October 25, 2014
Box elder bugs are year-round insects but we don’t usually notice them until the “witching season” in late autumn. At that time they gather around the cracks and crevices that will eventually become their winter home. Until freezing temperatures force them to descend into the deepest recesses of their hibernaculum (that’s “scientific” for winter hibernation chamber) they pretty much spend all their time sun-worshiping. The low morning sun is especially relished.
I have a cedar shingled house offering plenty of potential hibernacula. The entire east side is bathed by the rays of the morning sun on early bright fall days. You could call it a Box Elder Bug palace; although I doubt that particular phrase would enter into the realtor’s description should we opt to sell the place as we enter the autumn of our lives.
The Box Elder B’s greet the sun with a collective sigh of relief – clustering into small social clubs where they talk about how much life sucks. As sucking insects this topic is a positive one. In the spring they will emerge to feed on seeds and low plants until the local female Box Elders trees (or occasional maple) come to flower. There they will suck Elder sap and raise new little suckers.
The only question remaining for the next year’s elder Box Elder Bug population is what to call the new Box Elder Bugs they create. Should they be called Box Youngling Bugs or perhaps Box Baby Bugs in order to separate them from the older and wiser winterers? Fortunately this never poses a real problem because the elder Box Elder Bugs die before they can gather into focus groups.
We superior humans, of course, know that this is a stupid question because the plant is called Box Elder not because it is older than the rest but because, um, well … because of… Oh, yes because the wood resembles that of the Boxwood tree and the leaves that of the Elder tree. And we ALL know that Elder trees are guarded by witches and, according to an old European chant (“And I myself an eldern tree”) some are actually witches themselves!
Silly insects, they believed that they were feeding on witches’ blood all summer but were actually taking in fake witches’ blood. As half-wing insects (true bugs are hemipterans), it could devastate the other half of their lives should we let them in on this devastating secret. I for one do not want to listen to the collective sobs of a million Box Elder Bugs through my wall all winter long.
October 18, 2014
The natural world is ripe with imitation. It is the ultimate form of flattery (and self-preservation) to look like something else – especially if that something else is inedible. Take a dry leaf, for example. Only a low life decomposer would even consider a dead leaf as food, so many insects wear a dead leaf costume in order to convince hungry predators to overlook them. Moths are especially prone to this disguise tactic because the structure of their wings lends itself well to such fakery.
On a day when brown windblown leaves were tousling about, I spotted this Geometer Moth clinging to the rough bark of a Red Maple. The adult form of twig-imitating “inchworms,” geometer moths extend this youthful deception to become grown up leaves.
It might seem that such a disguise fails when it is exposed against the dark background of a tree trunk. After all, I spotted the thing from a dozen feet away. But, then again, it had such a good leaf look that I doubt that even a savvy predator would discern this from the millions of other leaves blowing about. This individual had the additional effects of age to enhance its outfit. Multiple tears – not part of the original wing design – gave it the truly authentic worn look of a crackled October leaf.
Because the tears are not genetic parts of the camouflage look, this moth will not pass on these traits to the next generation. Probably the result of a short life of heavy use, they will likely insure that this critter will survive its full short life before succumbing to a natural death from the chills of autumn.
October 13, 2014
Much of the life of Funnel Weaver Spiders involves a waiting game. Instead of pursuing prey like wolf spiders or animated jumping spiders, they spin flat sheet webs and wait for insect prey to walk across the surface. The killer waits inside a special side chamber (the “funnel”) until signaled to emerge by the vibrations generated from tiny feet crossing the web. A quick dash, followed by a fatal bite secures the prey and renders it a meal. When the mating urge is felt, the males abandon their web and go courting – fully realizing in their instinctive little brains that this risky behavior is necessary for the propagation of the species. Ah, the things they will do for love.
Female Funnel Weaver spiders wait within their liars until prospective mates come a knocking. For a male of the species this is a tricky prospect because knocking at any funnel weaver’s door is tantamount to inviting yourself for dinner – as in YOU being the dinner. When that doorway frames a hungry female, about a third larger than you, the danger is even greater. Although no self-respecting spider would admit it, the empty carcasses of dead insects lining the path certainly don’t inspire confidence. So, before he can get down to business, the suitor must convince the female that he is not a meal but a mate.
