An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Hymenoptera

Basking Bumblebees

10-10-13  basking bumblebee 016Bumblebees are some of the earliest bees to emerge in the spring and are often the last to be seen in the fall. They can regulate their own body temperature by shivering or basking in the sun. This enables bumblebees not only to stay active longer during the season, but also during wet or cooler weather. Look for them on sunny patches of ground at this time of year.

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.


Pelecinid Wasps Laying Eggs

9-11-13 pelecinid wasp 211The two-inch, skinny, black, shiny wasps with extremely long abdomens (five times the length of their bodies) that have been appearing on lawns lately are not the villains you may think. These female Pelecinid Wasps (males are much smaller and rarely seen) are actually beneficial, in that they greatly decrease the June Bug population. That long abdomen, or ovipositor, cannot sting you – it is strictly a mechanism for laying eggs. Its length is due to the fact that the wasp inserts its ovipositor deep into the ground in order to locate beetle larvae — specifically, June Bug beetle larvae. The wasp then lays one egg on each host beetle larva, and when the egg hatches, the wasp larva burrows into the host as it feeds on it, thereby killing the June Bug beetle larva. Eventually the wasp larva pupates and emerges above ground as an adult wasp the following summer – the phenomenon we are currently witnessing.

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.


Bottle Gentian Flowering

9-10-13 bottle gentian IMG_8093Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, is one of our latest blooming wildflowers, and one of our most beautiful. Because its petals are closed so tightly, only bumblebees (pictured) and a few other insects have the strength to push their way inside the flower to reach Bottle Gentian’s sugar-laden nectar.

Like many other flowers, Bottle Gentian times the maturation of its reproductive parts to discourage self-pollination. Male pollen-bearing stamens mature first, and by the time the female pistil is mature, the stamens have gone by so the flower’s pistil can’t receive its own pollen (see central pistil surrounded by withered stamens in insert).

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.


Cerceris fumipennis: a biosurveillance tool for the emerald ash borer

8-19-13 Cerceris wasp with beetle prey2 099While we’re more familiar with social wasps, such as paper wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, there are also parasitic and solitary wasps. Solitary wasps live alone (as their name implies), all the females (not just the queen) are fertile and they are predatory. Among them is a wasp, Cerceris fumipennis, which preys exclusively on the family of beetles (Buprestidae) to which the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), the invasive beetle that’s threatening the ash tree population, belongs. After catching and paralyzing its prey, the wasp carries it back to her larvae in the nest she’s dug underground. A biosurveillance program exists which involves monitoring the prey that this species of wasp collects and brings back to the nest, in order to detect the presence of the Emerald Ash Borer in any given area. (This is how the EAB was first detected in Connecticut.) Pictured is a Cerceris fumipennis wasp with a Buprestid beetle (not an EAB) prey. (To become involved in Vermont’s citizen science biosurveillance program next summer, contact entomologist Trish Hanson of the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation at Hanson.Trish@state.vt.us .)

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.


The Give and Take of Food in a Paper Wasp Nest

8-7-13  paper wasp nest 011Like all adult wasps, bees, and ants, adult paper wasps are limited to liquid diets – they have no chewing mouthparts, and the passageway between their head and abdomen, where food is digested, is so narrow that pieces of food wouldn’t fit through it. Wasp larvae (the white grub-like organisms in the upper third of the pictured wasp nest cells) are able to eat a wider range of food, due to mouthparts and their body structure. Adult paper wasps capture and feed caterpillars and other insects to their larvae. The larvae then digest their food and produce saliva rich in nutrients. The adult wasp proceeds to scrape her abdomen across the nest, producing a vibration that signals to the larvae to release some of their carbohydrate-rich saliva which the adult then drinks. (Cells covered with white paper nest material contain wasp pupae.)

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.


Chicory Pollinators

7-19-13 chicory pollenTwenty minutes of observing air-borne visitors to a patch of roadside Chicory revealed nine different species of pollinators, including bees, flies and beetles. Most of the insects were bees, which makes sense, as honeybees, leafcutting bees and ground-nesting bees are the primary pollinators of this flower. Without exception, all of the pollinating insects were covered from head to toe with Chicory’s white pollen grains. As they circled the flowers’ stamens collecting pollen, the insects’ bodies were inadvertently dusted with some of it. Thanks to these diligent pollen-collectors and transporters, American Goldfinches and other seed-eating birds will be feeding on Chicory seeds come winter. (Electron microscopy by Igor Siwanowic and Scienceworks.)


Sawfly Larva

5-31-13 sawfly larva 266Although 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.


Hibernating Queen Wasps

2-7-13 hibernating wasp queen2 IMG_2680The 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.


Pileated Woodpecker Feeding Holes

1-9-13 pileated woodpecker holes IMG_0259There 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.


Blueberry Stem Gall

12-20-12  blueberry stem gall IMG_7405If 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.


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!


