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Insects

Saddleback Caterpillars Preparing to Pupate

10-6-14 saddleback moth 006There is a group of moths (family Limacodidae) which are known as “slug caterpillar moths” due to the manner in which they travel during their larval stage, secreting a semi-fluid silk from their ventral pores as they move. These caterpillars come in all sizes and shapes. Among them is the Saddleback Caterpillar, which is much more colorful than the brown adult moth it eventually turns into. Saddleback Caterpillars are best known for their stinging (urticating) spines. Reputedly far worse than that of a bee, the sting of the Saddleback Caterpillar may be the most potent of any North American caterpillar. The larva’s bright colors serve to warn predators of its toxicity. Soon these caterpillars will be spinning cocoons (which can contain spines, as well) in which they will pupate until emerging as moths next spring. (Thanks to Rick Palumbo for photo op.)

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Meadowhawks Mating & Laying Eggs

9-30-24 autumn meadowhawks laying egg  043There is a genus of dragonflies, Sympetrum, referred to as meadowhawks, which emerge and fly in late summer and autumn, breeding in ponds and foraging over meadows. Mature males and some females of certain species of meadowhawks become bright red on part or all of their bodies. When breeding, the male grasps his mate behind her head with the appendages at the end of his abdomen and often does not release the female until after she has laid her eggs, which she typically does by dipping the tip of her abdomen in the water (see photo). The reason for this continued connection is related to the fact that a male dragonfly may remove sperm present in the female from any previous mating and replace it with his own packet of sperm, or spermatophore. In order to prevent this from happening, and to assure his paternity, a male dragonfly sometimes flies close to his mate, guarding her while she lays her eggs, or, in the case of meadowhawks, may fly in tandem with the female throughout the egg-laying process.

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Earwigs Mating

earwig2 -horizontal175Earwigs are elusive insects, primarily because they are nocturnal and during the day tend to hide in crevices. When we do see them, the first thing often noticed is their cerci, the pair of forceps-like pincers at the tip of their abdomen. These pincers are used primarily to capture prey (earwigs are scavengers for the most part, but some are omnivorous and prey on other insects) and for copulation. Male earwigs have curved pincers, while females have straight ones. After mating in the fall, the male and female earwigs spend much of the winter together, tucked away in a crack or crevice. By the time spring arrives, the male has left and the female has laid her eggs (the sperm stays viable within her for several months), which hatch in about a week’s time. Earwigs are one of few insects that provide maternal care for their eggs and offspring. (Photo is of male earwig eating the outermost tissue of a milkweed pod.)

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Bottle Gentian’s Pollinators

9-17-14  bottle gentian 259The combination of Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana clausa) blossoms’ brilliant purple/blue color, their shape, and the difficulty insects have in prying open the bottle neck their petals form, make them a highlight of every September. Getting inside their flowers is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than fairly large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. It takes several seconds of pushing, shoving and cramming to get their head through the miniscule opening at the top of the blossom. Eventually their body follows, sliding down into the flower. While the whole bee sometimes disappears, it’s more usual to see their hind legs poking out of the flower while they lap up nectar. Not only are bumblebees strong, but their tongues (see insert) are long enough to reach the copious amount of sugar-laden nectar that awaits them inside the flower.


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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Queen Ants Mating & Removing Wings

ant removing wings2  095Ants are social insects and live in colonies consisting of one or more queens, female workers and males. In most species the non-sexually mature female ants are wingless; only the males and the queen(s) possess wings. Periodically, often 3-5 days after a heavy rain, the winged ants emerge from the colony in large swarms in order to mate and create more colonies. Swarming behavior is usually synchronized with other nearby colonies, so large numbers (hundreds or thousands) of winged ants suddenly appear. After mating, the males die and the queens shed their wings and use the remaining wing muscles as a source of nutrients during the early stages of colony development. The shedding of wings is not a passive activity. The pictured ant is in the process of removing her fourth and final wing. She held each wing down with one leg while pulling it out with another. She then crawled off, leaving a pile of wings behind.

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Braconid Wasps Pupating and Emerging

8-29-14 braconid wasps 010Tobacco Hornworms, Manduca sexta (often found feeding on tomato plants and confused with Tomato Hornworms, Manduca quinquemaculata) are often the target of a species of a Braconid wasp (Cotesia congregata) 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 spin silk pupa cases (cocoons) on the skin of the dying hornworm caterpillar, inside of which they transform into winged adults within four to eight days. 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. (Thanks to Emily and Joe Silver for photo op.)

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