He will dance about and wave his legs to signal manly intentions. Pedipalps – specialized male appendages to either side of the jaws – are moved to and fro like an airline worker guiding a landed jet to its gate. All this is intended to convince the potential Mrs. that he is a virile eight-legger and not a six-legged juice box. Once convinced, the female will allow her suitor to advance and begin his masculine task. To say the least spider foreplay is a creepy affair, but that which follows is fascinatingly boring.
I witnessed this drama taking place in my yard last week. A sizable female weaver (see first photo), who had maintained a funnel bridging the gap between an old barrel hoop and the siding of the house, received a late afternoon visitor. He ably subdued her into taking a passive legs-up pose but never let his guard down during the process which followed. While still slowly waving one of his pedipalps in the air he carefully engaged the other on her tender undersides.
The tips of the pedipalps are saucerlike with the inner surface of each sporting a black coiled organ called an embolus. They are maneuvered down to the female’s genital opening and the tip of the embolus inserted within. Then, the male pumps his semen into the female .To carry the airline analogy one step further, this process is more like fueling a jet and just about as exciting. One big difference here is that the process takes many hours (six hours or more in some cases!). And that, my dear readers, is not a spectator sport. I left to watch some corn growing across the road.
The male made his escape by nightfall (at least he was gone by the time I checked back much later). He will live to inseminate several more females before dying with a smile on his eight-eyed face. Females will also mate with several more males if they are given the opportunity. In the case of my yard spider, she retreated to the space under the siding and never appeared again. This could have been her third suitor for all I know. Unseen under the shingle, she would have laid several lens-shaped egg sacs containing 50-200 eggs which will pass the winter.
When the young emerge in the spring they will likely scamper over the desiccated remains of their mother who died peacefully in place after laying her eggs. There is much creepiness in the spider world but then again it is all about perspective isn’t it?
October 4, 2014
It was only after the mink disappeared under a tree root that I re-directed my attention to a trio of Mallards across the river. They were clear enough to see, but in the world of nature study Mallards are not normally on the top of the list. This is not a good thing, but it is a thing because familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least complacency. These fine fowl were standing unsurely on a submerged branch as the current of the swollen Huron River rushed past them.
Backlit by a strong morning sun, they were on high alert with nervous heads bobbing atop extended necks. Actual wild mallards, not frumpy farm fowl, they were ready to bolt at the sequential exposure to a mink and man! Fortunately they hung around for a frantic minute before exploding into flight.
These male birds were perfect examples of the teenage type (due to plumage and not erratic unexplainable behavior). Juvenile birds offer some interesting plumage combinations as they transform into adulthood via a time-honored schedule. It is not a random process. Because it occurs relatively quickly, however, it is a minute phase of the natural year that is often overlooked.
Earlier in the month the ducks bore the brown mottled plumage of youth and were now in the late September mode of wardrobe change. At this stage the mottled breast feathers are mostly replaced by the deep russet tones of drakehood and most of the back and shoulder feathers have already converted over to light gray. It will take a while before they attain the distinctive black curly feathers on their fully mature bottoms, but they already exhibit a manly looking yellow bill.
The green portion of the head, that part which gives the species the common name of “Greenhead,” is but a simple crescent lying between eye and beak as of early fall. As the season progresses, this patch migrates from front to back until the entire head becomes iridescent green by winter. You will see some Mallards which have an overall spotty green head (“scruffy” by some definitions) and these would be the adult drakes recovering from their late summer eclipse plumage. Adult Mallards undergo two molts per year.
The subject of molting is a big one in the bird world. For these juvenile males, the act of changing feathers involves a heavy physiological workload. Being mostly protein, feathers make up around 1/3 of the entire body protein of the animal. Therefore, feather-growing requires a substantial intake of protein rich foods. Add to this burden the need to put on an extra load of fat for migration and you have birds that can afford little time for leisure.
