Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Clover Leaf Beetle

Weevils are the most common of all the beetles in the World, with over 60,000 species to find and photograph there is no shortage of interesting specimens. The one pictured here is the Clover Leaf Weevil (Hypera punctata). This weevil is found throughout most of the United States, and is often mistaken for the Alfalfa Weevil, this confusion probably comes from the fact that both species look similar and feed on the same host plants. The clover leaf beetle is less than 3/8 inch in length and is brownish in color. They have brown, gray and yellowish markings on their back giving them a mottled striped appearance.

The clover leaf weevil is nocturnal and feeds only at night and will hide during the day in leaf litter at the base of the plants or on the underside of the leaves of the plants. On dark, cloudy days they may be seen feeding throughout the day. There is only one generation each year. The adult, which is present from July through October, lays its eggs in stems, on stalks, or near the crowns of plants. The small green larvae hatch in the fall and spend the winter in the soil. Most eggs will hatch in the fall, but some will overwinterand hatch in the spring. They become full grown in late May and June, when they pupate in the soil debris. Adults emerge from May to July and feed for a short period of time before becoming inactive. Beetles resume activity in the fall and lay eggs. 

Damage to alfalfa is usually minimal, however in the spring damage may be apparent before alfalfa weevils make their appearance. Most feeding by larvae occurs in late March and the first 3 weeks of April. Larvae skeletonize the leaves of the plants, leaving them ragged and in some cases almost completely defoliating the whole plant. The effect is the same as though newly forming leaves were removed from the plant each day. In some cases the plants may die. Under normal growing conditions, however, the clover usually recovers from injury when weevil numbers are moderate. 

During a cool spring when growing conditions are unfavorable, this defoliation may seriously stunt clover growth. Damage is usually most severe in fields with a heavy residue cover. The larvae feed throughout the day beneath residue, and the plants, shaded from the sun, do not have an opportunity to grow away from the damage.
Clover leaf weevils are generally not considered a problem, unless they are numerous enough to retard growth in the spring. They are often kept under control by a naturally occurring fungus and an ichneumon wasp.

If natural measures are working then applying insecticides is truly overkill. I never recommend chemical control of any insect except as an absolute last resort. My husband farms over 500 acres and hasn't used insecticides or fungicides in 15 years. By allowing predatory insects and bats to thrive they have done their job well enough to eliminate the use of harmful chemicals. Insecticides are not species-specific which means they will not only kill your target insects, but will also kill beneficial insects. Chemicals create an unbalance. Once you use insecticides as a preventive against potentially harmful insects in your fields on an annual basis, you will become dependent upon them every year. This causes untold amounts of damage to the environment....including contamination of our water systems.

Imagine this.......you pay to spray your fields.....95% of the damaging insects are killed...leaving approximately 5% of the insects alive. These 5% will mate, lay eggs, and the resulting larvae will contain a certain amount of resistance to the chemical that killed the previous generation. This new resistant generation will mate and lay eggs and pass on an even greater resistance to the chemicals used. So on and so on. Eventually the chemicals will not work. This means a different chemical will have to be implemented in the future. These chemical resistant insects are what chemical companies rely on.  New chemicals will have to be created, which costs money. The cost is passed onto the consumer in the form of the actual cost of the chemical and the application. The only one who truly benefits is the chemical company.  In the meantime, you have also wiped out 95% of the beneficial insects, and the remaining 5% will find it difficult to survive without a reliable insect food source. With the absence of beneficial or harmful insects, you will also eliminate your bat population which are also key in insect control. We are proof that allowing predatory insects and bats to control harmful insects is not only cheaper, but healthier. It works!

