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Diptera

Robber Flies Active

8-3-18 robber fly with butterfly2_U1A3399

You may well have seen a robber fly (also known as an assassin fly) and not recognized it as such.  Big eyes, pointed mouthparts, a hairy face and a fondness for insects are robber fly characteristics to look for.

Robber flies are among our largest flies and are predatorial ambushers.  They tend to perch for minutes at a time on the tips of leaves, or other sunny viewpoints, where they keep a lookout for unsuspecting prey.  Once they spot an insect they lose no time in darting after it.  With their beak-like mouthparts they spear the insect and inject a mixture of nerve poisons and enzymes that liquefy the tissues of their victim.  They then drink the innards of their prey.

Note that there is a prominent “beard” or tuft of bristles (mystax) in the front of the pictured robber fly’s face.  All robber flies have this tuft which serves to protect the face and eyes of the predator from the struggling prey as it dines.

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Flies Mating

4-13-17 mating flies 042

As readers are aware, I spend a significant portion of my time outdoors examining scat, and in so doing, have discovered a family of hairy flies, Heleomyzidae, that are often present on the freshest specimens, especially in early spring and late fall. This spring I have found them mating on both coyote and bear scat.  The ardor of males is impressive – without exception the males pounce upon each and every fly of their own species they see. Repeated rejections do not appear to slow them down – just the opposite. In fact, moments after the pictured pair left the surface of a coyote scat and landed on a nearby branch, they were joined by another fly and the threesome tumbled to the ground in an attempt at a menage a trois (see inset).

Different species of flies in this family feed on different food sources. Look for them in and on carcasses, scat, compost, fungi, caves, and bird nests.

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Robber Flies Capturing Prey

8-3-16  robber fly 009The robber fly family, Asilidae, is one of the largest families of flies.  All robber flies are predaceous and are recognized by their long bodies, forward-facing beaks and a tuft of hairs above the beak.  You find them on the ground or on leaf tips and other sunny spots where they survey the area for flying insects.  Once a robber fly has spotted a suitably-sized prey, it darts out and impales it with its stout beak.  It then inserts its needlelike “tongue” into the prey’s neck, eye or other weak spot, immobilizing the insect and liquefying its innards with an injection of saliva that contains nerve poisons and enzymes that break down proteins. Finally, it drinks its meal.  Pictured is a species of robber fly in the genus Diogmites, whose members are known for dangling by a foreleg while dining.

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Hover Fly Mimics Bald-faced Hornet

8-5-15 bald-faced hornet and hover flyAdult hover flies, often referred to as syrphid (family Syrphidae) or flower flies, feed on pollen and nectar, and are often seen hovering at or crawling on flowers. Many have black and yellow bands on their abdomen, and are frequently mistaken for bees. There are certain species of hover flies that mimic stinging wasps, including yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets (see photo). Predators such as birds, ambush bugs, and spiders might think twice about eating an insect that can sting, and hover flies take advantage of this. The process through which this occurs is called Batesian mimicry, and refers to when a harmless species evolves to imitate a harmful species that has the some of the same predators.

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Robber Fly Mimics Bumblebee

8-4-14  robber fly like bumblebee2 054Milkweed leaves make excellent platforms for all kinds of insects, particularly those such as dragonflies and robber flies, which sit, wait and watch, surveying the landscape for prey to ambush. This robber fly could quite easily be mistaken for a bumblebee. However, the short, straight antennae and the presence of only two wings (instead of four) tell you it’s in the order Diptera (true flies). The pointed, stout proboscis, bearded face, fleshy feet and long, tapering abdomen narrow it down to a species of robber fly. Robber flies in the genus Laphria resemble bumblebees – they are typically quite hairy, with black bodies and yellow stripes on their abdomens. Like other species of robber flies, they hunt by perching and snagging prey such as other robber flies, bees, wasps or beetles. They often return to their perch, inject the prey with enzymes that dissolve its innards, and then have a long drink. Why mimic a bumblebee? To deceive unsuspecting honeybees, wasps and other insects that would make a good meal.

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Willow Beaked-Gall Midge

10-30-13 willow beaked-gall midge   047Now that most of the leaves have fallen, it’s a good time to look for galls that form on woody plants. Willows are host to a great number of gall-making insects, including tiny flies called midges. The most common species of willow gall midge is the Willow Beaked-Gall Midge, Rabdophaga rididae. In the spring, after mating, the adult female midge lays an egg in a willow bud (often terminal) that is just starting to expand. The egg soon hatches and the larva burrows deeper into the bud, which causes the bud tissue to swell and form a gall, usually with a “beak” at the top. The larva remains inside the gall through the winter, where it has a constant supply of food (the interior of the gall) and shelter. In the spring the larva pupates, and an adult midge emerges and begins the cycle all over again. Some gall midges are crop pests, but willows are not significantly damaged by the Willow Beaked-Ball Midge.

