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Insects

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & European Hornet Sign

Congratulations to “mariagianferrari,” who came the closest to solving the Mystery Photo when she correctly guessed that the missing bark was the result of a partnership between an insect and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  The sapsucker arrived first and pecked the vertical rows of rectangular holes in the trunk of the tree in order to obtain sap as well as the insects that the sap attracts.  (Usually these holes are not harmful, but a tree may die if the holes are extensive enough to girdle the trunk or stem.)

The second visitor whose sign is apparent between the sapsucker holes is the European, or Giant, Hornet (Vespa crabro).  This large (3/4″ – 1 ½ “) member of the vespid family was introduced to the U.S. about 200 years ago. Overwintering queens begin new colonies in the spring and the 200-400 workers of a colony then forage for insects including crickets, grasshoppers, large flies and caterpillars to feed to the larvae. 

In addition, the workers collect cellulose from tree bark and decaying wood to expand their paper nest, which is what has occurred between the sapsucker holes, effectively girdling the apple tree.  The nutritious sap that this collecting exposes is also consumed by the hornets. We don’t often witness this activity because most of it occurs at night.

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Pollen Baskets

Due to their tolerance of cold temperatures, bumblebees can still be found foraging on late-blooming flowers such as New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Most worker bees collect and carry pollen in a dense mass of elongated and often branched hairs (setae) on their hind legs called a scopa.  Honeybees and bumblebees, however, have pollen baskets, or corbiculae, in which they place and carry pollen back to their hive. Pollen baskets consist of a polished cavity located on the tibia of each of their hind legs which is surrounded by a fringe of hairs. Pollen is pressed on to the pollen basket when it has been collected by the combs and brushes on the inside of the bee’s legs. The bumblebee moistens the pollen with some nectar to make it sticky and stay in the basket. The pollen is loaded at the bottom of the pollen basket, so the pollen that has been pushed towards the top is from flowers the bumblebee visited earliest on her foraging trip. When a pollen basket is full it can weigh as much as 0.01 gram and contain as much as 1,000,000 pollen grains.

Only queen bumblebees overwinter, and they must start a new colony in the spring.  When the queen first emerges you can tell whether or not she has started a nest by looking at her pollen baskets. If she is carrying pollen then she has found a nest site.

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Ant Queens & Males Swarming

Ant colonies consist of one or more queens, female workers and males.  In most species, only the males and queens have wings.  Periodically the winged ants emerge from the colony in large swarms in order to mate.  Swarming behavior is usually synchronized with other nearby colonies, so large numbers (hundreds or thousands) of winged ants suddenly appear.  After mating, the males die and the queens chew their wings off and use the remaining wing muscles as a source of nutrients during the early stages of establishing a colony.

(Photo:  A swarm of ants gathering as they emerge from their ground nest. The pictured (inset) ant has removed three of its four wings and is in the process of removing the fourth wing. Thanks to Alice Trageser for photo opportunity.)

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Male Walkingstick Cerci

Congratulations to Sharon Weizenbaum, Beth Herr and David Ascher for correctly identifying the Mystery Photo as the tip of the abdomen of a Common Walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), also known as Devil’s Darning Needle, Devil’s/Witch’s Riding Horse, and Prairie Alligator due to its unusual shape.  While the Common Walkingstick is a mere 3” long, the largest North American species can grow to 7” and one tropical species may reach 14”.

The Walkingstick lives up to its name – it is easily mistaken for a twig with its slender body and legs.  By remaining motionless during the day (or gently swaying in the wind like a leaf or twig would), and feeding on the leaves of various deciduous trees at night it avoids many predators with its physical and behavioral adaptations. The practice of using both camouflage and mimicry is referred to as crypsis.

Both the male and female Walkingstick possess a pair of appendages at the tip of their abdomen known as cerci.  The cerci on a female are short and straight, while those on the male are longer and curved.  They are sensory organs, but in addition, the male uses his cerci to grasp the female when mating with her (see inset).  According to entomologist Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer, the cerci are very effective, allowing the male Walkingstick to clasp the female for many hours (weeks for some species) in order to prevent another male from mating with the female.

This is the time of year you are most likely to notice Walkingsticks, as this is when they are maturing and reproducing. Females drop their eggs to the ground from the canopy and because a portion of the outside (capitulum) of each egg is edible (like the elaiosomes of many spring ephemerals), ants carry the eggs below-ground to their nests and eat the capitulum, leaving the intact eggs to hatch and develop.