If  you do not HAVE to use chemicals, then don't, allow mother nature to control the insects feeding on your crops. Remember if you ever get started with chemical control, it is highly likely you will always have to use it and in this day an age when we are all trying to find ways to eliminate costs, this is one way of doing so.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Brown Garden Snail

This little mollusk is a brown garden snail (Helix aspersa) and they are native to Western Europe, the Mediterranean including Egypt and the British Isles. This is possibly the most common of all the gastropods and are found Worldwide. It was first brought into the United States in the 1850's when they were imported into California as a delicacy. As is often the case, several escaped and found the environs to their liking and now they are found throughout the United States. They quickly establish themselves in new territories and are frequently transported into new countries via shipments of plants. This snail is considered an edible species of snail and are often enjoyed in dishes such as the French dish Petit gris as well as Escargot a la Bordelaise. This snail is even being used in skin creams and gels designed to prevent or cure dry skin, acne, scars and wrinkles. This is most popular among the Latino community. So while it is edible and described as being delicious, in most regions it is considered a pest and control measures are used to eliminate them. Anything from traditional pesticides, to garlic and wormwood is used to deter these snails. Copper is also used to repel this snail, just wrap a band of copper around your beloved trees or shrubs and the snails won't climb them. 

This species is often kept as a pet in terrariums. I brought two home with me to try keeping them. We found dozens of these snails while hiking Sunbridge Hills Conservation Area. They were crawling all over the trail and I was afraid that I was going to crunch them under my feet. I sat on my bottom and just watched them moving and feeding. They move slowly, barely more than a centimeter per second, which would equal approximately 50 yards in an hour. Considering the average human can walk 50 yards in two minutes or less, it kind of brings into perspective just how slow these little creatures are. They have a strong sense of place and can find their way back to the same hibernation site. 

These snails are small to medium in size with a diameter of up to 1.5 inches. The shells are predominantly made up of Calcium Carbonate and contain 4 or 5 whirls. This is the same substance used in antacid tablets. Excessive consumption of this substance can actually be harmful to the human body. That being said....if you are outside stranded and have a tummy ache, does that mean you could pop a snail shell in your mouth and viola....no more stomach ache? The body of the snail are brownish-gray and covered in a slim. When disturbed they will retreat inside their shell, much like a turtle does. They have two sets of tentacles, the larger of the two sets are used as sensors to "see" their surroundings. The smaller set located underneath the first pair are used for tasting their surroundings. They can retract these tentacles into their bodies if disturbed. Their mouth is located beneath the tentacles and contains a tongue-like radula that is used to scrape and maneuver food stuff around. They are herbivores and feed exclusively on plants like grains, ornamentals, grasses, leaves of trees, and in captivity  they do well on dark greens.

Snails are hermaphrodites  and are capable of creating offspring through self fertilization. They can produce both eggs and sperm. This is partially why they are so successful and spread their range so rapidly. Just think about it.... if you lack of a suitable mate....no problem, just fertilize yourself...problem solved. Usually fertilization takes place through traditional mating, well sort of traditional....if cupid-like love darts could be considered  traditional.

Mating takes place after an elaborate courtship ritual. The two snails circle around each other for up to six hours, touching with their tentacles, and biting lips and the area of the genital pore, which shows some preliminary signs of the eversion of the penis. Each snail manoeuvres to get its genital pore in the best position, close to the other snail's body. Then, when the body of one snail touches the other snail's genital pore, it triggers the firing of the love dart, the darting can sometimes be so forceful that the dart ends up buried in the internal organs. It can also happen that a dart will pierce the body or head entirely, and protrude on the other side. After both snails have fired their darts, the snails copulate and exchange sperm.

A snail does not have a dart to fire the very first time it mates, because the first mating is necessary to trigger the process of dart formation. Once a snail has mated, it fires a dart before some, but not all, subsequent matings. A snail often mates without having a dart to use , because it takes time to create a replacement dart. In the case of the garden snail Helix aspersa, it takes a week for a new dart to form.

In this species the love dart is covered in a mucus that contains a hormone-like substances. This substance contracts one part of the female half of the reproductive system of the snail that is struck by the dart, this allows most sperm to survive, which increases the chances of a successful mating. Females will lay up to 80 white eggs two weeks after mating. She is capable of producing 6 clutches of eggs, each containing 80 eggs. With this ability to produce so many offspring it is easy to see how these snail could take over a garden. In large numbers they would be detrimental to your garden production. 

If you are interested in learning more about snails.....let me recommend an excellent book by David George Gordon. He makes these misunderstood and often reviled creatures seem amazing and interesting. 


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ragweed Leaf Beetle

This adorable little beetle is a leaf beetle called a Ragweed Leaf Beetle (Calligrapha bidenticola). They are native to the Eastern United States and can be found in areas where ragweed is plentiful. Anyone with seasonal allergies has to appreciate the feeding habits of this beetle. These beetles are tiny at less than 3/8 of an inch and would be easily overlooked. Some of the most beautiful insects are the ones that are the easiest to overlook.

