Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 30, 2008

Ragg?n on the Wrong Weed

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:28 pm

? If you are one of those late summer hay fever sufferers, I can take one thing off your mind. Goldenrod is not to blame for your condition. Sure, the yellow G ?rod flower begins to bloom about the same time your nose starts to run, but it?s a matter of coincidence. The real culprit is ragweed. The Giant Ragweed is the biggest offender- as you might have guessed by the name.

? It?s all about the pollen, you see.? Goldenrod has big sticky pollen. It takes an insect to move big sticky pollen around. Assuming you don?t let insects to fly up your nose, you are safe from any reaction to goldenrod pollen. ?Giant ragweed has dinky dry drifty pollen. It only takes a puff of wind to move it into your nose. Ragweed itty bitty bad, Goldenrod sticky big good. That?s about it.

? O.K., I see that I have a few more paragraphs to go here. I?d better give you a little bit more. This is supposed to be a nature blog with ?facts? and ?explanations,? isn?t it? Well, let me better introduce you to your enemy and mine, the Giant Ragweed. You can see the picture above and here.

? The G ?rag is easy to identify. ?It?s a big annual plant that can get up to 17 feet high. It has large three to five lobed leaves that look something like maple leaves. They don?t really look like maple leaves, but I couldn?t think of another leaf to compare it to off hand. ?The floral parts, you know those nasty things responsible for the pollen, are born on spikes. Even a close up look at the flowers (see here) reveals that they are without petals, sepals, or beauty.? The individual flowers are best described as nodding and un-noticable.

? Somebody figured out that an individual Giant Ragweed plant can produce some 10 million pollen grains daily and more than a billion during its complete blooming cycle.? That?s a lot of drifting pollen even if you cut those numbers in half and then divide by three. ?Remember, every one of those pollen grains are easily carried aloft and a-sneezing.

? At this point, you might expect me to say that this is an alien weed from someplace in Central Europe. Actually, this plant is an indigenous species? which means it is native!? Yes, it belongs here just like buffalos, bald eagles, and black bears. The only thing foreign about this plant is its scientific name which happens to be Ambrosia trifida. Believe it or not, that means ?three parted leaf plant which is food for the gods.?? That is a god awful name, if you ask me.

? With all the wonderful delights in the universe, I find it hard to believe that any but the lesser ?gods? would consider this plant a delicacy. Deities apparently don?t get hayfever do they? This is not to say that the G ?rag hasn?t proven useful for us earthbound human types. Depending on the tribal affiliation, it has been used as a disinfectant, lung treatment, anti-diarrheal, and even a psychological aide by Native Americans. The directive for this latter category was to ?chew the root in order to drive away fear of the night.? ?

? Do you want to know another strange fact?? Apparently night crawlers are responsible for spreading the Giant Ragweed. ?Your average worm buries 127 seeds over a 500 square foot area, according to one study.? It looks like the lowly are responsible for the spreading of giants. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that night crawlers are originally from Europe.

? Now don?t you feel bad for ragg?n on the harmless little goldenrod all these years when you shoulda been directing those negative vibes elsewhere? The only right thing to do is to chew on a ragweed root, go out into the night without fear, find a crawler, and chew him out. It?s time to place your hayfever blame where it really belongs.

Ragg’n on the Wrong Weed

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:28 pm

  If you are one of those late summer hay fever sufferers, I can take one thing off your mind. Goldenrod is not to blame for your condition. Sure, the yellow G ‘rod flower begins to bloom about the same time your nose starts to run, but it’s a matter of coincidence. The real culprit is ragweed. The Giant Ragweed is the biggest offender- as you might have guessed by the name.

  It’s all about the pollen, you see.  Goldenrod has big sticky pollen. It takes an insect to move big sticky pollen around. Assuming you don’t let insects to fly up your nose, you are safe from any reaction to goldenrod pollen.  Giant ragweed has dinky dry drifty pollen. It only takes a puff of wind to move it into your nose. Ragweed itty bitty bad, Goldenrod sticky big good. That’s about it.

  O.K., I see that I have a few more paragraphs to go here. I’d better give you a little bit more. This is supposed to be a nature blog with “facts” and “explanations,” isn’t it? Well, let me better introduce you to your enemy and mine, the Giant Ragweed. You can see the picture above and here.

