Although it looks like a caterpillar, this larva is not going to metamorphose into a butterfly or moth. This is because it is a sawfly larva, and is closely related to bees and wasps. (It gets its name from the adult female’s saw-like, egg-laying ovipositor that opens like a jack-knife from the tip of her abdomen.)There are several ways to distinguish between these two types of larvae (sawflies and butterflies/moths). While both have three pairs of true legs on their thorax, caterpillars (larvae of moths and butterflies) have up to five pairs of prolegs (fleshy structures that resemble legs) located on their abdomen behind their true legs, while sawfly larvae have six or more pairs. A closer look at the tips of the prolegs on caterpillars will reveal tiny hooks called “crochets,” which are lacking on sawfly larvae prolegs. Sawfly larvae also exhibit distinctive behavior. If you see something that looks like a caterpillar feeding along the margin of a leaf and it rears up its hind end when disturbed (perhaps to frighten predators), chances are great that you are looking at a sawfly larva.
The queen is the only wasp in a colony to live through the winter (the others all die), and she usually does so in a sheltered spot such as a rotting log or under the loose bark of a tree (pictured). I wasn’t aware, until discovering this wasp, that queens actually chew a cavity in which to hibernate, but that appears to be the case in some instances. You can see the woody bits of fiber under the wasp that accumulated from her excavating the chamber. The cavity is roughly one inch long and ¼-inch deep. As a rule, hibernating queen wasps protect their wings and antennae by tucking them under their bodies. Some species produce glycerol, which acts as an antifreeze, while others allow ice to form around their cell walls and simply freeze solid. Most queen wasps die over the winter, primarily from predation by other insects and spiders, not the cold. (The pictured wasp had succumbed.) Warm winters are more likely to affect queens, as they emerge from hibernation too soon and starve due to lack of food.
There is no mistaking what bird is responsible for the large holes that a pileated woodpecker makes in an attempt to gain access to the carpenter ants living within a tree. No other bird in North America is capable of excavating holes of this size. Pileated woodpeckers tend to work vertically, and you often find one hole drilled above another. A look inside these holes reveals the galleries that the ants create in order to travel to all parts of their nest located within the dead center of the tree. (Carpenter ants, while omnivorous, do not consume or digest wood; they merely tunnel through it.) A tree’s inner core provides structural support, but is not essential for the tree’s survival. This eastern hemlock’s cambium layer, just inside the bark, is very much alive and the tree may continue to live long after its center becomes hollow.
If you happen to notice a ¾” to 1 ¼”- long, brown kidney-bean-shaped or round structure on a blueberry bush this time of year, you’ve come upon the blueberry stem gall – a summer and winter home for a dozen or so wasp larvae that will pupate and emerge in the spring as very small (less than 1/8”) black wasps (Hemadas nubilipennis). Last summer a female wasp laid her eggs in a tender, developing blueberry shoot. She then climbed to the tip of the shoot and stabbed it repeatedly, causing considerable damage. Within two weeks the eggs hatched, and the larvae began feeding, which, along with the egg-laying, stimulated the formation of the gall. Initially a blueberry stem gall is green and spongy; by fall it turns red, and by late autumn, it is brown and woody. Next summer, look for multiple holes in these galls that were chewed by the exiting wasps.
Bumblebees are nothing if not perseverant. Prying Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana andrewsii) petals open is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. The relationship of bumblebees and Bottle Gentian is an example of a mutualistic association — the bees benefit by having exclusive access to a bountiful and sugary nectar supply, and the plants benefit by attracting “loyal” pollinators that improve the chances for cross pollination.
Common Aerial Yellowjackets derive their common name from the fact that their nests are often aerially constructed, unlike the underground yellowjackets we’re more familiar with. Being in the same genus, it’s not surprising that Bald-faced Hornets and Common Aerial Yellowjackets build nests that are almost identical. The nests of both species have two to six horizontally-arranged layers of comb (for eggs and larvae) inside several layers of protective paper envelopes. The easiest way to tell which species made a nest is to see if there are yellow (yellowjacket) or white ( hornet) markings on the residents. The yellowjackets on the outside of the nest in the photograph are all busy making paper-mache out of wood fiber and applying it to their nest in order to enlarge it.
There are basically two groups of wasps: 1) social wasps, such as hornets, yellowjackets and paper wasps and 2) solitary wasps, species that live solitary lives and typically hunt prey for their larvae (the adults consume nectar). Mud daubers are a type of solitary wasp. Organ Pipe Mud Daubers builds cell out of mud in which they put prey (usually spiders) that they have stung and paralyzed, but not killed. They then lay an egg on top of the spiders, and seal the cell. After the egg hatches, the larval wasp consumes the still-fresh spiders, pupates, emerges as an adult wasp and chews its way out of the cell. In this picture a female Organ Pipe Mud Dauber wasp has collected a ball of mud and is applying it to the most recent cell she is making. The name “organ pipe” comes from the shape of the “pipes”, which consist of several cells, placed end-to-end, with the most recent cell at the bottom. (Notice the new, wet mud is darker in color.)
At the risk of boring readers, I wanted to include one final Leafcutter Bee post, showing the two basic shapes that these bees chew out of leaves in order to make their incubator/nursery cells. There are oblong pieces, roughly an inch long, as well as perfectly round, ¼-inch diameter pieces. Each cell consists of several layers of oblong pieces rolled lengthwise which are sealed at one end with a round piece of leaf. The round end pieces appear to be glued into place (perhaps with the pollen/nectar mixture?) at one end of the cell, leaving the opposite end open. The cells are arranged end-to-end, with the open end of the cell placed against the sealed end of the next cell. Together they form a nest that is somewhat cigar-shaped and is typically located a few inches down in the soil, or in a cavity.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of our earliest woodland wildflowers to blossom, and thus an important source of nectar and pollen for the earliest foraging insects. Pink lines (“bee guides”) on each of its five petals lead pollinators to the center of the flower, where the nectar is located. The pollinator in this image, Andrena erigeniae, is one of the more common species of bees that visits Spring Beauty in the early spring. Notice the slightly pink pollen she has gathered into the pollen basket on her hind leg. If you’re interested in spending time observing the series of different insect pollinators that visit Spring Beauty as the season progresses, there’s a golden opportunity for you. If you go to
you can participate as a citizen scientist volunteer and participate in their survey.
Rarely do you see or hear about honeybees attempting to construct a hive outdoors that isn’t inside a hollow “bee tree” or in a rock crevice. Occasionally they do attempt it, but as the empty cells in this exposed comb attest to, honeybees aren’t likely to make it through a Vermont winter without some shelter for their hive, even a winter as mild as the one we just experienced.
If you find a football-size (or larger), gray, papery structure attached to the branches of a tree or shrub, you’ve probably discovered the nest of a bald-faced hornet. (The only other hornets that build a similar nest are aerial hornets, and their nests usually have wider strips, and less of a scalloped appearance than those of bald-faced hornets.) This structure is actually a nursery, filled with several horizontal layers of hexagonal cells, in which eggs are laid and larvae are raised. These horizontal layers are surrounded by a multi-layered envelope, which, like the cells, is made of masticated wood fiber from weathered wood such as fence posts and hornet saliva. The different colors reflect the different sources of wood that have been used. Although only the queen bald-faced hornet survives over winter (in a rotting log or other protected spot), the workers do not die until freezing temperatures have really set in, so wait for another month before approaching a nest!