Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Large Milkweed Bug

Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) are insects in the family Hemiptera, or True Bugs. They reach lengths up to 3/4 of an inch, and are brightly colored black and orange. There is a large black triangular marking that extends from the back of the head to the center of the wings. Across the mid-portion of the wings is a wide black band. These bright colors are a warning to potential predators that they taste bad. This unpalatable taste comes from the milkweed plant that they feed from, which is also where they get their common name. They are found throughout the Eastern and Southwestern portions of the United States. There is also a population in Ontario Canada.

After mating, the female will deposit eggs at the rate of about 30 per day within the milkweed pod. She is capable of laying up to 2000 eggs in her lifetime. That is a lot of Large Milkweed Bugs! After hatching it takes the nymphs approximately 4 weeks to reach adult size. The adults overwinter in leaf litter. They will be found in all types of habitats like meadows, fields, along roadsides, backyards, most anywhere there is milkweed or dogbane.

Normal phase

Every year I have these bugs in large numbers, but this year I had a few minorities among the majority. I was greatly puzzled by a young nymph I spotted with all the other Milkweed nymphs. As you can see this nymph is brightly colored with orange and red, and looks very different from the other nymphs. In fact it looked so different I thought it was a different species entirely. I sent this image to Eric Eaton from Bugguide.net and he was unsure of what it was. 

Unusual morph

About a week later this little nymph took on a completely different look, as you can see by this picture. So once again I fired off another email to Eric, and this time he knew exactly what my mystery bug was. It is a newly emerged Large Milkweed Bug, whose wings have not dried out completely! Imagine my shock, to have discovered these unusual morphs. There were only two of this color variance and I was excited to find them.

It just goes to show, when you think you have it all figured out, something comes along that makes you realize you haven't even begun to figure it out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mysterious Monarch

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) Butterflies are easily the most recognized butterfly in the World. They are found throughout all of the United States, Southern Canada, Australia, Indonesia, South America, Mediterranean Countries and numerous other Pacific Islands. Their bright orange and black coloring brightens any landscape, and it is common to see them fluttering about meadows, marshes, fields, cleared roadsides and backyard gardens nectaring at a wide variety of flowers. Some Monarchs can be quite large with a wingspan bordering on 5 inches, still others are small at just over 3 inches. Males have distinctive scent glands on their hindwings (Visible in the first picture as two black spots).
The Monarch Migration is probably one of the most incredible phenomena in the animal kingdom. These remarkable butterflies will migrate to Mexico, Cuba or Southern California. Incredibly enough not one of these butterflies makes the entire round trip journey. After leaving their winter grounds these butterflies start their northward migration laying eggs as they move North. The eggs hatch, and shortly after the adults perish. These new caterpillars feed on the milkweed plants where they hatched. Once reaching full size they will pupate and in about 2 weeks the new adults will emerge. These new adults move further north, and lay eggs as they go. This cycle repeats itself over and over along their journey. Many of these butterflies will reach Canada. In autumn these butterflies will begin their journey southward. Many will overwinter in Mexico and still others will migrate to Cuba or Southern California. They make this journey without ever having traveled these routes before. It is not uncommon for these migrations to be in such large numbers that they will blacken the sky. Nobody knows why they do this, or how they know to do it. These monarchs will live 8 months in the cold mountainous regions of Mexico. This autumn generation is the only generation to live this long. Spring and summer adults only live a few weeks.
If you want to attract these butterflies to your yard, plant varieties of milkweed. This is includes Swamp Milkweed, Common Milkweed and Butterfly Weed. Milkweed has long been considered toxic to humans, this is not so. There is a great book entitled "The Foragers Harvest" by: Samuel Thayer, in his book he discusses all sorts of wild edibles that he has eaten. One of these is the common milkweed, with no adverse affects. Being the person I am, I had to try it. I broke a leaf off and sucked on the milky white fluid seeping from it. It had a mild taste, and almost glued my lips together! It may not be toxic, but I'm thinking there would be a market for glue made of the stuff! So rest assured you are safe to plant milkweed in your garden. Now this cannot be said for Monarchs, they use the milkweed to their full advantage, the toxins the plant contains helps aid the Monarch against predation. Birds, other insects and other creatures that might decide to dine on this butterfly would find it terribly distasteful. All stages of the Monarch's growth is toxic, from newborn caterpillar to adult.
Another common butterfly that uses the Monarch's coloration to their benefit is the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus). They look almost identical to the Monarch, this mimicry gives them protection from predation. If you look like something distasteful, chances are a predator won't take a chance and try to eat you. After all a belly ache is  no fun at all!

