Bug o’the Week – Variegated Meadowhawk Redux by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Variegated Meadowhawk Redux

Salutations, BugFans,

Variegated Meadowhawks started appearing in the state from the south and southwest in mid-April this year.  Their appearances were brief – they have places to go – but they leave eggs behind in our ponds.  Their offspring will emerge in late summer to decorate our landscapes briefly before they leave, too.

BugFan Freda contributed in-flight shots of Variegated Meadowhawks that she took recently at a local pond.  Note that one of Freda’s pictures shows a pair flying in tandem, with a third dragonfly, another male, that’s investigating/trying to break up the pair.  That’s the reason why, in many (but not all) species of dragonfly, the male continues to clasp the female as she oviposits (contact guarding).

The BugLady massaged this episode from 2012 – some new words and new pictures.  As you may recall, spring arrived in February that year, though we bounced back to normal in May, just in time to freeze the apple and cherry blossoms.  It was a long, hot, dry summer – water levels dropped, and plants bloomed early and only briefly before getting fried – and butterfly and dragonfly populations took a hit.  The BugLady, who thinks 73 degrees is hot, was not a happy camper.

2012 – The BugLady found this handsome dragonfly at a local Nature Preserve a few days ago.  Her photographic philosophy (necessitated by her hyperopia) is “Snap First and Identify Later;” so she appreciated the beauty of this spiffy individual in the moment (with a few soft “Wows!”).  She kept thinking, as she stalked the dragonfly on that fine, April day, that it sure looked like a meadowhawk, and it flew like a meadowhawk (and Wisconsin just doesn’t have that many red dragonflies), but that meadowhawks were not due on the landscape for months.  She appreciated it even more when she discovered later that she was looking at a new (for her) species – a Variegated Meadowhawk. 

When the BugLady wrote her BOTW about Meadowhawk Dragonflies in the summer of 2009 https://uwm.edu/field-station/meadowhawks/, she hadn’t seen a Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum).  Sympetrum means “with rock” and may refer to the rocks and other substrates that meadowhawks perch on to gather heat early in the day.  Generically, adult meadowhawks (in the Skimmer family Libellulidae) may be found hunting away from water or hanging around the shores of the lakes and ponds where they will deposit their eggs in late summer.  Instead of hatching right away, eggs of resident meadowhawk species spend the winter in a state of suspended animation called diapause and put off hatching until spring. 

Meadowhawk naiads (young) are hooked and spiny, though Variegated Meadowhawk naiads have very few hooks or spines on their exoskeletons.  They feed underwater for a few months on aquatic invertebrates, and maybe on a few tiny tadpoles and fish, until one fine evening when they crawl out of the water to complete their transformation into adults.  Some meadowhawk species in cold northern waters are naiads for a few years.   

Adult meadowhawks may chase their insect prey while in flight, but they’re more likely to spot it from a perch and take off after it, flycatcher-style.  The naiads sprawl on their underwater substrate and wait for prey to present itself.

VARIEGATED MEADOWHAWKS have tweaked the meadowhawk model a bit. 

The first word Paulson uses to describe Variegated Meadowhawks in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is “Robust” – their abdomens are much chunkier than those of other meadowhawks.  The medium-size body (about 1 ½”), patterned abdomen (possibly the reason for “corruptum,” which comes from a Latin root meaning “to break”), tinted veins on the leading edge of all four wings, stigmas (pigment dots at the wing tips) that shade from pale to dark to pale, and yellow spots on the sides of the thorax are all marks of a Variegated Meadowhawk.  Where the male has red markings that become more solidly red with age, the female and the newly-emerged juveniles are golden.   

Compared to other meadowhawks, they spend more time perched horizontally on and near the ground, and males are more territorial. 

They are early meadowhawks.  While most of their meadowhawk cousins appear in July and fly through the first frosts, Variegated Meadowhawks arrive, as this one did, as early as mid-April.  Legler, in Dragonflies of Wisconsin, says that “hot days in spring with southerly winds bring them into the state.”  In some parts of their range, they are the first dragonflies on the scene; here, they arrive at about the same time as the first, migratory Common Green Darners. 

These are migratory meadowhawks that migrate close to the ground and navigate visually, using the position of the sun.  They repopulate the North Country from the south and southwest in spring – they are far more common on the other side of the Mississippi and are considered vagrants or migrants east of the Big River.  Variegated Meadowhawks have been recorded in 43 states plus the southern tier of Canada https://bugguide.net/node/view/6538/data and in about half of Wisconsin’s counties, but much of the time, they’re just passing through.  Sightings peak around their spring arrivals and their mid-summer departures.   

Do they go back where they came from at the end of their season here? 

They do not.  Joined by other Variegated Meadowhawks that have drifted into the state from the west, the offspring of the Variegated Meadowhawks that stopped to breed here in April will head toward the Atlantic when they depart in late August.  They leave no young overwintering in Wisconsin ponds.  They migrate, often in the company of darners and saddlebags, south along the East coast as far south as Honduras and Belize (they also occur, inexplicably, in Southeast Asia) https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/12-036_01_MDP_Field_Guide_4-4-2013Websec.pdf.  

