Thursday, September 26, 2013

Spanish Needles

Spanish Needles

Mort's Spanish needles
Mort Shurtz sent Barb pictures of a plant he identified as Spanish needles, Bidens bipinnataThese distinctive seeds are commonly encountered when out hiking in the fields as they cling to clothes as well as animal fur, seeking new places in the sun.  If you can get past their annoying habit, they have lots to admire and become more than a weed.

Seeds cling to passing animals (that would be us) by several methods.  Spanish needles have awns, the same tiny sharp accessories that allow grass seeds to burrow into your boot socks until they reach your ankle.  Awns are stiff, needle-like bristles at the tip of a floral scale of grasses and sedges as well as some other plants.   They serve a function beyond transporting the seed and annoying the hiker, as they let the seed plant itself.
"The awns of wild emmer wheat spikelets effectively self-cultivate by propelling themselves mechanically into soils. During a period of increased humidity during the night, the awns of the spikelet become erect and draw together, and in the process push the grain into the soil. During the daytime the humidity drops and the awns slacken back again; however, fine silica hairs on the awns act as hooks in the soil and prevent the spikelets from reversing back out again. During the course of alternating stages of daytime and nighttime humidity, the awns' pumping movements, which resemble a swimming frog kick, drill the spikelet as much as an inch into the soil."  Wikipedia
Bidens' small yellow flowers bloom in the early fall, a time of year that can always use a few more blooms as the summer wildflowers disappear.  They provide nectar for a wide variety of bees, flower flies and the common cabbage white butterfly.  A number of moth larvae feed on the plant as well as other members of the aster family.  Leaf beetles and aphids suck juices from the foliage and a variety of birds eat the seeds.

Spanish needles grow in a wide variety of soils and degrees of sun and therefore can be found on roadsides, glades, woodland borders and even shaded thickets. They are prolific because of their tolerance to many types of habitat and their ability to cling to your clothes and work their way into your ankles.  OK, I guess they are a weed.

Note:  Like other plants, common names can be confusing.  There is another Spanish needle plant found on glades, Palafoxia callosa. is an good source for detailed information on many of the wildflowers and trees that we share with our neighbor to the East.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dog Day Cicada

I guess it is now officially the dog days of summer as we found a lot of dog day cicadas on La Petite Gemme Prairie Thursday, clinging to the stems of the chest high grasses and forbs.  The prairie was burned last January and the heavy burst of midsummer rain had worked its miracle.

"Dog day cicadas" are members of the genus Tibicen, named for their abundance in late August through September in the hottest times.  They make a buzzing sound when they take off on short flights when disturbed and create a loud grating sound when held.  This one talked to us throughout the photographic session.

These are called annual cicada as, unlike the 13 and17 year periodic cicada, they appear annually.  This however is deceiving as the life cycle of an individual is over two to five years.  Like their periodic cousins, they lay their eggs on twigs and the larvae emerge, leap off into space and land on the ground where they dig in.  They then burrow into roots to suck sap for the next few years until they mature and emerge, crawling up a tree or post and hanging on tight while the adult emerges and flies off, leaving the empty shell of dried skin to puzzle or delight a lucky child.  These cicada appear to be annual because each year some are emerging and mating.

Last week's "What is it?"
Here it is full size

Many cicada species live in woodlands, as evidenced by the constant buzz along Bull Creek this month.  Our specimen above is the exception.  The colorful bush cricket, Tibicen dorsatus, is also called Grand Western Cicada and Splendid Prairie Cicada.  It is usually found on prairies and open grassland between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.  While not threatened, it is commonly found in isolated pockets as mowed lawns and monoculture fields are not to its taste.

Tibicen dorsatus
As usual, as soon as I identify a distinctive insect, I come across a newly described species which it can be confused with.  Now T. tremulus has been officially recognized as a separate species, identifiable only by a slightly different shade of the timbrel, a vein on the wing, and a distinctive song.  Only the male cicadas sing.  The sound our T. dorsatus makes is here and you can compare it to this T. tremulus recording.  Nature is never satisfied with the status quo, continually evolving which keeps a lot of entomologists employed, when they can find work.

