Monday, November 30, 2015

Metallic Sweatbee

This beautiful bee is one of the metallic sweatbees within the genus Agapostemon, known as A. spendens. There are 45 species within this genus and all occur within the western hemisphere, of those 45 species, 14 are found within Canada and the United States. Metallic sweatbees are commonly encountered during the hot summer months. They can be found on a wide variety of flowers, but seem to favor sunflowers or sunflower-like flowers. Like most bees they have specialized hairs on their legs that allow them to "pick up" pollen as they forage on blooming flowers. Bees within this genus specialize on pollen, in fact Agapostemon translates to "Stamen Loving". The stamen refers to the portion of the plant that produces pollen.

Many species of sweat bees are attracted to humans and will seek us out to lap up the sweat on our bodies. They glean salt and moisture from the by-product we produce when overexerted. Often these bees will sting with no provocation, and for such a tiny bee they can give a wallop of a sting too. Metallic sweatbees however have  little to no preference for lapping at our sweat covered bodies. Although I have been on the receiving end of a few stings by this species when one lands on me for a salty drink and I am unaware that it is there and I inadvertently bend my knee or elbow and POW I am stung for accidentally squishing the poor bee in the crevice of those joints. Why do they always seem to favor those sensitive areas? Usually though they seem to prefer to hang out in our gardens busily visiting flowers. This habit of flying from flower-to-flower provides valuable pollination of many plants. Many people associate pollination with honey bees, and while honey bees are the poster bee for pollination, there are still numerous native bees that provide this service as well, and often times they are as proficient or at least nearly so, as the famous honey bee.

Metallic sweatbees are almost always solitary ground nesters and will dig a tunnel that may have a mound of loose soil or sand at the entrance. Burrows will be created off the main tunnel in which the female provisions with a combination of nectar and pollen in a little pollen-ball. They will lay an egg on this ball of sweetness and then seal up the entrance to the burrow. When the egg hatches it will have enough food to complete it's lifecycle. Some species of metallic sweatbees will nest in a communal nest of sorts......they share the same entrance, but each female (up to 20) will create their own separate burrows to lay their eggs. A. spendens is known to be completely solitary and places single burrows scattered across vast areas, which makes them hard to find.

This species is approximately 3/8-1/2 inch in length making them a medium sized bee and quite large for a sweatbee, which are typically tiny at approximately 1/4 inch or smaller. Males will usually have a striped abdomen and females generally have a solid metallic abdomen like the rest of their body. Some species may be metallic blue, gold or even black, but green seems to be the most common color seen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Straight-Lanced Meadow Katydid

The Straight-Lanced Meadow Katydid (Conocephalus strictus) is a commonly encountered katydid of grasslands, fence rows and other dry grassy areas. They are found east of the Rocky Mountains with exception of Florida, North Dakota and the northeastern states. There are two basic types of meadow katydids the Conocephalus which are the smaller meadow katydids and the Orchelimum which are the larger meadow katydids (like the black-legged meadow katydid). Of the smaller meadow katydids the straight-lanced species is more heavily bodied in appearance. The female has a long, straight ovipositor that easily exceeds the length of her body. It is this oversized appendage that earned them their common name. Even the males seems excessively endowed and feature larger than average cerci.
This species comes in two forms, a short-winged form with wings that extend 1/3 to 2/3 the length of the body. They will measure about 3/4 of inch in length. The long-winged form have wings that extend past the abdomen, and their overall length will be a little more than a inch.


Males attract females with song and call out incessantly once they reach adult size. When a suitable female has been serenaded and is receptive to his attention mating will take place. Females will use their long ovipositor to scissor into plant stems in which to deposit their eggs. A single female is capable of laying 1,000's of eggs that will overwinter and hatch the following spring. Nymphs are born looking very much like their adult counterparts. They lack wings and reproductive organs. After several molts they will reach adult size sometime in mid-summer. Mating will take place shortly after that and the cycle will begin again.

