Saturday, September 29, 2018

Mosquito and Other Bites

Did you ever wonder what a mosquito bite looks like close up?  So did I, so here it is.  I felt it land on my arm, probably the movement of the hairs.  I had been photographing other little insects gnawing on me this weekend so it only took about 30 seconds to get my camera out and change the settings.  She wasn't bothered in the least with having a big camera two inches away.

While I was working one handed with the camera, she (only female mosquitoes bite) was searching under my epidermis for a blood vessel.  Once found, she injected saliva with anticoagulant to insure that the blood would keep flowing into her proboscis.  So far, this can be painless but my body's immune system had been alerted and it released histamine at the site.  This caused the sting and the subsequent  swelling.  When you slap, you probably have her saliva on board so just hope she hasn't been promiscuous with a disease carrier!

"I can't believe I drank that much"  (After 2 minutes)
National Geographic has more detailed information on how the proboscis works.  Frequently compared to a hypodermic needle, it is much more complex than that.  For one thing it is very flexible, bending and twisting in the tissue under the epidermis.  Rather than a hollow tube, it is a sheath that introduces 6 mouth parts under the skin.  A pair of mandibles and another pair of maxillae (same name as your jaw) grip the skin so it can push deeper in the search for blood.  Their video even shows the blood vessel compressing as the red cells are drawn in.

Last week we were in Bob Ranney's back yard when I grabbed at a slow flying insect.  We argued about what it was as it was bigger than the mosquitoes we see at Bull Creek, but as usual he was right.  This turned out to be an Asian Tiger Mosquito, Aedes albopictusIt arrived in Texas in 1985 and spread rapidly, now extending from Oklahoma and Missouri to Pennsylvania. (CDC)  They can range from 3-10mm depending on food size, so Bob's was well fed.
"This mosquito has become a significant pest in many communities because it closely associates with humans (rather than living in wetlands), and typically flies and feeds in the daytime in addition to at dusk and dawn. The insect is called a tiger mosquito for its striped appearance, which resembles that of the tiger."  Wikipedia.
Lacewing larva
Most of the species I photograph giving me little bites are never identified.  I am excluding wasps, predaceous diving beetles and hellgrammites. These are bites that require an immediate response, coupled with an announcement such as "*&^%$, you **&#@."  My favorite minor bite was from the lacewing larva on the right which let go just before the picture.  It seemed to have nothing to gain from subduing me and I suspect it was just curious.  Aside from the tick below that was slurping up my juices the others are unidentified.  Any suggestions are welcomed.

Unknown digging in.
Unknown biting hand that fed it

Tick at lunch

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A WOLF Field Trip

White furcula moth - Furcula borealis
The best way to find small insects is to take WOLF School students on a field trip.  At Bull Creek last week our focus was on plants and leaves but inevitably a sharp eyed student will say "What is this?" and viola! an insect.  They had two great finds, very small caterpillars.

The caterpillar above is Furcula borealis, the white furcula moth.  It has two long tails off the tip of its abdomen (Furcula means forked).  The green and brown camouflage mimics a damaged leaf.  The curved posture is typical, seen in most of its photographs.  They are usually found from April to late August when the second brood cocoons up for the winter.  Our friend put on quite a show of evasion techniques in this video.

Mid August- Lavers

They feed on Prunus species (plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and almonds), cottonwoods, and willows like our specimen was munching.  We tried raising ours on willow but it failed to thrive after a week.   Norman and Cheryl Lavers on the other hand found a F borealis caterpillar in its last stage and document it with this beautiful series of photographs of the rest of its life cycle.
Cocoon 5 days later - Lavers
"We found this caterpillar feeding on black cherry in our garden, and brought it in to raise.  Eventually it was woven so tightly it was opaque, and had taken on the color of the stick it was attached to. Looking like a thickening in the wood, it would spend the winter in plain sight.  On this date the caterpillar attached itself to a narrow stick and wove a thin cage around itself, inside which it could be seen weaving a more solid cocoon.  It somehow pushed a hole in the rather thick cocoon the following April."