Detailed Tibicen anatomy link

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Prairie Hike

Sericea killer in a field of great blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
Last week we made our annual hike of La Petite Gemme Prairie, spraying invasive plants in conjunction with the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  This 37 acre tract of undisturbed prairie is indeed a gem, conveniently located just outside Bolivar.  It was burned again last January, and this and the mid-summer rain has kicked it into full gear.

The grasses were over 6 feet tall, thick enough that I frequently had to yell to find Barb in the vegetation.  Most plants had bloomed already, and seed heads on the rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, and ashy sunflower, Helianthus mollis, were standing at attention.  We quickly were covered with tick trefoil, Desmodium species, and native grass seeds, dispersing them just as the plants had intended.

Skipper in the grass
Pearl Crescent butterfly

Grass skippers were flitting over the remaining small flowers, their muddled colors defying identification.  Technically they are not butterflies but a third branch of the lepidoptera group.  They "skip" around erratically and generally perch with their wings partially open at an angle.  There were also a lot of pearl crescent butterflies fluttering around searching for any nectar source and likely depositing eggs on their larval host plants, the asters.

The star of the butterflies made a brief appearance on a patch of native thistle.  This male black swallowtail appeared to be alone, nectaring to keep up his strength.  They raise multiple broods a year and he was still on the prowl, patrolling the whole prairie looking for love.  The females were undoubtedly around as there was lots of rattlesnake master and other members of the carrot family to provide food for their larvae.

We found some scattered patches of Sericea lespedeza, Lespedeza cuneata, our prime quarry as well as some scattered elm seedlings and a few early multiflora rose stems.  The prairie rose was common, hidden below the other plants, its re-curved thorns laying in wait to dig into our shins to punish us for spraying its invasive cousin.  The blooms were gone, replaced by the bright red rose hips hiding tight to the ground.

Prairie rose, Rosa setigura, in summer
Rose hips of fall

Female widow skimmer
Dragonflies were perching on the tall grass stems, not patrolling as they usually do.  This widow skimmer was taking it easy and hadn't moved for some time.  Although they usually are found around water, they occasionally stray far away.  The usually moist drainage that runs through the prairie was now dry and cracking, awaiting the next rain.

Flower fly- Click to enlarge

Finally, there were a lot of these little guys, half an inch long and doing their best to look like a dangerous yellow jacket wasp.  Not to worry - they are just Toxomerus politus, flower flies, whose larvae feed on aphids.  Undoubtedly their coloration helps protect them from predators and they gobble up their nectar.  They are stingerless and totally harmless unless you swallow one on the lip of your soft drink.

If you want to experience a prairie, La Petite Gemme is a great place to start.  It is just the right size, has both dry prairie on a hill and mesic prairie along a water drainage.  It is less than 27 minutes north of I-44 and you will have it all to yourself.  Directions and details are here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Life at the Well

"Your eyes would be big too if Brian squeezed you!"
There is an artesian well head by our cabin porch which trickles slowly into a wet drainage, less than a foot wide, running for 10 feet before disappearing into the gravel bed of a dry runoff.  It was amazing to see how much life it can support.
Just after dark we began exploring the drainage.  Brian spotted a green frog, Lithobates clamitans, renamed from the old genus Rana simply to confuse me.  This is a large frog frequently mistaken for a bull frog.  The green frog has prominent ridges running down each side of its back which don't occur on the bull frog.  They both eat anything that will fit in their mouth while their tadpoles are vegans, living on water plants and algae.

Green frog - Note ridges along back from back of its eyes.
The green and bull frog are large and common enough to have their own hunting season.  Frog legs taste like chicken and when I was in school they tasted even better when you caught them yourself.  I am past the hunting stage and now just love to hear their songs.  The green frog call is as loud as a bull frog but quite distinctive.  It is a loud gravelly rasp, "explosive 'bong' that sounds like a loose banjo string."  I remember it by thinking it has a large "green" grasshopper stuck in its throat. A side-by-side comparison of their calls is on this MDC web page.
Nice frog legs!
Green frogs breed from April through June.  We found the result hiding quietly in the grass beside the drainage.  It had recently lost its tail and climbed out into the not so cold cruel world, relying on camouflage that was so effective that at first I couldn't find it to take the picture.
Find the little frog- Hint, you can click to enlarge
Juvenile- fingertip sized but the ridges already show up.
We also found several long-tailed salamanders, Eurycea longicauda, hiding under the rocks.  The color and spots are similar to a cave salamander but the long-tailed has a herringbone pattern along the tail in a side view.  They generally are found around the mouth of caves or around springs and forested areas.  The constant trickle from the artesian well, running in a shaded area nest to the woods fits its requirements.

