Twelve-spotted Skimmers are classified as “King Skimmers,” all members of which are large and conspicuous, often with distinctive wing patterns. Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers (pictured) have a grayish bloom on their abdomens and each wing has three dark spots with white spots in between them. Females have brown abdomens and no white spots on their wings. All summer you can see males flying back and forth short distances along the shores of ponds and over water, hovering as well as perching. They are territorial and patrol over water, loop-de-looping with competing males. A small number of Twelve-spotted Skimmers occasionally take part in Atlantic Coast migrations.
People used to believe that earwigs crawled into people’s ears while they were sleeping and proceeded to bore into their brains, thereby causing insanity and/or death. Fortunately, this isn’t, and never has been, true. Earwigs feed on leaves, flowers, fruits, mold and insects, but not human brains. Because they are nocturnal, during the day we often find them secreted away in some dark, damp crevice, often on a plant. These flat, elongated insects have a pair of pincers, or cerci, at the end of their abdomen which they use to capture prey, defend themselves and arrange their hind wings, if they have them. (Earwigs that possess wings can, but rarely do, fly.) You can actually determine the sex of an earwig, should you be so inclined, by the shape of its cerci – those of a male (pictured) are unequal in length, strongly curved and larger than the straight cerci of females.
A weevil is a type of beetle whose mouthparts are formed into a long snout, with one antenna on either side of it. The snout is used not only for feeding but also for making cavities in buds, fruits, seeds, stems, and roots of plants, where eggs are laid. When the weevil larvae emerge, they feed within the plant. There are 60,000 species of weevils, all of which are herbivorous and most of which are less than ¼ ” long. The species of weevil in the photograph was on many of the black-eyed Susans that were blooming in an unmowed field, and all of them appeared to be feasting on pollen. Many weevils are pests of plants such as cotton, alfalfa and wheat. You may have even found them inside your house devouring your cereal or flour.
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.
The male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (pictured) is yellow with four “tiger stripes” on each of its forewings. The female can be yellow or black, and has more blue on the hind wings than the male. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are currently mating and laying eggs on plants which their larvae eat, which include black cherry, red maple and American hornbeam. When the caterpillars first hatch, they resemble bird droppings – an effective way of decreasing predation. As they get older, the larvae turn green and have a large head and bright eyespots.
Beaverpond Baskettail dragonflies have an early flight season, first appearing in May in the Northeast. The males (pictured) cruise over the water (often beaver ponds, hence their name) as well as the shore in sexual patrol flight, flying back and forth over the same area repeatedly. After mating, the female accumulates a large egg cluster at the tip of her abdomen, and as she drags it along the surface of the water, a long string of eggs is draped over plants. Once these strings expand, they can be several feet in length and an inch or more in diameter.
Many plants practice “delayed greening” of their leaves, including this Red Maple (Acer rubrum). An initial lack of chlorophyll prevents the leaves from photosynthesizing and making food, which means they have little nutritive value, and thus, appeal, to an herbivore. Most plants that delay greening have reddish leaves due to the presence of anthocyanin, a pigment which appears reddish. A majority of herbivorous insects and invertebrates cannot detect colors in the red range of the color spectrum. Young leaves suffer the greatest predation from invertebrate herbivores. Red leaves would be perceived by these leaf eaters as somewhat dark and possibly dead – not a choice food material. It is possible that the red coloration of new leaves allows the plant to make them unappealing to the herbivores that would otherwise eat them.
With the warm temperatures this week, mourning cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through the leafless woods. Like eastern commas, question marks and red admirals, mourning cloaks overwinter as adults. They resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear. Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly. As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.
Hard as it is to believe with half a foot of snow remaining in the woods, this northern green-striped grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) was hopping around in the dry grass of a south-facing field in Hartland, Vermont yesterday. Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs. They hatch in the spring, and the immature grasshopper nymphs look like miniature versions of their parents, except they lack wings and sexual organs. Northern green-striped grasshoppers, however, overwinter as nymphs in the northeast, which is why the one in the photograph is as large as it is (1/2-inch) this early in the season. (This grasshopper is one of the “band-winged grasshoppers,” which typically possess bands, or stripes, on their wings, as does the adult northern green-striped grasshopper.)
It always comes as a surprise to see tiny creatures moving nimbly over the surface of the snow. However, there are quite a few insects and spiders that do, thanks to the glycerol that they produce in their body fluids that keep them from freezing. The Snow Fly (Chionea sp.) is wingless, probably because at sub-freezing temperatures, it would be very hard to generate enough energy for maintaining flight muscles. They (along with other flies, mosquitoes and gnats) do have two vestigial wings called halteres, the little knobs on the fly’s thorax. They inform true flies about the rotation of their body during flight, and are thought to act as sensory organs for the flightless Snow Flies. Throughout most of the year Snow Flies can be found in leaf litter, but come winter the adults emerge, mate and lay up to 200 eggs. The lack of predators such as dragonflies and most insect-eating birds makes winter a relatively safe time for Snow Flies to be out and about. Their life span is about two months, during which time they drink by pressing their proboscis against the snow, but don’t eat. (Snow Fly in photograph is a female, measuring less than ½”.)
12-3-11 Larvae-seeking Downy Woodpeckers
It’s hard to believe, but even after Irene, several inches of snow and an occasional night that’s below freezing, there are still butterflies and moths to be seen. Yesterday this sulphur butterfly (probably clouded, Colias philodice) was flying from dandelion to dandelion, sucking up nectar with its long, black proboscis. Clouded sulphur and orange sulphur butterflies, two different species, are similar looking, and on top of that, they even hybridize, so distinguishing between the two is often difficult, at best. Both species have several broods in a summer; you can see them flying in fields and along roadsides from spring to fall.
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!