Bug o’the Week – The Twelve Bugs of Christmas 2022

Bug o’the Week

The Twelve Bugs of Christmas 2022

Greetings of the Season, BugFans,

Wow!  The 10th annual installment of The Twelve (or Thirteen) Bugs of Christmas!  The Bugs of Christmas features shots, taken throughout the year, of insects and spiders who have already had their own BOTW, but who posed nicely.

The next two paragraphs were borrowed from Christmas 2016, because the BugLady is still amazed by the history of this ubiquitous Holiday Classic.

The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English carol that was probably borrowed from the French and that was originally an acapella chant/call-and-response/children’s memory game.  There’s an alternative explanation about the various lords, rings, etc. being Christian code words for catechism during a time of religious repression (which seems a bit like playing Beatles songs backwards).  It first appeared in writing in 1780, and there were (and still are) many variations of it, though the words were more-or-less standardized when an official melody was finally written for it in 1909 (and the insect verse was, alas, dropped.  “Thirteen Bugs a’ buzzing”).

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song) so you can hold your own in Holiday Trivia at parties (I’ll take Christmas Songs for $300, Alex).  With apologies to all those Lords a’ Leaping, it’s time once again to celebrate a year of bugs with this baker’s dozen collection of the beautiful, the odd, and the mysterious.  Gifts.  Right under our noses.  All the time.

POTTER WASP – Throughout this BOTW series, we have noted the many places where insects deposit their eggs – in plant stems, in underwater vegetation, in dead trees, in flower buds, in mushrooms, in the BugLady’s wind chimes, in carcasses, in holes and tunnels underground, in other insects, in cells made of wax or paper, in egg sacs.  The BugLady’s favorite is the small, mud pot attached to a twig or leaf by a potter wasp. 

SEDGE SPRITE – The BugLady is a tall person, and Sedge Sprites (her favorite damselflies) are tiny damselflies, barely an inch long, that mostly fly at altitudes lower than her knees.  Photographing one involves tracking an insect the size of a sewing needle through sedges and other boggy vegetation.  What a beauty!

BUMBLE BEE – The plant is called Common Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) (aka houndstooth, dog’s tongue, Gypsy flower, and Rats and Mice (because it’s said to smell like them).  Lots of small flowers on a plant that may grow 4 feet tall.  It’s from Europe; it probably came over in the 19th century in a bag of agricultural seed, and it’s considered a noxious weed in parts of North America (but it’s rare in Ireland).  It contains chemicals (alkaloids) that are toxic to livestock, its bristly seeds are not wholesome to ingest, and they irritate the skin, too.  Historically, it was used as a cure for madness and to treat inflammatory diseases, lung issues, and “it heals all manner of wounds and punctures, and those foul ulcers that arise by the French pox’” (Culpeper’s Complete Herbal).

The bumble bee doesn’t know any of that, and doesn’t care.

LADYBUG and SHINING FLOWER BEETLE – Multicolored Asian Ladybird Beetles come in a variety of shades of red and orange with spots ranging from zero to many, but you can tell them by the “W” or “M” on the thorax (depending on whether they’re walking toward you or away from you).  Adults eat aphids and scale insects, and their larvae eat even more aphids and scale insects, and some eggs of butterflies and moths.  The BugLady couldn’t find anything that suggested that they might chow down on a small beetle like this Shining flower beetle, but the ladybug sure was interested in it and followed it all around the surface of the leaf.

GIANT ICHNEUMON WASPS are among the BugLady’s favorite insects (Why?  See https://uwm.edu/field-station/giant-ichneumon-wasp/).  There are two species of rust and yellow Giant Ichneumons around here https://bugguide.net/node/view/1701906/bgimage, plus Black Giant Ichneumonid Wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/1742321/bgimage.  This is a male Black Giant Ichneumonid Wasp.  

SPIDER WEB – an abandoned trap web, toward the end of summer.

DARNER EXUVIA – In today’s usage, the empty, shed skin of an insect or spider is (mostly-but-not-always) called an exuvia (Pl. exuviae), from the Latin for “things stripped, drawn, or pulled from the body”.  The BugLady, who likes etymology as well as entomology, wanted to find out more about the word, so down the rabbit hole she went.  She discovered that even her two favorite dragonfly and damselfly books don’t agree with each other. 

The British use “exuvium” for the singular and “exuvia” or “exuviums” for the plural.  When she did a bit more delving into “exuvium,” the BugLady found this awesome excerpt from a letter written by Sir Thomas Browne to his son Thomas, dated May 29, 1679: “I have sent you, by Mrs. Peirce, a skinne of the palme of a woemans hand, cast of at the end of a fever, or in the declination thereof; I called it exuvium palmæ muliebris, the Latin word being exuvia in the plurall, butt I named it exuvium, or exuvia in the singular number.  It is neat and is worthy to be showne when you speake of the skinne. …. A palmister might read a lecture on it.” 

A post in a bugguide.net discussion further muddies the waters by stating that the cast-off skin of an insect should be referred to in the plural (exuviae) because “a single cast skin is a collection of insect parts and is thus an exuviae.” 

There’s no logical equivalent in Classical Latin, but Scientific Latin takes liberties with the Classical.  The entomology community tacitly agrees that it’s a “we-know-it’s-not-correct-but-we’re doing-it-anyway” situation. 

The snail had nothing to do with the emerging dragonfly and, the BugLady guesses, is passing by.

BUMBLE FLOWER BEETLES – When the BugLady found some of these and wrote about them one fall https://uwm.edu/field-station/bumble-flower-beetle/, BugFan Chris told her that they’re also around in the spring.  Sure enough – she spotted this one in mid-May. 

MOURNING CLOAKS aren’t splashy, and they eschew wildflowers in favor of dripping sap, but they’re pretty spiffy nonetheless, and they’ve got a cool life story.  In a group (the order Lepidoptera) where the adult portion of a lifespan is usually measured in a few, short months, these are long-lived and complicated butterflies.  They overwinter as adults, mate, and lay eggs in spring.  Their offspring feed on willow leaves, form chrysalises, and emerge as adults in late spring or early summer.  After feeding for a while, they go into a state of aestivation (summer dormancy) to avoid wear and tear.  They wake in fall, feed some more, and then overwinter as adults in a state of suspended animation called diapause, which is similar to hibernation, tucked up in a cloistered spot called a hibernaculum that shelters them from the elements, and protected from the effects of freezing by glycerol (antifreeze) in their bodies.  They may fly during a January thaw or on mild days in late winter, but they can reenter diapause when the temperature drops.  When they emerge and mate in spring, they’re about 10 months old. 

This pretty CLICK BEETLE by the name of Ampedus sanguinipennis (sanguinipennis means “blood wing”) is found in wooded areas – its larvae develop in, feed on, and then pupate in very rotten wood, emerging as adults by fall, but hunkering down within the pupal cell for the winter.  Adults are pollen feeders that shelter under loose bark.  Somewhere in its travels, this beetle encountered some mites, which hitched a ride.  The harmless transporting of other organisms is called phoresy.  Here’s a glamour shot https://bugguide.net/node/view/20063.

If you’re a CRAB SPIDER and you don’t spin trap webs, you need a different strategy for finding dinner.  Crab spiders employ camouflage and ambush.  The flower is a tallgrass prairie plant called leadplant. 

