Saturday, November 27, 2010

Attack of the Ants

Who says ants aren't vicious, opportunistic creatures? Just look at these ants hauling this much larger spider. These ants exhibited great teamwork, lugging, pushing, pulling, all in the name to climb a giant hill (well giant from their perspective). These are also the same ants that "attack" me each summer when I attempt to sunbathe in my backyard. Not sure if they are territorial or if I just look like a tasty entree'.

My one question is.....Did they FIND this spider already dead?.....or did they do the KILLING?

Here is another situation that I came across of some ants attacking and feeding on a Junebug. Seems they like legs the best, wonder if they taste like chicken?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Blue-Winged Wasp

Blue-Winged Wasps (Scolia dubia) are in the family Scollidae and are found east of the Rocky Mountains. They are very common in Missouri and are usually seen in late summer or early fall. The one pictured here finds the taste of goldenrod much to its liking. These are not large wasp with a total body length up to one inch. They are mostly black with 4 reddish colored segments on their abdomen and two bright yellow spots midway down the abdomen. Their wings are metallic blue just as their common name suggests.

Males and females engage in elaborate mating rituals that involve the male dancing to attract the attention of the female. After mating, the female will dig in the ground searching for the grubs of Green June Beetle grubs, or Japanese Beetle grubs to sting and paralyze. Then she will dig deeper into the soil and create a chamber to place the grub. She will then lay an egg on the beetle larvae. When the egg hatches the young wasp larvae will feed on the paralyzed grub. After consuming the entire grub the wasp larvae are ready to create a pupa and spend the winter underground tucked away all safe and snug out of the winter cold. The following spring, perhaps in May they will emerge from the pupal cell and dig their way out from underground and take flight for the first time. As adults they will feed on the nectar of a wide variety of flowers and can be found along roadsides, in prairies, backyards, meadows, and in gardens.

Because of their preference for using Green June Beetle grubs and Japanese Beetle grubs these wasps are considered beneficial. They do their part to help control the populations of these often times harmful insects.They are also a mild tempered wasp and are not aggressive towards humans. The main reason for this calmer demeanor is the lack of hives, queen and siblings to protect. Because of their solitary lifecycle and lack of parental or offspring care they have nothing to feel aggressive about.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Mayflies are in the family Ephemieridae, which literally translates into "short-lived" which eludes to the very short lifespan of these insects. They are one of the most commonly seen insects at porch lights in early summer or sometimes fall. The species I see more often than any other is the Burrowing Mayfly. They are also the largest species of mayfly in Missouri, reaching lengths up to 1 1/2 inches. Most mayflies are found in the Eastern United States, with only few species being found out west. It is not uncommon to have dozens of these at porch light in June, or in the case of this youtube video hundreds of thousands swarming a pole.

The Burrowing Mayfly, also known as the Golden Mayfly, is a beautiful shade of golden-yellow with pale bands across their abdomen (pictured below).As they age their coloring will become darker.

The lifecycle of a mayfly begins underwater as a nymph with seven pairs of gills. They live in the bottom sediment of streams, slow moving rivers, ponds and lakes. The nymphs feed on sediment, diatoms and several species are predatory and feed on other aquatic insects. After numerous molts (skin sheds), they will emerge approximately one year after hatching in the water. The males typically appear first, as subimago adults,meaning they are not completely formed adults yet, they will shed their skin one more time before completing their lifecycle to adulthood. These subimago's are a favorite food of trout and are often used by fisherman as bait. Trout fishermen also use mayflies as a model for the flies that they tie for bait. Mayflies are the only group of insects to have this subimago stage into adulthood. As a subimago they do not fly well, cannot reproduce and lack the coloring of the adult form that would attract a mate. Within 24 hours after emerging they will shed and become full fledged adults capable of breeding. Females emerge shortly after males and also shed their skin for the final time. Mating occurs within hours of emerging.