September 30, 2014
Blogs, like fungi, pop up out of nowhere and grow old quickly – they soon rot away into obscurity. Because of this I feel the need to add something to my most recent offering before it too dissolves. You will recall that I was addressing the bark bed outside the local Tim Horton’s Coffee shop and the wonderful assortment of fungi that it offered. The Dog Vomit fungi, Earthstars and Bird’s Nest Fungi were worthy of attention according to my admittedly twisted view. This weekend a Dog Stinkhorn was added to the list.
Long and slender, this particular stinkhorn had a pock-marked orangish stem topped with a pointed slimy cap. These fungi emerge from a circular egg-like bud and a remnant of this “shell” was attached to the top. It is with some trepidation that I mention the reasons behind the name but will point out that it refers to the anatomy of a dog…a male dog, to be precise.
Stinkhorns, true to their name, are smelly “things.” Their stench ranges from fecal to rotten deer in character. One source ironically described the smell of the Dog Stinkhorn like “cat feces.” I was unable to take a personal sniff because it was right next to the car lane but it’s safe to say that it smelled to high heaven and stunk to low hell. All this stenchiness is meant to attract flies and invite them to tromp about the spore-laden goo covering the cap. These visitors leave with the spores betwixt their toes and therefore serve as a means of distribution.
The Dog Stinkhorn never made the menu and promptly disappeared within a few days. It probably means nothing, but I feel compelled to mention that a very large and creepingly silent crow was watching me the whole time I was photographing this fungi. I cannot say for certain, but feel that this bird may have been working for Timmy Ho’s and…this is getting creepy, we’d better drop the subject for good.
September 24, 2014
I am fascinated by the fungi selection at the local Timmy Ho’s (that’s familiar-speak for the Tim Horton’s/ Coldstone Creamery coffee shop). I’m fairly sure this is not something the proprietors deliberately market, but in my mind it ranks right up there with their Cinnamon Rolls and Coffee. For some strange reason they are not on the menu board and I feel there is a missed opportunity here. Fortunately, there is ample opportunity to review the collection right outside your window as you wait in the car line.
These fungi sprout from the magic bark chips bordering the take-out lane. In years past, large patches of Dog Vomit Fungus have dominated the bark bed. Looking exactly like the name implies, they appear as amoeba-shaped blobs of yellowish puke (without the chunks). There could not have been much demand for this product and I assume this was why it was quietly removed from the list this year. The Earthstars and Bird’s Nests which replaced it, however, are a different story. They might well cut into the pastry sales– especially after we give them a closer look. Each has an intriguing lifestyle to go along with their intriguing appearance.
The Tim Horton’s Earthstars are especially robust examples of their kind. These unique organisms look like miniature white puffballs when they initially pop out of the ground (or the chips in this case). The outer layer splits and peels back to expose an even smaller puffball inside. This central portion is full of micro spores which are ejected from the center hole in dirty little puffs when disturbed.
The “petals” on an open Earthstar expand or contract according to relative humidity. Wet conditions compel them to curl backwards – detaching the fungus from its base and lifting it, spider-like, off the surface. Dryer conditions then cause the petals to curve inward and return the structure to a roundish shape. Aerodynamically free and clear to follow the whims of the winds, the earth star will roll across the landscape like a tumbleweed and spread the spores to other Tim Horton’s.
While Earthstars walk and roll, the tiny Birds Nest fungi blast their spores into the surrounding world. There is little need to explain why these things are called what they are. One look shows each fungus to be a blackish “nest” containing 4 to 5 flattened “eggs” inside. To say that the eggs actually look more like Lentil beans and that the nest looks more like a funnel spoils the simplicity of this picture, so I’ll try to refrain from mentioning this again and stick with the bird analogy.
Each nest egg, called a peridole, contains a “yolk” –in reality a spore sac -attached to a tightly coiled cord with a glue ball at its end. The whole unit, the shell of the “egg” in this increasingly awkward description, is loosely attached to the base of the nest via a fragile stem.
The eggs violently hatch upon being struck by rain drops from a heavy shower. As random drops pummel the open nest they are funneled to the bottom, rip open the eggs, and propel the spore case into the air. The coiled cord on the spore sac unravels and the sticky end flings about in until it strikes, and attaches to, an elevated plant stem a few inches off the ground. Dangling from this lofty (a relative term when it comes to lowly fungi) perch, the spore sac bursts and sends forth its load of dusty cargo.