Long-tailed salamander
"If I can't see you, you can't see me."  (note herringbone tail)
We also found a juvenile salamander, smaller and still equipped with the gills it will outgrow by adulthood when it will become more land based.  They will stay in the water until that time, living on mosquito and other water living larvae, aquatic bugs, water striders and what ever else washes in.

Juvenile salamander (cave?) with gills
Many of these frogs and salamanders reside in the ecotome, the area between two biomes, such as land and wetlands.  Some are purely aquatic as juveniles (think tadpole and gilled salamanders) and emerge to live on land.  A green frog generally will be around the shore where it can hop to safety although our specimen above had strayed from this safety.

So what besides constant moisture keeps so many aquatic species here?  Bugs - lots of bugs.  Brian set up his black light and within a few minutes we had a bed sheet full of insects including moths, beetles and other species.  Many are usually ground based and available for snacking until they were curious about the brightly lit sheet.

Party time at the Bull Mills Blacklight Bar

Short-legged water strider on surface
The well's little trickle of water was even home to this short-legged (or broad-shouldered) strider, of the Veliidae family.  They are predators, feasting on other surface dwelling arthropods, only to fall prey to salamanders.  Big salamanders eat little frogs, big frogs eat little salamanders.  This tells me that this is a microbiome, working just like it should, even in a little trickle of water.

Thanks to Brian Edmond, Michelle Bowe and their eye-level assistant Julian for the finds.

Coming soon- a beast of the wild prairie issues its raspy call heralding the end of summer.  What is it?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Glow Worms

Lightening bug- Shelly Cox
I don't have to describe fireflies for anyone who as a child ran around on a July evening in the Midwest.  If you didn't collect enough to make a lantern in a jar, you probably at least wore a "firefly ring," created at the expense of a recent captive.

Fireflies at night- Click to enlarge
There are over 2,000 species of fireflies world wide, which aren't flies and don't produce fire.  Heck, they aren't even lightening "bugs."  They are actually beetles which lack the typical hard shell we are accustomed to seeing.  Instead their elytra (front wings) are leathery covers for the flying hind wings.  Some species lack the lights and others have flightless females.


Ventral view-

Our common fireflies rest during the day, then come out at night, the female sticking to the low lying grass and shrubs, sending out her Siren call.  Meanwhile we are more likely to focus on the male who patrols, looking for the special flash of the female of his species.  When he finds the signal he drops down to do his thing.

Actually, the first theory concerning their light was that it was an aposematic warning, a bright color saying "Don't eat me, I taste bad."  In fact they do have distasteful chemicals which may not help the victim but will help its classmates in the future.  Only later did the sexual signaling become apparent.

Females of the genus Photuris are the Mata Hari's of the family Lampyridae, mimicking the mating flashes of other firefly species to lure them for nefarious purposes.  The excited male lands for a tete-a-tete, only to be eaten by this femme fatale of fireflies.  As it is also with many spiders, sex is a risky proposition.

A few days after mating, a female will lay her eggs on the ground and a few weeks later the larvae emerge and start to feed.  This will continue through the late summer and as the "glow worms" grow larger through successive instars, their light becomes more obvious on moonless nights. 

September is the time to see the product of all those flickering summer nights.  The gravel along the edge of Bull Creek starts to light up with faint luminescent spots of light, not the flash of a firefly but the subtle slow wink of its larvae, the glow worms.  Collecting them is tricky as they are moving along leaf-litter, frequently disappearing from view.  Their light is weak and brief, and I lose my night vision when I turn on a flashlight to capture the critter.

Firefly larva
Ventral view of larva- note jaws- Click to enlarge
When disturbed by picking them up or touching them too much, they roll up in a protective ball similar to a pill bug.  They can't make the perfect ball, leaving their sides and legs somewhat exposed.  On the other hand, they no longer look edible.

Larva rolled up in defensive position
The light of a firefly is produced by a chemical called luciferin which is heat resistant and can be triggered to glow by the enzyme luciferase.  All of the energy of this reaction is released as light with no heat produced unlike our lightbulbs.  Now that is a reaction to bottle!

