Bug o’the Week – Wildflower Watch – Swamp Milkweed

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Wildflower Watch – Swamp Milkweed

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady is already fantasizing about warm, sunny days in a wetland, photographing Swamp milkweed (and dragonflies), because she loves its color, and she loves being in wetlands, and because it’s a very busy plant, indeed!

Also called rose or red milkweed (there are a couple of species of southern milkweeds that are also called red milkweed), white Indian hemp, water nerve-root, and water silkweed, Swamp milkweed prefers damp soils and full sun near the water’s edge.

Indians, and later, the European settlers, used it medicinally (a tea made from the roots was reputed to “drive the worms from a person in one hour’s time”).  It was used with caution – its sap is poisonous – and the cardiac glycosides that protect Monarchs also deter mammals from grazing on all but the very young plants.  The fibers in its stem were twisted into rope and twine and were used in textiles.

Its flowers are typical milkweed flowers – a corona of five parts (hoods) with curved petals below and curved, nectar-secreting horns above.  The flowers are tricky – sticky, golden, saddlebag-shaped pollinia are hidden behind what one author calls a trap door (a stigmatic slit).  Insects walk around on the flower head, and when one of their feet slips through the slit by chance, a pollinium sticks to it.  When the bug encounters a stigmatic slit on the next plant it visits, the pollen is inadvertently delivered.  A quick-and-dirty, pick-up and delivery is what the plant had in mind; but, like the story of the raccoon (or was it a monkey) that reaches into the jar for a candy bar and then can’t pull its fist out of the small opening, sometimes the insect’s foot gets stuck to pollinia inside the trap door.  Insects that can’t free themselves will die dangling from the flower, and insects that escape may be gummed up by the waxy structures.  Look carefully for pollinia in the pictures.

Milkweeds support complex communities of invertebrates – their nectar attracts ants, bugs, beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps, plus predators looking for a meal.  Here are some of the insects that the BugLady sees on Swamp milkweed.

TWO-BANDED PETROPHILA MOTHS (Petrophila bifascialis) are delicate moths that lead a double life.  By day, they sit sedately on streamside vegetation.  By night, the female crawls down the side of a rock into the water – sometimes several feet down – to deposit her eggs on the stream bottom, breathing air that she brings with her, held against her ventral surface (“Petrophila” means “rock-lover”).  Her larvae eventually attach themselves to a rock and spin a net to keep themselves there, feeding on diatoms and algae that they harvest from the rock’s surface with their mandibles. 

MULBERRY WING SKIPPER – A small (one-inch-ish wingspan) butterfly of wetlands with an arrow or airplane-shaped marking on its rich, chestnut-brown underwings (the upper surface of its wings looks completely different https://bugguide.net/node/view/34033/bgimage.  Adults fly slowly through low vegetation, where females lay their eggs on the leaves of sedges. 

FLOWER LONGHORN BEETLE BRACHYLEPTURA CHAMPLAINI (no common name), on a Swamp milkweed leaf.  Other than a “present” checkoff in a variety of natural area insect surveys, there’s just about nothing online about this beetle, and not much more in Evans’ book, Beetles of Eastern North America.  It’s a long-horned beetle in the Flower longhorn subfamily Lepturinae, a group that feeds on pollen in the daytime.  This one has pollinia on its mouthparts.

AMBUSH BUG – The dangling bee in this picture did not fall victim to the sticky pollinia (though it has plenty of them on its legs).  A well-camouflaged ambush bug snagged it as it visited the flower. 

SOLDIER BEETLE – These guys drive the BugLady crazy.  They’re lightning beetle mimics, and they’re pretty good at it, and she always overthinks the ID.  She doesn’t know why they’re imitating the closely-related lightning beetles – alarmed lightning beetles discharge poisonous blood/hemolymph from their leg joints, but alarmed soldier beetles do, too. 

CRAB SPIDER –This Goldenrod crab spider tucked itself down between the milkweed flowers and ambushed an Odontomyia soldier fly https://bugguide.net/node/view/417289/bgimage.

LARGE MILKWEED BUG – What a beauty!  Large milkweed bugs are seed bugs – they feed by poking their beaklike mouthparts through the shell of a milkweed pod and sucking nutrients from the seeds.  They don’t harm the plant (just the seed crop), and they don’t harm monarch caterpillars, either.  Like other milkweed feeders, they sport aposematic (warning) colors to inform predators of their unpalatability.  Large milkweed bugs don’t like northern winters and are migratory – like monarchs, the shortening day lengths, the lowering angle of the sun, and increasingly tough milkweed leaves signal that it’s time to go, and they travel south to find fresher greens.  Their descendants head north in spring.