The next generation heads north in spring immediately after becoming adults.  Most Variegated Meadowhawks seen here in spring are adults, and most fall migrants are juveniles.  It has been suggested that this migratory habit could give Variegated Meadowhawks an edge during a period of climate change. 

Mead, in Dragonflies of the North Woods, warns us against attempting to show off our netting skills by capturing a Variegated Meadowhawk, “as they may make a fool of you. This is one of the most difficult dragonflies to net; it is very shy and wary (and seems to possess a level of telepathic ability).”

Nota Bene: The most common butterfly on the BugLady’s landscape these days, the Red Admiral, is also a migrant to these parts.  Red Admiral, Painted Lady, and American Lady butterflies, all in the wandering genus Vanessa, are cold-intolerant.  They return to our area in spring, and some years see huge population booms and mass migrations.  You can report spring migration sightings at: http://vanessa.ent.iastate.edu, where you can also find out some neat stuff about Red Admiral behavior. 

There are a lot of Red Admirals around in 2023, too.

2012 Go outside – it may be early; it may be eerie; but spring’s happening.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Cruiser Dragonflies
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week by Kate Redmond

Cruiser Dragonflies

Greetings, BugFans,

When the BugLady asked BugFan Freda what she should write about for BOTW#700 (!!!), the answer, not surprisingly, was dragonflies.  In this case, a very cool family of dragonflies that the BugLady hasn’t seen yet, but that Freda has photographed.

The Cruiser dragonflies, aka River Emeralds or River Cruisers, are not shrinking violets – they are powerful dragonflies that have a reputation among dragonfly fans as the most difficult of the dragonflies to net (maybe because they’re highly maneuverable and they can hit flight speeds of up to 40 mph).  Older books include them in the Emerald family Corduliidae, but they are now listed in the family Macromiidae, a small family with 9 species in two genera in North America, and about 120 species worldwide.

Look for Cruisers around shallow, sunny rivers, streams, bays, channels, and lakes with good water quality.  They’re found from coast to coast except in the Rockies and Northern Great Plains.

These are dark, shiny, long-legged, darner-sized dragonflies (2 ¼” to 3 ¼” long) with a pale thoracic stripe and with light markings on a long, slim abdomen that, in males, may be slightly clubbed toward the tip (or not) https://bugguide.net/node/view/1326249 (a field mark that can be seen when a Cruiser flies overhead).  Most adults have green eyes that touch on the top of the head https://bugguide.net/node/view/1326250/bgimage (the eyes of the Emeralds, the Darners (Aeshnidae), and the Skimmers (Libellulidae) also meet on the top of the head).  Their wings are thin and unspotted, and except for the size of the abdominal appendages, males and females are pretty similar. 

Female Cruisers don’t have an ovipositor, so they can’t insert eggs in plant stems or rotten wood.  Instead they fly near the surface and release eggs directly into the water as they tap it with the end of their abdomen. 

The aquatic, immature dragonflies – naiads (“nymphs,” if you must, but never “larvae”) – are large, long-legged, and round https://bugguide.net/node/view/827176/bgimage.  They’re called “sprawlers” because of their habit of sitting quietly, camouflaged by the debris on the bottom of the pond or stream (hairs on their exoskeleton encourage the detritus to stick to the naiad.), waiting for their prey (freshwater shrimp, tiny fish and tadpoles, and mosquito larvae) to wander past.  They typically spend two to three years as naiads.  

Like other dragonflies, adult Cruisers feed on flying insects that they grab out of the air, but they may also “glean” their prey – pick perched insects off of vegetation.

Cruisers are known for speeding straight down the middle of rivers and roads, a few feet off the surface.  When they land, they may hang down vertically or perch at an angle.  

The Wisconsin Odonata Survey (WOS) lists four species of Cruisers for the state –two species are found in the northern half of the state, one lives along the Mississippi in the southwestern part of the state, and one species exists as a historical note.  Good descriptions of all can be found at the WOS site https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/SpeciesAccounts/ – click on the Cruiser family and then on the desired species.  Dragonflies of Northern Virginia is also a great resource http://www.dragonfliesnva.com/; for the species list click on “65 Species” in the first paragraph and scroll down for the species list.  

The STREAM CRUISER (Didymops transversa) is the only Cruiser in its genus in Wisconsin.  These early flyers can be found over much of the continent east of the Great Plains.  The WOS lists them as “common” and describes their habitat as “streams, rivers, and lakes that are slow, forested and sandy-bottomed, not still or vegetated. Sometimes they are found in uplands, along edges of forested trails or fields.”  One Canadian dragonfly fan has seen them along woodland trails so often that he thinks they should be called the “Trail Cruiser,” and he says that this species takes relatively short flights and then perches at an angle. 

Their flight period is late May to mid-July in Wisconsin.  In the northern part of their range, the flight season stretches from early May to mid-September, with a peak time in early spring.