The sounds I associate with summer are the call of the katydids and cicadas. Each song is as unique as the species creating it. It is possible to identify individual species by sound alone. Challenge yourself to learn the songs and see how many species you can identify, of course it might be
challenge enough to just locate the noise maker among the vegetation. Many katydids are camouflage experts and nearly impossible to see among the plants. This particular species is not prone to hopping away when disturbed, instead they tend to flatten themselves out, stretching their legs behind them, holding their body as close to the substrate or plant surface as they can, in the hopes that you will not see them. It seems to be a pretty good strategy as it took me awhile to spot the individuals photographed here.

Like most insects these katydids are not without predators. Birds, frogs, mammals, and other invertebrates all savor these tasty morsels. The great-golden digger wasp is a solitary wasp that seems to favor katydids as a food source for their offspring.
Great Golden Digger Wasp
A female wasp will locate a katydid, sting it to paralyze it, then she will drag it to a ready-made burrow. She will pull the paralyzed katydid into the burrow and deposit one or more eggs on the unlucky victim. The egg(s) hatch and the wasp grub will begin feeding on this fresh supply of food. The feeding activities of the grub will not kill the katydid quickly. The grub seems to know not to eat any vital organs until right before it is ready to pupate. It seems a gruesome fate for the katydid, but the wasp has to eat too, right?

Generally this species is green , but darker specimens are also found, like pictured here. The eyes are typically pale, almost white, but may also have pale peach or reddish eyes. So variability is common is this species.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Six-Spotted Fishing Spider

The Six-Spotted Fishing Spiders (Dolomedes triton) are pretty common in Missouri as well as throughout much of their range. They are easy to identify by their greenish-brown bodies and white stripes on their cephalothorax, and along the edge of their abdomen as well as the twelve white spots running in two rows along the top of their abdomen. It is the six black spots on their underside that gives them their common name.
They can get pretty large with a body measurement up to one inch and a legspan twice that large.

They will be found along the shoreline of shallow calm waters, like ponds, lakes, marshes and slow-moving streams. They will walk on the aquatic plants hunting for insects to eat. These spiders are unique in being one of the few creatures able to walk on water. They can also dive underneath the water, row across the surface, and glide. They can walk down aquatic plants beneath the surface of the water and can remain under water for up to 30 minutes by trapping an air bubble between their legs that they will use to breath oxygen. They glide by remaining perfectly still on the surface of the water and letting the wind blow them to new locations and hunting grounds. They walk on water with specially adapted hairs on their legs. Rowing is done by using some of their legs as oars to motivate them across the surface of the water.

Fishing spiders can escape predators in a number of ways, by jumping straight in the air, running rapidly across the water or diving below the surface. Even on land they are quite quick and able to run away from danger. They will always be found near plants whether in the water or on the shore. This allows them to hide from predators.

These spiders are excellent hunters and have a lot of choices available to them.
They will feed on aquatic insects as well as terrestrial insects, but more often than not they will scavenge on insects, like the one pictured here that captured a damselfly, which happened to fall into the water and could not escape again.  Larger fishing spiders will even attack young newts, small frogs, tadpoles and minnows.

Female fishing spiders are larger than the males, and females will not hesitate to kill and eat a male fishing spider if the opportunity arises. When a male approaches a female that has already mated she will most likely eat him. The male seriously lives life on the edge. Females lay their eggs inside a silken sac that she will carry to the shore and hide among the plants. She will remain near the egg sac and guard it until the eggs hatch. She will even remain with the spiderlings until they are ready to disperse. The spiderlings will over winter two times before they are old enough to mate.

Even though these spiders are apex hunters they still have to be ever vigilant of predators such as frogs, fish and birds. Excellent eyesight gives them an added advantage when avoiding predation.
These spiders are active during the day and are easily seen as they rest on the aquatic plants floating on top the waters surfaces. I've seen a dozen or more of these spiders already this year.

