Springtime with awesome, beautiful and awe-inspiring insects

This spring of 2021 has offered some delightful chances to see interesting insect species, some of which I’ve noticed before and some that were new or gave me my first opportunity to observe them up close. While not many people aside from entomologists pay much attention to the “creepy crawlies,” they are certainly well worth watching in my view. Including insects in my nature observations greatly enhances my experience of appreciating the natural world.

male giant ichneumon wasp P5068000© Maria de Bruyn res (4)

ichneumon wasp P5067996© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068007 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)The month of May brought me two especially awe-inspiring events. The first was seeing long-tailed giant ichneumon wasps (Megarhyssa macrurus) preparing for reproduction on a nature trail in Chatham County. It was easy to distinguish the females (right) from the males (above) because they had very long ovipositors (a tubular organ through which a female insect lays stored eggs). In the species I saw, the ovipositor can be 4 inches long!’

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068028© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

There were several male and three female wasps flying about. None of them showed the slightest interest in the large human looming overhead. Even if they had, I needn’t have worried since these wasps don’t sting people. The females were busy pressing their antennae against a disintegrating hardwood log’s bark, aiming to detect vibrations inside.

ichneumon wasp P5068180© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The mothers-to-be were “listening” for the best spots to lay their eggs by identifying where the larvae of the pigeon tremex horntail wasp (Tremex columba) were buried. Why you ask? The mother ichneumon paralyzes a horntail larva before laying an egg next to it. When her own offspring emerge from the eggs, they will eat those unfortunate horntail larvae while they prepare to overwinter until they emerge as full-grown ichneumon wasps in the spring.

ichneumon wasp P5068058 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

The giant ichneumon’s ovipositor has three components. In the middle is the ovipositor proper, a filament with two interlocking parts that slide against one another; it is tipped with a cutting edge that can drill through wood. Some researchers have data indicating that the cutting edge may contain some ionized zinc or manganese.

ichneumon wasp P5068164© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Two other thin filaments called valvulae sheath the central structure and their function is to protect the egg-laying organ. During egg-laying, they arc away from the ovipositor.

ichneumon wasp P5068171© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I watched one female wasp in particular, she sometimes had part of her ovipositor coiled up in a transparent expandable pouch at the end of her abdomen.

ichneumon wasp IMG_2003© Maria de Bruyn res (2) ichneumon wasp IMG_2002 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

She would push out the ovipositor and appeared to smooth it out with her legs. The literature I read about the wasps did not explain this movement, but I thought she might be pushing eggs down the tube. Watch the video to see what you think! 

When she finished this smoothing movement and had found the right spots for her offspring, the protective lining filaments separated from the ovipositor itself and she inserted it into the log. It was a fascinating process to witness.

 

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068170 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068109 (© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Although ichneumon wasps are parasitic, various species are beneficial insects since their larvae feed on insects that harm food crops such as boll weevils, codling moths and asparagus beetles. The adults usually only live about 27 days and may only drink during that time. Their adult goal is to find a mate and then reproduce.

ichneumon wasp P5068014 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Another way in which the ichneumon wasps have contributed to human society is by serving as an example for the medical community. The STING Project at the Imperial College in London is investigating options for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) to diagnose and treat various medical pathologies. The research team is now developing a flexible steerable probe that was inspired by the ichneumon wasp’s ovipositor!

cecropia moth IMG_0019 © Maria de Bruyn (2)My other exciting insect event involved a moth. Last fall, a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) positioned its cocoon on the door jamb of the women’s restroom at Cane Creek Reservoir. The reservoir’s manager feared that it would be damaged there and asked if I would be willing to care for it over the winter. I took the cocoon home and kept it safe during the fall, winter and much of this spring.

Cecropia moth larvae (caterpillars) are often found on maple, cherry and birch trees. Why this one chose a building as an overwintering site is a bit of a mystery. Since the pupa was going to be dormant all winter, I placed it upright in a large plastic container with a grate over the top and kept it on my screened-in porch.

cecropia moth IMG_0020© Maria de Bruyn (2)Periodically, I would check on it and it seemed to be ok. This was important as these moths are “univoltine” — they only have one generation of offspring per year. Out in nature, the caterpillars may fall victim to parasitic wasps and flies that lay their eggs on them. So it was fortunate that we were able to “rescue” this cocoon.