Larval green light-
The larvae light is only a third as bright as the adult and is shifted toward the green spectrum.  Even the light mechanics and location differs from the adult firefly.  I don't know why it uses energy to produce the light as it seems to be of no biological advantage.  One theory is that it is aposematic color, warning off predators that it will taste bad.  My theory is that they are practicing for adulthood, like a group of junior high boys and girls. has lots of practical information on fireflies and their diminishing populations.
Detailed scientific information on fireflies is at this MDC site.
More than you may want to know about raising fireflies is at this link.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Lacewing the Aphid Killer

Some of those little bugs with flimsy wings that fly around the porch light at night seem innocent enough, especially if you identify them with the gentle name of "lacewing."  Even though they are harmless, they bother many people less attuned to nature.  Dave Barry defines nature as "anything you would kill if it got inside your house."

The specimen above is one of the many green lacewing species in the Chrysopinae family.  I believe this is Leucochrysa insularis, although identification down to species level is challenging to even experienced taxonomists.  I will let you do the comparison yourself with the picture below.

L. insularis  -Robert Lord Zimlich
Actually, these innocent looking flying things are serious predators of many bugs that "bug" us.  The adults come out around sunset and feed during the night on aphids, mites and other tiny arthropods as well as nectar and aphids' honeydew.  Some species have symbiotic yeast living in their gut to digest their food, similar to the bacteria in a cow's rumen.  They have good hearing, enabled by tympanal organs on their forewings.  Some species can even pick up the echo locating signals of bats in time to take evasive action.

Although identifying species of lacewings is a challenge, fortunately, the animals themselves are able to overcome this problem by courtship rituals, vibrating their bodies and the leaf they are on to produce species specific rhythms.  One pair of closely related species are only differentiated by listening to recordings of their vibrations.

L. insularis  -tom murray CC
Lacewing eggs are deposited singularly or in small clumps, hanging by a short thread on the underside of a leaf.  They are usually placed around a supply of aphids, a convenient snack when the hungry larvae emerge and climb up the stalk.

Green lacewing eggs- Chrysopidae family- Tom Murray
Larvae are predatory, taking on eggs, pupae and even larger insects.  They are especially fond of aphids, and are sometimes called 'aphid lions.'  They are equipped with a set of jaws shaped like old fashioned ice tongs which penetrate their victims, inject digestive juices and then suck them dry.  Some species can digest an aphid in 90 seconds!

L. insularis larva   -Jim Kalisch CC
Larva head- Thom Schaefer
Many species of lacewing larvae have hairs that help hold trash and the empty remnants of prey such as their favorite aphids as well as other debris.  This decoration helps to camouflage the larvae from predators such as birds and may serve to defend them from the ants which are protecting their aphid honeydew herd.  These larvae are literally crawling trash bins.

Decorated green lacewing larva- Ted Kropiewnicki CC
Decorated larva- Wikimedia

The next time you brush away a fluttering insect by your porch light, be gentle.  It is probably just out on the prowl, testing you for aphids.

As discussed in a recent blog on the wavy-lined emerald moth, lots of other caterpillars decorate their bodies, presumable as camouflage.  Bug Girl's Blog has an interesting variation on the theme.  A caterpillar native to Australia retains its dried head remnant after each molt, stacking them up like a hat from a Mardi Gras parade.

November 1, 2016  - Linda Bower posted a video of a debris carrying larva.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Life in a Log

Bess beetle and larvae, large and small- Click to enlarge
There is lots of life in a dead log.  We occasionally take a rotten log to school groups to let them explore it for all kinds of critters.  Breaking the log apart exposes sow bugs, centipedes, fungi filaments and lots of other critters.  It is a great opportunity to discuss the microhabitat that contributes to life in the woods.