For more pictures, see https://marylandbiodiversity.com/view/689

The SWIFT RIVER CRUISER (Macromia illinoiensis) is made up of two subspecies – the more northern Illinois River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis illinoiensis) and the more southern Georgia River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis georgina).  The northern subspecies is said to be more boldly colored of the two (for pictures of the Georgia River Cruiser, see https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/view/692, and for the Illinois River Cruiser see https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/SpeciesAccounts/SpeciesDetail.cfm?TaxaID=128.  And yes, where they overlap, they interbreed.  Their status in Wisconsin is “Fairly Common”

This powerful dragonfly can be found flying fast and straight over large rivers, rapid, rocky streams, and shorelines with some wave action (all well-oxygenated waters) in a patchwork of states in the northeastern quadrant of North America https://bugguide.net/node/view/130228/data.  On his Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website Kevin Munroe says “Watching Swift River Cruisers in the field is a treat – they’re Olympic athletes, even by dragonfly standardsWatching one patrolling his territory, jetting down the center of a sunny river a few feet above the water, you almost except to hear him break the sound barrier. A flash of his yellow abdominal band and brilliant green eyes, and he’s gone. His linear patrols are long, but regular – just wait a few minutes and he’ll be back for another pass. They also hunt for hours high over meadows and ball fields. Watch them as they zip, dip and dive circles around other feeding dragonflies.”  They are also seen above roads and paths. 

Their flight season in Wisconsin is between early June and early September.  

The ROYAL RIVER CRUISER (Macromia taeniolata) likes rivers and large streams and is found in southwestern Wisconsin in a few counties along the Mississippi, and across the eastern half of North America https://bugguide.net/node/view/39700/data.  Males patrol lengthy stretches along shorelines or over open water, and they perch vertically in vegetation near the water’s edge.  Munson calls it one of our largest dragonflies – larger, heavier, and slower than the Swift River Cruisers – and says that it prefers slower water and marshy river sections.  Royal River Cruisers may join feeding swarms of other dragonflies in late afternoon.

In the northern part of their range, the flight season is from mid-June to early September, and they’re a WOS “Most Wanted” species (documented, but more info about range, habitat, numbers, etc. is needed).

For more pictures, see https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/view/693

There’s one old, Milwaukee County record for the GILDED RIVER CRUISER (Macromia pacificahttps://bugguide.net/node/view/477031/bgimage, but whether this was a single, wandering individual or whether the species’ range previously included the state is unknown  They don’t occur here today (and their present range is pretty disjointed https://bugguide.net/node/view/477069/data). 

Munson cautions hopeful Cruiser netters to be careful in their attempts because the Cruisers and the Emeralds are easily damaged.  Discretion is the better part of valor.

FUN FACT ABOUT CRUISERS:  The BugLady doesn’t know about the rest of the Cruisers in the world, but when the naiads of these four species emerge from the water, ready to metamorphose into adults, they trek 40 or 50 feet inland before settling on a good spot to climb out of their “skin” and start their aerial life.

Thanks for the pictures, Freda – the BugLady is adding these dragonflies to her wish list (Road Trip!).   

Spring is coming.  Dragonflies are coming.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Cyrano Darner Dragonfly
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week by Kate Redmond

Cyrano Darner Dragonfly

Howdy, BugFans,

It’s time for a dragonfly.  In fact, it’s past time for a dragonfly.  The BugLady has not seen this species yet (BugFan Freda has, and she contributed her pictures.  Thanks, Freda) but she’s looking forward to the end of the rain/sleet/graupel/freezing rain/snow season and to the return of the green so she can look for one.

BOTW has featured the stories of darners (family Aeshnidae) in a number of genera – Common Greens (Anax), mosaic darners (Aeshna), Spatterdock Darner (Rhionaeschna), Fawn Darner (Boyeria), Swamp Darner (Eipaeschna), and Springtime Darner (Basiaeschna).  Cyrano Darners are in the primitive darner genus Nasiaeschna, characterized by a stocky body, no “waist,” and a protruding “frons” (literally, the forehead or brow – the front part of the head between the eyes, the antennae, and the mouthparts).  Cyrano Darners (Nasiaeschna pentacantha) are the only members of their genus anywhere in the world, and their closest relative here might be the Swamp Darner.    

About that name.  Yes – this dragonfly was named after Cyrano de Bergerac, a character in a 19th century play.  Cyrano had a substantial nose, and this dragonfly’s frons is so protuberant https://bugguide.net/node/view/255298/bgimage that it can even be seen in flight (which is a good thing, because it doesn’t sit still a lot).  Kurt Mead, in Dragonflies of the North Woods, suggests an alternative genus name “Schnozz-iaeschna.”  “Nasi” means “of the nose,” but the species name, pentacantha (“five spines”), is a little more of a mystery, because females have spines near the tip of their abdomen, but often they have more than five. 

