Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bizarre Bugs in the Boonies

On a recent walkabout along a deeply forested trail, I found myself drawn to several bizarre and unusual critters.  I guess most of the inhabitants of the insect world are rather extraordinary to say the least, but I believe that some of the stars of this post deserve special recognition.

This first long-limbed oddity is the Phantom Crane Fly (Bittacomorpha clavipes). It is a most fascinating sight to watch one of these fragile creatures move about. The body kind of resembles a damselfly or skinny dragonfly, but it is the way they fly with their legs all splayed out that looks unlike anything else! They are black, but have bright white markings along their abdomen and legs, and when they fly in and out of the shadows, all you notice are those white spots. If you look at the picture and squint your eyes, you will see what I mean! He really does look like a phantom that appears and disappears! His uniqueness gets better...He has a flared area on each of his tibia (lower portion of his legs) that he utilizes to catch a light breeze, so he really actually "drifts" instead of flying in a specific direction like most winged insects. He really is a beautiful sight to behold, but if you see one, don't take your eyes off him or he will "disappear"!

The phantom crane fly prefers dark, shadowy environments that are around water. I spotted this one wafting between clumps of vegetation and foliage along a creek bank. I saw him several times, but kept losing sight of his "barely there" body. Then he hooked one of his tiny tarsals on a leaf, so I was able to get a couple of pictures as he hung and spun from the leaf edge! I'm not sure if he caught the leaf deliberately or if it just happened by chance, but it was a stroke of luck for me!! See how his legs are positioned? That is just how they remain when he is in flight. He resembles a tiny UFO as he floats about!

You can see a little more detail in this one. Notice the flared portions on the legs. The phantom crane fly really is beautiful and unusual-looking!

Phantom Crane Flies mating

A look through my lens showed this tiny dried speck to be an exoskeleton of a very small insect. The strange part is that its back was "glued" to the surface of a leaf, and I mean it is really stuck there! It wouldn't let lose when I tried to pull it off. I don't know which insect shed this skin-It resembles a lady bug, but I am just not sure!  It will probably always be a mystery!  Pretty cool though!

Jiminy Crickets! Look at those long legs! This is the Camel Cricket (family Rhaphidophoridae). 
This very lanky-legged cricket gets its name from the humped appearance of its back. His long legs make him look like a spider. This is a very unusual looking cricket, especially to me, since the only ones I've ever seen are the small black ones that fill the night air with song. Speaking of song, this particular species couldn't carry a tune in a bucket! Well, actually he cannot "sing" or chirp like regular crickets. Not only can he not sing, but he can't fly either. He is wingless!
You will usually only find this cricket in dark, moist places such as in wells, under logs or boards, in basements, caves, etc. They are also called Cave Crickets. I was shocked at how large this guy was. When I saw him crawling toward me, I really didn't know what it was at first. The camel cricket will actually jump out at anything in an attempt to intimidate something he feels threated by. Thank goodness he didn't do that to me! I would have jumped out of my boots! Actually, they are completely harmless to humans. Since they live in dark, moist places, food may be scarce at times. For survival they are known to consume their own limbs, and they will eat each other if necessary!

A closer view shows their pretty patterns and colors.

This is a cocoon I found-I'm not sure what it is. I was hoping it was a moth, but I have no clue. I thought the shape and the way that hung from the stalk was interesting.

This large scarab beetle is the Grapevine Beetle (Pelidnota punctata). The beetle is quite boisterous and is drawn to lights at night. I didn't find him along the path with the others, but actually heard him hitting the siding of the house the other evening. He was flying totally out of control and his hard shell was making quite a racket as he continued to fly in circular patterns, occasionally crashing into the siding near the porchlight. He landed upside-down at one point and I thought he killed himself, but when I turned him over, off he went again. This time landing on the porch ceiling (pictured). He has beautiful, reflective bluish eyes and bright orange antennas. The antennae are clubbed, and can fan out to serve as receptors that gather certain stimuli in the environment. Interestingly, he would completely retract the antennae and hide them from view whenever I would shine a flashlight on him. This large beetle feeds on grape leaves and other foliage. I always find scarab beetles to be very interesting and beautiful! There are hundreds of different species of all sizes and colors.

These two love bugs are known as Red Milkweed Bugs (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus). They belong to the Long-horned beetle family. Notice how the antennae split the eyes into two. They actually have 2 eyes on each side of their head! (check out the arrows below).

These insects feed on the milkweed plant, which contains a poisonous chemical. The Red Milkweed Bug ingests this chemical, and stores it as defense against predators. Whatever tries to eat the bug will become sick. Most birds or other predators won't likely even try though because the loud red coloration screams out "IF YOU EAT ME, YOU'LL BE SORRY!" Birds or other predators instinctively know that this is a warning color. If they don't, they will learn very quickly and will avoid all prey with bright oranges, reds and blacks in the future. Other insects who share this same diet and coloration include the monarch butterfly, viceroy butterfly, and small and large milkweed bug.
I saw several of these insects, and most of them were mating.
Closeup of eyes that have been split into two because of the placement of the antennae.

Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata)
I love all dragonflies and damselflies, but this damselfly is particularly beautiful! The deep metallic blues and greens are gorgeous! The Jewelwings definitely seem to possess a certain charm! They have a very pretty, fluttery flight pattern, and when they land they seem to actually look at you. I have found them to be very tolerant and will usually hold very still while you observe them!  They are very beneficial, as are all dragonflies and damselflies, because of the large numbers of flies, mosquitos, gnats, aphids and other small insects that they consume daily. The one pictured is a male - he has solid black wings, while the female has a white spot on her wings. 

The deep blues of this very reflective beetle is equally as intense as the Ebony Jewelwing, above. This handsome little guy (and he really is tiny), is the Flea Beetle. He is in the leaf beetle family (Chrysamelidae). There are several different species, so I'm not sure which one this is. They are all very tiny, and have enlarged hind legs that allow for quick springing action when disturbed. Even though they are well equipped to jump out of sight in a flash, they can also walk normally or fly. This one was perfectly content to walk around this leaf while I took pictures.  Even though this picture shows fair representation of his beauty, I still couldn't capture the true reflectivity of the colors. He is almost as pretty as the Dogbane Leaf Beetle I showed in an earlier post. The Dogbane Leaf Beetle seems to reflect several colors, including reds, golds, blues, purples, etc., while flea beetles mainly display deep hues of blues and greens with a hint of lavender. Some of these beetles are beneficial, while others can be pests.

Here is another scarab beetle known as the Rose Chafer (Macrodactylus subspinosus). Their bodies are covered in light yellow hairs. The hairs can wear off over time with age and activity, so it appears this particular one is obviously young. They have clubbed antennae that can spread out and "smell" the air (like the Grapevine Beetle, above). The Rose Chafer possesses sensitive receptors on the clubbed antennae that can detect the pheremones from both plants and other beetles. These pheremone signals are important for survival and mating purposes. In fact all insects possess this elaborate system for communication, protection, direction, to locate food sources, etc.

I don't like spiders, but I don't mind these guys at all. They are not spiders, but are a close relative. Most people know them by their nickname: Daddy Longlegs, but the actual common name is Harvestman (Phalangium opilio).

They are just about everywhere, and in great numbers. While walking along paths or through the weeds, they can be seen poised in dry, curled-up leaves or sitting or crawling along the foliage. In fact, sometimes I've seen dozens of them just sitting on leaves and weeds as if lying in wait! Some people may think they are venomous like spiders, but they actually are totally harmless and even beneficial to humans, due to the fact that they can consume very large numbers of insects and pests. I find them beautiful and elegant in their own way.

Here are a few interesting facts about them: They only live for one year (they cannot survive the winter); they are mainly nocturnal; they have an eye on each side of a knob on their head (known as a turret);  they have sensitive tips on their legs that they utilize to explore, search for food and warn others of danger; they can regenerate new legs if they become injured or missing.

This harvestman was finishing up what looked like to be the remains of a caterpillar.

This one seemed to be relaxing in a leaf "hammock".

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friends in Low Places

Every time I stop by Clear Creek Metro Park I find new and fascinating creatures. I guess it is a good thing I am rather short, because I find the most interesting life forms among the low-growing foliage or at ground level! As I walk along the beautiful trails, I keep my head down and finger on the shutter of my camera because I am ALWAYS surprised at what I see and there is a photographic opportunity just about anywhere. There are so many beautiful species of plants, insects, animals and birds throughout this area. As I meander along my favorite trails, I always leave with photographic captures of little wild things that instill in me a sense of wonder. My insatiable appetite to learn more about nature continues to grow as I make new discoveries along the footpaths of this beautiful and peaceful area. The following are just a few of the many wildlife encounters I've had the privilege to photograph at Clear Creek Metro Park.

I was so excited to have this five-lined skink come out of hiding and inch his way right up to my feet, looking me right in the eye as if he was as curious of me as I was of him! This was the first time I've seen one of these lizards, and you can bet I was impressed  by his bright orange head!

I was pleasantly surprised how at ease he seemed to be as I observed him and took pictures.  He even scurried up a tree stump beside me and relaxed for a bit, never taking his eyes off me.

After a few minutes, I guess he decided to retire for the evening, and he ran down the stump and crossed the little footpath I was standing in, and quickly disappeared into a crack in the side of an old abandoned cabin. A few seconds later, he popped his head up one last time, looked at me, then disappeared again! It was my birthday that day, and I couldn't have received a better gift than sharing those few minutes with that beautiful creature!