One evening at the end of May, I stopped working on my porch to go inside to watch the news. When I came back after about 20 minutes, I spotted a brilliant large moth on the screen. My youngest cat spotted it at the same time, so I shooed her inside. The cocoon scarcely had a hole in it; I really wish I’d seen how the huge moth got out.

cecropia moth IMG_0006© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

cecropia moth IMG_0003© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

The cecropia moth is North America’s largest moth with a wingspan up to 7 inches. The males and females look similar but the males like this one have larger, more feathery antennae.

cecropia moth IMG_0012© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Female moths emit pheromones that the males can detect from up to a mile away. After mating, the female lays up to 100 eggs. Both sexes die after about two weeks as they lack functioning mouths and digestive systems and don’t eat.

cecropia moth IMG_0014 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

The moth’s short adult lifespan must have made this guy anxious to get underway. Or seeing my cat and I hastened his development. One website reported that it takes the moth a few hours to dry before they can open their wings and fly.

cecropia moth IMG_0011© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

However, very soon (perhaps 10 minutes) after I removed him from my porch and took him outside (never touching him with my hands), he began vibrating his wings. In less than a minute, he launched himself upwards and flew towards the top of the nearby tall pine trees, setting off on his quest for a mate.

cecropia moth IMG_0016© Maria de Bruyn (2a) res

I suppose it is possible that the moth had emerged earlier and had crawled away to hide but that seemed unlikely. In any event, he looked like he could fly just fine, and I sincerely hope that he found a mate and that they were able to collaborate in ensuring a new generation of this stunningly beautiful species! And I was grateful for having agreed to overwinter the cocoon as it enabled me to contribute to the propagation of this wonderful moth. In any event, I was enthralled to see what a gorgeous creature he was. These moths are generally nocturnal so seeing him was a treat!

cecropia moth IMG_0017 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

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Helping monarch butterflies thrive

If you follow news about nature, you may have come across warnings that the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) has been in rather dire straits for many years now.

 

These lovely orange and black butterflies live from 6 to 8 weeks when they are adults engaged in reproduction. Those who live in the Eastern USA participate in a multi-generational migration process between Canada and central Mexico. The last generation to emerge in late summer is able to delay its sexual maturity to undertake the last leg of the migratory journey (called reproductive diapause) and may live up to 8 months. Individual butterflies may travel as far as 1200-3000 miles to get to their warmer over-wintering grounds.

 

Since the 1980s, the Eastern US monarch population has declined by about 80%, mainly because the only food source for their caterpillars has been disappearing. Milkweeds used to grow abundantly in agricultural areas and along roadsides and ditches, but people have been eradicating the plants from fields and using herbicides and mowing to remove them along roads.

Climate change has also affected the butterflies’ breeding and migratory patterns so that reproduction has been reduced.

One way to help out the monarchs is to plant native (not exotic!) milkweeds in your own yard and any other natural spaces to which you have access. I’ve been doing it around my home and as a volunteer for the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. This year, I was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of a milkweed give-away organized by some local high-school students, so I had two types of the plants in my yard.

 

The ones that I had originally planted were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). These plants have large globular clusters of flowers that range in color from pinkish to purple. They do not have blooms their first year but that doesn’t stop the caterpillars from eating their leaves.

 

Butterfly weed (also known as butterfly milkweed; Asclepias tuberosa) is a bit more delicate and “exuberant” in appearance, with small clusters of orange, reddish and yellow flowers. These were the plants that I was gifted by the students and I was happy to see them grow quickly to exhibit their beautiful blooms.

According to Wikipedia, the butterfly milkweed is not a preferred plant for the monarch but this year the butterflies seemed much more attracted to it than to the common milkweed. After a few visits from some butterflies, I began seeing caterpillars and at one point counted 17 crawling up and down the various plants.

They were especially prevalent on the butterfly weed in my front yard and were munching the plants to bare stems very quickly.

 

       

To make sure they had enough food, I transferred some of them to the common milkweeds in my back yard – these were larger plants with much broader leaves and I thought this would ensure their healthy development. Frass (poop) was being left on the remaining leaves and the ground surrounding the plants.

 

It was rewarding to see three caterpillars make it to the chrysalis stage; the other caterpillars crawled away before I could see where they went, and I didn’t find them suspended from any plants. The first one had attached itself to a bare sapling and, unfortunately, the next day it had disappeared, leaving only the silken thread by which it had been suspended.

The caterpillars store milkweed glycosides in their bodies, making them toxic to many other animals. They still have many predators, however, including wasps, spiders, other insects, lizards, toads and mice. I resolved to save at least one chrysalid if I could.

