Sunday, December 12, 2010

Alien-like Arthropods

The insect world definitely contains some totally wacky, creepy, kooky creatures!  In fact, viewing some species through my macro lens conjures up ideas of aliens, sci-fi and fantasy! Take for instance our first exhibit...when I first saw him he was literally a tiny, moving dot on a leaf. But, a peek through my camera viewfinder made me wonder what in the world (or out of this world) he was! Seriously, look at those eyes! That translucent shield and those spiked legs are just freaky!
Actually this very common member of "Arthropoda" is known as a Leafhopper. For those wondering what an arthropod is, it is the largest animal group on earth.  This group of animals include the invertebrates (animals without backbones). Arthropods are identified as having an exoskeleton, segmented body and jointed appendages, and includes the insects, arachnids and crustaceans. By the way, arthropods are the most successful animals on the planet!

Ok, back to our leafhopper. They belong to the family Cicadellidae in the order Hemiptera. This particular one has not yet reached maturity so it is referred to as a "nymph". Leafhoppers eat plant sap so they have piercing-sucking mouthparts and rows of spine-like setae (hairs) on their hind legs. I have no idea which species this might be! He was actually very beautifully colored. His body was basically a mint green, with pinkish legs and yellow eyes trimmed in bright orange. The large eyes provide this insect with excellent sight and the REALLY long legs enable him to make a lickity-split hop out of sight if necessary! Now you see you don't!
Leafhoppers are found in every habitat that supports vascular plants, on every continent and ecosystem in the world. These insects have changed very little since the time of the dinosaurs. In fact there are some regions that contain leafhopper fossils from 35-55 million years ago that are indistinguishable from species found today in those same regions. Like many other insects, they communicate with each other by producing songs through special sound-producing organs on their abdomens called "tymbals". Of course, these songs are inaudible to the human ear. I read when an adult sits on a leaf and calls to a mate, the song makes the plant vibrate! Interesting, huh?

The picture below is of an adult leafhopper (probably not the same species as the nymph pictured above). This is the Red-banded Leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea), also known as the Candy-striped Leafhopper or the Scarlet and Green Leafhopper. Many leafhopper species are brilliantly colored and patterned, although others are green/brown. This one is secreting "honeydew" (see the droplet at the end of the abdomen). Honeydew is a sweet substance that is produced after digesting the plant sap, and it is eaten by ants, wasps and other insects that are attracted to sweets.

Phlox Plant Bug (Lopidea Davisi)
The proboscis on this Phlox Plant Bug looks like your grandmother's darning needle! As you can see, this insect has piercing-sucking mouth parts that are used to inject tissue-dissolving saliva into a plant, then suck up the fluids. This bug has developed such a liking to the phlox plant, it was named after it! The phlox plant bug feeds on and breeds on wild phlox, but is considered a pest of cultivated phlox.

The early morning dew drop really puts the size of this insect into perspective! He may be small, but his   coloration speaks LOUD AND CLEAR! His bright orange and black aposematic colors act as an "advertisement" to predators that he may be toxic or distasteful (part of his survival plan)! Aposematism is an adaptation in nature that allows an organism to escape harm by mimicking other organisms that are harmful to predators if eaten. Colors, sounds, odors or other characteristics are displayed that can "fool" predators to believe they will be toxic if eaten. In this case, the coloration is a well-known "red flag" to predators that this meal could be bad!

The picture below clearly demonstrates how this insect is easily able to puncture and gorge himself on plant juice!

This next creature is the Virginia Ctenuchid Moth (Ctenuchid Virginica). I saw him feeding in a large, quiet meadow in West Virginia and was attracted to his brilliance and long dark wings.  I thought they appeared similar to a long dark cloak. In fact, if Gotham City existed in the insect world, this would definitely be the Caped Crusader aka Batman! I definitely see a resemblance! This beautiful moth has a striking appearance with his metallic blue-green thorax that is accented by his bright yellow-orange head. I believe this is a female because the male has magnificent feathery antennas. This one's antennas are not nearly as feathery as those of the handsome male. The adults fly primarily in the daytime and feed on nectar.

Yikes! Now this one does look very alien-like! This bizarre bug is a Crane Fly (genus Nephrotoma). I wont' even try to guess the species since there are so many that are similar. This gangling fellow may resemble a giant mosquito, but he actually belongs to a group of harmless flies.  They do not bite and in fact, most adults do not even eat. They have a very short life span of about 10-15 days. The most important function of the adult is mating and egg-laying and they require water more than they require food.
Crane flies serve an important role in the ecosystem, as the larva and adults serve as a food source for many animals such as birds, frogs, lizards, spiders, dragonflies and many other insects. The crane fly larvae are detritus feeders (they eat organic material), which helps to enrich and renew the soil.

They are rather strange looking, but I still think they are beautiful in their own way!

Here is another type of fly known as the Marsh Fly (family Sciomyzidae). This odd-looking insect is actually also known as "snail killer" because they will lay eggs on snails, slugs and other mollusks, and the larvae will then parasitize the organism.
 The marsh fly is slender, has prominent eyes, forward pointing antennas and bristles on the upper hind legs. They have various brown markings on their wings that differ with each species. They feed on dew, nectar and tree sap. They are found around ponds, rivers, and marshy areas throughout North America where there are abundant snails and mollusks that serve as the food source for their larvae.