This is the Viceroy, one way to tell the difference is to look for the black line that runs through the hindwings, making a smile face of sorts. They are also usually smaller than Monarchs. The body of the Viceroy is not speckled with white like the Monarch either.

 These colorful caterpillars brighten up any landscape, and try bringing some milkweed inside along with a few caterpillars and watch them munch away. In about 2 weeks they will form a cocoon.The chrysalis is unmistakable, light green with a row of metallic gold dots.  Two weeks later they will emerge as a full fledged adult ready to be released to the World. It is said that if a newborn baby ate as much as a caterpillar, he would weigh as much as a hippopotamus in a single weekend! That's a lot of leaves!

A fun project to participate in is one sponsored by the University in Manhattan, Kansas. Called Monarch Watch. This worthwhile project keeps track of Monarch Migrations, population numbers, and over all habitats for these lovely flying flowers. In the spring or summer you can order a kit from the University Monarch Watch at this link. The cost is $15.00. The money goes to aid in research. They are hoping to answer the Mysterious questions of "Why do Monarch's Migrate"? "How do they know where to go"? as well as ensure that the general public is educated and the habitats are protected for these lovely butterflies for many generations to come.

My first tagged Monarch of the year. I found a caterpillar a few weeks ago, brought it into the house, and overnight it formed a cocoon. In two weeks the male emerged, I tagged and released him on Saturday, September 26, 2009.  It was cool day, and he sat for over an hour on a plant on the front porch. I finally took pity on him and moved him to the sun. After about a minute he took flight and headed directly south, amazing!!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thread-Waisted Wasps

This large unusual looking wasp is called a Thread-Waisted Wasp (Ammophila maculiventris). This particular specimen measured 1 1/2 inches. They are found throughout North America in a variety of habitats, including meadows, prairies, backyard gardens and anywhere else that flowers can be found. The adults dine on nectar and pollen from many types of flowers, like the sedum pictured here. This late in the year it is slim pickin's as far as flowering plants go in Missouri. The air is changing dramatically and from all the changes I've been seeing it is only matter of time before the first frost hits. Once that happens about the only insect activity we will see is the Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetles and the Boxelder Bugs. All these unusual wasps will disappear. I wonder where they go? Do they hibernate in a state torpor? Do they perish and leave behind eggs to hatch the following spring? Do the larvae overwinter, and emerge as adults once warm weather returns? I could not find any information to answer those questions. If anyone knows, please comment.

These are solitary wasps, which basically means they do not rely on a hive or colony for their survival. After mating, the females will dig a shallow depression in the soil. She will then seek a caterpillar, that she stings to paralyze it. Flying back to the burrow she created, carrying the paralyzed caterpillar, she will deposit it in the hole and lay an egg on it. Once the egg hatches the young wasp larvae will begin feeding on the caterpillar provided by its parent. It takes several weeks for the wasp larvae to consume the entire caterpillar, once it has the larvae will pupate and emerge later in the summer as a full fledged adult. These wasps are expert hunters, and are designed with carrying large prey (caterpillars) in mind. They resemble the Sikorsky Skycrane Helicopter.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Orb Weavers

Orb Weavers are in the family of spiders called Aranidae. They are one of the largest groups of spiders in the World with over 2800 species worldwide. They are identified primarily by the web they build, which is an intricate round or "Orb" shape. Depending upon the species of spider that builds it, some of these webs can get quite large. I found one in my yard the other night that was easily 2 feet in circumference. It is believed that Orb Weavers first appeared on Earth during the Jurassic period approximately 200-140 million years ago. So as you can see, they've been around quite some time perfecting the art of web building. Many species of orb weavers design an intricate pattern into their web called a stabilimentum. This is a zig-zag looking line that runs up the center of the web. It is uncertain what the exact purpose of this feature is. The most common belief is that it is a lure of sorts for insects, or a deterrent to keep birds away from the web. I've also heard accounts that say it is a stabilizing structure, making the web more sturdy. Whatever its purpose it is an interesting phenomena. The garden spiders in the genus Argiope are the most famous spiders for using this feature.

