Monday, November 28, 2011

Giant Ichneumon

Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) in the order Hymenoptera are large, interesting insects found throughout North America. They are reddish-brown in color with black wings and yellow legs. The females have an extremely long ovipositor trailing out the end of their abdomen. This appendage is used to deposit eggs inside decaying wood and within the bodies of pigeon horntail larvae. Somehow the female can detect the location of the feeding larvae within the rotting wood. Perhaps they use their long antennae to feel the vibrations of the feeding larvae? To me the mystery do they know that the larvae they are the right larvae. How do they know it isn't beetle larvae?

The ichneumon larvae will feed on the pigeon horntail larvae, consuming its body from the inside out. Once they have consumed the entire contents of the larvae they will pupate inside the rotting wood the following spring and once they are mature they will emerge from the decaying wood. The adults do not feed.

Even though the long ovipositor looks dangerous, it is harmless to humans, they cannot sting with it. It is designed for egg laying only. There are three species of Megarhyssa found in North America and may reside in the same area. Each species uses the pigeon horntail as their host. It is not uncommon to find all three species inside the same piece of rotting wood feeding on the horntail larvae. As each species of Megarhyssa uses a different length ovipositor to reach the horntail at different depths within the wood.

I've seen only a few of these large wasp-like creatures in our gardens in the past 5 or more years. I actually had one land on my leg once and walk around tapping its antennae on my leg as if trying to determine if I was a rotting log. I wasn't sure if I should be insulted or not.....was the wasp trying to tell me I have stumps for legs?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

False Crocus Geometer Moth

This brightly colored moth is a Crocus Geometer Moth in the genus Xanthotype in the family Geometridae. They are extremely common throughout North America and frequently visit porch lights or other artificial lights at night. This moth can also be flushed from timbered areas and grasslands bordering timberland during the daytime. There are several species within this genus and each are nearly identical and generally cannot be accurately identified without genitalia magnification.

Crocus Geometer (X. sospeta)
False Crocus Geometer (X. urticaria)
Buttercup Moth (X. urticaria)
Rufous Geometer (X. rufaria)
Of these four Crocus Geometer (X. sospeta) and False Crocus Geometer (X. urticaria) are found in the Eastern portion of North America which would include Missouri. 
The genus Xanthotype has its root word from the Greek Xantho which translates into Yellow.
Geometer translates into Earth-measurer and comes from the caterpillar stage of these moths. Geometer caterpillars are called inch worms, loopers or spanworms and lack the amount of prolegs that are found on most species of lepidoptera. They instead have appendages at both ends of their body which allows them to clasp with their hind legs and reach forward with their front legs. This bends their body in a loop-like fashion, and as they continue to move forward it gives the appearance that they are measuring their journey.

These moths are a beautiful shade of bright yellow with purplish colored blotches on the wings. Males have more blotches than females. Males of this species, like the males of most moths have feathered antennae to "smell" the pheromone emitted by the female. They are capable of smelling her scent from great distances. Once mated the female will lay her eggs on a wide variety of host plants including Spirea, goldenrods, catnip, ground-ivy, red osier dogwood, and rhodora azaloa. The caterpillars are twig mimics and blend in with the branches they are living among.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Garter Snakes

Garter Snakes are without a doubt one of the most widely spread of all the reptiles found in North America. In fact the Common Garter Snake(Thamnophis sirtalis) is the only snake known to be hardy enough to survive in Alaska’s inhospitable climate. It is thought to be the northernmost snake in the World with exception to a snake called the Crossed Viper (Vipera berus). In Missouri where I live I find several varieties in my yard, but one of the most common by far is the Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) which is pictured here above. They reach lengths up to 26 inches. As far as I know all garter snakes have the tell-tale stripes that run dorsally along their bodies. These stripes may be green, yellow, gray, black, red and even blue. The subspecies the red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis talis parietalis) is the most prevalent of the two species I find. Red-sided garter snakes are quite striking in their appearance with bright red color patches between the stripes.