There are 38 species in North America within the genus Calligrapha, and many of them are almost identical, which can make identification difficult. I initially thought this particular beetles was  Zygogramma suturalis, which is also commonly called Ragweed Leaf Beetle. I sent the image into Bugguide.net and received a verified ID from Ken Wolgemuth. It is nice to know so many little bugs are feeding on such a noxious plant.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

This much excitement could cause brain overload

Sometimes in life things happen to you that raise your adrenaline to such a level that you are sure your brain will ignite from the inability to process it all. Monday was one of those moments......Cindy and I joined Dr. Mills (herpetologist at MWSU), my brother-in-law Tony and my father-in-law Jimmy at the farm where Cindy and I photographed the rattlesnake the other day. After gathering our snake sticks, cloth bags and tongs we headed out across the grass to the concrete slab where Cindy and I found the rattlesnake this past Wednesday.

Dr. Mills immediately noticed about a 6 inch piece of rattlesnake showing from underneath a large slab of concrete. This is the exact same location where we photographed the one the other day. He tried grabbing it with the snake stick but it managed to slither off the stick and make its way further underneath the slab. Jimmy and I pried the concrete slab up and held it while Dr. Mills used his tongs to capture the snake. We placed it safely inside a cloth bag and put it in the shade. One rattlesnake bagged and soon to be tagged. That was almost too easy!

Twenty minutes after finding this snake, Dr. Mills found an additional rattlesnake under a pile of limestone rocks. This particular snake remained coiled and did not move, as if being still meant being unseen. Dr. Mills was holding the large rock up with his snake stick, and could not grab his tongs from the ground and secure the snake. He asked me to use the tongs to grab it, but I was afraid I would not be quick enough and it would get away. I instead opted to hold the rock so he could grab it. I need to practice with the snake tongs on a non-venomous specimen. He quickly grabbed and bagged the snake.

This second snake was much smaller and very docile. It did not rattle once until he placed it in the sack. We put it in the shade with the first rattlesnake. Two rattlesnakes bagged and soon to be tagged.

We moved on into the grassland and flipped over rock piles and looked near trees. When we first started our adventure there was much speculation as to whether we would even see a rattlesnake because of the heat. The afternoon temperatures were sunny and 81 degrees. After finding two rattlesnakes in 20 minutes we were soon proved just how wrong we were.

We continued to explore for over an hour when we came to a rock pile that had two huge Yellow-Bellied Racers (A.K.A Blue Racers) hiding underneath. Dr. Mills had his own unique way of snake wrangling these notoriously cranky snakes. He grabbed it with his snake stick and then whipped it back between his legs, holding it secure with his thighs. Then he slowly fed the body of the snake out by hand until he reached the head, which he could safely grab without getting bit. We all had a good chuckle when he said "Where is the head on this thing!?" It was a very large, long snake....seemingly no end to it, especially if you are holding it between your legs. He also made sure to tell us to not try this technique in shorts......LOL Apparently giving the business end of a snake access to your bare leg is not a good thing!

 (Dr. Mills maneuvering the blue racer to allow for better handling)

 (A very ticked off blue racer)

After photographing the blue racer, we moved on to more rock piles and more likely spots that might contain snakes. No more snakes were spotted and we slowly made our way back to the shed with the two rattlesnakes and began processing the data.

Here is Cindy assisting Dr. Mills in tubing one of the rattlesnakes for safe processing. The snakes were reluctant to enter the tubes and had to be coaxed repeatedly before finally giving up and entering the tube. Once the snakes were safely in the tubes they sexed each snake, using a metal probe. The probe is inserted into the vent of the snake. Depending upon how far the probe is able to be inserted, determines the sex of the snake. If the probe slides all the way in it is a male, if it is met with resistance it is a female. Male rattlesnakes have two penises called an Ospenis. He compared the penis to a rubber glove. Imagine that when you  remove a rubber glove from your hand and the fingers of the glove are inverted...he said that is how the penis lays within the cavity of the snake. When the snake meets a female and mating takes place, the inverted penis expands and allows for breeding.