Recently while leading a group of school children to the pond at work where we planned to dip for aquatic insects, tadpoles and anything else we could capture in our nets to learn about, the kids caught one of these spiders. I placed it in the shallow tub of water we had sitting on the shoreline. Along with her there was also numerous aquatic lifeforms the kids had captured inside this same tub. When I checked on her a few minutes later she had taken full advantaged of the insects that were unable to escape and had caught a water bug. She was busy chowing down on this opportunistic meal that was provided for her when several of the kids came over to watch her eat. She grew tired very quickly of all the eyes peering down at her and she made a dash for the side of the small tub she was in and jumped ship right over the edge and ran like crazy for the pond, with the water bug still held firmly in her mouth. We let her go about her business and the kids thought it was pretty awesome to see her capture her prey, kill it and eat it....then run away with it as if we planned to steal it from her.

I wish I would have had a camera with me at that time to capture this moment with the kids and the awe and wonder they expressed at the smallest of creatures.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Winding Mantleslug

While in the Smoky Mountains this summer I came across this mottled looking slug clinging to the side of a deciduous tree in the mosses growing there. It was about 2 or 3 inches in length and was different from the slugs I typically see at home. I posted a pictured on Facebook and Marla Coppolino from Cornell University, who happens to be a slug and snail enthusiast and expert ID'd it quickly as Philomycus flexuolaris, the winding mantleslug. 

Marla explained to me that these slugs are beneficial to the environment, unlike many species of invasive slugs that show up in our green houses and gardens and feed on your prized vegetables or flowers, these slugs inhabit hardwood forests within the Appalachian Mountains. Winding Mantleslugs break down organic matter, like fallen leaves, lichens, and mushrooms in the forests where they live which enriches the soil, providing necessary nutrients for plant growth. They are often found feeding at night during the rainy season, and it is not uncommon to find several specimens on a single tree with intertwining slim trails leading them to food sources.

These slugs can vary in color from tan to gray and typically have a mottled or marbled appearance with darker brown blotches. When alarmed they will produce a yellowish mucus that is distasteful to potential predators. This slim also leaves behind a specific scent that helps them find potential mates, in addition it keeps their bodies moist and lubricated so they do not desiccate (dry out). Slugs and snails are so slimy with mucus they can even crawl across the edge of a razor blade with no fear of harm!! 

Because slugs are moist environment inhabitants, they cannot tolerate arid or hot temperatures. During the driest, and hottest parts of the year these slugs find sheltered areas to wait out the inhospitable climate in a form of hibernation called aestivation. They will be found under the bark of trees, within rotting logs and stumps and under leaf litter on the forest floor. When the weather is more to their liking they will become active again. 

While slugs and snails may not be everyone's cup-o-tea, I find them fascinating and interesting creatures and never tire of finding them.

Friday, October 2, 2015

White-Banded Fishing Spider

This uniquely beautiful spider is the White-Banded Fishing Spider (Dolomedes albineus). In July of this year my husband and I took a trip to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee for a much needed vacation and to spend as much time as we could outside hiking and fishing and getting all the fresh air we could handle. We rented a cabin in the woods and were completely isolated from people, which was just the way we liked it. One morning as we headed out to a hiking destination, Joey noticed a large spider dangling from a strand of webbing on the eave of the cabin. I managed to get the spider down and did not recognize it, but I did recognize it was dying. We saw scant few insects or spiders around this cabin so my guess is the owner of the cabin probably sprays it for pests. I suppose many people appreciate that service when they stay there, but I for one found it incredibly disappointing. I love traveling and discovering new invertebrate life. I took a few pictures of this spider and then placed it in a safe area to spend its last few moments of life.

I submitted the pictures to and within a day or two had an answer as to the species, White-Banded Fishing Spider. I've seen many fishing spiders around my home in NW Missouri, but this one is so much more colorful and dare I say beautiful than the ones we have. This particular species of fishing spider is not known to be in Missouri, although they are found throughout the Eastern United States. I'm not sure how far west in Tennessee they occur, as this one was found about an hour west of North Carolina in a little town called Sevierville. It would be interesting to know if anymore research has been done to determine if these have made it across the river into Southeastern or Eastern Missouri.

The common name of "fishing spider" would imply they live near water, and while that is true to some degree, they are also found quite frequently some distance from water, especially in damp woodland settings, like our cabin. While there was water near the cabin where this specimen was found it was nothing more than a narrow drainage ditch that ran alongside the cabin, almost like a tiny creek. It would only hold water if there was runoff from the surrounding hillsides or a recent rainfall. These spiders feed on a wide variety of insects, other spiders, and even tiny minnows and other small fish if they are able to catch them.