I got to see the second chrysalis being formed (see the video, which is a little shaky at times). When the caterpillar is ready to undergo the pupation stage, it attaches itself to a plant stem by making a silk pad as an anchor (called a cremaster). Then it inserts the hooks at the end of its abdomen into the pad and hangs down. When the caterpillar forms a J shape, this signals the change to a chrysalis will soon be underway.

Starting from the head, the outer skin is shed, rolling up as the new covering develops. The shed skin may remain at the silk pad or fall off.

 

Slowly the stripes of the caterpillar disappear, and the chrysalis takes on a shiny even green hue, with some golden accent spots.

 

I kept that chrysalis, as well as a third one I saw the next morning, in my house and waited for them to darken. This signals the butterfly is almost through developing inside.

One morning I found the newly emerged monarch from the second chrysalis drying its wings. I took it outside so that it could fly free and then begin its trip to Mexico. (I also took the third one outside when it darkened but the twig holding it disappeared.)

 

You, too, could contribute to their propagation by planting some milkweed if you have an area for this. Autumn is the best time to plant seeds, but you can try it in the spring as well. Common milkweed typically doesn’t flower during its first year, but butterfly weed will give you flowers in its first season; the latter plants may be slow to emerge at first.

Both of these milkweed varieties are perennials so be sure to remember where you planted them. Common milkweed may spread out with time, while butterfly weed remains where you put it.

 

Other flowering plants will attract the adult monarchs, too, for nectaring, such as asters and lantana.

 

And then sit back next year and wait for the monarchs to arrive, happy in the knowledge that you have contributed to maintaining a favorable environment for their survival.

More ideas on how you can participate in the drive to save this iconic butterfly are detailed on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website: https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/

 

Hopping into springtime

I’ve been planning new blogs for quite some time; then I keep taking new photos that will fit into them and the blog writing gets delayed. But two days ago, I saw such a cool natural event that I resolved to produce a blog quickly and here it is!

One welcome feature of springtime is that many insects emerge from their over-wintering spots. Some are bugs we dislike (mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers), but others are fascinating and wonderful members of our natural systems. Pollinators like this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) keep our gorgeous plants and important food crops going and many bugs provide other wildlife with meals.

On my trip to Costa Rica last year, our guide not only pointed out birds but also some mammals and insects. He had developed an interest in treehoppers, a group of insects with about 3200 species worldwide that specialize in eating plant sap. He was unable to find any to show me, but I resolved to keep an eye open for them when I returned home. I had forgotten that I had seen my first one the year before, a pretty green Ceresini species.

As I stared at plants during nature walks, I was lucky and managed to find my first treehoppers when I was actually looking for them. These were of a dark-colored species (Acutalis tartarea) that favors the sap of black locust trees, sunflowers, goldenrod and ragweeds.

The treehoppers, which are related to leafhoppers and cicadas, are popular with some entomologists because many species have elaborate “helmets” at the top of their heads. I got to see my first example of this type on my recent walk when I happened to find a young oak tree with numerous nymphs and recently eclosed (emerged) adult oak treehoppers (Platycostis vittata).

The mother treehopper is known for staying close to the nymphs to protect them against wasps and other predators.

The hoppers get plant sap by piercing plant stems with their beaks. The nymphs have extensible anal ducts that deposit the sap away from their bodies. This is important because the concentrated excess sap, called honeydew, can get moldy.

 

                              

The honeydew attracts ants, which like the sugar-rich liquid, so the hoppers and ants have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Just how the helmet develops into an unusual shape has been a source of investigation. One team of entomologists theorized that the helmet was formed by body parts that were actually modified wings. Another researcher countered that this was impossible and that the helmet was an unusual pronotum — the foremost dorsal section of the thorax. More recently, a third group of evolutionary biologists postulated that the helmet is indeed a section of pronotum but one that developed with the aid of genes that code for wings.

In various species, the pronotum has developed into a quite unusual and oddly shaped appendage; examples can be seen in this article. When the helmet resembles a plant thorn, it is thought to aid in camouflage.

When I discovered the group of oak treehoppers, one was just in the process of emerging from its nymph form. A friend who saw the photo remarked that it reminded her of the film Alien but this process was slow and deliberate and not a heart-thumping explosive emergence as shown in the movie.

