Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Labyrinth Orbweaver

This calico-colored spider is the labyrinth orbweaver (Metepeira labyrinthea)in the family Araneidae. There are 13 species within this genus occurring throughout North America. They are fairly small spiders with a legspan about the size of a nickel. The front legs are much longer than the other pairs of legs and are banded in two-tone brown and tan. Their abdomen is oval-shaped and bulbous and is a deep reddish brown in color with distinct white markings.
Their common name comes from the type of web they are known for weaving. They build an orb-shaped web running vertical of a maze-like "labyrinth" located above and behind the orb. These webs will be found 3 to 5 feet above the ground in shrubs. This messy labyrinth often contain bits of debris or leaves woven in such a way to give the spider a retreat for safety. The web of this species is so distinct that it is possible to ID the spider before even seeing it.

Females reach maturity in late August or early September and you may encounter males hanging out in the web with them. After mating the female will create eggs sacs as uniquely shaped as their web is. Each egg sac is lenticular or lentil-shaped. The biconvex eggs are guarded by the female, as seen here, and are located near the entrance of the retreat. She will weave them with silk attached to small twigs. The female dies by late fall or early winter, but the egg sacs will remain attached to the twigs until spring at which time they hatch. The spiderlings will cluster together for a few days before ballooning and dispersing themselves into the environment.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Japanese Burrowing Cricket

The Japanese Burrowing Cricket (Velarifictorus micado) is native to Asia and was first found in the United States in 1959 in the District of Columbia. It quickly established itself throughout much of the southeast. It is believed the spread of this insect was due in large part to the transport of ornamental plants. The cricket eggs or larvae would hitch a ride in the root ball of various plants to many parts of the southern United States. Over the past 50+ years it has spread its range to include Missouri. The one photographed here was found in Taney County, near Blue Eye, MO. We can assume as shipments of plants travel around the country this insect will continue to expand its range.
It's current distribution includes
more than a dozen states. Most likely their range is much larger than we know since sightings are likely to go unreported or specimens go unnoticed by the average person who only has a passing interest in insects.

Their song is reported to be unique and easy to recognize and differentiate from other crickets. Much like birders who spend time outside bird-watching and are often able to ID a bird just by song alone, this is also possible with singing insects like crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, etc. This would take much practice to train your ear to identify species this way, but I dare say it would be rewarding....not to mention you would impress your friends.

This species measure 1/2 to 7/8 of inch in length with a yellowish-brown body, off white legs that have brown blotches. Their wings are short and do not cover their abdomen. These are a flightless crickets, although there are reports of specimens that exist with wings long enough to allow flight. This however would be rare for this species.

They are found in grassy areas along woodland edges, along shorelines of ponds, lakes and other water sources. You may also encounter them under stones, logs and other debris. They will not be found in trees or even in shrubbery. They are considered completely terrestrial. They will call from the entrance to burrows to attract mates. Once mated, females lay eggs in the soil. There will be one generation per year. Look for them from August-October.

This particular species is highly prized in parts of Asia where cricket fighting is considered a time honored tradition. In late summer or early autumn thousands of crickets, including the Burrowing Cricket are captured from local fields. These crickets are sold in market places where they are inspected by potential buyers. The crickets with the strongest legs and jaws are highly sought after and much haggling takes place as fair prices are negotiated for the best, and strongest crickets.

Betting on crickets is illegal in China, but competitions still occur frequently during the autumn months. Participants meet at a predesignated location with their crickets and enter their competitor into the fights. Cricket are placed in an oval shaped arena with a small piece of plastic separating them. When the plastic is removed and the crickets can see each other, the territorial males will begin attacking each other. They will bite each other repeatedly, often severing a leg of their opponent. Fights are rarely fatal, as the loser concedes to the more dominant male before limping away to lick his wounds. The loser is often killed by the owner and considered useless for future fighting.
Once a cricket wins a number of fights he is considered a champion and these "champion crickets" can command high prices. It is not unheard of for these particular crickets to fetch hundreds if not thousands of dollars. The record amount paid for a champion cricket was $12,000.00 US dollars in 1999.

Rows of individual Cricket cages, By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11028178
Many people in Asia keep crickets and breed them, housing them in separate containers and raising them from the "Stock" of champion crickets. The average market prices for most crickets is around $1.50 top $3.00. Making them much more affordable than champion crickets.

Most people in the United States would never dream of passing the time fighting crickets, so I doubt this activity will ever catch on here. Instead we much prefer to sit outside, sipping a favorite beverage, appreciating the cooler days and listening to the sound of the crickets heralding in autumn.