Time is of the essence, when you only live a day or two, or perhaps only mere minutes (for some species) there is no time to waste on frivolity. Soon after mating, the female will drop her eggs upstream in the water, the current will softly carry the eggs downstream and deposit them on the substrate in the bottom of the stream. If the eggs are laid in lakes or ponds she will drop them wily-nily on top the water, and the eggs sink to the bottom. In some parts of the world the emergence of mayflies is a sight to behold, they all seem to appear at once in a mass exodus. Millions of mayflies rising up out of the water in one large swarm, landing on every available surface may seem like a nuisance to many humans, but these little insects serve a major role in the lifecycle of other species. Mayflies are not only consumed by trout and other fish, but birds, frogs, toads, and other insect eating creatures get in on the all-u-can-eat buffet of mayflies as well.

Although their large numbers can be intimidating, they are completely harmless to humans. They cannot bite, in fact they do not have functioning mouth parts. This lack of mouth parts, also means they do not feed. Their only reason for existence it would appear is to mate, reproduce, and to be sustenance to other creatures. I did find a website that claimed they eat fruits and flowers, but in my opinion this would be fallacy. I know of no mayfly that has the ability to eat, nor do they live long enough to worry about eating even if they could. I would be curious to see what the experts have to say. This is just one example of how much mixed information is out there on the web and it pays to do numerous searches before settling on the truth about something.

I am not sure of the species of this mayfly pictured below on the Sage, but it is a beautiful shade of russet and is much smaller than the Burrowing Mayfly at only 3/4 of an inch in length.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wolf Spiders

 No other spider has generated as much interest this year than the Wolf Spiders. Beginning in late August people began bringing them into my office wanting to know what they were. Some specimens are very easy to identify, but with so many Wolf Spiders out there many of them can be quite difficult. They range in size and coloration from barely 3/8 of an inch to well over 3 inches (with legspan) and can be light tan to almost black.

The most common species that seemed to show up was this very dark (almost black) species in the genus Hogna. They are certainly one of the larger species of Wolfies. They have very large chelcerae (fangs) and aren't afraid to use them. I've mentioned before my husbands ability to attract insects that bite and sting like poo attracts flies. This September he came into the house in a panic, flushed and sweating. He said he had been bitten on the toe inside his boot. He shook the boot out and found a medium sized spider and had no idea what kind it was. I assured him it wasn't a particularly dangerous species, that it was a wolf spider and their bite is very painful. He said "NO KIDDING!" I felt bad for him, because this particular bite followed a similar bite he received on his back about 3 weeks prior. Something had fallen down his shirt when he went into the chicken house to get the eggs. It bit him HARD before he even knew anything was there. The bite swelled and itched for weeks. He just got over that bite and then according to him was "attacked again." This bite also swelled and bothered him for weeks. He said he now knows what bit him on the back, the bites felt exactly the same and both bites reacted the same. He was on an all out mission to kill each and every spider he found after that. I really couldn't blame him, although I really didn't want him killing them.

Wolf Spider numbers were definitely up in our area this year. I've found no less than 20 in my basement alone. A friend of mine found one on her ceiling, and from the amount of them that were brought into my office this year for ID, I can honestly say there are no shortage of them this year. So I guess the fact that my husband is killing in retaliation to his perceived attacks can be tolerated as acceptable losses.

My daughter is terrified of spiders, yet knows that I am fascinated by them. Her and a friend found one crawling around outside her friends house and decided to try and catch it for me. Her retelling of the story had be in stitches as she describes the two of them screaming and squealing as they corralled this "monster" into a container to give me. I assured her it was the best gift ever, and in fact I kept it. I've been feeding her crickets(Above) and gave her a very nice container to live in. The other day I went downstairs to feed her and discovered she is about to be a mommy herself. She had formed an egg sac and was carrying it around on her spinnerets.

I am assuming that sometime within the next 4 to 28 days the eggs will hatch. Nothing like a broad range to keep you wondering when the big day will be. Now I have no choice but to keep a close eye on her. I really want to get pictures of the babies hatching.  When the egg begins opening the female will help the young spiderlings emerge from the egg sac. The spiders will then crawl on top of their mothers back and ride around with her for several days until they molt for the first time (pictured below).

 Wolf Spiders are in the family Lycosidae, from the Greek word lycosa meaning "wolf." These are very successful predators and are often compared to wolves in their hunting tactics. These spiders are quick and agile hunters and stalk and chase down their insect prey. Their eyes are key identification feature, there are three rows of eyes, the first row contains 4 small eyes that are situated on the front of the face, the second row of two eyes is much larger and aim forward. The last row of two medium-sized eyes sit atop the carapace and give the spider rear and lateral vision. They have exceptionally great eyesight for a spider and most likely can see well at night also.