Walking earthstars and fungal cannonballs make Tim Bits and Pumpkin Donuts sound rather lame don’t they? I’ll take mine with one cream and no sugar, please
September 15, 2014
Second nature: something that should be natural and easy to do –such as a short piece on a small subject based upon a few moments of nature observation. Get it? Second, as in part of a minute, and…never mind.
You may recall my blog from a couple of installments ago in which I told the riveting details of my encounter with a Leafy Spurge Sphinx (a new species in Michigan). O.K., so it wasn’t riveting – I merely picked the thing up as it was crossing a Northern Michigan road. The only riveting part was when a truck nearly ran it over before I could nab it. At the time of writing I mentioned that I would await the coming pupal stage of this beast as the next point of interest in this story. Well, he has finally “taken the plunge” and I am duty-bound to bring you up to date.
Safe within the confines of its high-tech enclosure (a coffee cup partially filled with sandy soil) the caterpillar shed his colorful skin and converted to an intricately patterned pupa. It tunneled down about an inch and created a chamber whose walls were held together with a loose mat of silk before performing the transformation.
The pupa retains the caterpillar’s horn and spiracles (breathing holes), but otherwise displays – via outlines on the exterior of the casing – the new look it will have as a sleek adult. Large compound eyes sit opposite on a well-defined head. A long tongue has replaced the chewing mouthparts. Destined for sipping nectar from tubular flowers, the tongue appears down the center along with the two linear antennae. Both are framed between the leading edges of the folded mini-wings. The sixteen legs of youth have been reduced to six and they are neatly aligned with the tongue and antennae.
Inside this simple casing a remarkable transformation is occurring. The muscles of old are dissolved and re-created to serve powerful wings, tongue, and legs. Evidence that the abdominal muscles are already functioning, the creature wiggles freely when handled. This, of course, makes for riveting footage (see here) but we’ll have to wait until next spring before the final exciting chapter in this metamorphosis takes place. This thing is more moth now than caterpillar – straight and peaceful (unlike Darth Vader).
On the subject of non-caterpillars, Dogwood Sawfly larvae (see above) are chewing away at the refugee Gray Dogwood sapling next to my house. Although they look very caterpillar-like they are very not (odd wording, I know, but I’m sticking with it). Sawflies are closely related to bees and wasps and the adult stages bear this out. The larvae are plant eaters that live and eat like caterpillars and therefore have adapted like traits and appearances. There are a few distinctions that separate them from moth/butterfly (let’s call them lepidopteron) larvae, however.
Sawfly larvae have a solid head capsule with two prominent eyes, whereas lepidopterans typically have three sets of tiny eyes and a divided head capsule. The leps have only four sets of fleshy legs in the center of their body and the sawflies have six or more pair. Even though some caterpillars are colonial, Sawflies are always colony feeders so you rarely find just one.
Members of the family have the unusual habit of raising their hind ends when disturbed – as if to say “my butt to you.” The Dogwood sawflies take this to such an extreme that they actually curl up like miniature cinnamon rolls. Younger stages of this species, such as these examples, are covered with a waxy down.
These little fellows will lose that downiness and take on a smooth stark black and yellow skin as they approach their last stage of larvalhood. Like the sphinx moth they will burrow under the ground and overwinter as a pupa. Both the Spurge Sphinx and Dogwood Saw Fly will spend the winter as un-caterpillars: one as a “never was” and the other as a “used-to-be”.
September 8, 2014
Second nature: something that should be natural and easy to do –such as a short piece on a small subject based upon a few moments of nature observation. Get it? Second, as in part of a minute, and…never mind.
A large golden fly landed on my arm as I was standing on my Dollar Lake dock. The thing was so bizarre looking, and appeared so suddenly, that I briefly thought it to be some sort of twisted “bluebird of happiness.” I would not have expected a long-legged, hunchbacked, fuzzy yellow insect to be a bringer of fortune but at my stage of life I am open to suggestion. Unfortunately it took off and briefly landed on the dock before vanishing into thin air. I actually felt slightly sadder after the encounter, and so conclude it was merely a “fly that reminds people how average looking they are.”
