A lucky, lucky day with monarch guardian angels!

Yesterday my day turned out quite differently from my modest expectations – it was very lucky and truly a day for gratitude.

In mid-August, I had seen a female monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) at Sandy Creek Park, an exciting find and testimony to the usefulness of planting milkweed there. John Goebel, Sandy Creek patron, manager and care-taker extraordinaire, had planted about five types of milkweed in anticipation of welcoming these guests and it had paid off.

monarch DK7A7941© Maria de Bruyn res monarch DK7A7842© Maria de Bruyn res

A few days ago, on Facebook, the Friends of Sandy Creek Park group announced that the one male and two female monarch butterflies spotted in the butterfly garden had left behind quite a few offspring. As I had not seen a monarch caterpillar in person before, I took off early for the park, where I found three people assembled to count them.  John Goebel kindly told me something about the monarch life cycle.

monarch DK7A6427© Maria de Bruyn resmonarch DK7A6518© Maria de Bruyn res

He pointed out several larger caterpillars, noting that they were stage 4 or 5 larva. The eggs hatch about 4 days after being laid. The larvae eat the plant on which they were born, shedding their skins four times as they grow, a process taking 10 to 14 days. These stages of growth are called instars.

monarch munching © Maria de Bruyn res monarch DK7A6460© Maria de Bruyn res

monarch DK7A6441© Maria de Bruyn resIn stage 5, the large larvae look for a protected and hidden spot where they can attach themselves vertically. They use their spinneret (not only spiders have them!) to make a silk pad from which they then suspend themselves, hanging down in the form of a letter J. The culmination of this procedure occurs when they straighten out, a sign, John told me, that pupation was imminent, with the caterpillar turning into a bright green chrysalis. There was already one chrysalis when I arrived with two other caterpillars hanging nearby.

 

The milkweed plants were attracting plenty of insect action. Many stems were yellow and orange as they were covered with milkweed bug nymphs and aphids. I photographed several of the 43 caterpillars counted, including a small early-stage newbie, and a number of large specimens that were very busy munching on leaves.

monarch DK7A6489© Maria de Bruyn res

After a while, I moved on to photographing caterpillars of moth species and looked around for birds or other interesting insects. Then an unexpected and unfortunate event arose and I had to high-tail it to the bathroom (thank goodness Sandy Creek has one that is open much of the year!).

Emerging from the bathroom and walking down the path to my car to go home, I felt chagrin that my nature walk had to be cut short. But if it hadn’t been for the bathroom visit near the milkweed plants necessitated by my gastrointestinal emergency, I would have missed a first-time experience. As I strolled to my car, I glanced again at the hanging caterpillars and noticed one had straightened out. I balanced the need to go home to shower and change clothes with the desire to see a caterpillar become a chrysalis. I had cleaned myself as well as possible and no one else was around, so I stayed.

monarch DK7A7327© Maria de Bruyn resmonarch DK7A6569© Maria de Bruyn res

The caterpillar that I was watching was hanging quietly on a leaf; the only action came from a small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmia) and a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that marched back and forth on top, so I turned to the side to photograph an adventurous sibling that had climbed to the top of a nearby plant.

monarch DK7A7265© Maria de Bruyn resmonarch DK7A7357© Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked back, the pupation had already begun and was progressing apace.

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John had mentioned that it could take under a minute; this caterpillar was a little bit slower but the transformation was quick indeed. I’d seen videos of this before but seeing it live in the wild was awesome. And I got my own bit of video showing the last bit of larval skin dropping off the chrysalis.

monarch DK7A7623© Maria de Bruyn resThe large milkweed bug came back to perch over the chrysalis. Later, John moved this chrysalis because the leaf of the plant could fall off before the 10- to 14-day pupation period is over – everyone wants all the larvae to become full-grown adult butterflies who can undertake the long migration to Florida or, more likely, Mexico. Their loss of habitat in both the United States and Mexico is devastating to the species and action to prevent further losses is still needed.

monarch DK7A8180© Maria de Bruyn

As I again prepared to leave, I noticed that one of the other hanging caterpillars was straightening out, so I decided to wait a little while in the hope I would see a second pupation. After watching one caterpillar approach and climb a nearby tree and seeing another trundling through the grass toward the parking lot (presumably headed for a tree further away), I focused on the hanging caterpillar.

