrods, but they can also be found on several other species in the Aster family, and the (winged) adults may move to woody plants.  According to Wikipedia, nymphs “have an extensible anal tube that appears designed to deposit honeydew away from their bodies. The tube appears to be longer in solitary species rarely attended by ants. It is important for sap-feeding bugs to dispose of honeydew, as otherwise it can become infected with sooty moulds. Indeed, one of the evident benefits of ants for Publilia concava nymphs is that the ants remove the honeydew and reduce such fungal growth.”

Unlike many insects, Aster treehoppers overwinter as adults, not as nymphs or eggs, in leaf litter below their host plants.  Males woo their ladies in spring with (inaudible to us) courtship calls http://treehoppers.insectmuseum.org/site/treehoppers/sounds/Publilia_Cocroft.wav that they generate by sending vibrations through the substrate.  Aster treehoppers also use vibrations to tell their confreres about good feeding spots and to alert their guardian ants to the presence of predators.  Studies have shown that Aster treehoppers will signal their protectors when ladybugs show up, and the ants will respond, and that the ants get excited when recorded treehopper alarm signals are played to them.  Aster treehoppers also have alarm pheromones that they activate when predators arrive, but scientists aren’t sure if that chemical message is received by the ants or is restricted to their fellow treehoppers.

Females partially insert their eggs into the stem or into the underside of a leaf on either side of a leaf’s midrib so that newly-hatched nymphs don’t have to travel far to tap into food, and she’s more likely to lay eggs if guardian ants are around.  Females watch over their egg clusters until the eggs hatch https://bugguide.net/node/view/894075/bgimage, and then, although they may stay on the scene (this is a gregarious species), they hand off the child care to the ants https://bugguide.net/node/view/535504/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/977443/bgimage.  If Mom is present and caring for her offspring, ants are more likely to step in, but if there are no ants around, Mom only lays one clutch of eggs and stays with her young https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4sUhRRVSwc.  One study showed that if ants are removed from their herd of treehopper nymphs, it can decrease nymphal survival by 20 times.

Aster treehoppers are one of the treehopper species in which Mom may leave her eggs in the egg cluster of another female and move on (brood parasitism).  The adoptive Mom cares for her foster eggs, and the “parasitic” Mom goes on to lay more clutches elsewhere.

Ants have “choices,” too – they are more likely to guard treehoppers when the quantity and quality of the honeydew meets their specifications and when the population of treehoppers is sufficiently dense and is near to their ant mound.

Ants in the genus Formica (accent on the first syllable) will take on goldenrod-defoliating Goldenrod leaf beetles – especially the beetle larvae, which the ants bite and spray with formic acid to encourage them to move on.  This benefits both their flock and the goldenrod plant (the sap-sucking treehoppers aren’t beneficial to the plant, either, but at least they don’t eat the leaves).  Ants that habitually clear the tops of their mounds to prevent shading may forgo that task if it interferes with their treehoppers.

Awesome baby https://bugguide.net/node/view/72969/bgimage!

The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – A Species on the March

Greetings, BugFans,

In mid-July, the BugLady ran into BugFan Freda at an Ozaukee Washington Land Trust property at the west end of Lake Twelve.  Lake Twelve is famous because of the presence there of not one, but two rare (in Wisconsin) damselflies – the Slender Bluet and the Lilypad Forktail.  The bluet has been on and off of our state radar since 2007; the forktail was first recorded at Lake Twelve in 2017 but has been seen intermittently in Wisconsin since 2010.  Freda introduced the BugLady to both species.

A week later, when she was chasing dragonflies at one of her familiar haunts at the north end of the Cedarburg Bog, the BugLady photographed (badly) a suspicious-looking damselfly that turned out to be a mature female Lilypad Forktail (Ischnura kellicotti).

The species, originally called Kellicott’s forktail or Kellicott’s thin-tail, was first described in Entomological News, Vol 9 (1898).  Along with the dancers, bluets and sprites, forktails are in the Narrow-winged/Pond damselfly family Coenagrionidae; “forktail” refers to projections at the tip of the male’s abdomen.