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Praying Mantises Preying

Between being able to swivel its head nearly 180 degrees and having two large compound eyes and three simple eyes, the Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) misses very few insects within reach. Due to its green or brown coloration, the Praying Mantis is well camouflaged as it lies in ambush or stalks its prey.  Spines, tooth-like tubercles and a claw near the tip of each foreleg enable this predator to have a secure grasp on the moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies, and other insects it consumes.  (A Praying Mantis in Pennsylvania was photographed successfully capturing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.)

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Milkweed Leaf Beetle Survival Mechanism

Many insects use splashy colors and color patterns to defend against being eaten.  (This practice is called “aposematism” from the Greek for “away” and “sign.”) If you spend time in a milkweed patch, you’ll notice that several of the insects you see have bright orange and black coloration.  Milkweed contains defensive chemicals known as cardiac glycosides and Monarchs as well as several other insects (many of which are black and orange) that feed on milkweed can tolerate them and store these chemicals as a defense. When avian predators consume a Monarch butterfly containing these chemicals, a bird suffers digestive upset.

Once a bird has gotten sick after eating a poisonous black and orange insect such as a Monarch, it tends to avoid any and all insects with similar coloration, regardless of their toxicity or lack of it.  Milkweed Leaf Beetle larvae and adults do not absorb the cardiac glycosides in milkweed like a Monarch, so they have no toxic compounds in them and will not poison a predator.  Insect-eating birds don’t know this, however, and the beetles successfully deter predation through their coloration.

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Monarchs Starting To Leave Mexico

The Monarchs’ migration north has begun! We are not the only part of the world that is experiencing unusually high temperatures — there has been a heat wave in Mexico this spring where the Monarchs overwinter, and it has them on the move, leaving their sanctuaries and beginning the more than 2,000 mile journey to New England.

This overwintering generation of Monarchs lays eggs in northern Mexico and southern U.S. and then dies.  When their eggs hatch and develop into adults, usually by late April to early June, they continue the journey north that their parents began, laying eggs along the way.  They begin to arrive in northern U. S. and southern Canada in late May.

To follow their progress northward, go to Journey North’s site, https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?year=2020&map=monarch-adult-first.  Although we probably won’t see any Monarchs in New England until the end of May at the earliest, it’s fun to be able to see exactly how far they have gotten as spring progresses.  Journey North citizen scientists also monitor mammals, amphibians and birds.  To participate in their research or to see their observations go to https://journeynorth.org/.

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Bumblebees Mating

The adult male bumblebee has only one function in life and that is to mate.  However, research shows that only one out of seven males are successful in this endeavor.  When mating does take place, it is more complex than one might imagine.

In most species, the male bumblebees fly in a circuit depositing a queen-attracting scent (pheromone) from a gland in their head onto vegetation and prominent structures such as trees and rocks.  This usually takes place in the morning, and if it rains, the scent is replaced.  The males then patrol the area, with each species of bee flying at a specific height. Once a (virgin) queen has been attracted, mating takes place on the ground or vegetation, and lasts anywhere from 10 to 80 minutes.  After the male’s sperm has been deposited he inserts a genital plug in the queen which, when hardened, prevents the sperm of other males from entering her for up to three days.  (Photo by Heather Thompson: queen bumblebee with several smaller male suitors)

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Second Generation of Brown-hooded Owlet Moth Caterpillars Active

In the Northeast, Brown-hooded Owlet moths (Cucullia convexipennis) produce two generations a summer. The larvae of the first generation mature in July, and the second generation matures from late August into October. Brown-hooded Owlet larvae are often found on aster and goldenrod plants, resting on stems (often head down) in plain sight during the day. First generation larvae feed on the leaves and the second generation consumes the flowers of these plants. (Photo: note molted skin above caterpillar.)

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Ambush Bug, Not Assassin Bug, In Yesterday’s Post!

Thanks to Pat Nelson’s sharp eyes, I realized I had mislabeled the bug in yesterday’s blog.  It was an Ambush Bug, not an Assassin Bug.  While both are predators and in the same family (Reduviidae), Assassin Bugs are usually dark colored and have long, narrow heads compared to Ambush Bugs.  Ambush Bugs are usually quite stout and typically have bright colors such as yellow, red or orange.  They also have thickened front pincer-like legs with teeth-like structures that hold the prey while it is being consumed.  Although small (usually less than ½ inch), an Ambush Bug’s prey may be as large as a bumblebee, wasp or butterfly.

