Monday, November 25, 2013


When is a spider not a spider? When it is a Harvestman (a.k.a Daddy Longlegs). These spider-like arthropods are in the order Opiliones. These arachnids are common to abundant in North America as well as worldwide with over 6500 species identified.
Most of us grew up playing with daddy longlegs, after all they were everywhere and easily captured and never tried to bite. Their long legs would tickle your bare skin as they climbed up your arm or leg which
was sure to bring on giggles or squeals depending on your reaction. As a naturalist I am blessed to work with children on a regular basis and I am often transported back to my own childhood when the groups of children who visit our trail are confronted with these charming creatures. Some are frightened, some are unsure, others are excited, but all are enthralled. Oh to be 4 years old again!

They get their common name of Harvestman from their frequency during autumn harvest. Truthfully it is during the fall that they are more easily seen as they are now adults and much larger. They also tend to aggregate in large numbers, sometimes dozens upon dozens along the foundations of homes. The common name of daddy longlegs comes from their protective tendency toward the females and eggs at mating time earning them the name of "daddy", not to mention the "long legs' compared to body size that they possess.
Native Americans referred to them as Grandfather Greybeard which meant Feet of Hairs. One could assume that this was derived from the legs resembling thin strands of hair.

Fossils dating back 400 million years ago have been found of this species in Scotland. Very little has changed in appearance with the daddy longlegs in all that time.
(Fossil image of Harvestman from 50 million years ago

Harvestmen differ from spiders in several ways, but the most obvious will be the body shape and the eyes. Spiders have two body parts that include an abdomen and a cephalothorax (head and thorax combined into one) and daddy longlegs have one compact body part. Spiders have a cluster of eight or six eyes (depending upon species) whereas daddy longlegs have two eyes. They also have no silk glands, therefore cannot spin silken webs like spiders. Daddy longlegs also possess no fangs or venom unlike spiders which have both.

This lack of venom and fangs brings me to a myth that is commonly associated with this species. It has been said that these "spiders" are the most venomous of all spiders if only their fangs were strong enough and long enough to penetrate human tissue. There is no truth to this myth at all. First we must keep in mind these creatures do not have fangs so biting is an impossibility regardless if we had thin skin or not. They also possess no venom which makes them harmless. Handling them is completely safe and a great way to introduce young children to nature. Encourage your child or grandchild to handle them gently, no pulling off legs.

Other myths associated with this creature include the belief that they could help a cattle rancher locate lost cattle. If a cowboy in search of a wandering cow or calf could pick up a daddy longlegs by 7 of its 8 legs the remaining 8th leg left dangling would point in the direction of the lost cow. 
It was also believed that if you killed a daddy longlegs it would bring rain the next day. This particular myth could be unfortunate for the poor harvestman. Thankfully this belief is not wide spread or passed along generation to generation or the common harvestman may find itself not so common any more.

Without fangs and venom how does this species consume food? Like spiders they have mouth parts, but unlike spiders they do not need to dissolve their food in order to digest it. They can consume their food in small chunks. Their diet also differs from spiders in that they are often scavengers feeding on dead insects, plant matter, and fungi. Spiders are carnivorous and feed exclusively on other arthropods, unless you are a large spider (think tarantula) then you might feed on larger prey like mice, shrews, minnows or even birds. I've witnessed harvestmen feeding on a wide variety of insects, from flies to millipedes. They typically stalk their food using their sensitive second pair of legs to help them feel their environment. This is beneficial to a creature with poor eyesight like the harvestman. They are fastidiously hygienic and will clean their legs after each meal by passing their legs thru their mouth effectively "washing" them. Momma longlegs must be proud.

(Feeding on a dead millipede. You will also notice tiny red mites on the legs of the daddy longlegs)

(This daddy longlegs captured this fly and ate it)

After mating, the female will lay eggs and in many species the males will guard the eggs and protect them from potential predators. The male will clean the eggs  and guard the nest until the eggs hatch. It may take from 20 days to 6 months for them to emerge depending upon species and climate. Once they have hatched the young will go through 6 molts, or instars before reaching adult size. Although some species may go through 8 instars to reach maturity.

