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Insects

Black Blister Beetles Consuming Asters

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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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Fall Webworms

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For several weeks white webs on the tips of branches have been apparent on many trees.  These silken tents are the work of the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea), a moth most associated with its larval stage. Fall Webworm caterpillars construct a web over the end of a branch, enclosing leaves on which they feed.  As the hairy, white caterpillars grow, they enlarge the web to encompass more leaves, with tents sometimes extending two to three feet.

Often mistaken as the work of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, the tents of these two moths can be distinguished by the season they appear (ETC are active in the spring, Fall Webworms in the fall) as well as the location of the tents (ETC are usually in the crotches of trees, Fall Webworms at the tip of branches). As soon as the eggs hatch in early summer, the Fall Webworm larvae begin to spin small silk webs over the foliage of the deciduous trees on which they feed (over 90 species). By fall the tents are conspicuous. A look inside one  reveals caterpillars, dead partially-eaten leaves, and fecal droppings.

The larvae feed together inside the increasingly large web for roughly six weeks, at which point they often start feeding independently before pupating in the ground over the winter and emerging as adult white moths the following summer.

If your favorite tree has one or more Fall Webworm nests in it, there’s no cause for alarm. These caterpillars may defoliate a tree occasionally, but rarely kill it, and usually only build tents on a handful of branches, if that. The larvae have more than 50 natural predators and 36 parasites that help control them. Also bear in mind that Fall Webworms do not eat the buds of next year’s leaves and the leaves they are feeding on will soon to drop to the ground. Next year leaves will appear on the currently affected branches with no sign of last year’s damage.

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Second Brood of Snowberry Clearwing Moths In Flight

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Clearwing moths are strong and fast fliers with a rapid wingbeat, like the other members of the Sphingidae family. Most species in the group are active at dusk and feed much like hummingbirds, hovering in front of a flower and sipping nectar through their extended proboscis.  In most species, the larval stage is called a “hornworm” because the caterpillar’s posterior end has a horn-like appendage protruding upward.

Like its close relative, the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is a day-flying moth, has transparent wings and is a mimic.  While they both hover at flowers, the Hummingbird Clearwing is said to mimic a hummingbird, while the Snowberry Clearwing is considered a bumblebee mimic.  To distinguish these two clearwings, if it has black legs and a black band that crosses the eye and travels down the side of the thorax, it’s a Snowberry Clearwing.

In addition to thistle, adult Snowberry Clearwings feed on honeysuckles, snowberry, hawkweed, lilacs and Canada violets. (Thanks to Barbara and Knox Johnson for photo op.)

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Viceroys — Master Mimics

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A plump caterpillar is irresistible to many insect-eating birds, and some of them (notably Viceroys and Giant Swallowtails) have outfoxed their predators by assuming the appearance of bird droppings, which one assumes is a far less appealing meal.  They do this using color, pattern, choice of resting place and even position – contorting their bodies to match the shape of bird droppings. The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) uses this technique during its later larval and pupal stages.

The adult Viceroy butterfly also uses mimicry to enhance its survival, but it mimics another butterfly — the Monarch — not bird droppings.  Both the Viceroy and the Monarch are unpalatable and contribute to each other’s protection from birds with this strategy, a relationship known as Mullerian mimicry.

In New England there can be up to three broods of Viceroys, with the larvae of some of the second brood and all of the third brood overwintering and pupating in the spring.

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larvae Maturing

7-23-18 Abbott's sphinx moth_U1A2632The larvae of sphinx moths, commonly called hawk or hummingbird moths, are easily recognized by the horn, eye spot or hardened button that is near the tip of their abdomen.  Most readers are probably familiar with the larval stage of tobacco and tomato hornworms (Carolina Sphinx Moth and Five-spotted Hawk Moth, respectively) which are found on tomato plants. A less observed sphinx moth, Abbott’s Sphinx Moth (Sphecodina abbottii), can be found on grape and Virginia creeper vines.  As a larva it molts several times and assumes three different appearances by the time it pupates.

Abbott Sphinx Moth larvae start out green, with a horn near the tip of their abdomen, like most other sphinx moths. However, when they are about half-grown, they turn blue-green and the horn develops into an orange knob (see inset).  In the last stages before they pupate, the larvae molt and the knob turns into an “eye,” complete with a black pupil and encircling iris.  The finishing touch is a white reflection spot that makes the eye appear moist and shiny.  At this point, the larvae may be either brown with a “wood-grain” pattern (resembling grape vines, a host plant) or brown with ten pale green saddles along the back (thought to resemble grapes).  Pictured are the second and third stages of a brown “wood-grain” Abbot’s Sphinx Moth larva.

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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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