The following April - Lavers
Adult moth emerged - Lavers

Buckeye the butterfly - REK

The other lepidoptera find of the day was the colorful caterpillar on the right which we quickly identified on INaturalist as a common buckeye, Junonia coeniaThey are found from the East to the West Coast.  Buckeyes have been among our most commonly seen butterflies the last few weeks.  This is the time of year when the buckeye tree's seeds are dropping to the ground but the timing is coincidental.  Buckeye butterflies are named for the "buck eyes" on their dorsal wings, not their choice of foods.

Side view

The caterpillars of these butterflies prefer plants that produce iridoid glycosides, bitter compounds that release a hormone called gastrin that activates the digestive system and stimulates their appetites, particularly when found in plants like one of our common yard weeds, plantain, Plantago lanceolata or P. major.  They also feed on snapdragon and toadflax.  I suspect I would need an appetite stimulant to eat something called toadflax.
Just emerged September 28th.
Just emerged

Empty chrysalis

Monday, September 17, 2018

Squash Vine Borer

Squash vine borer, Melittia cucurbitae - Kevin Firth
Kevin Firth sent me this photograph of an insect he found on his porch.  It looks at first glance like a wasp with a serious case of abdominal obesity that has obliterated its waist.  Kevin assured me that it really is a moth, the squash vine borer, Melittia cucurbitae.
Note the hind legs - Backyard Biology
Dorsal views - Dallas Butterflies
The adult is approximately 2/3" long (16 mm) in length, with a wingspan range of 25 to 38 mm. The front wings are covered with scales that reflect a metallic green to black sheen. Large portions of the hind wings lack scales, making them look clear. The abdomen is covered with conspicuous orange to reddish hairs, with a row of black dots. The hind legs are covered with long black hairs inside and orange hairs outside (Bauernfeind and Nechols 2005). Females are larger and less colorful than males, with wider abdomens.

While most moth species are active at night, squash vine borer adults (and many members of the family Sesiidae) are active during the day, resting in the evenings. The adults can be observed during the day feeding on nectar.

SVB eggs on zucchini - CC
This is the adult form of a larva universally hated by gardeners.  The adult moth mates and lays its eggs on host plants within 24 hours.  The innocent looking eggs are laid on members of the Cucurbita family (zucchini and related squash).

In 1-2 weeks they hatch and then immediately bore into the vine stalk where they go through four instars, moving down the center of the stalk, killing the plant.  Unlike other garden pests like the tomato horn worm that at least have the decency to eat the leaves, these pesky critters kill the entire plant at ground level.

Many more details about SVB including management practices are at  For a more satisfying method, the Old Farmers Almanac suggests you spot "entrance holes and 'sawdust' then insert a wire and thread it through the stem for some distance to kill the inside larvae."  I can hear the screams now.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Fishing spider

Find the spiderlings (6) including on the legs - Click to enlarge
Our neighbor Garin brought me this spider.  You know that you are a natural Naturalist when you find a large spider around the house and you capture it rather than squashing it.  Here is his description:
"I found the spider this morning on the front deck of the cabin. It seemed very lethargic when got close to it. I then noticed all of the tiny things crawling on it.  My first thought was that they were ants feasting on a dead wolf spider but quickly realized baby spiders were clinging to and crawling around it."
Spiderlings with a ballpoint pen

They originally were clinging to her but when I received them they had spread out all over the container.  They are tiny and cute, dare I say adorable, unless you happen to be an arachnophobe.  They were all ready to disperse into the wild, so after their baby pictures, I put the container upside down in the garden under the kitchen window.
Fishing spider now on land - note the "W" on the abdomen.
The mother is a fishing spider of the genus DolomedesIts marking include what looks like an upside down guitar on the front of the thorax and a white 'W' mark on its back.  I had previously sent an identical one above to Bugguide last year where it was confirmed as Dolomedes scriptus, (scriptus - Latin for writing).