Cyrano Darners are an eastern-ish species https://bugguide.net/node/view/18152/data, and their habitat is sometimes described as “blackwater pools.”  They like bottomland forests, lakes, ponds, sluggish streams, and sheltered bays with plenty of leafy and woody debris underwater for their naiads to climb on.  The Wisconsin Odonata Survey lists 65 Cyrano Darner observations in Wisconsin, starting in 2009; their status here is a bit wobbly due to their few, scattered populations. 

Unlike the much larger Swamp Darner, the 2 ½” Cyrano Darner has geometric, green splotches on its abdomen rather than tidy, green rings, and it has jagged, green stripes on its thorax.  Here are more pictures: https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/view/682

Cyrano Darners are an early-to-mid-season species, in the air from mid-June through July in Wisconsin.  Males fly three to six feet above the water to patrol territories and chase off the competition (one author said that they torpedo intruders, even intruders that are larger than they are), and sources describe their flight as slow, deliberate, and predictable.  They often fly with their wings elevated and the tip of their abdomen in a slight downward hook https://bugguide.net/node/view/122070.  Unlike other dragonflies, they generally don’t stray too far from water, but Paulson, in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, says that they may “cruise back and forth over clearings in forest at about head height but [are] rarely seen to perch, and then often well up in tree.” 

Females oviposit solo, inserting eggs into wet logs and soggy stumps below the water line or as high as ten inches above it.  Naiads climb around on underwater vegetation and grab passing aquatic insects and small tadpoles and fish by extending their lightning-fast labium (fused mouthparts https://bugguide.net/node/view/250311/bgimage).  When it has fed sufficiently, a naiad leaves the water to emerge as an adult.  Freda came across a newly minted adult Cyrano Darner that had crawled up onto a stick, shed its final naiad skin and was “unfurling” its wings and abdomen while it perched on the empty shell (exuvia).  Its pale colors would intensify over the next few days.

Lots of dragonflies, especially the larger species, grab their prey out of mid-air, but Cyrano Darners are “gleaners” that fly down and pick off insects that are perched on vegetation – an unusual behavior among the darners.  They’ll go after some pretty large prey, and they’ll eat fellow dragonflies as large as clubtails.  Here’s one feeding on a Roseate Skimmer (which ought to be a sin) https://www.whatsthatbug.com/dragonfly-cannibalism-2/.  After plucking it from a branch or leaf, the darner lands and eats its catch (head first, says one source, so it won’t bite them).  Cyrano Darners may forage until dusk, but because of their uncommon hunting strategy, they do not join the feeding swarms of dragonflies that follow clouds of midges and other small insects over the grass-tops. 

The BugLady recommends the “Dragonflies of Northern Virginia” website, whose author posts great pictures and, in his Notes from the Field, recounts his personal experiences with each species.  Cyrano Darners are a favorite of his – check his adventures with this and other species at http://www.dragonfliesnva.com/My%20Documents/KevinPDF/pdf/identify/SpeciesList%20N%20VA-FINAL-HL.pdf.  

According to the fine folks at the Springfield Plateau Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists (the Cyrano Darner is the emblem of the Missouri Master Naturalists), the Missouri Conservationist publication once offered this advice on how to catch a dragonfly by hand: “Approach them with one hand making erratic circles in front of the insect. A few failures will indicate how close you can get.  Slowly move the other hand in from the rear and pick the dragonfly up by its tail. Then switch your hold to its thorax. When calmed down, they will accept and eat offered insects, such as mosquitoes.”  “Editor’s note: There were no instructions on how to hold the mosquito you are feeding it.”

Freda wondered if the BugLady could find out what the little lumps are that you can see on one exuvia.  Adults have a variety of lumps on their heads, and so do naiads, but the BugLady couldn’t find anything about lumps in other places, so she wonders if something that lived underwater with that naiad might have attached itself to the shell. 

Fun Fact about Cyrano Darners:  According to Mead, when the naiads are handled, they play dead, looking like a short stick.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

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:

Bug o’the Week – Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly

Bug o’the Week

Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly

Greetings, BugFans,

We’ve just had an all-too-brief Indian Summer – it got warm enough for the flies to fly, the tree crickets to sing, and yes, for a few very late Monarch butterflies to drift past on their big journey.  The BugLady spent some time on boardwalks in wetlands, enjoying the last dragonflies of the year.

Meadowhawks, in the Skimmer family Libellulidae, are a genus of 15 species, nine of which have been recorded in Wisconsin.  They can be tricky to identify (understatement).  They start to appear in late June/early July and are with us for the rest of the summer and well into fall, but other than a few tenacious White-faced Meadowhawks, the final meadowhawk on the scene is the Autumn Meadowhawk (called the Yellow-legged Meadowhawk in older field guides) (the BugLady thinks that their legs are flesh-colored, rather than yellow, but she can see why that name would be a non-starter).  Here’s an early BOTW about meadowhawks https://uwm.edu/field-station/meadowhawks/.

Autumn Meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) can be found in Southern Canada and much of the US, except for the northern Rockies, the arid Southwest, and a few of the Gulf States.  Some meadowhawks are picky about habitat, but not Autumn Meadowhawks, which are equally happy in shallow, permanent ponds, lakes, marshes and swamps, bogs, flooded meadows, and even slow-moving streams, especially if there are woodlands nearby. 

