Saturday, August 31, 2013

Stink Bugs

You know you married a naturalist when she carries a little plastic box to bring home bugs from the garden.  Last week there were two stink bug gifts for me to check out.  Worse yet, I was pleased with the gifts.

Sometimes the identification of even commonly seen bugs can be difficult.  There is agreement on the name green stink bug but from there it gets a little contentious.  The green stink bug, Chinavia hilaris, is my first choice based on appearance and the little black spots along the edges.  It is the most commonly encountered stink bug in the US.  ID confirmed

Our Stink Bug- rkipfer
N. viridula  4th Instar- Wikimedia
Another contender is the southern green stink bug, (Nezara viridula), thought to have originated in Ethiopia but it is now found world wide, mainly in tropical and subtropical climes.  They are generalists but seem particularly attracted to the bean family, feeding especially when they are forming fruit or pods.  Early instars can be quite colorful.

C. hilaris Stink Gland- Cotinis

The distinction between these is based on the location and shape of the stink gland on the ventral (underside) of the bug.  It takes dedication and breath-holding to identify this.  Robert Coin has good closeups of C. hilaris which you can view odor free.   A Bugguide closeup shows N. viridula's stink gland orifice. 

Many stink bug species communicate by vibrating a leaf with their own species and sex specific "song" as described in a previous blog.  "When ready to mate N.viridula sound 100Hz vibrations with a tymbal composed of a fused first and second terga that allow bi-directional communication to any Nezara standing on the same plant so they could find each other." Wikipedia
Stink bugs feed by stabbing their needle-like proboscis into the plant, injecting toxins that damage the tissue.  Depending on the site of injury and the degree of physical and chemical damage it may just wound or even kill the plant.  Fortunately, in our garden these were apparently minor wounds.

Euschistus sp.
Euschistus sp. of brown stink bugs are native but that doesn't mean they are more desirable in your garden.  The most common species is the brown stink bug, Euschistus servus.   They are quite prolific, the females producing 18 egg masses, each with 60 eggs on average.  Multiplied by multiple generatons (5/year in Florida), their voracious appetite and strong flying traits and you have real trouble.  Fortunately lots of parasites, pathogens and predators such as our favorite assassin bugs act to keep the numbers in check.

Stink bugs eat our favorite plants, feed other insects and eventually their stored energy passes on to birds and higher predators.  It all works out in the end.
Green stink bug eggs- Chris Barnhart

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Garlic Mustard - the First Spice?

Garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata is a major invasive species spreading across the US.  It inhibits growth of tree seedlings and other plants with it allelopathic chemicals.  It was brought to the Western Hemisphere as a familiar herb, and now new research suggests that it was the first known European seasoning from prehistoric times.

A story in PLOS One describes the findings of remnants of garlic mustard in carbonized food products in the bottom of pots dating from 5750 to 6,100 years ago, roughly 4,000 B.C.  As it has little food value, the researchers postulate that it was there for its value as a spice.  Its flavor is, as you might guess, a blend of mustard and garlic.

The description of the research is more easily understood in the article from the BBC.  While we eat the leaves, they postulate that the seeds were ground up and used.
"These deposits contained microscopic traces of plant-based silica, known as phytoliths, which can be used to identify the plants from which they came.  It was these phytoliths that provided the evidence of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the carbonized scrapings."
The history of the earliest added flavors to food is indistinct.  Spices may have been used in the Middle East earlier.  Coriander was found in a cave in Israel from around 23,000 B.C., but it hasn't been linked to food preparation or cooking at that time.  So, spice or herb?  According to Wikipedia "Culinary use typically distinguishes herbs as referring to the leafy green parts of a plant (either fresh or dried), from a "spice", a product from another part of the plant (usually dried), including seeds, berries, bark, roots and fruits."

If you aren't familiar with the plant that Barb loves to hate, look up the 2011 blog Cutting the Mustard for more than you want to know.  The only good news is that garlic mustard remains an interesting edible, the young leaves adding a nice bite to a salad or sandwich.  Linda Ellis has suggested that "Its flavor is just a plot to use humans to vicariously carry out it's evil deeds."  Remember, it convinced our forebearers to carry it across the Atlantic.

