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Insects

Snow Scorpionflies Active

2-15-17-snow-scorpionfly-039On mild winter days you may wish to look closely at all the dark, little specks on the surface of the snow. Most of them will be bits of lichen, seeds or pieces of bark, but with luck you may find one or more of them moving. Active winter insects aren’t plentiful, but they do exist.

Scorpionflies are fairly common and can be recognized by their long beaks ending in visible mouthparts. (They get their name from one family of scorpionflies that possesses a scorpion-like tail.)  Snow Scorpionflies belong to a family of small, flightless insects, of which there are two species in the Northeast. They only measure about 2/10’s of an inch, so careful scrutiny is necessary to spot one. Their dark color and an anti-freeze substance in their blood allows them to remain active to 21°F., during which time they feed on mosses. When startled, Snow Scorpionflies often jump up in the air and land with their legs crumpled up (see insert) looking even more like an inedible speck of dirt. It’s fairly easy to tell their gender, as female Snow Scorpionflies (photo) lack wings, and males have bristly wings adapted for grasping females.

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Where Do Grasshoppers Go In Winter?

1-19-17-red-legged-grasshopper2-img_4112Everyone knows that grasshoppers disappear once cold weather arrives. Where do they go and what is their strategy for surviving the winter?  Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs.  They mate, lay eggs and die in the fall. The female Red-legged Grasshopper, New England’s most abundant species of grasshopper, deposits clusters of eggs one to two inches deep in the soil in the late summer and early fall. During this process, a glue-like secretion cements soil particles around the egg mass, forming a protective “pod.” Each pod is roughly three-quarters to one-inch long and curved. The top third is dried froth, the bottom two-thirds contain 20 to 26 eggs. Each egg is just over 1/10th of an inch long and pale yellow.

In the spring, nymphs hatch out of the eggs, crawl up to the surface of the soil and start to feed on grasses and other herbaceous plants. It takes about three months for them to mature and begin the cycle all over again. (Photo: gravid female Red-legged Grasshopper  in late summer)

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Bagworm Moth Bags

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If you find a tiny (1/2″ long) bundle of stick-like pieces of vegetation clumped together into a “bag” that is attached to a structure, you have discovered the abandoned home of a bagworm moth larva, and the overwintering site of bagworm moth eggs. The bags consist of parts of the vegetation that the larva was eating and then bound together with silk.

In the spring, the eggs hatch and the larvae all leave and build protective cases, or bags, for themselves, inside of which they live while feeding, growing and molting throughout the summer. As the larvae increase in size, they increase the size of their bags. Eventually the larvae attach the bags to branches, trees, etc. and pupate within them. Female bagworm moths are wingless, and thus are confined to life within a bag for their entire lives. Upon emerging, adult male bagworm moths seek out the females and mate with them before perishing. After laying eggs inside their bags, females exit and die.

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White-margined Burrower Bugs Soon To Hibernate

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White-margined Burrower Bugs (Sehirus cinctus) are true bugs, members of the order Hemiptera. The red and black bugs in this photograph are immature nymphs and have molted once. Their coloring serves as a warning to would-be predators that they are at the very least distasteful, and possibly poisonous. Adult White-margined Burrower Bugs are roughly ¼” long, and black with a white margin (not visible in photo) along the edges of their forewings.

These bugs feed on the seeds of plants in the mint and nettle families. Being true bugs, they feed not by chewing but by piercing seeds with a sharp beak, injecting digestive enzymes, and then sucking in the partially digested food.

White-margined Burrower Bugs are fairly unusual for non-social insects in that the mothers provide care and provisions for their young, much like social insects such as ants, paper wasps and honeybees. The adults dig shallow burrows into which they place a supply of seeds and lay between 120 and 150 eggs next to the seeds. They guard their eggs and brood and bring more seeds as needed for 1-3 days after the eggs hatch. At this point, the young bugs can forage for themselves.

Adults dig down into the leaf litter in late fall, where they overwinter and emerge next spring ready to mate. If you see a large cluster of White-margined Burrowers Beetles, do not be alarmed, as they do not bite nor are they interested in eating anything but species of mint and nettle.

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Greater Fritillaries

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There is a group of butterflies known as greater fritillaries, or silverspots (their underwings often have multiple silver spots). Three species of greater fritillaries can be found in the Northeast: Great Spangled, Atlantis and Aphrodite. All three are similar in appearance, with differences so subtle that the butterfly in a Naturally Curious post last month was mis-identified as a Great Spangled Fritillary, when it was actually an Atlantis Fritillary. Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader, Sue Elliott, this was brought to my attention. If you can approach a fritillary close enough to see the color of its eye, identification is a snap! Great Spangled Fritillaries have amber-colored eyes, Atlantis Fritillaries have blue-gray eyes, and Aprhrodite Fritillaries have yellow-green eyes. Can you identify the two species of fritillaries that are pictured? (Upper right, on thistle – Great Spangled Fritillary; main photo, on Joe-Pye Weed – Atlantis Fritillary)

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Praying Mantises Mating & Laying Eggs

9-18-16-praying-mantis-laying-eggs-by-ba-reaIn the fall, after mating, the female praying mantis lays up to 400 eggs in a frothy foam; together the eggs and the foam they are encased in are called an ootheca. This one to two-inch long mass is attached to vegetation, usually about a foot or two off the ground. Eventually the frothy structure hardens, providing a protective case for the eggs.

In the spring, miniature (wingless) mantises, called nymphs, will hatch from this egg case. When hatching, the nymphs appear all at once, crawling from between tiny flaps in the case and then hanging from silk threads about two inches below the case. They are identical to adult mantises, except that they lack wings. Within an hour or two, after drying out, they disappear into nearby vegetation.

A  video of a praying mantis laying her eggs and of the young mantises hatching can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K2BPg7iNZA .

Thanks to Ba Rea, of Bas Relief Publishing (http://basrelief.org/ ) for the use of her West Virginian egg-laying mantis photograph.

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Milkweed Tussock Moths

9-6-16  milkweed tussock moth larvae 20160830_1764Milkweed 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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