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Blackberry Psyllids Heading for Conifers

11-9-15 blackberry psyllid 101Occasionally you see a wild Blackberry bush with leaves that have stunted growth and are often curled up. This malformation is due to the Blackberry Psyllid (Trioza tripunctata), also known as the Jumping Plant Louse. Closely related to aphids and scale insects, psyllids are plant-feeding bugs which typically have one specific host on which they feed and lay their eggs. Blackberry Psyllids, small, cicada-like insects that hold their wings tent-like over their body, feed only on Blackberry and in so doing, cause this leaf distortion.

Blackberry Psyllids have one generation per year. The adults mate and lay eggs (39-202) on Blackberry bushes in early summer. The nymphs, small and wingless, also feed on the sap of Blackberries. They are often found inside the curled leaves during the summer months where they secrete several types of waxy structures as they feed. In the fall the nymphs mature and overwinter as adults in conifers (pines, spruces and cedars) prior to returning to Blackberry bushes in the spring. If Blackberries are one mile or more from conifers, no psyllid damage will be found; those growing within one-eighth of a mile from conifers are at the greatest risk of psyllid damage.

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Bald-faced Hornet Nests No Longer Inhabited (if you live where there has been a hard frost)

Mary Holland holding very large wasp nest, which was built above her houseIf you research bald-faced hornet nests you will find that their average size is often compared to that of a football or basketball. The maximum size is said to be between 14 and 18 inches in diameter, and up to 23 or 24 inches in length. The pictured nest (which hung 20 feet above the roof of my house) measures 14 inches wide and 29 inches long – far larger than the average hornet nest!

This entire nest was built in roughly four months. It was started by a queen bald-faced hornet that, after emerging from hibernation this past spring, chewed some wood fiber, mixed it with her saliva and created a few brood cells surrounded by one or more paper “envelopes.” She laid an egg in each cell, and fed the hornet larvae insects which she first masticated into tiny bits. When the larvae pupated and emerged as adult workers, they assumed the duties of nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest, while the queen continued laying eggs in horizontal tiers of cells. This ongoing activity produced a colony of anywhere from 100 to 400 workers by the end of the summer. Shortly before the first hard frost this fall, the queen left the colony and found a protected spot in which to spend the winter. When freezing temperatures arrived, the workers all died, leaving a nest that will never again be inhabited by bald-faced hornets. (Thanks to Nick Burnham, who ingeniously managed to collect the nest for me, and Gary Trachier for the photo.)

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Dung Beetle Feeding on Bear Scat

10-16 dung beetle 127Wherever there is scat, or dung, there are dung beetles. This is a photograph of a dung beetle in heaven as it has located a black bear’s gigantic (apple-filled) scat, which will provide it with food for a long, long time. Some species of dung beetles (rollers) shape pieces into balls and roll them away and bury them to eat later or lay their eggs on. Some species (tunnelers) bury their dung by tunneling underneath the pile of scat. And a third group (dwellers) actually lives inside dung piles.

Most dung beetles prefer the scat of herbivores. There are always bits of food that do not get digested, and these bits are what a dung beetle feeds on. Dung beetle larvae eat the solids, while adult beetles drink the liquids contained in the scat. A given species of dung beetle typically prefers the dung of a certain species or group of animals, and does not touch the dung of any other species.

Dung beetles have a brain that is the size of a grain of rice, yet they are very sophisticated insects. They use celestial clues (the Milky Way) in order to roll balls of dung in a straight line. Dung beetles are known for “dancing,” which helps them orient themselves after their path has been disrupted. They use their dung balls to regulate their temperature, and cool off. (In very warm climates, around noon, when the sun is at its peak, dung beetles will routinely climb atop their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. Thermal imaging has shown that dung balls are measurably cooler than the surrounding environment, probably because of their moisture content.) And dung beetles keep track of the number of steps they take and the direction from which they came (instead of landmarks) in order to return to their nest with a ball of dung.

