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Aquatic Insects

Whirligig Beetles Active

Congratulations to Stein Feick, the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo as a Whirligig Beetle!  You usually see this aquatic beetle swimming around and around in circles on the surface of a pond searching for prey. A unique feature of most beetles in this genus is their divided eyes.  Each eye is completely separated into two portions (see photo). One portion (dorsal) is above the water line and the other (ventral) is beneath the water on each side of their head, allowing them to see both in the air/on the surface of the water as well as under the water.  The dorsal eyes have a limited field of view, so these beetles rest one of their antennae on the surface of the water to help them detect any motion caused by prey.

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Predaceous Diving Beetles Seeking Prey

There is a family of water beetles, Dytiscidae, known as Predaceous Diving Beetles.  As their name implies, these beetles are predatory.  They don’t hesitate to attack prey larger than themselves, delivering a sharp bite with their jaws to small fish, tadpoles and frogs.  They then immediately inject enzymes that digest the prey so that the juices can be ingested.

Predaceous Diving Beetle larvae, called “water tigers,” are also predators, grabbing prey with their pincer-like jaws. The larvae are elongated, flattened and can be 2 inches long. They hunt by holding still, waiting with jaws wide open, and then strike suddenly, clutching the prey tightly with their jaws. As with the adults, the pincers are hollow, enabling them to begin sucking the juices of their prey while grasping it. They are often seen when they come to the surface of the water to draw air into spiracles located at the hind end of the body.

Adult Predaceous Diving Beetles are collected by young girls in East Africa. It is believed that inducing the beetles to bite their nipples will stimulate breast growth. Having recently had my toe bitten by a Predaceous Diving Beetle, I can testify that this is not a practice that most females (or males) would enjoy. (Photo: Predaceous Diving Beetle with remains of prey)

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Caddisfly Eggs Hatching

8-31-18 caddisflies_U1A6330

The Mystery Photo was of a caddisfly’s egg mass which had been deposited on the leaf of a Turtlehead plant that was growing adjacent to the water, so that when the eggs hatch, the larvae will drop straight down into the water. (Congratulations to “bcottam2014,” the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo!)

Almost all caddisflies lay their eggs in the water, but in New England there is a family of northern case makers (Limnephilidae) whose members deposit an egg mass above the water on vegetation (see photo). After hatching and dropping into the water, these caddisflies will spend anywhere from two or three months to two years as aquatic larvae and pupae, emerging as adults with about a thirty day lifespan.

While they are larvae, most northern case-making caddisflies have silk glands with which they construct portable cases or attached retreats. Each species of caddisfly builds the same type of case, out of similar material, thus, it is possible to identify the species of caddisfly you’ve encountered from the appearance of its case.  Some species use pebbles, some bits of leaves, some sticks. Vegetative material must be chewed into just the right size and shape pieces. The caddisflies use these cases as a source of camouflage, physical protection and as a means of acquiring food.  When it comes time to pupate, they build cocoons within their cases.

Emergence of adults eventually takes place and for the next month or so they live a terrestrial life.  Like their close relatives, butterflies and moths, adult caddisflies have wings, but they are easily distinguishable from moths and butterflies due to the  tent-like slant the caddisfly holds its wings in when not flying. (Photo:  caddisfly larvae hatching from egg mass; inset – older caddisfly larva inside pebble case it built)

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Eastern Dobsonflies Emerging

7-9-18 male dobsonfly2_U1A0727

Eastern Dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) larvae, known as Hellgramites, are the top invertebrate predators in the rocky streams where they occur. In this stage they look like underwater centipedes and consume tadpoles, small fish, and other young aquatic larvae. Adults keep watch over them from a nearby area above the water.

After leaving their stream and pupating on land, the 4”-5 ½”-winged adults, referred to as Eastern Dobsonflies, emerge. Males can easily be distinguished from females by their large, sickled-shaped mandibles which the females lack. (The short, powerful mandibles of the female are capable of giving a painful bite, which the males’ mandibles are not.) Adults are primarily nocturnal and they do not eat. During their short lifespan (about three days for males, eight to ten days for females) they concentrate on reproducing.

The elongated jaws of the male are used both as part of the premating ritual (males place their mandibles on the wings of the females) and as weapons for fighting rival males.   (Thanks to Clyde Jenne for photo op.)

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Broad-shouldered Water Striders Still Active

10-25-17 broad-shouldered water striders 049A6909

If you see what look like miniature water striders skating on the surface of a stream or pond, you may have come upon an aggregation of Broad-shouldered Water Striders, a different family of water striders from the ones we commonly see. They are tiny (2-6 mm) and very fast-moving, zipping here and there with the speed of a bullet, staying on top of the surface film, or surface tension, that is created by the attraction of water molecules. Adaptations to this mode of travel include non-wettable hairs at the ends of their legs that don’t disrupt the surface tension, and claws that are located a short distance up the outermost section of their legs rather than at the end of their legs, so as not to break this film.

