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Where Do Slugs Spend the Winter?

4-1-14  slug under bark 223Slugs mate and lay eggs in the spring and fall, and can live 12 to 15 months. Eggs laid in the fall overwinter in this stage, and hatch in the spring. Some members of this generation of slugs may die in the fall, while others hibernate underground or beneath loose bark. The survival rate of the hibernators depends upon the harshness of the winter. Look in and under rotting logs to find slug eggs, and behind the bark of dying trees to find slug hibernacula.

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Praying Mantis Egg Case

12-9-13 praying mantis egg case 057In the fall, after mating, the female praying mantis lays up to 400 eggs in a frothy liquid produced by glands in her abdomen. This one to two-inch long mass is attached to vegetation, often grasses and goldenrod stalks, about a foot or two off the ground. The frothy structure hardens, providing a protective case for the eggs. In the spring, miniature (wingless) mantises, called nymphs, will hatch from this egg case. When hatching, the nymphs appear all at once, crawling from between tiny flaps in the case and then hanging from silk threads about two inches below the case. Within an hour or two, after drying out, they disappear into nearby vegetation.

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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!

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Bruce Spanworms Emerging & Mating

11-7-13 winter moth IMG_4880I try not to repeat post topics, but in the past two days the sudden emergence of inch-long, tan moths in the woods has been so dramatic that I couldn’t not mention them. These ghost-like, light tan moths are referred to by entomologists as Bruce Spanworm moths, Operophtera bruceata, named after an entomologist by the name of Mr. Bruce. They are often called Winter Moths, due to the fact that they are one of the latest moths to be seen flying, as well as Hunter Moths, as they share the woods with hunters at this time of year. From October to December Bruce Spanworm moths emerge, mate and lay eggs. While this timing is unusual, it makes sense when you think about it — many birds, their primary predators, have left for their wintering grounds. All the moths you see in the air are males — females are wingless and cannot fly. The females crawl up the trunk or branch of a tree and send out pheromones to attract winged males. After mating, the female lays eggs which hatch in the spring, and the larvae feed on a wide variety of deciduous leaves, favoring Trembling Aspens, Sugar Maples, American Beeches and willows. Periodic outbreaks of these caterpillars can result in heavy defoliation.

NB: “This is easily confused with Operophtera brumata – Winter Moth, which is an introduced species from Europe and an abundant pest in the Northeast. Also easily confused with Autumnal Moth (Epirrita autumnata).” Kent McFarland

Woolly Aphids

10-8-13 woolly aphid 001Woolly aphids are just that – aphids that have special glands that produce wax-like filaments which resemble white wool. When the “wool” is brushed aside, the dark aphid bodies below are apparent. Colonies of woolly aphids often congregate in cottony masses while sucking the sap of a host plant or tree, at which time they are somewhat camouflaged in that they can easily be mistaken for mold or a fungus. When woolly aphids take flight, the wax strands catch the wind and allow them to drift , allowing them to look more like seeds than edible prey.

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Grasshoppers Mating and Laying Eggs

9-23-13 mating grasshoppers 137Grasshoppers typically mate in late summer and fall. If it’s a short-horned grasshopper (pictured), the smaller male mounts the female (female long-horned grasshoppers mount the males). The male short-horned grasshopper often remains riding the female for long periods in order to ensure paternity. When the eggs are fully formed, the female pushes the ovipositor at the end of her abdomen ½” to 2” into the ground and produces a glue-like secretion that cements the soil around the egg mass, forming a protective “pod.” Each pod may contain 25 to 150 eggs, depending on the species of grasshopper. Grasshoppers which deposit masses containing few eggs usually lay more pods to compensate. A female may lay as many as 300 eggs which overwinter and hatch in the spring.

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Green Lacewing Larvae Use Corpses as Camouflage

9-19-13 lacewing larva  232Green lacewings are aptly named for the prominent venation of the adults’ wings. Some species in this insect family even have “ears” in the larger veins that allow them to detect the ultrasonic sounds made by hunting bats. Lacewing larvae and adults are both predators of soft-bodied insects such as aphids. Larval lacewings have long, hollow mandibles with which they puncture prey and suck out the liquefied contents, leaving the woolly husks. Some species of lacewing larvae have hairy backs, and camouflage themselves when in the presence of woolly aphids by sticking aphid husks on these hairs. These “trash packets” camouflage the lacewing larvae from predators, including ants that would otherwise attack the larvae if they recognized that they were lacewings and not woolly aphids.

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How Slugs Eat

9-18-13 slug radula 262No-one needs a description of the damage that slugs can do in a garden, but the exact way in which they do the damage is quite unique. They actually do not have mouthparts as such, nor do they possess teeth as we know them. They, like most molluscs, have a radula, or rasping tongue-like organ with which they procure food. A bit of cartilage, the odontophore, forms the core of the radula. The rest of the radula consists of a band, similar to a conveyor-belt, covered with thousands of tiny tooth-like protrusions called denticles. The band moves over the odontophore, rasping away particles of food and moving them back into the slug’s gullet. The pictured slug was making short work of a mushroom.