Details at this link. 
More on edible weeds and plants at
Thanks to Steve and Amy, the Fishin Magicians for the lead.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bird's Nest Fungi

Cyathus striatus
Gala Solari sent me this picture.  "Lots of the little fun guys growing in the mulch at the Dewey Short Visitor Center. They are about 1/4" each. You probably already know, but they rely on rain drops to splash the little spores (that look like tiny eggs) out of the"nest."

These little gems are bird's nest fungi, with 5 genera in the Nidulariaceae family.  They are saprophytic, feeding on dead wood and wood chips, helping the gradual transition toward soil.

Wikipedia has extensive technical information but for my purposes, explains them best.
"These odd and fascinating little fungi look for all the world like tiny birds' nests. The fruiting bodies form little cuplike nests which contain spore-filled eggs. The nests are called "peridia" ("peridium" in the singular), and serve as splash cups; when raindrops strike the nest, the eggs (called "periodoles") are projected into the air, and they latch onto twigs, branches, leaves, and so on. What exactly happens next is not completely clear, but eventually the spores are dispersed from the egg. They then germinate and create mycelia, which eventually hook up with other mycelia and produce more fruiting bodies."*
Gala's picture shows the distinctive fluted bird's nest fungus, Cyathus striatus, which is wide spread in temperate regions.  It is distinguished by hairiness and the grooves in the cup wall, resembling the paper around a cupcake.  In our urban setting it is commonly found in wood mulched garden beds.

A mushroom is the "flowering" part of a fungus, intent on getting its spores up in the air where they can be dispersed by the wind.  Many mushrooms have their spores below an elevated cap where they can fall downward.  In this case, when the egg is propelled into the air by the impact of raindrops, it rips open the funiculus and a tightly wound funicular cord spirals off like a spinning reel in free fall.  The sticky cord clings to a nearby plant or blade of grass, dangling the egg like a tetherball.  Its spores are then hanging up where the wind can carry them away.

* has an identification key.
Time lapse video from Cornell shows them emerging.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bee Assassin

Bee assassin with red milkweed beetle?- Kevin Firth
Kevin Firth sent me this picture of a bee assassin (Apiomerus crassipes) with what may be a red milkweed beetle. Although they are strong fliers, like all assassin bugs they tend to wait and ambush their unsuspecting insect prey, stabbing them with their sucking beak.  They first inject digestive juices into the prey, both paralyzing the victim and starting the digestion process in their victim.  They then suck out the innards like a big milk shake.  Consider this paragraph a part of your neglected weight loss program.

Although bee keepers consider them a major threat, no studies have been done to show that they affect the population.  They usually are found perched on stems and leaves, not the best place to catch a bee.*  Most of the pictures I found on the web show them with other types of insects, mostly bugs harmful to your garden.

That said, they are certainly capable of taking down a bee.  Their hunting strategy is to use a sticky substance, possibly collected plant resin on their strong front legs, which helps them to grab and hold onto bees. They are considered a beneficial insect by all but bee keepers and an occasional gardener who picks one up or otherwise annoys it.

Bee assassin with small bug- Patrick Coin

   Patrick Coin

*  Details at Texas Master Gardeners

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Plants Play Defense

Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails, 
That's what little boys are made of.

Snail- an armor coated slug- Wikimedia
Bob Korpella posted an story on slugs, snails and plants on his always interesting website.  Some plants seem to wait to release their predator defenses until there is a threat of attack.

Plants aren't able to run away from predators but have evolved a number of defensive mechanisms to fend off assaults, such as thorns and toxins.  Animals likewise can evolve ways of evading these defenses.  The whole process reminds me of when radar detectors were the rage.  The companies that made them also developed new forms of radar, then sold the heavy footed driver the latest new detector as they developed and even stealthier radar gun.

All lifeforms are deeply involved in the production of energy to reproduce.  Fighting off predators, running away or even producing a toxic chemical diverts precious energy from growth and reproduction.  A plant with a defense chemical that it can make of demand could save some of its energy.

Snails and slugs, which are snails without the hardware covering, leave a trail of slime as they crawl around, a source of fascination to little boys.  These are generalist herbivores, eating a wide variety of plants but they are especially fond of mustard plants so common in nature.  John Orrock of the University of Wisconsin–Madison* has shown that pre-treating mustard plant seedlings or seeds with slime produced plants that were less palatable to the snails and slugs.  The plant seems to hold its chemical defenses in reserve until it senses danger.

