An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Bugs

Backswimmers Active Under Ice

11-18-13  backswimmers under ice 061Backswimmers are insects classified as “true bugs” and belong to the order Hemiptera. Most Hemipterans are land dwelling, such as stink bugs and assassin bugs, but there are a few, such as water striders, water boatmen and backswimmers, that are aquatic. In the fall, when most insect hatches have ceased, backswimmers come into their own. While some hibernate at the bottom of ponds in winter, others remain active, sculling through the water with their oar-like hind legs that are covered with fine hairs, preying on all forms of life up to the size of a small fish. Thanks to bubbles of oxygen that they obtain from pockets of air just under the ice and carry around with them like mini aqua lungs, backswimmers can continue to stay below the surface of the water for several minutes. Like most aquatic insects, backswimmers supercool their bodies (produce antifreeze compounds called cryprotectants that allow their body fluid to go down to 26 to 19 degrees F. without freezing). Right now, when there’s a thin layer of ice on most ponds and no snow covering it, you might want to peer through the ice at the edge of the pond to see if you can locate any of these cold-hardy creatures. Just be sure you don’t fall in, as I did two seconds after this photograph was taken. My undying gratitude for those of you who have donated to Naturally Curious, as your support enabled me to replace both camera and lens!

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Backswimmers

Backswimmers are aquatic insects that seek out prey as large as tadpoles and small fish. They row around ponds with their fringed hind legs and grasp prey with their front pair of legs. The piercing mouthparts that they use to kill their prey are also capable of giving humans who handle them carelessly a nasty bite (they are also known as “water wasps” for this reason).7-12-13  backswimmer 376 Because they spend most of their time on their back, their coloring is opposite that of most insects – backswimmers typically have a dark belly and a light-colored back, making them less conspicuous to predators (and prey) both above and beneath them. These tiny bugs can stay submerged for hours thanks to their ability to store air bubbles in two channels on their abdomen which are covered with inward-facing hairs. Backswimmers are often confused with Water Boatmen, which are not predaceous, do not bite, and swim “right side up.” Water Boatmen’s dark color and parallel lines on their backs help distinguish them from Backswimmers.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Grass of Parnassus

Grass of Parnassus, also known as Bog-star, is a favorite flowering plant of mine for two reasons. One is because I enjoy saying its name — try it, it sounds quite regal. Secondly, the green lines, or bee guides, on the petals are a striking color which you don’t see all that often in flowers. Grass of Parnassus is in the Saxifrage family – not in the Grass family, as its name would imply. It typically grows in wet meadows. Apparently the name comes from ancient Greece; the cattle on Mount Parnassus ate this plant with relish, and thus it was deemed an “honorary grass.” (An Ambush Bug is perched on a petal, waiting and watching for prey.)


Spined Soldier Bug

The Spined Soldier Bug is a predatory stink bug which preys on a variety of other insects (over 90 species), especially the larvae of butterflies, moths and beetles. It is one insect that farmers actually welcome, as it preys heavily on the larvae of the European corn borer, Mexican bean beetle, cabbage looper, Colorado potato beetle, flea beetles and many other crop pests. The adult Spined Soldier Bug has a prominent spine on each “shoulder.” It also has piercing-sucking mouthparts which it uses to impale prey and suck out their internal juices. The photograph shows a Spined Soldier Bug dining on the innards of a monarch caterpillar.


Ladybug Metamorphosis

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Much to my delight, many of you knew that yesterday’s mystery photo was none other than the larval stage of a ladybug (referred to as a “ladybird beetle” by entomologists, as it is not a true bug, but a beetle). I remember when I first learned what the different stages of a ladybug’s life cycle looked like – I couldn’t believe that this miniature alligator-like creature turned into a sweet little ladybug. Approximately 88% of all insects pass through four separate stages (complete metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupa, adult) by the time they reach adulthood. Ladybugs are one of these insects. The first three stages of a ladybug’s life each last anywhere from 7 to 21 days, depending on weather and food supply. An adult ladybug lives for 3 to 9 months. The larvae of all ladybug species (there are approximately 450 in New England) have a similar appearance. Yesterday’s larva, as well as today’s pupa (and accompanying shed larval skin) and adult, are  Multicolored Asian Ladybugs.


Spittlebugs

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Have you ever poked around inside one of those masses of bubbles that you see on grass and other plant stems? If so, chances are that you have discovered that an insect actually lives inside this frothy home – the immature stage (nymph) of a Spittlebug. It hangs head down while piercing the stem of the plant and ingests the sap. Because the sugar content is often very low, the nymph must drink a lot of sap in order to get the nutrition it needs. As a result, the Spittlebug pumps out the excess water from the tip of its abdomen, which amounts to 150 – 300 times its weight every 24 hours. During this process, oxygen and nymphal secretions cause the water to have a sticky, bubbly quality, and these sticky bubbles pour down over the nymph, creating a moist home that prevents the Spittlebug nymph from drying out and that discourages predators as it tastes bad. Once it has matured, the nymph metamorphoses into an adult Spittlebug (also called a Froghopper) and flies away.  (Photographs are of:  spittlebug “spit,” spittlebug nymph and adult spittlebug emerging from nymphal skin.)


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


Small Milkweed Bugs

This time of year you can often find many orange and black bugs on milkweed leaves.  If they are black with an orange “X” on their forewings, they are small milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmii).  This combination of colors, which many insects that feed on milkweed have, warns predators that, due to ingesting milkweed toxins, red and orange insects may be bad for their health.  Adult small milkweed bugs feed mainly on milkweed seeds, but they also consume the nectar of a variety of flowers.  In addition, they occasionally prey on insects, such as the ant in the accompanying photograph.


Ants Farming Aphids

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Some species of ants “farm” aphids.  Ants and aphids have a mutualistic relationship, in which each benefits from the presence of the other.  The aphids feed off of the sap of plants, which is low in nutrients.  They must therefore consume a lot of sap in order to get adequate nutrition.  As a result, the aphids excrete large quantities of waste, called honeydew, which is high in sugar content.  This is where the ants come in – they love honeydew, and have actually learned to “milk” aphids by stroking them with their antennae, which stimulates the aphids to release honeydew.  In return for this delicacy, the ants protect the aphids from predators. Chemicals on the ants’ feet tranquilize and subdue the aphids, and even inhibit their wing development, keeping them close by as a ready source of food.  Ants have also been observed tearing the wings from aphids before they can become airborne.


Ambush Bugs

Ambush bugs, assassin bugs, leaf-footed bugs and stink bugs are in the order Hemiptera – they are true bugs.  Although all insects are often referred to as “bugs,” technically, only insects in this order are considered and referred to as bugs by entomologists.  All true bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, and wings which are membranous and clear at the tips, but hardened at the base.  Ambush bugs are actually a type of assassin bug, most of which are predators. Ambush bugs are usually brightly colored (yellow, red or orange) and they also have thickened front legs, resembling those of praying mantises, which are used to capture prey.  If you carefully examine goldenrod flowers, you will probably find some well-camouflaged ambush bugs, waiting motionless for prey to come to them.  Thanks in part to their impressive front legs, they are capable of capturing prey ten times their own size. At this time of year you can also find mating pairs, as in this photograph.


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