  The G ‘rag is easy to identify.  It’s a big annual plant that can get up to 17 feet high. It has large three to five lobed leaves that look something like maple leaves. They don’t really look like maple leaves, but I couldn’t think of another leaf to compare it to off hand.  The floral parts, you know those nasty things responsible for the pollen, are born on spikes. Even a close up look at the flowers (see here) reveals that they are without petals, sepals, or beauty.  The individual flowers are best described as nodding and un-noticable.

  Somebody figured out that an individual Giant Ragweed plant can produce some 10 million pollen grains daily and more than a billion during its complete blooming cycle.  That’s a lot of drifting pollen even if you cut those numbers in half and then divide by three.  Remember, every one of those pollen grains are easily carried aloft and a-sneezing.

  At this point, you might expect me to say that this is an alien weed from someplace in Central Europe. Actually, this plant is an indigenous species– which means it is native!  Yes, it belongs here just like buffalos, bald eagles, and black bears. The only thing foreign about this plant is its scientific name which happens to be Ambrosia trifida. Believe it or not, that means “three parted leaf plant which is food for the gods.”  That is a god awful name, if you ask me.

  With all the wonderful delights in the universe, I find it hard to believe that any but the lesser “gods” would consider this plant a delicacy. Deities apparently don’t get hayfever do they? This is not to say that the G ‘rag hasn’t proven useful for us earthbound human types. Depending on the tribal affiliation, it has been used as a disinfectant, lung treatment, anti-diarrheal, and even a psychological aide by Native Americans. The directive for this latter category was to “chew the root in order to drive away fear of the night.”  

  Do you want to know another strange fact?  Apparently night crawlers are responsible for spreading the Giant Ragweed.  Your average worm buries 127 seeds over a 500 square foot area, according to one study.  It looks like the lowly are responsible for the spreading of giants. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that night crawlers are originally from Europe.

  Now don’t you feel bad for ragg’n on the harmless little goldenrod all these years when you shoulda been directing those negative vibes elsewhere? The only right thing to do is to chew on a ragweed root, go out into the night without fear, find a crawler, and chew him out. It’s time to place your hayfever blame where it really belongs.

August 27, 2008

A Pot ‘O Pillars

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:55 pm

  I discovered that there is at least one good thing about painting your house. It provides an excuse to take down the shutters and see what has been living behind them all these years. Our shutters are as fake as the day is long, but they still need to receive a real coat of the new trim color in order to retain their pseudo woodness.  As I released each one from its mooring and peeled it back, it was sorta like opening a Pandora’s Box of wonders. There among the jumble of old paper wasp nests, masses of spider webs, piles of bat droppings, and columns of mud dauber nests, I found one small architectural jewel plastered to the siding. It was the perfectly made mud nest of the Potter Wasp (see above).

  Solitary Wasps of the Eumenes clan are famous for making precise little clay pots for housing their young. The marble sized pots are not thrown on the wheel, but are built up layer by circular layer with loving doses of soil and spit. Female wasps gather mouthfuls of dry soil and macerate the mass into mortar with the addition of saliva. They carefully lay down the building material with a 9/16 inch foundation ring, gently curve up the sides and gradually restrict the neck of the vessel before finishing it off with a dramatic rim flare. 

  The finished structure looks more like a Sake Bottle (see here) than the maggot repository it is. There is a fascinating bit of artistry in the construction of this thing.  You’ll note the regular bumps, or globs, that give the surface an art pottery surface. There appears to be no other reason for this other than “that’s the way it’s always been done”- a familiar tradition among human potters. 

  This is a brood chamber, not an art statement, however. Once the container is done, it is filled with paralyzed caterpillars and sealed off.  There were 11 inchworm caterpillars packed into this one (heck, one more and there would have been a perfect foot of worms!).  I discovered this fact by accident as the delicate structure broke open when I attempted to remove it from the siding.  Take a look here, and you can see the caterpillar content laid out for viewing.

  At the time of its discovery, the pot was not yet full. The fact that the mouth of the jar remained open indicated that more ingredients were due (up to 14 caterpillars can be crammed into a single pot).  Oddly enough, the ‘pillers in this pile were only partially paralyzed by the female’s sting. They were helpless to be sure, but still thrashed around wildly when touched.  This brings up an interesting point about what would have been the last stage in the process when the egg was laid.

  Rather than laying her egg in the center of this active pile and risking injury to her charge, the female Potter Wasp takes an extraordinary step. She suspends her egg from a thread connected to the upper wall of the pot. In this way, the egg is kept away from the mass until hatching. Even upon hatching, the larvae can feed on the fresh caterpillar meat and then withdraw back up the safety line if the zombie ‘pillars start to get feisty. Eventually it gets big enough to handle them without risk and jumps into the fray.