COMMON GREEN STINKBUGS (Chinavia hilaris) are considered persona non grata in agricultural fields and orchards because both the nymphs and the adults feed on fruit and developing seeds.  And yet.  Hilaris means “lively” and “cheerful,” and that’s the vibe this stink bug was sending on a sunny day.

And an EASTERN AMBERWING Dragonfly in a pear tree. 

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

Bugs at the End of Summer

Howdy, BugFans,

The general rule of thumb is that if you want to find insects, look at flowers.  Even though summer is fading, there are still flowers in bloom.  Some Liatris/blazing stars linger, along with brown-eyed Susan, wild sunflowers, asters and goldenrod (more than a century ago, Asa Gray said that the 12 pages about goldenrods in his Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania Inclusive (aka Gray’s Manual) were the most uninteresting in the Manual).  Late summer and early fall are dominated by flies, bees and wasps, and by grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets.

Most adult insects die by the first frosts, leaving behind the next generation in the form of eggs or pupae (occasionally as nymphs or larvae), so the clock is starting to tick pretty loudly.  As BugFan Mary stated dispassionately many years ago, they’re dead and they don’t know it yet.  Meanwhile, their activities are centered on eating and on producing the next generation.

AMBUSH BUG (pictured above) – One of the BugLady’s favorite insects is the ambush bug (she’s always had a soft spot in her heart for predators).  Ambush bugs tuck themselves down into the middle of a flower and wait for pollinators.  They grasp their prey with their strong front legs, inject a meat tenderizer, and slurp out the softened innards.  They’re paired up these days (the BugLady has a picture of a stack of three), and she has several pictures where the female is multitasking – eating an insect while mating.

BUMBLE BEE – A bumble bee forages for nectar and pollen for the brood well into September, but the brood will not survive the winter.  Only the newly-fertilized queens will see the spring and establish a new colony.  Moral of the story – plant Liatris/Blazing star.

PUNCTURED TIGER BEETLES (aka Sidewalk or Backroad Tiger Beetles) are named for the rows of pits on their very-slightly-iridescent elytra (hard wing coverings).  They’re common across the continent in dry, sandy, bare spots, and as one of their names suggests, they’re sometimes seen on sidewalks.  Like their (much) larger namesakes, Tiger beetles chase their prey https://bugguide.net/node/view/1106590/bgimage.  For more info http://www.naturenorth.com/Tiger%20Beetle/The%20Tiger%20Beetles%20of%20Manitoba.pdf.  

Some Punctured tiger beetles are “plain” https://bugguide.net/node/view/1343674/bgimage, and some are “fancy” https://bugguide.net/node/view/223895, and some are green https://bugguide.net/node/view/2025474/bgimage.  

FAMILIAR BLUETS signal the end of the damselfly season.  Big, robust, and startlingly-blue, they’re one of the BugLady’s favorite bluets.  

EASTERN COMMA – There are two generations/broods/”flights” of Commas (and Question Marks – the “anglewings”) each year.  The second generation overwinters as adults, tucked up into a sheltered spot (a hibernaculum).  They sometimes emerge during a January thaw, but they quickly resume their winter’s sleep.  They fly briefly in spring – one of our early butterflies – and produce the summer brood.

FALL FIELD CRICKET – Poking her ovipositor into the soil and planting the next generation.  Her eggs will hatch in spring, and her omnivorous offspring will eat leaves, fruits, grain, and other invertebrates. 

The BugLady loves their simple songs http://songsofinsects.com/crickets/spring-and-fall-field-crickets and is happy when a cricket finds its way indoors in fall.  Males form a resonating chamber by setting their wings at a certain angle; then they rub their wings together to produce sound (one wing has a scraper edge and the other has teeth).  There are mathematical formulae for calculating the ambient air temperature based on cricket chirps that give you the temperature in the microclimate on the ground where the cricket is chirping (add the number of chirps by a single field cricket in 15 seconds to 40). 

CANADA DARNER – Common Green Darners are robust dragonflies that fill the late summer skies with dramatic feeding and migratory swarms.  There are other darners, though, primarily the non-migratory mosaic darners (like the Canada, Green-striped, Lance-tipped, and Shadow Darners) whose abdomens have blue and black, “tile-like” patterns.  Identify them by the shape of the colored stripe on the thorax and by the shape of the male’s claspers (lest you think it’s too easy, females come in a number of color morphs – this is a green-form female Canada Darner).  

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES were alarmingly scarce this summer – the short-lived Gen 3 and Gen 4, whose job it is to build the population in the run-up up to the migratory Gen 5, simply weren’t there.  But, on one of the BugLady’s recent stints on the hawk tower, she saw 289 Monarchs heading south during a six-hour watch.  Moral – Plant goldenrod (and native milkweeds).

GOLDENROD CRAB SPIDER – Like ambush bugs, crab spiders live on a diet of pollinators.  They don’t build trap nets and wait for their prey to come to them, they pursue it.  Sometimes they lurk on the underside of the flower, but their camouflage makes hiding unnecessary.  This female looks like she’s sitting at the dinner table.

RED-LEGGED GRASSHOPPERS are very common in sunny grasslands at this time of year from coast to coast.  They eat lots of different kinds of plants (including some agricultural crops, which does not endear them to farmers), but they prefer plants in the Legume/pea family and the Composite/aster family.  As the air temperature increases – and when predators are around – they eat more carbs.  Grasshoppers are food for spiders, many birds, and other wildlife.  Moral of the story – plant wild sunflowers.

PAINTER LADY – You don’t get to be the most widespread butterfly in the world (found everywhere except Antarctica and South America) by being a picky eater.  It migrates north in spring – sometimes in large numbers and sometimes in small.

THIN-LEGGED WOLF SPIDER – This Thin-legged wolf spider formed an egg sac (with about 50 eggs inside), attached it to her spinnerets and is going about her business.  When the eggs hatch, her young will climb up on her abdomen and ride around piggyback for a few weeks before dismounting and going about their lives. 

GREAT BLACK WASP and GREAT GOLDEN DIGGER WASP – Two impressive (1 ¼” long) wasps grace the flower tops at the end of summer.  Both are good pollinators, both are solitary species that eat pollen and nectar, and both dig tunnels and provision chambers with paralyzed insects for their eventual offspring.  Great Black Wasps https://uwm.edu/field-station/great-black-wasp/ select crickets and grasshoppers for their young’s’ pantry, and so do Great Golden digger wasps https://uwm.edu/field-station/great-golden-digger-wasp-family-sphecidae/.  Neither is aggressive.  

The moral of the story?  Plant lemon horsemint.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug o’the Week – Mid-summer Scenes

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

ARROW CLUBTAIL:  In early July, the BugLady came across this just-emerged dragonfly sitting on a stalk in the Milwaukee River.  She photographed it for half an hour as it lengthened and strengthened and spread its wings and grew its abdomen.  She guarded it from marauding geese and grackles.  And she watched as it took its maiden voyage, eight feet straight up and true – into the beak of a swooping Cedar Waxwing.  She may have used a few bad words. 