As you can see, the oak treehopper is quite a beautiful insect with its pristine white body decorated with pink/red stripes and hints of yellow. They made me think of mints and Candy Stripers (a sign of our times when almost anything makes me think of health and health-related concerns. For younger readers: young female volunteers who work under nurses’ supervision in hospitals used to wear pink and white striped smocks and thus got the name Candy Striper).

Not all the adults had the horned pronotum; some had rounded heads.

This close-up of a hopper’s face could evoke all kinds of thoughts. I thought it looked as if it had a pig’s snout. Another friend thought it looked like a grumpy old man. What do you think when you see this visage?

Or about this one, with its head upside down? (It looks a bit more “innocent”, don’t you think?)

In any event, I found these insects just adorable and I felt very privileged to have had the chance to see them emerge into adulthood. It turns out that in this species, older individuals may change color, turning a dull brown or green color. Some mottled forms may be blue with yellowish spots. It would be interesting to see those forms as well one day – or perhaps one of the other treehoppers with a different fabulous helmet!I hope you, too, are able to get out in nature during these social distancing times so that you can connect with the wonderful wildlife around us!

Finding joy in troubled times

While working on photos for other blogs, it occurred to me that it might be more productive right now to focus on what we, everywhere, are facing with the current pandemic. It’s my hope that as many of us as possible will survive, thrive and overcome the distress we are facing. As we hunker down, like this beautiful mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), we can intensify our nature observations – or begin paying more attention to the wildlife around us when we do go for walks.

 

Practicing social quarantine and distancing is essential –- even if we live somewhere where authorities are not yet requiring this. Keeping away physically from those outside our households can protect them as well as ourselves. In most places, social distancing rules still allow us to get outside for walks in the fresh air and nature. I have never seen so many people, including families with children, in the local nature reserves and that is a welcome sight. Hopefully, a side effect of this will be much more social support and advocacy for environmental conservation and expansion of natural areas, parks and reserves now and in the future -– that would be an unexpected positive outcome to the measures we are taking to get through these troubled times! (Yellow trout lily above, Erythronium americanum).

For people who haven’t had the pleasure of getting out much on walks, I wanted to share something about how to possibly enjoy nature even more. From my perspective, a key element is learning to practice patience and to stop, wait, watch and explore frequently. Here are some examples of what you might find. (Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia)

Looking down at the ground can be a fruitful exercise, especially in spring. Fresh new blooms are emerging and can delight us with their beauty (like the Eastern spring beauties, Claytonia virginica).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – the leaves look like jigsaw puzzle pieces

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)                  Tiny bluet (Houstonia pusilla)

Common chickweed (Stellaria media)

   

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

   

Ground ivy – also known as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

If you are out with kids, you can pay more attention to the plants –- take photos of them (most reserves and parks don’t want people to dig up and pick flowers) and then look them up at home and learn about them. Or make a game out of fallen leaves –- find three with very different shapes and identify the trees.

If you look closely at the flowers, you might glimpse small bugs flitting around the blooms. If you have a camera or phone camera, try to get a photo. When you enlarge it, you might find that you have actually seen a beautiful fly, bee or other insect whose shape and colors you couldn’t see with the naked eye. If you want to identify it, post the photo to the site BugGuide.net, where entomologists can perhaps tell you what species you saw.

Parasitic fly (Goninii, above)

 

 

Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

Various species of syrphid flies are shown below; they are often mistaken for small bees. The first photos are all of the species Toxomerus geminatus.

 

Male                                                               Female

And below the male and female together.

 

A species of syrphid fly with a striped abdomen (Syrphus torvus) is characterized by “hairy” eyes (more so in males, like this one). Click to enlarge and see the hairs.

A larger species, Brachypalpus oarus, is not so colorful.

Even if you can’t get outside much, you might see an interesting insect around your house. For example, this male brown-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops) appeared on my porch when I was sweeping.

Butterflies are really starting to fly around now. The bluish spring azures (Celastrina ladon) are abundant right now.

I’ve been seeing falcate orangetips (Anthocharis midea), too.

Damselflies are also starting to appear; we tend to see them earlier than the dragonflies, who spread their wings horizontally when they alight on vegetation. This fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) was getting covered in yellow pine pollen –- much of North Carolina’s Piedmont region is bedecked in yellow dust during the spring weeks when the pine trees emit clouds of pollen.

 

Looking in the water can be productive, too. One day, I spent some time scanning the edge of a pond where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom. As I watched little fish darting to and fro, I suddenly noticed something larger moving about quickly. I looked more intently and discovered Eastern newts (also called red-spotted newts, Notophthalmus viridescens) down there – the first time I had seen these amphibians!!