MONARCH CATERPILLAR – Common milkweed and Swamp milkweed are Monarch butterflies’ top picks for egg laying. 

GREAT-SPANGLED FRITILLARY – The other big, orange butterfly.  Adults enjoy milkweeds and a variety of other wildflowers, and their caterpillars feed on violets – if they’re lucky enough to connect with some.  Females lay eggs in fall, near, but not necessarily on, violets, and the caterpillars emerge soon afterward.  They drink water but they don’t eat; they aestivate through winter in the leaf litter and awake in spring to look for their emerging host plants.

GIANT SWALLOWTAIL – A southern butterfly that seems to be getting a foothold in Wisconsin.  The book says they are annual migrants that produce a generation here in summer and that their caterpillars can’t tolerate Wisconsin winters, but the BugLady has seen very fresh-looking Giant Swallowtails here in May that didn’t look like they had just been on a long flight.  Their caterpillars are called Orange Dogs in the South, because their host plants are in the Rue/Citrus family Rutaceae.  In this neck of the woods, females lay their eggs on Prickly ash, a small shrub that’s the northernmost member of that family. 

CINNAMON CLEARWING MOTH – A nectar-sipper but, since it doesn’t land, not a serious pollinator.

NORTHERN PAPER WASP – Butterflies love Swamp Milkweed, and so do wasps.  The Northern paper wasp is the social wasp that makes a smallish (usually fewer than 200 inhabitants) open-celled, down-facing, stemmed nest https://bugguide.net/node/view/1411890/bgimage.  “Northern” is a misnomer – they’re found from Canada through Texas and from the Atlantic well into the Great Plains.  Her super power is chewing on cellulose material, mixing it with saliva, and creating paper pulp.  She may be on the swamp milkweed to get pollen and nectar for herself or to collect small invertebrates to feed to the colony’s larvae.  Curious about Northern paper wasps?  See https://bugeric.blogspot.com/2010/09/wasp-wednesday-northern-paper-wasp.html.

Also seen were ants, leafcutter bees, sweat bees, Great black wasps, Great golden digger wasps, Red soldier beetles, Fiery and Broad-winged Skipper butterflies, and Thick-headed flies.  

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Bugs at the End of Summer

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Bugs at the End of Summer

Howdy, BugFans,

The Autumnal Equinox is fast upon us, alas, and even though it was a very hot one, the BugLady would like to push that Restart button and go back to the beginning of August.  Failing that, here are some of the bugs that crossed her trail in the second half of summer.

BARK LOUSE – Bark lice (order (Psocidae) are often seen in herds, both as adults and nymphs https://bugguide.net/node/view/1716157/bgimage.  This species, Cerastipsocus venosus, is known collectively as Tree cattle.  Bugguide.net says that they feed on “accumulations of fungi, algae, lichen, dead bark and other materials that occur on tree trunks and large limbs.”  And on the BugLady’s porch rails.  So, they clean up after the BugLady outside, and the silverfish take care of the inside of her cottage. 

YELLOW-HORNED FLOWER LONG-HORNED BEETLE – The YHFLHB (Strangalia luteicornis) is in the Longhorned beetle family Cerambycidae and the subfamily Lepturinae, the flower longhorns.  Flower longhorns are often found on flowers by day, feeding on the protein-rich pollen, and many (but not all) species are wedge-shaped – sometimes dramatically so.  Their larvae feed on dead and dying woody material, and certain fungi that they ingest as part of their meal then aids the grub’s ability to digest cellulose (in some species of flower longhorns, Mom inoculates the eggshell as she lays it with a yeast that becomes part of the grub’s intestinal microflora). 

AMBUSH BUG – What would summer be without the extraordinarily-well-camouflaged (and voracious) ambush bugs – one of the BugLady’s favorites? 

LEAF-FOOTED BUG – Late summer is True bug season (remember – only one insect order, the Hemiptera, can officially be called Bugs).  This particular bug is the almost-grown nymph of a leaf-footed bug called Acanthocephala terminalis (no common name).  Newly-hatched nymphs, with their spiny butts and improbable antennae, are pretty cute https://bugguide.net/node/view/933082/bgimage

SPIDER WEB AND PREY – All wrapped up and nowhere to go.   

