Although 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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Earlier this week, when temperatures were in the 40’s and the sun was shining in the late afternoon, there were clusters of male winter crane flies (Trichocera sp.) hovering two or three feet above the snow, bobbing up and down as they did their mating dance. Females are on the surface of the snow most of the time, but join a swarm in order to find a mate. Winter crane flies are active throughout the winter, as their name implies, and are a source of food for resident songbirds. The larvae feed on decaying vegetation, and can be found in leaf litter, shelf fungi and compost heaps.
The caterpillar, or larval, stage of a butterfly or moth is the only stage in which the insect has chewing mouth parts. Hence, it is the stage during which a great deal of eating takes place. As the caterpillar eats, it grows larger, and eventually molts its skin, revealing a new, larger skin underneath the old. A cecropia caterpillar molts four times before spinning its cocoon and pupating. The cecropia caterpillar in this photograph has just molted its skin, which is attached to the plant just above the caterpillar’s head. If you look closely, you can see where the colored tubercles were. Within an hour of when this photograph was taken, the caterpillar had eaten its skin.
Unlike spiders, whose spinnerets, or silk-spinning spigots, are located at the tips of their abdomens, caterpillars’ spinnerets are located underneath their heads. The most prominent white structure with a black band around it is the monarch caterpillar’s spinneret, in which its silk glands are located. The smaller structures are called maxillary palps and are antennae-like sensory devices. Prior to metamorphosing into a chrysalis/pupa, the monarch caterpillar draws silk through its spinneret, and forms a small, well-anchored button of silk. The caterpillar clasps this button with a structure called a cremaster, located at the tip of its abdomen, from which it suspends itself upside down. Soon thereafter its skin splits, revealing a gold-dotted, green chrysalis from which an adult monarch butterfly will emerge in two weeks.
This 15-minute-old monarch butterfly that emerged yesterday will live for 2 to 5 weeks, long enough to mate and produce the next generation of monarchs. The generation of monarchs that emerges a month or more from now will live six to nine months, and not mate until next March or so – after flying to one of about a dozen locations in the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico (a flight of up to 3,000 miles) and spending the winter. Late summer-emerging monarchs live longer than monarchs that emerge earlier in the summer because they do not immediately expend energy on breeding and the cool winter temperature in Mexico slows their metabolism, allowing them a longer life.
The larval stage of the Cecropia Moth ( Hyalophora cecropia), a giant silk moth, is a sight to behold. The yellow, blue and red knobs that adorn its 4″ pale green body are striking. Look for this caterpillar on apple, ash, box elder, cherry, lilac , birch, maple and poplar trees, whose leaves it consumes with relish. The larva spins a brown, spindle-shaped, 3” cocoon in the fall, and overwinters as a pupa inside it. In the spring, the adult Cecropia Moth , North America’s largest native moth, emerges. Brown, with a 4” to 5” wingspread, it has no mouthparts, and lives only about a week to ten days, during which time the males mate numerous times, and the females lay eggs. Unfortunately, this species of moth seems to be declining in number, in part because it suffers from parasitism by a fly that was introduced to control the Gypsy Moth.