With over 200 species in North America there is no shortage of wolfies to find and study. Don't count on finding them in webs as they do not build traditional webs like Orb Weaver spiders. They hide out under vegetation, rocks, logs, in sheds, basements and garages and some will even dig holes in the ground to retreat into. They will use silk inside these holes in the ground to help conceal them or to spend time resting or waiting for prey to pass by, and the females use silk to create their egg sacs. Many species have no form of retreat at all and will instead run away from danger. 

I had one gentleman call me about a month ago concerned because he had many of these large spiders hanging out in his front yard underneath a pole light. He said they were very large and there were well over 20 or 30 of them. He was concerned they would bite his children or get into his home. While I could not assure him that they would not make it into his house, I did my best to convince him to not kill them, and told him that the reason they were congregating around his pole light was to eat the insects that were also attracted to the light. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eastern Ribbon Snakes

Every so often I just have to share with you some interesting reptiles....and these adorable little snakes definitely qualify as interesting. These are Eastern Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus). There are several subspecies of this snake and all of them go by the common name of Ribbon Snake. The one native to Missouri is the Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis) I bought a pair of these Eastern Ribbons at Petco six weeks ago simply because they are so cute, and they are nearly identical to our very own native species.
I figured they would make great program snakes.This species are fish eaters and live predominantly near water. They will also eat tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, and toads. They have occasionally been seen eating insects. When threatened or disturbed they will glide across the top of the water rather than diving like other water snakes. These little snakes are also comfortable on land and will retreat to bushes or shrubs. They are closely related to Garter Snakes but are more mild tempered and will rarely bite. Reaching lengths up to 38 inches they are not a particularly large snake, and are very thin bodied. They are very similarly marked and colored as the garter snake with olive-black bodies and yellowish stripes down their backs.

I bought them some small feeder fish and watched as they each ate two. If one had a fish the second snake would try to take it away. I had to coax the empty mouthed one to the water dish to "Show" him the remaining fish. They are aggressive eaters and fun to watch. You can see in the picture below
that this snake has a fish in his mouth and has his gaze locked onto another fish. Greedy little snakes!

In the wild they will mate in the fall,but the female will delay fertilization and development until the following spring when she emerges out of hibernation. Gestation take three months and she will give birth to her young later in the summer. Typically they deliver 12 live babies, but litters may vary from 4 to 27. The young are usually 6 to 7 inches in length at birth. These young will be completely on their own at birth. They reach sexual maturity at age 2 years. These snakes are still small and are approximately 9 or 10 inches in length. I would say they are last years litter and won't be ready to breed until next year. I have no idea if I have a male and a female or two of the same sex, but I hope that they are a pair, it would be great to witness their breeding rituals and live birth.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Leaf Cutter Bee

Leafcutter Bees (Megachile) are native pollinators in North America. There are numerous leafcutter bees that call Missouri home and it is often difficult to identify them to species. They are considered important pollinators from their swim-like habit of invading blooms. This effectively "picks" up the pollen and they carry it with them to the next flower. Leafcutter bees very much resemble honey bees in size, and even in color, although they are somewhat darker. They can and do sting, but this rarely occurs. Their sting is mild and rarely is anything more than annoying. Because of their mild temperament they are not prone to sting unless mishandled. Unlike Honey bees which have a colony to protect, leafcutter bees are solitary. This solitary lifestyle lends to an even temperament.

Leaf-Cutter Bee - Megachile

 Females will seek out suitable sites to construct their tunnels that they will use to create nesting cells. They typically use soft, rotted wood; pithy stemmed plants, like roses. Each tunnel may be up to 8 inches in length and contain numerous nesting cells.
These cells are constructed of leaves that are cut by the female. She will visit various plants like Green Ash, Roses, Virginia Creeper and lilacs and "cut" a 3/4 inch half-moon shaped piece of leaf and carry it back to the nesting tunnel. There she will form it into the nesting cell. She keeps adding leaves in a layered fashion until she is satisfied with the results. These cells often end up looking much like the rolled end of a cigar butt.