(Probing the snake)

I was in charge of getting the pit tags ready and recording all the data. I also helped him hold the snake, so the tag could be inserted under a belly scale several inches above the tail.

At the end of this blog post I will include the data.

Here is the second rattlesnake being professionally and "safely" handled by Dr. Mills
Once all the data was collected and recorded we headed back to the areas where we found them.

Dr. Mills preparing to release the first rattlesnake back to the slab of concrete where it was found. It quickly....super quickly actually slithered back underneath the concrete.

We then proceeded to the rock pile where snake #2 was found to release it back to its original location. Dr. Mills was in the lead, Cindy, Tony and myself were directly behind him....and Jimmy was bringing up the rear. We reached the rock pile and Dr. Mills was just getting ready to open the sack to release the snake when we heard Jimmy scream......well it was more like a YELL actually!

He began dancing around and hollering for us to "HURRY UP".

Dr. Mills gently placed the bagged snake in the shade near the rock pile and we immediately ran back to where Jimmy was to see what all the commotion was about. He had stepped on a rattlesnake! He was walking through the grass following us and felt something move under his foot, he jumped back and discovered  the largest rattlesnake of the day slithering away from his foot. Dr. Mills quickly subdued the snake and placed it in a bag. Talk about excitement! Not only had we found two rattlesnakes......but now we had 3!!!! Jimmy was exceedingly lucky to not have been bitten when he stepped on that snakes tail. It easily could have whipped around and hammered him. It is a testament to the docile nature of this particular species of rattlesnake. However, individual rattle snakes can have a wide variance in their personal temperament and should be treated with the utmost respect. These are not a snake to be taken for granted. We quickly released the 2nd snake back to the rock pile so we could contend with the 3rd snake.

We returned to the shed and processed this snake and teased Jimmy about how lucky he was. We told him he should go buy a lottery ticket, because he was sure to win. Cindy wondered if he needed to change his shorts....he chuckled in good humor, but I know the whole incident had him very unsettled and rightfully so.

This is the third and final snake of the day. It was much lighter in color and the biggest find of the day. We were able to process the data and release all three snakes, unharmed back to their rightful place. To say the day was productive would be an understatement. To find three timber rattlesnakes, within 200 yards of each other in 2 hours time was not only unexpected, but incredibly exciting. I think we were all a bit flabbergasted at the luck we were having. My brain was having trouble processing it all.....I could not even sleep that night. I kept waking up with snakes on the brain....total overload I'm telling you!

Snake Data

All three snakes were females....which hopefully means there is a male nearby and soon to be babies.Timber rattlesnakes aren't able to breed until the age of 4 or 5 years and will only produce a litter every other year. An average litter will be 8 or 9 young, but they may produce up to 14 offspring.


Weight: 630 grams (1 lb. 6.22 ounces)
Length: 83.5 centimeters (2' 8.87")
Rattles: 5
Tail length: 6 centimeters


Weight: 300 grams (10.58 ounces)
Length: 70.3 Centimeters (2' 3.67")
Rattles: 6
Tail Length: 5.2 centimeters


Weight: 630 grams (1 lb. 6.22 ounces)
Length: 89.0 centimeters (2' 11.03")
Rattles: 7
Tail length: 7.5 centimeters

I hope to keep you all updated as more snakes are found and these rattlesnakes are relocated. We hope to determine their growth season to season and with any luck find how many offspring are being produced. 


Old rattler, it is part of Nature's plan
That I should grind you underneath my heel----
The age-old feud between the snake and man----
As Adam felt in Eden, I should feel.

And yet, Old Rattlesnake, I honor you;
You are a partner to the pioneer;
You claim your own, as you've right to do----
This was your Eden---I intruded here.