This banded garden spider captured a grasshopper and busy wrapping it in silk, perhaps to dine on later. Spiders use their fangs to inject venom into their prey. This venom acts fast to keep the struggling victim from tearing apart the web. Soon the quarry will be paralyzed. If the spider is particularly hungry she will dine on whatever is unfortunate to get caught in her web, right at that moment. If she fed recently, she will wrap it in silk and save it for leaner times, just like this individual. 

Close-up of the fangs

Almost always the webs are vertical in shape and you will find the spider hanging upside down usually in the center. There are a few Genera within this family that do not build webs at all. They instead use a sticky line of silk, tainted with a pheromone that acts as a lure to certain species of moths. The moths are tricked into thinking a mature female ready to mate is nearby, and instead they meet an untimely demise, and become dinner to a hungry spider. Such trickery! Many spiders within the Orb Weaver Family build new webs each night, they will consume the old web typically at dusk, and shortly thereafter construct a new one. The purpose of this I assume is so that they have a strong web at all times, making it more difficult for prey to wiggle away to freedom.

Black and Yellow Garden Spider

Mating between these spiders usually takes place late in the summer or early fall. The males will tap out a little love dance on the edge of the web, if the female is receptive, she won't eat him (just kidding). Although some females will dine on their mates, it isn't a typical response by the female. I guess it just depends on her mood. There is one European species that bites through her mates stomach, and holds on with her fangs (can we say ouch!). And men think they have it bad! Males will perish soon after mating, and even occasionally during.

Mating Orb weavers, male is on the right, notice how much smaller he is than his female counterpart.

This is the perfect time of year to see these wonderful, if not a bit creepy creatures. They have almost all reached adult size, and are busy building their webs everywhere. They are fascinating to watch and are performing a great service to us, by consuming many insects that we often find a nuisance, most especially moths and flies. It is a bit worrisome to walk into one of these webs at night, and find yourself wondering where the spider is, hoping and praying it isn't on you! Even with that being said I still find myself looking for them and photographing them at every opportunity.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetle

 The name of this little ladybug is a mouthful; to say the least. They are called Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis), or just Asian Beetle as many of us refer to them. They are native to Asia as the name suggests, and were brought to the United States in 1916 to help control Aphid populations in greenhouses. A few of these beetles escaped the greenhouses and found this new country much to their liking. So much so that they are now found throughout all of the United States and most of Southern Canada. On top of those that escaped confinement there were enterprising individuals who felt that our own native species just weren't doing their job adequately enough to suit them, so in their infinite wisdom they released these beetles in various locations all across the United States. In effect they succeeded in controlling the aphid populations, but they also made things very difficult on our native lady beetles, which just couldn't compete with a new, more aggressive interloper. Consequently many of our own lovely  ladies have disappeared in parts of their range and are severely declined in other areas. Not all ladybugs are created equal....Asian lady beetles amass in huge numbers in the fall and invade our homes, garages, and other structures, looking for a place to spend the cold winter months. Asian ladybugs also give off a musky sent when disturbed and can give a little nip when handled. Sometimes they will land on your arm and bite for no apparent reason, other than they feel like it.

Asian lady beetles are highly variable in color, ranging from orange, red, reddish-orange and even black with red splotches out in the western most part of their range. Sometimes they are spotted, but many are not. In Missouri these beetles have a white pronotum (thorax region) that contains four black spots, that vary from small to large, and can sometimes blend together to look like a "W" or "M".

Mating takes place at all times during the late spring and summer. I've seen larvae as late as September, feeding on aphids. The tiny larvae look like miniature alligators, they are voracious eaters and consume untold amounts of aphids, thrips, mites, moth and butterfly eggs and other soft bodied insects. It typically takes them a total of four instars(molts) to reach adulthood. In the last molt they will enter into a pupal stage. This pupa is an elongated dome shape attached to leaves by the spikey remains of the last molt clinging to one end. Once they reach adult size they may live up to 90 days, depending upon food sources available and temperatures. In Missouri there are probably two generations each year.

Newly Emerged Asian Lady Beetle

                                                               Asian Lady Beetle Larvae

                                                     Asian Lady Beetle Pupa

For many of us, a Ladybug is a Ladybug. I suppose in some ways this true, they certainly look similar. I can't say that I dislike these Asian Lady Beetles, they are serving a great purpose by ridding us of harmful aphids and other plant eating insects. I only wish it didn't come at such a high price for our lovely native ladies.

