Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bagged Worms

Young bagworm - 1/3" including the case
An accidental find prompted me to update the 2016 blog below.  I got off my ATV at the house, took my backpack inside, and when I returned I saw a little dead vegetation on the seat.  Then I saw it move.  I had been swimming in the creek and thought it might might be a caddis fly larva but when I picked it up, it was hanging by a 6" silk thread.

Bag construction with petiole extending downward
Under magnification, the bag and "worm" combined measured 7mm (1/3").  The bag consisted of green and dried brown leaf fragments and what appeared to be strands of hyphae or even bits of lichen.  There was a straight rod of a dried leaf petiole that kept the case propped up when it traveled on a straight surface.

Crawling along the twig.
After filming it across a flat surface, I set up an obstacle course with a twig propped up 30 degrees on a rock and videoed its progress.  The bagworm consistently tried to move away from the camera which was the only big threat on the table.  You can see the video on Youtube here.

Bagworms, (aka bagworm moth), are the larval stage of one of the approximately 1350 species of the Psychidae family of moths.  They lead a sheltered existence with only the adult male emerging to fly off to find a female.  The wingless female remains "vegetating" in her case of plant parts, releasing her perfume to attract the male.  He will generally mate with her by inserting his abdomen into her case.  She will deposit her eggs in the bag and drop to the ground to die.  In some cases she will retain them in her body when she dies and they will hatch inside her.  Either way, she makes the ultimate sacrifice to perpetuate her species.
Male bagworm moth -  David E. Reed

A search for pictures of the male moths brought up some images of  beauties which are apparently only Australian species.  Our varieties are best described as drab.

Most of the online resources are focused on eliminating bagworms as a pest or worse on urban trees.  In our dense oak-hickory forest they are not a concern.  I enjoy finding them.  Who can't love a little "worm" that crawls around slowly in its little grass shack.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Phoebe and the Cowbird

"Mom!  Any old mom, I'm hungry!
Linda Bower sent me a note along with a link to a You tube video she posted.
"A cowbird parasitized a phoebe nest that is located by my front porch. Phoebe parents are rearing a cowbird instead of their own babies. I'm disappointed and it is hard to watch the insects from my yard and tiny pond (dragonfly larvae) getting eaten, but this cowbird chick is as cute as it can be."
First, I would encourage you to watch her video with the perfect musical pairing of Mozart's Eine Kleina Nachtmusik.

The highlights for me were the recognizable insects and the size of them that the cowbird chick managed to stuff down.  In one late sequence, the chick, which we named Mozart, has a big wad of butterfly apparently stuck while the phoebe tries to ram an additional insect into its craw. 

Serving seconds

In addition to seeing the diversity of insects the phoebe collects, you will get a close look at the nest sanitation habits of the bird.  Mozart extrudes the fecal sac when fed or sometimes even before.  Frequently it backs up over the edge of the nest to drop it down and other times the phoebe collects it as it comes out.  In case you missed the recent fecal sac description, I repeated it below.*

Until now I have never found anything to love about brown-headed cowbirds aside from their melodic liquid call, a musical gargle. They are brood parasites, leaving their eggs in other birds' nests where the new mother doesn't recognize them and raises the cowbird as her own.  Since the cowbird egg can hatch earlier and the baby is larger, it hogs the adoptive mothers attention. The cowbird chick may even attack the nest mother's own eggs.

This parasitic strategy was important when cowbirds followed bison on the prairie, harvesting insects, and were on the move daily without time to build a nest.  Many prairie bird species recognized their eggs and tossed them out.  Now that they are no longer migratory, cowbirds have moved into our urban areas where there are close cropped grasses, cropped by lawnmowers rather than bison.  Here they find nests of bird species that weren't prairie species. These naive birds aren't familiar with the dastardly habits of the cowbird and frequently lose their nestlings to the parasitic cowbird young that they don't recognize.

I dare you to go back and view the last of the video again.  Linda's timing of Mozart's "final movement" at 5:32 is absolutely brilliant!

*  "A fecal sac (also spelled faecal sac) is a mucous membrane, generally white or clear with a dark end, that surrounds the feces of some species of nestling birds.  It allows parent birds to more easily remove fecal material from the nest. The nestling usually produces a fecal sac within seconds of being fed; if not, a waiting adult may prod around the youngster's cloaca to stimulate excretion."  Wikipedia

Linda referred me to this article if you are tempted, like I have been, to remove cowbird eggs or chicks.  In addition to being illegal, Audubon offers a rational argument for letting nature take its course.

Now for extra credit, see if you can identify the insects.  I edited a version of her video at this link showing just the food deliveries.  The challenge is to identify all twelve in order.  When you are through, compare it to the answer list below, but NO Cheating!