JAPANESE BEETLE   Precarious as this bundle of beetles looked, it kept its shape as it fell off and into the grasses.  In order to jump-start her love life, a female Japanese beetle may use “come hither” pheromones, but this aggregation of beetles was probably initiated (inadvertently) by the plant itself.  Research suggests that a female Japanese beetle chewed on a leaf, and the leaf gave off signature chemicals (OK – feeding-induced plant volatiles), and that instead of repelling the beetles, the scent attracted more beetles, both male and female, to feed.  And, since all those guys and gals are in the same neighborhood……… 

MAYFLY MOLT:  BugFan Freda sent this amazing “What-is-it?” picture recently, taken from a canoe on the Milwaukee river.  Mayflies (called “lake flies” regionally) emerge from their watery cradles by the googol.  Their lives are brief, averaging only three days (not coincidentally, the name of the mayfly order is Ephemeroptera).    

Mayflies are the only insects that shed their skins after they reach the winged adult stage (silverfish shed as adults, too, but they’re spindle-shaped and wingless).  The mature mayfly naiad https://bugguide.net/node/view/517056/bgimage crawls out onto a plant or rock and sheds its final skin (exuvia), emerging as a form called a subimago (or a “dun” if you’re a fly fisherman) that is cloudy-winged, dull in color, weak-flying, and not ready to reproduce.  The sub-imago rests (often overnight) and then sheds again, this time into a mature adult/imago with shiny wings (a “spinner” to fishermen).  Here’s a typical adult/imago https://bugguide.net/node/view/933725/bgimage.  No – scientists do not know how this pre-adult stage benefits the mayflies – lots of insect groups apparently has a subimago stage in ancient times, and most have dropped it from their repertory. 

Freda’s picture shows the exuviae of lots of sub-imagoes – it must have been an amazing sight to see!  Scroll down this series of pictures of that final shed – http://www.troutnut.com/article/10/pictures-of-mayfly-dun-molting-to-spinner.  

DOGBANE LEAF BEETLE:  Its fabulous, shimmering exterior is all done with mirrors (complex nanoarchitecture).  Light is bent when it hits small, randomly-tilted plates that sit between the pigment layer and the top layer of the beetle’s cuticle, and the beetle’s color changes depending on the angle of the eye of the beholder.  What good is that glow?  Rather than being an aid in courtship or a warning of the beetle’s toxicity (and this particular beetle is, but not all iridescent insects are), this fiery iridescence actually camouflages it.  To test the hypothesis, researchers disguised meal worms with beetle elytra (the hard outer wings) – some shiny and some not – and then hid them.  Birds found and ate 85% of the “dull-winged meal worms,” but only 60% of the “iridescent meal worms,” and the scientists themselves found it difficult to locate the shiny ones. 

STREAM BLUET AND MAYFLY: In order to make it to adulthood, a mayfly naiad must avoid being eaten by fish and a variety of insects during its aquatic stage, and by fish, birds, fishing spiders, frogs, and other predators as it completes both of its molts.  When it takes to the air, more predators await.  This mayfly became lunch for a Stream Bluet damselfly.  

DOODLEBUG:  The BugLady found this doodlebug on the dunes at Kohler-Andrae State Park in mid-July, plying its trade.  She looked into lots of inverted, sandy cones before she found one that held prey – in this case, a small spider.  The doodlebug will grow up to be an antlion https://bugguide.net/node/view/1708468/bgimage.  For an account of the life of a doodlebug, see https://uwm.edu/field-station/spotless-antlion/.  

SAWFLY:  Sawflies are not flies, but are primitive wasps with no stingers (as she did when she wrote her first episode about sawflies in 2009 https://uwm.edu/field-station/sawfly/, the BugLady recommends reading the sawfly chapter in David W. Stokes’ excellent A Guide to Observing Insect Lives).  Sawfly larvae look a lot like butterfly and moth caterpillars, but there’s a difference in the arrangement and types of legs.  This beauty just might be the Poison ivy sawfly (Arge humeralis), whose pretty cute offspring the BugLady is going to have to keep a cautious eye out for https://bugguide.net/node/view/826616/bgimage.  “Sawfly” because the female uses a saw-like structure at the end of her abdomen to cut slots in vegetation to lay her eggs in.

BLACK SWALLOWTAIL CATERPILLAR: While the BugLady was photographing the sawfly, she noticed a prickly head among the Queen Anne’s lace florets, so she bent the stem sideways to see what it was.  There was a cute little jumping spider under there, too, which she hoped did not have designs on the caterpillar.  Black Swallowtails lay their eggs on plants in the carrot family, and most gardeners who plant dill are familiar with them (and, the BugLady hopes, are generous enough to share). 

BLUE MUD DAUBERS are all over the Queen Anne’s lace these days.  Adults cruise the flower tops, sipping nectar and looking for spiders to cache in the egg chambers of their offspring, who will grow up on protein but eschew it as adults.  Sometimes the wasps pick spiders right off of their webs, and they especially like to collect Black widow spiders (which are here in God’s Country but are rare https://bugguide.net/node/view/1876965/bgimage).  They grab spiders with their mandibles https://bugguide.net/node/view/1268654/bgimage and paralyze them with a sting, but they don’t bite people, and you have to rough one up considerably before she’ll sting you.

EMERALD ASH BORER:  The BugLady loves ash trees, but these days, the landscape is littered with their skeletons.  The first Emerald ash borer was detected in Wisconsin in Ozaukee County during the summer of 2008, though the EABs had undoubtedly been around for a few years before that.  The picture shows an ash that is fighting for its life, a battle that it will not win.  The top of this ash is dead, because the EAB larvae’s tunnels (galleries) just below the bark interfere with the flow of nutrients between the crown of the tree and its roots.  The stressed tree responds by growing a bunch of shoots (called epicormic sprouts) from dormant buds in the bark of the trunk.  The leafy sprouts, which are below the EAB damage, will allow the tree to photosynthesize – for a while.  Read about EABs in a previous BOTW.https://uwm.edu/field-station/emerald-ash-borer-redux-family-buprestidae/.  EABs are, undeniably, beautiful beetles https://bugguide.net/node/view/1770902/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1233730/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/938332/bgimage

SIX-SPOTTED FISHING SPIDER:  Moving from a “solid” water lily leaf to a liquid substrate is no trick at all for a Six-spotted Fishing spider (the six spots that give it its name are on its underside) – in fact, it has more moves on the water than it does on dry land.  It can walk, run, sail, or skate over the surface film and can dive under it, too. 

GIANT SWALLOWTAIL: If there’s anything more stunning than a couple of Giant Swallowtails dancing in the air over purple coneflowers, the BugLady doesn’t know what it is. 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug o’the Week – Cuckoo Leafcutter Bee

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

Within the Megachilidae, the tribe Megachilini contains the genus Coelioxys – the Cuckoo leaf-cutter bees, aka the Sharp-tailed bees (Coelia means “belly” and “oxys” means “sharp”).  The Coelioxys aren’t the only bees that are “cuckoos,” a term that refers to bees that lay their eggs in another bee’s nest; Rusty Burlew, on the Honey Bee Suite website, tells us that 20% of all bee species are nest parasites (another source put it at 15%) and that this behavior occurs in most bee families (which means, he says, that there’s “a whole lot of poaching going on”).  

The host bees aren’t just babysitting.  Cuckoo bees are “kleptoparasites” (kleptoparasitism means “parasitism by theft”).  Their offspring take advantage of the work of the nest-building/host female, eating the food stores she has collected and killing their rightful owner.  There are 46 species in the genus Coelioxys, and each species targets different species of bees, mostly from within their own Megachilidae family.  

