Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars are responsible for eating all portions of milkweed leaves but the largest veins that contain sticky latex. They can tolerate the cardiac glycosides within the milkweed plant that are toxic to most other insects as well as certain mammals and birds. Like Monarchs, these caterpillars retain the toxic compounds as adults, and are therefore avoided by many predators.
Female Milkweed Tussock Moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name. When fairly young, the larvae tend to stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf.
Many of the insects that feed on milkweed have orange and black patterns as both larvae and adults. These colors serve as a warning to would-be predators. One of the adult Milkweed Tussock Moth’s main predators is bats. While the moth possesses these colors during its larval stage, as a pale brown adult (the stage that nocturnal bats prey on them) it lacks the bright coloration (which would provide little protection in the dark) but has an organ that emits an ultrasonic signal easily detected by bats. The signal warns that an attack will be rewarded with a toxic and distasteful meal, thereby deterring predation.
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Galls are abnormal plant growths that are caused by a number of agents, including insects. Each gall-making insect has a specific host plant and location (leaf, stem, bud) on which it lays its eggs in the spring, during the growing season. The egg-laying and/or hatching and chewing of the larva causes the plant to react by forming a growth around the insect. Galls of different species of insects vary in their shape and the gall maker can often be identified as a result of this.
Goldenrods are host to about 50 species of gall-making insects, two-thirds of which are midges, or tiny flies. Goldenrod Bunch Galls, also called Rosette Galls, are the result of an egg being laid in the topmost leaf bud of Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis by a midge in the genus Rhopalomyia, often Rhopalomyia solidaginis. The stem of the goldenrod stops growing, but the leaves don’t. The resulting rosette of leaves provides shelter and food for the midge larva, as well as a host of other insects, including other midges. Adult Goldenrod Bunch Gall midges emerge from the galls in the fall, and females lay eggs in the soil. The larvae hatch within one to two weeks and spend the winter underground, emerging in the spring to start the cycle all over again. Interestingly, Rhopalomyia solidaginis lays all male or all female eggs, one or the other.
The larvae of a predaceous group of winged insects (family Myrmeleontidae) that closely resemble dragonflies and damselflies are referred to as “antlions” – they have the ferociousness of a lion and prey mainly on ants. The manner in which an antlion traps its prey is ingenious. It excavates a conical pit in sandy soil (an antlion is also called a “doodlebug” because of the squiggly trails it leaves in the sand looking for just the right spot for a pit). Using its head as a shovel, it tosses out sand as it turns in a circle, digging deeper and deeper, until it forms a pit roughly two inches deep and three inches wide. The antlion lies at the bottom of the pit, covered by a thin layer of sand except for it pincer-like mandibles, which are ready to snatch prey at a second’s notice.
The slope of the sides of the pit is at the angle of repose – as steep as it can be without giving way – so when an ant accidentally steps over the edge of the pit and falls in, the sand beneath it collapses, carrying the ant to the bottom of the pit and into the pincers of the waiting antlion. If the ant tries to scramble up and out of the pit, the antlion tosses a load of sand at the ant, knocking it back down. The antlion then injects venom and digestive fluids into the prey via grooves in its mandibles, and drinks the innards of the ant through these same grooves.
The antlion’s anatomy is as unusual as its method of capturing prey. It has a mouth cavity, but no mouth opening, and no external opening for solid waste. Because digestion takes place outside of its body, the antlion doesn’t accumulate a lot of waste, but what it does accumulate stays inside of it until the antlion matures into an adult. This can be anywhere from one to three years, depending on the species. When fully developed, the antlion constructs a small, round pupal case out of silk and sand, in which it overwinters. It emerges from this case the following spring as a winged adult. (Thanks to Joan Waltermire and John Douglas for photo op.)
Without doubt, I have one of the most erudite readerships in the land of blogs. Several people recognized this uncommon phenomenon. To clear up a few misconceptions, however, being a male, this dragonfly was not laying eggs. Neither was it fertilizing them – male dragonflies perform this act when coupled with a female. This Chalk-fronted Corporal had the misfortune to sun itself on a tiger beetle-inhabited patch of sand. One of the most aggressive groups of insect predators is the tiger beetle family. They are especially known for their speed – up to 5.6 mph, which is comparable to a human running 480 mph. If you watch an adult tiger beetle hunting, you’ll notice that it stops and starts frequently. This is because it runs so fast it goes blind — its brain has trouble processing the information it sees, and the beetle must stop to regain its sight.
The larvae of the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle live in tunnels that they dig in the sand (some of you noticed tiny holes near the dragonfly) that can be up to a foot deep. The larvae have hooks located on the back of their abdomen to anchor them to the side of the burrow. Tiger beetle larvae are also predators, and after digging a tunnel the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle will crawl up it until just the top of its head is visible. From this position the larva watches for prey wandering by. When it sees a potential meal, such as yesterday’s dragonfly, it flips backwards faster than you can blink an eye and grabs its prey, pulling it down as far as it can into its tunnel, where it safely feasts on its catch. The portion of the Chalk-fronted Corporal’s abdomen that was inside the tiger beetle tunnel was completely consumed except for the outer skeleton.
Abnormal 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.
At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)
Like 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.)
The queen is the only wasp in a colony to live through the winter (the others all die), and she usually does so in a sheltered spot such as a rotting log or under the loose bark of a tree (pictured). I wasn’t aware, until discovering this wasp, that queens actually chew a cavity in which to hibernate, but that appears to be the case in some instances. You can see the woody bits of fiber under the wasp that accumulated from her excavating the chamber. The cavity is roughly one inch long and ¼-inch deep. As a rule, hibernating queen wasps protect their wings and antennae by tucking them under their bodies. Some species produce glycerol, which acts as an antifreeze, while others allow ice to form around their cell walls and simply freeze solid. Most queen wasps die over the winter, primarily from predation by other insects and spiders, not the cold. (The pictured wasp had succumbed.) Warm winters are more likely to affect queens, as they emerge from hibernation too soon and starve due to lack of food.
If you happen to notice a ¾” to 1 ¼”- long, brown kidney-bean-shaped or round structure on a blueberry bush this time of year, you’ve come upon the blueberry stem gall – a summer and winter home for a dozen or so wasp larvae that will pupate and emerge in the spring as very small (less than 1/8”) black wasps (Hemadas nubilipennis). Last summer a female wasp laid her eggs in a tender, developing blueberry shoot. She then climbed to the tip of the shoot and stabbed it repeatedly, causing considerable damage. Within two weeks the eggs hatched, and the larvae began feeding, which, along with the egg-laying, stimulated the formation of the gall. Initially a blueberry stem gall is green and spongy; by fall it turns red, and by late autumn, it is brown and woody. Next summer, look for multiple holes in these galls that were chewed by the exiting wasps.
Sawflies are often mistaken for wasps, but there are subtle differences in appearance, including the thick “waist” of a sawfly compared to the threadlike waist of a wasp. Their common name comes from the females’ sawlike ovipositor which they use to cut into plants and lay their eggs. Certain species of sawflies overwinter as pupae inside cocoons that they attach lengthwise to twigs. These cocoons are fairly small (the pictured cocoon is just over ¼” long). Sawfly cocoons persist even after the adults emerge in the spring, as they are made of very tough material. Look for capped cocoons during late fall and winter, and empty cocoons, sometimes with the cap still attached, the rest of the year.
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.