Lord of June! This is one of the names given to the  Common Green Darner (Anax junius).
This very large dragonfly resembles a fighter pilot as he patrols swiftly back and forth over his hunting grounds on ponds, lakes and other bodies of water. They are one of the fastest and largest dragonflies in North America.
They have also been referred to as "mosquito hawks" because they feed on many insects harmful to humans, especially mosquitoes. This agile, carnivorous predator has tremendous flying speeds and astounding eyesight that enable them to grab their prey right out of the air. They have powerful jaws and a huge appetite, which is a terror to winged insects that cross their path, but very beneficial to us! Their green and blue markings are very brilliant, and the wings shimmer in the sunlight. I love to watch them hunt and hear the sound of their wings as they do fly-by's! I was very lucky to find this one warming up in the won't see them land very often!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Liquidator

This title may bring to mind a violent character in a mafia movie, but the term "Liquidator" also  accurately describes the feeding behavior of this lovely but deadly orange invertebrate. Meet the Assassin Bug! This particular one is a nymph, meaning he has not yet reached maturity. They go through different growth stages before becoming an adult. His physical appearance will change somewhat and he will also grow wings by the time he reaches his final stage of maturity.

So what is so intimidating about the behavior of this orange, spiny creature? Well, the following is proper dining etiquette according to this species:

The Assassin Bug will either lie in wait to ambush his prey or will stalk it, and then aggressively grab it with its powerful forelegs and plunge its "beak" (proper word is rostrum) into the unfortunate prey's body, pumping a powerful dose of lethal toxin into the tissues, which paralyzes the victim, then liquefies his insides. The Assassin Bug then guzzles up the gooey goodness through the same straw-like tube that he used to impale the victim with. Depending on the size of dinner, the Assassin Bug may feed for up to an hour to get every last bit of ooze. (Ahh, good to the last drop...wait, isn't that a Maxwell House slogan?) If that thought isn't bad enough, keep in mind that this insect is not afraid to attack something much bigger than itself! The potent poison is capable of liquefying a small insect in as little as 3 seconds and can even "do the job" on a very large caterpillar in as little as 7 or 8 seconds!

As I stated above, this nymph will change somewhat in appearance, but most Assassin Bugs share some general elongated head, narrow neck, long legs, and the prominent tube for feeding (rostrum). The rostrum can be a surprising weapon, containing tiny needles (stylets) that are used to puncture the food source, but while not in use it is held curved up toward the underside of of the body. The end of the rostrum is often held into a groove called the prosternum.  Notice how in some pictures the rostrum is tucked under, and other times, during hunting, it is swung forward. Interestingly, the insect can rasp the rostrum against ridges in the prosternum to produce sound--a tactic often used as an attempt to deter predators. If this warning doesn't work, the agitator receives a quick, painful stab.

Notice the many spines present on the nymph stage. Magnification shows tiny stiff hairs at the top of each spine. I am guessing this is a defensive characteristic for this young insect. It looks like he means business at both ends!! Abdominal dorsal spines are not present on the dorsal surface of the adult, and the adult's abdomen becomes more flattened.

There are thousands of species of Assassin Bugs that live in fields and forests world-wide. Mexico, Central America, and South America even have a species that likes to co-habitate with humans, and they have been known to transmit a potentially fatal disease called "Chagas Disease". We don't need to worry about that here in our part of the United States though. There is, however, a species commonly called the "kissing bug," because it lurks around at night in homes and will bite humans on the lips! This one is not prevalent in our immediate area either, but lives in the more Southwestern part of the United States. Some assassin bugs kill specific insects

That being said, you should still respect the species we have in our area because although they are normally a slow-moving, mind-their-own-business type of bug, they will inflict a very painful defensive bite if handled carelessly. Their "bite" is actually the same process they use to kill their prey...they will stab your skin and inject the same toxin into your tissues that is used to paralyze and kill insects, and this could cause necrosis cells at the injured site, causing burning and pain initially, and then an itchy lump later. There may even be a few individuals that are sensitive to the bite and they may experience a swollen tongue, larynx or difficulty breathing (as in bee sting allergies).

I felt very fortunate to be able to observe this Assassin Bug nymph as he was walking and hunting along the tops of some Queen Anne's Lace blooms in a field at Clear Creek Metro Park. This was the first of this species I've seen, and I thought he was strikingly beautiful. I loved the way he kept his eyes on me the entire time that I kept my eyes (and camera) on him. He literally watched every move I made. He had a very slow, deliberate pace as he moved from petal to petal of the flowers, carefully moving one leg at a time. I'm not sure, but I would imagine this "stealth walk" decreases the chance of him being noticed by his potential prey. The following are a series of pictures I took just because I loved observing him...His steady eye never leaving mine! By the way, these insects are actually very beneficial in controlling harmful insect populations. They do much more good than harm regarding their impact on humans. 

It was kind of comical how he was observing me from behind this leaf.  I thought it was cute at the time, but maybe he was sizing ME up??

Looks like an aphid lunch!