Harvestmen have several defenses, including the ability to emit a foul smelling odor from special glands in their legs when disturbed. If bothered by a potential predator many species may also play dead, or detach a leg that will continue twitching which can distract the predator giving the harvestman enough time to escape. Some species will bob their bodies which may also confuse a predator. Escaping a predator is not always that easy and many fall prey to various creatures like other arthropods, birds, and lizards.

 (Coal skink eating a daddy longlegs)

While daddy longlegs may have some success in warding off potential predators by using distracting measures there are some different types of predators they cannot avoid and those are mites.These mites act as a parasite on the daddy longlegs. They seem to have the same affect on the spider as ticks would have on mammals. In large enough numbers the mite-parasite will destroy the host. The one photographed below was well on its way to deaths door due to mite infestation. It was wobbly and ungainly, unable to keep its balance. It was quickly succumbing to the onslaught of mites.

Each person will have a different reaction to these arachnids. Some will cringe in fear as their arachnophobia is triggered by a creature that looks enough like a spider to be one. Others may find them creepy or disgusting as unfortunately many people do when faced with any 6 or 8 legged creature. Still others may find them comic or fascinating. Whichever category you fall into keep in mind these harmless creatures are beneficial to our yards and gardens. They consume dead or dying arthropods, may even consume the dead flesh of carcasses. They feed on dung, plant matter and fungi, turning their diet into organic matter that benefits soil and garden plants. These endearing spider-like creatures are also reminders to us of a simpler time in our life. The time of lightning bug lanterns, ladybugs, and daddy longlegs the gentle spider of our youth.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Autumn Yellow-Winged Grasshopper

This rather drab-looking grasshopper is the Autumn Yellow-Winged Grasshopper (Arphia xanthoptera), in the family
Acrididae which are the short-horned grasshoppers. They occur throughout the eastern and central United States. They are found in open woodlands, grasslands, dry fields, and prairies. They feed on various grasses and possibly other plants as well. They do not seem to occur in abundance anywhere in their natural habitats therefore they are not considered a pest species. 

I photographed this one on our wood pile. I am still not quite sure how I even noticed it as it nearly camouflaged itself perfectly against the color and grain of the wood. They are distinguished from other grasshoppers in this genus by the noticeable hump on their pronotum (neck).

They are also larger than other grasshoppers in this genus, reaching lengths up to 46mm. Their underwings are nearly always bright yellow, hence the common name. 
When approached they are quick to retreat and fly away with nothing more than a flash of brilliant yellow visible. They often sing while in flight. This sound is made by the by rubbing the underside of the forewings against the veins of the hindwings. This is believed to attract nearby females. 

Once mating has occurred the females will lay their eggs in the ground and they will overwinter in the soil. Young emerge in March or April and reach maturity by mid-summer. Adults are usually seen from August to November.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Smaller Yellow Ant

The Smaller Yellow Ant (Lasius claviger) is one of the many ants in the genus Lasius which are the citronella ants. They get their name from the lemon-like odor they emit when disturbed. They are a pale yellow-orange color which may vary in intensity ant-by-ant. In October these ants depart over-crowded conditions in existing colonies on what is known as maiden flights. Males and females both will develop wings and leave the home colony to mate and begin new colonies. The winged individuals are referred to as Alates, which is derived from the latin word ala which means "wing." Females will mate with several males to insure genetic variation in her offspring. After mating, the males will die and females will locate an existing Lasuis colony. She will invade this nest and begin laying her own eggs. Once her offspring has matured it is reported that they will locate the existing queen of the original colony and kill her. At this point the new queen controls the colony and in time her offspring will dominate the colony. 

The ants pictured here were photographed in my backyard, on the ground near my clothes line. I was outside looking for bugs on an unseasonably warm day in October. As temperatures reached 65 degrees and the sun warmed the ground these ants were swarming all over the place,climbing on the clothesline poles, the plants nearby and all over the ground itself. They crawled all over each other and often used their antennae to smell each other. I spent a considerable amount of time watching them and taking pictures. I finally walked away from them and continued my search around the yard for other insects or possibly a hardy snake out basking. 20 minutes later I returned to the area where the ants were and discovered they had departed. Where once there were literally hundreds of winged ants there were now less than a dozen still hanging around. I was shocked at how quickly they left and where did they all go?