Im sure many of you have been reading about a worthwhile project that Cornell University is sponsoring. Cornell is famous for it's citizen scientist outreach projects. We are all familiar with the Great Backyard Bird Count, and Frog Watch. This newest project called "The Lost Ladybug Project" encourages individuals to explore their parks, natural areas, backyards and anywhere else that you are likely to find ladybugs. Camera in hand, photograph any all ladybugs you find. Take those pictures and upload them to Lost Ladybug Project. Give your best guess as to what species you think you've photographed. They compile this information and use it to determine how populations of individual species have changed, including their range, and numbers. It is truly a worthwhile project and fun for anyone who enjoys getting outside.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blue-Winged Wasp

This pretty little wasp is called a Blue-Winged Wasp (Scolia dubia). They are found in gardens, backyards, meadows, prairies, and along roadsides all throughout the Eastern United States  and in California. Identifying these wasps is easy, they have blue wings like their names suggests, but one key characteristic that makes it impossible to mistake them for any other species are those yellow patches at the top of the orange segment of their abdomen. Blue-Winged wasps are relatively small at about one inch or in some cases less. The adults nectar at flowers, like the one pictured here who took a liking to some Sedum that was in full bloom. Mating occurs late in the spring, and they engage in an elaborate mating dance. They will fly low to the ground in a figure 8 or "S" pattern. This is repeated numerous times, until mating finally occurs. Once mated, the female will dig a burrow into the ground and provision it with the grub of a Green June Beetle or Japanese Beetle. She does this by detecting the grub underground, digging down until she locates it and then stings it to paralyze it. Once paralyzed she will carry it back to the lair, and deposit an egg on it. When the egg hatches, the young larvae will begin feeding on the grub, which is very much alive, it just cannot move. Once the larvae reaches its full size it will pupate in a cocoon of sorts that it constructs out of the body of the grub. The wasp will overwinter in this stage and emerge the following spring. These wasps are hugely beneficial because of their preference for using June Beetle and Japanese Beetle grubs to feed their offspring. They help keep these harmful insects in check. In large numbers these wasps can be intimidating, much like any stinging insect in large groups. This species is calm and almost completely harmless. The only way you are likely to get stung is if you antagonize it. The draw back to having these wasps in large numbers, is that it could indicate you have an overpopulation of beetle grubs. They are a very attractive wasp and should be encouraged in the garden for the services they provide.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

White-Lined Sphinx Moth

Sphinx moths go by many names, such as Hummingbird Moths, Hawk Moths and Hornworms. The one pictured here (Photo by Sam Houston) is called a White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata). They are an averaged sized sphinx moth with a wingspan up to 3 inches. This particular species is widespread and found throughout most of North America, Central America, West Indies, Eurasia, and Africa. White-Lined Sphinx Moths can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from desert, garden,and meadows, like most sphinx moths they are most active during dusk and nighttime hours. Although they will fly during the day as well. Mating between males and females usually takes place at dusk. Females will lay eggs on a wide variety of plants, which will include, but not limited to, Four O'Clock's (Picture #2), Willow Weed, Evening Primrose, Tomato, Elm, Grape, Purslane, Apple, and Fuschia.

After reaching full size (#3 picture) the caterpillar will crawl to the ground and burrow into a shallow depression in the soil and pupate. They will spend the winter in this stage. Massive population buildups occur which encourage them to head north and populate those regions.

Occasional outbreaks of these caterpillars have caused significant damage to tomato, grapes and garden crops in Utah. The adults nectar at a huge variety of flowers including Columbine, Petunia, Larkspur, Honeysuckle, Lilac, Wild Phlox, Moonvine, Jimpson Weed, Clovers, Bouncing Bet and Thistles. They are often attracted to lights at night, sometimes in large numbers. The whirring sound of their wings is what earned them their other common name of Hummingbird Moth. In Missouri there are probably two generations per year, with the last generation overwintering as a pupa.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Can it Bee