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Jewelweed Gall Midges

10-4-13 jewelweed gall  277Abnormal plant growths called galls come in all sizes and shapes, are found on leaves, buds and stems, and are caused by a number of agents, including insects. A majority of insect galls are caused by the eggs and developing larvae of flies, wasps and midges. Jewelweed, or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis), has a very distinctive looking aborted bud gall that is produced by a midge (Schizomyia impatientis). While some galls provide shelter and food for a lone resident, the Jewelweed Gall Midge is colonial, and several orange larvae can be found residing in separate cavities within the gall. These midge larvae are now emerging and will overwinter as adults.

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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.)


Stinky Squid Fungus

7-16-13  Pseudocolus fusiformis 225There is no way you can walk by the fruiting body of Pseudocolus fusiformis, a member of the Stinkhorn family Phallaceae, without noticing it. Its shape is markedly different from most fungi, in that it has three or four separate orange “arms” which are fused at the top. If your eyes don’t detect it, your nose most certainly will. Also known as “Stinky Squid,” this fungus emits a strong, putrid odor which comes from the dark green, spore-bearing slimy material (gleba) that is found on the inner surfaces of the arms. This smell attracts insects, primarily flies, which inadvertently disperse spores after visiting the fungus. Look for round egg-like whitish structures at the base of Pseudocolus fusimormis – these are young fruiting bodies that have yet to develop arms. (Thanks to Shiela Swett for photo op.)


Goldenrod Ball Gall Fly Larva

3-22-13 goldenrod ball gall fly larva IMG_6182The round “ball” that is often present on the stem of goldenrod plants contains the overwintering larva of a fly (Eurosta solidaginis). A year ago an adult female fly laid an egg in the stem of the goldenrod plant. The egg hatched and the larva proceeded to eat the interior of the stem. As it did so, the larva excreted chemicals which caused the plant to grow abnormally, creating a ball-shaped “gall.” If you were to open a goldenrod ball gall today, you would probably find an overwintering larva (if a downy woodpecker or parasitic wasp hadn’t gotten there before you). Within the next few weeks the larva will pupate, and as early as April the adult fly will emerge from the gall, having crawled out the passageway that it chewed last fall. An inflatable “balloon” on its forehead allows the fly to burst through the remaining outermost layer of tissue at the end of the passageway. The adult fly lives about two weeks, just long enough to mate and begin the process all over again.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Pine Cone Willow Gall

Galls are abnormal plant growths that can be caused by insects, fungi, bacteria, nematode worms and mites.  Insects cause the greatest number of galls and induce the greatest variety of structures.  Galls provide both food and shelter for the organisms living within them.  Galls develop during the growing season, often in buds and on leaves.  Pine Cone Willow Galls, named for their resemblance to small pine cones, are found on willows, typically in terminal buds.  A gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides) is responsible for the willow bud going haywire and developing  abnormally. (No-one has determined exactly how insects cause galls, whether it’s the act of laying eggs in or on the plant, or if it’s somehow connected to the chewing of the larvae into the plant.)    Each gall-making insect has a specific host plant, or small group of related plant.  The galls that each insect species induces and lives in while developing into an adult has a recognizable shape and size.  When you think you’re seeing pines cones on willow trees, you’re not hallucinating, you’ve just discovered the temporary home and food supply of a tiny fly, known as a midge.


Botfly Puparium

Congratulations on some very creative guesses!  Yesterday’s post  was a botfly puparium – a hard case made from an insect’s larval exoskeleton (skin) that covers and protects the pupa.  Most insects that go through complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult) don’t have this added protection for their pupal stage, but certain flies, including botflies, do.  Botflies are fairly large, hairy flies that resemble bumblebees and are internal parasites of many species of mammals, including humans. Depending on the species, the botfly deposits its eggs on or near the host animal, or on another insect, such as a mosquitoe or housefly, which carries them to their host. The eggs of some species of botflies are ingested or inhaled; those of other species hatch and the larvae bore into their host. After entering and crawling around inside of the host animal for a week or so, most species of botfly larvae settle in a spot just under the host’s skin and remain there for three to ten weeks, consuming the flesh of its host.  The lump, or “warble,” that forms just under the host’s skin where the botfly resides increases in size as the larva grows. A tiny hole chewed in the skin allows the larva to breathe, and eventually it exits through this hole.  The larva falls to the ground, where it pupates in the soil and later emerges as an adult botfly. (The two yellow bumps at one end of the puparium are spiracles, through which the pupa breathes.) The whole story of this particular puparium is that Jeannie Killam  found it in her old farmhouse’s kitchen cupboard, where it probably popped out of a visiting mouse.  (Illustration is of a human botfly.)