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Sure enough, the pupation began – in this case, even more rapidly than the first one I witnessed.

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A difference with this transformation was that the last little bit of caterpillar did not drop off but remained suspended at the bottom of the chrysalis. Most likely, it will fall off later, which is important; if it remains attached, it could damage the emerging butterfly.

MONARCH buttterfly 1© Maria de Bruyn resWatching this part of the butterflies’ metamorphosis was an exciting event. I didn’t wait fora third pupation, however, as I really did need to get home. On the way back, I nearly had a collision with another car – perhaps leading the other driver to need a shower, too. At home, I later almost fell on my face as one of my cats wound himself through my legs as I walked so that I came very close to tripping. Both accidents in the making didn’t happen, thank goodness, so maybe the monarch pupae had become my guardian angels for the day. In any event, I did have lots to be thankful for!

 

For more information:

http://monarchlab.org/biology-and-research/biology-and-natural-history/breeding-life-cycle/life-cycle

http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/ChrysalisFormationLPB.html

 

Hoppers – insects not frogs!

leafhopper IMG_7673©Maria de BruynMuch of the insect world consists of animals that we usually don’t even see or notice because: a) we don’t know they exist and therefore don’t look for them and b) they are tiny and only well visible with an enlarging lens. But once you get a good look at them, they turn out to be fascinating and sometimes quite attractive. One group of these insects is the hoppers – leaf- and planthoppers, that is, like the gray lawn leafhopper (Exitianus exitiosus) to the left.

As their name indicates, leaf- and planthoppers jump to get around, but they also move by flying, scuttling sideways like crabs, or walking slowly or quickly along plant stems and leaves. Both juveniles and adults are very aware of what is around them and if you do manage to spot one, you’ll see that they are watching you and, for example, may move underneath a leaf to get away from you.This broad-headed sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona) stayed still for a moment.

Broad-headed sharpshooter IMG_9350©Maria de Bruyn (2)

Acanaloid hopper nymph IMG_8738©Maria de BruynLeafhoppers are only 1/16 to 5/8 of an inch (2-15 mm) long. About 20,000 different leafhoppers have been described around the world; they feed by sucking plant sap from grass, shrubs, or trees. Planthoppers, some of which look like leaves and may be a bit bigger, also feed on plants.The nymphs (juveniles) are tiny, too, as seen in this photo where you see my fingertip above the nymph of an Acanaloid planthopper .

Leafhoppers, such as the speckled sharpshooter (Paraulacizes irrorata) below generally have wide, flattened and pointy heads with large eyes.

speckled sharpshooter IMG_1059©Maria de Bruynsigned

Planthoppers come in different forms and, in tropical countries, some of them are quite unique. While many keep their wings flat against their bodies, the derbid planthopper (Mysidia mississippiensis) looks like Derbid planthopper IMG_0717©Maria de Bruyn (2)a delicate little fly while resting.

Leafhoppers’ hind legs are covered with hairs that help them spread a secretion over their body which is water repellant. Some planthopper nymphs’ back legs have gears that help them jump away in the blink of an eye.

Versute sharpshooter IMG_1179©Maria de Bruyn (2) Versute sharpshooters (Graphocephala versuta) in love

 

 

 

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The female broad- headed sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona) develops white spots on her wings, which are egg brochosomes; these indicate she is ready to oviposit (lay eggs). These spots are made of a white waxy secretion that she places there; they dry to look like “chalky” spots. After she inserts her eggs into a plant, she uses her hind legs to scrape off the brochosomes onto the oviposition site as a way of hiding the eggs from predators.