This cell pictured here was found attached to a Common Milkweed leaf. I had no idea what it was, only that it was very odd looking and perfectly formed. I submitted a picture to and they had no idea what it was either. I told them I would keep it and see what emerged out of it. About 2 months went by and I "remembered" I had this oddity. I checked on it and discovered that there was an exit hole in the tip of this cocoon. I looked all over in the critter keeper and there was not a single insect in there. What could have made this, and where did it go? Apparently this odd little cocoon was on Charley Eiseman's mind as well, as he sent me a comment via bugguide asking me what came out of it. I told him what happened....then offered to mail it to him so he could maybe dissect it and figure out what made it. After acquiring his address it was mailed off for him to hopefully solve the mystery. Here is his response:

I just received and examined this... it’s definitely a leafcutter bee nest cell. It was 22 mm long by 8 mm wide. The exit hole at one end was circular and about 3 mm wide. I took it apart and it was made mostly of oval leaf pieces, averaging 1 cm long, with several circular end pieces about 5 mm wide. No silk at all was used in its construction—I think the female must use her saliva to stick the leaf pieces together—except in the middle I found the remains of the thin, papery cocoon spun by the larva. How the bee escaped from your critter keeper is a mystery to me, as is the fact that you found this in the open, attached by silk to a leaf. There is some precedent for this sort of mystery:

It was so well constructed—so tightly packed—that it’s hard for me to imagine how it could have been constructed in the open, as opposed to in some snug tubular cavity like a wood boring or a hollow stem. Very mysterious. Thanks for sending it—this is the first chance I’ve had to examine one of these in person, though I pretty regularly come across leaves with the hole punches cut out by these bees. Charley Eiseman

I was delighted to know what created this, and to have been able to provide Charley with one of these nesting cells to tear apart and investigate. Insects really are marvels, when you look at the simple perfection of this cell, and then realize it was a mere insect that created it, it boggles the mind.

The female will provide each cell with a mixture of nectar and pollen, then lay an egg within the cell. She then seals up the end and moves onto the next cell. She will repeat this process up to 30 or 40 times. These eggs hatch and feed on the provisions provided by their mother. They will  pupate within this tidy little cell and emerge the following season. These bees rarely occur in significant enough numbers to cause damage to plants. In the rare occasions when they do, you may have to take measures to keep them from cutting the leaves on your prize roses. Pesticides applied to the leaves rarely deter these bees, so about the only solution is to cover the plant with a substance like cheesecloth. The good that these bees provide significantly outweighs any possible damage they may cause. They do not use homes or other human structures to excavate their brood tunnels. Although the aluminum tubed lawn chair in the first picture seemed to suit her purpose just fine. It was very difficult to capture an image of her as she entered the hole of this tube. They disappear out of sight before you can get the camera focused...they are very quick. I only manged the one blurry shot above.

There is one species M.rotundata that was imported from Europe to pollinate Alfalfa used for seed. They can do this much more efficiently than honey bees. Other leafcutter bees are primary pollinators of many other agricultural crops. These bees perform an important service to us as key pollinators. Many people lament the fact that the Honey bees are faced with challenges, namely CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). I'm no expert, but I am not convinced that our economy and food supplies would be faced with disaster, should the honey bee decline in significant numbers. I thing our native bees could step up their game and do the job quite nicely. I have nothing against honey bees, so don't get me wrong here. In fact I hope to one day soon be raising them myself. I just hate that our native species are being ignored by so many people as a possible solution to a potential problem.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Attack of the Honey Bees

 A few years ago in September I visited Happy Holler Conservation Area and discovered a large number of bumble bees and honey bees all fighting over the use of the thistle blooms. There was very little else in bloom and it seemed they did not want to share the bounty. It was mostly the Honey bees acting as aggressor, whereas the bumble bees mostly ignored them.

The honey bees poked, prodded, bit and walked all over the much larger bumble bees all to no avail. It was as if those bumble bees knew that the honey bees could not...or would not hurt them. After all we all know that once a honey bee stings it dies, perhaps the bumble bee also knew this.