If found near water they will sit along the shore and rest their front legs on the surface of the water waiting for vibrations that will alert them to possible prey nearby. They are able to dart out across the water and grab unsuspecting aquatic insects. Some reports indicate that they may also capture small fish when the opportunity arises.

These spiders may live a couple of years or more and tuck themselves away in sheltered areas, including basements, cellars or under the bark of trees during the winters months in a form of hibernation. Mating will take place in the spring soon after hibernation. The female will form an egg sac sometime in June that she will carry with her. This maternal care helps guarantee that the spiderlings will hatch and get the best start possible free from predation. Egg sacs may contain up to 1000 individual spiderlings and hatch sometime between July and September. The young spiders will overwinter under the bark of trees, under logs, or rocks or in leaf litter. When spring arrives the cycle starts over.

While these spiders are large they are not aggressive. They are more likely to flee than stand their ground. Bites typically occur when they are mishandled. The bite is no more severe than a bee sting, however if you are allergic to bee venom or spider venom possible serious reactions can occur.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Short-Winged Meadow Katydid

The Short-Winged Meadow Katydid (Conocephalus brevipennis) belongs to the family Tettigoniidae and the subfamily Conocephalinae which are the meadow katydids. There are 39 species of meadow katydids in the United States and Canada with 19 species in the genus Conocephalus. They are smaller, slimmer katydids than their cousins in the genus Orchelimum which also has 19 species , the last remaining katydid in this subfamily is the wingless meadow katydid (Odontoxiphidium apterum).

The short-winged meadow katydid is small at about 1/2 to 1 inch in length. What they lack in size they make up for in beauty. Their bodies are a kaleidoscope of of orange, brown, yellow, and greens. As their name suggests their wings are short and barely extend halfway down their bodies. Although there are a few specimens that will have longer wings that extend nearly to the tip of their abdomen.

Males have two little appendages at the tip of their abdomen (shown to the right). Females will have an ovipositor protruding from theirs that is used for depositing eggs in the ground after mating. By August these katydids have reached their adult-size and will begin calling for mates, singing out day and night. Eggs will overwinter in the ground and hatch in the spring. As soon as the ground warms in the spring the eggs hatch and the young katydid nymphs will emerge from the soil and begin feeding. These tiny offspring are almost mirror images of their adult counterparts.

You can find them in grasslands, prairies, meadows and other grassy or weedy areas, especially near swamps, creeks, and other damp areas. They are native to the Eastern and Central North America from South Dakota to Maine.

Friday, September 18, 2015

White-Lined Sphinx Moth

Sphinx moths go by many names, such as Hummingbird Moths, Hawk Moths and Hornworms. The one pictured here is called a White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata). They are an averaged sized sphinx moth with a wingspan up to 3 inches. This particular species is widespread and found throughout most of North America, Central America, West Indies, Eurasia, and Africa. White-Lined Sphinx Moths can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from desert, garden,and meadows, like most sphinx moths they are most active during dusk and nighttime hours. Although they will fly during the day as well. Mating between males and females usually takes place at dusk. Females will lay eggs on a wide variety of plants, which will include, but not limited to, Four O'Clock's (Picture #2), Willow Weed, Evening Primrose, Tomato, Elm, Grape, Purslane, Apple, and Fuschia. 

After reaching full size, like pictured here,  the caterpillar will crawl to the ground and burrow into a shallow depression in the soil and pupate. They will spend the winter in this stage. Massive population buildups occur which encourage them to head north and populate those regions.

