Sunday, July 31, 2016

Yellow Mushrooms and Houseplants

Lantana and Leucocoprinus at the Butterfly House - Chris Barnhart

The question of the month has been "what are the yellow mushrooms in my plantings?"  It has cropped up twice in the lantana pot in the Butterfly House and is commonly seen in potted plants inside houses.  Meet Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, described in detail at

This mushroom has been called a flowerpot parasol, yellow houseplant mushroom and many other names reflecting its presence in gardening and potted plants.  It is native to the tropics and subtropics although the first descriptions were in greenhouses.  It is a saprophyte that lives on decaying plant matter and where does it find comfort in our temperate climate?  How about a greenhouse or a warm sun porch with potting soil and mulch in a pot.

I might argue that in Missouri L. birnbaumii meets my criteria of an invasive species, albeit a rather benign one.
  • It is exotic, that is nonnative to the ecosystem under consideration, i.e. the temperate midwest.
  • It is spread by humans to those regions, in this case in potted plants.
  • Causes environmental or economic damage or a danger to health.  While mild, the number of gardening sites answering questions on removing or preventing it suggests some folks are spending time and effort fighting it.
Later, parasol now open - Wikimedia
Some have suggested that it could be poisonous.  This is one more opportunity to tell your children to never eat a mushroom unless it is identified by an expert.  Don't let your pet eat it.  I have never seen any of our dogs eat a mushroom (although Duke eats everything else he finds outdoors.)
I would argue that it should be considered a bonus, an unexpected if somewhat temporary colorful gift from the soil.  Some resources have even proposed that florists should consider selling mushrooms in pots, or at least throw in a few L. birnbaumii spores with each purchase.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sumac Gall Wasp

Wasp in a sumac gall - REK

  James Trager
That evening when I cut into the largest smooth sumac gall there was a small 5mm black insect laying among the living aphid larvae.  The gall had been intact with no visible entry point.  I photographed it with the microscope and sent it off to Chris Barnhart for an explanation.
"Appears to be a gall wasp, Torymidae (Superfamily Chalcidoidea, the Chalcid wasps).  I think that it developed in there (grew from an egg laid in the gall by the parent) and you opened the gall just before it would have emerged. They have to chew their way out. Yours grew up as a larva eating aphids, I suppose." CB

Since then this ID was confirmed by Bugguide.  Key features of this Torymidae family are their metallic bodies and the large hind legs.  They are small, from 1.1mm to 7.5mm, (less than 1/3") and have a long ovipositor, sometimes longer than their body.
1.1-7.5mm in length
1.1-7.5mm in length

They are commonly parasitoids of gall forming insects although some species are plant eaters and just take over the gall for housing.  Many use their ovipositor to inject their egg into a gall.  There is a wide variety of behaviors depending on the species.  Parasitoids are parasites that eventually sterilize, kill or even consume their victims.  Other Torymidae are inquilines that develop inside the gall, living in the gall space and likely eventually killing the original inhabitant. 

The study of parasitoid wasps is quite complex and I haven't scratched the surface.  I was unable to find any information on the genera or species of wasp associated with the sumac leaf gall aphid, Melaphis rhois and my photographs are not sufficient to narrow down the choices.  I am left with the wonder of this microcosm, a wasp that grows up in an aphid's gall while the sumac continues a healthy life.

More detailed information on the Torymidae family is at this link.
The parasitic way of life has evolved many times as described in National Geographic.
inquilines Inquilines

idiobiont ectoparasitoids

Monday, July 25, 2016

Sumac Gall

Smooth sumac with galls - REK

  James Trager
I found a smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) at the Watershed Center that had a number of yellow galls on the underside of its leaves.  These galls are produced by aphids but that is only the beginning of a fascinating story.  I cut into a number of galls to see the early stages of development, a view better seen in James Trager's photograph.

The process begins in the summer when a winged parasitic sumac leaf gall aphid, Melaphis rhois lays a single egg on the underside of a sumac leaf.  The egg induces the leaf to produce a protective covering where the offspring can live fed by the plant and protected from predators.  The single egg reproduces a series of generations by parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization) so that an individual gall may eventually hold 3-4 generations of larvae.  I opened 6 galls and estimated that there were between 200-300 aphids per gall.  You can see the different instars in the photograph as well as in this video.

