Saturday, July 30, 2011

Carolina Grasshopper

This large grasshopper is a Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina) in the family Acrididae which are the short-horned grasshoppers. Depending upon their location they may also be called Road-Dusters or Black-Winged Grasshoppers. They are found throughout most of the United States with exception to Southern Florida, Southern Louisiana, Southern Texas and parts of Arizona. 

This is one of the most common grasshoppers found throughout the summer months here in Missouri. They range in color from yellowish-gray, gray to tannish-brown. Their flight wings are black, and believe me, if you haven't ran across them, they are very flighty and fast. Photographing them can be a challenge in patience as you sneak up on them quietly, only to have them fly 15 feet away the second you are ready to snap a photo. 

Reaching lengths of 2 inches or a bit more qualifies them as being large as far as grasshoppers in Missouri go. The one pictured here was photographed at Haddorn Conservation Area in Savannah near the flood waters. Experts at bugguide agreed it is a female due to the visible ovipositor under her wings and at the tip of her abdomen.

They are frequently found along crop fields, along roadsides, on gravel roads, in fence rows, railway cutaways and other disturbed areas with bare ground. Unless they take flight, spotting them is difficult as they camouflage themselves so well among the gravel and dirt. Rest assured though, they WILL take flight if you get too close. They feed on a wide variety of grasses and forbs and may occasionally become a pest of agricultural crops, especially forage crops.

The Carolina grasshopper is a strong, adept flier. During warm, sunny days the adults frequently fly over bare ground interacting with one another. Males are noted for their hovering flight. They rise almost vertically from the ground to heights of 3 to 6 feet, occasionally higher, and hover for 8 to 15 seconds. At the end they flutter down to the ground close to where they started. They may repeat this maneuver as many as five times. During the hovering flight tht attracts females. The display also attracts males so that a small aggregation of several males and a female may gather on the bare ground beneath the hovering male.

Males are much more active than females and most likely this is due to them seeking mates. Once mated the female will use her ovipositor to deposit egg pods within bare spots in the ground. The eggs remain underground all winter and hatch the following spring. The tiny nymphs will emerge from underground and begin feeding. They will reach their adult size by
mid to late summer which is when breeding will once again take place. 

With the super hot temperatures we've been experiencing the past three weeks these grasshoppers alter their behavior in contrast to ground temperature. When the ground temperature reaches or exceeds 110 degrees they will start climbing blades of grass or stems of plants in what is referred to as "stilting." This gets their body off the hot surface of the ground where it is blistering, and into cooler environs. They will also orient themselves so they face the sun, which reduces the amount of their body coming in contact with the direct rays of the sun, which also keeps them cooler. To say this eludes to intelligence on their part would be a stretch, but it certainly eludes to a protective instinctual behavior that protects them from injury. 

These grasshoppers are an important part of the food chain and are consumed by birds, snakes, frogs, toads, spiders, praying mantids, raccoons, skinks, skunks, mice, squirrels and other predators of insects. Even humans on occasion will consume grasshoppers for protein.


"Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States" by John L. Capinera; Ralph D. Scott; and Thomas J. Walker

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Giant Swallowtail

A few days ago while out hiking in this oppressive heat I discovered these two caterpillars on the limb of a small tree. I knew they were giant swallowtail caterpillars, what I did not know however was WHAT they were feeding on. I've walked this particular trail dozens upon dozens of times and cannot recall ever seeing this tree before. After returning home and looking up the host plant for the Giant Swallowtail I discovered that Prickly Ash was a common host tree. Since the little tree in question could definitely be classified as prickly with a decidedly thorny bark the mystery was solved.

When the caterpillars are young they show nothing of the beauty to come once they reach their adult phase, in fact they are very drab and resemble bird poop. This is a great strategy when trying to keep yourself from being eaten by hungry birds. Not many things will knowingly eat poop, so looking like such an unsavory substance seems to work.

As the caterpillar ages it changes it strategy and becomes more snake-like in appearance. They even have fake eyespots to carry the ruse even further. Although I am not sure how effective this actually is, because I have never seen snakes less than 3 inches in length. Seems like mimicking a snake is carrying things a bit far. The caterpillar is also referred to as the "Orange-dog" or "Orange-pup" by fruit growers. The nickname hints at the damage these caterpillars can do in large numbers to citrus groves.

Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) are the largest butterfly in Canada and the United States with a wingspan up to 6 inches. They are beautifully marked in shades of yellow and black. They generally begin flying in Missouri around May and continue through August. In our region there may be up to two broods per year. As Missouri lacks the citrus trees these butterflies favor as a host, they will instead choose prickly ash, and Hop Tree. The adults seem to favor nectar from lantana, azalea, bougainvilla, bouncing Bet, dame's rocket, goldenrod, Japanese honeysuckle, and swamp milkweed.