The excitement begins when you roll the log, exposing the creatures which are generally under the log rather than in it.  Moving a log out of the way last weekend exposed a colony of bess beetles nurturing their young.  A centipede disappeared underground in seconds, sow bugs milled around in confusion, and I only caught a glimpse of something long (little snake?  lizard or salamander tail?) darting into the grass.
Bess with a Scarabaeidae larvae*
Note brown mite under head- Click to enlarge

The black bess beetles milled around in confusion, struggling with the decision to crawl under the loose soil or stay with their young.  This isn't just an anthropomorphic fantasy on my part - they really do care for their young. 
"They care for their young by preparing food for them and helping the larvae construct the pupal case. Both adults and larvae must consume adult feces which have been further digested by microflora for a time; an arrangement that might be described as a sort of external rumen."  Wikipedia
Note: two pair of legs

Further, they appear to communicate with each other, producing 14 different sounds.  The adults rub their hind wings against their upper abdomen while the larvae make sounds by rubbing their second and third legs together.   No one has been able to determine what they are saying, but I am betting one of the beetle sounds says "Now eat your feces or you won't grow up to be a big strong beetle," while the grub whines "Aww, do I have to?"

Whenever possible, roll the log back in place, just as you would when looking under a stone.  This is probably home to lots of species and throwing it aside is the microscopic equivalent of running a bulldozer through a woodland.

See these previous blogs on Bess beetles and the mites they carry.
* Update 21-4-2017
I misidentified this Scarabaeidae larvae on this post originally, thinking it was an early Bess Beetle larvae.  Heather Bird Jackson of University of Tennessee kindly sent me this correction.
"I think it is a Scarabaeidae larvae. It has the distinctive C-shape and it is hard to tell, but it appears to have three pairs of legs (Bess’ have only two pair). I only bring it up because you’ll probably see some more of those scarab larvae and it might be nice to tell the difference. They otherwise look very similar to Passalidae larvae (and are in the same superfamily). "
See these previous blogs on Bess beetles and the mites they carry.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Advanced Training in Botany

Artist's Rendering of the New Botanical CenterThere is an advanced training workshop at the 2013 Master Gardener Conference on September 20-21 at the Springfield Missouri Botanical Center.  It is $5.00 for a 3 hour workshop. Registration is here.  Workshops are below.

Saturday, September 20, 2013 | 1:00-4:00 p.m.
Discover Botanical Illustration
Collect, Clean and Store Native Wildflower Seeds
Garden for the Butterflies: Create Your Own Habitat
Getting from A-Z, Be an Agent of Change
Inoculate & Grow Your Own Mushrooms
Integrated Pest Management: What’s in it for Me?
Learn the Principles of Advanced Landscaping
Learn to Identify Plants Using Keying Techniques
Paper Making with Plant Fibers
Pollinator Partnership, Plant for Life

Sunday, September 21, 2013 | 1:00-4:00 p.m.
Discover Botanical Illustration
Propagate Your Own Roses: Learn the Art
Permaculture: What is It: How Can it Help Me?
Nurture Our Trees for Life
Hickory Hills School Native Prairie Restoration Project


Scorpionfly on a car hood. Mike Simpson
This critter landed on one of our trainees at the 2009 Master Naturalist training at La Petite Gemme Prairie.  As you might imagine, it caused a lot of consternation with its long pointed beak and scorpion-like tail.  Like a true naturalist, he caught it in his cap and photographed it.  A field guide confirmed Jay's diagnosis of scorpionfly,  a harmless insect with an image problem.

This particular specimen is Panorpa nuptialis.  They prefer moist areas and dense shrubs but can be found along field edges as well. The scorpionfly isn't a true fly, but belongs to an entirely different family.  A member of the fly family will have the "fly" part of its name as a separate word - think "house fly."  Non-flies like damselfly, mayfly, etc have the words combined.
Scorpionfly- Female
Scorpionflies are the vultures of the insect world, eating dead insects.  Our specimen was a male, confirmed by its scorpion-like tail.  The female's abdomen is shorter and straight, tapering to a slender tip.  The beak or rostrum is also harmless although it resembles an assassin bug beak on first glance.  Both sexes tend to perch on low lying vegetation.

P. Nuptialis at HaHa Tonka- Lee Elliott CC- click to enlarge
Some of the scorpionfly mating rituals may sound familiar to us.  The male courts the ladies first by releasing a pheromone, the insect version of Musk or Old Spice.  Then he invites her to dine with him, offering her "dead insect or, often, a short column of a brown salivary secretion that becomes gelatinous as it dries in the air."  While this may sound disgusting to you, it wows the ladies right off their leaf.  As he grasps her and mates, she just keeps on chewing. *

The caterpillar-like larvae eat dead insects like the adults.  They go through 4 instars before digging into the soil and pupating.  The adults emerge around early September, so it is time to keep your eyes open for them.