These ants send up vast amounts of alates into the environment and it can be assumed this is because of the large amount of ants that will fall prey to hungry birds and other critters that enjoy eating ants. If you saturate the ecosystem with an over abundance of mature individuals you virtually guarantee the success of the species. 

These ants favor woodlands as their habitat. They are often found under logs, rocks or other natural debris. They tunnel underground among plant roots. Often the roots of the plants or trees have exposed areas that allow for aphids to feed on the sap. It is common for the aphids to share the ant colony where the ants "milk" the aphids for the sweet honeydew they produce. As aphids eat they turn the sap and other plant liquids into a tasty waste product called honeydew that ants savor. They will herd and protect aphids which in turn allow the ants to lap up the honeydew from their anus. 

This particular species is the most commonly found citronella ant in the Eastern United States. Look for winged swarms sometime in October on warm days following a cold snap. For some reason the cooler temperatures followed by a warm day triggers something in the ants to swarm.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Green Soldier Fly

This lovely little green fly is the Green Soldier Fly (Odontomyia cincta) in the family Stratiomyidae. There are 31 species within the genus Odontomyia in North America.

Average size is approximately 3/4 of in inch. They are bright lime green with a black mark on top of the thorax. The eyes are reddish in color as are the legs.

After mating, females lay eggs near water and the larva live a fully aquatic life where they feed on algae. In order to breathe they will extend the tip of their abdomens thru the surface of the water to gain oxygen. Adults are often found nectaring at flowers or may be found gleaning nutrients from dung.

These flies are most likely bee mimics or perhaps wasp mimics. There is no question that their similarity to many metallic wasps and bees is uncanny.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Four-Spotted Tree Cricket

This pretty, lime green cricket is the Four-Spotted Tree Cricket (Oecanthus quadripunctatus), which is a cricket belonging to the family Gryllidae. There are 17 species of tree crickets within this family and many are difficult to distinguish from one another. All are small, usually 1 inch in length or less. This particular tree cricket is the only known species to occur in all 48 contiguous states. The other day the temperatures warmed to nearly 60 degrees and I kept hearing a cricket calling in a bush outside our front door. I investigated the bush, only to discover the cricket had become quiet. I walked away and then heard the cricket again, back to the bush I went and again it was quiet. I approached the bush no less than a half dozen times only to be rebuffed by this boisterous cricket by sudden silence. I was determined at this point to find this tiny little singer and see if I could identify it. I suspected by its sound that it was a tree cricket, but which one? I sat on the ground next to the bush and did not move, did not make a sound. It worked! The cricket began singing in earnest. I slowly moved my head toward where I thought the sound was coming from and suddenly noticed what appeared to be tiny leaves vibrating against a limb in the bush. Those tiny shivering leaves were the buzzing wings of the little cricket I was searching for. I was in awe of this hearty little insect. We have had numerous heavy frosts and a light freeze up to the day I discovered him in the bush. I could not imagine how he had survived such harsh temperatures. Not only had he survived but seemed invigorated by the cold spell and sudden warm weather. Was he confused? Did he think winter had already passed and it was time for thoughts of love? Was he singing for a lady friend? Was he singing to advertise food? Or was he just happy to be alive? I guess we'll never know, after all how can we know what the tiny little brain of an insect thinks, or even if it thinks at all? 

Once I spotted the cricket and had taken some photographs I was uncertain which species it was. At first I suspected it was a snowy tree cricket, but wasn't 100% convinced, it somehow sounded different than the other snowy's I had previously heard. It didn't look quite the same either. I submitted a series of images to and received an answer within days that this was a Four-spotted tree cricket. Apparently they have a series of dark spots on their antennae that gives them their common name. I however did not notice these spots nor did I even know to look for them as I had never heard of this species before now.

After reading a little about this species I learned that they typically hang out close to the ground in vegetation, usually three feet or less up in a bush, grasses or other plant. The one I photographed here was approximately two feet off the ground in the center of the bush well hidden from prying eyes.
They are found along roadsides, in open fields, old pastures, and in crop ground. 