 


Drama In The Goldenrod Patch

At this time of year when most flowers have gone by, Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a primary source of pollen and nectar for bees, beetles, butterflies, flies and many other insects. Consequently, goldenrod flowers are a popular place for insect-eating predators to linger.

Recently I spied an Ambush Bug that had captured a fly and had its proboscis inserted into it, contentedly sucking away the fly’s innards while I photographed it.  Unbeknownst to me or the Ambush Bug, another predator, a Bald-faced Hornet, had spied the bug with its prey. Although adult hornets consume liquids, usually sugars like the juice of fruits or nectar, their larvae are raised on a diet of insects, so adults are constantly looking for prey. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the hornet flew in, tussled with the Ambush Bug and flew off with the fly in its mandibles, landing on a nearby branch with the object of its thievery.

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Bald-faced Hornet Queens Laying Specialized Eggs

A Bald-faced Hornet colony begins in the spring when a queen emerges from winter hibernation. The queen builds a small nest, creates a few brood cells within the nest, deposits eggs in them and feeds the larvae when they hatch.  These larvae are female workers — they will continue the nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest while the queen concentrates on laying eggs.

During the summer the colony (and size of the nest) grows until there are between 100 to 400 workers. Toward the end of the summer the queen lays two special types of eggs. The first will be, like the workers’ eggs, fertilized eggs that will develop into females, but these females will be fertile (and develop into queens). The second group of eggs will be unfertilized eggs. These eggs will develop into fertile males. The maturation and emergence of the new queens and the fertile males marks the end of the functioning of the colony. At this point the workers are not replaced and die out. The ruling queen, having served her purpose, also dies. The newly-emerged adults (queens and fertilized males) leave the nest, mate, and the fertilized queens overwinter and begin their colony cycle all over again in the following spring.  Some small nests complete their cycle by mid-September, while some large nests are still going strong until the cold kills the larvae in late November.

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Snowberry Clearwing Moths Gathering Nectar

There are four species of clearwing (also referred to as hummingbird) moths in North America. The most familiar ones are the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe).  These day-flying moths fly and move like hummingbirds (hovering near flowers while drinking nectar) and the males have a flared “tail” like that of a hovering hummingbird.  It is also very easy to mistake one for a bumble bee.  Scales cover the wings of butterflies and moths, but clearwing moths lose many of these scales and thus have partially transparent (“clear”) wings.

Like most moths, clearwing moths have a very long tongue (can be twice as long as their body) which they carry rolled under their heads and that they use to reach the nectar of long-necked flowers.  They are attracted to the flowers of phlox, beebalm, honeysuckle and swamp milkweed (pictured), among others. If you approach a clearwing moth as it hovers, you may detect the humming sound that they make with their wings.

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Turtlehead Flowering & Being Pollinated By Bumble Bees

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) can be found growing along stream banks and wetlands throughout eastern North America. This plant gets its common name from the flower’s long arching upper lip, or hood, which overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak.

The male parts of the flower mature before the female parts, and when pollen is being produced these lips are very hard to pry open. Pollinators are primarily bumble bees, which are some of the only insects that have the strength to open the flower. When the female pistil matures, the lips relax a bit, so entry is easier. However, access to the nectar at the base of the flower is restricted (by a sterile stamen) to long-tongued insects. Thus, it is specifically long-tongued bumble bees that are able to both enter the flower and to reach the nectar. (Photo:  bumble bee collecting pollen (see filled baskets on hind legs) from Turtlehead)  Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.

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“Mating Wheels”

Dragonflies and damselflies both create what are called “mating wheels” when they mate.  The male grasps the female at the back of her head with the terminal appendages at the end of his abdomen and the female curls her abdomen forward until the tip of her abdomen reaches the male’s sex organs.

Many male dragonflies go to great lengths to make sure their sperm have reproductive success. Prior to mating they often remove any sperm that happen to be in the female from previous matings.  In addition, depending on species, they may leave after mating, fly with and guard the female as she lays her eggs, or remain grasping the female as her eggs are laid.  His proximity to the female during egg laying prevents other males from removing his sperm.

Much of this information, as well as excellent photos for identifying dragonflies and damselflies, can be found in A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts, by Burne, Loose and Nikula. Another excellent Odonata resource is Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson.  (Photo:  Mating darners (fast flying, large dragonflies), male above female)

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Great Ash Sphinx Moth

Sphinx moths are notable for their fast flight and rapid wingbeat.  These attributes account for one of their common names — “hawk” moth. Most species of sphinx moths are capable of hovering in front of the flower from which they are drinking nectar, and some species are referred to as “hummingbird” moths.