This is a pretty small/small, pretty dragonfly, only about an inch-and-a-quarter long.  Mature males are red – often cherry red – and females and immature males start out yellow https://bugguide.net/node/view/1959185/bgimage and then turn red and tan https://bugguide.net/node/view/1895278/bgimage.  Females have a prominent egg spout below the end of their abdomen. 

Along with the mosaic darners, Autumn Meadowhawks are the last dragonflies to emerge, and once they do, they spend more time than most dragonflies do away from the water.  The “Dragonflies of Northern Virginia ” website paints this picture, “Autumns can actually be abundant at times.  Hundreds of golden tenerals rise out of shallow wetlands in early summer, and bright red adults fill the same wetlands in fall.”   Large-scale emergences start at marshy pools in June, at which point juveniles take to the woods and grow up in sunny woodland clearings. They don’t seem to reappear at ponds and marshes until fall, often staying quite late into the season, hence their name.

Meadowhawks can be very common from mid-summer on, yet the BugLady rarely sees them at the waterfront with the other dragonflies.  Several meadowhawk species do oviposit into shallow water with emergent vegetation, but others have different ideas about where to leave their eggs.  White-faced Meadowhawks gamble, bobbing up and down in tandem as the female drops eggs onto the ground in a dry pond basin or on an edge that might be underwater by spring. 

In many dragonfly species, mature males patrol the shoreline and beat their figurative chests, waiting for females to arrive; females come to the water only when they’re reproductively ready.  Autumn Meadowhawks finish their development away from water, and by the time they get back to it, they have already found a female and are flying in tandem.  Legler, in Dragonflies of Wisconsin (aka “The Bible”) says that “the sexes form tandem pairs in midday https://bugguide.net/node/view/715052/bgimage, away from the water, then fly to water where they make dipping motions imitating oviposition.  They then mate and proceed to lay eggs while pair is in tandem.  Female trails and she will have mud on end of abdomen because she alternately strikes water surface and muddy stream bank or grassy area above the water line.  Eggs are deposited in mud or wet moss.  She alternately dips abdomen in water probably to clear the egg spout https://bugguide.net/node/view/351265/bgimage.  Eggs will survive the winter and hatch during rains and high water the next spring.” 

Unlike many other dragonflies, male Autumn Meadowhawks don’t defend territories along the shore, and, possibly because they aren’t territorial, they are unusually tolerant of other Autumn Meadowhawks.  Legler says that “Ovipositing by one pair attracts other pairs to same site for ovipositing.” 

The eggs hatch when (if) they’re inundated by water the following spring, as the water heats up to 50 degrees.  The naiads eat and grow and shed for six or seven weeks, emerging as adults at night in August or September.  They may fly into November if there isn’t a hard freeze; this they can do because they collect heat by basking in the sun and by sitting on warm rocks (Sympetrum means “with rock”).  With this boost, they are able to fly even when the temperature dips to 50 degrees F.  

They routinely perch higher off the ground than other meadowhawks, but on cooler days, they’re found on the ground.

Adults feed on small, soft-bodied invertebrates that they spot from a perch and then fly out and “hawk” from the air (one source said that their pursuits are successful 97% of the time).  The aquatic naiads https://bugguide.net/node/view/249117/bgimage, called “sprawlers,” hunt from concealment and grab a meal (fly larvae, daphnia, tiny fish, tadpoles, and smaller dragonflies) as it swims/walks past (nice video, but, no, never “larvae” https://www.kqed.org/science/1915435/a-baby-dragonflys-mouth-will-give-you-nightmares). 

Both above and below the water’s surface, Autumn Meadowhawks have an important place in the food web, both as eaters and eatees.  They’re food for ducks and other birds, fish (one source said that largemouth bass pick off ovipositing pairs from below), frogs, crayfish, mantises, and other dragonflies.  Another source reported that a snake that bites a naiad may get bitten back hard enough to convince it to drop its prey (and that the naiad may make sounds to startle predators).  With populations that peak as migration begins, Autumn Meadowhawks supply important fuel to southbound birds.  

Go outside – look at bugs – it’s not too late……

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

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:

Bug o’the Week – Great Blue Skimmer Dragonfly

Bug o’the Week

Great Blue Skimmer Dragonfly

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady was looking for bugs in Kohler-Andrae State Park in late July when a large dragonfly flew across the trail and landed about 12 feet up on some shrubs.  She took a picture from about 25 feet away, looked at the camera’s screen, and got pretty excited.  The dragonfly’s abdomen was dark blue, but it was larger than the blue-bodied, black-eyed Slaty Skimmers that she’s familiar with https://bugguide.net/node/view/2018015/bgimage.  She stalked it and got two pictures of it before it departed – one was bad, and the other was worse, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

She massaged the pictures so that the operative field marks – eye color, markings on the wings, and color of the stigma (the pigmented spot toward the outer margin of the wing) – were “visible,” and then she sent them off to some people who are smarter than she is.  The verdict?  It was a Great Blue Skimmer, a dragonfly that’s rare in Wisconsin (thanks, Dan and BugFan Freda).  According to the wonderful, searchable Wisconsin Odonata Survey website https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/, Great Blue Skimmers have been recorded in only five of the past 15 years, and most of those years saw only one or two individuals.  This year has been exceptional – there have been almost a dozen reports, some of several males in the same location.