C. Barnhart
Plants response to animal stimulus is well known.  They can release volatile chemicals which repel potential predators but can also serve as an attractant to others.**  Black swallowtail butterflies tapping their feet, equipped with olfactory sensors, elicit a chemical response from plants in the carrot family, telling them that it is a plant necessary for their caterpillars growth.  As long as there are a number of plants available, a little caterpillar damage on each plant is tolerable.  Too many cats on just a few plants in your garden may be a problem.

Milkweeds and caterpillars are a good example of this evolutionary battle.  The plant has hairs on the leaves to discourage browsing bugs and their milky latex fluid has cardenolide toxins to help protect it from attack.  The monarch butterfly caterpillar is adapted to the toxin and even absorbs and concentrates it to protect itself from other predators.  Now studies indicate that "more recently evolved milkweed species use less of these preventative strategies, but grow faster than older species, potentially regrowing faster than caterpillars can consume them." Wikipedia

Species that are closely associated like milkweed and monarch are said to be co-evolved.  Monarchs require milkweed for their caterpillars to eat and grow.  They would disappear in a world without milkweed.  They have reached a balance of powers and are unlikely to ever completely destroy each other.  We, on the other hand have developed our own defensive chemicals as well as monoculture crops, capable of wiping out enough milkweed to end the monarch migration.  Now if  we could only learn to use our chemicals sparingly, like some plants can.

*    Eavesdropping Plants Prepare to be Attacked
**  Extensive information is here on Plant Volatiles as a Defense against Insect Herbivores

Like butterflies?  Try planting some fennel and let it grow.  You may be able to watch black swallowtail caterpillars go through their growth stages and develop into the next generation.  They eat a little of your fennel, dill or golden Alexander, birds and other insects eat a few of the caterpillars and the cycle of life goes on right in your backyard.
Black Swallowtail- C. Barnhart

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Big Mosquito Year

Many people have commented that it is a bad summer for mosquitoes.  Actually it is a good year for them, a fact blessed by an Associated Press article.  We already knew this but now we know why.
"Two years of drought were followed by incredibly heavy rain this year. During dry spells, mosquito eggs often didn't get wet enough to hatch. This year's rain revived those, along with the normal 2013 batch."
The good news is that the drought gave us two years of fewer mosquitoes.  Cycles like this are the norm - just consider the fluxes in rabbit populations.  Over all, the average population numbers average out.  That probably isn't much comfort while you are busy swatting mosquitoes, or rabbits.

In further bad news, the current climate change will likely produce future bumper mosquito crops.  They thrive in the warm and humid conditions that are predicted for the next few decades.  Like deer and other wild things, they are learning how to get along with humans.  It should come a no surprise that some are developing a genetic resistance to DEET.  Given enough time, they may even learn to love it.  Ouch! And itch.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The White Grizzly of Missouri

I received the comment below from a blog reader, responding to last November's blog, Grizzly Bear in Missouri?  It concerns the presence of grizzly bears on the Missouri state seal.  This began an intriguing chase. 
"When I was a kid I heard a story of how the white grizzly bear was used on the state flag because of sightings during that era. Well a question of white grizzlies in MO was brought up today and I said it was true hardly remembering that story. Now trying to find info on the truth of it seems difficult. I was wondering if you could help me with this. Have you ever heard of white grizzlies in MO? Thanks, Andrew on Grizzly Bear in Missouri?"
Was there a documented white grizzly in Missouri history?  Why did it get called a "white grizzly" when they are brown on the seal?  And just why was there any grizzly on the state flag and seal?