Garter Snakes are colubrid snakes in the family Colubridae; over 2/3 of the snakes found in the world belong to this family, making it the largest family of snakes. This group of snakes is often described as a catch all for snakes that don’t quite fit into other families. Most within this family are non-venomous, but a few however have venom toxic enough to cause human fatalities such as the Boomslang, Twig Snake and snakes in the genus Rhabdophis which are found in Asia. Garter snakes do posses venom glands, but these glands are located  posterior (to the rear) of the snake’s eyes whereas typical venomous snakes have venom glands located anterior or forward. The venom they posses is not lethal enough to affect humans and the garter snake lacks any real way of injecting you with it anyway. The venom is used to subdue prey rather than as a defense mechanism.  Once the snake has captured its prey it will “chew” the venom into the unfortunate victim.

Garter snakes commonly prey on frogs, toads, small rodents, birds, slugs, lizards, leeches, earthworms, and fish. Since the majority of their diet consists of aquatic creatures they will most often be found in those environments. We have a large goldfish pond and that is usually where I find these snakes. They commonly feed on the toads and bullfrogs found near or in the pond. This photo was taken a few years ago near the pond. This red-sided garter snake (above and below) had captured a large toad and was doing its best to swallow it. There was quite a struggle taking place, almost like tug-o-war. The snake pulling with its mouth, and the toad pulling with its legs in the other direction. The toad was finally able to free itself from the snake and quickly hopped off to lick its wounds.

I swear the toad looks ANGRY in this photo….as if indignantly saying “How dare this snake try to eat me!!!!”

Garter snakes are one of the testiest snakes in the reptile world. For a snake that averages 2 feet in length and lacks any significant venom, it more than makes up for it in attitude. Of all the snakes I’ve handled I’ve been bitten and musked more by this species than any other. This past spring while doing an interpretive hike with a group of first grade students, one of the fathers noticed a snake along the side of the trail. He pointed it out to me in case I wanted to show the kids. With 25 kids, plus parents in the group I was afraid the snake would slither away before all the kids could see it. So I choose to catch the snake and show the kids……BIG MISTAKE! As soon as I had the snake in hand it chose that moment to musk me. I was literally covered from chest to toe with white, stinky musk!!!! Talk about smell bad! The kids all let out a loud EWWWWW! I quickly put the snake down and told the kids “This is why we should not handle wild snakes.” It was a lesson learned for all of us, albeit a stinky one!

While this snake(above) appears to be smiling, it was definitely doing its best to warn me away. He was lunging and biting at me in a very intimidating way. I managed to capture an image with its mouth open and tongue hanging out before finally leaving it in peace. This illustrates my point about the attitude these snakes possess.


All snakes use their tongue to smell the World around them. They flick it in and out of their mouth scraping it across an organ in the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson Organ. This organ picks up scent particles off the tongue as it is brought back into the mouth. The snake is able to determine if what it is smelling is food, or foe. Snakes do not possess ears for the outside world (although a snake with ears would be seriously cool). They “hear” their surroundings through vibrations felt in their jaw bones. Humans walking around in a snakes world must sound like giants to the snake. They almost always feel us coming and get out of the way long before we even know a snake was there.  Snakes lack eyelids and cannot blink their eyes to protect them from injury, they instead have a thin scales over their eyes. The scales are shed each time the snake sheds it old skin. Snakes shed several times a year, but much depends on how much the snake is eating and how much it is growing. Snakes that are feeding on a regular basis will shed more often than those that find it difficult to find food. This is often why wild snakes shed fewer times annually than pet snakes. Wild snakes have to sit and wait for food to come within reach, or they will go in search of food. This is not as easy as it sounds. A snake may smell a rodent trail, and sit and wait motionless for a rodent to pass by. They are capable of remaining motionless for many hours. Snakes may go many weeks or even months without feeding. They have a slower metabolism than mammals and are able to go without food for long periods of time. A large meal may last a snake for several weeks before it feels the urge to feed again. Snakes are also cold blooded and must warm themselves in the sun. Being heterothermic means the snakes body is the same temperature as its surroundings. It must therefore find a suitable location to bask itself before it is able to move and feed properly. I describe it as “A Cold Snake, is a Slow Snake and a Slow Snake is a Dead Snake.” A warm snake can flee from predators and digest its food. A cold snake is slow and unable to move quickly out of dangers way, and will often regurgitate its meal should it try to eat.