In their larval form, sphinx moths are notable for the horn which extends upward near the end of their abdomen.  Tomato growers are familiar with the Tobacco Hornworm (Tobacco Hawk Moth/Carolina Sphinx Moth) and Tomato Hornworm (Five-spotted Hawk Moth).

Less frequently encountered is the larva of the Great Ash Moth (Sphinx chersis). Named for a host plant of the adult moth, this greenish or pinkish caterpillar has seven long diagonal lines along its body, which are sometimes edged with pink. Its black spiracles (external openings that allow gas exchange) are elongate and ringed with white. Its horn is blue or pink.  As an adult moth, it is gray with black markings and has a wingspan of up to five inches. You’re most likely to see this moth at dusk, feeding at deep-throated flowers. (Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

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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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True Bugs

7-15-19 damsel bug 0U1A0251Although the term “bug” is commonly used to refer to just about any insect, there is a specific order of insects (Hemiptera) that are considered “true bugs” and allies. All insects in this order possess a syringe-like beak that they use to suck the liquefied contents out of plants or animals. Their lower lip forms a sheath that contains four blades. One pair of blades (mandibles) is for cutting and the other pair (maxillae) is for spitting and sucking. The maxillae combine to make a tube with two channels, one for sucking food up and the other for spitting saliva (containing enzymes that dissolve tissue) back into the food.

Some of the insect-eating true bugs may be familiar to you – assassin bugs, ambush bugs and damsel bugs (named for their diminutive size) are among them. Nabicula subcoleoptrata (pictured) is a common black, ant-like damsel bug known for its aggressive predation. Look for it in meadows, where it frequently preys on an introduced bug, the Meadow Plant Bug (Leptopterna dolabrata). In this photograph, it has successfully preyed upon and consumed a small larva, identity unknown.

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Monarch Butterfly Larvae Are Cannabalistic

The very first meal that a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar eats is its own eggshell.  In order to hatch, it eats its way out of the egg, and then polishes off the remainder of the eggshell.  It then starts to wander around the leaf and if it finds another Monarch egg, it will start to eat it.

Female Monarch Butterflies lay 300-500 eggs over two to five weeks of egg-laying. Normally, a Monarch only lays one egg at a time (on the underside of a tender, young milkweed leaf).  It is fairly rare to find more than one egg on a leaf, or even on the same plant.  After a female lays an egg, several seconds up to a minute goes by before she lays another egg (referred to as a refractory period). During this time she usually moves on and finds another milkweed plant on which to lay the next egg.  This lapse of time between the laying of each egg probably evolved to discourage the laying of multiple eggs on one leaf and to encourage the dispersal of a female’s eggs on different milkweed plants so as to decrease the chances of cannibalism occurring.

According to Dr. Lincoln Brower, renowned Monarch entomologist, a cluster of Monarch eggs on any given milkweed leaf indicates that either milkweed is in short supply, or the female that laid the eggs is either sick, very old or she has been flying for a very long time and several eggs have matured.

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Bumble Bee-Mimicking Robber Flies

7-10-19 robber fly 0U1A0212Robber flies are a special group of predatory flies that possess stout, spiny legs, a dense moustache of bristles on the front of the head (mystax) that protects the robber fly’s head when it encounters struggling or stinging prey, and three simple eyes in a depression between two large compound eyes.

Certain robber flies resemble bumble bees. The evolutionary advantages of a harmless organism mimicking a harmful organism (Batesian mimicry) include deterring predators that are fearful of stinging bees. In addition, it also makes it more likely that a potential prey insect will come closer to the bee mimic, thinking the “bee” is looking for nectar or pollen, not a meaty meal.

A quick way to distinguish a robber fly from a bumble bee is to look at the antennae and wings. Flies usually have short, stubby antennae; bees, including bumble bees, have “elbowed” antennae (an obvious joint). Flies have two wings, while bumble bees (and most other insects) have four. The pointed, stout proboscis, bearded face, fleshy feet and long, tapering abdomen of robber flies are also identifying characteristics. (Photo: Laphria thoracica piercing a click beetle between the beetle’s hardened outer wings (elytra) in order to inject enzymes which will eventually allow the robber fly to drink its prey.)

