Every year I receive questions about this unusual-looking insect which is often found on and in houses in the fall. As a result, I publish a post about it every couple of years. For those of you with good memories, please excuse the repetition.
Roughly 30 years ago Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) started moving east. They are now well established coast to coast. Here in the East they seek shelter during the winter, often choosing to share our domiciles with us. Fear not – though they look fairly menacing, they will do you no harm. Western Conifer Seed Bugs do not bite or sting, and in their semi-dormant condition they do not feed or breed. If you choose not to co-habit with these bugs, be forewarned. When disturbed, they can emit a noxious smell.
In the spring they will vacate your house and feed on the sap of the young cones and flowers of conifers, including Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine, White Spruce and Eastern Hemlock. Mating takes place, eggs are laid and the young nymphs feed on conifer seeds which they find by detecting the infrared radiation that the cones emit.
These bugs are also called “leaf-footed bugs,” and if you look at their hind legs you will see that a section, the tibia, is flattened. Some species display this specialized leg structure during courtship, and others may use it for defense purposes.
Every fall Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) grow skin-like fringes called pectinations on either side of each toe. They serve as snowshoes, helping grouse stay on top of the snow when walking, as well as cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes.
Ornithological texts describe these growths as appearing in the fall, but usually do not specify exactly when they develop. A recent look at a road-killed grouse’s foot (photo) showed that pectinations have begun to develop, but have not completed their growth. The pectinations shown here will double their length by the time snow flies.
If you look on the underside of the leaves of a Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) tree at this time of year, you often find light-colored, raised bumps, commonly referred to as Hackberry Nipples Galls. The creatures responsible for these growths (through chemical interactions with the leaves) are a group of small insects called jumping lice, or psyllids, which resemble miniature (1/6 “ long) cicadas, with their large eyes and wings held roof-like over their backs.
Adult Hackberry psyllids emerge in September and October from the galls they have formed and seek shelter for the winter, often in the cracks and crevices of tree bark. Because they are attracted to lights and can often fit through the mesh of window screens, these insects also seek shelter in houses. Although considered a nuisance by some, Hackberry psyllids do not sting, nor do they carry disease. They pass the winter as adults and when they break dormancy in the spring, the psyllids exit houses, tree bark fissures, etc. and lay eggs on the emerging leaves of Hackberry trees. After the eggs hatch, the young psyllids start feeding, stimulating abnormal growth in the leaves, forming small pockets, or galls, surrounding the insects. The psyllids spend the rest of the summer sucking on tree sap safely within the protective galls before exiting in the fall. As a rule, these insects do not cause serious damage to their Hackberry tree hosts.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is named after the male’s red patch on the top of its head, which is barely discernible (see photo) unless the bird is excited or agitated. Often the only glimpse you get of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet is the constant flicking of wings as it actively forages in shrubs and trees for insects or fruit. Keep an eye out for this tiny bird (one of North America’s smallest songbirds) as this is the peak of its fall migration from its breeding grounds in Alaska, northern New England and Canada to southern U.S. and Mexico.
While perhaps not as impressive as the square miles of fields and trees that have been totally covered in spider webs in New Zealand, Pakistan, Tasmania and Southern Australia over the past year or two, New England does have its share of fields adorned with spider silk. The silk in foreign lands was the result of spiders ballooning (floating aloft on gossamer they spin that is lifted by the wind) in spring – an effective means of dispersal. The silk we see highlighted in fields in the early morning dew of autumn in New England serves as webs, or traps, for unsuspecting insects. A majority of these webs are made by grass spiders, many of which weave a horizontal sheet of silk that have a funnel often on one side leading down to a spider hide-a-way. When vibrations alert the spider to a potential meal that is caught in its web, it rushes out, injects the insect with digestive enzymes, and drags it back into its retreat where it begins to feed.
Northern New England is quieting down. Many birds are migrating; turtles, frogs, toads and snakes are soon to seek their winter hibernacula; insects have laid eggs or are overwintering in sheltered spots. Naturally Curious is also making a seasonal change. From now until the end of March there will be three posts a week – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Come spring, a five-days/week schedule will resume.