Occasional outbreaks of these caterpillars have caused significant damage to tomato, grapes and garden crops in Utah. The adults nectar at a huge variety of flowers including Columbine, Petunia, Larkspur, Honeysuckle, Lilac, Wild Phlox, Moonvine, Jimpson Weed, Clovers, Bouncing Bet and Thistles. They are often attracted to lights at night, sometimes in large numbers. The whirring sound of their wings is what earned them their other common name of Hummingbird Moth. In Missouri there are probably two generations per year, with the last generation overwintering as a pupa.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Clouded Grasshopper

Autumn seems to be the season for grasshoppers. Tiny grasshopper nymphs hatch from eggs under the soil sometime in the spring or early summer and emerge from the ground looking almost like their adult counterparts. They of course are much tinier, and lack wings. They will eat and grow their way into mirror images of their parents by late summer and autumn. Agricultural areas, like where I live, seem to be host to a large variety of species and I am always coming across one I don't recognize, like the one pictured here. A very good friend of mine happens to be an entomologist and when I have "buggy" questions and need something ID'd I share images with him. He has tentatively ID'd this grasshopper as the Clouded Grasshopper (Encoptolophus sordidus). Another bug enthusiast thought perhaps it might be Encoptolophus costalis. So, once again I went to, the go-to for all things arthropod and submitted the image, and there is one response in favor of Eric's initial ID of Encoptolophus sordidus. We shall see if anyone else comments to dispute this finding and I will update this post as needed, but for now I am going to agree with the Clouded Grasshopper and thank Eric for helping me figure this one out.

I did a little research on them and discovered they have another common name of Dusky Grasshopper and they occur mainly in the Midwest and eastern United States and parts of Canada. They can be found in grasslands, prairies and meadows. The area where this one was found is on a small tall-grass prairie my brother-in-law has planted on one of our farms. 

This farm is full of Big Blue Stem, Indian Grass and other native species of sedges, grasses, wildflowers and forbs, needless to say the grasshoppers love it there. The preferred food of the clouded grasshopper seems to be grasses, wheatgrass, and sedges, but they will resort to forbs if hungry enough. In times of drought and extreme food shortages they are not beyond turning to cannibalism to stay alive. 

This species and
Encoptolophus costalis (The Dusky Grasshopper) were once considered the same species, which I assume is why the Cloudy grasshopper is still sometimes referred to as the Dusky grasshopper, which can get confusing if we resort to using common names alone. After some research, taxonomists have discovered there are enough differences between the two, that it is warranted to separate them into individual species. One main distinction is their geographic range. E. costalis is primarily a great plains species whereas E. sordidus range is further east. Their breeding habits are completely different as well. 

After looking at geographical maps of both species I am convinced more than ever that this species is E. sordidus, the Clouded Grasshopper. In John Capinera, Ralph Scott, and Thomas Walker's book "The Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids & Crickets the range map for E. costalis does not include Missouri, so there you have it!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Barn Spider

Orb Weavers, Orb Weavers, EVERYWHERE Orb Weavers! It seems every tree, bush, shrub, corn stalk and fence has some sort of orb weaver ensconced in a web busily hunting bugs and getting prepared to create the next generation.

Barn Spiders (Neoscona crucifera formerly N. Hentzii) are one of the most common orb weavers I find in my yard. I literally have dozens of these large females in various locations around the farm.

I found the web of the one pictured here before I actually found her! I walked right into the web and danced around like a maniac hoping the spider wasn't sitting on my shoulder. I'm not scared of spiders but the thought of a large spider hanging out on my person without an invitation, freaks me out! Luckily she was hiding among the leaves of the tree where the web was hanging from. I pulled down the branches to get a better look at her and decided to photograph her. She was a fairly tolerant photographic subject and posed quite nicely for me.

Neoscona crucifera have many common names, including Barn Spider, Hentz's Orbweaver, Dotted Orbweaver and just Orbweaver. The genus name of Neoscona loosely translates into "Spinning among the reeds" and was first described by Eugene Simon, a young French Arachnologist. The species name of crucifera probably refers to the faint cross or crucifix pattern that is visible on the abdomen of many specimens. This species is somewhat variable in coloration, but typically they are beige or rusty orange with banded spiny legs. Males are smaller than females with much longer legs.

