Monday, July 4, 2022

Milkweed Life

Red Milkweed Beetle - Tetraopes tetrophthalmus - Ben Caruthers

Everywhere you come across the word milkweed in the press it is tied to Monarchs.  The butterflies’ populations are down from loss of milkweed because of extensive roadside mowing, herbicide use and monoculture farming in rural areas.  This has led to a major effort to grow milkweed in parks, other public spaces and even our yards.  It turns out that this isn’t the first time that Americans have been encouraged to grow milkweed.

There was an earlier program during World War II to plant and harvest milkweed. The seed pods were collected and shipped to central collection stations. Milkweed floss is over 5 times as buoyant as cork and a lightweight life jacket was both effective and easy to store. It was also warmer than wool and 6 times lighter, perfect for aviators flying over the ocean.


Because milkweed is best known for being the obligatory host plant for Monarch caterpillars it is easy to forget about the value of milkweed in nature. There are several species native to Missouri. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) grows in the easter 2/3rd of the United States. To the 450 species of insects that feed on it, it must look like Walmart. 


In our back yard a lot of other insects can be found on the plants. The Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, has orange stripes. This bright aposematic color advertises its accumulation of toxic chemicals from the plants and say “don’t even think about eating me!” As true bugs (Hemiptera) they go through 5 juvenile life stages, all resembling smaller versions of the adult.





 Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars also collect toxins as they chew away on the leaves. You would think that predators would look at all those hairs and say “yuck!” The adult moth also makes ultrasonic clicks to warn bats and others to stay away.


The Southern Milkweed Leaf Beetles, Labidomera clivicollis, are again brightly colored and pick up toxin, but they believe in moderation. They will cut the vein of the leaf to drain out some of the sticky milky sap before chewing the leaf.

Milkweed Aphids, Aphis nerii, feed on the sap and get a little chemical protection.  They can push noxious secretions out their little tailpipes called cornicles.  Scientific studies have shown that when this secretion is applied to a spider's mouth parts, it will retreat and wipe its mouth (and presumably make a terrible face!)  This shows that the secretion is an effective deterrent.  It also suggests that some entomologists have way too much time on their hands.

Looking at the ant above you might think these aphids are toast but they actually have a more interesting relationship.  The aphids suck sugary phloem from the plant and excrete excess sugary secretions which may collect on the plant.  Ants get this nutritious drink from the aphids and it protects them. In return the ants tend the aphids almost like a farmer with dairy cattle.

Meanwhile back to the butterfly.  Monarchs spend the winter in Mexico, then fly north to the southwestern states where they mate, lay their eggs on milkweeds and die. Their caterpillars munch, grow, shed their skin 5 times then form a chrysalis and emerge to fly north. They do this through three generations, each time settling down where milkweeds are in season.   

Then a miracle occurs and the last migratory generation flies back to the Mexican forests which their great-grandparents migrated from last spring!  They will live there for up to 9 months before starting the cycle again.  How they find that wintering spot without a GPS, no one knows.


More on common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is here.


Friday, June 24, 2022

Leatherwing with Boots

I have been seeing these beetles in our wafer ash patch and then had this beautiful picture by Becky Swearingen jump out at me on Bi-State Bugs.  In the past I had seen similar colored Pennsylvania Leatherwings, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus, but the pattern wasn't right.  This is the margined leatherwing beetle, Chauliognathus marginatusIt appears in late spring and will be gone by mid-summer, about the time that the Pennsylvanians first appear to inhabit their favorite plant, goldenrods.

Mating Pair - REK

Without Becky's camera or talent I had to get the lens too close, causing them to scurry away.  I chased this mating pair, finally giving up and capturing them.  After refrigeration, they slowed down so I could photograph them separately.

Leatherwing female - REK
Leatherwing male - REK

  Pennsylvania leatherwing-Clay Nichols



The coloration is confusing as the most prominent feature, the broad black stripe down the elytra is variable, ranging from prominent and full length to a short spot on my two specimens and sometimes even completely absent.  The margined species have a yellow head with a black "V" while the Pennsylvanians have an all black head.  The black patch of the pronotum (back of the thorax) extends full length rather than being just in the center on Pennsylvanians.

Leatherwings get that title because of their soft flexible elytra wing covers which are hard in most beetles.  The family are also referred to as soldier beetles because of their bright colored "uniforms".  They nectar on flowers as well as feeding on small insects and their eggs. While the Pennsylvania Leatherwing is usually found in the fall, the Margined crawl are out in early summer.  Following mating, they lay their eggs in the soil and ground litter where their larvae will feed until their fall pupation.


Pollinia afoot -  Kareninnature

Pennsylvania leatherwings crawl around nectaring on the milkweed flowers and get yellow globs wedged on their feet.  These are paired sacs of pollen called pollinia.  These wedge tenaciously to the beetles' feet making walking awkward.  Because they are able strong fliers they can carry their load to nearby flowers where they leave them like a kid with muddy feet.  Rather than dusting individual pollen grains, the sacs of pollen are left in an opening on the next plant.