Great Blue Skimmers are common across the Southeast, but they wander north, sometimes as far north as Massachusetts, and rarely, Maine and Ontario.  One source referred to them as migrants, but that implies a return trip (only about 15 of the 331 North American dragonfly species are migratory (and a few of the damselflies roam a bit) – here’s the Xerces Society’s Guide https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/12-036_01_MDP_Field_Guide_4-4-2013Websec.pdf).  In Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, Dennis Paulson speculates that climate change may be allowing these skimmers to extend their range northwards, but he also wonders whether wet periods in the East may drive their episodic range expansions. 

Great Blue Skimmers (Libellula vibrans) are in the Skimmer family Libellulidae.  Members of the genus Libellula are called the King Skimmers – large, often flashy, aggressive dragonflies that dominate the sunny ponds where they live.  At almost 2.5” long, Great Blue Skimmers are the largest of the skimmers.  Their “plumage” changes depending on age and sex – young females https://bugguide.net/node/view/182934/bgimage and young males have yellow abdomens with a black stripe https://bugguide.net/node/view/1936981/bgimage.  Older females turn a dull brown with blue-ish to reddish-brown eyes https://bugguide.net/node/view/700746/bgimage, and mature males are a spectacular blue, with teal-colored eyes https://bugguide.net/node/view/787748/bgimage.  Like many dragonflies, the intensity of the adult colors is softened somewhat as it ages by tiny wax particles called pruinescence, which produce a hoary appearance.  They have white faces and pale, unstriped thoraxes https://bugguide.net/node/view/110122/bgimage, and the amount of black wrapping the tips of the wings is variable.   

Don’t look for them over sunny ponds with the other King Skimmers – these are dragonflies of the dappled sunlight of woodlands, edges, and roads through wetlands and bottomlands, where they may be the only dragonflies around.  They perch on twigs (at eye level and easy to photograph, said one source; at five to ten feet above the ground, said another).  

Males vigorously defend stretches of ponds that look like good spots for a female to oviposit – Great Blue Skimmers prefer shallow, wooded pools and ponds, swamps, ditches, and very slow-moving sections of streams (and there are reports of females ovipositing in muddy tire tracks).  Paulson says that they like “dark, mucky water.”  They mate (very briefly) https://bugguide.net/node/view/1664022/bgimage, and then he releases her, but he guards her from the air (“hover guarding”) and shoos away rival males as she lays eggs. 

She has a unique approach to ovipositing – she flies down to the water’s surface with eggs at the ready (scroll way down for a picture of eggs https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/view/740), then she dips down and uses her abdomen to scoop and splash a bit of water, plus eggs, up to six inches away (“She may splash eggs and water onto the bank, presumably for a rainy day,” says Legler, in Dragonflies of Wisconsin).  Watch the video to see her technique https://waltersanford.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/great-blue-skimmer-dragonflies-mating-pair-fe/.  The drops of water are thought to help the eggs adhere to land.  When the eggs hatch, the tiny naiads crawl into the water.    

As always, both the aerial adults and the aquatic naiads are carnivorous – the adults spot their insect prey from perches in the shade and fly out to grab it, a behavior called “hawking,” and their menu includes smaller dragonflies. 

The BugLady doesn’t care how common this dragonfly is within its range, it distresses her to find ads offering pinned specimens for “$40 to $60 depending on quality and sex” (which also sounds caveat emptor-ish to her). 

The BugLady attempts a lot of Hail Mary Shots of dragonflies in flight (in fact, a recent shot of distant Common Green Darners flying in tandem seems to have an equally-distant Great Blue Skimmer in it), but most of them end up on the cutting room floor.  She’d like to give a shout-out to this one https://bugguide.net/node/view/231364/bgimage.  

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

And speaking of rare Lepidopterans – heads-up in the Pacific Northwest: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-us-sighting-of-massive-atlas-moth-confirmed-180980617/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20220822-daily-responsive&spMailingID=47269440&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2302313711&spReportId=MjMwMjMxMzcxMQS2

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – the Dragonflies

Bug o’the Week

Great Blue Skimmer Dragonfly

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady was looking for bugs in Kohler-Andrae State Park in late July when a large dragonfly flew across the trail and landed about 12 feet up on some shrubs.  She took a picture from about 25 feet away, looked at the camera’s screen, and got pretty excited.  The dragonfly’s abdomen was dark blue, but it was larger than the blue-bodied, black-eyed Slaty Skimmers that she’s familiar with https://bugguide.net/node/view/2018015/bgimage.  She stalked it and got two pictures of it before it departed – one was bad, and the other was worse, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

She massaged the pictures so that the operative field marks – eye color, markings on the wings, and color of the stigma (the pigmented spot toward the outer margin of the wing) – were “visible,” and then she sent them off to some people who are smarter than she is.  The verdict?  It was a Great Blue Skimmer, a dragonfly that’s rare in Wisconsin (thanks, Dan and BugFan Freda).  According to the wonderful, searchable Wisconsin Odonata Survey website https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/, Great Blue Skimmers have been recorded in only five of the past 15 years, and most of those years saw only one or two individuals.  This year has been exceptional – there have been almost a dozen reports, some of several males in the same location.