                                                ---Vaida Stewart Montgomery

Friday, May 20, 2011

Timber Rattlesnake

Once again I am excited to feature a creature that is of the reptile variety instead of the insects you would normally find here. When I come across such magnificent creatures as this one, I can't resist sharing.
Snakes are one of those animals that illicit strong fear or outward dislike among many people, and that it is so very unfortunate. Snakes may be a bit peculiar, and a tad bit creepy, but they are also incredible and uniquely beautiful. Even people who have tolerance for the non-venomous variety of snakes, seem to have zero tolerance for the venomous kind. I know this comes from fear and lack of knowledge of the snake and the potential danger it represents. Yes, all venomous snakes should be respected and given their space.....however, there is no real need to live in fear of them. They are not out to get us, in fact they go out of their way to avoid us whenever possible.
The other day Cindy and I drove to Guilford, Missouri to do an outdoor safety program for their elementary school. We spent a couple of hours there talking about everything from poison ivy , ticks, and spiders to snakes. When we finished with the presentation, we decided to stop by a farm my husbands family owns to see if we could find any snakes. My brother-in-law had been seeing a Bullsnake on this particular farm and Cindy and I were anxious to find it and photograph it. We had approximately 30 minutes to kill before we needed to be at our next program. We pulled into the farm, grabbed our cameras and began walking towards a large concrete slab that used to be the base of a shed that was torn down many years ago. We noticed my brother-in-law had burned all the grasses which made it easier walking and gave us better visibility for spotting snakes. On the concrete slab there are numerous stones, and pieces of tin piled up here and there. I walked over to a piece of tin and flipped it over, and voila! I looked at Cindy and said here it is! Well it wasn't the bullsnake we were after, but it was certainly an incredible snake....a Timber Rattlesnake. This is the largest venomous snake in Missouri and the most venomous. To say we were excited would be an understatement. This one measured approximately 3 feet in length and had 4 rattles on its tail.

We began snapping pictures, and between the two of us we took well over 100 photos of this very tolerant snake. Cindy was beside herself as this was the first rattlesnake she had seen alive. She looked at me and put her hand in the air to "hi-5".....as soon as our hands connected and made the loud clapping noise of our very exuberant "HI-5" it apparently frightened the snake and it struck at us! Cindy shrieked, and turned around and ran.....right over the top of me. The snake started rattling, and I couldn't quit laughing! Poor Cindy was shaking from the adrenaline rush, and the snake was ticked off at the two crazy women who were pestering it! The snake turned tail and ran away, never once ceasing to rattle.

The snake was making a hasty retreat to the nearest rock pile. It slithered underneath a large flat stone and found his way was blocked! It was literally beating its head against a brick wall under that stone and could not hide sufficiently which further irritated the snake, and it began rattling louder. We watched as he/she backed out and moved to the right and found another way under the stone, and was finally able to disappear.


Last summer I had my very first experience with these wonderful predators, so I knew exactly how Cindy was feeling, and I shared her enthusiasm for this poor misunderstood beast. I posted a blog about my rattlesnake encounter last July, and if you are interested in reading about it and looking at the pics of a much larger snake please visit Explore Missouri--Timber Rattlesnake.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rhubarb Weevil

Rhubarb Weevils (Lixus concavus) are found throughout most of the United States, and as their name indicates are fond of rhubarb as well as dock, sunflower and thistle. The one pictured here is feeding on curly dock that grows near our garden. I noticed several of them on the leaves beginning in mid-April. I've not discovered any severe damage being done to the dock, and I would assume it would take a huge infestation of these beetles before any real harm would come to the plants. Since dock is not a plant I am particularly fond of I leave them be. I do not grow Rhubarb, so no worries there either. For gardeners who do grow and value their rhubarb, then control may need to be implemented. From everything I've read, the best way to control them is to simply pick them off the leaves of the plant. They are large enough at a 1/2 inch in length to see which makes finding them and removing them by hand is no real problem. It is much better than using pesticides, which can be harmful to beneficial insects. The female will lay her eggs inside the stems of plants. The eggs hatch and feed from within the plant. They are unable to survive inside the stems of the Rhubarb plant because of its growth habits. The plant continues to grow and constricts the eggs or larvae and they will not reach maturity. Good news there! However, they will survive inside the wild host plants like thistle, dock and sunflowers. So if you want to help control their numbers remove the wild host plants sometime in July and this will prevent them from completing their lifecycle. Those beetles that are left alone will overwinter in leaf-litter and become active again the following April or May.

 These weevils (A.K.A. snout beetles) are actually black,but are covered in a yellowish-orange powdery substance that gives them a completely different appearance. I've never actually seen a black one, each one I find is always covered in this orangish powder. 