Beetle boots - Charley Eiseman

There is a risk in this strategy.  A variety of milkweed pollinators can get stuck by the leg if the pollinia is too firmly attached.  You can occasionally find a dead insect hanging by its leg, paying the ultimate price for nectar described in this video.

More on the trap at this site.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Slimy Feast

Mature, spore-releasing stage of Stemonitis - Becky Swearingen

This beauty is a Chocolate Tube Slime Mold, Stemonitis splendens, captured by Becky Swearingen on the wooden steps outside her patio.  Wikipedia says:

"Slime mold or slime mould is an informal name given to several kinds of unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can live freely as single cells, but can also aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures. Slime molds were formerly classified as fungi but are no longer considered part of that kingdom.[1] Although not forming a single monophyletic clade, they are grouped within the paraphyletic group, kingdom Protista."

Early Stemonitis before reaching maturity - Mark Bower

CTSM is found on rotting material, normally spreading on the forest floor but is frequently described around houses and even clogged air conditioners. 

"Slime molds form structures called plasmodia which are naked (i.e. without cell walls) masses of protoplasm which can move and engulf particles of food in an amoeboid manner.  Slime mold plasmodia creep about over the surfaces of materials, engulfing bacteria, spores of fungi and plants, protozoa and particles of nonliving organic matter.  At some point plasmodia convert into spore-bearing structures, in this case into a clustered mass of stalked sporangia."

Sporangia - Wikipedia

When stressful conditions such as our current heat and humidity occur, they form fruiting bodies, tubes to release spores into the air.  You can see Becky stroke the sporangia to release the spores in a video below.

The food chain continues as it always does in nature:

"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,  and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.   And great fleas themselves, in turn have greater fleas to go on: While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."  Augustus DeMorgan


Look carefully at her photograph below to see CTSM's specialized predator.


Did you find the predator?

"When the fruit bodies consist of milky white sporangia, they are a favored food source for Philomycus slugs (mantleslugs), such as P. carolinianus  and P. flexuolaris.  The slugs emerge at night from under flaps of bark and migrate to more exposed areas at the top of wet logs, bypassing more mature, pigmented fruit bodies for the younger white ones.  The slugs eat the sporangia stalks from the top down.  The feeding preference of Philomcus slugs for immature white sporangia is not seen in other slug species."

You can watch a slug chewing away at the slime mold below the fruiting bodies which are not to their taste in Becky's video.   You can also watch Stemonitis grow on this video by Chris Barnhart.


Philomycus slugs use "love darts" in their mating.  This is a family friendly blog but you can read about them at this Wikipedia link.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Prairie Bioblitz


Margined calligrapher, Toxomerus marginatus, on a pasture rose, Rosa Carolina

We had a great time at this year's Missouri Prairie Foundation Bioblitz on the newly named Thoh-Dah Prairie in St. Clair County.  One of the many sessions was an insect program guided by Eric (aka Bugeric)* and Heidi Eaton.  With 14 sets of eyes we were constantly making new finds.  Unlike when we are out on our own, we had immediate identification down to genus and species.

There are 860 crambid snout moth species north of Mexico so we didn't dive into identifying them to species.  MDC has more details here.


Watching an experienced entomologist work was a joy.  I still struggle with how to hold insects like a grasshopper.  This orange-winged grasshopper, Pardalophora phoenicoptera, held in the right hands makes it easy to photograph for identification.  I would have a handful of parts if I tried to show its parts in detail.  Here is an expert demonstrating the vivid colors of the inside of its leg.

Likewise this looks like an "orange wing" to me but Eric can show it to be a totally different species, the Plains yellow-winged grasshopper, Arphia simplex.  This may look like a small detail when we are walking on the prairie but it is critically important to the male grasshopper.


There were lots of smaller insects to be found.  One of my favorites was this family of aphids, not identified to species.  The adult was agitated with the disturbance and flapped its wings in annoyance at the lack of privacy as seen here.


Finally we saw this deadly predator hop into its burrow to avoid our heavy feet.  Our herpetology expert, Jamie Leahy, identified it as an American toad, Anaxyrus americanus. It was licking its lips at the prospect of eating some of our finds as seen here.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation is a dynamic organization, not only preserving prairies but running Grow Native! and The Missouri Invasive Plant Council.  They have an excellent set of informative videos at this link.  A good place to start to sample these is this Betsy Betros session.  You may be familiar with her book,  A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Region which is our go-to resource.


*Eric (Bugeric) Eaton has a blog listed in the sidebar of this page.  He and Heidi have just moved to the midwest and we hope to see more of him.  Meanwhile his book Wasps is full of details about their rich life and is highly recommended.  His Insectopedia has just been published and I am awaiting my copy in the mail any day.  His current blog has even more on the Thoh-Dah prairie bioblitz.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Cranefly - Not a Mosquito


We found this crane fly clinging on the screen door.  I was able to get in in a bug box, unfortunately giving it a below the left knee amputation in the process.  After 30 minutes in the refrigerator it was ready to pose for pictures.  The photos below sent to iNaturalist got us to the subgenus Platytipula but no further.  Worldwide there over a thousand species in the fly family Tipulidae so I stopped here.