  The story ended on this little pot of horrors when it busted open, but a few shutters down I found two more Potter Wasp creations. These were older structures that had successfully produced their wasps. Each had a large hole in the side where the newly emerged wasps chewed their way to freedom. While these two creatures came from behind forest green shutters, all the future potters around my house will enter the world from behind a burgundy façade.

August 25, 2008

A Shop Worn Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:42 pm

  Apart from those “Back to School” ads in the newspapers and the “better get to Cedar Point before it’s all over” spots on the tube, nothing highlights the end of the season more than the sight of a ragged swallowtail butterfly. These crepe-winged creatures are not built of the same stuff as the tough migratory monarchs or durable cold weather anglewings. Every summer day takes a heavy toll on their appearance. Take this shop worn Giant Swallowtail as an example (see above). She definitely has that late August look and bears the marks of one whose life’s work is now complete.

  Earlier in the summer, fresh out of a second brood chrysalis, she was a crisp new beauty with chocolate features and precise yellow make-up (see here). Her underwing pattern was mostly yellow and black with blue and orange highlights (see here). True to their name, Giants are one of the largest of our regional butterflies and females can have a 6 inch plus wingspan. Their species name, Papilio cresphontes appropriately refers to one of the Greek characters who descended directly from Hercules.

  After mating with an equally dashing male, she carefully laid her eggs on the leaves of a local representative of the Citrus family called the Prickly Ash. Her action has guaranteed that her young will keep up the Herculean lineage.

  She, on the other hand, will spend the remaining days of her brief life flitting about from flower to flower. The deep purple blooms of the New York Ironweed and the Magenta tufts of the Bull Thistle (as seen above) seem to be the primary nectaring targets of this species. Eventually she will either run out of gas and fall to the ground among the dry leaves or get eaten.

  As a member of the Swallowtail family, she once sported a pair of hind wing tails.  You’ll note that these are now long gone on this gal. Her back wings have been roughly shortened. These tails were not worn off, however. They were bitten off by an unsuccessful predator – note the term “unsuccessful.”

  Although beautiful, beauty is not the main purpose for these swallowtail appendages. They are meant to be decoy heads (complete with a fake eye spot at the base) to convince hungry birds into biting at the wrong end of the body.  This ploy works at least 50% of the time and gives the victim a fair chance to escape with its real head intact.

  Our female has already cashed in on her life insurance policy by sacrificing her fake head tails. Only time will tell if she keeps her real head until that last chilly morning of natural life.

August 22, 2008

A Predatory Plant

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:10 pm

 Behold the Bladderwort – the one carnivorous plant that eludes the public “carnivorous” plant list (if, indeed, there is such a thing).  Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants, and Sundews get all the attention but they are relatively hard to find. You need to go to a slightly exotic location, such as a bog, to find them.  The Bladderworts, on the other hand, grow in the unremarkable setting of your local marsh.  While this is not exactly in your backyard, it’s pretty close.

  This thing doesn’t really look predatory.  Without jaws, sticky tendrils or large gaping death pits, they appear harmless enough. As rootless aquatics, they hang about just under the surface and float through life. About the only way to recognize their presence is to spot the conspicuous yellow flower spikes that occasionally peek up among the lily pads.  These too appear very “tame” – looking very much like snap dragons (see above).

  Internally, however, the Bladderwort desires more out of life than simple photosynthesis. Beneath that cool green exterior it craves for things like extra phosphorus and other essential minerals. These are needs that can only be satisfied by capturing and eating animals.

  The secret carnivorous life of the “wort” can only be discovered upon close investigation. Take a look here at a whole plant and you’ll see the mass of greenery at the base of the flower stalk. Closer examination will reveal clusters of berry-like growths peppered among the finely divided leaves. These are the bladders (see here) for which the species gets its name.  Each structure acts as a trap to capture and digest micro-crustaceans and insect larvae. The bladderwort does have death pits -very very tiny death pits, but death pits none-the-less!

  Bladder traps work on the pressure system. Water is pumped out in order to create a vacuum inside the chamber which is sealed with a door flap. Several bristles stick out from the bottom of the door to act as a trigger mechanism.

  When a hapless little beast such as a Water Flea bumbles into one of the hair triggers the trap is sprung. In a literal flash of a second (10-15 thousands of a second to be precise) the bladder door opens in and the critter is sucked in. Before the prey has time to react or even think about escape, the door slams shut.  This entire capture sequence is totally automatic.

