Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Forest Adventure

The woods behind our house practically called out to me this evening "Come explore". I donned my rubber slop boots and some old clothes, grabbed the camera and headed out to see what I could find. The wind was blowing fiercely, blowing my hair in my face, making in next to impossible to see anything beyond my brown hair. This called for a ponytail. Once the ponytail was in place, I headed into the woods, and discovered the floor of the woods had turned into a creek. Water was flowing  right over the ground and creating mud so thick and deep that I sunk up to my ankles. I could hear the suction sound the mud was making as I tried to pull my boots free. I nearly left the boots in the mud and came away with nothing but socks! If only I could tread lightly like the raccoons who left those hand-like tracks behind in the mud. Obviously I was going to have to find an alternate route through the timber.

After climbing up a bank, fighting some nasty thorn bushes, tripping over a log (which I managed to break open, and not break my neck). I found this pretty little metallic sweat bee. She found a nice, cozy spot to hunker down for the winter. She was a bit sluggish, and bit less then thrilled to be disturbed. I apologized for waking her (yes, I,  on occasion talk to bugs), and took her picture.

I kept moving forward and discovered some beautiful green moss clinging to the moist decaying logs on the forest floor. There were tiny little blooms shooting upwards off the cushiony bed. There is something so pretty about moss. After all the snow this past winter (40 inches worth), we have no shortage of moisture, and therefore a perfect habitat for moss to grow. It was everywhere in the timber

Next I found the remains of a large tree. Lightening struck this tree many years ago, and left nothing but an overgrown stump behind. I jumped the mini-creek, managed to not get sucked in the mud and looked to see if any creatures lurked inside the rotting stump. I proceeded to lean on said stump, and knocked the damn thing over! Once again I avoided falling and potentially breaking my neck, or at the very least hurting my pride. This stump was so far gone that the bugs didn't even want it!!! Except for this lonely multi-colored Asian lady beetle, who apparently had this trunk all to herself.

Right next to this stump was a tall Shag Bark Hickory tree. These are one of my favorite trees. Their bark is unmistakable. When I give hikes with school children I always stop in front of the ShagBark Hickory trees and ask the kids if they like the cartoon Scooby Doo. They always say "YES!"
 Then I ask him them if they can find a tree in the woods that looks like Shaggy....they all point to the ShagBark Hickory. Then I ask them to hold up their little fists, and try to guess what creature will hide out under the shaggy bark of this tree during the hottest parts of the day. Many guesses are shouted at me.....a mouse?....a snake?....a Squirrel ? (These are for the big fisted kids).....I give them another hint...."it flies". BIRDS!!!! nope....."It comes out at night" BATS!!! "Yeah!"

Not far from the ShagBark Hickory was a rotting log, right next to the log were the remains of some unfortunate creature. At first I could not figure out what pieces or parts these were. After posting this image on Facebook someone told me they thought it was a pelvis, but to what they had no idea.

 If anyone has a guess as to what creature this bone might belong to, please post a comment. I am curious to know.

 Next I stumbled (literally) over another log, and turned it over and discovered an unknown grub underneath.
It's obviously a beetle, but which one?

Lastly as I exited the timber I noticed a very small, shiny beetle resting on a dead plant. It was barely 1/4 inch in length, with a very rounded body. The sun glinting off its wings gave it a shiny green appearance.
So while it wasn't the most perfect of weather conditions with the winds blowing 30 mph, it was warm (75 degrees). It felt good to get outside and turn over logs, break open stumps, and even knock over a tree (even if it was on accident) just to see what was out there. In case you couldn't tell, it was a LONGGGGG Winter!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bees--used for detecting drugs?

LONDON (March 28) -- It's the ultimate honey trap. A British company has successfully trained bees to sniff out explosives, drugs and other hazardous materials, and their winged warriors could soon be on duty at airports, train stations and other potential terrorism or trafficking sites.