BALD-FACED HORNET – The BugLady corresponded this summer with a man who was stung twice in his mouth by a Bald-faced hornet (now called Bald-faced aerial yellowjacket).  These are the gals that build the closed, football-shaped, paper nests that hang in trees, and while they are valiant/dangerous in defense of their homes, they don’t defend the flower tops where they feed.  The BugLady’s correspondent was apparently walking along blamelessly when his open mouth encountered a flying hornet.  Stings on the face, and especially in the mouth, can be dangerous because of swelling, even if you’re not allergic. 

An entomologist named Schmidt went around deliberately getting stung by the ants, hornets, bees, and wasps of the world and writing descriptions of his discomfort that are sometimes reminiscent of a wine-tasting.  He rated the Bald-faced hornet at a 2 out of 4 on his pain scale – “rich, hearty, slightly crunchy.  Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door” https://reliantpest.com/north-american-schmidt-sting-index/.  Not surprisingly, lots of exterminator companies have posted the scale because they want to sell us something.   

COMMON WOOD NYMPH – A medium/large Satyr butterfly of sunny fields, Common Wood Nymphs are not often seen nectaring on flowers, preferring fungi and rotting fruit.  They lay their eggs on grasses in late summer, but when the caterpillars hatch, they go into hibernation immediately, without feeding, to continue their development the following spring. 

CANDY-STRIPED LEAFHOPPER – what glorious things sometimes come in ¼” packages!  And, they have superpowers!  Leafhoppers suck plant juices.  Most plant sap has a sugar concentration of only a few percent, so leafhoppers have to consume a lot of it to get enough calories, and they excrete the excess (honeydew) “under pressure” with a tiny, but sometimes-audible, “pop.”  Because of this, they’re called “sharpshooters.”  And – they vocalize, but too softly for us to hear.

BROWN WASP MANTIDFLY – Yes, those poised, mantis-like front legs are used to grab smaller insects (mantidflies also sip nectar); and yes, this mantidfly does look like a paper wasp at first glance (but – no stinger).  Scroll down to see how this very flexible species has evolved to imitate different species of wasps in different parts of the country (the mantidfly is on the left) https://bugguide.net/node/view/4825

Their stalked eggs are attached to leaves https://bugguide.net/node/view/216544/bgimage, and when the eggs hatch, each larva waits for a passing spider, hitches a ride (feeding on the spider like a tick), and eventually infiltrates the spider’s egg sac, where it spends the rest of its larval life eating spider eggs.

WHITE-FACED MEADOWHAWK – You rarely see this species in tandem flights out over the water or ovipositing into shallow water.  They often “speculate” – bobbing up and down in damp areas by a pond’s edge, with the female lobbing her eggs onto the ground.  The plan is that spring rains will wash the eggs into the water. 

RED-SPOTTED PURPLE – What a classy butterfly!  Three Fun Facts about Red-spotted Purples: 1) the red is on the underside of the wings https://bugguide.net/node/view/557370; 2) though they are “tailless,” they are mimicking Pipe-vine Swallowtails, which are poisonous https://bugguide.net/node/view/2264557/bgimage; and 3) partly-grown caterpillars spend the winter inside a leaf that they’ve rolled into a tube and fastened to a twig, and they emerge and resume eating the following year (scroll down for a picture of a hibernaculum and for a bonus lesson about “frass spars” https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/red-spotted_purple.htm).  Within their leafy tube, they drop about 1/3 of the water weight in their body in order to avoid cell damage from freezing.

CRAB SPIDER – Nothing to see here, folks, just move along.

GREEN STINK BUG – Another common sight in late summer, along with their flashy, almost-grown nymphs https://bugguide.net/node/view/885566.  Some stink bugs are carnivores, and some are herbivores, and some of the herbivores are considered crop pests.  They aren’t chewers, they suck plant juices with mouths like drinking straws, which can deform fruits and seeds, damage twigs, and wither leaves.  Green Stink bugs (Pentatoma hilaris) (hilaris means “lively or cheerful”) feed on a large variety of plants (they’re “polyphagous”).  Newly-hatched green stinkbugs aren’t green https://bugguide.net/node/view/127137/bgimage.