Even though they are remarkably clever, dung beetles can be duped! A flowering plant native to South Africa (Ceratocaryum argenteum) produces large, round nuts that are strikingly similar in appearance, smell, and chemical composition to antelope droppings, which the dung beetles accordingly roll away and bury, effectively sowing a new generation of C. argenteum.

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Snowberry Clearwing Larvae Pupating

snowberry clearwing larvae 125The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), a type of Sphinx moth, is one of several daytime-flying “hummingbird moths,” so-called because of their ability to hover while drinking nectar from a flower, and because of the humming sound they make, much like a hummingbird. The yellow and black bands of the Snowberry Clearwing’s abdomen also cause it to be mistaken for a bumblebee. The most distinctive thing about this moth is that a large portion of its wings are transparent, due to scales falling off.

Snowberry Clearwings are often seen around the time that beebalm is in bloom, in July and August. The females entice the males with a pheromone that they produce from glands at the tip of their abdomen. After mating, the females lay their tiny, round, green eggs on their larval food plants. Like many Sphinx moths, the larvae have “horns” at the end of their bodies. Most Snowberry Clearwing larvae are green, but they can be brown, as well. Both colors enable them to be well camouflaged as they feed on the leaves of honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry, cherry, mint, and plum. The caterpillars are active until late fall, when they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. The pupa spends the winter hidden under the leaves, and the adult moth emerges the following spring. (Thanks to Tom Wetmore and Heidi Marcotte for photo opportunity.)

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Bumblebees Foraging Fall Flowers

10-5-15 tri-colored bumblebee IMG_1479With frost just a whisper away, and in some areas not even that, there are still hardy plants, many in the Composite family (goldenrods, asters, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow), which defy the odds and optimistically send forth blossoms on the off chance that there are still pollinators on the wing. Fortunately for them, bumblebees can and do fly at much cooler temperatures than honeybees and other pollinators. When food is plentiful and outside temperatures fall below 50°F., bumblebees generally stay inside their nest and live off their stores. At times when food is scarce or stores are low, they will forage when the outside temperature is as low as 43°F. (In severe conditions they have even been known to vary their flying height to and from the nest to take advantage of any temperature differences.) Locally, Tri-colored Bumblebees (Bombus ternarius) have a near monopoly on the last vestiges of nectar and pollen (see photo).

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Blister Beetles’ Defense Mechanism

10-5 short-winged blister beetle 064Blister beetles are aptly named, for when they are disturbed they emit a yellow, oily, defensive secretion (cantharidin) from their joints which usually causes blisters when it comes in contact with skin. This toxin deters many potential predators and is especially effective against ants. According to naturalist/forester/writer Ginny Barlow, as little as 100 milligrams is reported to be fatal to humans if ingested, and this amount can be extracted from just a few beetles. Humans used to crush and dry blister beetles and use the resulting concoction for gout and arthritis. It was also used as a popular aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. Because of its toxicity, it is no longer widely used in medicine.

Cantharidin is, however, indirectly used by tree-nesting nuthatches. With a limited number of tree cavities, there is competition among animals using them to raise their young, especially between squirrels and nuthatches. Nuthatches have been seen with Short-winged Blister Beetles (Meloe angusticollis, see photo) in their beaks, “sweeping” them on the bark around tree cavity entrances. The nuthatches don’t eat the beetles, they strictly use them as tools. It is assumed that the birds do this in order to repel squirrels with the cantharidin that is smeared on the tree. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo opportunity.)

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Leaf Miners

9-29 leaf miners IMG_6836A leaf miner is the larval stage of an insect (primarily moths, sawflies and flies) that feeds on leaf plant tissue. Most of these insects feed for their entire larval period within the leaf, creating tunnels between the upper and lower leaf surfaces. Some will pupate within the leaf mine, while others cut their way out when they are full-grown and pupate in the soil.

The pattern of feeding tunnels, as well as the pattern of droppings, or frass, within them (darker sections of tunnels), combined with the species of plant on which they occur, can sometimes identify the species of insect that created the mines. A moth larva, the Common Aspen Leaf Miner (Phyllocnistis populiella), leaves delicate, serpentine mines (see photo) that are diagnostic of this species.

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