The Centennial History of Missouri (1921) p. 195 has the following:
"the specifications for the great seal, as adopted by the legislature in January, 1822, are mystifying to the average democratic American but a delight to the students of heraldry."  It goes on to describe it in the flowery technical language of heraldry.  "Arms - parted per pale; on the dexter side, gules, the white or grizzly bear of Missouri, passant, guardant, proper;" *
It continues to interpret its supposed meaning.
"Quadrupeds are the most honorable bearing.  The great grizzly bear being almost peculiar to the Missouri river and its tributaries, and remarkable for its prodigious size, strength and courage, is borne as the principal charge of our shield."
It appears that the term "white or grizzly bear" was only meant to differentiate it from our black bear.  However, this name wasn't unique as it was mentioned in Lewis and Clark's expedition journals.  Bears encountered during the Lewis and Clark Expedition reports their descriptions of the common black bear in what is now Missouri.  They then encountered the "cinnamon bear."
"The classification of the cinnamon bear as a separate species is still a matter of doubt today, as it was for the expedition. Lewis and Clark were puzzled by the different-colored fur of this animal, calling it variously a brown bear or a reddish brown black bear. They knew of the variations of color in black bears brought about by age, moulting, and other factors, but so many differences in color confused them. According to the Nez Perce Indians, Lewis wrote, "the uniform redish [sic] brown black bear etc. are a speceis [sic] distinct from our black bear and from the black bear of the Pacific coast." During their return journey the party killed several cinnamon bears in May and June 1806 along the Clearwater River.
Long regarded as a subspecies of the black bear, the cinnamon bear was classified as a separate species (Ursus cinnamomeus) in 1893, then reclassified again as a subspecies, and then relabeled again as a full member of the black-bear family. Its current status is that of a subspecies (Ursus americanus cinnamomum)."
The expedition's journals called grizzly bears by different names at different times- "white yellow or grizzly bear - probably based on the fur color of the animal encountered."  The first mention of the grizzly in the expedition's journals is Lewis's note of September 1, 1804, when they were near Bon Homme Island, near the current Nebraska-South Dakota border.
"This clift [cliff] is called White Bear Clift, one of those animals having been killed in a whole in it." Tracks of a "white bear" were seen at the mouth of the Moreau River on October 7, 1804, but the first to be encountered was on October 20, 1804, near the mouth of the Heart River. Here William Clark recorded that the hunters wounded a white bear, whose tracks were "3 times as large as a man's tracks." 
Grizzly bears occurred in Missouri in the post glacial period, and within historical times in Western Missouri. ***  So is there a white grizzly?  The bears on the Missouri state seal are brown, equipped with the typical grizzly hump and a bit of a middle aged spread.  Aside from one report of a possible albino grizzly, there doesn't seem to be a white grizzly as such.

*    The Centennial History of Missouri is available as an eBook on line for free.
**  The remaining quotes are from the  Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition .

***  Wikipedia
8-29-2013 describes the 5th known occurrence of a grizzly bear eating a black bear. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Eight-spotted Foresters Pupate

Eight-spotted forester moth- Shelly Cox,
We discussed the eight-spotted forester moth, Alypia octomaculata, in a recent blog.  Roy Thompson had found them on a grapevine and took them home to raise them in a predator free environment.  Roy has a followup report on the outcome.

Preparing to pupate-Roy Thompson
The caterpillars have one special request before their last instars pupate - they require a nice soft bed to curl up in for the winter.  They normally use rotting soft wood to burrow into and are said to have learned to use styrofoam in the age of plastic.  Roy gave his caterpillars wood and foam insulation.

His caterpillars were apparently very conservative traditionalists as they spurned the softer insulation and bored into the wood.  After each cat dug in, it sealed up the hole with a wood like substance, leaving only a little crack (see the arrow).

After giving them time to pupate, Roy unroofed the wood from over one pupa's chamber as seen below.  It was tightly nestled in, safe from many predators although it would be easy pickings for a woodpecker.

They overwinter in these chambers then emerge from their pupae (think cocoon) around May and may be seen all summer.  In southern climes they may have two generations a year or even three occasionally.  Some that have overwintered may postpone emerging for several years, a feat called diapause which is found in some other moth and insect species.
"The timing of their emergence from the pupal case can be capricious. In 1977, an entomologist raised 80 caterpillars and ultimately got 50 pupae that he stored in a box at outside temperatures. Nine adults emerged in the spring of 1978; twenty-five emerged in 1979; four appeared in 1980 and one more the following year. So EsFMs, like a number of other moths in a variety of families, have the ability to remain in diapause (dormancy, a state of suspended animation during which development is delayed) for a considerable length of time. What triggers their exit is unknown." University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
  Shelly Cox
The eight-spotted forester moth is a beauty, a dramatic black with two pale yellow spots on the fore wings and two white spots on the hind wings.  There are bright orange markings on its two pair of front legs which Shelly at says reminds her of leg warmers popular in the 1980's.  Some think that these may serve to mimic a bee's pollen-laden legs.

As you can tell by the pictures, these are day-flying moths, and thus are frequently misidentified as butterflies.  Their thin antennae cause further confusion, lacking both the moth's typical feathered antennae and the knobs at the end of butterflies.