 

Leaf- and planthopper nymphs can look as if they are completely different insects from the adult forms. As they mature, they begin to look similar to adults but are often of a different color and don’t yet have full wings. Below you see the colorful adult glassy-winged sharpshooter (Homalodisca vitripennis) and below that some nymphs of this leafhopper.

glassy-winged sharpshooter IMG_8955©Maria de BruynGlassy-winged sharpshooter IMG_8996©Maria de Bruyn

Glassy-winged sharpshooter nymph IMG_9008©Maria de BruynGlassy-winged sharpshooter nymph IMG_8910©Maria de Bruyn

As juveniles, hoppers go through a process called ecdysis. They pass through several stages to reach adulthood, molting and leaving behind their old exoskeleton in order to grow. They are called instars during these stages.

Leafhopper ecdysis IMG_9286©Maria de BruynLeafhopper ecdysis IMG_9325©Maria de Bruyn

Leafhopper ecdysis IMG_9379©Maria de BruynThe instar stages of the same hopper can look very different from one another, including color changes. Some of the nymphs, with their striped faces and big eyes, look to me as if they’d be great models for cartoon characters or Halloween masks like these coppery leafhopper juveniles (Coelidia olitoria).

Coppery leafhopper nymph IMG_9631©Maria de BruynCoppery leafhopper nymph IMG_2058©Maria de BruynCoppery leafhopper nymph IMG_2070©Maria de Bruyn (2)

Acanaloniid planthopper nymph Acanalonia bivittata IMG_8201©Maria de BruynresPlanthopper nymphs, like the two-striped planthopper (Acanalonia bivittata) and the Acanalonia servillei below, are known for producing waxy strands from their bodies which repel water. These strands also help protect them from predators, who might grab onto the showy white hairs, which break off so that the hopper can escape. The nymphs can ultimately be entirely covered in white wax.

Two-striped planthopper nymph IMG_9517©Maria de BruynAcanaloniid Planthopper nymph Acanalonia servillei IMG_8943©Maria de Bruyn

The colors and patterns on the adults can be quite beautiful, especially on the leafhoppers in the area where I live. The planthoppers tend to be white, gray or green. The colors on the coppery leafhopper are wonderful and varied.

Coppery leafhopper IMG_9646©Maria de Bruyn resCoppery leafhopper IMG_2160©Maria de Bruyn

Citrus flatid planthopper IMG_3201©Maria de BruynFlatid planthopper IMG_8772©Maria de Bruyn

Citrus flatid planthopper (Metcalfa pruinosa) and flatid planthopper (Acanalonia conica)

Sharpshooter Sibovia occatoria IMG_0126© Maria de BruynRed-banded leafhopper IMG_6376©Maria de BruynsignedLeafhopper Texananus IMG_1546©Maria de Bruyn

Sharpshooter (Sibovia occatoria), Red-banded sharpshooter (Graphocephala coccinea) and leafhopper (Texananus)

Leaf hopper Chlorotettix IMG_7677 M de BruynLeafhopper - Coelidia IMG_2649©Maria de Bruynhopper 4 IMG_8029©Maria de Bruynsigned
Leafhopper (Chlorotettix), leafhopper (Coelidia) and leafhopper (unidentified species)

As tiny as these insects are, they can be parasitized and play host to even smaller insects. This flatid planthopper (Ormenoides venusta), for example, was carrying red mites that weren’t harming it but hitching a ride. It must be annoying though.

Flatid planthopper Ormenoides venusta IMG_9737©Maria de BruynFlatid planthopper Ormenoides venusta IMG_9763©Maria de Bruyn

hopper 4 IMG_8036©Maria de BruynsignedI imagine there are many more interesting behaviors to observe with the hoppers. Maybe one day I will get a macro lens so that I can really get some good photos of these cute little insects. In the meantime, as there are several thousand species in North America, I can look forward to finding new ones – with my camera in hand as I wouldn’t be able to see anything but specks on plants without it!