I've tried for several years to get a successful picture of this species and they have proven a challenge to photograph. I managed this picture a couple of years ago on thistle bloom and not a single image since.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Slug + Fungus=Feast

While out hiking the trail behind the office where I work I discovered several slugs munching on the mushrooms that had popped up on the mulched trail. Recent rains had created ideal mushroom growing conditions in the timber. This large gray slug is one of the most common slugs found in Missouri and they can reach lengths up 4 inches. Slugs feed on a wide variety of items, but seem to prefer fungus.

If you would like to learn more about slugs visit a past post of mine from  Tennessee

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rust-Colored Spider Wasp

This brightly colored wasp is the "Rust-Colored Spider Wasp" (Tachypompilus ferrugineus). The species name ferrugineus actually translates into Rusty, and is an apt description of their overall body color which is a beautiful rusty-orange. They have distinct stripes on their abdomen and black iridescent wings. The females of this species are expert spider hunters. They seek large species of spiders such as wolf spiders to paralyze. They will sting the spider with a fast acting venom designed to subdue their prey, but not kill it. She will then drag the unfortunate victim to a safe spot and secret it away out of sight. She will then lay her eggs on the spider and leave to hunt for more victims. It takes a few days for the eggs to hatch and during that time the spider will remain very much alive, just in a constant state of paralytic motionlessness. When the eggs hatch they will feed on the spider so lovingly provided for it by its mother.

This specimen showed up on my front porch today. I noticed something rapidly crawling across the concrete. Closer inspection revealed this spider/wasp interaction. This wasp was incredibly fast and proved difficult to photograph. Even dragging prey much larger than herself did not slow her up one bit. She must have herculean strength.

Looking at this picture you can't help but feel somewhat sorry for that poor spider. To be out wandering around looking for food, minding your own business then WHACK...suddenly you are stung and overpowered by a flying creature bent on serving you up to her children.

Life in the wild is often without mercy....each creature bent on surviving anyway they can. Utmost in their biological makeup is often carry on the family genes and create mirror images of themselves. This wasp is merely doing exactly what Mother Nature programmed her to do....provide for her family. This spider will give adequate nutrition to her offspring.
 This momma wasp worked diligently to find the proper location to stow away the spider and keep it hidden from opportunistic scavengers that might try and steal her bounty. Often she would leave the spider and fly away to investigate the real estate. She checked back frequently and never seemed to lose track of where she left her quarry. I know these wasps use landscape cues to guide them. I thought about moving the spider to see how long it would take her to find it again, then decided that would be mean. She literally crawled in and out of every available hole in the concrete steps, and foundation, before finally settling on a crack behind our front steps. She dragged the spider about six inches up the wall and into the crack. I am imagining that this would be like me trying to drag a full grown deer in my mouth, up hill!

(Here the spider is being pulled into the crack in the concrete and
disappeared never to be heard from or seen again)

Once the spider has been consumed the wasp larvae will chose a location nearby to pupate and finish out it's progression to adulthood. This will take approximately 10 days. Soon there should be newly emerging adult wasps that will carry on in the fashion dictated by their genetic makeup, and by Mother Nature.
Carry on my spider loving wasp!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Six-Spotted Flower Strangalia

Thanks to Ted over at Beetles in the Bush I was able to get a fast ID on this beautiful longhorn beetle. It was dining on the blooming peppermint plant in my backyard which it seemed quite fond of. Beetles in this genus love flowers and will often be found among the blooms feasting on nectar. They occur throughout the southwestern, southeastern and south central United States. It is such a tiny beetle to carry such a large name like Six-spotted flower strangalia (Strangalia sexnotata)....seriously who comes up with these things?

Like all beetles that feed on flower nectar and pollen they are excellent pollinators. As larvae they feed and develop in decaying wood. They typically choose hardwood trees as their larval host. They do not seem to be particular which species of tree they target.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Bee Sized Adventure

My friend and fellow naturalist Shannon set out on a mission last week to rescue a wild honeybee hive that was found laying along the side of the trail at a local conservation area. Apparently recent storms had broken the hollow limb out of a tree and the hive became compromised when it hit the trail. It also put hikers and other nature enthusiasts at risk of stings as they navigated the trail. Shannon and some fellow master naturalist showed up at the conservation area with the mission in mind to remove the limb and take it to a friend of Shannon's that lives in Kansas. Working in 100 degree heat they cut the limb to a manageable size and hauled it nearly 1/2 mile back to the pickup.