  The final stage of the predatory scenario is enacted by digestive enzymes that slowly dissolve the entombed micro-creature.  I wonder if a Water Flea can scream?

August 20, 2008

A Priceless Little Gem: Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:20 pm

  A few days ago, I left you with the thought that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a priceless little bird based on its nest-building capabilities alone. I was able to show you a detailed view of a nest to prove my point. Today, I come with a dead bird in hand in order to examine the bird itself (see above).  Sure, I’d rather show you two in a bush but this gives us an opportunity to appreciate some normally un-observed features. The live bird is just too, well, lively!

  The poor little birdlet before you apparently succumbed to starvation and was found lying on the ground.   A Wikimedia article states that “at any given moment (hummingbirds) are only hours away from starving.”  Normally, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but this statement merely reflects the fact that hummingbirds have one of the highest metabolism rates in the animal kingdom. Their tiny little hearts can beat 1,260 bpm and they need to eat up to 5 times their body weight each day just to keep up appearances.  Any delay in the daily schedule caused by injury or bad weather can have swift and lethal consequences – as it did for this unfortunate fellow.

  This is a male Ruby-throated Hummer, as indicated by his iridescent throat patch known as a gorget. These namesake feathers don’t express their ruby-ness unless they are illuminated with the proper lighting. Most of the time they appear black or dark brown (see here) but when struck by a shaft of angled sunlight they glow like fiery coals (see here). The back feathers have the same type of structural color except that they are ignited into an emerald flame when given a breath of sunshine. You can see why there is no good way to describe them other than by using gemological terminology.

  Apart from those colors, the long beak also commands our attention. Ruby-throats prefer red tubular flowers (such as the Trumpet Vine) for nectaring and this needlelike bill can penetrate down to the sugary reservoir at the base. They will feed on insects and tree sap during the course of their frenzied feeding, but rely on flower nectar for most of their nutritional needs.

The actual feeding is performed with a long tongue that is plunged into and out of the nectary. During the course of the visit, the bird inevitably gets dusted with pollen from the yellow anthers (see this cut-away view here) and thus performs an un-witting dating service for the Trumpet Vine.

   Perhaps one of the most unappreciated features found on this minuscule fowl are the tiny feet (see here).  These micro appendages are so small that the bird can neither walk nor hop on them (which matches them with elephants in the jumping category). They can manage a sideways twig shuffle and an over-the-wing head scratch, but that’s about it.

  There are hundreds of species of hummingbirds in the New World, but only the Ruby-throat makes it’s living here in the eastern United States. Our local representative is the product of over 30 million years of refinement – a delicate but proven design. Over all that time, the species has never been able to learn the words, but they hum along just fine.

August 18, 2008

A Priceless Little Gem

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:05 pm

  It took a friend to point it out to me and it took a little bird to let him in on the secret location. I’m talking about a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest situated high up in the branches of a Sycamore tree. Although the birds themselves are a relatively common summer sight, their nests are not. These structures are near impossible to find because they are cryptically camouflaged and, like their makers, very very small. It takes a bit of serendipity to be at the right place at the right time to see a bird fly up and settle into its nest – that’s about the only way to find one. Fortunately, I was made privy to just such a serendipitous situation.

  It has been over 25 years since I last spotted a Hummingbird nest. That first one was well out on a Beech Tree limb and about 20 feet above the ground.  Save for the tree choice, this current nest is similar in all regards. Since Hummers habitually place their nests on the downward sloping portion of a branch and pick locations that are approachable from beneath, the similarities should come as no surprise. I have to admit, however, that even when this new nest was pointed out to me I had to wait until the resident birdlet returned before I could really see it.

  I was finally able to get a half-decent shot of the female sitting on the tiny cup (see above) and later managed another view (see here).  Unlike the resplendent ruby-throated male, the female of the species has an unadorned white throat. Both sexes have glossy green upper parts, a black face mask, and an overall length of about 3 inches. She was nervous about my presence. I had to limit my photo ops so that I didn’t spook her. After all, this is very late in the season for this bird and she will need every precious moment to get her eggs hatched and fledged before autumn. It takes 16-some days to incubate and another 20-some to rear the fledglings. Everybody will need to migrate south by mid-October at the latest, so time’s a flitt’n.  I should also mention that the males do not participate in the nesting or rearing procedure what-so-ever. If she looks a bit harried, then, it is no wonder.

