Thursday, July 20, 2017

Life and Death on the Prairies

Faking a broken wing

By Becky Swearingen, MN
 I love the prairies, as anyone who follows my adventures knows. Part of the mystery is that nature is not always pretty and not always kind.

I had been watching a Killdeer nest at Talbot Conservation Area for several weeks, alerted to its presence by the adult's broken wing displays. When you get too close, the adult leads you away by hopping along, dragging a wing in a pitiful fashion, until you are some distance away from the nest. It usually will flash its bright tail feathers to be sure you are following, then may fly rapidly away, looking over its shoulder and laughing.
Changing of the guard, shading the nest in left foreground
I was anxious to follow the hatching of the eggs and watch the little Killdeer skitter around looking for food. I looked and looked for the nest and finally found it in plain sight. As usual, the parents had just scraped out a little area in the gravel by the parking lot and laid the eggs in it. The parents were vigilant about guarding the nest. Here they are switching off duties, which, because of the heat actually involved shading them more than sitting on them.
Parent shading the three eggs
I was excited when a friend texted me one morning that he was at Talbot and the eggs had hatched. He was watching two of the chicks as they ran around exploring and feeding. I arrived and there they were – two Killdeer chicks with their parents.
Find the chick
But where was the third chick? When I finally located it, I thought it was strange that it was separated from its parents and siblings. It would walk a little bit and then lie down in the grass.

As I was watching it I was sitting in my car and my friend was standing next to the car. The chick then did the oddest thing. It ran very purposefully toward my car and got under a tire and lay down.
A "tire-d" little chick
Looking for shade, shelter or just suicidal?  I knew that wasn’t the safest location for it, so I got out of my car and gently picked it up to move it back into the grass and closer to its parents.  I had noticed that both the parents and the two other chicks had disappeared. The parents had taken them into the taller grass. I set the chick down in the grass closer to where I had seen the parents, expecting them to return at any moment to retrieve the baby.

Killdeer parents are very attentive. We waited for several minutes and the parents never returned. I decided to go check on the chick and when I did, I discovered it was dead. I think the parents had determined that this little one was struggling and abandoned it to focus their energies on the two healthier chicks. This one appeared to be smaller and less energetic than the two other chicks.

As I left this area, I stopped by a second Killdeer nest I knew of. That mother had been sitting on three eggs just a few days previously. When I got to her next, I noticed that she was now down to two eggs. Life on the prairies seems so serene, but it is a daily struggle for the animals who inhabit it.

On a happier note, after I had driven around the Lockwood area for a while I decided to stop by Talbot on the way home to check on the Killdeer family. As I mentioned, they last time I saw them the parents had moved them into the taller grass, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to see them. I was so happy when I found them out in the open by the water with the parents. The two surviving chicks were busy exploring their new world.
Mother was close by supervising them. Life moves on. I hope for the best for these two little ones.
Editor's note
 Killdeer chicks are precocial, meaning that they exit the egg with eyes open and their track shoes on.  For more on how this happens and how egg in a nest laid days apart all hatch the same day, see this article.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bleeding Spider


I received this gift of a spider to identify.  There had been two of them, possibly mating only this one couldn't get away.  It was in a jar and was having trouble getting around with a noticeable "limp," dragging its two front legs.  We couldn't decide if it was trauma related or possibly a male victim of a female's post-mating snacking.

Big eyes on top, four below
Click to enlarge
The first step in spider identification is to look into their eyes.  Getting one to sit still for a facial photograph can be a chore but this one wasn't moving well so I got a full frontal view.  The arrangement of eyes can be diagnostic of the spider's family using tables such as the one on  The slightly concave arrangement of the 4 lower eyes suggested Zoropsid family but they don't occur in the Midwest so I was left with the possibility of a saggy Wolf Spider whose eye pattern is usually more convex.

Of more interest to me was the clear fluid which was on the table.  Close up I could see blebs on a leg and just behind the chelicera on the right side of the cephalothorax.  My friend didn't think it was injured during the capture so this likely was from the other spider.  I suspect that these were drops of spider hemolymph, i.e. spider blood.  This gets a bit complicated so stick with me (or move on to cat videos on Youtube).

Spider's blood is different from  mammal's blood.* In humans and other mammals the oxygen is bound to hemoglobin, a molecule that contains iron and gives the red color to blood cells. In spiders and some other arthropods, such as crustaceans as well as most mollusks, the oxygen is bound to a different molecule called hemocyanin that contains copper instead of iron.  The hemocyanins are proteins in the lymph rather than in blood cells, colorless in the reduced or deoxygenated state while oxidized copper gives a blue/green color to the oxygenated blood. Therefore spiders have clear to pale "blue" blood.