Mating takes place in autumn, usually in September and October. Males will find a vantage point in a bush or shrub and call loudly a love song that is sure to appeal to any nearby females. She will lay eggs in the ground soon after mating and the eggs overwinter in the soil. Young hatch in June when the soil temperatures signal warmer weather and available food sources. The young are hatched looking very much like the adults only lacking wings. As they age and grow wing pads become visible. By August or early September the offspring are now full grown adults and ready to mate and continue the cycle. 

While I am not a fan of winter and grumble through the cold temperatures like a grumpy old lady.....longing for warmer weather and sunshine. I relish warm winter days when a few hardy insects find the sunshine and warmer temperatures too hard to resist. I don't even mind the wayward Asian lady beetle or boxelder bug that makes its way into my house, at least it is a sign of life on an otherwise dismal landscape. 

Sing on little cricket before the weather becomes more than your little body can endure.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Orange-Banded Checkered Beetle

Checkered beetles in the family Cleridae are common throughout the United States. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats and typically feed on other beetles and their larvae. Some will scavenge for food and still others will feed on pollen.

These little beetles are usually brightly colored like the one pictured here which was photographed in my backyard. This particular species the Orange-Banded Checkered Beetle (Enoclerus coccineus), is very common in Missouri and ranges from New Mexico to Minnesota. Their small size often causes them to be overlooked by the average person. In spite of the fact that they are common, they are still rarely seen. I've only ever encountered three of these beetles in the last 5 or more years. Clerid beetles are small beetles that range in size from 3mm to 24 mm.

Mating takes place while the female is eating. She requires appropriate energy for egg production. After mating, females will lay eggs under the bark of trees. It can take from 3 months to 3 years for the offspring to complete their lifecycle. This is dependent upon species, and weather. Warmer temperatures will speed up development. If temperatures drop below the threshold tolerance it will delay development. The offspring are voracious hunters and capable of finding and feasting on the larva of bark beetles. This appetite has earned them favor among individuals in favor of biological control of pest insects. These beetles are used to control bark beetle populations in certain areas where they are posing problems for woodlands.

Some species may be beneficial to forensic science, even if in a limited capacity, due to their habit of showing up on dead or decaying bodies. Unlike many other insect species that are attracted to decaying flesh which show up in the earliest stages of decay, clerid beetles frequently are found in the later stages of decay.Which may make their appeal somewhat limited to forensic scientists.
Still other clerids are found among dried, smoked and stored meats and can cause infestation issues.

There are somewhere around 3,500 species of clerid beetles found Worldwide, with 500 species found in 37 genera within the United States and Canada. Most are similarly shaped with elongated bodies, covered in bristly hairs and bright colors and patterns.

For another great article about this species visit Beetles in the Bush.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ridged Carrion Beetle

Ridged Carrion Beetles (Oiceoptoma inaequale) are native to Eastern North America and are usually associated with woodlands, especially near creeks or ponds. They are attracted to the scent of dead animals and show up within a few days after death occurs. As adults these beetles do not feed on the carrion itself, like their common name would suggest. Instead they are there to feed on the maggots that are feeding on the carrion. Blow flies are generally the first insect to show up on a deceased body, typically within hours of death. The larva of this beetle however, does consume carrion. It is not uncommon to find many types of insects sharing a single carcass. Species might include flies, rove beetles, carrion beetles, burying beetles and even butterflies all gleaning some sort of nutrients from the decaying flesh of some unfortunate animal.

(Carrion Beetles feeding on fish)

This species is black with raised (ridged) lines on the elytra. In flight the underside of the elytra are bright blue. Their flattened bodies are designed to allow them to maneuver underneath and through the dead bodies they spend much of their time traversing. 

Mating takes place in the spring or late winter. Males may remain piggy-back on the female long after mating has taken place.

Females will lay eggs on decaying flesh. After eggs hatch the young will feed on the carrion. Once fully developed they will drop to the ground and burrow into the soil to pupate. Several weeks later the adults will emerge. There is usually one generation per season. Adults overwinter under leaf litter, under the bark of trees or in other secluded, sheltered areas.

(Margined carrion beetle---Oiceoptoma novaboracense)

The ridged carrion beetle is probably not as common as other carrion beetles, especially in areas where the margined carrion beetle shares the same habitats (woodlands). The margined carrion beetle can be distinguished from the ridged carrion beetle by looking at the pronotum, it will be edged in pink or blush color on the margined.