The genus Pselliopus is distinguished by the black banded, bright orange bodies.  believe the species in this blog is the Pselliopus cinctus, which is very similar to Pselliopus barberi. (It is hard make a positive ID of a nymph, but these two species are the common ones found in the Eastern United States). The bands are black and white on the cinctus and orange and black on the barberi. Dennis Profant, Entomology and Natural Resources instructor at Hocking College helped me to identify this one because of the confusion between the similar species (there is yet another species that also has the same coloration, but is only found in the western states). Insect identification sure gets confusing...I'm sure glad I have Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects and an Entomology instructor as a friend!

Friday, November 26, 2010

There's gold in them thar weeds!!

Back in August while walking along a field, a tiny sparkle of gold near the ground caught my attention. This little glisten begged me for a closer look! Down on hands and knees, I discovered a gorgeous, yet odd-looking little creature that looked like a microscopic turtle with antennas! Just so happens this little insect is appropriately named the Tortoise Beetle. There are actually 1400 different species (many brightly colored) in North America, but this particular one is the Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata).

This miniature wonder is no more than 1/4 inch in diameter and sports a cool, colorful "shell" adorned with brilliant metallic gold splotches. The gold is super reflective! This shield flattens out around the edges and becomes nearly transparent, perfectly concealing the head and legs much like that of a tortoise (hence the name). I think they appear like they are encased in glass. These insects live and feed primarily on plants in the morning glory and bindweed family. The adults will spend their life among these plants and will lay eggs on the underside of the leaves. The larvae will hatch after a couple of weeks and they too, will immediately begin feeding on the leaves of the plant.

Interestingly, the larvae of the tortoise beetle carries a shield of a different kind on its back...they have spiny bodies and a hooked abdomen that serves to excrete and deposit large amounts of excrement (poo), which they will carry around on their back for camouflage. This excrement sticks to the back, along with the skins that are shed during molting, creating quite an unsightly appearance that may cause prey to look elsewhere for a meal. (These little critters create quite a disgusting image with all that crap on their back). This protective barrier is called a "fecal shield," and they will continue this masquerade until they reach the adult stage.

The larvae will continue to feed throughout the summer until they mature to adults, and will then overwinter in the debris at the base of the plant, where they will emerge the following summer.

When summer arrives again, you can bet I will be crawling around the bindweed and honeysuckle vines looking for tiny holes in the leaves that will be evidence of the feeding tortoise beetles. They are not very tolerant when approached, and will fly away quickly, but I welcome the challenge to get a better photographic angle to capture the adorable face that is hidden under the transparent edge of that unique, "stained glass" shell!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mother Oak

A couple of days ago my husband and I had the good fortune of meeting up with well-known Naturalist, Jim McCormac. He met us at Rhododendron Cove, which is a beautiful nature preserve, and led us on an enjoyable and informative hike.  His passion for the outdoors was evident as he introduced us to the many birds, plants, insects and trees that thrive there.  His keen ear and knowledge of "everything nature" made it effortless for him to identify every audible vocalization along the way, whether it be a chirp, cheep, buzz, screech, trill, tick or twitter!

The three of us rambled along discussing the many things we encountered along the way as we enjoyed the warm temperatures and morning sun. Jim and Steve continued up the steep trail to view the rock formations and dense rhododendrons, but I decided to hang back and check out photo opportunities (specifically insects)!

The leaf-littered footpath quickly turned into a "road to enlightenment" for me as I came upon a huge oak tree that would prove to be more than just a solitary stand of timber. I sat down at her base to look and listen. I find that when I sit very still and watch with a "soft gaze," things start to come to life! This is how I like to discover the many living creatures that inhabit wherever I happen to be.

The texture of the bark suddenly began to reveal a microscopic world in full motion! It turns out this big, beautiful oak tree was serving as a sanctuary to various tiny, yet very significant organisms! I sat and observed the movement in the cracks and crevices of the thick textured bark, as well as where the trunk meets the damp soil beneath the leafy ground-cover.  All of the "tenants" of the tree seemed too preoccupied with their own business to pay any mind to who or what else happened to be lurking around. It was amazing that Mother Nature had provided this oak as a guardian and safe haven for some creatures, yet some of the others were utilizing it for a stalking and hunting grounds. Somehow in nature this delicate balance works flawlessly and is a prime example of the yin and yang of life! The amazing part is that all of this energy was going on just three feet above the ground...that is not to mention the importance of what is happening 60 or 70 feet above in the canopy where yet another ecosystem thrives involving many birds, mammals and other insects!

This blog includes my photographs, personal observations, and some research I did on the inhabitants of the lower portion of this living shelter I refer to as "Mother Oak".

This colorful, TINY insect (not quite the size of a grain of rice)  is an Orange and White Leafhopper. I believe this particular one may be Arboridia plena. There are around 20,000 different species and most are brightly colored with patterns of lines, patches and/or spots of various shades. There is a different leafhopper species for almost every type of plant. I have photographed other beautiful leafhoppers that I'll include in a future post.

This particular one seemed to be seeking shelter in a crevice in the bark. He was so tiny I actually had trouble getting the camera to focus on him. These are sap-sucking insects and they have very powerful, spiny back legs that allow them to jump very high and quick. They have especially large eyes for their size to provide excellent visual acuity, which aids in their survival.