  The nest of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is as precise and marvelous as the bird that makes it. Sure, the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympics may trump this little natural structure in scale, but in terms of precision the two are equal. Take a look here at some detail shots of another Hummingbird nest (see here and here) and you’ll see why they are hard to see and why they should be seen.

  First of all, consider the components. Bud scales and lichens are tied together with spider silk with a fine layer of plant down lining the interior. The thing literally blends into the branch and has the appearance of a glorified knot (not even all that glorified, come to think of it). Structurally, it forms a soft pillow-like platform that is only about ½ inch deep. The top edge actually folds in with a 3/8th inch lip around the perimeter. As the two young nestlings grow up, the nest is made to expand along with them like a stretch sock (let’s see the Bejing stadium do that!)

  At only 1½ inches in diameter, the size is pretty close to that of a Kennedy Half Dollar.  In fact, it would take about $8.50 worth of “two bits” to stack up to the 1 ¼ inch height.  Further considering that it would take about a penny and a half to equal the average body weight of female ruby throat, it is best to conclude that both the nest and the bird are a truly priceless sight.

August 15, 2008

The Quiet Start to a Noisy Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:25 pm

  The emergence of the Dog Day Cicadas in late summer is not a subtle affair. The event is heralded from the tree tops with a flurry of dry rattling trumpet blasts issuing from the adult insects. If you are out and about during the day or early evening, you’ll hear the extremely loud calls of these insects and probably not even think about it. They are as much a part of the summer soundscape as the cricket chorus and the distant drone of lawnmowers.  Also known as Dog Day Flies, Harvest Flies, and – incorrectly – as Locusts, the cicadas number among the loudest insects on earth. The Australian version, called the Green Grocer, is purported to be THE loudest insect on earth, as a matter of fact.   Back here in the states, this auditory treat is THE sound of summer (Dog Day Cicada Call).

  Witnessing the soft start to this loud life can be a fascinating part of the visual landscape as well. Annual cicada nymphs emerge out of the ground every year. Unlike their 17 year counterparts, individual D.D.C’s spend 2-7 years mutely tunneling through the dark soil and feeding on root sap. When the Dog Star is high in the summer sky, mature nymphs feel the call to leave the underworld.

  Their impulse is to put some vertical distance between themselves and their childhood home and they climb anywhere from a few inches to 10 feet up the side of a tree. Nymphs are equipped with powerful forelimbs – complete with opposable grips and lamellae (teeth) – in order to scale the bark (see here). Internally they are already changing into flighted beasts and their movements are slow and deliberate due to their loosening skin and shifting musculature.

  At some point, comfortable with their altitude, they hook firmly into the bark substrate and prepare for the inevitable. Body fluids are slowly pumped into the thorax in order to build up pressure in that region. Around about noon, the dramatic shift from nymph to adult begins as the old skin splits under the pressure.  The newly formed cicada pushes out from its old casing and hangs backward at a seemingly uncomfortable angle. New legs are pulled out of the old and the folded wings are pulled out of their pockets.

  While in this precarious state (see here) the insect pauses and begins to un-furl its wings. When viewed head on, the wonderful symmetry of the newly forged creature is evident (see here).  It is pale with tender pink feet and lime green highlights. Fluid is pumped into the wing veins and they expand down and out (see here & here) with the aide of Ma Gravity.  The crumpled neo-wings look somewhat like bubble wrap at this stage (see here).

  It takes a good 15 minutes for the wings to reach their full extension.  For a moment, the past stands with the future as the crisp new adult ventures away from its old casing. It eventually moves over onto the tree bark and climbs higher up the tree to complete the drying process.   

  Within a few short hours, the once tender wing membranes become rigid and clear. Hardening of the exoskeleton darkens the shade to a deep mottled green and the creature is ready to enter into a Dog Day afternoon as a noisy songster.

August 13, 2008

Crickemometer

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:43 pm

   Let it here be recorded that at exactly 5:25 am on the morning of August 13, 2008, the temperature in Monroe, MI was exactly 68 degrees F.  This alone is not an earth-shattering revelation, but what if I tell you that this fact was determined with a watch and a pair of eardrums?  Now, perhaps, the thing becomes slightly more than a madman’s rant, yes? Throw in a dead guy and a chorus line of crickets and you have either the makings of a good joke or good science. Fortunately, in this case, we have good science and no bar or saloon references.