Crane fly male - one set of wings and 5 1/2 legs

Crane flies and hangingflies are similar at first glance as both have extremely long legs and tend to be found hanging on plants.  They are easily separated as crane flies have only one set of wings like all the other true flies or Diptera.  Hangingflies are in the order of Mecoptera (aka scorpionflies) and have two sets of wings.  Diptera species replace their second set of wings with tiny halteres, the little appendages with knobs at the tip that you see behind the wings.  Wikipedia describes them below:

"Halteres oscillate rapidly along with the wings and operate like vibrating structure gyroscopes:[2] any rotation of the plane of oscillation causes a force on the vibrating halteres by the Coriolis effect. The insect detects this force with sensory organs called campaniform sensilla and chordotonal organs located at the base of the halteres[2] and uses this information to interpret and correct its position in space. Halteres provide rapid feedback to the wing-steering muscles,[3] as well as to the muscles responsible for stabilizing the head.[4]"


Female Tipula have a pointed ovipositor at the end of the abdomen that looks like a stinger.  This is used to push their eggs into the soil.  Males have a blunt swollen end segment like ours here.  Like many other flying insects, they spend most of their life as eggs or larvae, rising into the air for a few days, just long enough to mate and reproduce.

Crane flies are sometimes called mosquito hawks or daddy longlegs.  The internet has lots of links by people confusing them with giant mosquitoes or even suggesting that they eat mosquitoes (they don't).   Adults feed on nectar while their larvae live on decaying wood and vegetation.  This can include the roots of turf grass, leaving some brown patches in an otherwise "perfect lawn."  Pesticide spraying kills a lot of beneficial insects and pollinators so we would suggest just relaxing and enjoying the dainty visitors.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

iNaturalist to the Rescue


Barb found this green lacewing on the window screen and had me photograph it.  I sent it to iNaturalist and came up with the first ranked choice of a red-lipped green lacewing, Chrysoperla, rufilabris.  None of the identifying anatomical features below that they described could be seen on this view.  

"C. rufilabris are distinguished from other members of the genus found in North America by the broadly red genae, pointed apex of the fore wing, black gradate crossveins, and spinellae on the male genitalia."

I put it in a bug box and left it in the refrigerator for several hours, then photographed it close up.  It measured just 9 mm in body length.  A quick Google brush-up on insect anatomy reminded me that the red genae is the "lateral part of the head of an insect or other arthropod below the level of the eyes."  "Red-lipped......Bingo!"

Lacewings are members of the Chrysopidae family.  The larvae eat soft bodied insects and specialize on aphids, earning the nickname "aphid lions."  The adults' diet varies by species, some being predators and others consuming pollen and nectar.  I couldn't find any other details specific to my red-cheeked friend.


On a related subject, the Seek phone app in the iNaturalist family is a great tool.  It doesn't report data unless you are registered with iNaturalist so it is safe for children to use.  I just discovered the scan feature which makes identification possible without even having to take a picture.  It was able to identify 16 of the native species in our yard ranging from columbine to elderberry and prickly pear cactus.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Strange Trees

A friend of ours mentioned a "marker tree" she had seen along Red Bridge Road.  Also called thong or trail trees or trail marker trees, they refer to trees that were culturally modified intentionally by Native Americans.  The common interpretation is that they were to mark or point in a direction of a trail or other finding.  There are some who debate about how often or even if they were created by Native Americans.  On the other hand some sources identify tribes in the east and north that are said to have used trees as markers.

This particular tree measured 16" DBH (diameter at breast height).  Using a growth factor to calculate its estimated age it would be at most 80 years old.  Considering that the Osage tribe was moved out of the Ozarks in the 1830s, it couldn't be a marker tree.  Also they were said to be located in a prominent place to be seen at a distance.  This one is growing on a slope steep enough to challenge a mountain goat where I had a hard time even finding it.

Where ever you stand in the debate over the existence of marker trees, it seems unlikely that they were created in the Ozarks.  Proponents say that they marked prominent trade routes and valuable shared resources in dense forest.  The open grasslands and woods created in the Ozarks by regular burning by the Osage and earlier tribes makes the need seem unlikely.  Also, young trees flexible enough to pull down would have to grow for years to become prominent in the landscape while enduring the repeated burning of the forest floor.

A wind or icing event or a dead tree falling over a young tree can produce a "thong tree" with phototropism prompting the tree to reach skyward to find the sunlight.  In spite of this accident of nature, "Life just wants to be," and the tree struggles on to reach for the sun.  You can see a variety of trees that live on in spite of damages by nature in the album of distorted trees at Bull Mills.