Spider's respiration is far different from insects.  This from the American Tarantula Society explains it far better than I can:
"The exchange of O2 and CO2 in insects is accomplished by an often complex system of air tubes, made up of trachea and the smaller tracheoles. The air tubes suffuse through the body in close contact with insect tissues. Hemolymph components are not needed to assist in gaseous exchange between the tissues and the air tubes. This point is driven home when you consider what happens with some insects, such as certain grasshopper species. When on the move, the blood is apparently being circulated around the body sufficiently, because the heart stops beating. The swishing around of the blood caused by movement is enough for the hemolymph to fulfill its function, which is largely distribution of nutrients, water, and the movement of wastes to the malpighian tubules for removal (roughly the insect equivalent of kidneys). The heart begins beating again when the insect stops moving."
Most spiders and insects are so small that any blood produced by squishing them is never noticed.  The exception is from an insect that is sucking your blood.  The take away is if it is red after you swat it, it was your blood!

Spider blood
Spider respiration
A recent article caught my attention by mentioning that most of us have fewer bugs splatting on our windshield than we did 20 years ago.  For those kids reading this, a 30 mile car trip in the "old days" left the windshield covered with spattered insect bodies.  Is something more serious going on?  Read this on Where have all the insects gone?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Innocent White Moth

Walking a trail on an overcast day I spotted a small white moth on a leaf.  After a quick photograph it started to drizzle and I clipped off the branch to inspect later.  The next morning the moth hadn't moved until I nudged it but it still hung on tight.  There was a fuzzy white patch on the underside of the leaf and a smaller one under the moth when I bent the leaf.  I could see a mass of eggs and surprisingly the moth didn't fly off.  After photographing it I kept it for a week with the now dead moth clinging to the leaf.

Eggs in underside of leaf

This is the Fall Webworm Moth, Hyphantria cunea.  WAIT!   Before you hit the delete remembering those hated masses of silk on your tree during their big year in 2016, follow along to know thine enemy.  After mating H. cunea lays around 400 eggs on the underside of a leaf.  The eggs are bright green in many pictures but also described as "hair-covered masses of several hundred each" in others.  The hair comes from the female's body.

The female typically clings to the leaf until she dies, in this case covering her last batch of eggs.  I checked the leaf daily and on day 8 a few caterpillars emerged.  these were black-headed, typical of the spring hatch.

Emerging caterpillar
Empty egg cases

After filming them, I took the now dry crisp leaf out to a small elm tree and clipped it onto a fresh leaf.  The next morning they were crawling over a portion of the new leaf, eating the top green surface only.  You can see one emerge in this video.
Leaving the eggs
Skeletonized leaf - University of Florida
The larger next instar will eat both surfaces of the leaf leaving the structure of the leaf with no surface cells.  The final instar completely skeletonizes the leaf, eventually leaving only major veins, a view hidden by the ugly webs we all hate.

Dinner for the first instars

More on the subject is at this University of Florida link.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bathroom Fly

Bathroom Fly - Clogmia albipunctata - REK
Side view - REK
In line with our policy of presenting the good, the bad and the ugly, here comes old ugly.  We have noted these tiny flies in our bathroom at the creek house for years.  They are very hard to photograph, measuring only 2mm (less than 1/10").  Bathroom lighting is poor and when I get the camera lens close they fly off.  I caught several in a kill jar which yields only twisted specimens.  That said, I finally got a couple of "good enough" photographs to identify them.

C. albipunctata on the wall - REK
Once again, using my post-retirement entomological training, I Googled "Bathroom fly" and came up with a rapid answer of Clogmia albipunctata, aka bathroom fly.  They are in the Moth Fly family, Psychodinae.  They have hairs on their wings which will shed like scales and long segmented antennae.  Our C. albipunctata (white spotted) is the only member of its genus in North America and has distinctive white antennae and white spots on the edges of wings and tips of leg segments.  It is a common synanthropic species throughout the temperate and semi-temperate world.
C. albipunctata larvae - Ashley Bradford

C. albipunctata pupa  - Ashley Bradford
A synanthrop, Greek syn-, "together with" + anthro, "man," is a plant or animal species living selectively near humans and prospering when they find a stable habitat with food, protection and in more recent years a relatively stable temperature range.  These range from house flies, silverfish and cockroaches up to larger species such as house sparrows, pigeons and brown rats.  Some species such as pigeons can no longer make a living without us.  The moth fly family is now found on all continents except Antarctica, probably transported by the movement of human populations.

Until we came along, C. albipunctata probably lived in moist decaying plant and animal matter.  Societies have brought garbage collections, water containers like rain barrels and fire pits, air conditioners and cooling towers and clogged roof drain pipes.  Better yet are all the kitchen and bathroom drains with traps that can hold the gelatinous egg masses.  These are resistant to flushing, hot water, soap and many drain disinfectants and cleaners.

On hatching the larvae feed on algae, bacteria, fungi, microorganisms, and are a welcome addition to wastewater treatment plants.  The cycle from egg to adult is 7 to 28 days with more of the gory details here.  Ashley Bradford has a great series of their life cycle at this Bugguide link and has good closeups of the adult.

Wikipedia has good suggestions for control of our population.  Our source is likely the shower drain and I will collect specimens with a clear glass jar inverted over it.  It will be getting special attention, once I have been able to collect larvae  and possibly eggs to raise.  (Editor's note - "GROAN!!)