The BugLady loves common names.  Sure, if you say Ischnura kellicotti anyplace in the world, there’s only one critter you could be talking about.  But common names – bestowed by the people who experience a species where the rubber hits the road – allude to an organism’s appearance, taste, toxicity, smell, squishiness, hairiness, prickliness, all of the above, and much more.  Lilypad forktails are named for their chosen habitat.

They are tied to a single group of plants – water lilies – a habit that is uncommon among Odonates.  So attached are they to water lilies that when they perch on one – and they seldom perch anywhere else – the tip of their abdomen is usually bent down to be in contact with it.  It’s not known whether this contact allows for support or for some kind of predator detection, and several authors speculated that the damselfly uses the bent tip as a springboard when it takes off, a la springtails.  Their relatively short legs keep them close to the leaves, and their weak flight carries them low, directly from leaf to leaf or from leaf to prey.  So attached are they that the female lays eggs into the water lily leaf and the naiad lives clinging to its underside, coming topside only when it’s time to emerge as an adult.  So attached are they that people who want to see one often must take to canoes or kayaks to get out to the lily pads, or must wade or swim.  So attached are they that people who want to net one find that netting the whole lily leaf works best.

Male forktails and male bluets are often blue and black – forktails may resemble the “black-type bluets” whose front and rear are blue, but whose abdomens are mostly black.  Lilypad Forktails are small, under 1 ¼”.  Like Eastern Forktails, most females start out gloriously red-orange (some females mimic the blue and black of males), and they fade to slate-blue as they reach reproductive age due to pruinosity – the deposit of “hoary” flakes on various parts of the anatomy.  In all stages, they have oversized “eyespots” on the back of the eye.  See nice pictures of all the “plumages” here, including a dark teneral with yellow wings and a naiad, https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=70.  Thanks to BugFan Freda for the face-to-face shot.

The Lilypad Forktail bears more than a passing resemblance to another damsel called the Skimming Bluet (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1401924/bgimage), which also likes lily pads (in fact, when she found the Lilypad Forktail at the Bog, the BugLady went back and checked all the pictures of male Skimming Bluets that she had ever taken to make sure they were correctly ID’d.  Then we add to the mix the (oxymononic) Orange Bluet https://bugguide.net/node/view/429646/bgimage, a lily pad-sitter that resembles orange female forktails.  And the pruinose, older female Lilypad Forktails https://bugguide.net/node/view/977359/bgimage that look a lot like pruinose, older female Eastern Forktails https://bugguide.net/node/view/1536326/bgimage (hey – if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so much fun, right?).  Lilypad Forktails are notably feisty and frequently chase Skimming and Orange Bluets.

Females of many species of odonates have an “I’m not in the mood” posture, and it often includes a down-turned abdomen.  Female Lilypad Forktails do not have or need such a signal; apparently, their habitual posture is enough and they don’t get hassled!

Lilypad Forktails have an odd range.  They are an eastern/southeastern species that, according to Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, is found at lakes and ponds with lots of water lilies in states bordering the Atlantic from the Canadian Maritime Provinces (first record – 2017) to Florida, and then along the Gulf Coast to Texas, with tongues extending north toward the Midwest along the Mississippi River, and with some disjunct populations inland and around the south end of Lake Michigan.

What does it looks like when a species goes on the march and expands its range?  The BugLady sure wishes that every state had a dragonfly website as lovely and searchable as the Wisconsin Odonata Survey http://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/.  In Wisconsin (and in some of the other states that it has been recorded in), the Lilypad Forktail is a Species of Special Concern, a watch list status based on a specie’s highly limited range and small numbers of populations, as well as an assortment of threats.  In the case of the forktail, it’s not being wiped out here, its numbers are low because it’s attempting to move in from outside the state.  Probably.

According to the Odonata Survey, it was first recorded in Walworth County on our southern border in 2010; in Sauk County (south-central) in 2013; in Rock County, also on the Illinois border, in 2014; in Washington County (south-central) in 2017; Washington and Walworth Counties in 2018; and Washington and next-door Ozaukee Counties this year.  In 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2016 it was not reported.