Males seek females in the late summer to mate with. Once a female is encountered he will cautiously approach the web and tap out a series of unique moves that identify him as a mate and not a meal. With any luck the female will be in the mood for mating and not dining. If mating is successful she will form an egg sac and place it in a rolled up leaf to help conceal it from predators.
Mating pair, male on the right

 Each egg sac may contain up to a 1,000 eggs. That sounds like a lot of spiders being unleashed on the environment once they hatch in the spring. But the reality is they won't all survive. Many will be preyed upon by insects, birds and other critters that savor tiny spiders. Mud daubers are especially fond of orb weaver spiderlings. I would imagine the percentage of surviving spiders is very low, certainly no where near 100%. The spiderlings will remain clustered together for several days after leaving the shelter of the egg sac. Some may balloon themselves on wind currents to distant locations, others will remain near the area where their mother gave birth to them.

Even as tiny spiderlings they are capable of building elaborate webs that are mini versions of the ones they will create as adults. As adults the webs are much larger, up to 2 feet in diameter at the center with support lines attached to nearby vegetation, or buildings. They will often build near porch lights, one could assume these are the lazy (or smart) hunters. Lights attract bugs, and webs catch bugs---what a perfect set-up.
Webs are built at dusk and in the morning the female will consume the web. Eating the web provides extra protein for egg production in the form of tiny insects that are too small for her to wrap in silk and consume otherwise. She also recycles the silk to reuse later. Silk is a precious commodity that requires a lot of energy to produce, so it only makes sense to conserve what they can.

This species is one of the most wide spread of all the orb weavers. They are found throughout Eastern North America, and as far west as California, as well as Mexico. Like all spiders they have venom, but the venom is harmless to humans. It is designed to subdue and partially dissolve their prey. They rarely come in contact with humans so bites are extremely uncommon, and usually only occur if they are mishandled or if somehow caught in your clothing (when you accidentally walk into a web). If you are bitten it may sting, itch and look a little red for awhile, but is not known to be medically significant. The benefit of these spiders far outweighs any negative feelings we may have towards them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Two-Striped Planthopper

This time of year tiny leafhoppers, treehoppers, planthoppers and other "hopping" insects seem to be everywhere. Many of them blend in with their surroundings with perfect camouflage in shades of green, brown and combinations of both. This can make them somewhat difficult to see, but if you stand still for a minute and look carefully you will spot one without much trouble. They will often scurry to the other side of a twig, leaf, or blade of grass as soon as they spot you, or they may simply hop away disappearing from view. This strategy works in their favor to avoid any predator that might want to feed on a tiny hopping bug.

The one pictured here is the Two-striped Planthopper (Acanalonia bivittata) and they are considered the most common of all planthoppers in the United States. Worldwide there are 63 species within this genus, 18 of them are found in the United States. They are almost always green with a reddish-brown stripe along the inner edge of the wing. Occasionally you may find a pink specimen. They measure 1/4 to 15/64 inches in length (3 to 6 mm).

They are found throughout the Eastern United States feeding on woody, or herbaceous plants. Look for them in grasslands, woodland edges, open fields and on the leaves of trees.  They rarely occur in large enough aggregations to cause significant damage to plants.


Mating probably takes places in late summer or early fall and the female will use her sharp ovipositor to slice into twigs or the stems of many of the plants they feed on, like blueberries for instance. She will lay her eggs within the slit she creates and the eggs overwinter. When spring arrives the eggs hatch and the nymphs superficially resemble their parents. They reach the adult stage by late summer and the cycle will begin again. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Prairie Vole

Are you wondering why I am featuring a mammal on an insect blog? Just look at this face how could I possibly resist sharing? Plus, they eat insects, so it ties in with the blog theme right?

This adorable little rodent is a Prairie Vole (Microtus ochrogaster) and they are common throughout the midwest. This one was caught in a live trap for rats and wasn't smart enough to figure out he could fit through the holes in the cage. I thought about feeding it to my pet snake, but I just couldn't bring myself to do so because it was too cute. I let it go and it ran into an old pulley we had laying on the porch. I managed to take a few pictures before I placed it inside an old bird house.