An interesting note: They are also referred to as "sharpshooters" because they forcibly squirt out excrement in a fine stream of droplets from the huge volume of liquid they digest after feeding. Another interesting note is that they have sound-producing organs at the base of their abdomens. The "songs" that they produce are too faint to be heard by humans.

There were several other leafhoppers that were hopping around between the base of the tree and the dried leaves. I saw bright green ones and other striped ones, but they were too fast for photos!

Here is the most exciting thing I happened to see! I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me as I watched this little piece of bark seem to walk and around and nestle itself into a tight little crack of the oak's bark. It became still, and then another tiny clump of bark-like material began walking around, then another and another. I had never seen anything like it before! The moving clumps were very soft to the touch. Jim and Steve had just come down from the top of the trail and Jim informed me that it was a Lacewing Larvae. What the arrow is pointing to is the clump of lichen that the larvae has attached onto its back! This incredible behavior serves two purposes: It completely conceals them so they can stalk their next meal-and it certainly works! You absolutely would not notice this tiny insect if you were not paying VERY CLOSE attention! They move fairly slowly, so they are almost undetectable. Some larva may even cover themselves with their victim's dried remains so they can continue to stalk and feed without the next victim even becoming suspicious!

The other purpose this camouflage serves is to protect themselves. They blend so well into their surroundings that birds or other predators cannot detect them as food.

These tiny insects are actually ferocious predators and have a huge appetite, eating as many as 100 insects per day. They devour aphids, scales, mealybugs, mites, whiteflies, and insect eggs. They are considered very beneficial in this larval stage, as they help to keep those harmful populations down. They have sharp, curved jaws that resemble ice picks and can easily impale their prey. Aphids are a favorite, and they will grab one, suck out their juices, throw the remains to the side and grab another. They have even been given the name "Aphid Lion!"

These larvae will overwinter in the tree bark crevices or other protected places.

The adult Lacewing is a delicate, pretty insect with wings that resemble translucent lace. They feed mostly on pollen and nectar, and supplement their diet with some mites and aphids.

Here you can get a glimpse of this amazing insect! Jim pulled one of the clumps off the tree so we could get a look at what was underneath. As you can see, that clump of lichen is really packed around that tiny body! This one seemed really agitated being upside-down. His tiny legs were kicking like mad! His abdomen is what is visible, so his head is still hidden under the clump. When Jim returned him to the tree, he stuck to it like velcro and continued his journey upward! I was really excited to be able to witness this cool and unusual display!!

This strange-looking fellow's common name is Winter Firefly (Ellychnia corrusca). This is another insect I have never seen before! They are a bit larger than the common lightning bug. There were several of these fireflies deeply tucked inside the cracks and crevices of their huge "Oak shelter". They tuck their heads under, displaying what resembles a shield against their body, and will overwinter in the crevice, and will become active once again in March. Mating will take place in April and May.

Here is one of the Winter Fireflies who apparently has not picked out a suitable winter resting spot yet! This species is diurnal, which means they are active in the daytime (whereas the common firefly we know so well is active at night). The Winter Firefly is also a bit different, in that it is "fire-less". They are not bioluminescent like our night-loving fireflies. This species lack the light-producing organs. They are very active during the summer days and feed on flowers and sweet sap, but as temperatures cool, they become less active and begin to stay close to tree trunks where they will find refuge in the crevices throughout the cold winter months.

Here are a couple of other very small critters making the oak tree their home. The top tiny insect is labeled "Collembola". The common name is Springtail. There were several of these throughout the bark of the tree, and no doubt many more that went unnoticed among the leaves and soil. These insects have been around for 400 million years and are by far the most abundant insect in the world!  They can be found anywhere on earth and exist in the soil, moss cushion, fallen wood, grass tufts, ant and termite hills and tree bark...just about anywhere. There are some 6000 species worldwide and different species can survive extreme climates. There are some that can be found at 21,000 feet on Mt. Everest and even Antarctica, and still others that can be found in the volcanoes in Hawaii, surviving at 130 deg. F!

The insect gets its name from a curved organ on its ventral surface that it uses to propel itself up into the air. Their quick jump resembles that of a flea. They are so small you can hardly see them, but they do play an important role. They eat organic material (decaying vegetation, fungi, bodies or fragments of dead organisms, etc.) and this aids in microbial breakdown as well as in aiding the formation of soil and micro structures. In other words, they serve a vital part in the soil-making process. They are also a significant food source for beetles, spiders and other carnivorous invertebrates. I guess everything in nature, regardless how tiny, has a purpose!

I'm not completely sure, but I believe the spider is one of the Sheetweb Spiders. There are over 4000 species known and they are very small, shiny and many have ornamental abdomens. They are called Sheetweb Spiders because of the shape of their web. The different species build different types of sheet webs, but this particular species builds a very fine, almost invisible, non-sticky web on tree bark, the ground, on stones or plant material. It is difficult to tell from this picture, but there is a very fine web that just barely clears the crevices of the bark. It covered quite a large area.  These tiny spiders are very well camouflaged in their surrounding as you can see.  This species is one of the most common ballooning spiders...they can release a burst of silk into the air, which can carry them quite considerable distances.