I had never seen this particular behavior before this time, and I have not seen it since. I've even made a point of going back to the exact same area each fall to document the insects there and what behavior is taking place. Much to my disappointment nothing as dramatic as this behavior has taken place that I am aware of.

It really goes to show that insects are always fascinating, incredibly unique and never, ever boring. I can't help but wonder if these little bees just never learned to share.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Walking Stick

Stick Bugs in the family Pseudophasmatidae (what a mouth full that is to say) are very common in Missouri, and in spite of this fact I had never been able to find one to photograph. Or when I did see one I did not have my camera with me. I was beginning to get quite frustrated at this situation and was bemoaning the fact to a friend of mine. Stating that I had not seen one all year, much less photographed one. Later that same day he taunted me with the news that he had found one on his car!!!! He photographed it and further tormented me. This simply was not fair.

Three days later I was out geocaching with my kids when I thought I saw a blade of grass move. I must have been hallucinating. Then it moved again....and there is was.....a lovely green walking stick. I could have cried I was so excited. I know that sounds silly to get so excited over such a mundane and common insect, but to me they are such unique, and odd creatures that I find them incredibly fascinating. I took numerous pictures of it before finally releasing it back to where I found it.

These insects are the subject of many myths, including the belief that they are the devil come to earth. In many parts of the Ozarks they are chopped in half because of this superstition. I can assure you there is no demonic connection between Satan and walking sticks. These are truly one of God's magnificent creations. Their camouflage is unsurpassed, and their ability to blend in with their environment borders on magic. One minute they are there, the next they are not....look closer.....ahhh there it is again.

My husbands grandfather used to tell him as a child that these insects were poisonous and would bite, making him very sick. My husband fully believed this little falsehood until I finally convinced him it simply was not true. These insects are only dangerous if you happen to be a leaf. They will not and can not bite humans....and even if they could they possess no venom. Perhaps somewhere in the World there is a species with this ability, but certainly not here in the United States.

A few years ago we took a vacation to the Ozarks and stayed in a lovely cabin in the Mark Twain National Forest. We were sitting outside soaking up the sun and enjoying just being in such a beautiful place when out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement. I looked again and there was a LARGE walking stick crawling its way up the leg of my husbands chair. This was too good to be true. I sat quietly not wanting to give anything away. I could'nt wait to see the show when this HUGE insect climbed onto my husbands leg. Knowing his long held belief that these were dangerous insects, this was going to be great. After about 5 minutes this little insect began tickling hubby's leg. He swatted absently at it, convinced it was a fly most likely. Once again, this stick bug tickled his leg, and in one fluid movement was crawling up the side of hubby's leg. He jumped straight up out of his chair, complete with stick bug attached to his leg. He shook his no avail, this little fellow was not letting go. I was laughing quite hard by now, thoroughly enjoying his situation. He started yelling at me to "Get it!!!" Get it off me!" I finally took pity on him and gently coaxed the poor stick bug onto my hand and placed it on a nearby tree. Hubby was not nearly as amused as I was. I only wished I would have had my camera with me. Fortunately I was forgiven for laughing at his plight.

There are several stick insect species in Missouri, and the largest is the Giant Walking Stick.These stick insects may reach lengths up to 7 inches. They are by far the most beautiful of all the stick insects in Missouri. With colors of yellow, green, reddish brown and pale flesh colored legs. The one pictured here we always called a Common Walking Stick. They can be green or brown and reach lengths up to 4 or 5 inches. This one was about 4 inches in length. Walking sticks are associated with woodlands and areas with trees where they can hide among the branches. Occasionally I have seen them attached to the sides of houses, garages and other buildings. On a recent trip to Truman State Park in Warsaw Missouri I found one clinging to the bath house. I captured it and gave it to the children in the campsite next to ours. They made a lovely home for it in a large container and fed it oak leaves. They were quite intrigued by their new pet. They ended up taking it home with them when they left the following day.

Once the females have mated they will lay eggs randomly, one at a time in the timber. The eggs overwinter and hatch the following spring. The baby walking sticks will be very tiny and begin feeding on leaves immediately. By summers end they will be full grown, once the first freeze hits they will die. There is only one generation per year here in NW Missouri.

 When warm weather returns next year, be on the lookout for these unique insects and....
 Forget your superstitions if you dare!