When you see an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) scurrying across the leaves in the forest or even alongside a road, stop and watch a bit. I did the other day and saw the mammal locate a winter stash and dig up some food it had stored. This article describes their storage process and reveals that they can probably remember where up to 95% of their stashes are hidden!

Paying attention to fallen logs can reveal beauty, too. This tree that fell across a creek ended up providing a growing place for common blue violets (Viola sororia).

As I walked by some other fallen trees, a common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) popped briefly into view, gave me a pensive look and then disappeared into the leaf and twig litter.

Looking up at the trees, you might be lucky to see a wasp nest. The paper wasps (Polistes) make compartmentalized nests, with a place for each individual egg.

Or you may see a large bald-faced hornet’s nest (Dolichovespula maculata).

               

If you take the time to watch birds, you may see them engaged in looking for food (like insects, nuts, berries and seeds).

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)         Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

 

Black & white warbler (Mniotilta varia)    Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

On one of my latest walks, I heard rapid knocking and was able to watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) engaged in beginning a new series of sap holes, which provide sweet drinking spots for themselves and other birds.

If you’re able to look at trees, bushes or nest boxes during walks or from your windows, you might catch birds collecting materials for their nests. Just the other day, I saw a Carolina chickadee gathering up some spider web to use in a nest.

If you find a nest, be sure to maintain a good distance, but then watch the parents bringing food to their nestlings after they hatch. If you’re lucky, you may even see the babies fledge! And if you are not near any trees, watch some birds at their nests through webcams online: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/ – https://www.audubon.org/birdcamshttps://birdwatchinghq.com/live-bird-cams/
https://birdcams.live/

If, at some point, we are “stuck” inside, we can follow this link to international wildlife days. If we find one to celebrate during our quarantine, we can spend some time learning about that animal and drawing or painting it. And we can do the same for other environmental days as well at this link.

To end, I’d like to share some resources with free online nature activities – for children and adults! Not all the sites require having a yard; even readers living in apartments could get out for a short walk and find something to see, investigate, etc.  Enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

Moth marvels

Some of the large moths, like the polyphemus (Antheraea polyphemus) and cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia, below) moths, definitely rival butterflies in their beauty and splendor. Before launching into a series on some Central American wildlife, I thought I’d share a couple recent moth-related spottings that I had.

The luna moth (Actias luna) is a large lepidopteran that entrances people and I recently saw one along a path in the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. Unfortunately, the insect had died but the cause was not apparent. Perhaps it was a parasitic fly that was originally introduced to help control invasive gypsy moths or perhaps it had simply reached the end of its life span.

This past year, I was fortunate enough to see the cocoons of both the polyphemus (left) and cecropia moths but I had not seen the large caterpillars associated with some large moths.

 

Then, just a few days before departing for a trip to Costa Rica, it was my good fortune to visit a garden that had two species of large hornworms. The tobacco hornworm is the immature form of the Carolina sphinx moth (also known as the tobacco hawkmoth; Manduca sexta). The tomato hornworm, the caterpillar of the brown and gray five-spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata) looks very similar except that it has a black or dark blue horn instead of the orange one sported by the tobacco hornworm.

The tomato hornworm is distinguished by v-shaped marks (right) while the tobacco hornworm has beautiful black-bordered straight white lines on its body. I find both species attractive but particularly like the tobacco hornworm caterpillars.

                    

They are so cute with their rounded heads and little suction-cup-like feet.

Both species of caterpillar can be found on either tomato or tobacco plants as they consume the foliage of various plants in the nightshade family. The presence of frass (insect larvae poop) alerts you to which plants may be hosting the hornworms.

These moth species originated in Central America and are now considered by some people to be garden pests, especially when they eat tomatoes. It seems that planting marigolds next to the fruit can repel the caterpillars, who eventually pupate and then overwinter underground where they have fallen off plants.

 

There are parasitic wasps that also prey on the hornworms. One species attacks the tiny hornworm eggs, which are laid on leaves; another wasp lays its eggs in the body of the caterpillars.

 

The Kingsolver Lab at the University of North Carolina (UNC) is researching the hornworms among other insects, examining how environmental changes caused by humans (agro-ecosystems, introduction of invasive species, climate change) are evoking responses in the caterpillars. It was a treat to see lots of these caterpillars at different stages of their development.

                

Next up: a blog on one bird species I’ve watched frequently this summer in NC and then a virtual trip to Costa Rica. 🙂