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!


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