When these beetles sense danger or are disturbed they will "play-dead" and roll over on their backs, legs curled and lay completely still (pictured below). Sometimes they will roll completely off the leaf and disappear in the leaf litter on the ground. 

Weevils are one of my favorite beetles and are the largest groups in the order coleoptera with over 60,000 species worldwide. These beetles look like little elephants carrying their trunk around on their face. This trunk-like snout is the mouthpart of the weevil and contains chewing mandibles at the end of the snout which allows them to chew on the preferred food plants.  Many weevils are damaging to crops and billions of dollars are spent each year to control them. Fortunately the weevils that live on our farm pose no real threat to anything and are able to go about their business undisturbed.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cecropia Moth

This colorful moth is a Cecropia or Robin Moth (Hyalophora cecropia), they are the largest moth in North America and may have up to a 6  inch wingspan. They are members of the family Saturniidae, which are the giant silk moths. They should not be confused with the silk moths used to produce silk for human use. The one pictured here is a female and was brought to me by a good friend. His girlfriend found it by her porch light and did not know what it was, I was able to identify it for them and he gave it to me. I plan to release her and see if she will attract the attention of a mate. Tonight is far too cold and rainy, so I will hold onto her for one more night and see what tomorrow brings. She is already laying eggs in the shoebox she is in.

Cecropia's have long been my absolute favorite moth, even over the much favored Luna Moth. The color of the cecropia is so unique, with shades of chocolate, burnt orange and tan. The body is banded with orange, brown and cream stripes. Females have a large abdomen for egg production, and males have obscenely feathered antennae to detect the pheromones (Chemical perfume) that the female emits. The male is capable of smelling the female from great distances, possibly up to a mile or more away. The one pictured here is fanning her hindwings, I assume to spread her scent better, making it easier for a male to find her.

Once mated, the female will lay her eggs near host trees. Typically they choose maple trees for their host, but it is also common to find them on other trees like Birch, Wild Cherry, Box Elder, Plum, Alder, Apples and Willow. The eggs will hatch in about 2 weeks and the newly born caterpillar will eat its eggshell. The small caterpillars will feed in communal colonies, until they are larger, then they become solitary.

(Thank you Linda Williams for providing this amazing image of the caterpillar. Three instars are shown here.)

It takes them approximately 2 weeks  months (thanks Linda W. for catching my faux pas) to reach full size at which time they will find a dark secluded place to attach themselves to a branch or stick and form their cocoon. This cocoon will overwinter and the adults will emerge the following spring, like the one pictured here. The adults do not feed, in fact they do not have mouth parts, all the nutrients they need are gained in the caterpillar stage. All their energy as adults is used up looking for mates and laying eggs. Consequently their lifespan is short at less than one week, typically around 4 to 5 days.

These moths are attracted to lights at night and are hugely prized by insect collectors for their large size and outstanding beauty. I hope tomorrow nights weather is much improved so that I can place her outside and see if she attracts a nearby male. I would love the opportunity to photograph their interaction, and then see her off to live long enough to lay her eggs and secure the continuation of her species.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


A couple of weeks ago I found this super tiny (2mm) powdery-looking winged insect. It was cleaning itself as it rested on an eastern cedar tree in my backyard. Because of its size it was very difficult to photograph and I only managed a couple of decent shots. I had no idea what this little guy was so I submitted the image to bugguide.net and within minutes had an answer.....Dusky-wing. They are in the family of insects known as Coniopterygidae, and are very difficult if not impossible to identify beyond the family level without having the specimen in hand and using a microscope to look for key characteristics. To further complicate things, there are 8 genera and 55 species within those genera. They can be found throughout all of North America, but are often overlooked because of their tiny size and secretive nature. 

The wings are held over their back in a tent-like fashion and are covered in a white powdery substance.They have a beak-like mouth that they use to feed on other insects, especially aphids, mealybugs,white-flies, scale insects and other soft-bodied arthropods. 

They are most active in the early morning and evening hours during autumn and spring. After mating, the female will lay eggs singly on the leaves of plants. There may be two generations per year and the last generation will overwinter as larvae. 