I found this interesting-looking bug on a leaf on the ground. This may look like a small leaf on the surface of a larger leaf, but it is actually a Diamond-Backed Spittlebug (Lepyronia quadrangularis).  There are several different species of these  sap-sucking insects and they are best known for the frothy foam they produce as a nymph. The white froth is produced from ingesting liquids from plants, which are then secreted from their hind-end. The liquid is blown through abdominal openings, creating tiny bubbles that they use to cover themselves with by using their hind legs. This frothy mass of spittle is used to shield the nymph from predation, insulate it during cooler temperatures and prevent dehydration. Pictured is the adult spittle bug, and they are usually found in fields and meadows. This species usually lives cradled in leaf axils, and they prefer leaves with a wide axil. (The axil is the space between the stalk of a leaf and the stem to which it is attached). The adult will overwinter in swampy, protected areas. Notice this spittlebug is well camouflaged on this oak leaf; another example of how this mighty tree provides protection! This species of spittlebug is also referred to as a "froghopper" because it of its extreme jumping ability. It can even catapult itself higher and faster then grasshoppers and bush crickets!
The shape of the diamond-backed spittle bug even resembles a tree frog when the frog is at rest...below is a picture I took this past summer of a tiny  spring peeper resting on a leaf. When the frog's eyes were closed, the shape was incredibly similar to this spittlebug! They are even close in size. I guess that is an example of nature's mimicry!

It was fascinating to see so many different species who all occupied the same space and seemed to stay out of each other's way. I love viewing the macro world-there is so much to discover! I can't get enough of learning about the things that I find through my viewfinder, and it always makes me want to research and read as much as I can to better understand the different species and how they contribute to the big picture.  I try to make sure the information in my blog is as accurate as possible. Dennis Profant, Entomologist and Natural Resources instructor at Hocking College, is a huge help whenever I cannot identify something. He is such a valuable resource and like Jim McCormac, he is always eager to share his infinite knowledge!  By the way, if you aren't already one of Jim's followers (Ohio Birds and Biodiversity), you can see his blog here:
Dennis Profant also has a very interesting blog that he regularly posts. You can see it here: Field Biology in Southeastern Ohio

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wild and Wooly

I am constantly amazed as I continue to make discoveries in the insect world.  I've named this blog "Wild and Wooly" to simply show a few interesting members of the insect community that have beautiful furry textures and also offer a few interesting facts about them.

Virginian Tiger Moth

 Moths and butterflies share the insect order, Lepidoptera, which is Greek for "scale wing".  They also share a few similar characteristics, but they are classified under different sub-orders and have several morphological differences...way too complex to go into here, so I will just stick with easy, interesting information and observations.

I think the furry appearance of butterflies and moths really add to their appeal, although this feature is sometimes not noticeable at first glance.  This very pretty Virginian Tiger Moth appears to have a beautiful white fur coat wrapped around his body. (I think he looks like a mighty snow king that reigns over a tiny winter fantasyland! OK, enough of my child-like imagination.) The "fur" on moths and butterflies isn't actually fur, but "hair-like" scales that serve several purposes. Since butterflies and moths are ectothermic (meaning they are unable to maintain a constant body temperature without an outside source, such as the sun), the hair on their bodies serve as an insulator to help keep their core temperatures at a functioning level once the air begins to get cooler. They must have a certain body temperature to be able to fly. This is especially important for moths, since they are mostly active at night and cannot rely on basking in the sun as butterflies do.

Since most moths are nocturnal by nature, the hair also serves as protection from bat predators by  absorbing the echolocation calls that bats emit. The fur can absorb so much of the echolocation signals that a bat may not even realize the moth is there. Speaking of bats...Another extremely interesting note regarding defensive mechanisms for moths: Tiger moths can emit ultrasonic "clicks" at a much faster succession than the echolocation clicks of bats, thereby "jamming" the calls of the bat pursuers. This results in the inability of the bat to accurately locate the exact position of the moth. This has actually been proven in scientific studies. It is unbelievable how these tiny, fragile insects have such powerful defensive tactics that go completely unnoticed by the human species!

Since I actually disturbed this Virginian Tiger Moth from his daytime resting period (he had been hiding under some brush that I had cut the previous day and flew out when I cleaned it up), he maintained a stiff posture while I was trying to photograph him. I don't know if he was playing dead or if he was actually in a state of "sleep" because he is not normally active in the day, but he would not move at all. I wanted to get a better picture of his face and eyes, but he kept the eyes obscured with his "labial palps", as you can see in the pictures. These are not legs, but actually mouthparts that are covered with tiny sensory hairs and scales. The moth uses these labial palps to keep the proboscis and eyes clean, and also uses them to assist in determining if something is a viable food source. 

I plucked the blade of grass the moth was holding onto and placed it on a flower, but he still would not move. I took one more picture of this beauty and then left him alone. I don't ever want to cause stress or harm to the creatures I'm photographing. When I returned a few minutes later he had flown off to a private, darker area no doubt to continue resting until his normal activity time, which would begin sometime soon after nightfall.