Broad-shouldered Water Striders are often found in the more protected areas of a stream, where they tend to congregate in large numbers. Members of a common genus, Rhagovelia, are known as “riffle bugs” and are often found below rocks that are in the current. Broad-shouldered Water Striders locate their prey (water fleas, mosquito eggs and larvae, etc.) by detecting surface waves with vibration sensors in their legs. There can be up to six generations a summer (photo shows that they are still mating at the end of October). Broad-shouldered Water Striders spend the winter hibernating as adults, gathering in debris at the edge of the water or beneath undercut banks.

 

 


Crane Fly Larvae

8-3-17 crane fly larva 049A1624A favorite past-time of mine is peering under logs and rocks to see what might be living there. (The logs and rocks are carefully replaced in the position in which they were found so as not to disturb the inhabitants any more than is necessary.)  Recently I discovered a Crane Fly larva under a rock that was adjacent to a stream – a typical spot in which to find a soon-to-pupate larva.  Roughly an inch long, the most distinguishing features are the ridges along its body, and the star-like appendages at the tip of its abdomen. If you examine the appendages closely, you will find two spiracles, through which the Crane Fly larva breathes, located in a recessed area in the center. Although you can’t see a head, it has one that is tucked into its thorax.

The Crane Fly family is the largest family of true flies, in terms of number of species.  They can be found in aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial habitats. True flies do not have segmented legs that they can use to hold on to the substrate when they catch their prey.  Many Crane Fly larvae feed on decomposing leaves, but those species of Crane Flies which are predators are capable of forming a large knot with the muscles at the end of their abdomen.  When they catch prey with their mouthparts, they enlarge the end of their abdomen and wedge the knot between stones  in order to anchor themselves.

 

 


Damselfly or Dragonfly?

6-16-16  damselfy & dragonfly 178A visit to a pond will usually include sightings of dragonflies and the more delicate damselflies.  Both of these types of insects are in the order Odonata (Greek for “tooth,” referring to the serrated jaws of the adults).  They are separated into two suborders, due to their wing shapes and sizes. The wings of dragonflies differ in shape and size (hind wings are broader than forewings), whereas damselfly fore and hind wings are similar in shape, with the hind wings sometimes being smaller.

In addition to wing differences, damselflies have eyes that are separated by more than an eye’s width, whereas dragonfly eyes either touch or are separated by less than an eye’s width.  Damselflies are smaller and more slender than dragonflies and perch with their wings closed over their abdomens or held slightly spread.  Dragonflies at rest hold their wings out flat or downward.  In addition, dragonflies are more powerful and acrobatic in flight than damselflies.

Although these differences distinguish them, damselflies and dragonflies do have many similarities. Both are carnivorous, both spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, and both lay their eggs in or near water.

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Stoneflies Drumming

2-22-16 stonefly 019Stoneflies spend the larval stage of their life in streams. When the larvae mature, they crawl out of the streams they grew up in, split their larval skins and emerge as winged adults, ready to mate. Stoneflies are unique among aquatic insects in that there are different species that emerge in all months of the year. Most species mature in warmer months, but some do so during warm spells in winter and there are two families (referred to as winter stoneflies) that emerge only at this time of year, perhaps because of the scarcity of predators.

Recently, perhaps due to the warm weather this past weekend, large numbers of stoneflies  emerged. In places, the snowy banks of open streams were littered with half-inch adult stoneflies whose new skins were drying.  This entomological exodus from the water typically takes place at night, to avoid being eaten by terrestrial insectivores and birds.  After their adult skin dries, winter stoneflies can be seen crawling on top of the snow as they search for a mate.

In many species, male and females locate each other by tapping the tip of their abdomen upon the substrate, a process referred to as “drumming.” Any stoneflies in contact with that substrate will feel the vibrations of this drumming. Male and female drumming patterns are specific for each species and for each sex. Male stoneflies initiate drumming and females answer. This means of auditory communication is closely related to the “songs” of crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. The difference is that the sound waves of the terrestrial insect songs travel through the air and are loud enough for humans to hear, whereas the sound waves of stonefly drumming travels through a solid medium and is inaudible to us.

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Caddisflies Laying Eggs

9-3 caddisfly eggs & larvae 402Most caddisflies lay their eggs in or near ponds or streams. A very few species (in the family of northern case makers, Limnephilidae) deposit their eggs above the water on aquatic vegetation in a one- to-two-inch-long mass of jelly (some species’ eggs lack the jelly). Up to 800 eggs (the tan spots within the jelly in yesterday’s post) are laid at one time in one mass. Depending on the species, the eggs take from several weeks up to ten months to hatch. These masses are usually situated so that once the eggs hatch, the larvae will drop down into the water, where they will spend their larval and pupal stages.