Since the above was written, I failed to trap specimens from the shower and sink drains.  Ashley suggested the grout around the shower.  The tree farm house here is "rustic", a polite way to say poorly built with the bathroom partially below ground level and always damp. I suspect there are tiny little signs in the foundation cracks outside that say, For a good time big boy, come on in here. Free food and fermented beverages!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bee Flies

Bee fly
I saw this little fly flitting around me on the deck on Saturday.  It wouldn't hold still for a picture but I was able to get it in a bug box and chill it for its blog debut.  I sent it in to Bugguide and within 24 hours had an ID of Hemipenthes spBeyond their information, I couldn't find any other details on the genus.

According to the Hemipenthes genus page, its name means "half veiled in black", a good description of the wing pattern.  They range from 6 to 12 mm (mine was 9mm) and have short metallic hairs on the thorax and/or abdomen.  Like other members of the bee fly (Bombyliidae) family, they are ectoparasitoids, laying their eggs near the eggs or larvae of solitary bees, beetles, wasps and other insects.  The bee fly larva lives off the victim, eventually killing it.

Halteres - REK
Bee flies are in the Diptera or true fly order, the common names always separate (think "house fly").  When you see the name one word (think "dragonfly") they belong to another order.  Diptera means "two wings", separating it from the other orders that have two pair of wings.  The posterior set of wings are modified to clubbed sticks called halteres, extending from the thorax.  These vibrate with the wing beats, sending messages to the fly about its position and balance, acting like a gyroscope.  That is one reason they are so hard to swat!

Just when I thought I was through, our friend Debbie sent me this photograph to ID.  I used my years of training and experience to identify it within a minute.  (My secret:  Google "black bee fly", look at "images" and it was the 5th on the page.)  This is a Tiger bee fly, Xenox tigrinus.   Like other members of the family, it doesn't sting or bite.  We don't even know what the adult eats!  The good news for homeowners is that it specializes in parasitizing carpenter bees. 

Carpenter bees drill smooth holes in wood to lay their eggs in, and have been working on our cabin beam.  Fortunately they don't cause significant structural damage and they are good pollinators.  Still, if the Tiger bee fly wants to feed its young, I will send it our address.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Swinging Fly

Grabbing pollen - Linda Bower
I was intrigued by a video that Linda Bower sent me.  It showed what appeared to be a wasp clinging onto milkweed, swinging like Tarzan with its front legs.  You can see yellow chunks of pollen on its other four legs and I assumed that it was grabbing the pollen grains.  Chris Barnhart informed me that it is actually the pollen grabbing the insect's legs, hitching a free ride to the next flower, an innocent purveyor of plant sex.

This "wasp" is actually a male Thick-headed Fly, Physocephala tibialis, of the family Conopidae.  Most of this family are convincing mimics of thread-waisted wasps (Sphecidae).  They feed on nectar and like bees gather pollen incidentally.

Thick-headed Fly, Physocephala tibialis  - Molly Jacobson
More from Linda:
"This is no ordinary fly! As a parasitoid, this species of Thick-Headed Fly (no common name) deposits its eggs into Bumblebees. It catches the Bumblebee mid-flight, sometimes falling to the ground, the fly inserts a single egg between its abdominal segments. The larva will slowly eat the Bumblebee alive, beginning with the non-essential tissues first. The larva forces the Bumblebee to dig itself into the ground so it can overwinter as a pupa (this is called adaptive manipulation). Adults feed on nectar, as shown in this video of a male filmed on Common Milkweed in the Missouri Ozarks, USA, June 27, 2017. Some clips are in slow motion, none have been sped up."
Stylogaster sp. of thick-headed fly with long ovipositor - MJ Hatfield
Inserting an egg under the exoskeleton of a flying bee is no mean trick.  It is accomplished by the specialized ovipositor which acts like a "church key" on a beer can (before pop-top cans for youthful readers).  The eggs of some species also have a barb, functioning like a harpoon that stays in the bee.

There are a lot of interesting details about how the fly cuts its way out of the pupa and how the bee is tricked into burying itself in the ground.  (Hint - it is adaptive manipulation).  I would explain that, but our friend the Bug Lady does it much more entertainingly in this UWM Bug of the Week blog.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Master Naturalist Training

Like what you see on the blog?
Want to get involved in learning and promoting nature?

Live in the area around Springfield Missouri?

If you think you might be interested in joining the Springfield Plateau Chapter of Master Naturalists, here is your chance.  We will have a new training class this fall.  To learn more, come to one of the two Orientation sessions this month.  Attendance at one of them is required before enrolling in the course.

Where:   MDC Southwest Regional office,
               2630 Mayfair, Springfield, MO

Tuesday, July 11, 7-9PM
Tuesday, July 18, 7-9PM

Attendance at on orientation is a prerequisite for attending the training.

An interesting read:
Just when I thought that choosing paper over plastic is a personal answer to holding down plastic pollution, I read this.