In case you missed it last night, here it is!
Roughly 30 years ago Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) started moving east. They are now well established coast to coast. Here in the East they seek shelter during the winter, often choosing to share our domiciles with us. Fear not – though they look fairly menacing, they will do you no harm. Western Conifer Seed Bugs do not bite or sting, and in their semi-dormant condition they do not feed or breed. If you choose not to co-habit with these bugs, be forewarned. When disturbed, they can emit a noxious smell.
In the spring they will vacate your house and feed on the sap of the young cones and flowers of conifers, including Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine, White Spruce and Eastern Hemlock. Mating takes place, eggs are laid and the young nymphs feed on conifer seeds which they find by detecting the infrared radiation that the cones emit.
These bugs are also called “leaf-footed bugs,” and if you look at their hind legs you will see that a section, the tibia, is flattened. Some species display this specialized leg structure during courtship, and others may use it for defense purposes.
Certain species of treehoppers (a type of true bug) release a sugary liquid called honeydew, made mostly from excess plant sap that they consume. Ants farm these treehoppers, much as they farm aphids, for their honeydew. An ant grasps a treehopper and strokes it with its antennae, causing a droplet of honeydew to appear at the tip of the treehopper’s abdomen, which the ant then consumes. Both insects benefit from this mutualistic arrangement. The ants get honeydew, and in return, provide protection for the treehoppers from predators. The plant indirectly benefits from the ants, as well, for if the ants were not there, the treehoppers’ honeydew would fall onto the plant, causing mold growth on fruits and leaves. Eggs, nymphs and adult treehoppers can usually all be found in one location. (Photo insert: a treehopper nymph on left, adult treehopper on right) To see a video of ants farming a type of treehopper called a thornbug, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoeJn3Imss4.
This strange-looking insect is none other than the nymphal stage of a true bug called a froghopper. During its immature stage, it is referred to as a spittle bug, due to the fact that while feeding on the sap of a plant it pumps excess water out of its abdomen (up to 150-300 times its body weight every 24 hours) and this water, combined with body secretions, turns into sticky bubbles which fall down over the nymph (it feeds upside down). The spittle provides thermal protection and prevents the nymph from drying out while it feeds for days in the sun. While seemingly drawing attention to the nymph’s presence, the spittle has a very bitter taste that would-be predators find unappealing. As an adult, the froghopper earns its name by being able to jump 100 times its length.
Backswimmers 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!
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). 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.
Grass of Parnassus, also known as Bog-star, is a favorite flowering plant of mine for two reasons. One is because I enjoy saying its name — try it, it sounds quite regal. Secondly, the green lines, or bee guides, on the petals are a striking color which you don’t see all that often in flowers. Grass of Parnassus is in the Saxifrage family – not in the Grass family, as its name would imply. It typically grows in wet meadows. Apparently the name comes from ancient Greece; the cattle on Mount Parnassus ate this plant with relish, and thus it was deemed an “honorary grass.” (An Ambush Bug is perched on a petal, waiting and watching for prey.)