This was no average looking fly, however. Called a Hunch-backed Bee Fly, this critter is a member of a group of so-called flower flies. The adults feed on nectar and the maggots steal food from solitary wasps. Hunch-backs specialize in coneflowers and daisies. I guess that my cone-shaped head must have tricked it into approaching me. Apart from the legginess and humpiness of this individual, the peculiar antennae are worth noting because of their un-flylike length and fuzziness. In some texts they are sometimes referred to as scalehorn flies for this reason.
Scientifically this fly is labeled Lepidophora lutea; meaning “yellow scale bearer” or something like that. This is a good name. Even the wings have a light coating of buttery-hued scales. It is a much better name than “the stupid fly that mistakes people for flowers.”
Back on the shore I came upon a robust fly of a very different sort (see above). It was a Robber Fly in the process of draining the life out of a tiny moth. Unlike the humble Bee Flies, Robbers are aggressive predators. They tackle flying insect prey with stout legs and then inject them, via a blade-like proboscis, with toxic spit. This fluid paralyses the victim and liquefies the organs so that the fly can leisurely suck out the mix like a McDonald’s shake. The flavor of the hour in this case was a diminutive moth called a Small White Grass Veneer Moth (see below).
All of Robber flies share a generally hairy look and often possess a “Snuffy Smith” mustache of sorts bordering the lower face. Their maggots are predatory (in other words “not cute”). Like all flies, the adults have only one pair of wings. The second pair are reduced to tiny clubs called halteres (look closely under the wing in the first picture below). These organs rotate about when the creature is in flight and act as gyroscopes.
There are thousand of species of Robber flies in the world. Based on cursory investigation I’d say this particular life-stealer was a female member of the genus Machimus. The Greek origins of the genus name refer to “war-like” or “soldier” depending on how it’s used. There was a city in Greek legend called Machimus which was populated by huge warrior people and Machimus was one of the 50 dogs that attacked and ate the hunter Actaeon after he was turned into a stag. You see he accidently came upon a bathing goddess and saw here naked and…forget it. Greek stories are far too complicated to explain here, so let’s leave this discussion where it lay.
August 31, 2014
Even from behind the steering wheel I could see that the caterpillar crossing the road ahead of me was a whopper. We were on 131 heading north through Mancelona, MI and the pre-labor day traffic was fairly light. I hastily pulled off to the shoulder to get out and snatch the critter from the blacktop but had to wait out an on-coming pack of cars before I could make my grab. Fortunately most of them veered into the left lane as they passed me and therefore missed the caterpillar. The last one, a camper unit, barreled past within the lane and the resulting gush of wind spun the ‘piller around and tumbled it head over heels down the road. I was there to pick it up after the dust cleared and was glad to see that the object of my attention was unhurt.
Although the creature spit up a bunch of defensive green goo into my hand to reward me, my actions were well worth the effort. The glorious three inch creature within my palm was a fantastic looking – yet unknown – type of sphinx larva. I was thinking Galium (Bedstraw) Sphinx but would have said so only if pressed (my wife didn’t press, so my ignorance remained safely concealed). Full identification had to wait until I reached an internet connection. Years ago I would have consulted my tote-along trove of field guides, but modern times require modern means. As it turns out, only this modern means could have provided the answer. Not only was this an imported species but was also a brand new addition to the state list. It was a Spurge Hawk Moth (aka Spurge Sphinx).
A native of Europe and northern Asia, this insect was deliberately introduced to North America to control a pesky plant called the Leafy Spurge. The aggressive Spurge was accidently introduced back in the 1800’s and has had a devastating effect in the western grassland states. It was first recorded in Michigan in the 1880’s. A litany of six insects, including a variety of beetles and a gall midge have been – and still are – being considered as biological control. The Spurge Hawk Moth made the short list and was tapped as part of the first wave of attack on the Leafy Spurge (it’s sole food plant in Europe). Goats are also very good at munching down on leafy Spurge, although they are good at munching down on a great many other things as well. The sphinx is a specialist.