Honeybees have incredibly sensitive olfactory organs, which they use to help track down their favorite food -- sugary nectar -- in the wild. Realizing that the bugs can be taught to smell much more than just sweet stuff,
U.K. firm Inscentinel developed a gadget that harnesses this powerful sense to identify would-be bombers or drug smugglers. And while it takes about six months and $37,000 to train a single sniffer dog (which has a similarly strong sense of smell as the average bee), swarms of honey harvesters can be skilled up in just a few minutes
A British company has figured out how to train bees to detect explosives or drugs by exploiting their desire for nectar.

Inscentinel's bees are taught to identify suspicious substances using Pavlovian conditioning. (Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov famously taught his dogs to drool whenever they heard a bell, as they thought they were about to be fed). Up to 500 insects are placed in a special "bee hotel" and exposed to a certain odor -- such as a key ingredient of TNT -- and simultaneously rewarded with a sugary liquid. The process is repeated up to five times, says Mathilde Briens, head of R&D at Inscentinel, by which point, "the bees associate the smell with food. So next time they sniff this particular smell, they will stick their tongues out because they expect food."

Once their odorous education is over, the bees are ready for work. Thirty-six bugs are transferred from the bee hotel into a hand-held device that resembles a portable vacuum cleaner and gently strapped down with plastic ties. That loading process is entirely automated, so non-bee experts can operate the machine without getting stung.

Once they're seated in the machine -- called a VASOR (for Volatile Analysis by Specific Olfactory Recognition) -- a fan sucks air past the immobilized bugs' antennae. If they detect a trace of Semtex, for example, the bees will extend their tongues in hunger, breaking beams of light that run in front of their heads and sending a signal to the VASOR operator. That automatic warning system means that anyone can use the gadget after a few hours of basic training. In contrast, learning how to handle a sniffer dog can take many months. And as the gadget contains 36 bees, all individually testing the atmosphere, the VASOR offers greater accuracy than a single explosives hound's nose. "It's almost like having a pack of well-behaved sniffer dogs," Briens says.

The bees' conditioning wears off after two weeks unless they're given repeated sweet treats. So after two days hunting bad guys, the bees are safely reintroduced to their hive.

The gadget may sound a little un-bee-lievable, but government-funded tests have repeatedly shown that Inscentinel's bugs are highly effective bomb sniffers. A
2004 study funded by the U.S. military found that trained honeybees could detect lower concentrations of TNT than commercial ion scanners. And a review last summer by Britain's Home Office noted that the bees achieved better results than a popular hand-held vapor detector. Briens says that the VASOR, which is at an advanced prototype stage, could be in service by next year.

So watch out terrorists and narco-traffickers: You could be soon be caught out by a real sting operation.
Joey Cox

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Red Flat Bark Beetle

This beautiful rusty-red colored beetle is a Red Flat Bark Beetle (Cucujus clavipes). I was shocked to find it crawling in my bathroom sink. I had never seen a beetle like it before. I captured it and took a few pictures and later identified what it was. This only perplexed me even more, why would a bark beetle be in my bathroom sink? Then it dawned on me....my husband cuts and burns wood for our home. This little hitchhiker must have came in on some wood and made it's way to the bathroom. It was a small beetle, barely 3/8 of an inch in length. Every square inch of him was reddish in color, top, bottom, back to front. The only exception to this was his antennae and tibae and tarsi which were black. Very striking beetle. After doing some research, I discovered that this beetle is quite a hardy species, they live throughout North America, even as far north as Alaska, where it is capable of surviving temperatures at -70F. Apparently there have even been studies done with this species that showed it was capable of surviving such extreme super temperatures as -238F. When you consider that most insects that overwinter can only tolerate temperatures in the -13F range, it seems almost impossible that these beetles are able to withstand that kind of frigid cold.  What kind of a creature can even come close to surviving such extremes? Seems they have their own built-in antifreeze-like cocktail that aids them in this logic-defying feat. Very little is reported on their diet, but it is believed to consist of other insects, including beetle larvae, mites, and other small arthropods.