EASTERN PONDHAWK WITH MITES: When the BugLady first saw this dragonfly, she thought that for some reason his abdomen had gotten muddy, but a peek through the camera lens revealed that he was carrying a huge load of water mites.  Adult water mites are (mostly) free swimming carnivores, but they go through a tick-like nymphal stage in which they attach to and feed on other aquatic invertebrates (see their story at https://uwm.edu/field-station/water-mite-redux/). 

EXUVIA ON POTAMOGETON: The leaves and flower stalks of aquatic plants in the genus Potamogeton are dragon and damselfly magnets.  Here, a female Violet/Variable Dancer damselfly stands on a leaf as she oviposits in an underwater stem.  The empty damselfly skins (exuvia) that decorate the flower stalk show that it has been a busy place.   

EASTERN FORKTAIL: A female Eastern Forktail damselfly oviposits directly into the flower stalk.  The stalk will sink, and when her eggs hatch, her young will swim out into the water.

COMMON WHITETAIL: A recently-emerged female Common Whitetail dragonfly crawled out of the water, climbed 15” up the river bank, and then trekked another two feet across mown grass to find the perfect spot to stop and gather strength for her life in the air.  Dragonflies may take a few days to achieve their mature coloration – here’s what she’ll look like when the spots on her wings intensify https://bugguide.net/node/view/7160, and here’s the male https://bugguide.net/node/view/27710

RACKET-TAILED EMERALD: These very inquisitive dragonflies fly back and forth above the trail as you walk along.  When the sun is at your back, the glowing eyes of an approaching emerald are a religious experience! 

Slender Bluet
Marsh Bluet

SLENDER BLUET DAMSELFLY:  Bluets can be a confusing bunch of damselflies.  Some species are very distinct – one is neon blue at one end and yellow at the other, one is rainbow-colored, one is orange, and a few Eastern species are red.  But for many of the blue and black species, scrutinizing the male’s rear appendages is the best way to identify them (the Marsh Bluet terminates in a tiny pipe wrench).  You can narrow the field by eyeballing the comparative amounts of blue and black on the abdomen and putting them into the “blue-type,” “black-type,” or “intermediate-type” category.  This young male, who is in what BugFan Bob calls “that embarrassing purple stage,” will be a spectacular black-type bluet when he matures https://bugguide.net/node/view/1613844/bgimage.  And one of these days, the Slender Bluet will get a BOTW of its own.

DOT TAILED WHITEFACE: Not long out of the water, this Dot-tailed Whiteface clings to its shed skin (which clings to an Equisetum stalk) as it pumps up its wings.

DRAGONFLY DOW (dead on the water): Whether it was chased by a predator or just miscalculated, this dragonfly got too close to the water and adhered to its sticky surface film.  Beautiful even in death, its body is returning nutrients to the pond that nurtured it.

COMMON GREEN DARNER: Common Green Darners, one of our biggest dragonflies, are with us from May through September.  Wisconsin has two populations – migratory and resident.  Migratory darners like these, photographed in early May, arrive from the southeastern part of the US, mate, and put their eggs into the water, and their naiads develop during the summer.  About the time these early birds are wearing out (mid-June), the resident population begins to emerge, and they fill the skies until the end of summer.  The migrants emerge as adults at the end of August, and fly south, leaving no eggs in the ponds, but the eggs of the resident population overwinter under the ice.  A dragonfly do-si-do.

AMERICAN RUBYSPOT: Dragonflies and damselflies are fascinating, and they do some amazing things.  They can be a challenge to photograph and to identify, and some are just plain beautiful! 

RIVER JEWELWING: River Jewelwings are much less common where the BugLady lives than are the spectacular Ebony Jewelwings (https://bugguide.net/node/view/1840629/bgimage), so she was thrilled to get a picture of one.  Jewelwings and Rubyspots are members of the Broad-winged damselfly family Calopterygidae (which means “beautiful wing”), and they’re sometimes called river damsels because of their preferred haunts. 

SKIMMING BLUETS: The BugLady aimed her camera at an odd-looking configuration on a water lily leaf and saw one-and-a-half damselflies.  Apparently, a male and female were flying in tandem when a hungry bird came along and bit off the female’s abdomen.  When the pair landed, two Mesovelid bugs (aggressive scavengers and predators), sensed “blood in the water” and zipped in to sip her bodily fluids (hemolymph).  Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water….