Flower flies in the Genus Metasyrhus are amazing bee mimics. If you were to see this insect buzzing around your head or your flower bed you would be hard pressed at a glance to tell if it were a bee or a fly. This mimicry gives them outstanding protection against predation. If you look like a bee chances are predators, who have learned the hard way that bees hurt, will leave you alone. One draw back to this mimcry is human predators, who will often swat and ask questions later. Most people never give a thought to the fact that there are harmless insects out there buzzing around their yard that only look like stinging insects, but in fact are harmless flies, minding their own business, pollinating flowers. To people it seems if it looks like a bee, and it sounds like a bee, it must be a bee.
All flies in this genus take nectar from flowers and some will "milk" aphids for the honeydew. Having these harmless flies in your garden is a good thing, they help control aphid populations, and the pollinating they do can only help those already overworked honey bees.
These flies are common throughout all of North America, and can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including woodlands, gardens and open fields. They are often seen "hovering" around flowers which also earned them another common name of "hover fly".
After mating, females will lay eggs singly on twigs or leaves near aphid populations. The newly born larva will feed on aphids. It is not uncommon for them to consume as many as 17 aphids in a single day. Depending upon species it can take from 9 to 14 days for them to reach adult size.
If you see something that resembles a bee, take a deep breathe, don't start swinging, and watch closely, for it may be only a fly.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I only have eyes for you

Jumping Spiders in the family Salticidae are the hairy, big eyed, furry black or brown spiders that commonly make it into our homes. They have a habit of crawling across our ceilings, making us wonder when they will dangle themselves from string right on top of our head. Some of these spiders can get quite large at around 3/4 of an inch. Now while that doesn't sound big, for spiders in this family it certainly is. They have four sets of eyes, and many accounts claim they have the best eyesight of any other spider, being able to spot insect prey up to a foot away. I would be hard pressed to argue that point, as I have found from experience they are extremely difficult to approach, they "see" you coming. Patience pays off when trying to photograph these spiders. Once you locate one, sit perfectly still and wait for it to reappear, move slowly, or you are sure to send it scampering again.
These spiders are common throughout all of North America including Alaska. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats including woods, gardens, yards and our homes. They will come to porch lights at night, apparently these are the lazy hunters. For these lazybones the insects at porch lights must be like an all you can eat bug buffet.
Males perform a very elaborate courtship display in which he rocks his body back and forth and waves his front legs in a highly specific manner designed to attract a female. If she finds his dance erotic enough, mating will occur. Once mated the female will lay her eggs in a silk lined shelter under rocks or other crevices. I know of at least one species that will lay her eggs in a silk-lined rolled leaf. They are very protective moms and will stay with their eggs and guard them.
These spiders carry the term scary to new levels, most spiders are hairy, they all have eight legs, all have fangs, and most all have venom. These spiders add the ability to jump, talk about intimidating, having one of these things jump at you can be unnerving. Thankfully, when I come across these little monsters they usually jump "away" from me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Momma Wolf Spider


This spider is a Wolf Spider in the Family Lycosidae, Lycos is Greek, meaning "Wolf". There are over 200 known species within North America and most are large at up to 2-3 inches, even larger when you factor in the legs. We have actually had some around our farm that would rival any tarantula you have seen. For quite some time we had a resident wolf spider in our hog farrowing house. We affectionately named her Harry (Or maybe that's Hairy), she was hand-sized and very intimidating to look at. I must confess to carrying a shovel with me when I opened the door to the farrowing house, as she had a habit of sitting right inside the door as if she were waiting for me, or as if she owned the place. This became a game of sorts. I'd open the door, shovel in hand, she'd spot me and run for cover, leaving me to wonder where she was and when she would climb my leg (OK, that never happened, but it COULD have). Fortunately for Harry she never met an untimely demise at the end of my shovel. Spiders just give me the Heebie Jeebies. I can't help it. Now, I try to be brave and leave them alone, but I still get a shiver up my spine when I see one. The one pictured here was on the floor in the office where I work. My boss got my attention by saying something to the effect of, "Look at the size of that spider, and it's Hairy too!" This was not going to do at all, no way, not it my office! I took one look at her and said "That isn't hair, those are babies, don't move or the babies might scatter"! I scooped her into a cup and took her home with me. After capturing her lovely photo, I let her go in the yard. See, I'm not all bad.