Caddisflies are closely related to butterflies and moths, and one of the features they have in common is that the larvae have silk glands in their lower lip. Thanks to the ability to spin silk, the caddisfly larvae build portable cases or attached retreats out of natural material that is available. Some species build elongate tubes out of pieces of plants, sand, sticks or pebbles and reside in them while they drag them along with them wherever they go. Other species attach their cases with silk to crevices in or the bottom of stones in streams. Each species of caddisfly larva always constructs the same type of case, so that you can often tell the genus or even species of caddisfly by the appearance of its case.

The larval stage of a caddisfly can last two to three months or up to two years, depending on the species. Most species spend the winter as active larvae. When it is ready to pupate, the larva attaches its case with silk to something immoveable, such as a large rock. Inside its case, the larva spins a cocoon and eventually pupates inside of it. In two to three weeks the sharp-jawed pupa cuts its way out of its cocoon and floats up to the surface of the water where it emerges as a winged adult, often using its pupal skin as a raft for support during this process. Adult caddisflies live for about 30 days, during which time the males form mating swarms to attract females. After mating takes place, the egg-laying begins.

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Water Scorpions

water scorpion 005These stick-like insects can be found inhabiting most freshwater ponds in the Northeast. Although called water scorpions, these water bugs aren’t even closely related to scorpions. Their name comes from the fact that they superficially resemble scorpions, with their modified grasping front legs and “tails,” which act as snorkels or breathing tubes. The long,slender water scorpions in the genus Renata are also referred to as water stick insects or “needle bugs.”

Water scorpions are formidable predators, reaching up to five inches in length. The majority of their diet consists of other invertebrates, but they have been known to take tadpoles and minnows.

Water scorpions mate at this time of year — males produce chirping noises, much like a cricket, to attract females. After mating, the female lays several eggs and attaches them to aquatic vegetation.

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Dragonfly Eclosure: A Vulnerable Time

newt eating dragonfly2 021Dragonfly larvae reside in ponds until the time comes for them to climb up stalks of emergent vegetation or adjacent rocks, split their larval skin and emerge as adults (a process called eclosure). Before it can take flight, a dragonfly has to cling to the substrate long enough to expand its wings by pumping fluid into them, and dry its exoskeleton as well as its wings. During this time the dragonfly is extremely vulnerable – not only can it not fly, but it is usually situated directly above the water. The slightest breeze can blow it from its precarious perch into the water below, where opportunistic predators such as this Eastern Newt are at the ready and make quick work of their helpless prey.

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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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Spreadwing Damselflies Mating & Laying Eggs

10-18-13 spreadwing damselflies 019Believe it or not, there are still damselflies (and dragonflies) that are flying, mating and laying eggs in the middle of October in northern New England. Certain damselflies known as “spreadwings,” unlike most other damselflies, perch with their wings partially open. (Another tell-tale spreadwing sign is that they often perch at roughly a 45 degree angle.) Spreadwings are weak flyers, and you usually see them flying low and for short distances. When sexually mature, the males tend to spend their days perched on vegetation along a pond’s shoreline. The females, like most dragonflies and damselflies, return to the water only when ready to breed. The pictured spreadwings (Spotted Spreadwings, Lestes congener, I believe) are one of the latest species of damselflies active in the fall; these two were resting before resuming egg-laying. The male (at top of photo) grasps the female’s “neck” (to prevent other males from replacing his sperm in her) while the female uses the sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen to slice into emergent vegetation and lay her eggs, which eventually end up in the water when the plants die.


Common Green Darners Migrating

9-16-13 common green darner 249The Common Green Darner, Anax junius, is one of our largest dragonflies, measuring three inches long, with a four-inch wingspread. It is strikingly colored, with a green thorax and a bright blue (male) or reddish (female) abdomen. As if that weren’t enough to set this dragonfly apart, it is also migratory. Common Green Darners migrate south from August to November, stopping over (like migrating birds) occasionally along the way, resuming flight after resting and refueling. Thanks to radio telemetry, we now know that over a two-month migration, Common Green Darners, each weighing about one gram, can migrate over 400 miles. (Photograph is of a Common Green Darner perched on Bottle Gentian.)

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Backswimmers

Backswimmers are aquatic insects that seek out prey as large as tadpoles and small fish. They row around ponds with their fringed hind legs and grasp prey with their front pair of legs. The piercing mouthparts that they use to kill their prey are also capable of giving humans who handle them carelessly a nasty bite (they are also known as “water wasps” for this reason).7-12-13  backswimmer 376 Because they spend most of their time on their back, their coloring is opposite that of most insects – backswimmers typically have a dark belly and a light-colored back, making them less conspicuous to predators (and prey) both above and beneath them. These tiny bugs can stay submerged for hours thanks to their ability to store air bubbles in two channels on their abdomen which are covered with inward-facing hairs. Backswimmers are often confused with Water Boatmen, which are not predaceous, do not bite, and swim “right side up.” Water Boatmen’s dark color and parallel lines on their backs help distinguish them from Backswimmers.