  Around about this time of year, a half-inch critter called the Snowy Tree Cricket begins to make itself heard. These pale elongated insects sport a pair of incredibly long antennae and are arboreal in habit. Individually, they have nothing special to offer – at least visually (see above a photo from a Univ. of Florida site).  These un-assuming little beasts spend most of their time secreted away in shrubby cover and only rarely reveal themselves. But, like most members of their type, they are singers that boldly announce themselves through evening song.

  It took a scientist by the name of Amos Dolbear to figure out that the song of the Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni) contained a secret message.  Actually, I’m not sure that he was a scientist per se, but this is usually what you call dead people who make up formulas. In 1897, Mr. Dolbear came up with a mathematical method of correlating ambient temperature with the call rate of this cricket. While it had long been known that crickets in general “crick” faster on warm nights than cool ones, no one could come up with a simple way to calculate this effect. In other words, someone needed to figure out how a cricket could be used as a very precise thermometer.   

  Dolbear’s formula finally created just such a crickemometer out of the Snowy Tree Cricket. By counting the number of chirps in one minute then subtracting 40 from that number, dividing by 4 and adding 50 you end up with the absolute temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. This whole thing can be further simplified by counting the number of chirps in 15 seconds and adding 40 – in other words: T (temp.) = N (number of chirps per 15 sec.) + 40. Now, that’s do-able.

  The nice thing about Amos’s Tree Crickets is that all the individuals in one area call in unison. They synchronize their chirps so that the overall sound effect is like one call from one giant cricket rather than a hundred different calls from a hundred different individuals like most crickets. Listen carefully to this series of chirps (Snowy Tree Cricket Call) and you’ll note the soft pulsating rhythm of this species as I heard it at 5:25 am.  Start tapping your finger to the beat and count the beats in 15 seconds.  You’ll count about 28 chirps. Just add 40 and you have 68 degrees F.

  All of this cricking is performed by the males.  They rub a 35 tooth file across a rasp located on their inner wings (here’s a male in full performance- another great Univ. of Florida shot).  

  Apart from the mathematical precision of the tune, there is a comforting quality to this soft mantra. You’ve got a few months left to listen to these audible thermometers before they read 32 degrees F. sometime in October (at which point they are dead!).

August 11, 2008

A Hornless Hornworm

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:34 pm

   The larva of the Achemon Sphinx is a sight to behold. If not exactly a thing of beauty, it is a thing of marvelous translucence. Say what you will, but I think it there is skin deep appeal to the pinkish orange body of this mega-caterpillar – almost as if it is lit from within. When viewed close up (like this view), it looks almost like a pink gummy worm with vanilla highlights. Please note that I am only saying that it has the general appearance of some bizarre candy, not that it actually tastes like one. It would probably taste more like a soy hotdog, come to think of it, since this insect feeds on Grape vines and Virginia Creepers for a living. If I had to guess, I would say it should be placed into a tiny bun before eating. I will leave this train of thought in the realm of guesswork, however, and have no plans to test out my theory either way.

  The Achemon, a member of the sphinx family, lacks the “horn” that usually defines the larvae of this group. Sphinx caterpillars are normally called hornworms (with the tomato hornworm being the most infamous) but we have a hornless hornworm in this case.  As a new hatchling, it once had this nice slender appendage coming off its tiny rear end, but shed it after the first molt. The structure is reduced down to a mere terminal butt button for the rest of larval life.

  This caterpillar does enact a typical sphinx maneuver when handled – or taste tested! When fully stretched out (see here), the creature can be quite slender. Upon touch, it retracts the head capsule back into the first several segments and the body thickens considerably (like the photo above and here). This is the sphinx-like pose that defines the family. If handled roughly, the bug can also land a pretty good bite thanks to a powerful pair of mandibles.

  Achemon, by the way, is the name of a mischievous dwarf of Greek legend. He was one of a pair of siblings that tried to play a trick on Hercules. They were caught and ridiculed by the “big H” who eventually let them go. Later, they tried to put one over on Zeus and were subsequently turned into monkeys. What this has to do with the actual species is beyond me, but it’s a good story anyway.

  During its growing life, the Achemon sphinx is normally dark purplish brown. When they reach full size – about canned wiener size – they stop eating and begin to search out a pupation site. As part of the transformation process, the creature changes color and morphs into a pink gummy worm.  This caterpillar was discovered while in the midst of this final transformative journey.  

  The Good Lord willing, and the Zeus don’t rise, this plump sphinx will pupate in the soil and wait out the winter before emerging as an adult next July. I hear that the adult moths (see here) taste like fried monkeys.

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