Their extremely flattened body gives them the ability to travel under loose bark with little effort, they can even maneuver through tunnels in the wood left by other wood boring beetles. They will travel these tunnels to prey upon the unsuspecting larvae residing there. These beetles are considered beneficial to humans because of their ability to eat harmful wood boring beetles that can damage timber. I couldn't find much about their mating cycle, but I would presume after mating, the female would deposit her eggs under the bark of a tree, the eggs hatch and the larvae begin seeking beetle larvae to dine on. Adult beetles will overwinter under the bark of trees.
I am constantly amazed at the diversity of insect life. I am often surprised and never bored when it comes to the many miniature creatures roaming around on six legs. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Early Spring Insects

Yesterday was a beautiful warm sunny day with a high of 65. Unfortunately I was stuck in my office until 5:00; at which time the clouds rolled in and the temperatures had cooled considerably. While unlocking my car, a honey bee, did a fly-by, perhaps attracted to my bright yellow car, did it look like a big daisy to her? I was so excited by the first honey bee of 2010 I could hardly wait to get home and explore. By the time I got home it was 50 degrees and a wind had picked up. Not to be discouraged, I decided to roam around the yard anyway to see if I could find any six or even eight legged creatures.
The first to catch my eye was this Blue Bottle Blow Fly, while flies might not be everyone's cup of tea, I can't help but appreciate their single-minded devotion to populating the planet.

The second insect, or rather insects to fall under my gaze were these Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetles. I always wondered where they go when they aren't invading our homes in the fall. These two pictures will answer that question.....

Apparently they hide under the bark of decaying trees, like this old Elm Tree. I discovered much of the bark loosened and proceeded to peel it off to see what would present itself underneath. I found a goldmine in insects hiding under that bark, away from winters fury.
Among the Multi-Colored Ladybugs were also these little black ants. They had dug a series of intricate tunnels throughout the layer just under the bark. There were some winged individuals, as well as wingless ones. There were also some little yellowish things in a tiny cluster that looked mysteriously close to eggs.

   Next I discovered an eight-legged critter. This was a tiny crab spider that so completely blended in with the tree bark that I almost didn't see him. He was about 3/8 of inch long when his legs were stretched out.

 Crab spiders are among my favorite spiders, second only to jumping spiders. They are so crazy looking, it is hard to be scared of them.


Then I uncovered this small black beetle. I have a very hard time distinguishing one small black beetle from another as they all look so very much alike. I would be hard pressed to try and ID this one.  I'm sure it is some kind of little "Ground Beetle" that just found a secure place to overwinter.

  This fascinating looking insect is a Rove Beetle. I believe it to be Platydracus cinnamopterus, and just for fun we will call him/her the Cinnamon Rove Beetle, he/she is delightfully cinnamon in color. I found this interesting beetle while turning over rocks. He wiggled and tried to escape, but I wasn't to be outdone. He finally gave up and played dead, which allowed me to scoop him up and place him onto of a stone for a photo. After having tolerated his harassment at the hands of moi, he scurried off the rock and into a crack in the soil quicker than you can blink an eye. It just goes to show, even on cooler, chillier days in early spring there is still interesting bug life to be found. Tear off some bark, turn over some rocks, sift through some leaves or just sit patiently and you will be amazed at what you will find.                           

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Midland Brown Snake

Now I know you are all wondering why I am posting a snake here instead of an insect or other tiny little garden creature without a backbone, but I couldn't resist introducing you to the Midland Brown Snake. This adorable, yet tiny snake is native to Missouri. They are approximately the length of a ruler, ranging from 11-14 inches when fully grown. They are a lovely shade of milky brown with speckling on their sides and a lighter colored stripe down their back. The one pictured here is a female, how do I know that? Well let me explain.