M. rhois larva - Claude Pilon
Cut gall - 4 instars of larvae - REK
 Winged female aphids - Larry Clarfeld
 Winged aphid - Claude Pilon

In late summer winged females will emerge from the gall and fly off to moss to establish asexually reproducing colonies.  These offspring are male and female and their mating will produce the eggs that will be back on sumac next spring.  This life cycle requiring two plant species is unusual but not unique.  In 1989, it was reported that the use of alternate plant hosts by the aphids dates from 48 million years before present.  This Melaphidine aphid life cycle can be dated back 48 million years when the Bering land bridge supported both the aphids and their two plant lifestyle on what was soon to be two separate continents.  See  When identified, this was the oldest known documented insect-plant relationship."  Wikipedia

Complicated?  Just wait for the next blog when we will discuss this insect that I found in the first sumac gall I cut into.

An overview of gall-making insects is at this link.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fall Webworms of Summer

When I saw the first webs the first webworms in little clusters in June I didn't think it could be "Fall Webworms", Hyphantria cunea.  I was used to the large webs covering a whole branch and these were just on a couple of leaves.  I was wrong, they were just warming up.

The web was full of caterpillars and their frass which is exactly what you think it is.  The cats were moving about very slowly even though the brisk breeze was whipping the branch around.  I grabbed the branch and they immediately sensed the difference and began to crawl around frantically (for a caterpillar), showing evasive behaviors as seen in this real time video.
"One generation per year emerges in the northern part of North America, with larvae appearing in late summer through early fall. South of an approximate latitude of 40°N there are two or more generations annually, with webs appearing progressively earlier further south."  Wikipedia
OK, so what are they doing here so early?  I suspect there are two factors.  We had a record population last fall, prompting lots of newspaper and TV reports.  This means there is a larger graduating class of adults in the spring.

As temperatures rise some moths may emerge earlier and lay their eggs ahead of schedule.  Successful reproduction requires that a food source be available when caterpillars emerge from the eggs. Studies show that the first leaf out time is occurring earlier in recent years, so there is now food for the young caterpillars available earlier.

Second instar - REK
H. cunea overwinter as a pupa (that is in cocoons), and the moth emerges to lay eggs the next year.  In Missouri that has been in late summer but with Global Warming (yes, I actually said it), they likely are emerging earlier leading to the two generation latitude moving north from 40° to our 37° N.  Contrary to Wikipedia, in southern Florida they may have 4 generations a year!

Moth - Wikipedia
The moth is small but kind of cute with a bushy head of fuzz.  The wings are white in the northern range with black speckled fore wings in the south.  It will be interesting to see if there is a change in wing coloration with time if multiple generations occur in Missouri.
Cocoon - Andrei Sourakov

Pupae - Andrei Sourakov

H. cunea is a "reverse invasive species," introduced into Yugoslavia in the 1940s it is now over all of continental Europe as well as in China and Japan.  A cynic might say this is a fair trade for Japanese Honeysuckle and Garlic Mustard but as usual we brought it on ourselves.

Fourth instar - Shelly Cox

One element of their success is their wide range of food plants.  They have been reported to eat at least 636 species of leaves.  Fortunately they haven't developed a taste for animals or we might all be in trouble.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fun on the Forest Floor

The woods last week were full of mushrooms, coming out in response to the rain and high humidity.  Many showed signs of being eaten by turtles, squirrels and even slugs.  Among the finds were several beauties.

The cobalt blue caps were Indigo Milk Mushrooms, Lactarius indigo.  The "lact" in the name is for milk, the fluid that appears on the cut or bruised surface.  Some Lactarius species ooze far more than the indigo.   For fun with mushrooms, you can write on these using a stick.  (We naturalists are fun-guys and gals!)
Oozing blue - Mark Bower
These first come out on a stalk, rounded like a donut with the hole not complete.  With time the edges flatten out to a thin shelf.  Once home I researched L. indigo and came across Tom Volk's description of them as a "delicious edible mushroom."  Having left them in the woods I was depressed until Mark Bower reassured me that most people don't find them that good.

There are other mushrooms that you can draw or write on the caps.  I found a few of these beautiful boletes close by.  After a lot of searching I finally settled on Boletus rubroflammeus and sent it to Mark for confirmation.  As a friend, he let me down gently:
"You were close, and boletes are like Russulales - horribly difficult to get to the species level. That said, the species you propose has a reticulate stem, which your mushroom lacks (stem appearance is one of the few reliable features of boletes. I suspect you have Boletus subluridellus, which I have never seen and am exceedingly jealous, etc., etc."
Mushroom identification, like spiders, beetles and lots of other things in nature is quite complex.  Some species are readily identifiable but most aren't that easy.  Many require looking at details like above.  My consolation was that I could entertain myself by scratching the underside lightly with a broken twig.  It doesn't take much to entertain me.  The mushroom cooperated with a nice black line.