Because they no longer make nests for their young (one website suggests that they’ve been nest parasites for so long that they’ve forgotten how), they are minimally-hairy (oddly, they have hairs on their eyes), and they lack the dense, pollen-collecting hairs under the abdomen that many leaf-cutting bees sport https://bugguide.net/node/view/30569/bgimage.  For that reason, they’re not good pollinators.   

One website says that “Cuckoo leafcutter species appear very similar to the casual observer, and species identification is often best left to an expert,” and the BugLady plans to take that advice (for a change).  Females have pointy abdomens https://bugguide.net/node/view/1593995/bgimage, and males’ abdomens are toothed https://bugguide.net/node/view/2050487/bgimage.  Most of our northern species are basic black with white lines, sometimes with red in the legs, but some Southern species are fancier – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1616384/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/2093977/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1409086/bgimage.  Most are less than a half-inch long.   

Female Cuckoo bees are bee-watchers; they visit flowers to sip nectar, but also to spy on potential hosts and follow them back to their tunnels.  When its owner leaves, looking for more pollen, the cuckoo bee enters the tunnel and uses the sharp tip of her abdomen (a modified stinger) to puncture the leafy walls of an egg chamber and to lay her eggs inside.  Her larva will use its sickle-shaped jaws to bisect the host egg or larva, and it will kill any of its own siblings in the chamber.  It pupates in the egg chamber, and its emergence the following year will be synched with the flight period of its host.

Fun Facts about Cuckoo Leafcutter bees:

  • The genus name is pronounced “seal-ee-OX-ees.”

FOR THE RECORD: to every author out there who likened the actions of cuckoo bees to cuckoo birds (family Cuculidae), a clarification.  New World species of cuckoos (except for three species in South America) build their own nests and care for their own young; some (but not all) Old World members of the cuckoo family (the 56 members of the subfamily Cuculinae, the Parasitic cuckoos) are, famously, brood parasites.  The difference between a nest parasite and a brood parasite is that brood parasites, like our Brown-headed Cowbird, leave their eggs in other birds’ nests with the expectation that the adoptive parents will raise their young.  This often comes at the expense of the nest-maker’s brood, since the cowbirds hatch first, grow fast, monopolize the feedings, and may elbow the other chicks out of the nest. 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

BREAKING NEWS: in another fit of Political Correctness, the Entomological Society of America has renamed the Asian giant hornet, aka the Murder hornet, (a hornet that is, indeed, from Asia) “in an effort to reduce negative and nationalistic associations.”  It’s now the Northern Giant Hornet.  The BugLady supposes that the Asian multicolored ladybug will be next, but as BugFan Mike suggests, maybe the Negro bug https://bugguide.net/node/view/5184, nominally in the Ebony bug family, should come first.  

Bug o’the Week – A Tale of Two Butterflies – Part 2 – Marine Blue

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

Its normal range is the scrublands and deserts of southwestern of North America, south into Mexico and Central America, but it shows up as an “emigrant” elsewhere http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=4357.  Wisconsin has had at least seven records so far this summer, one on the west side of the state, one in Madison, and the rest in Ozaukee and Sheboygan Counties, on the east side (Wisconsin butterfly watchers are a dedicated community). 

In The Butterflies of Iowa (2007), Schlicht, Downey, and Nekola pose an interesting question.  Marine Blues spend only 5 to 10 days as adults.  How does such a short-lived butterfly get from, say, Arizona to Iowa?  Or Wisconsin, or Ohio, or New York?  They speculate that it may be transported in shipments of alfalfa. 

It’s an ecologically flexible species, which is a recipe for success.  Marine Blues inhabit the Southwestern deserts, but they’re also at home in tropical lowlands, conifer forests, higher altitudes, open/disturbed/”weedy” areas, urban gardens, and agricultural fields.  There are plenty of species of food plants available for both the adults and the caterpillars.    

Marine Blues (aka Striped Blues or Marine Striped Blues) are in the Gossamer-winged butterfly family Lycaenidae (Blues, Coppers, Hairstreaks, and Harvesters).  Samuel Scudder (19th century entomologist and paleontologist and insect namer) called the genus Letotes the “banded blues.”  Like other blues, they’re small, with a wingspan of a little over an inch.  Males and females have similar “tiger-striped” underwings; the upper wings of males have a purplish tinge https://bugguide.net/node/view/1450319/bgimage (the BugLady didn’t find an explanation of why a desert butterfly was named the Marine Blue, but it must have been a nod to the male’s color).  The blue on the females is restricted to the base of the upper wings, which often show grid-like lines that echo the pattern of stripes on the underwing https://bugguide.net/node/view/411840.  

As always, blue pigments are extraordinarily uncommon in animals; most blue is a trick of the light.  In butterflies, it’s a result of light being bent/diffracted by the “complex nanoarchitecture” in the cuticle of the scales that cover the butterfly’s wings (for a deeper dive, see “Butterflies Hack Light Waves” https://asknature.org/strategy/wing-scales-cause-light-to-diffract-and-interfere/).

Their flight is fast and erratic.  Males actively patrol for females, the male flashing his wings and “calling her” with pheromones https://bugguide.net/node/view/716954/bgimage.  Her response to him includes an assessment of the “nutritional abundance of the environment”.  She ultimately lays eggs on the flower buds of legumes.    

The variably-colored, slug-like caterpillars eat the flower buds and developing flowers and seeds (but never the leaves) of woody and herbaceous, wild, agricultural, and ornamental plants in the Pea/Legume family – plants like Acacia, Mesquite, vetch, prairie clover, sweet pea, trefoils, wisteria, and alfalfa.  The caterpillars eventually form a chrysalis in the litter below their host plants https://bugguide.net/node/view/2114148/bgimage.  They produce multiple/continuous broods in the far south.   

Adults get nectar from a variety of flowers – some legumes and some not – and sip other nutrients from dung and from damp soil https://bugguide.net/node/view/675418/bgimage.  Here are some great shots of various life stages: http://leps.thenalls.net/content2.php?ref=Species/Polyommatinae/marina/life/marina_life.htm.     

Like other family members, Marine Blue caterpillars are myrmecophiles – they form close associations with ants.  Ants protect them from parasitoids (insect larvae that would eat them alive) in exchange for honeydew produced by the caterpillar. 

Marine Blues are common throughout the Southwest, but their population in Southern California has gotten an unexpected bump (the Snout had “dominoes,” and so does the Marine Blue).  There, Marine Blues have become urban butterflies – one source says that they’re the most common butterfly in Orange County, California!  In a paper that appeared in the Journal of the Lepidopterists Society in 1990, entomologist John Brown explains that the Marine Blue has been a common backyard butterfly in Southern California, where wisteria has been its favored host plant, since the 1920’s.  But the butterfly has jumped to a new, non-legume host, a South African evergreen shrub called Cape Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), which is widely planted in landscaping and along roadways and blooms year round. 

The ant in the Marine Blue-ant partnership is the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile, formerly Iridomyrmex humilis), a pretty interesting species that forms super colonies over vast areas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argentine_ant) and that balances the negatives of routing native ant species and being a persistent home invader with the positives of eating mealybugs and scale on citrus.  Brown noted that “Leptotes marina is one of few native North American butterflies that has benefited from the activities of man by its remarkable switch to a new larval host introduced from South Africa and to a nectar source and an ant introduced from South America [the butterflies strongly favor the introduced Brazilian pepper flowers for nectaring], none of which are closely related to the butterfly’s native resources. This flexibility undoubtedly has led to an expansion in range, at least ecologically and temporally, over the past 60 years, resulting in the butterfly’s invasion and successful colonization of urban environments.”