TIGER SWALLOWTAIL CATERPILLAR – No – those aren’t eyes.  They’re pigment spots that are designed to fool you into thinking it’s a snake.  Young Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars start out as bird poop mimics https://bugguide.net/node/view/1883543/bgimage, but midway through their development, they go into snake mode, completing the effect by everting, when they feel threatened, a two-pronged, soft, orange, odorous projection (the osmeterium) that looks like a snake’s forked tongue https://bugguide.net/node/view/2214191/bgimage.  Tiger Swallowtails have two generations per year.  Caterpillars of the butterflies we see in June don’t spend long in the chrysalis, emerging in mid-August and getting to work on the next generation.  This caterpillar will overwinter as a chrysalis.  Don’t tell the other insects, but Tiger Swallowtails are the BugLady’s favorites.

As she visited her usual haunts this summer, the BugLady was dismayed at the lack of insects.  Sure, the goldenrods are full of flies, bees and wasps of various stripes, and the grasshoppers and tree crickets are singing their September songs.  But she saw six Tiger Swallowtails this summer.  Total.  And maybe a dozen meadowhawks.  During one mid-summer Dragonfly count years ago, the BugLady simply stopped counting meadowhawks when she got to 250 because it was distracting her from the other species.  Common Wood Nymphs used to emerge in early July by the score to filter through the grasses.  Even crab spiders and ambush bugs seemed scarce this year. 

What good are insects?  Sometimes it’s hard to drum up sympathy for a group that many people routinely swat, stomp, spray, or zap.  But insects provide food for birds and for other insects; they’re pollinators, and they provide other ecosystem services including pest control and garbage pick-up. 

(And, of course, they’re awesome.)

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Early Summer Scenes

Bug o’the Week

Early Summer Scenes

Howdy, BugFans,

Well, the sun has solsticed, and it’s all downhill from here.  Our pre-Christian, Germanic ancestors, who were more intimately attuned to the rhythms of the sun, correctly celebrated the winter solstice, aka Yule (which may have come from the Norse word houl, which referred to the sun as the wheel that changed the seasons).  They recognized that the winter solstice marked a turning point that would lead to longer, warmer days.

In the BugLady’s neck of the woods, the insect world is dominated these days by mining, sweat, and bumble bees and by lots of flies, including a big hatch of mosquitoes that timed their appearance to coincide with the Riveredge Butterfly and Dragonfly count (causing the BugLady to move along the trail rather smartly).  Here’s what she’s been seeing in the run-up to summer.

STILT BUG ON FERN: This started out as a fern fiddlehead picture – the BugLady did not see the stilt bug when she took the picture, it was one of those happy surprises that photographers get when they put an image up on the monitor.  Most stilt bugs/thread bugs are plant-eaters that supplement their diet of plant juices with the odd, small invertebrate.  Some are more “meat-oriented,” and one species is used to control Tobacco hornworms.

CRAB SPIDER: A friend of the BugLady’s recently asked where all of the beautiful, plump crab spiders are.  They’re here, but they have some growing to do.

KATYDID NYMPH: And another friend, from Southern climes, asked if the BugLady was seeing katydids yet.  Same answer.

TIGER BEETLE: The BugLady loves seeing the flashy, green Six-spotted tiger beetles.  Usually they perch on a bare path, wait until you get too close, fly ahead of you about a foot above the ground, land, and repeat the process when you get too close again.  Until this year, the BugLady had never seen one off the ground, but she’s photographed three in the past month.  Get to know Wisconsin’s tiger beetles at https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/tigerbeetle.

MILLIPEDE ON RUST: Millipedes are decomposers/detritivores, feeding on dung, plant juices, and pieces of dead plant materials like decaying leaves, breaking them down for organisms even smaller than they are.  Some like fungi. 

If you’ve seen the invasive shrubs Glossy and Common buckthorn, you’ve probably seen stems and petioles with a bright orange blob on it.  The blob is a rust – a fungus – called Crown rust (Puccinia coronata).  Buckthorn is one of its hosts, and the alternate hosts are a variety of grasses, including agricultural crops like oats and rye.  If you see grass leaves with thin orange streaks on them, you’re probably seeing a variety of crown rust.  Crown rust has a complicated life cycle (http://www.minnesotaseasons.com/Fungi/Crown_Rust.html ), but the bottom line here is that the rust on buckthorn releases its spores in a soupy, sweet liquid that attracts insects, and the insects carry the spores to rust patches on other buckthorns and fertilize them.  The rust probably doesn’t get much bang for its buck when its spores are eaten by a short-legged pedestrian like a millipede.