Like most spiders Wolf Spiders have eight eyes. They will be arranged in three rows. The first set of eyes will have four in a row; the next two sets are larger and more visible. All eight eyes are apparent in this photo if you look closely. Wolf spiders work hard to rid us of unwanted insects like grasshoppers, moths and flies. They are hugely beneficial and mostly harmless. If you were to handle one (Why you would do this I have no idea) you might get bit. The bite will most likely be painful (as it should be if you are silly enough to pick one up), but harmless.

Most Wolf Spiders live on the ground and roam around hunting for prey, usually at night. Their coloring helps camouflage them, which gives them protection from predation. When they are ready to mate, males will perform a courtship ritual that involves him waving his pedipalps (modified legs, turned fangs) around. After mating, the female will spin a spherical egg sac which will contain her eggs. She will carry this sac around with her attached to her spinneret. When the babies hatch they will ride around on moms back (pictured) until they are old enough and ready to leave and be on their own. There is only one genus of Wolf Spiders known to spin webs, most live in holes under rocks, vegetation and many have no hiding place at all.

As creepy as spiders are, they serve a great purpose, and if you take time to really look at them, there is a certain beauty in their creepiness. The eyes are fascinating, the colors are understated yet beautiful. If you can get past the eight hairy legs and the fangs, you've got it made!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Delaware Skipper

This pretty little skipper is the Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan). They are found in marshes, prairies, along roadsides, in open fields and backyard gardens throughout much of the Eastern United States and portions of Southern Canada. There is also populations in New Mexico. Grass Skippers are notoriously difficult to identify, this species is small with a wingspan from 1 inch to 1 11/16 inches, and has bright yellow-orange wings, the forewings are bordered in black, and there is a black bar at the end of the wing cell (visible in this picture). Which for me is the key characteristic that helps me ID this species. Females have wider black borders and darker markings than the male.  
Mating occurs in late spring. Males will typically perch 1 1/2 - 2 feet off the ground waiting for females to pass by. After mating, the female will lay eggs singly on the leaves of the host plants. In the case of this species it is various grasses including,  Big Bluestem, Wooly Beard Grass and Switchgrass. In Missouri there is probably only one generation per year. In areas further south they may have two generations per year; weather permitting. Populations in Florida have several broods per year. Adults sip nectar from pink or white blooming flowers such as Milkweed, Mountain Mint, Marsh Fleabane, Thistles, Pepperbush, Buttonbush, Sedum and Pickeral.
If you would like to attract this species as well as other species of skippers, try planting various native grasses and native wildflowers around your property.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Parasite Infestation

This unfortunate Sphinx Moth caterpillar fell victim to a parasitizing wasp called a Braconid Wasp. This is the first time I've ever seen anything like this and I was taken aback by the severity of the infestation. I was very surprised that the caterpillar was still alive and crawling around. I've been unable to get a positive ID on the caterpillar so I have no idea what moth it would have grown up to be. It obviously had been parasitized by the braconid at a very early stage as the caterpillar was only about an inch and a half long. 
Braconid wasps are notorious for using sphinx moth caterpillars as hosts for their offspring. The female will deposit her eggs, using a very tiny thin ovipositor, under the flesh of the caterpillar. These eggs hatch and the tiny larva will eat their way through the insides of the caterpillar. Once the parasites have reached their full growth they will emerge through the skin of the caterpillar and form cocoons. They will remain in these little white cocoons for several days, finally emerging as adults to carry on the process. The unfortunate victim, the caterpillar, will perish. In the picture above you can see the tops open on the cocoons, which means these wasps have already fled the scene. 
As gruesome as this looks and sounds, it is just one more way that populations are controlled by Mother Nature. The wasp is just doing what it is designed to do, survive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