The BugLady attempted to check the status of the Lilypad Forktail is within its given range, which took much longer than it should have.  As has been lamented in these pages before, she is “key-word challenged” – things are seldom filed away where she would put them.  Plus, state dragonfly lists can be hard to find.  And some State Natural Heritage sites (the organizations that track sensitive species) are remarkably hard to navigate (you know who you are) or have lovely interactive pages where you can search lists of sensitive species by county or plant community/region but not by species (ditto).  And a number of states that she investigated apparently either have 100% A-OK insect populations or don’t track insect populations (ditto).  One of the states in its range, a state with only one known Lilypad Forktail location, “does not currently have state threatened and endangered species legislation.

Keeping in mind that it’s a small damselfly that looks an awful lot like another small damselfly, what did the BugLady find?  In coastal states south of Delaware, it’s not considered common (except, perhaps, for some local populations), but it’s not considered to be in trouble, either.  Away from that core range, it’s listed as “greatest conservation need” in Maine, Vermont, and Delaware, but “secure” just north of Delaware in New Jersey; “vulnerable” in Connecticut and in Oklahoma, where one site noted that owners of farm and recreational ponds in Oklahoma often consider water lilies to be a pest plant and eradicate them; “imperiled” in Pennsylvania; and “state endangered” in Ohio.  In other inland states in its range, its population levels are apparently not considered alarming enough to track.

Species advance – two steps forward here, one step forward there, fall back, regroup.  With a little help from our friends.

The BugLady

Bug o’the Week – Stilt-legged fly

Greetings, BugFans,

The BugLady had a “Stop the Presses” moment as she was writing this week’s BOTW.  When she hiked down to the mailbox, she saw a fly that she had never seen before, from a family she’s never seen before, skating over the top of a leaf, and she bumped it to the head of the line.  She photographed it badly, but here’s a good image https://bugguide.net/node/view/190234/bgimage.

In last week’s episode we considered a beetle that mimics a bumblebee; this is a fly that is imitating an ichneumon wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/435323/bgpage (and no one messes with wasps), and some of its relatives are ant-mimics https://bugguide.net/node/view/84097/bgimage.

It’s a Stilt-legged fly/Small-footed fly in the family Micropezidae, a family with only about 30 species in North America and some 600 species worldwide (they’re a different bunch than the tiny, iridescent Long-legged flies https://bugguide.net/node/view/1543910/bgimage in the family Dolichopodidae).  Stilt-legged flies are most diverse in the tropics, where their larvae are dung-dwellers.  They’re famous for raising their short, front pair of legs so that they look like antennae as the flies walk around https://bugguide.net/node/view/789265/bgimage; their actual antennae are pretty short.  They live in damp and dappled wetlands and woods.  Kaufman, in hisField Guide to Insects of North America tells us to look for them “crawling slowly about the base of trees, or on low foliage.”

Micropezids feed on decaying organic matter or in plant roots as larvae (the larva of an Australian species lives in the water of a pitcher plant and eats decaying invertebrates that it finds there).  Some adults are predaceous and others eat rotting fruits and droppings of birds or other animals.  As a group, they fly below the radar, and there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of their natural history.

This stilt-legged fly, Rainieria antennaepes (no common name), is the only Rainieria in North America.  According to bugguide.netantennaepes refers to the fly’s habit of passing off its legs as antennae.  It’s found east of the Rockies and into southern Canada.

Sometimes, as it walked around, the fly would bow its head down toward the leaf surface https://bugguide.net/node/view/1031146/bgimage, allowing it to suck up food with its forward-facing, “vacuum cleaner” mouthparts, which look like a tiny gas mask (see the last picture at https://sites.duke.edu/dukeinsects/insect-orders/diptera/taeniaptera-trivittata).

About its life history, the BugLady could find little – according to the website americaninsects.net, “Larvae often develop in decaying leaves or other rotting plant material. The pupa is made from the final larval skin, and so the pupa resembles the last larval instar.”

Even though parts of its life are a mystery, the BugLady found a number of videos featuring the adults.  In the first, even though the BugLady has admired The Early Birder’s great insect shots, the “semaphore” he refers to looks like grooming behavior to her https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ba3inwK11Ys.  Check out the video of a stilt-legged fly snacking on a bit of cheese at http://bugoftheweek.com/blog/2019/4/1/wasp-or-fly-stilt-legged-flies-mimetic-micropezidae, and this, from another of the “Bug of the Week” series out there http://blog.growingwithscience.com/tag/rainieria-antennaepes/.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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