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.