Honey Bee rescuers

Shannon smoking the bees inside the limb. TJ (my supervisor) looking on, wonder what he would do if the bees suddenly flew out?

Carrying the limb out of timber and to the wagon that will transport it to the parking lot. One end of the log is covered in a black netting and the other end is sealed with duct tape. 

Last night Shannon called me and asked me if I would assist him in trying to move the bees from the log to a hive box. I met him and John (fellow master naturalist) in Kansas at 8:30 this morning. After getting the smoker ready and donning our bee suits we proceeded to the log with the intention of splitting the log straight down the middle. I was to hold a piece of netting at one end, as Shannon smoked the opposite end. Theoretically the bees would move away from the smoke and into the net. Then the net could be closed up and transported the few feet to the hive where we would "dump" the bees into the hive.

Things rarely go the way you intend, and this was no exception. It soon became apparent this idea was not going to work. The bees simply refused to be coaxed out of the log. The decision was made to split the log and remove the comb. We would then place the comb in the hive box and hopefully transfer the queen in the process. 

The wild hive is a thing of beauty. These bees are feral and part of a tame hive that swarmed at some point in past. They were very docile to work with. The workers were protective but not overly so, although they were seemingly crafty creatures. It was becoming increasingly difficult to determine where the queen was. Just when we thought we knew where she was based on where the bees were concentrating themselves, we would look over our shoulder to discover another large congregation of bees...was the queen there? Was she in the hive box with the first placement of the honey comb? There was an estimated 6,000-7,000 bees within this hive and divided into thirds it was difficult to figure out which group was guarding their queen mother.

The beauty and intoxicating smell of the honey comb tempted me to try and sample the honey....OH was manna from Heaven! The BEST honey I have ever eaten! No wonder honey was referred to as the nectar of the Gods. There is no better tasting or purer food out there. Then consider that not a single thing must die to create it! Not plant, nor animal!

I seriously ate a fourth of this piece of honey comb......yes I have a sweet tooth.

Once the log was completely split open the bees became very hostile at having their home destroyed. It is too bad we aren't able to communicate to them that we meant them no harm, we were merely giving them a mansion in comparison to the shanty they were living in. They swarmed around our heads and bounced off of us in warning to back off. I talked to them and assured them we were trying to make things better....they weren't listening.

Once the hive had been taken apart and the honey comb was in the hive box we took the log away so they would not be tempted to enter it again. They began swarming on the ground and on a nearby tree so we still had no idea where the queen actually was. The decision was finally made to leave them alone and let them calm down. Shannon said he would check on them later in the afternoon or evening and see what they did. Hopes were high they would finally realize that the hive box was a good alternative. As of the writing of this post I do not know if they took up residence in the hive box, but I will keep you all posted as I find out.

UPDATE: Shannon checked on the hive Friday evening and again on Saturday and everything seemed okay. Then he remembered that we found some maggot-like worms wiggling around in the honey comb when we split the log open. He called and asked me if I could remember if they were fly maggots or wax moth worms. I honestly did not know, and hoped for maggots. I know wax worms can wreck havoc on a weakened hive. After doing some research on my own I contacted him and told him he better watch them closely because I felt they may indeed be wax worms. Sadly....he returned to the hive today (Sunday) and discovered they had swarmed and left. He looked the comb over and discovered several more worms and was able to positively ID them as wax worms. He found tell-tale signs of webbing that the worms leave behind as well. After such a rude disturbance and with the added stress of wax worms the bees did what bees do and left for the betterment of the hive. He was not able to locate the swarm, but he was hopeful that they had located a hollow tree in the nearby timber. With any luck they will make it through the winter.....Shannon has maintained a positive outlook and considers this a learning experience, rather than a waste of time as many people may view it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Margined Leatherwing

Margined Leatherwings (Chauliognathus marginatus) are a type of soldier beetle in the family Cantharidae. They are frequently found nectaring at flowers and will be seen covered in pollen. They are excellent pollinators because of their habit of crawling around deep in the blooms, this causes large amounts of pollen to collect all over their body which they carry to the next plant they visit. They also feed on some insects and insect eggs. The larvae are predatory and feed on many types of insects, and are especially fond of corn earworms and corn borers. Their range includes the central and eastern United States. They very closely resemble C. pennsylvanicus. The margined leatherwing has more black on their wings and are smaller than C. pennsylvanicus and the pronotum has wide dark band, instead of an irregular dark spot. Margined Leatherwings are more commonly seen in the spring and summer, whereas C. pennsylvanicus is associated with goldenrod and will be found in the fall to coincide with the blooming fall flowers.