Because of their preference for eating harmful insects like aphids and white-flies, these tiny insects are hugely beneficial to the garden. Although easily overlooked, rest assured they are out there working hard to gobble up as many injurious insects as their little tummies will hold.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tachinid Fly

This pretty little fly busily cleaning his legs is a tachinid fly in the genus Winthemia. They are a large group of flies with approximately 28 species in North America alone. As adults they feed on plant juices, and nectar.  As larvae they predominately  feed on caterpillars. The adult female fly will lay up to 8 eggs on the caterpillars of moths such as the giant silk moth Cecropia and many species of sphinx moths. The female typically looks for older caterpillars to lay her eggs on. This is presumably so that the caterpillar does not shed its skin and slough off the fly eggs in the process. The fly eggs hatch and the larvae burrow into the caterpillar and consume it from the inside. When the flies are ready to pupate they will work their way back through the skin of the caterpillar and fall to the ground. They burrow into the soil to pupate. The caterpillar they left behind is destined to die. They may also use some beetles or sawflies as host insects for their offspring. In some cases their preference for using moth caterpillars could be considered beneficial, if they choose moth caterpillars that are harmful to crops or garden plants. In reality though, they aren't choosy and will pick any available caterpillar as a host, including the beautiful silk moths.
The species pictured here was small at less than 3/8 of an inch in length. Several of them were flying around the jewelweed and tall grasses near our garden. I've also seen a species of sawfly hanging around the jewelweed. I am beginning to wonder if their sudden appearance together is more than a coincidence. Maybe the fly is following the sawfly and will use their larvae for their own offspring to feed on.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Is it a beetle?....Is it a fishfly?......its a mystery.....solved!

This odd, alien-looking thing has created quite a mystery. Ted MacRae took a look at it and his best guess is the offspring of a beetle in the Carabidae family. I found several bombardier beetles in the same log so I suspected he could be right and this is the larvae of one of those beetles. There is some kind of millipede-looking thing wrapped around its neck (if it had an actual neck). James Trager felt it was antennae. Ted said there was no known beetle with that many segments on its antennae. I decided to submit it to BUGGUIDE.NET  and see what they thought. Ken Wolgemuth took one look at it and said it was the pupa (not larvae) of a Megaloptera. He had a picture as an example and I had to admit it looked spot-on. He also said that the millipede-looking thing is indeed antennae. Then Brady Richards said he found one just like it in a decaying tree near a stream and said it is most likely sp. sialis.  Since this odd little creature was also found in a tree, near a pond in the woodlands, the Megaloptera makes the most sense. The closest match seems to be some sort of fishfly.

WOW! So much confusion over one little invertebrate. It just goes to show it takes a lot of research and thought to figure some of these things out, especially when they are in the larval or pupae stage. I personally thought it was a beetle larvae and agreed totally with Ted's opinion. Turns out James was right and it is antennae wrapped around its neck.

I think this larvae was probably already nearly dead and other inverts were taking advantage of the unfortunate untimely death of this young fishfly baby. It wasn't long and those aggressive meat-eaters the Spiny-waisted ants moved in an began dragging this creature to their lair, to dismember it and pass around the pieces like Aunt Mabel's fried chicken.

Ants are one of the most opportunistic of all the invertebrates. They will not turn down the availability of food, no matter what form it takes. They cooperate and work like trained soldiers in unison. In one image (Below) you can actually see some of the ants pulling, and some of them pushing this heavy load in complete cooperation. It got a look of amazement out of me.

Ants on the left PULL!  Ants on the right PUSH!

This is the ultimate in teamwork.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bacon Beetle

Bacon Beetles or Larder Beetles (Dermestes lardarius) are common beetles associated with humans and our dwellings. These are small beetles measuring little more than 1/4 of an inch up to 3/8 of an inch. They are banded black with a golden colored middle stripe with black speckling.  They invade our food stores, especially grains, and are also fond of taxidermy specimens. Museums spend a great amount of money and time keeping these  beetles out of their preserved displays.

They are not native to the United States, but were accidentally introduced from Europe and the Near East. Some taxidermists use these beetles to clean meat and skin from bones. These beetles are easy to keep as a hobby insect, just provide them with water, a place to hide and food. They will eat almost anything, including grains, carrion and pet foods.