The writing on the upper surface gave a blue line.  I even wrote a note on one to wife Barb. (Sorry, the message is confidential but it had a heart in the middle.  We naturalists are romantic devils.)

On a rotting 4" stump

There were lots of other little species to entertain me without the burden of studying them for identification.  Tiny parasols and fairy villages can be enjoyed by getting your knees dirty and getting your camera on the ground.  Bugs I will research, but mushrooms go straight to my mycologist friend.

Umbrella for an elf?
I finally found a batch of delicious Chanterelles that others had been reporting.  A large bag full will keep Barb busy in the kitchen.  They will be prepared in butter with a little salt (two of the four seasonings of life, lacking only pepper and bacon).  Even without eating mushrooms, there is a lot to enjoy by searching the forest floor.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Snout Butterfly

You don't have to travel to find interesting insects, especially if you have native plants in your yard.  Barb's pollinator plantings paid off for me by attracting this American Snout butterfly which was showing off his Jimmy Durante nose-like snout.  In Jimmy's case, it was commonly referred to as a large nose or proboscis. 

Just a flash of orange but bright in flight - REK
Goatweed Leafwing - Lois Stacey CC
The Snout, Libytheana-carinenta, resembles a Goatweed Leafwing in flight with its dorsal wings flashing orange but disappearing into a dull gray dead leaf color when folded up at rest.  The snout adds to the deception, looking like a dried leaf petiole.

While not terribly common, you are likely to see Snouts when they land on you, presumably to collect sweat from your skin.  The pointed snout is threatening at first glance and is totally harmless.  It is actually a pair of greatly enlarged palpi which are scent detectors (olfactory), essentially a butterfly nose.  While they don't inhale (like Bill Clinton?) they are well positioned to detect food resources or the pheromones of females.

Coiled proboscis -  M.J. Raupp

Butterflies do have a proboscis and it is an example of practical design.  It begins as a pair of long C-shaped channels which come together to create a tube.  It is carried curled up and extended to slurp up nutrients.  Incredibly, if it is clogged it can come apart for cleaning, then come back together.*  Scientists are trying to duplicate this mechanism as described in this video.

Butterflies also have sensory detectors on their antennae, thorax, abdomen and legs.  These likely are used to detect food such as nectar as well as urine, feces, rotting fruit and dead animals.  No one has accused butterflies of having "good taste" as we know it.

* An explanation of butterfly anatomy is at


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Carnivorous Butterfly

Carnivorous captive - Kevin Firth
Kevin Firth sent me these photographs of his fearlessly holding a carnivorous harvester butterflyFeniseca tarquinius, that he had found on Rocky Barrens CA north of SpringfieldThis is the only carnivorous butterfly species in North America.
Chilling out with Kevin Firth
Short proboscis - Kevin Firth
Kevin's feat isn't as reckless as it sounds.  The butterfly itself isn't carnivorous but obtains its nutrition by using its short proboscis to sip honeydew from aphids rather than nectar from flowers.  Scale insects and aphids sucking high pressure phloem from plants excrete the sugary fluid out their intestines where it is collected by some species of ants, bees and wasps and sometimes car windows.

Woolly aphid - Mark Bower
The carnivorous behavior occurs earlier in its life cycle.  The females lay their eggs in colonies of woolly aphids and sometimes scale insects.  The caterpillars then eat the aphids, sometimes protecting themselves under a silk mat with a coating of aphid carcasses.  You may recall the woolly aphids from last month's blog.

Caterpillar camouflaged by aphids-Tom Murray CC

Early instar wax covered
Jerry F. Butler

Interesting that an aphid camouflaged by material on its back is devoured by a caterpillar that uses aphids' bodies to cover itself, the insect version of Russian nesting dolls.

The caterpillars share a chemical profile with the aphids, and that, plus their cover of aphid bodies are felt to serve as protection from ants that will farm these aphids like cattle, collecting their honeydew.  Just another example of the complex networks of symbiosis, parasite and prey relationships in nature.