 My husband had put up hay last year and discovered this little snake within the hay bale. Knowing my love of all things creepy and crawly he brought her to me in his leather gloved encased hand (after all a snake this tiny might bite...LOL). I thought she was the prettiest little thing I had ever seen and decided to keep her, at least for a little while. I placed her in a large tank, provided her with water and proceeded to try and figure out exactly what species she was and what she would eat. I learned she was the Midland Brown Snake and they feed on slugs and earthworms (gotta love that). I placed a few tiny slugs and worms in her enclosure but she turned her nose up at them. After a week of refusing to eat I made the decision to let her go. I awoke early one Saturday morning and went down stairs to retrieve her and let her go....and got a huge surprise. She had given birth to 10 babies overnight. Eight of them were wiggling around in the cage all over her. Two of them were still encased in their embryonic sacks. I carefully peeled those sack away and preserved the two dead specimens to use for school programs. It isn't very often you get to see a newborn snake. I knew my students would love to learn about them. The remaining snakes were taken outside so I could snap these photos. When I reached into the container, I got another surprise. This seemingly docile snake turned into the Mother of the Year with her aggressiveness towards me. She lunged and bit at me. She was displaying obvious protective tendencies toward her offspring.

When we think of reptiles we often think of cold blooded, calculated hunters incapable of feelings. I'm not sure she was experiencing any kind of maternal love for her prodigy but she certainly felt compelled to keep  me at bay. It is funny to me, how a snake barely a foot long, that does not possess venom, and has no real ability to hurt you can still make you jump when it lunges for you.....LOL. I took pity on her and released her and the babies to my garden. Where they can feast on the ample supply of slugs and tiny earthworms that reside there.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Flower fly

Flower flies in the family Syrphidae are hugely beneficial insects to have around the garden. The young larva feed predominantly on aphids. There are a few species that even specialize in specific aphids. Then there are a few species of flower fly larvae that feed on most any insect they can capture. The adults are pollinators, but not to the extent of bees or even butterflies. Their resemblance to bees has often resulted in their untimely demise. People who have an innate fear of stinging insects, whack first and ask questions later. One key way to determine if the insect you are looking at is a bee or a fly is to count the number of wings. If the insect in question has 4 wings (2 sets) then you are most likely looking at a bee. If it only has two wings (1 set) then rest assured it is a fly. These pretty little bugs are harmless to humans. These are some of the first insects I see in the garden when the weather warms up. They are fairly easy to approach and photograph, and there is no shortage of unique flower flies to find and study. Just remember no whacking the flower flies.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Black Swallowtail

(Photo By Steve Scott)

Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes asterias), are one of the most common swallowtails found in the Midwest. I see these gorgeous flying flowers with great frequency in our backyard gardens. They nectar at the coneflowers, milkweed and even thistles. They are not the largest of the swallowtails found in Missouri, that prize goes to the Giant Swallowtail, but they certainly are one of the prettiest. They have a wingspan of up to 3 1/4 inches, which is no small butterfly by any means. They are mostly black (hence the name), but they have a delightful array of bright colors like yellow, blue and orange along the edges of the wings and at the base of the "tails". The underside is also made up of these beautiful markings, as you can see in the 4th picture.

They can be found in a variety of habitats, including backyard flower gardens, vegetable gardens, open fields, desserts, marshes and along roadsides. Late in the spring males will begin seeking females. They perch from some vantage point and wait for receptive females to come into view. Once mated, the female will then lay her eggs singly on the leaves of the host plant. In the case of these butterflies it is plants in the Carrot family, including Dill, Fennel, Celery, Queen Anne's Lace, and even occasionally plants in the citrus family will be used such as lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit. The eggs are tiny and round in shape and may be found both on the underside and the upperside of the leaves of the host plant. When the eggs hatch the newly emerged caterpillars are very tiny and would fit between these parenthesis (  ). Because of this incredibly tiny stature they often go unnoticed. Look carefully among the foliage of your dill, parsley, fennel or in the wild Queen Anne's Lace. Although they are present all summer it seems that the best time to find them in NW Missouri is in August or September.