T-Rex of the Insect World

This large praying mantis is the Chinese Praying Mantid (Tenodera sinensis). When giving insect programs to children I often refer to them as the "T-Rex of the Insect World". Children are familiar with the giant meat eating T-Rex of the Dinosaur realm, so it isn't a very far leap for them to picture an insect that is reminiscent of this giant. Chinese Mantids are large and in charge when it comes to insect predators. Few insects will escape its grasp once in their sites. Even her stance and those short front legs remind a person of the fabled dinosaur.
Chinese mantids are native to Asia and made their way to the United States probably in a shipment of plants. They were first discovered in Philadelphia in 1896. They now have a stabilized population throughout the Eastern United States and are beginning to expand their range to include portions of the Western United States. They are aggressive hunters and compete for food with other native species of mantids. This could potentially pose a threat to another Missouri Mantid, the Carolina Mantid. This smaller cousin of the Chinese Mantid is native to Missouri and often finds itself prey to the larger more intimidating Chinese Mantid. They also compete for some of the same food resources.
Chinese Mantids reach lengths up to four inches, but I've documented a few close to six inches. These were very large indeed. Their coloring is highly variable and can be solid green, tan, peach or a combination of those colors. Part of the reason that praying mantids are such excellent hunters is their large eyes which can see very well, plus the added ability to be able to rotate their head 180 degrees. Very little escapes their notice. It has even been reported that they have captured and dined on small frogs and hummingbirds. While it is true that they are master predators, sometimes the predator becomes the prey. Birds, large spiders and lizards all dine on these mantids, as well as others of their own kind.
Mating occurs late in the summer, the female emits a strong pheromone (Chemical perfume) that attracts males from great distances. Many of us have heard the tale of how the female will bite the males head off during mating. In some instances this is true, she is certainly capable of it, and if she feels he isn't performing up to her expectations she will chomp his head off and this triggers a response in the male which increases his performance and offers her a tasty nutritious snack that will aid her in egg production. This gruesome beheading doesn't always take place though, most of the time the male walks away with his head, I suppose it all depends on the females mood. Being a male praying mantid is truly living life on the edge. Once mated, the female will lay her eggs within a foamy egg case called an oothecae, this frothy mixture hardens to protect the eggs and once dry resembles styrofoam. These egg cases overwinter and the following spring the young will emerge. Typically the first meal of many of these tiny praying mantids will be their siblings. Fewer than 15% of the newborn mantids survive to adulthood. This spring I had located 25 egg cases in my back yard on various plants, bushes and even on fences. I felt sure we would have large populations of these insects in our yard this year, but the cold wet spring and summer seems to have kept their numbers down. 
Praying mantids can be found in meadows, along roadsides, near gardens, grassy areas, wildflower prairies, most anywhere their insect prey can be found. These insects are favored by gardeners everywhere. Many gardeners order them from  mail order supply houses to releases in their gardens. This is good in theory but typically they will fly away shortly after being released and will probably supply your neighbors garden.
These large insects make excellent pets as well. They are easily kept in aquariums or bug keepers. They eat a variety of insects, so you can catch grasshoppers, crickets and moths in your yard to feed them. They almost seem to possess a personality, they will follow you with their eyes, and they are sure to win you over. Many people ask if they bite, and like most any insect if they are mishandled they can bite. Praying mantids cannot bite through human skin, so it would feel more like a pinch. The males have spines on their front legs and if they should happen to grasp you with them it is possible for them to draw blood, it would be like a scratch that bleeds. Males also tend to fly. Females would make a better choice. To tell the difference is relatively easy. Females have large abdomens, giving them a "fat" look. This is for egg production. Males are very slender. Happy hunting.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Arrowhead Spider

This gorgeous spider is called the Arrow-shaped Micrathena (Micrathena sagittata). Relatively small in size, but remarkable in their coloring. They reach about 3/8 inch in length. The females have an arrow-shaped abdomen from whence they get their name, this abdomen has three pairs of pointed tuberacles, with the rear pair being large and spreading, it is this spreading that gives them a triangular or arrowhead shape.The tuberacles are tipped with black and are red at the base. The center of the abdomen is bright yellow in color, the cephalothorax is reddish in color with a light yellow stripe down the side.  The males are smaller and lack the tuberacles. 

These spiders can be found throughout the Eastern United States and South America. They are also in Texas and Nebraska. Females build webs near timbered areas, and sometimes gardens. The web will have a hole in the center and a stabilimentum located at the top of the center hole. It is presumed that the hole is to allow for freedom of movement, and that the stabilimentum aids in strengthening the web. The bright color of this spider probably helps protect it from predation from birds, lizards, and most insects. Although, mud daubers are known to prey upon this spider. They paralyze it, and carry it back to their mud nests as a provision to their offspring. Despite their bright coloring they are completely harmless to humans, as are all spiders within this genus. This is an amazingly beautiful spider, and I feel very fortunate to have found one.