Miscellaneous butterflies
As a rule, moths are normally more plump and hairy than butterflies. In most cases, that is true, but I've included a few butterflies that I've encountered that do have lots of soft hair on their bodies. You may not notice this kind of detail because of their constant fluttering and busy activity, but as I've noticed with all insects, once you get a close look you notice all kinds of remarkable characteristics. Butterflies definitely adorn our world with beauty and grace, but just what is the purpose of the gorgeous fur on their bodies?

Butterflies warm their bodies by the sun, but like moths, they cannot maintain that body temperature when the fahrenheit dips down. This covering of hair (not really hair, but long hair-like scales) serves as thermal insulation as it does in moths. It also aids in protecting their soft bodies and adds water resistance, but there are also other specialized hairs and scales covering the entire bodies of butterflies (and moths) called "tactile setae" that serve a further purpose. Depending on the species, these tiny hairs may be on the eyes, antennas, body, wings, and legs and each are attached to special nerve cells, which relay information about the hair movement to the butterfly-this is very important for survival. The sensations the butterfly feels provides important feedback as to what is happening to him or to his immediate environment. You can see the many fine hairs and "fur" on this Least Skipper. It even appears that he has long eyelashes! These hairs serve a much higher purpose than just making him look adorable!
The tactile setae also serve a vital purpose for flight on butterflies and moths. The extremely specialized communication between setae and sensory nerves help the adult to sense wind, gravity, and the position of the head, body, wings, legs, antennae and other body parts. The fine hairs on the antennae sense both touch and smell. Butterflies' wings are covered by thousands of overlapping scales, which further strengthen, protect and insulate. They also aid in the flow of air along their wings as they fly. Delicate hairs that form fringed margins along the wings, as pictured below on this Pearl Crescent Butterfly, also provide important aerodynamic functions. 

Here is dorsal view of another tiny, Pearl Crescent Butterfly, showing lots of fine soft hairs. Another purpose for body hair is that of involuntary pollen transfer. As butterflies light from flower to flower inserting their proboscis into flowers, pollen will stick to the hairs on the legs, underside of the body, and even to the proboscis, and they will carry that pollen on to the next flower. Bees are true pollinators, but the butterflies do a fairly good job unintentionally!

Below is a picture of the beautiful Orange Sulphur Butterfly. As you can see, the sulphurs are also very hairy! These butterflies are relatively small, and while in flight their beauty cannot be truly appreciated! Patience and a macro lens help to capture the real beauty and innocence of nature that unfortunately often goes unnoticed!

The picture below is of a Common Wood Nymph. This beautiful brown butterfly has distinctive eye spots on their wings, which function as a special form of defense. If threatened, the wood nymph spreads its wings, displaying the eyespots, which often will distract a predator or possibly even scare it off! The occurrence of patterns and colorations are important survival strategies, (for example, mimicry and camouflage), and also necessary to attract potential mates.  The variation of the pigmentation of scales and how they are positioned and shaped can create beautiful illusions of iridescence and make the butterfly appear to have many more colors than they actually do. Beautifully colored scales also serve to attract a potential mate.

Actually, the properties of the scales on the wings and how they function is very highly complex. Scientists have even taken inspiration from the tiny crevices of butterfly wings to create a nanosensor technology that could detect weapons and explosives, due to the fact that their wings have acute chemical-recognition abilities. It is utterly amazing that such seemingly simple creatures of nature that we take for granted could have such an influence on modern technology!

This wood nymph is found in grassy areas, mostly in fields, open meadows and marshlands. I found a bunch of these in a beautiful open meadow while camping in West Virginia. Every morning they were in the same place under an old apple tree along the corner of an old wooden fence. I felt like they were much more tolerant of my presence than some of the other butterflies, and I truly enjoyed standing still and having them flutter and land all around me!

The Wooly Alder Aphid 
While walking along the shallow end of Lake Logan the other day, something caught my eye. At first glance it appeared that that there was a white fungus growing on a speckled alder sapling along the lake's edge. A closer inspection revealed an amazingly organized colony of hundreds of aphids with white fuzzy bodies packed shoulder to shoulder on a section of the alder.  (By the way, aphids are soft-bodied, tiny insects that suck the sap out of small tree branches, vines, flowers and plants of all kinds.) There are hundreds of different species, but I'll concentrate on the wooly alder aphid. Get ready for an interesting story!

The name, wooly alder aphid, is due to the aphid's ability to secrete a white, waxy filament from their abdomens that resembles white wool. Their bodies become completely covered with these entangled filaments, which serves as a protective defense from predators. Should a predator attempt to eat one of these plump juicy insects, they may just get a mouthful of waxy, wooly fuzz instead of a juicy meal, thus discouraging the attack!

Lets take this wild story from the beginning...The life cycle of this interesting aphid actually starts from the single egg that each female will lay in the bark of a silver maple tree. Once the eggs hatch in the spring the nymphs begin feeding on the mid-vein of new leaves of the maple. Amazingly, ALL young aphids nymphs are wingless FEMALES and they mature quickly and continually give live birth to MORE FEMALE aphids. The act of reproducing young that requires NO MALE INTERVENTION is called parthenogenetic reproduction. This FEMALE-ONLY colony builds very quickly and all remain relatively hidden underneath their own waxy strands.