ADDENDUM TO YESTERDAY’S POST: After several reader comments and self-reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that yesterday’s post could well be black bear, not raccoon, vomit. While all I found in the cornfield were signs of raccoons, it was a huge field, and I may have just missed bear sign or the bear may well have visited another field prior to getting sick. The amount of vomit was so large that it would have taken a giant raccoon to have left it. Both of these animals feed voraciously in the fall in preparation for winter — black bears can double their weight prior to denning.

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American Elderberry & the Elderberry Borer

9-9-13 American elderberry 183Interestingly, while the ripe fruit of American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is used in the production of wine, pies and jelly, the leaves, stems, roots and unripe fruits of this plant are poisonous, due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Elderberry Borers (Desmocerus palliates) seem immune to these crystals, however. They lay their eggs at the base of the plant, and the hatching larvae then burrow their way into the stems and eat tunnels into the roots of the plant. Adult beetles that emerge and are present through the summer are hard to miss, with their shimmering blue and yellow/orange outer wings, or elytra.

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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 .)

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Sundews Capture Their Meals

8-12-13 sundew & damselfly 060Sundews (Drosera spp.) are carnivorous plants often found in acidic bogs, fens and cedar swamps. They have numerous small leaves arranged in a circular, or rosette, pattern and they are covered with reddish, glandular hairs, or tentacles, that exude a sticky secretion at their tips. Insects, attracted to the glistening sticky droplets which resemble dew, land on a leaf and become stuck. The movement of the struggling insect triggers cell growth in the glandular hairs and they begin folding over the insect within 60 seconds. An anesthetic is released by the plant’s hairs, causing the insect to become motionless. Digestive enzymes are then secreted which liquefy the insect’s internal organs so that they can then be absorbed by the plant’s hairs. Although insect prey is not vital to sundews, the nitrogen the plants receive from the insects enables them to thrive in environments where nitrogen is in short supply. The damselfly pictured has been captured by a Round-leaved Sundew’s glandular hairs which have rendered it motionless and have started to grow and fold over the tip of the damselfly’s abdomen and its wings.

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Clean Antennae Necessary for Sensory Perception

8-9-13 conehead katydid cleaning antenna 098Insect antennae are among the most sensitive and selective chemical-sensing organs in the animal kingdom. They detect information crucial to an insect’s survival, including odors, sounds, humidity, changes in water vapor concentration and air speed. Antennae are capable of these feats because of the sensory receptors covering them which bind to free-floating molecules. Experiments with cockroaches, ants and flies confirm that insects engage in antennal grooming — removing foreign materials from the surface of their antennae with their mandibles — primarily to maintain acute olfactory reception. Pheromones, chemical signals that are vital to insect communication, are used to convey alarm, attract a mate, mark territory and lay out trails, among other things, and clean antennae enhance these messages. (Photo is of a Sword-bearing Conehead Katydid cleaning its antenna.)

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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.)

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8-1-13 daddylonglegs 148Harvestmen (daddy longlegs) and spiders are closely related and share many characteristics, but they also have significant differences. One such difference is that Harvestmen do not possess venom glands, nor the digestive enzymes capable of breaking down the insides of prey into a liquid. (Some species of Harvestmen are omnivores, eating both plant and animal matter, others are scavengers.) Unlike fellow arachnids (spiders, ticks, scorpions and mites) that drink their food, Harvestmen ingest small particles, breaking them down with their chelicerae, or mouthparts, which resemble miniature, toothed lobster claws. In this photograph, the Harvestman is holding a deer fly with its pedipalps, appendages used to grasp food as well as their mates. Its chelicerae are too small to discern, but they do the job — in the space of about ten minutes, this Harvestman consumed an entire deer fly, bit by bit.

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larva

7-26-13  Abbott's Sphinx Moth larva 066Abbott’s Sphinx Moth larvae feed on grape and Virginia creeper leaves during the night. During the day they tend to rest on the woody vines of the plants they are eating, and because they are well camouflaged, they remain hidden from most humans’ eyes. Both as larvae and adults, these moths are well equipped for survival. Older larvae have two color forms, one resembling unripe green grapes (in photo), and the other is brown and looks much like a branch. In their last stage, or instar, both forms have a rear eyespot which looks like a human eye, right down to the white reflection spot in it, which scares off potential predators. If the caterpillar is pinched or prodded, it squeaks and tries to bite the attacker. The adult moths, which emerge next summer after pupating all winter, also defend themselves with both color and behavior. They are brown with yellow bands on their underwings, which make them look something like a bumblebee, and when they fly, they create a buzzing noise. (Thanks to Heidi, Tom and Simmy Wetmore for photo op.)

Monarch Numbers Down

7-22-13 monarch IMG_1107According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, this spring and summer there’s been an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in eastern Canada – the most dramatic decline ever recorded. Vermont (and most likely New England in general) is experiencing much the same situation. The low numbers of monarchs are due to several factors that they have encountered along their migratory routes the past couple of years, including extreme temperatures, record drought, low nectar production by flowering plants and a scarcity of their host plant, milkweed. The cold temperatures and record amounts of rain this spring undoubtedly added to their stress.