In recent years, humans have developed techniques for planned delivery of babies, but even we haven't figured out how to postpone the delivery for several years.  Mother Nature wins again.

There is a nice set of photographs of the eight spotted forester at

Gala Solari sent this picture.  Is it animal? Plant?  Geological?  An empty cupcake paper?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Flower from Space

Jeff Cantrell from our sister Chert Glades Chapter in Joplin tells me that this time of year their phone starts ringing with questions like “I have a flower that looks like it is from outer space”.   I had several guesses but the answer "popped" into my head after Barb and I walked along the trail at Close Gardens tonight.

Whole, mitten and gloved leaves- VTech
The maypop, Passiflora incarnata, is also known as purple passionflower, typically blooms this time of year, spread along the ground with runners or climbing upward when it finds a willing host or fence.  It requires full sunlight and grows in disturbed soil along trails and roadsides.  The leaves, like sassafras, vary between whole to mitten or glove shape, but usually are 3-5 lobed.  There are two nectar glands at the base of each leaf's petiole.

Maypop fruit- Wikimedia
The fruit is 1.5 to 3 inches in diameter, starting green but turning yellow when ripe.  Its names come from some unique characteristics of the fruit and flower.  Early Christian missionaries in the 1600s saw these as a good omen for their mission.
"When Christian missionaries arrived in South America in the 16th century, they found a plant which they felt was a good omen for their mission. They called it the passion flower because to them it symbolized the death of Christ. The five sepals and five petals of the flower, which are similar in appearance, represent the disciples without Peter and Judas. The double row of colored filaments, known as the corona, signifies the halo around Christ's head or the crown of thorns. The five stamens and the three spreading styles with their flattened heads symbolize the wounds and the nails respectively. The vines tendrils resemble the whips used to scourge Christ. "
Developing flower head- Rkipfer

The passionflower family members are the exclusive larval host plants for the Gulf Fritillary and also a host plant for the Variegated Fritillary butterflies.  The fruit which is actually a berry was a favorite food of early colonial settlers in the south, following the example of Native Americans in the area.

The whole plant has been used in herbal medicines and a benzoflavone extract tested in mice has proven to be an effective antianxiety agent and aphrodisiac.  Just where there are mice in need of an aphrodisiac is unclear, but it isn't in our house or barn.  It also has been effective in treating mouse withdrawal symptoms in drug, alcohol and especially cannabis (the active ingredient in marijuana).  Substance abuse hasn't been a problem in Bull Creek mice, although their anxiety from Barb's trapping program may lead to one .

Kevin Firth reports the following: "Carpenter bees absolutely love passionflower and I have noticed that when they nectar at the flower, the three stigmas are in a perfect position--the back of the bee scrapes right along them as the bee nestles in to the center of the flower, which must facilitate pollination" Sounds like they were made for each other.

Video of a passionflower blooming is at

Monday, August 12, 2013

Worms with Horns

One of the most common questions we encounter in the Butterfly House is "What are those green things with horns on my tomato's?"  This tobacco hornworm above had just finished decimating a pepper plant which in other garden's would merit a death sentence.  Instead it ended up with a chance to pupate and become the attractive moth it aspired to be.

There are two common hornworms which thrive in a garden setting.  The tobacco hornworms,  Manduca sexta, are found predominately in the south along the Gulf Coast states.  Tomato hornworms,   Manduca quinquemaculata  are a more northern species.  In the midwest there is considerable overlap, sometimes even on the same plant.  They both feast on solanaceous plants, predominately tomato plants and their close relative, the tobacco plant.  They occasionally will lower their standards and eat eggplant, pepper, and potato plants.

For those of us obsessive enough to identify the species of every tick crawling up our pant leg, identification of the separate species is easy.  Both have a "horn" on the top hind tip of the abdomen pointing backward.  It is red on the tobacco hornworm, black on the tomato variety.  More distinctive, the tobacco hornworm has seven white diagonal lines pointing up and back, while the tomato hornworm has "Vs", formed by a horizontal line at the base of each diagonal line.  I think of this as pointing toward the mouth as if to indicate that "I don't use tobacco!".