Now here is a tiny insect that I just love...the Tortoise Beetle. This particular one is the Clavate Tortoise Beetle (Plagiometriona clavata (Fabricius). I did an earlier post (There's Gold in Them Thar Weeds) that featured another tortoise beetle called the Mottled Tortoise Beetle that has a gold metallic sheen. They stay really, really low and they are very skittish, so it is a challenge getting a picture. They really do look like tiny turtles with little see-through shells, and they pull in their antennas and legs just like a turtle when they feel threatened.

This particular species has more of dull appearance, and he actually looked like a tiny rotten spot on the vegetation, making him very inconspicuous.  Some species of tortoise beetles are very brightly colored or have a very bright metallic coloration. They will, however, quickly fade if they are threatened, which is a defense tactic. They will also lose their bright coloration if collected. I sure hope to be able to find and photograph some of the other species throughout the rest of the summer.

The following photo is that of the Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillar. They are very beautifully colored and very spiny. There were a couple of entomologists that told me the Checkerspot liked this particular small meadow at Clear Creek because it contains the plants they like to feed on. The entomologists were pretty interested in keeping track of them because they are fairly uncommon in our area.

About three weeks later, the transformation had taken place, and this small meadow became home to the very pretty Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly! They are poisonous to birds, so the butterflies are not particularly worried about being eaten. Because of this, they can be easily approached without feeling threatened, and will even crawl onto your finger or land on your shirt! I just love them!

This tiny butterfly is the Azure. There is a Summer Azure and a Spring Azure that are almost indistinguishable, so I am not certain which one this is.  They are very common in Ohio. They will frequent muddy areas--in fact this one kept landing in a muddy area right alongside the road where I was parked.

This is also a tiny butterfly that is very common in Ohio. It is the Banded Hair Streak (Satyrium calanus). I love watching this delicate little beauty.

Here was an exciting find...a Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar! He was in the same location as the 5-lined skink. Those eye spots are just amazing!

One very pretty damselfly!!

Clear Creek is always full of surprises, and most of them may be found below knee level, but this next experience was the highlight of my evening and about 15 feet higher up.  Here is a picture of a barred owl that was taken at the very same spot where I saw the skink and the tiger swallowtail caterpillar. I heard his familiar "who cooks for you" call and I answered back with my best barred owl impression, and he landed on a branch to check me out! Within a few minutes there were 3 barred owls in the branches right above my head, and we all took turns calling to each other! It was a true caterwauling fest! Yes, Clear Creek is an enchanted place!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cute as a Bug!

Still in moth mode, I was scanning the weeds, shrubs, tree bark, flowers, and just about anything else that may have a moth resting on it, when I was immediately drawn to this cute little devil on a daisy! Meet the Flower Weevil (Odontocorynus umbellae)! 

I took several pictures because I just couldn't quit observing him. He was so flippin' adorable and such a little busy body. I found some interesting information about him in the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America (the ultimate resource if you are one of those bug people)! The weevil is in the family Curculionidae (true weevils). This particular family is recognized by its elbowed and clubbed antennae. You can clearly see this very distinct antenna on the very long snout of this insect. The antennae would constantly move and touch everything, acting as a receptors, relaying important information about the immediate environment. He was quite interesting to watch and so tiny! My macro lens was the only way I could really view him in detail!
There are several thousand different species of weevils worldwide, and they are all plant eaters. Certain weevils will feed exclusively on specific plants, and some weevils can be very damaging. The boll weevil, for example, is responsible for causing millions of dollars of damage to cotton crops every year. I couldn't find anywhere that said the flower weevil is considered a pest or harmful. They are just happy to feed on the sugar-rich liquids found in a variety of flowers, including many daisies and sunflowers. 

The next few pictures are of different angles as he continued to go around and around the center of this daisy feeding on the pollen and nectar. Yea, I took a lot of pictures of this winsome little weevil!

This little guy would bury his snout (actually called a rostrum) way down into the flower. Here you can see he is eyeball-deep in the lush, succulent sweetness of this pretty daisy.

It is important to move as slowly and stealthily as possible when photographing insects (or any wildlife for that matter) so as not to be intimidating or threatening. I must have been doing a great job of not being noticed because I spent about 10 minutes taking pictures. BUT, suddenly the tiny insect actually looked up at me and immediately fell over on his side...seriously just collapsed against the white petal and wouldn't move a muscle! I actually bent over him and asked him if he was playing dead! Well, I was not imagining things! The Kaufman Field Guide states that the weevil will play dead whenever he feels it is necessary! As I continued to watch his "fake death" for a few seconds, he lifted his head as if to see if the coast was clear, saw me again, and once again resumed his corpse-like pose!  Take a look at the final is the old "weevil playing dead" trick! So flippin' awesome! I love nature!