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.)

Mystery Photo Correction – This Photo is of a Fishfly

7-2-13 stonefly adult 058I owe my readers an apology. July 3rd’s post image was of a fishfly, not a stonefly. Adult stoneflies, fishflies and dobsonflies all have aquatic larval stages and the long-winged adults resemble each other quite closely. Mouthparts and antennae are helpful in distinguishing between the three. Fishflies (pictured) have small mandibles and feathery antennae, whereas dobsonflies and stoneflies have larger mandibles (especially the pincers of male dobsonflies) and their antennae are thread-like, not feathery. Fishflies and dobsonflies are in the same family (Coryalidae). Fishflies spend several years in the water as larvae before emerging as adult fishflies (that live up to a week). (Thank you to the observant readers who caught this mistake!)

Adult Stoneflies Emerging

7-2-13 stonefly adult 058Stoneflies spend their larval stage on the bottom of streams, in amongst the stones for which they’re named. Some species of larval stoneflies feed on decomposing organic matter, others are predators. As adults, very few stonefly species feed due to their short life span. Those that do feed on algae and lichens, nectar, or pollen. After shedding their skin 10 to 22 times (depending on the species), the larvae crawl out of the water, split their skin a final time and emerge as winged adults. Most emerge in the spring or early summer, though some species mature in the fall, and even in winter. Most larvae spend 10 to 11 months under water, and only 1 to 4 weeks as terrestrial adults. The adults spend their days hiding on the branches or leaves of streamside vegetation, and crawl around at night. They usually only fly to disperse to a new habitat, which is surprising, given the size of their wings.

Moth Eyes and Biomimicry

7-1-13 luna eyes 020Because moths need to use every little bit of light available in order to see in the dark, their eyes are highly non-reflective. (This is also helpful in decreasing the chances of predators spotting them.) Scientists, through biomimicry, have come up with a number of technological advances, including the development of a film that can be applied to solar cells which helps keep sunlight from being reflected off of them before the light can be utilized. Man-made materials based on the structure of moth eyes could someday reduce the radiation dosages received by patients getting x-rayed, while improving the resolution of the resulting images. Research on recreating the pattern found on moths’ eyes onto plastic could lead to reflection and glare-free display screens for televisions, cell phones, computer monitors, eyeglasses, speedometers and more.

Periodical and Annual Cicadas

cicada 121-2Periodical Cicada Brood II has gotten a lot of press this summer, as this brood of 13 and 17-year cicadas is emerging from Connecticut south to Virginia. These species are referred to as “periodical” cicadas because they are developmentally synchronized and appear in large numbers every 13 or 17 years. There are also “annual” cicadas – cicadas that appear every summer. They may spend several years as immature insects under the ground, feeding off the sap in roots, but some of them mature and appear every summer. Northern New Englanders are familiar with different species of annual cicadas, including Okanagana rimosa, which usually emerges in mid-summer and fills the air with its courtship call on hot, humid days. The emergence of cicadas is triggered by the temperature of the soil they are in — once the soil 8 inches below the surface gets to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, annual cicadas are on the move. (Thanks to Holly Lanigan for Periodical Cicada photo op.)

Caterpillar Survival Strategies

6-14-13 camouflaged catterpillar 049The larvae of moths and butterflies are very susceptible to predation, especially by birds, and they utilize many different strategies to protect themselves. Shapes, colors and behavior all contribute to their survival. Some larvae take on the appearance of less appetizing things, such as bird droppings, twigs or leaves. Some have large eye spots which presumably scare predators. Others have cryptic coloration which makes them all but invisible. The pictured green caterpillar uses both color and behavior to visually disappear on the fern it is consuming.

Butterflies Mating

6-10-13 mating pearl crescents 351These mating Pearl Crescent butterflies may have used size, color, shape, vein structure and/or pheromones to recognize each other. When mating, most male butterflies provide a package (spermatophore) of sperm and nutrients the female needs to produce and lay eggs. The mated female stores the spermatophore in a sac called a bursa until she’s ready to lay eggs. She fertilizes her eggs as she lays them, using the last sperm she received first. For this reason, males of some species will leave a substance that dries into a film on the female’s abdomen in an effort to keep her from mating with other males. (Thanks to Kent McFarland for butterfly i.d.)

Beaver Ponds & Waterfowl

6-5-13 mallard & ducklings 151The relationship between beavers and waterfowl is a strong one. In creating ponds and wetlands, beavers provide valuable waterfowl habitat. Beaver ponds are attractive to most dabbling duck species, particularly American Black Ducks and Mallards (pictured). Dead snags that are often found in beaver ponds provide Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads and Wood Ducks with nesting cavities. During spring and fall, beaver ponds are used by migrating waterfowl, such as Green-winged Teal and Ring-necked Ducks, for the fuel they provide (aquatic invertebrates, plant seeds, tubers, buds and rhizomes). Waterfowl surveys in 2002 in Wyoming found that rivers and ponds with beavers had 75 times more ducks than those without beavers.


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