Prairie Voles are found in dry, grassy areas where they dig tunnels and burrows that they are quick to retreat to when alarmed. They are known to live in family units and many individuals may share the same burrow and tunnels. They are also known to be monogamous which is unlike most other voles, or even other small rodents like mice for instance. After prairie voles mate, the male will remain by the females side for a period of at least 24 hours then they will become a mated pair and remain together for the remainder of their lives, which is short at about 2 years (if they aren't eaten first). This relationship does not seem to be based on sex, but rather a social behavior, They will groom, cuddle and touch each other continuously while together and share in rearing their offspring. Mating takes place in the spring or fall and about 25 days later she will give birth to about a 1/2 dozen hairless, blind babies. Litter size is dependent upon food sources available. Less food=smaller litters.  She may have up to 4 litters a year. If the females is killed, the male generally does not seek another life partner. Even though they are "monogamous" they will upon occasion seek a little somethin-somethin on the side and mate with an available sexual partner, but will not pair bond with that mate.

The young open their eyes at about one week of age and by two to three weeks are self sufficient. Females are able to reproduce by 40 to 45 days of age. Like all small rodents or rabbits, they reproduce often, and reach maturity at a rapid rate. They are important prey items for many wild animals including snakes, owls, hawks, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, etc. Some consider them a pest because they will get into gardens and feed on seeds, produce and other plants. They will also consume some insects, but seem to prefer vegetation. They may feed on stored grain, but overall the benefit outweighs any negative aspects attributed to these tiny rodents. If however you decide to use poison baits to remove them, be aware that any poison they ingest will make its way into the food chain. The poisoned vole, will be eaten by an owl and consequently the owl will be poisoned. Most of the time if you are tolerant of the predators such as snakes, coyotes, etc they will take care of any voles that are hanging around your garden. Nature has a way of balancing itself if we let it.

In 1994, in Pulaski County, MO a single Prairie Vole was found to be a reservoir for a disease uniquely described to them called Bloodland Lake Virus which is a type of Hantavirus. It was later found in voles in St. Louis County, MO. Hantavirus is a very serious disease spread through the droppings of rodents and bats to humans. High concentrations of virus laden excrement can dry out and the dust off this waste can become airborne and be inhaled by humans. Hantavirus is rare, but can be fatal. While the prairie vole has been shown to harbor this virus in its system there has been no transference to humans to date. All reported cases of Hantavirus in humans have been traced back to bats, mice and rats. I find it fascinating that these little guys carry such a potentially life threatening virus in their system, but it has not found a way to infect humans. Maybe it is largely due to the fact that voles don't generally share our dwellings like other rodents and even bats can and will. We are far more likely to come in contact with these other carriers than with a vole.

They are active year-round and do not hibernate. They will create tunnels in the snow to travel back and forth to burrows and food stores. They will cache food for the winter such as berries, nuts and seeds. During the warmer months they are primarily nocturnal and are rarely encountered in daylight hours.

This little vole was fed an apple wedge and sent on his or her way to continue reproducing and providing necessary nutrition to all the wildlife living in our area.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Black & Yellow Garden Spider

Black & Yellow Garden Spiders (Argiope aurantia) are found throughout the United States and are one of the most commonly seen spiders in Missouri. They build elaborate webs at the edges of field and meadows or crop ground which earned them another common name of Corn spider. You may also find them in their webs on the eaves of your home, or on your porch railings. Also look for them around outbuildings.

Their webs are unique structures measuring up to 2 feet in diameter with a stabilimentum running up the middle in a zig-zag pattern. There are differing opinions as to the purpose of the stabilimentum. Some researchers feel it may be a form of camouflage that aids in hiding the spider as it rests upside down in the center of the web. Others feel it acts as a lure of sorts to attract insects to the web and still others feel it may be a deterrent for birds to keep them from flying into the web and destroying it. I've even read that it may act as a stabilizer to strengthen the web and keep it from being completely destroyed by the large insects these spiders favor. Bugs like cicadas and grasshoppers struggle quite a bit when tangled in sticky webbing and can easily wipe out a well constructed web. Only spiders that are diurnal have stabilimenta at the center of their webs. So it must have something to do with other things that are also active during the day.

At the end of each day they will consume the center portion of the web, leaving the radial line that the "orb" is attached to. It may be that she consumes the web for the extra protein available from the tiny insects caught in the webbing. Or perhaps its just because webbing is a pricey commodity to create and conserving it only makes sense.