BALTIMORE CHECKERSPOT CATERPILLER: The astonishing Baltimore Checkerspot https://bugguide.net/node/view/1771510/bgimage and https://bugguide.net/node/view/1636206/bgimage, and its caterpillar, is one of the BugLady’s favorites.  This caterpillar hatched last summer and munched on its host plant (historically white turtlehead, but in the past 50 years, they’ve adopted Lance-leaved/English plantain, and those are the only two plants a female will oviposit on).  It overwintered as a caterpillar, woke up hungry this spring, and looked around, – no turtlehead in sight yet – so it’s been eating a variety of plants, especially white ash.  Both turtlehead and plantain leaves contain poisonous glycosides (turtlehead has more), allowing the caterpillar and butterfly to get away with their gaudy colors.  And remember – the butterfly (and the oriole) get their names not because they were discovered in that city, but because 17th century English nobleman Lord Baltimore, a familiar figure to the colonists, dressed his servants in orange and black livery. Get to know Wisconsin’s butterflies at https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly.

MONARCHS: Most of the Monarchs that return to Wisconsin are probably Gen 2 – the second generation north of their wintering ground in Mexico.  There ensues two short-lived generations – Gen 3 and 4 – whose only job is to increase the population, and these two clearly got the memo.  Gen 5, produced in August, is the generation that is signaled by both waning day length and the lowering angle of the sun to migrate instead of reproducing (though there always seem to be a few that didn’t get that memo). 

BEE ON LEATHERWOOD: At a quick glance, you might think that this is a bumble bee, but bumble bees have hairy butts.  The BugLady thought this was a carpenter bee (which have shiny butts), but now she thinks it’s one of the larger mining bees in the genus Andrena.  Leatherwood is a spring-blooming shrub in woodlands – those fuzzy bud scales protect the bud from chilly spring nights.  It gets its name from the fact that its branches can’t be torn off the shrub, and from its strong bark fibers, which were woven into baskets, bowstrings, ropes, and the cords that lashed together canoe frames.  Settlers used its branches when they took their children to the woodshed.  All human use of it is problematic, because its caustic bark raises some serious blisters.

ROBBER FLY: Another bumble bee look-alike.  Bumble bees eat nectar and collect pollen to feed their larvae; robber flies are carnivores.  Laphria thoracia (no common name) can be found on woodland edges from the Mason-Dixon Line north into the Maritime Provinces and west through the Western Great Lakes.  Adult Laphria thoracia eat bees and adult beetles (this one has a clover weevil, but the BugLady recently photographed one with an assassin bug), and their larvae feed on beetle larvae in decaying wood.  Get to know Wisconsin’s robber flies at https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/robberfly  

GOLD-BACKED SNIPE FLY: June is the only month to enjoy these dramatically-colored flies that perch low in the vegetation in moist areas. 

SWAMP MILKWEED BEETLE: The BugLady loves finding these “ladybugs-on-steroids.”  They’re often tucked down into the axils of the milkweed leaves, and when they see company coming, they either duck down deeper into the crevice or they default to the typical escape behavior of an alarmed leaf beetle – they tuck in their legs and fall off the plant.  Their bright (aposematic/warning) colors tell potential predators that they are toxic, due to the milkweed sap they ingest, but damsel bugs, stink bugs, and flower/hover/syrphid fly larvae prey on them nonetheless.  For the full (and fascinating) Swamp milkweed leaf beetle story, see https://uwm.edu/field-station/swamp-milkweed-leaf-beetle/.  

ICHNEUMON WASP: Every year, large and colorful Therion (probably) Ichneumon wasps drift through the vegetation in perpetual motion, legs dangling, taunting the BugLady https://bugguide.net/node/view/739675/bgimage.  They often occur in wetlands, and the BugLady swats mosquitoes and deer flies as she waits for them to show their faces.  Which this one did.

Experienced BugFans are saying, “But, but, but – where are the dragonflies?”  Tune in next week.

Go outside – look for bugs.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Stroll with a Naturalist: Focus on Butterflies

July 14 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am

Stroll with a Naturalist: Focus on Butterflies

Join a naturalist for a casual walk on the trails of Riveredge. Each stroll will focus on a special aspect of nature but other things of interest will be explored as well. These educational programs will give you a better understanding of the flora and fauna of the nature center. You may even learn some of the history of the land too.

Ages 12+

All Access Members: Free | Trail Pass Members: $5 | Non-members: $7

Registration closes July 13 at 4:30 pm

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July 14, 2022 @ 10:00 am 11:30 am

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Saukville, WI United States
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