So – another day, another Southwestern visitor, but unlike the American Snout, there don’t seem to be a set of precipitating factors for Marine Blues’ wanderings (other than northbound truckloads of hay).  And, unlike the Snout, Marine Blues (probably) do not produce broods at the ends of their journeys.  

Thanks to BugFan Freda for the use of her beautiful picture of a mint-condition Marine Blue sitting on a clover. 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug o’the Week – A Tale of two Butterflies – Part 1 – the American Snout

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

The Snout

She was walking along the river when she saw an orange and brown butterfly fluttering around near a bare area.  Even though she hadn’t seen one for a long time, she was pretty sure she knew what it was (having quickly eliminated from consideration the slightly larger and more vividly-colored Red Admiral, American Lady and Painted Lady). After that first encounter, she saw several more Snouts.

Some taxonomists put them in the Brush-footed butterfly family Nymphalidae, within the subfamily Libytheinae (Snouts), and others put them in their own family Libytheidae (the Snouts or Long Beaks).  There are only about eight species of snouts worldwide, all in the tropics/subtropics, and although older field guides may list several species of American Snouts, they’re presently lumped into a single species that’s divided into races, geographically.  The Libytheidae are “old-timey” butterflies, whose fossilized ancestors have been found in 35 million year old deposits.  It’s possible that earlier generations had some use for that snout that we haven’t figured out. 

Nymphalidae is a family in which the butterfly’s front legs are greatly reduced and brush-like – essentially, they are four-legged butterflies.  American Snouts (Libytheana carinenta) have tweaked that design; males get around on four legs, but females have six functional legs.  Their “snout” is actually a pair of elongated mouthparts called labial palps https://bugguide.net/node/view/1542556/bgimage (the species name “carinenta” comes from a Latin word for “keel” and alludes to the shape of the palps). 

When they’re perched, Snouts are pretty distinctive.  With angular, variously-leafy-looking underwings https://bugguide.net/node/view/1885500/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1253002/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/725354/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/709384/bgimage, and a head that looks like a leaf stem, they are well camouflaged.  If they’re alarmed, they may flick open their wings and startle predators with a flash of orange.  Their wingspread is about 1 ½ to 2 inches, and males and females look similar.   

They’re found in open woods, especially near wetlands and streams, from Argentina into our Southern tier of states, where they produce multiple broods a year and overwinter as adults.  They wander north of their regular range (as far as Ontario, but not to the northwestern quadrant of North America), and they sometimes undertake dramatic movements (more about that in a sec). 

Snouts visit Wisconsin most years (no sightings in 2021, but good numbers this year), arriving in late spring and producing a brood, with their numbers peaking in July.  Our winters are (still) too cold for them to overwinter.  Early arrivals to the North Country will bask in the sun for warmth, and they can quiver the (internal) flight muscles to generate some heat for flight (muscular thermogenesis).

These are not really migrants – some authors call them “immigrants” – because there’s no corresponding southward movement in fall by subsequent generations.  In Butterflies of Wisconsin (1970) Ebner says “Hoy stated the curious insect was once common in the Racine area but that it had dwindled drastically in abundance by 1881.”    It is conceivable that the species is short-lived here and exterminated by a severe and prolonged winter season.”  Snouts are more common in the southern part of Wisconsin because there are more of the caterpillar host trees in the south.

Their lives are tied to hackberry trees.  Males patrol for females near hackberries.  Several sources noted that mating pairs https://bugguide.net/node/view/234642/bgimage have been seen at dusk and at night, suggesting that they are crepuscular breeders, but others say that mating occurs at any time of day.  Females lay eggs in the hackberry leaf axils, and the caterpillars https://bugguide.net/node/view/1567718/bgimage (older caterpillars are fancier https://bugguide.net/node/view/6528) hatch and feed on the leaves.  Development is speedy – from egg to adult in just over two weeks!  The University of Florida Entomology and Nematology’s “Featured Creatures” blog adds this wonderful side note: “When not feeding, larvae in Brazil are reported to rest on frass chains as a defense against predators.

Because their proboscises are short, adults feed on nectar from “shallow” flowers like dogbane, aster, and goldenrod (the BugLady photographed one on Nannyberry), and they also get nutrients from bird droppings.  Males use their proboscises to absorb minerals from mud puddles.

Sometimes, the dam bursts and there are Biblical movements of Snouts throughout the Southwest – For this to happen, a few dominos have to line up.  The first domino is drought.  Snouts go into a state of diapause (become inactive) during a drought. 

The second is heavy, summer rain – when the drought breaks, the rain stimulates Spiny hackberry trees (but not other hackberry species) to grow tender, new leaves. 

Third, during a drought there are fewer insects like this Chalcicid wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/1179366 that might be parasitoids of the caterpillars, so higher numbers of caterpillars survive. 

It’s the perfect storm – the rains come, the Snouts wake up, and the landscape is covered with butterflies that are eager to breed.  There are, suddenly, lots of places to lay eggs, and lots of leaves for caterpillars to eat, and the population explodes.  Professor Larry Gilbert found hackberries one meter in diameter with upwards of 4,000 chrysalises on them https://bugguide.net/node/view/6527/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/234621/bgimage (this one holds an almost-mature butterfly!).  Gilbert estimated that in 1978, the number of Snouts produced on the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in Texas was about one-half billion (get the full story here http://texasento.net/snout.htm).

After the caterpillars defoliate the hackberries and metamorphose into adults, the Snouts spread out, moving at five to eight miles per hour, looking for more hackberries, hopscotching from one suitable spot to the next   Clouds of butterflies block the sun, lower visibility on the interstate, gum up windshields and radiators, and cause street lights to go on!  You would think that there would be a bunch of images of this on the internet, but there aren’t.

And here’s an excerpt from an article in the Texas Parks and Wildlife publication by Ben Hutchins, about an earlier event: “In 1921, an estimated 75 million butterflies per hour passed through South Texas in a particularly large wave that stretched for nearly 250 miles. To put that in perspective, the entire eastern monarch population during the winter of 2016-2017 was estimated at just over 81 million individuals. That’s essentially every monarch in North America east of the Rockies, save for a few snowbirds that hang out around the Gulf Coast, compared to 75 million American snouts passing by in a single swarm, in a single hour. The flight lasted for 18 days.

The wonderful Butterflies of Massachusetts account reports that Snout sightings had increased in New Jersey and New York by the end of the last century, which suggests that their range could expand northward as the climate warms.

It’s not too late to see one this year.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug of the Week – Gray Comma Butterfly – the Other Comma

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

These are butterflies with somewhat northern proclivities; they’re found across Canada and the northern part of North America but are mostly missing from our southern tier of states https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Polygonia-progne.  In Butterflies of the Great Lakes Region, Douglas and Douglas speculate that their original (pre-settlement) habitat was probably sunny areas that opened up within dense woodlands when trees fell over and left a hole in the canopy.  Today they’re found in clearings in deciduous and mixed woodlands, along stream edges, and along dirt roads, and also in gardens and yards.  Mead, in Butterflies of the North Woods, says that they are “maybe the most widespread of all the anglewings.”  The (fabulous) Butterflies of Massachusetts website suggests that Gray Commas “may be vulnerable to range contraction as climate warms.