     1.   Moth
    2.    Hackberry Emperor butterfly
    3.    Dragonfly larva
    4.    Grasshopper
    5.    Dragonfly larva
    6.    Green Dragonfly larva
    7.    Damselfly
    8.    Dragonfly larva
    9.    Orange Sulphur butterfly
    10.  Dragonfly larva
    11.  Caterpillar, small, maybe a sawfly larva
    12.  Green caterpillar

 Other opinions will be cheerfully considered.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Life in a Curled Leaf

I recently noticed several Carolina buckthorns by our drive along Bull Creek had leaves that were curled up lengthwise. There are a lot of caterpillars that will roll up leaves as a shelter, but when I unrolled these there were small dark ants in side, 3 to 5 per leaf.  It was only on looking at the photographs on the computer that I noticed the aphids that clustered along the middle leaf vein.

Aphids use their long slender mouth parts to suck fluids out of the leaf, causing it to curl.  This produces a shelter from their natural predators like lacewings and lady beetles.  The aphids produce a sticky secretion called honeydew and that is where the ants come in.  Some species of ants will actually farm aphids, protecting them from predators in exchange for the food.

Although aphids have no significant predator defenses, they make up for it by reproducing in volume.  A leaf curl aphid lays eggs that over-winter, with young male and female aphids appearing in the spring.  After that a female will give live birth to 3 to 4 baby aphids per day, all producing females until she lays a batch of eggs with both sexes in the fall.

I find that aphids are hard to photograph, generally they are only one color and in this case green on a background of green.  Their pear shaped bodies and tiny legs are hard to capture.  Their distinguishing feature is the pair of tube like structures called cornicles that stick out their hind end.
Image result for aphid
Aphid with brown cornicles giving live birth - Wikipedia

I sent photographs to James Trager, my favorite myrmecologist, (word for the day- ant scientist).  He identified this species as Crematogaster cerasi, a species of acrobat ant.  A distinguishing characteristic of Crematogaster is the heart shaped abdomen.  The "acrobat" comes from its building of nests primarily in trees.  Other common names are the Valentine ant (see above) and cocktail ants because of their habit of raising their abdomens when alarmed.

These were very hard to photograph because of their frenetic activity, constantly
scrambling over the leaves.  After many tries, I finally used the lid to a bug box  because the trough around the edge could hold water to corral them.  I finally used a drop of honey to attract an ant for its portrait.

Most of the resources online are about how to control aphids.  Only we select few must be interested in their place in the food web.  RESPECT THE APHID!

Detailed information on this ant is at
If you followed saw the Goatweed Leafwing blog last week, you will want to see Chris Barnhart's  updated photo essay with new footage of cats eating and the pupae that resulted, good stuff.  See it here. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Spicebush Swallowtail

Caterpillar in a folded leaf
David Middleton* dropped off a pair of little spicebushes, Lindera benzoin, by the front door in Springfield.  Barb was watering them a few days later when she noticed some leaf damage.  Several leaves were folded up, and peeling the leaves apart she found that  spicebush swallowtails (SST) caterpillars had already gotten to them.  This was rather incredible as we had never seen an SST in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood was built in the 1970's with the usual non-native foundation plantings and only lately have we converted our yard to native species, creating a little oasis in a native food desert.

SST are common along Bull Creek where we have lots of spicebush in the valley and wooded hillsides.  Up in the forest where we also have loads of their alternate host plant, sassafras.  This female must have been on the prowl away from the Nature Center a mile away.  This proves once again that "plant it and they will come."

This early instar was hidden in the fold.
The early instars are darker with white stripes on the first and eighth abdominal segment although this one couldn't count.  This is a variant of the "bird poop" appearance, thought to help the cat hide from predators.  I can't account for the brown lump on the eye spot.  It resembled a mite but was present on both sides.  No other on-line photographs have one.

 Not every folded leaf will have a caterpillar.  Another leaf on the plant held a common earwig, Forficula auricularia.  This European native first hit North America in 1907.  Like many invasive species it has its good and bad sides.  It is an omnivore that can eat flowers and fruit crops and cause leaf damage.  On the good side, they have been shown to feed on various pests such as aphids, scale insects, psyllids, and midges, and likely would be happy to eat a SST caterpillar.

The final spicebush instar starts out green with a prominent eye spot, then turns yellow just before it forms a chrysalis.  It will spin a thread to support it as it hangs on a plant in a position to emerge (eclose), inflate and dry its wings and fly off to find a mate and start the life cycle once again.

Hanging by a thread - Chris Barnhart

*We get some of our native plants from David and Jenny Middleton at

Visit the Bill Roston Butterfly House at  the Springfield Botanical Gardens where you may get to see SST on the wing.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Giant Leopard Moth

I recently captured on camera a frequent visitor to our deck, the beautiful Giant Leopard Moth (GLM), Hypercompe scribonia.  We have been collecting "porch light moths" in preparation for a future project in moth identification.  We leave our porch light on overnight and photograph what lands on the siding of the house.  Others can "collect" by black lights, sodium lamps with sheets, etc., but all get the view of a moth and the other "bugs" attracted to light as they appear in nature.  Occasionally we get lucky with a picture in a natural setting as I did in 2011 below.