Soldier beetles are unusual among beetles because their elytra, while more hardened than the wings of most insects, are much softer than the elytra of most other beetles. These beetles are close cousins to lightning bugs and superficially resemble them. 
Female soldier beetles place eggs in moist soil or in leaf litter in lawns, meadows, and forests.  Upon hatching in the summer, larvae live and feed at the soil level.  Most species pupate in the fall in small chambers in the soil and adults emerge in late spring, then mate and deposit eggs during the summer.

They hunt in leaf litter and in other locations that are damp and close to the soil.  A few species hunt under loose bark.  The larvae of other soldier beetles are herbivores that feed on potato, celery, and other garden plants.  As adults, some soldier beetle species feed on nectar and pollen, while others are predators that hunt for aphids and other soft-bodied insects.  

Soldier beetles and their larvae are a food source for other animals.  Birds, bats, and spiders feed on the adults.  Spiders, ground beetles, and other soil-dwelling predators feed on the larvae.

Today I found dozens of these beetles on the milkweed and many of them were frozen in if time suddenly stopped and and they departed planet earth.  

 A fungus is responsible for their untimely demise, and the following quote came from the book Medicine Quest by Mark J Plotkin.
"Though merely a cousin of the lowly toadstool, the Cordyceps fungus lives a life that could hardly be imagined by even the most creative science-fiction writer. Cordyceps lies quiescent on the forest floor, waiting for its unsuspecting insect prey to pass. When a bug wanders by, the fungus attaches itself to the insect exoskeleton. It then secretes a chemical that burns a hole in the insect's body armor. Next, Cordyceps inserts itself into the insect body and proceeds to devour all of the host's nonvital organs, all the while preventing the insect from dying of infection by secreting an antibiotic and a fungicide (as well as an insecticide to deter other insect predators). Once the nonvital organs are consumed, the fungus eats part of the insect brain, causing the insect to ascend to the top of a tall tree in the forest. At this point, Cordyceps devours the rest of the bug's brain, thereby killing the insect and causing the body to split open. At that point, the fungus can release its spores a hundred feet above the forest floor." !!!

You can see in this picture how the fungus has left the beetle through the abdomen and will now be spread throughout the environment to attach itself to more beetles. In soldier beetles the fungus seems to cause the beetle to attach itself by the mandibles to the leaves of plants. The pathogen responsible for the death of these beetles may be Eryniopsis lampyridarum. 

Mother nature is often without mercy and will use all sorts of devises to control population numbers.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mole Cricket

This odd looking insect is a Mole Cricket in the family Gryllotalpidae, they move more like a vertebrate than an invertebrate, and are truly one of the most unique insects in the world of arthropods. They are named after the underground mammal that goes by the same name. Just like moles these insects have wide, flattened front legs that are great for digging and swimming. They are also capable of flight, and may fly up to several miles in search of females in the spring. While they can run rapidly they lack adequate jumping skills like their cousins. They are very thick-bodied and may reach lengths up to 2 inches. Mole crickets are omnivores and will feed on a wide variety of things including larvae of other insects, worms, roots and grasses. They are commonly preyed upon by birds, armadillos, rats, skunks, snakes, frogs, raccoons and foxes making them an important part of the food chain. In Asia there are species that are frequently fried as part of the human diet. These crickets occur on every continent with exception to Antarctica. Their numbers are stable and they are relatively common with the exception to one species called the Prairie Mole Cricket which is listed as threatened and is found in prairie habitats across Missouri. Because Missouri has lost most of their natural prairie habitats to agriculture, and development we are left with only about 2% of our original prairies and those are in remnants.

Mole crickets are nocturnal and spend the biggest majority of their life underground in extensive tunnels making them somewhat hard to find even though they occur in large numbers. In some parts of their range they are considered pests because of their preference for feeding on the roots of plants, grasses and other turfs. This is especially an issue in golf courses, and control measures are often needed to eliminate their populations. Mole crickets, like other orthopteras, go through simple metamorphosis, meaning they have no pupation stage. The young are born looking very similar to the adults. They lack fully developed wings and cannot fly. Adults and young nymphs overwinter and become active in the spring when males seek mates and the nymphs finish growing. They must complete up to 8 instars (molts) before reaching their adult size. Males will dig a horn-like tunnel and call near the surface of the ground, the horn-like tunnel magnifies the sound attracting nearby mates. It takes about 14 days for the eggs to hatch, some will complete their develop in the current season, others will spend the winter underground. Throughout most of their range there will only be one generation, the exception to this is mole crickets found in Texas, they will most likely have two generations per year. 