Because of the outlines of their wings, Question Marks and commas (genus Polygonia) are called anglewings.  There are five anglewings in Wisconsin – Gray Commas, Eastern Commas and Question Marks are found throughout the state, and Green Commas and Satyr Commas live “Up North.”

They’re called anglewings because of the cut of their jib, and “comma” because of the silvery punctuation marks on the undersides of their wings.  The Gray Comma’s comma resembles a Nike swoosh https://bugguide.net/node/view/197220/bgimage compared to the Eastern Comma’s thickened and hooked mark https://bugguide.net/node/view/1567724/bgimage, and the Question Mark’s question mark https://bugguide.net/node/view/1583855/bgimage.  

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s online Field Guide, “Congratulations if you can tell the difference between a gray comma and eastern comma! This shows you’ve definitely progressed beyond a “beginner” level in butterfly identification.”  By that yardstick, the BugLady hasn’t quite arrived yet, but she’s getting closer.  She likes taking their pictures and putting their images up on the monitor, pulling out a field guide, and worrying them a little bit. 

Here’s why you have to look twice when you’re identifying anglewings:

Gray Comma – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1214968/bgimage

Eastern Comma – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1620700/bgimage,

Question Mark – https://bugguide.net/node/view/1774878/bgimage.  There are some handy tips for distinguishing them at https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/subfamily/17-true-brushfoots

With a wingspread of about 2 inches, these are nice-sized butterflies, and seeing one with its wings open in the sunlight is a real treat!  When they’re sitting on a tree trunk with their wings closed, https://bugguide.net/node/view/1937383/bgimage, they can be remarkably-well camouflaged. 

Like other anglewings, there are two generations of Gray Commas each year.  The second generation emerges in mid-fall, but instead of mating, they overwinter as adults, tucked away in a sheltered spot called a hibernaculum (they may fly briefly during a winter thaw).  They emerge in April and May and go about the business of producing the summer generation.  Like other anglewings, Gray Commas are “seasonally dimorphic” – the summer brood has darker hind wings, https://bugguide.net/node/view/197221/bgimage than the winter brood https://bugguide.net/node/view/742721/bgimage.  

Gray Commas are jumpy and nervous, and they have lots of attitude.  Males scout for receptive females from a perch at the edge of a clearing; they are territorial and will engage with anything that crosses their turf.  Females lay eggs singly on the leaves of host plants – gooseberries (genus Ribes), plus the odd currant (also in the genus Ribes), plus azalea and elm. 

Early spring butterflies (and other insects) must have a way to get warm and stay warm (to this end, they are often hairier than later-season species); Gray Commas often warm up by basking in the sun (they have favorite perches), and they can also generate heat by shivering the muscles in their thorax (muscular thermogenesis).

It’s not often, when the BugLady researches insects, that the dramatic plot twist concerns the insect’s diet.  The Gray Comma’s menu looks pretty straightforward on the face of it, but there’s a backstory that the BugLady heard a very long time ago and then forgot.  Like other butterflies that emerge early, commas rarely visit flowers, preferring to sip the juices of rotting fruits, carrion, and dung, to visit sap drips, and to glean minerals from damp soil.  Caterpillars https://bugguide.net/node/view/937966/bgimage feed on the undersides of gooseberry leaves, and the butterflies readily adopted European gooseberries that were introduced by the Settlers (the caterpillars were considered pests of cultivated gooseberries in some places).  Food was plentiful.  Life was good. 

The Butterflies of Massachusetts website tells us what happened next: “Then, around 1910, an American nurseryman imported thousands of white pine seedlings which were infected with European white pine blister rust, for which Ribes plant species are the alternate hosts. Our native white pine, Pinus strobus was not resistant, and this commercially important species was threatened. To protect the lumber industry, importing or cultivating all currants and gooseberries was banned in most New England states. In the 1920’s and 1930s both native and cultivated Ribes plants were ripped up all across New England and the Great Lakes areas, as well as further west. By 1966 the ban was lifted in many areas, but is still in place in Massachusetts (Cullina 2002: 221-2). The host plants for Gray Comma therefore declined dramatically, as did the butterfly.”  (Since that was written, limited quantities of Ribes may be planted in Massachusetts, by permit only.  All clear in Wisconsin since 1966.)

Fun Fact about Gray Commas: their caterpillars rest below the leaf in a U-shape, hanging on with only their middle set of prolegs (the fleshy, “false” legs behind the three pairs of true legs on the thorax https://bugguide.net/node/view/1578095/bgimage).  When they’re alarmed, they wave their spiny front and rear ends around, which apparently makes a predator think again.

May is American Wetlands Month!  Wetlands support vast numbers of insects as temporary nurseries (for dragonflies and damselflies and more), as permanent homes, and as hunting grounds. 

Go outside – appreciate a wetland!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug o’the Week – Bugs without Bios XVIII

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

IPSILON DART MOTH   

There’s actually plenty of information out there about the Ipsilon dart because its caterpillar loves to eat a variety of agricultural crops, but (except for one little twist) its biography is pretty straightforward.  It’s one of those species whose adult and larval stages have different names – caterpillars are called Floodplain/Black/Greasy cutworms (one source described the larvae as greasy-looking), and another name for the adults is Dark Sword Grass Moth.  It’s an Owlet moth (family Noctuidae) in the Cutworm/Dart moth subfamily Noctuinae, and its name comes from the roughly “Y’-shaped” markings on the wings and from a misspelling of the Greek letter upsilon, which corresponds with the letter “Y.”  

The Ipsilon dart (Agrostis ipsilon) is a native moth that’s found across the continent into southern Canada and that has traveled around the world (except for very hot or very cold locales).  It’s unwelcome wherever it goes because the caterpillar’s diet includes clover, corn, lettuce, potatoes, tobacco, alfalfa, strawberries, sorghum, sugar beets, cotton, and a variety of grains and grasses.  If the eggs hatch before the crops sprout, the larvae sustain themselves on non-native roadside weeds like pigweed and curly dock and then move into the fields when they’ve finished the “weeds.”  Adults feed on nectar.  Here’s the life cycle https://bugguide.net/node/view/1225712/bgimage

Although eggs are laid on low leaves, the caterpillars do their damage below the soil.  There are multiple generations per year in the South; one or two in the North; and the last brood overwinters as pupae.  And here’s the twist – in the northern half of its range, winters are too cold for the pupa to survive.  Adults from the final generation in the north head south to escape the cold (southbound moths don’t reproduce), and in spring, moths migrate north to escape the heat.  According to “Featured Creatures,” a great newsletter of the Entomology and Nematology Department of the University of Florida, “moths collected in the central region of USA in March and April are principally dispersing individuals that are past their peak egg production period. Nonetheless, they inoculate the area and allow production of additional generations, including moths that disperse north into Canada.”

ICHNEUMON ANNULATORIUS

There are so many Ichneumon wasps out there – according to bugguide.net, an estimated 60,000 species worldwide with possibly 40,000 more to discover and describe – so many species that even among those that are named, their life stories are incomplete.  They come in all sizes, shapes and colors; their larvae make a living by parasitizing other insects and even some spiders (and they tend to be very specific about their targets); and they (mostly) don’t sting. 