Garter snakes mate in the spring in accordance with their emergence from brumation. Reptiles generally begin brumation in late fall (more specific times depend on the species). They will often wake up to drink water and return to “sleep”. They can go months without food. Reptiles may want to eat more than usual before the brumation time but will eat less or refuse food as the temperature drops. However, they do need to drink water. The brumation period is anywhere from one to eight months depending on the air temperature and the size, age, and health of the reptile. During the first year of life, many small reptiles do not fully brumate, but rather slow down and eat less often. Brumation should not be confused with hibernation; when mammals hibernate, they are actually asleep; when reptiles brumate, they are less active, and their metabolism slows down so they just do not need to eat as often. Reptiles can often go through the whole winter without eating. Brumation is triggered by cold weather, lack of heat, and the decrease in the amount of hours of daylight in the winter.

In the case of garter snakes the males generally leave the hibernacula first and sit in wait for the females to come out. These emergence’s may contain 100′s of individual snakes. The female emits a strong pheromone that entices the males to compete for mating privileges. It is not uncommon for dozens of males to fight and vie for the attention of one female. Once mated, the females are capable of retaining the males sperm for years and therefore can delay fertilization if they so choose. The female incubates the eggs within her body until the babies are ready to be born. She will then give birth to live young. The litter size can vary from as few as 3 young to as many as 80, depending upon the age of the snake, how healthy the snake is and the species it is. The record litter size for garter snakes is 98 offspring. Juvenile snakes are independent at birth. They require no special help or skills from their parents and are armed with all the instincts they need to survive. They are however vulnerable at this stage and often fall victim to predators such as large frogs, birds, raccoons, foxes and other snakes. Those that survive may live up to 15 years or more.

Garter snakes have often been sought after in the pet trade, mostly because they are strikingly beautiful creatures, but also because they are so easily found. Garter snakes are known to emerge in the spring in heavy numbers all at once, so anyone bent on capturing them, just locates a hibernation site and visits it in the spring. Many garter snakes have been removed from the wild in this fashion. Even though 1,000′s have been captured from the wild , their numbers are still stable to high in most all their range. There is an exception in California, the San Francisco Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) is listed as Federally endangered. Even though the majority of garter snakes would be considered common, they are still beautiful examples of snake fauna. They are beneficial in the garden by keeping slugs, leeches, rodents and other creatures under control. They are also an important component in the food chain providing food for many other animals. All snakes should be tolerated and respected for the good that they do. Many of us may not like snakes, or perhaps we’re scared of them, but this should never be an excuse to kill one.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Camel Cricket

This crazy-looking long-legged bug is a camel cricket in the family Rhaphidophoridae. This family includes cave crickets, cave wetas, camelback crickets,and spider crickets. These crickets are known to love damp areas, such as under rocks, logs, outbuildings or basements. They can also be found in caves which earned them their other common name of cave cricket.

These crickets are characterized by their super long legs and antennae as well as a somewhat hump-backed shaped body. Their hind legs are extremely long with a somewhat chicken leg appearance. They lack wings like other crickets have, and instead crawl to their destinations. They have terrible eyesight so the long legs and antennae aid them in finding their way around in the often dark environments that they favor. It is not uncommon for these crickets to make their way into our basements. They are after the moist dark habitats they favor, and our basements often fit the bill perfectly. If you have an excess of these crickets it could signify that you have a moisture problem that may need to be addressed. Away from human dwellings they are often found deep inside caves. These inhospitable environs often make it hard for these crickets to locate food and it is not uncommon for them to consume their own legs for nutrition, even though they lack the ability to regenerate a new one. When faced with the approach of possible predators they will often lunge at the threat rather than retreat. This aggressiveness is a bluff however as these crickets are harmless. I would think this behavior would be counterproductive in the extreme and would often lead to them sacrificing their own lives in exhibiting such a power play. Then again perhaps it works. 

Adults and young nymphs will overwinter in dense vegetation or in human dwellings. In the spring they will become active and the adult females will begin laying eggs in the soil. In a few weeks the newly born nymphs will emerge looking almost identical to their adult counterparts. The adults and nymphs both feed on all sorts of organic matter, from animal to plants. They can become a nuisance in human structures such as basements when their food source runs low and they begin seeking other sources of food such as our stored clothing, linens and other keepsakes we do not want destroyed. 

 The following was taken from North Carolina's University website. I thought it was helpful info and wanted to pass it along to my readers.