In the early morning on our west facing wall before the sun hit it, I was photographing it with a flash.   Reviewing my pictures I saw small blue-green iridescent spots on the dorsal thorax that I had never seen before.  None of the common views on line showed this but I found it described on the University of Florida Entomology site.  With magnification there were similar colors on the legs and antennae .

After a little chilling in the refrigerator I got it to sit still for a side view.  That exposed similar colors on the posterior dorsal abdomen.  It is interesting that most online photographs of GLM don't show the iridescence.  None of my photos over the last few years had shown them until I used a flash, bringing out the reflective scales.

   Donald W. Hall
The GLM has one brood in the north and two broods in the south.  The caterpillar is a "woolly bear" caterpillar, similar to our more familiar two-toned Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar which "forecasts" our winter weather.  It too can accumulate glycerol as antifreeze to tide the late instar over the winter.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Goatweed Leafwing

Goatweed leafwing - now you see it...... you don't - Paul Prappas
One of my favorite butterflies is the goatweed leafwing, aka goatweed emperor, Anaea andria.  It overwinters as the adult form, hiding under loose bark or other shelters, emerging on the occasional 50 degree winter day to fly around, startling a hiker with its bright orange wings.  Follow it until it lands and it  disappears, folding up its wings to look like all the other dead leaves.  That is the same strategy that a cottontail rabbit uses, flashing its white tail until the freeze pose with its tail tucked out of sight, just another brown thing in the brown winter woods.
"Gee whiz, it really smelled dead!" -  Chris Barnhart
The adult butterfly doesn't visit flowers but gets its nutrition from decaying fruit and animal droppings.  It does make exceptions for blossoms such as Ptelia trifoliata and the pawpaw pictured above.  These flowers are usually pollinated by flies and beetles, attracted by their odor of dead animals!

Building a frass chain - Chris Barnhart
Chris Barnhart introduced me to the caterpillars.  This includes building rigid frass chains that they can climb onto for protection away from the leaf.  (Frass = insect poop to those of us perpetual 5th graders.) 

I was going to write about the goatweed's life-cycle until Chris sent me his link to his incredible photographic essay.  It shows all the stages such as their rolled-leaf shelters including a video of a caterpillar backing into one like a semi-truck at a mall.  Go straight to this link.

Visit the Bill Roston Butterfly House at  the Springfield Botanical Gardens where you may get to see one of these offspring on the wing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Longnose Gar

I received this picture from Holly Welch. Her family was fishing in the Pomme de Terre River, catching freshwater drum, redhorse sucker, channel catfish, multiple bluegill, green sunfish and longear sunfish. The most interesting catch of the day came when her son Caleb started trying to catch little minnows in his hands. He was successful, but it turns out the catch above was not a minnow at all. Even though it was just an inch long, they recognized that it was a longnose gar.

The longnose gar, Lepisosteusosseus osseus, can live from 11 to 20 years with females living significantly longer than males. They are also called needlenose gar and the tip of the nose is smaller than the diameter of their eye.  The largest gar in Missouri grow to be 5 feet, although it is much more common to find gar in the 3 feet range. 

Females hold an average clutch size of about 27,000 eggs. The eggs have a toxic, adhesive coating to help them stick to substrates, and they are deposited onto stones in shallow water, rocky shelves, vegetation, or even smallmouth bass nests.  A study done in Missouri showed that their eggs are very toxic to terrestrial vertebrates, but other fish could tolerate the toxins.  Newly hatched young have an adhesive disc by which they attach to submerged substrate. Young feed on zooplankton until they are 1 to 2 inches in length after which time they feed mostly on other fish, and an occasional crayfish and insect. 
Longnose Gar - Missouri Department of Conservation
Widely distributed in Missouri, they are found in nearly every major stream and impoundment in the state. Typically they inhabit sluggish pools and backwaters of streams and deeper, open-water areas of lakes. They feed by laying motionless in the water until a fish passes, then use their long toothy jaws to quickly snap onto their prey.

"Longnose gar were a main source of food for Native Americans and early colonists. The first settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, dined on this fish through their harsh early years.  Today, gar is more of sport fish, but their meat is surprisingly tasty." Wikipedia

They are listed as a non-game fish in Missouri. This means there are no seasons or limits and they can be taken by hook and line, snagging, gigging or even by atlatl! Generally they are of no economic importance although there has been a commercial fishery for gar in Arkansas (hold the jokes please). Gar skins have been used for purses and other coverings. Their hard rhomboid scales take on a fine polish and were used by Native Americans for arrow points and decoration. Now they are primarily taken for sport.

More details on longnose gar are at