The BugLady was trying, unsuccessfully, to identify this handsome wasp; she finally asked for help (thanks, PJ), and it turned out to be an Ichneumon wasp.  The BugLady is disappointed that the shiny new wasp book she bought doesn’t cover the Ichneumons, but if it did, she probably couldn’t lift it. 

Ichneumon annulatorius (no common name) can be found in the northeastern quadrant of North America, from Newfoundland to Virginia to Iowa.  Not a lot is known about it, but some of its life history has been inferred from observations of its close relatives.   

In a 1971 article in the Ohio Journal of Science called “Hibernating Ichneumonidae of Ohio.”  Clement Dasch points out that in spite of the fact that ants, bumble bees, and some paper wasps overwinter as adults, hibernation is a relatively uncommon habit in the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps).  Yet, while looking for hibernating wasps in Ohio, 39 species of Ichneumonids were collected. 

Insects pick their hibernacula carefully, aiming for high humidity and minimal fluctuation in temperature (sunny spots are out).  Ichneumons most frequently chose places under the loose bark of fallen trees on north-facing (shaded) slopes, close to the ground, or in deep ravines.  Other sites included the soft, rotten wood of an old stump or dead wood that was heavily tunneled by other insects.  Some species – including Ichneumon annulatorius – liked thick growths of moss on rocks or trees.  Favorable sites often housed multiple wasps.  

Of the 5,275 wasps he collected, Dasch found only a single male – these species produce a single generation per year, and males died after mating in fall.  Pregnant females entered hibernation by late October and emerged in early April when the air temperatures stayed above freezing, and when they emerged they immediately looked for a host to lay eggs on/in.

GRACEFUL SEDGE GRASSHOPPER

The BugLady was in the Bog on a fine fall day in 2015 when she spotted this jumpy grasshopper on the boardwalk.  It allowed two pictures and then departed.  The BugLady searched unsuccessfully for a grasshopper with the combination of striped head and thorax, glorious red on the femur, and white band on the tibia, and she finally sent it out to a grasshopper expert (thanks Chuck!). 

The Graceful sedge grasshopper (Stethophyma gracile/gracilis), aka the Northern sedge grasshopper/locust (in the short-horned grasshopper family Acrididae) occurs across southern Canada and the northern US, as far south as New Jersey and Nebraska.  It was probably more common 100 years ago, and bugguide.net speculates that it “seems to have disappeared from much of its southern range.”  It’s considered widespread but local, favoring sedge meadows, brushy swamps, stream edges, and other sunny, wet areas, and in the West, it prefers cool uplands.  The grasshoppers live in and eat sedges.

According to an article called “The Orthoptera of North Dakota” in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Vol LXXXVII 1925), “it reaches maturity late in the season and is not apt to be found adult before the first of August……”though the males are active, fly vigorously and stridulate loudly, the heavier females are less easily found, then usually ready to leap down into the thickest tangle of grasses at the first alarm.”  The BugLady found an article that suggested that when male grasshoppers stridulate (make noise by rubbing one body part against another) they are more likely to be talking to other males than wooing females. 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug o’the Week – Black Blow fly

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

The family Calliphoridae (Blow flies) includes Carrion flies, Blow flies, Bluebottle and Greenbottle flies, Cluster flies, and the notorious Screwworm flies.  These often-metallically-colored flies are common in many habitats around the world, including urban areas, where they bask on sunny walls.  The name Blow fly (which was coined by William Shakespeare) comes from an old English term for meat that flies have laid eggs in – such meat was said to be “fly blown.” 

Most Calliphorid larvae (maggots) make their living as recyclers, which conjures up a more wholesome image than does saprophagous (feeding on decaying organic material) or sarcosaprophagous (“feeding on decaying animal material”) (to complete the set, scato/coprophagous refers to feeding on excrement and phytosaprophagous to feeding on rotting plant material.  Quadruple word scores all around).  Maggots eat dung and/or carrion, excreting proteolytic enzymes that break down its proteins, and a few species are parasites.  

Adult blow flies get carbs from nectar and are minor pollinators (they’re attracted to flowers with strong, “meaty,” odors), but they also visit carrion and dung to get protein.  The BugLady photographed one fly as it fed on sap that was leaking from the cut trunk of a small tree in early spring.   

In a blog post titled “Ten reasons why blow flies are stink’n awesome” from the Insect Ecology and Communication Lab at Ohio University, the author writes, “……All joking aside though, blow flies don’t really smell, it’s the resources they are associated with (garbage, poop, carrion, etc.) that smells. The purpose of this post is to make you fall in love with appreciate blow flies! Blow flies are considered filth flies because they are a terrible nuisance to people and are thought of as disease vectors.  Overall, blow flies have a bad reputation because of their less than socially approved eating habits (the BugLady is not going to list the ten – read the article https://bekkabrodie.com/2014/05/20/ten-reasons-why-blow-flies-are-stinkn-awesome/).  On the negative side – you know where that mouth and those feet have been.  On the plus side – they don’t bite.

Experienced BugFans can see where this is going.  The BugLady will try to tell the story as delicately as possible, but this lifestyle is just a part of the magnificent panoply that is the insect world and, well – blow flies happen.

THE BLACK BLOW FLY (Phormia regina), the only species in its genus, is a cold-loving fly that can be found across North America and around the world, especially in rural areas near water.  It’s seen more commonly during spring and fall in the northern half of its range, and in winter in the southern half.  In an article in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, Matt Pelikan (who writes nice natural history articles) says “Nobody seems to know where it originated; perhaps it had succeeded in colonizing much of the globe on its own even before human commerce began transporting wildlife from continent to continent. Or perhaps Phormia began hitching rides so early on in human history that it was already established most places by the time the first biologists turned up and began looking at flies.”

Both male and female Black blow flies need protein to fuel their mating and reproductive activities, and they get this protein from dung, which they ingest via “sponging” mouthparts.

Adults emerge from their winter shelters under tree bark and fallen leaves (sometimes putting in an appearance during a January thaw), and when the air warms consistently to about 50 degrees, the dance begins.  In the case of Black blow flies, the singles scene revolves around animal droppings, and males with larger hat sizes tend to be more successful at getting the gals.  After mating, the female “sniffs” the air, and tracks down some carrion.  Although adults get their nutrients from animal droppings, their eggs are laid on dead meat (up to 250 eggs, in various nooks and crannies).

The eggs hatch quickly in their meaty substrate; they have three instars (the eating stages between molts), and a feeding, metabolizing mass of third-stage maggots generates so much heat that the temperature within the mass can be 50 degrees F (or more) warmer than the ambient temperature.  It’s called the “maggot mass effect,” and it not only keeps everyone toasty, it gooses development and protects against predators and parasites.  The larvae survive the stress of this shot of heat by creating “heat shock proteins” (the BugLady was going to attempt a brief explanation of heat shock proteins, but she got into deep water pretty fast).  Maggots leave the nursery carcass and form pupal cases on the ground; their run from egg to pupa can be as brief as 6 days, with an additional week in the pupal case, but in cooler temperatures they may take up to 12 days longer to mature.  The faster their development is, the smaller the adults are. 

Sources disagreed about whether Black blow flies routinely come inside (most say no), but one suggested that if you see a cluster of blow flies in/around the house, they might be attracted to the odor of a gas leak.

Black blow flies are exquisitely sensitive to the smell of a recently dead animal.  They are among the first to arrive at the scene, which is why they are favorites of the CSI folks and why their chronologies have been so minutely charted. 