Non-chemical control methods
Although pesticides can help reduce the nuisance problems with camel crickets, they are not a long-term solution. Effective control starts with eliminating harborage sites, reducing conditions that are conducive or attractive to these pests and by excluding these insects from our homes:
  1. gaps around crawlspace access doors provide access for camel cricketsCaulk or seal gaps and openings around windows frames, doors, foundation and clothes dryer vents, crawlspace access doors (picture at right), soffits, as well as where heating/AC and plumbing lines pass through the foundation.
  2. Install weather-stripping along the bottom of house and garage doors so that it fits tightly against the threshold.
  3. Stack boxes and other items off of the ground and away from the walls in a garage or storage building. This helps improve airflow and makes it easier to check for crickets and other pests, including termites.
  4. Reduce moisture indoors, as well as in other critical areas such as basements or crawlspaces.
  5. Keep ground cover and mulch at least 12 inches or more away from the foundation. When possible, use an inorganic cover such as gravel up near the foundation.
  6. Keep ground cover and shrubs away from the foundation and siding. Do not stack firewood against the house. Remove piles of lumber or other clutter under decks that might attract crickets and other pests.
  7. Place sticky boards, such as those used for cockroaches and mice, in corners and behind appliances to catch crickets that enter your home.
Chemical control Outdoors: Any chemical control should focus first on outdoor barrier treatments. Sprays applied to foundation walls, around vents crawlspace accesses, basement doors and windows, and insecticidal baits applied along the perimeter can be quite effective unless there are heavy rains. In crawlspaces, insecticidal baits placed in corners or along the sill plate will be most effective. Spraying in a confined area, such as a crawlspace, requires caution and the proper application and safety equipment. Granular baits are a better choice for use in a crawlspace, but these products are not readily available to the general public. You can or else contact a licensed pest control company for assistance. Consult your county Cooperative Extension Service Center or the North Carolina Agricultural Chemicals Manual for a list of appropriate pesticides.

Indoors: Any of the common household (indoor) insecticides can be applied to baseboards, and areas behind appliances. However, if you follow the steps outlined earlier for excluding these pests, the need for indoor applications should be reduced.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chinese Mantids

Chinese mantids (Tenodera sinensis) are impressive praying mantids to say the least. They are large, expert predators that prey on a wide variety of insect yummy's. I've often referred to them as the T-Rex of the insect world, after all the resemblance is there with the short front legs and the almost raptor like way they capture and consume food. They aren't limited to just eating insects and spiders however, they are also capable of capturing and consuming frogs, and even hummingbirds.

Chinese mantids are native to Asia and made their way to the United States probably in a shipment of plants. They were first discovered in Philadelphia in 1896. They now have a stabilized population throughout the Eastern United States and are beginning to expand their range to include portions of the Western United States. They are aggressive hunters and compete for food with other native species of mantids. This could potentially pose a threat to another Missouri Mantid, the Carolina Mantid. This smaller cousin of the Chinese Mantid is native to Missouri and often finds itself prey to the larger more intimidating Chinese Mantid. They also compete for some of the same food resources.

 These praying mantids even exhibit signs of being territorial and will not tolerate those of their own kind in their vicinity. I captured this eerie image (below) of a smaller (immature) praying mantid that was sans head. It was still very much alive and crawling around the cedar tree completely without its head. It remained alive, I assume running on nerves, for several hours before finally succumbing to death. It illustrates the often gruesome world that insects are a part of. It is truly a bug-eat-bug world out there. 

Mating occurs late in the summer, the female emits a strong pheromone (Chemical perfume) that attracts males from great distances. Many of us have heard the tale of how the female will bite the males head off during mating. In some instances this is true, she is certainly capable of it, and if she feels he isn't performing up to her expectations she will chomp his head off and this triggers a response in the male which increases his performance and offers her a tasty nutritious snack that will aid her in egg production. This gruesome beheading doesn't always take place though, most of the time the male walks away with his head, I suppose it all depends on the females mood. Being a male praying mantid is truly living life on the edge. Once mated, the female will lay her eggs within a foamy egg case called an oothecae, this frothy mixture hardens to protect the eggs and once dry resembles styrofoam. 