Males are much smaller than females and only measure up to .35" whereas females measure up to 1.10". Males will roam around seeking females to mate with, when he finds a likely candidate he will sit at the periphery of her web and use his front legs to "tap" out a dance of sorts that she will recognize as a possible mate and not food (if he's lucky). Once mating has taken place the male will die, having lived for the sole purpose of mating. She may consume him at this point for extra protein.

She will begin laying eggs on a thin sheet of silk, then cover them with another layer of silk. Then she wraps this all up in another layer of brownish colored silk that she will form into a sac with her legs. She is capable of laying up to 4 egg sacs containing up to 1,000 eggs within each sac. She usually places the sacs at the center of the web where she hangs out. This allows her to guard the egg sac until she dies, which usually happens when the first frost arrives. The egg sacs overwinter and hatch in the spring. The spiderlings will "balloon" to new locations and build their own webs. Many of them will be predated on by other spiders, insects, birds, frogs and other creatures fond of tiny spiders. So even though a single female may produce up to 4,000 eggs, only a small percentage of them will survive to adulthood.

Humans have little to fear from these strikingly beautiful spiders. They are not known to be harmful to humans. Bites are only likely to occur when you grab one or mishandle one. A bite is reported to be no worse than a bee sting. If you have allergies to bee venom or other insect venom, then a bite from one could be medically significant and you should seek help.

Garden spiders are extremely beneficial to gardeners and farmers alike. They feed on harmful insects like crickets, moths and grasshoppers, controlling their populations and protecting your plants and crops from the voracious feeding habits of those insects. Not to mention watching them construct their web each morning is a fascinating thing to see. They should be welcomed to live in your garden and appreciated for the help they are providing, free of charge.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Orchard OrbWeaver

What these spiders lack in size they more than make up for in absolute beauty. The Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) is without a doubt one of the most stunningly gorgeous orb weavers in Missouri. They belong to the spider family, Tetragnathidae , which are the Longjawed Orbweavers. This species has exceptionally long legs, especially the front two pairs, which makes them look an awfully lot like long-jawed orbweavers that they are closely related to, and which it is sometimes called. Like most species of spiders females are larger than males. Spiders are never measured in terms of legspan, but rather body length. Females may reach lengths up to 5/16ths of an inch, and males are smaller at 5/32nds of an inch. The background color of the abdomen is creamy or pearly with a series of yellow, black and orange lines running down the length. There is a sheen to the abdomen, almost a metallic look.

Look for them in low hanging shrubs, bushes and other plants especially in moist woodlands or wetlands. Like most orb weavers they build elaborate webs up to a foot in diameter for capturing insects. Spiders within the family Tetragnathidae build webs with a hole at the center where they will "Hang out" waiting for prey to fall  or fly into the web. You will usually find them hanging upside down and with their back facing the ground, so they will be placed on the underside of the web. This exposes their belly for viewing and sometimes causes them to be mistaken for black widows, which I find amazing. But, I guess if you see a reddish or orangish marking on the belly of a spider your first thought might be widow!

Mating takes place in late spring or early summer and the female will create an egg sac and deposit several hundred eggs within. She may place the egg sac at the edge of her web within the bush or shrub where she lives or she may attach it to a branch or twig. She will die by the end of the summer.  The egg sac will overwinter and the spiderlings will emerge from the sac in the spring and the cycle will begin all over again.

This is thought to be the only spider named by Charles Darwin, who we know to be the person behind the theory of evolution. The genus name of Leucauge in Greek translates to *with a bright gleam* and combined with the species name venusta which is Latin for elegant, beautiful or charming makes for a very apt name for these spiders. Although I'm not sure if spiders can be charming or not, but as evidenced here they can certainly be beautiful.

Like many spiders they will retreat when they feel threatened. Some will follow a drag line made of silk to a safe hiding spot somewhere near the edge of the web in some shrubbery, this species often drops completely to the ground to hide among the leaf litter. While this can make them somewhat difficult to find, taking a little time to search for them is well worth it to be awarded a closer look at the spectacular species.