The Northern Mole cricket, prairie mole cricket and pygmy mole cricket are native to the United States and are not known to cause any damage to turf or plants.
Three species were accidentally introduced into the United States by the early 1900's.

These include:

1.) The Tawny Mole Cricket (Scapteriscus vicinus) is somewhat intermediate in its spread; it occurs from North Carolina to Louisiana, and throughout Florida, but thus far remains restricted to the southern coastal plain.

2.) The Southern Mole Cricket (Scapteriscus borellii)  is now found from North Carolina to eastern Texas, including the northern regions of Georgia and Alabama and the entire peninsula of Florida, and recently was detected in Yuma, Arizona.

3.) The Shortwinged Mole Cricket (Scapteriscus abbreviatus) is flightless, remains fairly confined to the southern Florida and southern Georgia-northeast Florida introduction sites, though it also occurs in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It has been redistributed in southern Florida, but is largely found in coastal areas.

Non-native species can and do cause significant problems for native animals and plants, it is often difficult to keep them out of the country or to control them once they are here. This is no exception with these three species.....they cause large amounts of damage to a wide variety of crops which causes significant financial losses to those industries. Chemical control is often expensive and not safe. Biological control is a much safer and more cost effective way to go, and there are specific insects that prey on these crickets which help manage their numbers. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Pink-Spotted Lady Beetle

This lovely lady beetle is the Pink-Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata), they are native to North America and are one of the most frequently encountered ladybugs in Missouri. They will often be found in meadows, prairies, gardens and most anywhere flowering plants occur. While it is true that they eat aphids, they will also eat mites, and insects eggs. It is also reported they will consume plant nectar, in fact it may make up as much as 50% of their diet, which is not so typical of other ladybugs.

They sometimes are called the Twelve-Spotted lady beetle, and can range in color from red to pink. Their bodies are not the typical rounded or domed shape of most ladybugs, they are oblong in instead. There are two spots at the tip of the wings at the end of the abdomen that are characteristic of this species. There is only one species of this ladybug, with three sub-species occurring throughout their range.

1.) Coleomegilla maculata fuscilabris; which are more orange in color and have a small range that includes South Carolina to Florida,  then west along the Gulf Coast to Louisiana.

2.) Coleomegilla maculata lengi, which are commonly used to control whitefly outbreaks in greenhouses. They are excellent biological control of the Colorado Potato Beetle as they will feed on the eggs of this potentially damaging beetle. As much as a 58% reduction in Colorado potato beetles have been shown in some fields because of this subspecies. They appear to have a wider range than fuscilabris and can be found throughout the midwest and as far north as Canada.

3.) Coleomegilla maculata strenua, which is a western species found from Texas to California.

This species of ladybug is being targeted in a biological control study in Florida, where they are cross breeding Lengi with fuscilabris. Presumably this will create a predaceous ladybug suited to Floridas extreme climate and conditions.

Mating typically takes place in the spring and summer, and the female may lay up to a 1,000 eggs in her life time. She will generally lay her eggs near a ready food source like aphids. Each larvae may consume between 3,000-5,000 aphids, mites, insect eggs and other soft bodied insects in their life time. This makes them extremely beneficial and good insects to share the garden with. Adults will overwinter in large aggregations much like the dreaded Multi-colored Asian lady beetle does, the main differences being them is the pink-spotted is native whereas the MALB is not! The pink-spotted behaves like a lady, she will not stain your fabrics or furniture, she will not bite and she does not stink. Sharing your homes, buildings or business with this species will often go unnoticed. They are not the bad guest that visits uninvited and leaves a mess in their wake.

Because this species becomes active again in early spring, and they consume large amounts of nectar it is essential to their survival to have access to reliable flower sources before the aphids are present. Dandelions often are the flower of choice as they are blooming in conjunction with the first appearance of these beetles in the spring. I know we as humans seem to have zero tolerance for dandelions and view them as arrogant weeds that dare to overtake our perfectly manicured lawns. I for one tolerate the dandelions and am blessed with the presence of many pink-spotted lady beetles because of it. Our sterile lawns offer nothing in the way of benefits to many creatures, ladybugs included. My lawn has weeds, clover, dandelions, and consequently is teeming with life. My gardens are not full of perfectly formed flowers devoid of nectar or fragrance, instead they are alive with wildflowers, a few weeds and an abundance of insects, snakes, frogs, and other life forms that make the garden interesting. We as humans somewhere along the line lost sight of the way things were; and decided the way they SHOULD be. In our desire to have the perfect yard, and garden we deny ourselves the pleasure of enjoying the life that a free living garden provides.