These egg cases overwinter and the following spring the young will emerge. Typically the first meal of many of these tiny praying mantids will be their siblings. Fewer than 15% of the newborn mantids survive to adulthood.

 Praying mantids can be found in meadows, along roadsides, near gardens, grassy areas, wildflower prairies, most anywhere their insect prey can be found. These insects are favored by gardeners everywhere. Many gardeners order them from  mail order supply houses to releases in their gardens. This is good in theory but typically they will fly away shortly after being released and will probably supply your neighbors garden. 
 Occasionally like any other creature they can become injured. Whether it is from tangling with something much bigger than itself, like perhaps a bird. Or from a fall, or some other unknown source they can and do sustain injuries, like one pictured above. Notice the two different colored eyes. This particular mantid was having great difficulty in keeping its balance and could barely stay in a standing position on my hand. Most likely this one will become part of the food chain as it cannot defend itself properly.
These large insects make excellent pets as well. They are easily kept in aquariums or bug keepers. They eat a variety of insects, so you can catch grasshoppers, crickets and moths in your yard to feed them. They almost seem to possess a personality, they will follow you with their eyes, and they are sure to win you over. Many people ask if they bite, and like most any insect if they are mishandled they can bite. Praying mantids cannot bite through human skin, so it would feel more like a pinch. The males have spines on their front legs and if they should happen to grasp you with them it is possible for them to draw blood, it would be like a scratch that bleeds. Males also tend to fly. Females would make a better choice. To tell the difference is relatively easy. Females have large abdomens, giving them a "fat" look. This is for egg production. Males are very slender. Happy hunting.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Green Stink Bug

Green stink bugs seems to be the most prevalent insect in my backyard right now with exception possibly to the Asian Ladybug, so to have a picture with both invaders seemed only natural.

This species of green stink bug (Chinavia hilaris) is one of the most common of all stink bugs found in gardens throughout North America. They are fairly large at 3/4 of an inch in length. The color is uniformly bright green with yellowish margins near the abdominal region.

These stink bugs are readily found near woodland edges, in agricultural fields, and gardens. I have hundreds of them in my yard this fall, which could be in large part because of the unseasonably warm temperatures we've been having. It could also be because of a lack of available predators to feed on them. Perhaps it is just a good year for them. The nymphs of this particular species give no indications of the adult form it will soon be. They look entirely different......the shape is somewhat similar, but look at the color! Early instar nymphs will be beautiful combinations of black, green and orange. Later instar nymphs will begin taking on the trademark green color. After 5 instars (molts) they will reach adult size, usually by August or September.

(4th instar)

These bugs are plant feeders and use their piercing mouth parts (called a rostrum) and a special enzyme in their saliva that breaks down plant tissue to suck the juices out of a wide variety of plants. It is much like humans sucking juices through a straw. Think...."insect SLURPEE!" Often times these little bugs can become major pests, especially if they occur in large numbers and take a liking to your prized garden plants or agricultural crops. They are known to feed on tomato, bean, pea, cotton, corn, soybean, and eggplant as well as hundreds of others. It seems we can add bald cypress to the list of known plants as many of the green stink bugs found in my yard were feeding on the sap coming out of the tree. I also found them on Ninebark and Elm gleaning sap from them as well.

Their feeding habits can spread diseases to plants, it can also zap the plants of vital nutrients and ultimately stunt the plant which may result in death of the plant.

Stink bugs get their common name from the defense mechanism that these little stink bombs implement when disturbed or threatened. They possess gland located on the underside of their bodies that emit a musk-like vile smell that is sure to repel any predator bent on handling them or eating them. Young stink bugs will hide under leaf litter to wait out Missouri's cold winter months. When spring returns they will become active again and begin seeking mates. After mating, the females will lay their barrel-shaped eggs in clusters on the underside of leaves. The young hatch and feed on plant juices just like their adult counterparts. There may be several generations per year and it is common to find them in all stages of development in the same area. The life expectancy of green stink bugs is about 2 months in warmer climates, in areas where the onset of winter sends them into a dormant stage they will live many months longer.

Biological control is often attempted in areas where they are causing extreme damage; certain parasitic flies and parasitic wasps are known to use these bugs as the host for their own offspring. Many creatures are brave enough to risk the stink bomb for a quick meal....frogs, toads,spiders and birds will all make a meal out of these bugs.