In late June, they become winged and begin to fly to alder trees to carry on their life cycle on this second host. They resemble little tufts of cotton flying through the air. They continue to reproduce MORE FEMALES and produce more waxy filaments until the occupied areas of the alder begin to look cotton-covered. The population grows rapidly. All summer long they feed on sap and produce female clones.

When fall approaches. something incredible happens...hormones in their bodies change in response to temperature, day length, overcrowding, and quality of food, which suddenly causes WINGED MALES to be produced! The winged males and winged females then fly back to the silver maple trees where they  mate sexually this time and lay eggs, which will overwinter within the cracks and crevices of the bark. New generations will begin in the spring with the hatching of once again ALL-FEMALE wingless aphids (who will quickly become cotton-covered) and new large colonies will accumulate in the maples and then move on to the alders by June's end. (No real harm is caused to either the alder trees or the silver maple trees during the life cycle of this aphid.)

Interestingly, since the parthenogenetic nymphs are actually perfect clones of their parents, they are perfectly adapted to their environment from birth. The occasional mating ensures genetic diversity, which simply means chances for future survival of the species is increased because it allows the species to adapt to a new environment, should there be a change in their current situation.

The picture below shows a couple of ants crawling among the aphids. (There were many ants present, just not pictured). These ants actually protect and "farm" the aphids. They stroke the aphids with their antennas, which causes the aphid to release a drop of a substance rich in sugar that is produced from the sap they suck out of the tree. The ants highly desire this excrement, which is called "honeydew". They will fiercely protect the aphids in return for this honeydew-an example of one of the many mutualistic symbiotic relationships that occur in nature!

Another twist to the amazing life of the wooly aphid is that some insect predators will actually pull some of the wool off of the aphids and attach it to their own bodies to "fool" the ants so they can feed on the aphids without the awareness of the protector ants!!

Flower Scarab Beetle (euphoria sepulcralis)

Scarab beetles are very interesting creatures, with about 30,000 species worldwide. This particular one is a flower-loving scarab commonly named, the "Flower Scarab Beetle." This species is dark brown to black with metallic bronze and green reflections. (The iridescence of this one  actually caught my attention). Although some scarab beetles eat animal dung, the diet of the flower scarab consists of flower pollen, flower nectars and liquids from decaying fruits.  As you can see, this species is somewhat furry, giving them a "teddy bear" appearance!  This is the first time I've ever seen one and I was impressed at how darn cute it was! This one stood on the edge of a Queen Anne's Lace bloom and seemed to lean forward and look right at me! I think he sort of looks like a miniature moose! This is one of the more interesting insects I've had the opportunity to observe.

The ends of a scarab's antennas are made from 3 flattened plates called lamellae that can be compressed into a ball or fan out (as pictured above). When fanned out, this flower scarab is "smelling" the air. Antennas of insects are the primary olfactory sensors. They contain super-sensitive receptors that can also sense vibrations, assess temperature and humidity, and assist in locating food and mates. The scarab will flatten the lamellae when they're not needing to assess their environment (as pictured in the photo below).

Although very sluggish, the beetle still seemed to be quite coordinated as it slowly crawled along the delicate bloom, sometimes hanging upside-down by a leg or two. (Their strong legs are more adapted for digging than for precision climbing). I was careful not to intrude too closely, for if they feel threatened they will feign death and drop off the flower. He didn't seem to mind my curiousness though. I eventually saw a beautiful assassin bug nymph (that I will post in a future blog) that caught my attention and when I looked back, the scarab beetle had flown away to another bloom and I couldn't find him again.

This is not the best angle, but I read that while the scarab's head is buried into a flower, the rear, exposed part resembles a bee due to the coloration and markings, which could serve as a deterrent for a predator.

An interesting note...Scarabs (some extremely beautiful, shiny and colorful) have existed for millions of years, and the Egyptians regarded them as sacred. They were a symbol of resurrection and new life, and they used them for jewelry, amulets and seals for both the living and the dead.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Color Me Beautiful

The brilliance of this Dogbane Leaf Beetle is certainly eye-catching and he is truly a creature of beauty. As he moves about, it appears he constantly changes color from every hue of red, gold, blue and green. The surface of this beetle's body is covered with tiny, slanting plates that overlap a special pigment. Some light rays reflect from the plates, while others reflect from the pigment. These different reflections cause interference that result in a psychedelic changing-of-colors. This prismatic phenomenon helps protect the insect by communicating to possible predators that he may be poisonous so chances will be less likely that he will be eaten or harmed. He will emit a foul smelling enzyme if disturbed. This gorgeous insect is very fun to watch! The beetles feed mainly on dogbane and milkweed and they pose no harm to humans or important vegetation.
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The metallic "armour" covers every bit of his body from his head down to his toes! Brilliance in motion!