Tobacco hornworm- James Castner
Tomato hornworm- James Castner

Larvae hatching from eggs- Peter J. Bryant
The growth of these caterpillars is amazing.  Think of a tiny egg, not much larger that the period of this sentence.  A caterpillar, the first instar, emerges, chewing at its egg and then growing out of its skin through 4-5 more molts over 20 days, each time with emerging with a larger skin to accomidate its future size.  When the time is right the final instar will burrow into the soil and form its pupa.  There are usually two generations in Missouri, the second entering diapause, a dormant period as a pupa to overwinter, avoiding the frost.

The moths look quite similar at first glance.  The tobacco hornworm moth, M. sexta, (sexta=six) emerges as the Carolina Sphinx moth, seen on the leftNote that it has six spots on each side of its abdomen, the top one white.  The tomato hornworm M. quinquemaculatae (quint=5) ecloses as the five-spotted hawk moth, named for the five yellow spots on each side of its abdomen.

Tobacco- -Carolina Sphinx moth

Tomato- Five-spotted hawkmoth

If you grow tomatoes and peppers but like beautiful  hawkmoths like this one, here is a suggestion for when you find a horn worm.  Plant a tomato plant or two off to the side, possibly in a pot.  When you find a hornworm, transport them to your sacrifical plant and watch them grow.   For fun, feed them a tomato slice and watch their frass (poop to those under 12) turn red!

When they change color as above and reach full size, put them in a container with loose dirt, potting soil, spagnum moss or even some shreaded damp newspaper  or paper towels.  Throw in some tomato plant leaves every 1-2 days until they pupate.  Their time to eclose is variable.

Tomato hornworm moth  Peter J. Bryant

-  The University of Florida Entomology Department, John Capinera and Peter J. Bryant graciously permitted the use of their pictures to show side-by-side comparisons of these two species.  Their site has more detailed information.
-  There are good pictures of the larval instars at

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cicada Killer

Larry Wegmann
Larry Wegmann emailed me this picture of a large wasp-like insect he photographed in his garden.  Here is his description.
"This guy has found it's home among our impatiens in our backyard. It protects this patch from other intruding wasps.  I noticed in these pictures that this is probably a male wasp. If its his girlfriend he is chasing away from his nectar source, he needs a lesson in vinegar vs. honey. By the way I took these with my Nikon D90 with a 300 mm + 1.4 tele-extender = 420 mm lens.  I wish this guy would tolerate me getting close with the Pentax with high speed video.  He is very alert to my presence."
Larry had already identified it as a cicada killer, Sphecius speciousThe largest wasp in North America, it is fearsome in appearance but in reality it is more of a pussy cat.  They emerge from the overwinter cocoons in mid-July.  The female, twice the size of the male, uses her stinger to paralyze cicada and won't sting humans in self defense unless roughly handled.
Larry Wegmann
S. specious  with paralyzed cicada- Wikimedia
Following fertilization, the female cruises around, finding a suitable site to lay her eggs, then digs a burrow with one or more side chambers.  Next she patrols nearby trees until she find a cicada.  Once it is paralyzed, she struggles with the flight to carry it back to the burrow.  As the cicada will weigh twice her body weight, she may need a few rest stops along the way.  Once she has worked it into the chamber she lays her egg on it and closes the cell with dirt.  If it is a female egg, the cell usually will be provisioned with two cicadas as the larger female will require more resources to grow.

Velvet "Ant"- The Ant that Ain't
The egg will hatch in a few days and the larva will develop over 20 days and overwinter as a pupa in a cocoon.  The adults, their job complete, will die off over the fall, none surviving by the next year.  Meanwhile the larva is vulnerable to the same risk as its paralyzed cicada host.  Velvet ants, a.k.a. cow killers, Dasymutilla occidentalis, are actually furry flightless wasps.  They specialize in solitary ground nesting bumblebees and wasps. finding their nests and laying their eggs on the cicada killer larva for their own larva to feed upon.  From the cicada's point of view, this must seem like poetic justice.

Cicada Killer- Shelly Cox at MOBugs
Meanwhile the male cicada killer patrols looking for nectar and more females.  It will select a territory and defend it, flying up to inspect anything that comes near and fighting off other males.  Smaller than the female, they still are frightening but a hollow threat as they lack stingers.  The males are more likely to buzz us humans to be sure we aren't available females.  Larry's description above suggests his was a male.