The one pictured here was found crawling on the ceiling in my bedroom. Later in the week I found an additional one crawling on the bathroom floor. It would be a nightmare to get these started in our house, as my husband and son are both hunters and have mounted specimens of their hunts. These beetles would feed on those prize trophies and destroy them in no time, much to the horror of my husband and son. Once started in a home they are difficult to get rid of. They will hide almost anywhere and thrive by eating nearly anything they can find. I hope I found the only two sneaky little beetles, brave enough to enter where they aren't wanted.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ridged Carrion Beetles

This flat-looking beetle is a Ridged Carrion Beetle (Oiceoptoma inaequale) and they are found throughout the Eastern United States. This one was photographed at Corby Pond in St. Joseph while I was leading an ecology trail hike with a 3rd grade class. We discovered a turtle shell with numerous blow flies and carrion beetles all consuming what was left of the flesh of the deceased turtle. The kids were grossed out by the smell, but came around once I convinced them how cool it was to watch these beetles in action. They do not eat the rotting flesh of dead things, rather they prefer the fly maggots left by blow flies that also frequent dead and decaying animal flesh. They will also mate on the carcass and the young beetle larvae will consume carrion just like the fly maggots do.

I explained to the kids how important these beetles were to the environment, pointing out how quickly we would be overrun with smelly carcasses without them and other insects there to play clean-up crew.
We discovered a deer head that was slicked clean, with exception to a little hide left on the very top of the skull.

This particular species of carrion beetle is found in deciduous woodlands, especially near a water source. This was perfect habitat for them, the small pond is surrounded by timber.

This is a raccoon carcass found near a wetland area on our farm. I have no idea how the skin ended up pulled forward off the skull instead of backwards, but this critter appears to have been killed by some kind of disease or possibly starvation. In the end all things must die, but through this process, other things go on to survive and even thrive on the remains. Carrion beetles are an insect that not a lot of thought is given to, perhaps it is something we prefer to not think about. Death is a topic that makes many people uncomfortable, the untimely or unexplained death of an animal can raise questions we simply cannot find answers to. These beetles are important scavengers and decomposers, without them being outside would soon smell like rotten, decaying flesh, making any foray into the wilderness unpleasant. So I say Hooray for the Carrion Beetles!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

War of the Termites and Ants

I visited one of my husbands family farms yesterday and spent a good part of the afternoon looking for insects. I tore open logs, kicked around in the leaf litter and walked for what seemed like miles. One log in particular was full of critters, like these subterranean termites. In the picture to the left you can see a new winged male or female, the workers and a soldier termite (large brown head). Every homeowners nightmare is to end up with these destructive insects infesting your house. Admittedly that is never a good scenario, but in the wild they perform a much needed service of breaking down decaying and rotting wood. No harm, no foul, when in their proper habitat. In the spring large numbers of winged adults appear looking for mates. After mating, the females will locate areas to begin new colonies and the males will die. Soon after the female sets up house, she will shed her wings and spend the rest of her life laying eggs and growing the colony. She will tend to the first eggs herself, then once they have matured to adult workers they will take over the care of all future offspring of the queen. The workers, expand the nest, feed the offspring and clean house. Soldiers are created to guard the whole colony. They possess large heads and mandibles that will inflict painful bites to other insects intent on invading the colony.

After disturbing this colony, I also inadvertently disturbed a colony of  reddish colored ants (Aphaenogaster tennesseensis). With the termites exposed, the ants took full advantage of the available food source and began attacking in earnest. I saw one worker ant attack and drag off a newly emerged winged queen.

 In spite of the fact that this winged termite was much larger than the ant, it was determined to drag it home to feed its own colony. It tugged, it pulled, it walked backwards, forwards, but never once did it let go of that termite. The termite was very much alive and wiggling around trying to free itself, but the ant was having none of it!

I found approximately a dozen worker ants all with termites in their powerful jaws, dragging away their captives. We all have heard that ants are the strongest creatures on the planet in terms of what they can lift compared to their body size. After looking at these photos it is easy to see why. These two species lived side-by-side under the bark of that tree, seemingly oblivious to each other, but once I did the unthinkable and tore off the bark of that tree, it was mass chaos. The ants saw an opportunity and took full advantage of it, and the termites seemed defenseless against the onslaught. I sent these pictures to a friend of mine, who is an expert on ants....and he put it most eloquently when he stated "It is a Bug-eat-bug world out there!"