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Fire-colored Beetle Larvae

11-19-18 fire-colored beetle _U1A1193 (1)

Peek under the loose bark of rotting logs, both deciduous and coniferous, and you’re bound to find the larva of a beetle known as a Fire-colored Beetle (family Pyrochroidae).  Its common name is derived from the Greek word pyros (“fire”) + chroma (“’color”), a reference to the bright color, often red, of the adults of some species.   From one to several years are spent in the larval stage. Adults of the Pyrochroinae emerge from late spring to midsummer and are primarily nocturnal.

Many adult Fire-colored Beetles are attracted to cantharidin, a toxic compound produced by Blister Beetles.  Males locate a Blister Beetle, climb onto it and lick off the cantharidin that Blister Beetles exude and use the blistering agent to impress a female of their own species. When mating takes place, most of the cantharidin is transferred to the female in the form of a sperm packet.  The eggs the female subsequently lays are coated with cantharidin to protect them from being eaten before they hatch. (Bugguide.net)

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Woolly Bears Seeking Hibernacula

10-10-18 isabella tiger moth 119

The Isabella Tiger Moth typically has two broods during the summer.  The caterpillars (Woolly Bears) in the first brood pupate and emerge as adult moths mid-summer.  The second brood overwinters as caterpillars and pupate in the spring.  The Woolly Bears we see crossing roads at this time of year are second-brood caterpillars in search of protective hibernation sites (hibernacula).

Old-timers predicted the severity of the coming winter by the relative lengths of the black and brown bands of the caterpillars when they became easy to observe in the fall – the longer the black sections and narrower the brown section, the harder a winter they were in for.  In fact, this may have had some validity, as brown hairs (setae) are added to the middle band every time the caterpillar molts. Therefore, the older the caterpillar, the wider the brown band.  If winter comes early, the caterpillar’s brown band would be relatively narrow due to the fact it didn’t have time to mature fully and develop a wider brown section before hibernating.

The adult stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth is often overlooked, due to the appeal of the larval stage.  This tan moth, with a wingspan of 1 ½ – 2 inches, has tiny black markings on its wings.  Male and female are sexually dimorphic and can be distinguished by the color of their hind wings.  Males have yellow-pale orange hind wings while the hind wings of females are rosy. (Photo:  Woolly Bear; photo inset: female Isabella Tiger Moth)

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Stinkhorns Maturing

10-5-18 dog stinkhorn IMG_9973There are a group of fungi known as stinkhorns — aptly named, as their foul odor can be detected even by the human nose. All stinkhorns first appear as an “egg” which can be up to two inches high. When the eggs rupture, the appearance of the different species of fungi in this family (Phallaceae) can differ dramatically, but many have a phallic-like shape. At maturity, all stinkhorns produce an olive-green to olive-brown slimy substance that has a putrid smell (to humans), but is very appealing to many insects.  This slime is loaded with the fungi’s spores. Insects landing on a stinkhorn get their feet covered with the spore-laden slime while they are busy ingesting it.  Once the insects depart, the spores are dispersed far and wide.

Stinkhorns appear suddenly, and their growth can almost be observed, as they go from the egg stage to maturity with impressive speed. While these fungi are not poisonous, it is doubtful that having smelled them, anyone would desire to eat them.  (Photo:  Dog Stinkhorn aka Devil’s Dipstick, Mutinus caninus)

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Black Blister Beetles Consuming Asters

9-7-18 black blister beetle_U1A8536

Blister beetles are so-called because they contain a chemical in their hemolymph, or blood, called cantharidin.  If rubbed or pressed the beetles release cantharidin as a defense mechanism, which causes blistering on human skin.  The Black Blister Beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica) belongs to a genus of beetles that are highly toxic to horses — a few beetles fed in a single feeding of alfalfa can be lethal.

As larvae, most blister beetles are predators, often invading wild bee colonies and consuming bee larvae, as well as nectar and pollen.  Black Blister Beetle larvae and other blister beetles in the genus Epicauta prey on the eggs of grasshoppers.  Female Black Blister Beetles lay clusters of eggs in the soil in late summer. The small, active larvae that hatch from these eggs crawl over the soil surface entering cracks in search of grasshopper egg pods which are deposited in the ground. After finding an egg mass, the blister beetle larvae become immobile and spend the rest of their developmental time as legless grubs. The following summer they transform into the pupal stage and soon emerge in the adult stage. This is why blister beetle numbers increase dramatically following high grasshopper populations.

Once they mature into adulthood, Black Blister Beetles feed on plants (phytophagus) and are commonly found on flowers, especially those in the Aster/Composite family. They are said to be there for the nectar and pollen, but the Black Blister Beetle pictured denuded several aster blossoms of all petals during the time it was observed.

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