The two caterpillars pictured here are feeding on dill. I plant it each spring just by scattering the seeds randomly throughout my gardens. The lacy leaves and tall stalks make for interesting contrasts between the flowers. Walking through the garden, and brushing up against the dill releases a pungent, yet fragrant aroma completely unique to dill. Each summer I am rewarded with numerous black swallowtail caterpillars all munching away at the foliage.

This butterfly is considered a Pipevine Swallowtail mimic which are a poisonous butterfly. They use chemicals they acquire from the plants they feed on as a caterpillar. This toxic brew of chemicals that the plant gives off is harmless to the caterpillar, but gives the caterpillar and later the butterfly it becomes a chemical defense against predation.The Black Swallowtail is not known to be poisonous, but it so closely resembles it's poisonous cousin that this affords them some protection from predation by birds and other hungry creatures.

Did I mention that the caterpillars are great acrobats? Just look at the way it can bend and twist to get at the tender leaves. If I twisted like that I'd need a Chiropractor.

If you want to attract these beautiful caterpillars and butterflies to your garden....plant dill, fennel, carrot or Queen Anne's Lace for the females to use as a host. Then plant plenty of bright flowers like coneflowers for the adults to nectar at, and you should see them with the first rays of summer sun.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reddish-Brown Stag Beetle

Reddish-Brown Stag Beetles (Lucanus capreolus) also go by the name of pinching beetle, and by the looks of those mandibles it is easy to see why. They are a large beetle that measure up to 1 3/4 inches. The males have much larger mandibles and therefore are longer in length. The over all color of these large beetles is a reddish-brown (Some species may be lighter in color) just like their common name indicates.
These are a very common beetle in their normal range, which covers all of the Eastern United States and parts of Canada. I find these beetles quite frequently at a mercury vapor light and white sheet that I have set up near our timber during the summer and fall months. Their preferred habitat is timbered areas so this makes perfect sense that they would be attracted to the light located near there. The adults have a definite sweet tooth and will come to sap flows on various trees. When kept in captivity they will feed on diluted maple syrup or sugar water.
Mating can be an aggressive affair. The males use their large mandibles to fight other males for the attention of receptive females. Once mated, the female will lay her eggs on or near rotting logs. The eggs will hatch and the resulting larvae will feed on the decaying wood. In about two years they will have reached full size and fall to the ground and burrow under the soil where they will pupate.
When confronted by humans the males may rear back and show you their open mandibles. This gives them a very aggressive, intimidating appearance. It might make you think twice about capturing one; with pinchers that big they can surely give a nasty bite right? Actually that is not the case at all, they are capable of only a minor pinch at best. So, no worries.
These are strictly nocturnal beetles and will be found on trees or near lights at night. If you want to attract them try putting out some sugary bait, you might be surprised at what shows up.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The first insects of 2010

One evening last week as I sat at the kitchen table browsing the internet, a sneaky little house fly landed right on the keyboard. Where did he come from? It was barely 25 degrees outside, does he not know it is still winter? I shoooed him off the keyboard, oh but he was persistent! Back he came, shoo-fly, it's too early! 
I finally gave up trying to convince him that he wasn't welcome, and took his photo. Then low-and-behold what should appear? 
A Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetle! She landed right on my new orchid, and posed so pretty how could I resist this photo op? Do these little creatures know something I don't? Are warmer days ahead? I couldn't help but feel a tinge of excitement at the first insects of 2010, even if they were the everyday, ordinary, garden variety insect pests that we all lament about every summer. For me these two little visitors were just the uplifting encouragement I needed to survive the next month of cool, wet and windy days, before winter lets go and spring finally arrives!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ella The Tarantula

I posted a couple of months back about buying an Oklahoma Brown Tarantula. It took me quite some time to feel confident enough to hold her. Once I worked up the nerve I had a friend photograph the moment. I have to say it wasn't as horrid as I thought it would be. She was very sweet, and did not try to bite me. If she would have decided to sink her fangs into my hand I'm afraid she would have been a "flying spider". As it is, all is well and I am encouraged to continue to hold her and conquer this fear forever!