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Insects

Mantisflies Preying

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There is a small group of insects (family Mantispidae) known as mantisflies, so-called because of their resemblance to small praying mantises. Climaciella brunnea (pictured) is the most commonly encountered mantisfly in the Northeast. Not only does it have the grasping forelegs of a praying mantis, but it also mimics a paper wasp.

A newly hatched Climaciella brunnea larva attaches itself to an arachnid host, preferably a wolf spider. It lives off the blood of the spider until the spider lays eggs, and then the larva positions itself so that it gets wrapped up in the spider’s egg sac along with the eggs.   Once inside the sac the larva feeds on the eggs until it pupates. The adult mantisfly emerges and preys on other insects, often those visiting flowers, and consumes nectar and sap as well. Although they lay an enormous number of eggs, mantisflies are relatively rare.

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Stink Bugs Preying On Insects

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Shield-shaped stink bugs (Pentatomidae) are fairly distinctive looking and smelling. Their common name comes from the presence of scent glands that open on their thorax, discharging pungent compounds over a wick-like surface near the bug’s hind legs. These compounds serve as a chemical deterrent for would-be predators, and also as an alarm for other stink bugs.

About a third of the 200 North American species of stink bugs are predaceous – they actively hunt and kill their prey. (The other two-thirds are plant feeders.) After spearing the prey with its piercing mouthpart, or beak, the stink bug injects digestive enzymes into its victim. These enzymes help liquefy tissues in the body of the prey and a muscular pump in the head of the stink bug enables the bug to suck nutrient rich liquid from its prey. Many predaceous stink bugs are major predators of webworms, tent caterpillars, Colorado Potato Beetles and a number of other insects that are considered garden pests. Unfortunately, non-pest species, such as the monarch caterpillar (see photo) are also subject to stink bug predation.

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Insect Populations Decline In Number And Diversity

6-27-18 common milkweed IMG_7097Thirteen years ago I went and sat in a field full of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The photographs I took of insects visiting the fragrant blossoms ended up being the subject of my first children’s book, Milkweed Visitors. The number and diversity of invertebrates in that patch of milkweed was astounding. Over a decade later I find milkweed flowers alarmingly free of insect visitors. I first noticed this several years ago, and unfortunately the trend has continued. An occasional honey bee or bumblebee, perhaps a swallowtail butterfly or a red milkweed beetle or two can be seen, but nowhere near the number or variety of insects that you found just a few years ago.

Recent studies show that insect populations are declining dramatically not only in milkweed patches, and not only in North America, but in many parts of the world. A global index for invertebrate abundance showed a 45 percent decline over the last four decades. (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies). Researchers say various factors, from the rampant use of pesticides (in particular, neonicotinoids), the spread of monoculture crops such as corn and soybeans, urbanization, and habitat destruction contribute to this decline.

This phenomenon affects everything from pollination to the documented decline in bird populations that feed on flying insects. However, thus far, only the decline of honey bee populations has received widespread public attention, in large measure because of their vital role in pollinating food crops. The rest of the insect world has been widely ignored. Insects play a major role not only in pollination but as predators of insect pests and as food for birds, amphibians and bats. Who knows how many plant species live in symbiotic relationships with highly specialized insects.

Given the importance of insects for agriculture, biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, one hopes that studies regarding the decline of insects will increase in the near future.  We can all contribute to a greater understanding of what is happening by participating in “citizen science” projects which undertake monitoring of specific insect species. A list of such projects and how to get involved can be found at https://xerces.org/citizen-science/.

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The Emerald Euphoria Beetle: A Distinctive Scarab

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Beetles comprise almost 40% of described insects and 25% of all known animal life-forms. There are about 30,000 beetles known as scarabs or scarab beetles in the family Scarabaeidae. They make up about 10% of all known beetles. You may be very familiar with scarab beetles without even being aware that that is what they are – they are as close as the nearest Japanese Beetle or June Bug (beetle).

Scarabs are generally oval-shaped and stout. The smallest are about .08 inches and the largest (Hercules beetles) can reach 6.7 inches. Most scarabs are black or brown, but many, especially tropical species, have bright colors and intricate patterns. They have distinctive, clubbed antennae composed of plates called lamellae that can be compressed into a ball or fanned out like leaves to sense odors (see photo). Their diet is extremely varied and includes plant material, fungi, fruit, carrion, insects and even the slime left by snails.

One fruit- and flower-eating species is the Emerald Euphoria beetle, Euphoria fulgida (pictured). It is usually bright green or bluish. Emerald Euphoria beetles belong to the subfamily Cetoniiae, the flower or fruit chafers. One of its most distinctive characteristics is its ability to fly (using its second pair of wings) while its first pair (the hardened, colorful elytra) remain closed — most beetles open and extend their elytra during flight.

Unlike most scarabs, Emerald Euphorias are diurnal, making it possible to see this species visiting flowers in order to consume nectar, pollen and petals.  (Thanks to Richard Wyatt for photo op.)

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March Flies Emerging

5-30-18 march fly_U1A4814If you’ve been spending time in fields and meadows recently you may have been witness to the mass emergence of a species of fly known as the March Fly (Bibio albipennis). Their common name is a misnomer, for they are usually seen in April and May in the Northeast. The hatching of March Fly eggs in the soil produces larvae that feed mostly on decaying organic matter. After the larvae pupate and emerge as adults, you find dozens of flies clinging to grass and other vegetation.

Another species of fly in the same genus is known as “Lovebugs,” due to the habit of the males remaining “plugged into” the females during long copulations. Entomologist Stephen Marshall has this to say about their presence in southeastern U.S.: Even though adult Bibionidae are innocuous non-biting insects, the sheer number of fornicating flies fouling car windshields, pitting paint jobs and clogging up radiators renders Lovebugs a well-known Bible Belt nuisance.

The male and female March Fly are sexually dimorphic, differing in appearance. Like many other flies that form male swarms, the males have large heads with massive eyes. The females’ eyes are much smaller. Both are common on flowers and can be significant pollinators of fruit trees.

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Blister Beetles Mating

5-9-18 blister beetles mating_U1A1519Blister beetles derive their name from the fact that they secrete a yellow blood-like substance called hemolymph which contains the blistering compound cantharidin. Severe burns and even poisoning can occur if the quantity encountered is large enough. (Baled hay containing the carcasses of blister beetles can be lethal to livestock that eat it.)

Defense isn’t cantharidin’s only function, however. Cantharidin is secreted by the male blister beetle and given to the female as a copulatory gift during mating. Afterwards, the female beetle covers her eggs with it as a defense against predators.

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Snow Flies Appearing

1-29-18 snow fly IMG_9481It always comes as a surprise to see tiny creatures moving nimbly over the surface of the snow. However, there are quite a few insects and spiders that do, thanks to the glycerol that they produce in their body fluids that keep them from freezing. The Snow Fly (Chionea sp.) is a type of wingless crane fly.  Most likely its lack of wings is due to the fact that at sub-freezing temperatures it would be very hard to generate enough energy for maintaining flight muscles. They (along with other flies, mosquitoes and gnats) do have two vestigial wings called halteres, the little knobs on the fly’s thorax. They inform true flies about the rotation of their body during flight, and are thought to act as sensory organs for the flightless Snow Flies.

Throughout most of the year Snow Flies can be found in leaf litter, but come winter the adults emerge, mate and lay up to 200 eggs. The lack of predators such as dragonflies and most insect-eating birds makes winter a relatively safe time for Snow Flies to be out and about. Their life span is about two months, during which time they drink by pressing their proboscis against the snow, but they don’t eat.   (Snow Fly in photograph is a female, measuring less than ½”.)

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