Wasps Still Flying

The lingering warm weather and the few remaining flowers (such as the mustard in the photograph) have allowed worker wasps to extend their lives this fall longer than many years, for once several hard frosts hit, they will die. Unlike honeybees, the queen of social wasp colonies lives only about a year, but that is longer than the workers. In the late summer the (old) queen stops laying eggs and the colony soon begins to decline. In the fall, mated female offspring of the queen seek overwintering sites such as rotting logs. In these protected spots they tuck their wings and antennae under their bodies, and hunker down for the winter. The remainder of the colony does not survive the winter. If predators such as spiders don’t kill the new queens, and if they don’t emerge early due to a warm winter and starve due to lack of food, the young queens begin building nests and laying eggs in the spring.


Bottle Gentian & Bumblebees

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.


Signs of Striped Skunks

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you are finding small, conical pits in your lawn, you probably have a striped skunk to thank for reducing your grub population.  During the spring and summer, invertebrates make up a large percentage of this nocturnal omnivore’s diet.  With the help of their well-developed sense of smell and their long nails (which make them excellent diggers), they locate, gain access to and consume subterranean insect larvae with relative ease.   Another sign of skunk activity, in addition to lawn divots, are the excavated ground nests of yellowjackets.  If they’ve met with success, skunks will often leave sections of empty, paper cells scattered about the nest site.  Apparently, even though yellowjackets can sting multiple times, they’re not very effective at discouraging foraging skunks.  Should you be so inclined, a close examination of skunk scat will reveal bits of insect exoskeletons, as well as the bones and hair of small rodents.  The pictured scat (next to the divot) contained, in addition to insect parts, the fur of another nocturnal animal, a flying squirrel.  (Thanks to Emily and Joe Silver for photo op.)


Tobacco Hornworms & Brachonid Wasps

Tobacco Hornworms, Manduca sexta (often found feeding on tomato plants and confused with Tomato Hornworms, Manduca quinquemaculata) are often the target of a species of Brachonid wasp that parasitizes beetle, moth, fly and sawfly larvae. The adult wasp lays her eggs inside the hornworm with her long ovipositor. The eggs hatch and the wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar. Eventually the wasp larvae emerge and form white pupa cases on the skin of the dying hornworm larva, inside of which they transform into winged adults. Braconid wasps are extremely good at locating hornworms, even when there are very few to find. Because they parasitize hornworm, cabbage worm, aphid and gypsy moth larvae, Braconid wasps are considered important biological control agents. If you want to discourage Tobacco Hornworms in your tomato patch, allow the wasps to complete their metamorphosis – this accomplishes both the demise of the hornworm, as well as an increased population of Braconid wasps.


Common Aerial Yellowjackets

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.


Ant Mandibles

Ants go through complete metamorphosis, passing through four stages (egg, larva, pupa, adult). Like honeybees, there are queens, female workers and male drones in an ant colony. The female worker ants have a series of “jobs” that they perform in a certain order. A young worker spends the first few days of its life caring for the queen and young. After that she maintains the nest and eventually forages for food. Like most insects, ants lack grasping forelegs and compensate for this by using their mandibles as “hands.” When the nest is disturbed, workers rush to rescue the eggs, larvae (depicted in photograph) and pupae by clasping them in their mandibles and transporting them to safety. They also use their mandibles to carry food, construct nests, and for defense.


Close-up of Entire Organ Pipe Mud Dauber Nest

The images in a slideshow are smaller than if they were posted individually, so I thought I would include a single shot of the first image, showing all of the cells in the nest’s three tubes.


Inside Look at Organ Pipe Mud Dauber Wasp Cells

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Each “pipe” of the Organ Pipe Mud Dauber nest consists of several sealed cells (four, in this photograph), each stuffed with spiders (typically orb-spinning spider species) and one wasp egg. When the egg hatches, the white wasp larva consumes the paralyzed spiders, which are still fresh because they are still alive. Eventually, upon finishing the spiders, the larva will form a pupa case, and spend the winter inside it. In the spring the adult wasp will emerge from the case and chew its way out of the mud cell. If you look closely at the open, back side of these three “pipes” you can see that the oldest pipe is on the left, and contains cells with wasp larvae, whereas you can see mud dauber eggs lying on top of the spiders in two of the cells on the far right, in the most recently built pipe.


Organ Pipe Mud Dauber Wasps

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.)


Leafcutter Bee Cell Leaf Sections

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.


Inside View of Leafcutter Bee Cell – Larva and Pollen Supply


Leafcutter Bee Cell

Congratulations to those who recognized yesterday’s Mystery Photo!  The tiny green cells are made from the leaves of almost any deciduous trees, and are cut and folded by leafcutter bees (Megachile genus). These solitary bees are about the size of a honeybee, but are much darker, almost black. They construct cigar-like nests (often in soil, holes in wood made by other insects, or plant stems) that contain several cells. After gathering and storing a ball, or loaf, of pollen inside the cell, the bee lays an egg and seals the cell shut. When the egg hatches, the larval bee feeds on the pollen and eventually spins a cocoon and pupates within it. An adult bee emerges from the cocoon and usually overwinters inside the cell. In the spring the bee chews its way out of the cell. Leafcutter bees pollinate wildflowers, fruits and vegetables and are also used as pollinators by commercial growers of blueberries, onions, carrots and alfalfa. (Photo submitted by Jan Gendreau.)


Spring Beauty Pollinators

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 http://springbeauties.wordpress.com/ you can participate as a citizen scientist volunteer and participate in their survey.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,474 other followers