Like all other animals, the cicada killer is a mixed blessing.  They are welcomed by our trees as they reduce the numbers of cicadas, a forest parasite.  The annual cicada likely don't see it that way.  They don't have any effect on 13 and 17 year cicadas which emerge in May and June, dying off before the cicada killers arrive.  With our neatly mowed lawns and loose flower beds providing both nectar and easy digging, it is no wonder that S. specious has learned to love the suburbs.  Keep your eyes open and you too may be able to follow this gift of nature.

Dick Walton's Natural History Services page has a great 4 minute video of cicada killers.
Extensive information on S. specious is available at Professor Chuck Holiday's page at Layfette College

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alianthus moth

Moth with toothpick to compare
Moths are supposed to be dull, right?  Someone forgot to tell the ailanthus webworm, Atteva  aurea.  We regularly find these small moths on the wall outside our deck door, drawn by the spotlight.  They would be better know if they were larger.  This one was attracted to the light at the FOG All or Mothing event at Bull Mills.

Chris Barnhart relates that it had no common name at the turn of the century.  Its range was restricted to Florida, spilling over some into the Gulf states and southward, feeding on native plants in the Simaroubaceae family.  These are predominately tropical trees and shrubs with one-seeded winged fruit and bitter bark.  The primary host was the Paradise Tree found only in southern Florida down to northern South America.

So why are they commonly found in the Ozarks and along Bull Creek?   We moved them north, more or less, by importing Ailanthus, the notorious invasive Tree of Heaven we described in a past blog.  This Asian import, brought to North America in a misguided effort to raise our own silk worms, is a member of the Simaroubaceae.  It spread widely with no significant predators and little regard for Northern climate.  The Atteva  aurea webworm found it delicious and has successfully chased it across the continent, to a degree that it achieved its new common name, "Ailanthus webworm".

Ailanthus webworm- Photo by Auerilas
It does not tolerate cold winter and migrates each year from warmer climes.  I suspect that our recent mild winters have contributed to their increased frequency.  They lay eggs in a nest of several leaves pulled together by a web of silk.  The caterpillars then eat the leaves of the Ailanthus, although not sufficiently to impair the spread of the trees.  We have only seen the Tree of Heaven once in our valley, but there are likely more in the woods growing undetected.

 Chris notes another weird thing about the moth is that some of them appear to have just 4 legs, like the one he photographed at the top of the page, while others have 6 legs.  Of 283 specimens pictured on Bugguide, only 4 show 6 legs.

In addition to being colorful model for macro photography, they are pollinators to a number of flowers.  And anything that eats a Tree of Heaven, however little it may be, is a friend of mine.
See also the discussion in the Mobugs blog.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Slimy Salamander

Slimy Salamander - Mark Bower
This has been the Year of the Herps.  I have spent hours lifting rocks and logs in the woods, looking for different species of salamanders and have found one.  My editor, being more intelligent and organized than I, hasn't lifted rock one and has found one.  Sometimes intelligence beats hard work.
Barb's Slimy
Barb stepped into our well house and spotted a black 6 inch salamander standing still on the dark wet concrete, trying to avoid detection.  She returned to the house to find Tom Johnson's Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri and identified it as a slimy salamander.  It hadn't moved when she took me out to see it.

That seemed simple enough but soon I was lost deep in the taxonomic jungle of amphibians.  Tom Johnson has changed the slimy salamander, Plethodon glutinosus, to a western slimy salamander in the latest edition... but it calls it Plethodon albagula instead.  Meanwhile and several others call it northern slimy salamander although it ranges down to Texas.  Savana River site calls it a complex of 13 species (complex I agree), saying only that "They all look similar and are best differentiated by range."  I am considering calling them all "Fred."

The slimy is a glistening black with silver spots and a rounded tail.  They secrete a sticky substance on their skin which is thick and difficult to get off your fingers. This secretion is thought to inhibit movement and chewing functions of predators.  In spite of this, they breathe through their skin and lack lungs.  Their first defense is holding perfectly still, a position they may continue for over 10 minutes to escape detection.

According to Wikipedia there are two populations, one in southern Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma and the other in Texas.  They are found under rocks and logs in woods and ravines.  They lay their eggs under damp logs or underground and their larvae have no aquatic phase as do many salamanders.  A unique feature is the suspending of their eggs from the "ceiling" of the cavity.  The adults guard the eggs during the incubation period.*

I didn't find anything on their diet but suspect that insects make up a large part of it.  Our well house has a concrete floor which varies from damp to standing water and is filled with house crickets which explode into action when you open the door.  Sounds like slimy salamander heaven.