What is this strange creature? It is actually the tail-end of a Gray Hairstreak Butterfly! At rest, this little beauty uses a technique of constantly rubbing his hind wings together, which makes the tail projections move about like antennas, while the coloration at the tips of the wings resemble eyes-an attempt to fool predators. As he collects nectar from various little flowers, tail-end in the air, he may only get a nip off his wings and still be able to escape unharmed. I was amazed at his coordination...diligently working on a flower with his nose down, yet keeping up the act on the other end, somewhat like a puppet.  It was very convincing-I really had to look closely when I first saw him in this position because I wasn't sure what it was at first!
Here is the full view of the Gray Hairstreak. He is actually very tiny and flies about eratically-you may not even notice him, but in good lighting he is very vivid. I love the tiny little stripes on his antennas and legs.

I was lucky to have noticed a slight movement in the leaves that revealed this juvenile Angle-Wing Katydid. This one has not yet reached maturity, but he was still quite large. Perfectly camouflaged, he blends in with the green foliage and is often more easily heard than seen. As you can see, the intricate patterns are quite beautiful as if painted on by a skilled artisan. The katydids are closely related to crickets, and they contribute to the wonderful insect "chorus" that can be heard in late summer and fall evenings with their chirps, buzzing and ticking. They create the sounds by rubbing a file on one broadened wing against a scraper of the other wing much like someone playing a fiddle.
Here is a different angle of the katydid-look closely at the front leg and you'll see an oval opening...this is where the ear is located! Ears are located on the two front legs and are used to listen for mates and predators such as bats. Bats can locate and prey upon the katydid by their songs, so katydids may pause their song in response to bat echolocation calls.

This sparkling little jewel is the Virescent Green Metallic Bee. These tiny bees nest socially, but do not make honey, although they are a pollinator of some plants. A female will dig a tunnel in the bare soil or in a dry bank for the colony. The entrance of the tunnel is then guarded by a single bee who will plug the entrance hole with its body until another bee wants in or out. You can observe the guard bee's head right at the entrance as it prioritizes who will enter or exit. Bees returning with pollen will be allowed to enter before any of the bees wishing to exit will be allowed out. The bee pictured here is the male-he can be distinguished by his striped abdomen.

I was pleasantly surprised when I blew up this image. Such a pretty sight as it appears this tiny little bee is holding the stamen of this little flower known as "blue-eyed grass" as if he is smelling it! He is not actually smelling the flower, and he isn't really a bee.  The insect is actually a Hover Fly. (He gets his name because of the way he can hover in mid-air and dart quickly around, and also fly backwards). This species is a "bee mimic".  His coloration and movements mimic those of bees. This insect cannot sting in any way, but may mimic the stinging action of a bee or wasp by pushing the tip of his abdomen into your fingers if he is caught and held. (Another of nature's mechanisms to ward off potential dangers). This tiny hover fly is beneficial because it is an important flower pollinator and also because their larvae will eat many pests in gardens and crop fields.

The pattern on this one reminds me of something that would be painted on a '70's volkswagon bus! This is the very pretty Ailanthus Webworm Moth. While feeding, he doesn't look anything like a moth  for a reason. He mimics a brightly colored beetle by wrapping his wings tightly around his body. This is another of nature's defensive techniques-pretty cool! This moth's name comes partly from the name of the tree that it likes to feed on-the Ailanthus Allissima (Tree of Heaven). This weedy-looking tree was introduced by central and South America to the United States back in the 1700's and now can be found growing wild just about anywhere, even in the cracks of sidewalks or growing out of old abandoned buildings.  Lucky for us this elegant little insect has taken a liking to this very invasive tree!  The Ailanthus Moth was originally an exotic species that was imported into the U.S. from China for the silk industry in the 1800's.  During the caterpillar stage, they spin silky webs within the leaves and they were raised to produce a coarse grade of silk. 

Cicadas Beware!
The following pictures that I'm including in my "Color Me Beautiful" post are anything but fact, they are downright terrifying. I am including them here because of all the cicada activity going on this time of year. 

I was photographing some birds when I heard a loud buzzing and big commotion in the leaves of a branch just above my head. I looked up and witnessed a Cicada Killer paralyzing and capturing a cicada. 

For those that have never seen one, a Cicada Killer is a very large wasp that digs a burrow in well-drained soil in areas that are largely exposed to full sunlight. Their evacuations  begin shortly after the cicadas begin singing. These large wasps look very intimidating, but they normally pose little threat to humans. The males cannot sting, but may dive-bomb people's heads as they display territorial behavior. The females are not aggressive and will rarely sting, but if intentionally provoked they can inflict a painful sting.

The following pictures show how a female captures her prey and then transports it away to her burrow. Some of the pictures are a little blurry due to the fast motion of the cicada killer during the attack:

This first picture shows the female flying in like a torpedo, claiming its victim by inflicting a sting that  instantly paralyzes the unsuspecting cicada.

The picture above and below show the cicada killer flipping the victim over and straddling it. This is the usual way in which a cicada is prepared before being transported away.

This was the last picture I took before the killer carried the cicada away. The female will glide with its victim and either climb another tree and glide again, or drag it (or both) until it reaches its burrow. The paralyzed (but alive) body is placed in a "cell" within the burrow were she will lay an egg on it. Within a couple of weeks, the egg hatches into a larvae and it will feed on the cicada and develop into the next stage (pre-pupa). It will remain in this stage the remainder of the winter and then emerge the following summer where the cycle is repeated.

The cicada killer is beneficial because it controls the cicada populations.