Another service provided by a number of blow flies, including the Black blow fly, is wound care (called biotherapy or maggot therapy).  Super-clean maggots are applied to open wounds with stubborn infections because those proteolytic enzymes break down the necrotic tissue for the maggots to eat and leave the healthy tissue alone.  Pick your blow flies carefully – some species (but not this one) sweeten the pot by adding antibiotic secretions to the wound, and other species will feed on healthy tissue.  Unwanted maggot infestations are called myiasis, and they happen to livestock (mostly), in warmer climes (mostly).  

Final Cool Fact about Blow Flies, from the Insect Ecology and Communication Lab “Blow flies are able to fly with such precision that we are never able to swat them.  This is because of the very tiny second pair of wings called halteres, which function like mini gyroscopes and help the fly to calculate in flight maneuver instantly.  Scientists use Blow flies to study flight muscles and split second flight maneuvers. They have discovered flies in mid-turn have the ability to roll on their sides 90º or more (flying upside down) just like a jet fighter.”

According to a 1922 report of the Kansas State Board of Health, “The robin and the bluebottle fly are the early harbingers of spring.”

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

Bug o’the Week – Small Blue Butterflies redux

Bug o’the Week

Mid-summer Scenes

Greetings, BugFans,

Summer has reached its half-way point, and the BugLady has been recording the changing of the guard.  The adult lives of most insects are brief – four to six weeks for many, and considerably less for some.  Bluet damselflies are fading, but meadowhawk dragonflies are taking the stage.  Little Wood Satyr butterflies are hard to find, but Common wood nymphs now flit through the fields.  You get the picture.  Here are some bugs that the BugLady found in the first half of summer.

Today’s episode considers three small, blue “look-alike” butterflies – the Spring Azure and the Summer Azure, often referred to as the Spring Spring Azure and the Summer Spring Azure, and the Eastern Tailed Blue.  The Spring Azures have long been considered to be one large and gloriously diverse species made up of several subspecies.  Now they’re thought by many to be a number of full species. For an explanation, see https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/species/53-spring-azure.  Besides the Spring Azures, a number of other species of Blues/Azures occur in Wisconsin. 

BugFans who want to finesse identification can always refer to them thoughtfully as the “Spring Azure Complex” and can indulge in a bit of Bug “one-up-man-ship” by lamenting the lack of DNA sequencing on the group.  Remember, though, the words of biologist William Keeton, who said that humans are the only organism to whom this taxonomic lumping and splitting and nattering makes any difference.  The organisms themselves know who they are – in this case, they are butterflies in the family Lycaenidae, the Gossamer-wing butterflies, a large group of butterflies that can be found around the globe.  The BugLady knows them as tiny bits of sky that flicker through sun-dappled swamps, stream sides, woods openings and edges.

SPRING SPRING AZURES (SpSpAz)

SpSpAzs typically emerge early and can survive the frosty nights of mid-spring.  Compared to the Summer Spring Azure, the SpSpAz is darker, and its black spots may be larger and more distinct.  Both species are sexually dimorphic (“two forms”); in this case, the females’ wings have wide black borders and the males’ don’t.  Their wingspread is 1” to 1 ¼”.  Most references say that Wisconsin’s SpSpAz is the species Celastrina ladon (or the subspecies C. ladon ladon).  Others point out that because C. ladon’s chief food plant, flowering dogwood, doesn’t grow in Wisconsin, our earliest SpSpAz is likely C. lucia (or C. ladon lucia).

In order to fly in April and May, SpSpAzs overwinter as a pupa/chrysalis. Adults don’t live long or eat much.  They may drink a little nectar or get liquid and minerals from the mud (a behavior called puddling), and males may gather on damp ground in groups.  Males patrol for mates in forest openings and edges and along forest trails, sometimes ascending to the tree-tops in the thin sunshine of spring.  A female will mate within hours of emerging.  She lays her eggs the next day on the flower buds of host plants like maple-leaved viburnum, black cherry, and sumac, and then she dies. 

When her eggs hatch, the caterpillars – green, conspicuously segmented, and covered with white stubble https://wisconsinpollinators.com/Caterpillars/C_SpringAzure.aspx – eat the flowers first and then the developing fruits.  The flowers they eat tend to be frequented by ants (unsung pollinators of flowers), which discover, care for and protect the caterpillars (here’s an ant on a different species https://bugguide.net/node/view/45799/bgimage).  In return, the ants harvest honeydew produced by the caterpillars.  The larval stage takes about a month, but the resting/pupal stage is a whopper, lasting from early summer until the next spring.   

SUMMER SPRING AZURE (SuSpAz)

The second Azure, which succeeds the first chronologically, is the “Summer” Spring Azure (Celastrina neglecta), sometimes listed as a subspecies C. ladon neglecta.  If you get one to sit still for you, you may note that the SuSpA has lighter underwings than the SpSpAz, and its black spots are smaller and less distinct (to see an Azure with its wings folded is to miss the point; it is the tops of their wings that give Azures their name).  An Azure seen after mid-June is most likely a SuSpAz, but it never hurts to check.  SuSpAzs fly from June until the first frosts in parks and open fields as well as wood openings and edges.

Its life cycle is similar to that of the SpSpAz, with the same symbiotic assist from ants.  Its larval host plants include later-blooming relatives of the SpSpAz host plants.  The pupae of the two species are very similar, and one reference noted that if they are separate species, they separated recently (geologically speaking), perhaps as little as a few thousand years ago.  The chrysalis of the SuSpAz does not rouse when the soil warms in spring; it waits until early summer to emerge.  There are at least two broods each summer, so SuSpAzs decorate the landscape into the fall. 

A Wild Card Azure is the recently-recognized (2005) Cherry Gall Azure (CGAz) (C. serotinahttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1113261/bgimage, which has been recorded in Wisconsin and is said to take up the slack between the decline of the SpSpAz and the emergence of the SuSpAz.  The caterpillar of the CGA has adapted to feeding on the nipple galls created by eriophyid mites (of previous BOTW fame) on cherry leaves. 

EASTERN TAILED-BLUE(ETB)

The tails of the Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas or Cupido comyntas, depending on what book you look at) are not visible in flight – in fact, the tails for which they are named are fragile, and wear-and-tear renders many Tailed-Blues tail-less.  They can still be told from the Azures by the two orange spots on the underside of the hind wing right above the tail (and just for fun, check out some pictures of hairstreaks https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/subfamily/12-hairstreaks).  The upper wings of Eastern Tailed-Blues are darker than Azures’ wings – the top surface of a male’s wings is purplish blue, and a female’s wings are brownish -.

They change seasonally, too; the first brood of summer has brighter males and bluer females than the last.  ETBs are common, tiny (they can be half the size of a SuSpAz), sun-loving butterflies of fields, restored prairies, power line rights-of-way, gardens, and other open areas. 

Adult ETBs have a short proboscis and so feed at flowers with easy-to-reach nectar, and adult males gather at mud puddles.  Caterpillars eat the flower buds, flowers, seeds and new leaves of their host plants in the Legume family like yellow sweet clover, alfalfa, vetch, white clover, wild pea, bush clover; and tick-trefoil.  As food generalists, they can use a succession of host plants and produce several broods that fly during the summer and well into fall.  ETBs overwinter as caterpillars (often in the seed pod of their legume host) and pupate the following spring.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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

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