The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, Tom Johnson.
Extensive information is at
Decline of amphibian populations at

Friday, August 2, 2013

Checkerspots and Snapdragons

The occurrence of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton ozarkae) in the Missouri Ozarks.
     by Linda S. Ellis

During the late summer of 1999, I was out in a dry wooded area in southwest Missouri and came upon a stand of blooming false yellow foxglove (Aureolaria flava), a plant in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae). Always looking for camera fodder, I went over to examine the plants more closely. I noticed a couple of the plants had webbing in the top branches. “What in the world is a web worm doing on this plant in August?” I said to myself. I looked at the still-small caterpillars in the webbing and realized this was no fall web worm species I knew. After taking a number of slides (I used an SLR style camera back then), I went back to my books and soon realized I had photos of the silk nest of the Baltimore checkerspot on my camera.

Baltimore checkerspot web
I found out the location of this particular web was at the western edge of the known range of this butterfly and that it is “wide-spread but local in the Ozarks”, according to Butterflies and Moths of Missouri by Richard and Joan Heitzman. The adult female checkerspot seeks out any number of plant species in the snapdragon family on which to lay 100 - 600 eggs under the larger leaves. Some of the other recorded species the females have chosen for egg laying are white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), beardtongue (Penstemon sp.), mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), monkey flower (Mimulus ringens), carpenter’s square (Scrophularia marylandica) and the larger speedwells (Veronica sp.), all in the snapdragon family. Occasionally the eggs are laid on other plant species like plantain and members of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliacaea) including buck brush (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus). 

The hatchling larvae climb to the top of the plant, in this case the false yellow foxglove, and begin to spin an increasingly dense web nest as they feed on the foliage. The problem with having such a conspicuous abode is the nest is liable to be torn or destroyed by a passing deer or hail storm and it isn’t hard for predators to spot such a collection of goodies, either. Parasitoides can and do lay eggs into the resting larvae right through the webbing. Larger predators, such as blue jays, avoid these caterpillars since feeding on plants in the snapdragon family give them a toxicity similar to the monarch/milkweed association.

The young larvae live gregariously, moving around the host plant by day but returning to the web for rest or diapause. As the individuals develop, they molt right inside the webs and go through 4 stages of growth or instars. When they reach the 4th stage, some time in the fall, they travel down the plant and build a different kind of silk shelter in the leaf litter to over-winter.

In spring, the 4th stage larva supposedly seeks out the same plant types it fed on as a younger caterpillar but, in my experience, the larvae never showed up again on the false yellow foxglove but sought out the wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) plants in the area. I suspect this is because wood betony or louse wort (who names these things?) is available early on which to feed while the other Scrophulariaceae emerge later in spring.

Since that first encounter in 1999, I have followed the seasons of the Baltimore checkerspot where I first discovered them. Some years they were abundant and predictable in their appearance and some years sparse or found on alternate plants. During the flooding of 2008, the nearly constant rain destroyed the web nests and I wondered if they would disappear from the area. I found the checkerspots again in 2009 on mullein foxglove (Dasistoma) this time. This plant tends to grow in more sheltered areas beneath trees along creeks and waterways and one can conjecture it would be a less hazardous place to exist than the habitat of false yellow foxglove which prefers dry forest openings.

Mullein foxglove
(Dasistoma macrophylla)
In 2010 there was a large hatching of the checkerspots but 2011 had us right back in the flooding. I found no checkerspots that year, adult or larvae, nor during the severe drought year of 2012. Happily, this spring, 2013, I spotted an adult male feeding on coneflower nectar while waiting for a passing female. Apparently, once the Baltimore checkerspot finds an area they like, they tend to return so I’ll be hunting for webbing soon to see if they have come back to stay.

Adult taking nectar from purple milkweed
 (Asclepias purpurascens)
The Baltimore checkerspot, as the name implies, exists in the eastern part of America and this version (Euphydryas phaeton phaeton) is a smaller creature with more orange on the upper wings than our “ozarkae” version. Out east, it prefers wet meadows where it finds turtlehead plants but here in the Ozarks look for it in dry mesic woods. The next time you see webbing in a woodland plant around southwest Missouri, take a minute to see if you’ve found a checkerspot colony. Enjoy!

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