Go outside – look for dragonflies!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Painted Skimmer Dragonflies

Bug o’the Week

Great Blue Skimmer Dragonfly

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady was looking for bugs in Kohler-Andrae State Park in late July when a large dragonfly flew across the trail and landed about 12 feet up on some shrubs.  She took a picture from about 25 feet away, looked at the camera’s screen, and got pretty excited.  The dragonfly’s abdomen was dark blue, but it was larger than the blue-bodied, black-eyed Slaty Skimmers that she’s familiar with https://bugguide.net/node/view/2018015/bgimage.  She stalked it and got two pictures of it before it departed – one was bad, and the other was worse, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

She massaged the pictures so that the operative field marks – eye color, markings on the wings, and color of the stigma (the pigmented spot toward the outer margin of the wing) – were “visible,” and then she sent them off to some people who are smarter than she is.  The verdict?  It was a Great Blue Skimmer, a dragonfly that’s rare in Wisconsin (thanks, Dan and BugFan Freda).  According to the wonderful, searchable Wisconsin Odonata Survey website https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/, Great Blue Skimmers have been recorded in only five of the past 15 years, and most of those years saw only one or two individuals.  This year has been exceptional – there have been almost a dozen reports, some of several males in the same location.

Painted Skimmers are in the Skimmer family Libellulidae, which contains many of our more common and more colorful dragonflies, and they’re in the genus Libellula – large, sturdy, showy dragonflies, often with dramatically-patterned wings, that are often referred to as the King skimmers.  King skimmers have appeared in these pages before https://uwm.edu/field-station/closed-for-june-spectacular-summer-dragonflies/https://uwm.edu/field-station/four-spotted-skimmer/, and https://uwm.edu/field-station/slaty-skimmer-dragonfly/ (Chalk-fronted Corporals are sometimes included in the group, too https://uwm.edu/field-station/chalk-fronted-corporal-dragonfly/).

They look like a dragonfly that was put together by a committee.  Their wing spots are similar to, but fainter than, those of a Halloween Pennant (all the Painted Skimmer write-ups say “see also: Halloween Pennant” https://bugguide.net/node/view/1996897/bgimage), and their abdomen looks a lot like that of a Four-spotted Skimmer, an early-flying dragonfly whose wing spots are much smaller https://bugguide.net/node/view/1220037/bgimage.  Female Painted Skimmers https://bugguide.net/node/view/1664464/bgimage are duller in color, with wider abdomens than males https://bugguide.net/node/view/1665876/bgimage.  They often look golden in flight.  There are many wonderful photos of Painted Skimmers online, but not much in the way of biographies.

Painted Skimmers (Libellula semifasciata) occur only rarely in Wisconsin (they’re a “Most Wanted” species here).  They’re on dragonfly checklists from Texas to Florida to Maine to Ontario, becoming rarer as you travel farther north, and they’re at the edge of their range here in Wisconsin.  They’re one of the fifteen-or-so species of North American Odonates that migrate (out of our 450-ish species), moving both north and south along the Atlantic Coast as well as inland.   They arrive in the north early (one source said that many of the first arrivals are mature males); they often stay just long enough to get people excited (birders will sympathize); and they’re more numerous some years than others.  According to the Wisconsin Odonata Survey database https://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/, they’ve been recorded in only seven of the years since 2000, and 2022 is the only year that they’ve been seen in multiple locations (five so far).  When the Bug Lady was looking into that, she found this handy list http://texasento.net/migration.htm

One source described them as widespread and relatively common but not often seen, due to their early flight period (they usually show up in June and July, so the influx of Painted Skimmers in 2022 is early) and to their habitat preferences.  They frequent shallow, plant-filled, marshy, woodland ponds, pools, seasonal puddles, and sometimes bogs and slow-moving streams, but they may hunt for food far from water.  Like all dragonflies, their aquatic young (naiads) (“nymphs,” if you must, but never “larvae”) eat the small invertebrates that they find next to them below the water’s surface, and the adults feed on flying insects.  Painted Skimmer dragonflies perch on twigs and fly out to “hawk” small insects. 

The Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website calls them both less aggressive and more wary than other King skimmers.  

Males patrol territories and watch for females from perches on twigs or grass tips three to six feet above the water.  They mate (briefly) in mid-air, he releases her, and Paulson, in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, tells us that “Females oviposit in low flight by vigorous and well-spaced tapping and moving some distance between groups of a few taps.”  Males often patrol as she oviposits in order to protect her (and his genetic material) from being nabbed by rival males.

In her search for information, the BugLady turned up the comment on the Northern Virginia Dragonfly website (on two different pages) that “Some dragonflies have partially translucent abdomens (Painted Skimmers) and many others have dark wing patches at the base of their wings (saddlebags and pennants) – both may be anatomical adaptations to absorbing sunlight and channeling that heat to their organs and wing muscles.”  She suspects that means that the dragonfly’s cuticle allows some light to pass through, and not that you can hold up a Painted Skimmer and see daylight through it.  She couldn’t find any other sources to back that up.

Go outside – keep your eyes peeled.  Things are popping!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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