An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars Feeding

milkweed tussock moth2 038Female milkweed tussock moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name and make them resemble little mops. When still fairly young, the siblings stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume, leaving only the strongest veins that contain sticky latex. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf. At this point they often cut through a vein in order to prevent the latex from reaching the area of the leaf where they are feeding. (Older monarch caterpillars use this same tactic.) Like monarchs, milkweed tussock moths, because they’ve consumed the cardiac glycosides contained in milkweed and dogbane leaves, are toxic to predators.

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Antlions Trapping Insects

8-14-14  antlions - 230The larvae of a predaceous group of winged insects (family Myrmeleontidae) that closely resemble dragonflies and damselflies are referred to as “antlions” – they have the ferociousness of a lion and prey mainly on ants. The manner in which an antlion traps its prey is ingenious. It excavates a conical pit in sandy soil (an antlion is also called a “doodlebug” because of the squiggly trails it leaves in the sand looking for just the right spot for a pit). Using its head as a shovel, it tosses out sand as it turns in a circle, digging deeper and deeper, until it forms a pit roughly two inches deep and three inches wide. The antlion lies at the bottom of the pit, covered by a thin layer of sand except for it pincer-like mandibles, which are ready to snatch prey at a second’s notice.

The slope of the sides of the pit is at the angle of repose – as steep as it can be without giving way – so when an ant accidentally steps over the edge of the pit and falls in, the sand beneath it collapses, carrying the ant to the bottom of the pit and into the pincers of the waiting antlion. If the ant tries to scramble up and out of the pit, the antlion tosses a load of sand at the ant, knocking it back down. The antlion then injects venom and digestive fluids into the prey via grooves in its mandibles, and drinks the innards of the ant through these same grooves.

The antlion’s anatomy is as unusual as its method of capturing prey. It has a mouth cavity, but no mouth opening, and no external opening for solid waste. Because digestion takes place outside of its body, the antlion doesn’t accumulate a lot of waste, but what it does accumulate stays inside of it until the antlion matures into an adult. This can be anywhere from one to three years, depending on the species. When fully developed, the antlion constructs a small, round pupal case out of silk and sand, in which it overwinters. It emerges from this case the following spring as a winged adult. (Thanks to Joan Waltermire and John Douglas for photo op.)

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Carrion Beetles Feeding

7-30-14 carrion beetle feeding 129When an organism dies, such as the pictured American Toad, a series of decomposers appear and break it down. Some of the first insects to arrive at the scene are blowflies, and they lose no time in laying eggs which rapidly hatch into larvae, or maggots. A bit later, carrion beetles move in. Both of these insects live in dead carcasses, where they eat raw flesh and fungi. There is great competition, believe it or not, for rotting bodies, and carrion beetles such as the pictured American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) have managed to find a way to eliminate some of it. They carry tiny mites on their backs which travel from carcass to carcass with the beetles, devouring the eggs of maggots as well as the smallest maggots themselves. In addition, carrion beetles secrete a strong offensive odor that irritates other insects and predators, a second effective way to reduce the number of insects competing for a corpse.

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Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle Larva at Work

7-24-14 tiger beetle adult and larva 040Without doubt, I have one of the most erudite readerships in the land of blogs. Several people recognized this uncommon phenomenon. To clear up a few misconceptions, however, being a male, this dragonfly was not laying eggs. Neither was it fertilizing them – male dragonflies perform this act when coupled with a female. This Chalk-fronted Corporal had the misfortune to sun itself on a tiger beetle-inhabited patch of sand. One of the most aggressive groups of insect predators is the tiger beetle family. They are especially known for their speed – up to 5.6 mph, which is comparable to a human running 480 mph. If you watch an adult tiger beetle hunting, you’ll notice that it stops and starts frequently. This is because it runs so fast it goes blind — its brain has trouble processing the information it sees, and the beetle must stop to regain its sight.

The larvae of the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle live in tunnels that they dig in the sand (some of you noticed tiny holes near the dragonfly) that can be up to a foot deep. The larvae have hooks located on the back of their abdomen to anchor them to the side of the burrow. Tiger beetle larvae are also predators, and after digging a tunnel the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle will crawl up it until just the top of its head is visible. From this position the larva watches for prey wandering by. When it sees a potential meal, such as yesterday’s dragonfly, it flips backwards faster than you can blink an eye and grabs its prey, pulling it down as far as it can into its tunnel, where it safely feasts on its catch. The portion of the Chalk-fronted Corporal’s abdomen that was inside the tiger beetle tunnel was completely consumed except for the outer skeleton.

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Eyed Click Beetle

7-10-14 eyed click beetle 789Although this Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus) looks ferocious with its large, black “eyespots” (actual eyes are below antennae), it is harmless to humans. Like all members of the click beetle, or Elateridae, family, it gets its name from the sound it makes when it flips itself upright. Click beetles possess a spine-like structure as well as a notch under their thorax. When they release the spine from the notch, it snaps and they are propelled into the air. Click beetles use this mechanism to right themselves if they are on their backs. Entomologists feel predators are deterred not only by the false eyes, but by this action. The larvae, called wireworms, spend most of their life (2 to 5 years) in the soil feeding on decaying plants and other insects in the soil before emerging as adults. (Thanks to Liz Ambros for photo op.)

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Jumping Spider Guards Egg Sac

6-5-14 jumping spider2  077Spiders protect their eggs by wrapping them up in a sac they make out of silk. Some species (such as garden, or black-and-yellow argiope, spiders) then die, leaving their egg sac to withstand the elements, as well as potential parasites and predators, on their own. As you would guess, these sacs are usually fairly impenetrable. In other species, female spiders survive long enough to guard their eggs until they hatch, or even until the young spiderlings disperse, and these sacs are usually far less tough. In the species where the female protects her eggs, some females carry their egg sacs with them at all times (wolf spiders, nursery web spiders) while others (jumping spiders) simply remain with the sac. Their excellent eyesight and impressive ability to leap many times their body length gives jumping spiders an advantage over any potential predators. (Photo – jumping spider with egg sac)

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Paper Wasp Queens Emerging From Hibernation

4-8-14 paper wasp2  152Paper wasps have annual colonies – only the young, fertilized queens overwinter, with the old queen, female workers and the males all perishing in the fall. The queens seek shelter behind tree bark, or in rotting logs or stumps, and emerge in the spring when temperatures rise and day length is increasing. Last year’s nest is not re-used – the queen mixes wood and plant fiber with her saliva, creating several waterproof paper cells into each of which she lays an egg — the start of her future labor force. Due to the lack of wildflowers (and therefore nectar) this early in the spring, queens rely on the sap from broken tree branches, as well as the sap found in drilled Yellow-bellied Sapsucker wells, for sustenance.

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