Most of the introductions were in the western states, but there was also one in Ontario a number of years back. Unfortunately, Even though this hawk moth larva is a voracious Spurge eater it appears that it has had little real effect. At the very least it provides a colorful new member of our local fauna and one which, more importantly, doesn’t compete with any native insect.
The first recorded sighting of the Spurge Hawk Moth in Michigan, according to the MSU extension site, was on June 10, 2013. That individual was an adult captured in the Grand Traverse area. Some more larvae were spotted a month later in Leelanau County. This summer another blogger reported a caterpillar west of Gaylord. Antrim County, the location of my find, is in the same general area as the previous sightings but indicates a slow but steady expansion of range. By virtue of its late summer timing it also proves that these insects are double brooded in this state. I guess my posting makes for the forth “official” record and a spot on the meaningless achievement hall of fame podium!
The Spurge Sphinx larva does look very much like the Galium Sphinx and certain varieties of the White-lined Sphinx but tops both in sheer gaudiness. The horn and head are scarlet, and the rest of the body is speckled with black, red, and white markings befitting a “radical” snowboard or fashionable scarf design. Perhaps this is why it has chosen the trendy Grand Traverse area for its step into society!
The reason this gaily patterned sphinx was crossing the road, unlike the famous chicken of joke fame, was to get to the pupation side. It appears to be a full sized individual. Younger larvas are darker and each instar has a differing color pattern. From what I can tell this fellow was ready to take the next step. For now the caterpillar resides in a dirt-filled Styrofoam coffee cup prepared as a pupation chamber. It will, assuming it behaves in line with virtually all sphinx caterpillars, burrow down into the sand, split its layer of bright attire, and convert into a sleek pupa. There it will stay until emerging next spring as a third generation Michigander.
August 25, 2014
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Second nature: natural observations made with little effort and requiring little explanation. While nature appreciation should be second nature in the true definition of the term, it can also consist of observations made within a short period time. Ideally nature study should not be constrained by time but the real world demands otherwise (assuming you are a participant in the real world). So, the challenge is to see what we can see given the time we have to see it. Sometimes literally seconds are all we get, but that often can be enough.
Because of a busy week (including the birth of a grand child) I was limited to short term ramblings in my back yard and thus the birth of this “second nature” segment. There will be more.
I came upon two wasp-mimic moths within a few minutes and a few feet of each other. They were hanging about on the vegetation bordering the yard. These creatures are unusual in several respects. As moths, they are double weirdoes. Most moths are creatures of darkness which fly and feed by night. Aided by the protection of camouflage they rest by day. Wasp mimics are daytime fliers who blatantly call attention to themselves. They display wasp features such as narrow, partially or wholly transparent wings, and spastic type behavior.
The Virginia Creeper Clearwing (see above) is a middle-sized moth whose dark coloration gives it the appearance of a paper wasp. When approached it raised its abdomen, as if to present a “stinger,” and twitched both yellow tipped antennae as if to say “I, sir, am a wasp and you will not bother me or else…)”. The threat is implied subtly because most predators require little in order to be convinced that an easier meal is to be sought elsewhere. This façade quickly breaks down upon a closer look which reveals a very moth-like face, fully scaled set of forewings, and a harmless behind. As a larva the Clearwing bores into the roots of Virginia Creeper. Oddly enough the species name is Albuna fraxini. The species portion of that name (the second half) refers to Ash trees even though the thing apparently has no relationship with ash trees whatsoever.
A few feet over, I came upon a spritely little Maple Callus Borer (see above). In the same family as the Virginia Creeper Clearwing, this species sports completely clear fore and underwings ornamented with scaled stripes. Both the common and scientific names are appropriate in this case. It too is a youthful borer whose larvae feed upon the cambium layer of maple bark. The species name acerni means “of maple wood” and the common name details the larva’s propensity to burrow near tree wounds (and thus creating more calluses).
The most distinctive feature of the Maple Callus Borer is the scarlet tuft at the end of its slender abdomen. This spritely little day flier seems to hop about as if propelled by these imaginary rocket flames.
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