 This past Saturday we held our second annual Insect-O-Rama at the Missouri Department of Conservation's Northwest Regional Office in St. Joseph. It was a resounding success. We had 239 people attend the two hour event. Children of all ages enjoyed visiting the different stations we had set up throughout the building and outside.
Here are a few people registering for the give-a-ways we put together just for the event. We had a children's basket full of all sorts of neat goodies, like insect guides, a flashlight, giant plastic bugs, a journal, ant farm, and various other little surprises. The adults registered to win two different framed insect prints, provided by yours truly.                   

 Here are a few of our visitors checking out some of the exhibits in the conference room. We had a Lost Lady Bug table. Rebecca Smyth from Cornell University sent us some wonderful handouts to share with the public telling all about the Ladybug Project. 
Andrew (below, in green shirt) is a freshman at MWSU in St. Joseph and agreed to help us out. He was in charge of a collection of exotic insects. He also brought a sample of butterflies that he had collected. He even brought a live Missouri Scorpion, which turned out to be a big hit with the children. Andrew was pretty brave in handling the little scorpion. Thankfully he didn't get stung or our visitors might have been given a really interesting education on why we don't handle wild creatures. LOL.
Kendra, a wonderfully sweet girl from the health department set up a great informational booth on Ticks and Mosquitoes. She handed out free bug spray and brochures. The information she provides is invaluable to the public, and we are grateful for her help.

The butterfly ladies, Betsy Betros, and Joyce Bollman came back this year and they brought a friend with them, Linda Williams. Their booth was the hit of the show, and whats not to love about cute little caterpillars and beautiful butterflies. Joyce raises Monarchs, and brought with her, numerous specimens in various stages of development. Some of the children even got to handle the monarchs and release them. Linda brought several different species of butterfly and moth caterpillars. She had Monarchs, Spicebush and many others. Betsy is the author of a wonderful book titled "Butterflies of Kansas City". It is a great photographic field guide that anyone living in Missouri should own. The information is given in simple terms, the photos are superb (Many taken by Linda). If anyone is interested in purchasing her book, I will be happy to put you contact with her, just email me.

The day was beautiful, the rain predicted for the day held off and we had sunshine and warm temperatures, which made it a perfect day to go explore the pond. MDC's very own Scott Ryan (fisheries biologist), set up his post near the pond and provided the kids with nets and let them muck around in the mud searching for dragonfly larvae, mayfly larvae, and various other larvae that make the water their home. Some even caught minnows and I suspect a few frogs were scooped up as well. It was all in good fun, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and no one fell in the pond!

When each person arrived at the front door they were given a trivia sheet, they were asked to visit each station to get a question on the sheet answered. When they had their sheet filled out they could turn it in to claim a prize. Each child was given a prize and no one went away emtpy handed. The questions were designed to encourage families to work together to find the answers. A sample questions: What mythical Greek God dipped his arrows in Honey? The answer--- "Cupid". 
I want to send out a collective THANK YOU to each of the persons who participated and helped make this event the success that it was. We couldn't have done it without you. We hope to see you all again next year!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Blue-Faced Meadowhawk Dragonfly

This gorgeous dragonfly is one of my favorites. Their coloring is beautiful and they are usually easy to approach. This lovely dragon is the Blue-Faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum). They are found throughout most of the Eastern United States, with exception to the extreme North Eastern States.  They are average in size at approximately 2 inches, it isn't their size that is impressive, it is the color. The males have an all blue face and thorax, complete with blue eyes, and their abdomen is shockingly red. The females look very much like the males, except their abdomen is brownish in color.

Picture 1.) Mating Pair
Picture 2.) Female
Picture 3.) Male
Picture 4.) Close-up of males wing

Males will perch and wait for passing females. There is heavy competition among males seeking mates. It is common to see them chasing each other for vantage points, to try and gain the upper hand. If you act aggressive, yet perch in an attractive manner, what female can resist? I must say our male here looks quite dashing, and charming. He was definitely the top dog of his small area, he chased numerous males away from his grassy perch, only to return seconds later and pose so nicely. 
They seem to favor woodland ponds and swamplands and the areas nearby. The ones pictured here were photographed near a wetland area on our farm. From the information I gathered on these dragonflies it appears that they are not common, and in some parts of their range they are quite rare or even endangered. I feel very privileged to have them in secure numbers here on our farm. They are a joy to watch, and they certainly brighten any landscape. When you factor in all the insects they eat, what is not to love about these flying jewels?