July 20, 2016 update
Kevin raised the caterpillars and now has the pupa.  Congratulations, Dad!

Carnivorous caterpillar- Kevin Firth

Read a more detailed account with photographs at this Florida University site.

F. tarquinius chilling out- Linda Ellis
Want to photograph a butterfly on your finger?  Unless you are lucky enough to have one land on you like Linda Ellis, try chilling it in the refrigerator for a while, then shoot fast before it warms up and flies away.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ebony Jewelwing

This time of year these Ebony Jewelwings are thick in the shrubs along Bull Creek.  They flutter along in short flights, spending much of their time perching 1-4 feet off the ground.  Their short fluttering flights mimic butterflies in the shade and early on I netted a few before I figured it out.

  University of Florida
These Jewelwings, (Calopteryx maculata), are damselflies, readily identified by the way they hold their wings up and parallel to their body.  At rest you wouldn't know that they have two pair of wings.  They are odonates, relatives of their more athletically inclined cousins, the dragonflies.  In addition to the way they hold their wings, there are several distinguishing features.  Their eyes are separated by more than the width of a single eye and their body is slim, almost needle like.

Here's looking at you - REK
C. maculata prefers slow flowing, shaded wooded streams like Bull Creek where they eat mosquitoes as well as a wide range of other tiny prey and in turn are eaten by lots of other insects, birds and amphibians.  In their short two week life span they spend much of that time perched on shrubs.  They will hold a pose for several minutes if they aren't disturbed by a neighbor.  I have to photograph them from a distance for a side view as they seem to turn their head to face me when I get too close.

Female Ebony Jewelwing - REK
They exhibit sexual dimorphism, a significant difference in appearance between males and females.  The male is the flashy member, with black wings and a beautiful thin metallic blue abdomen.  The female has brown wings with a white spot at the tip and an almost black body.

Look for a stream side cluster of these Jewelwings and you can see their customary courting ritual.  "A perched female, when courted by a male, will accept his presence by rapidly opening and closing her wings. If she rejects him, however, she will open her wings and leave them extended."  NPS.Gov.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Regal Fritillary Survey

Regal fritillary female - Wikipedia
A bad day on a prairie can beat a good day in town.  The picture above is what I didn't see on my Regal Fritillary survey on La Petite Gemme (LPG) Prairie today..... a Regal Fritillary.

RF male - note the hind wings white and yellow spots - Bob Moul
RF from the side - Bob Moul
Rhonda Rimer of the Missouri Department of Conservation is currently running a survey of Regal Fritillary (RF) butterflies (Speyeria idalia) on prairies in Southwest Missouri.  This species can only survive on prairies and it is in danger of extirpation as our prairies are few and far between.  Missouri Prairie Foundation and other organizations are focused on restoring, preserving and protecting our remaining prairies.

Today was hot (93) and yet comfortable with a 8 mph wind.   RF are found generally along moist or wet areas and LPG has a drainage running down the middle that is always wet, and after recent rains was full of water.  That is where I concentrated my efforts.  The prairie is thick and required high stepping and concentration so I stopped at intervals for 3 minutes.

"Chek"........"Chek"  - Note the male's black "Y" on the throat.
"Hush, what was that sound?"
A prairie hike is always rewarding and today was no exception.  Dicksissels traveled along my route, clinging onto slender plants and grasses.  They arrived several months ago from their Central American winter home.  This male didn't offer his usual song, only an occasional "chek" as there was no female around to impress.  This bird named Spiza americana was an appropriate companion after last night's Fourth of July celebration.  It flew ahead of me and frequently seemed to be listening for something.

Wood Nymphs
There were a lot of little Clouded Sulfur and a few Cabbage Whites flying, usually dropping down into the plants to avoid the wind.  A glimpse of a butterfly with white spots across the prairie led me on a chase only to find a pair of Common Wood Nymphs nestled in the grass.  As this is a family blog, I will leave it to your imagination as to what they were doing.

Marginated Leatherwings were crawling on many of the flower heads, pollinating in their own slow way.  This female rode around on my arm for a long time, hitching a ride across the prairie until I was ready to leave.

Most of the activity came from dragonflies patrolling the grasses.  Each time I got a glimpse of movement I thought it might be an RF but I did get some good looks including Eastern Amberwings (not photographed) and the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) below.

Even on a slow day, there are things to see if you take your time and stop often to look around.

Thanks to Bob Moul for once again sharing his photographs.