Dolomedes spider egg sac - Whatsthatbug
Fishing spiders (FS) are members of the family Pisauridae, the nursery web spiders.  They are named by their habit of weaving a silk nest to hold their eggs, then hauling it around in their jaws until the young are ready to emerge.  Unlike the wolf spiders who carry their young on their back,  FS babies are on their own after birth.  Garin's spider must have been hanging around as they dispersed.
Dolomedes live in aquatic and forested habitats, eating aquatic insects.  We frequently see them around our house 10 feet above Bull Creek.  They have a unique spider power that even Spiderman would envy, hunting under water.
"They hunt by waiting at the edge of a pool or stream, then when they detect the ripples from prey, they run across the surface to subdue it using their foremost legs, which are tipped with small claws; like other spiders they then inject venom with their hollow jaws to kill and digest the prey. They mainly eat insects, but some larger species are able to catch small fish. They can also climb beneath the water, when they become encased in a silvery film of air." 
Supported by surface tension, moved by pressure on dimples - Timmtap87
One of their secrets to walking on water is the cohesion of water molecules.  We explored this with the WOLF School this week at the H20 Olympics.  The water drops on a penny experiment this video, and others, described here are fun for all ages and might even make your grandchildren think you are cool.

Dolomedes have water repellent hairs on their on their feet, letting them walk across the cohesive water molecules on the surface, almost like it was Saran wrap.  They have the same hairs on their bodies which trap a film of air around them.  They can dive under water and this air brings them right back up.  More incredibly, "Dolomedes breathe with book lungs beneath their abdomens, and these open into the air film, allowing the spiders to breathe while submerged."  Wikipedia

Dolomedes are frequently confused with wolf spiders because of their size.  The arrangement of a spider's eyes helps identify them into families but requires magnification or a closeup photograph.    Bugguide shows the eye arrangement of this genus below so you can compare them with our specimen.

Dolomedes in Bugguide

Wolf Spider

February 2022 update

With the Bugguide eye chart above you too can identify spiders.  All it takes is getting on your hands and knees, a good camera or a high power magnifier, and a hypnosis session to get over your arachnophobia.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Lobelia Red and Blue

Labor Day weekend is more than a holiday in the Ozark woods.  We see a number of old friends appear to mark the final days of summer, such as the cardinal flowers along the creek.  Lobelia cardinalis was described in 1629 by Englishman John Parkinson.  He stated, "it groweth neere the river of Canada, where the French plantation in America is seated."   The French and English wrote extensively about it for 200 years and it soon became common in cultivation throughout Europe, especially in botanical gardens, and is mentioned in most of the earliest works on American plants.

Lobelia spp.  in general like their feet wet and are found along the edges of the creek and its moist drainages.  Its appearance is so striking that even I recognize it immediately.  It has a short lifespan and gets cranky and dies if it isn't kept moist.  Because of its short lifespan and the toxic white latex in the foliage, its doesn't have many wildlife associations and lives its brief life under the radar of insects and herbivores.

Much less common along Bull Creek is the blue lobelia, Lobelia syphilitica.  Its delicate blue flowers appear on one or two isolated plants from year to year.  It too contains several toxic alkaloids and has few significant wildlife associations.

As you may have guessed, it has a medical history of some repute.  It was first mentioned by Lobelius in 1591 who was cultivating it in France.  Sir William Johnson heard of the reputation of Lobelia syphilitica among the Indians for the cure of syphilis, and on his return wrote an account which was published in Latin.  It took off all over Europe like penicillin did in the 1940's but without being effective

The delicate blue flowers are similar in shape to the cardinal flower.  I would repeat this description of them in Illinois Wildflowers but it is all Greek to me.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Labor Day Hunt

Buckeyes in September
The "labor" on my Labor Day weekend was harvesting buckeyes.  The Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra, is the first tree to open its leaves in spring and the first to lose its leaves.  I find them by cruising along the trails and edges of the field looking for small leafless trees, then scanning them for tan balls hanging on the bare branches.  The seed capsule which matures in August is rough and somewhat spiky.

Why bother hunting them?  Like my deer and turkey hunter friends tell me, the challenge of the hunt is as rewarding as the kill.  Hiking through the woods with eyes cast to the sky is challenging with the shrubs and thorny vines grabbing at your ankles.  Finally spotting a bare branch with a buckeye hanging from it is the reward.  OK, so I don't have very high standards for excitement.

Hillbilly buckeye hunters
Aside from the challenge, which is half the fun, there is the "kill" when I collect the seed capsules.  Occasionally they are within easy reach but most are eight to twenty feet up, daring me to get them.  In the past, Larry Whiteley and I tied a holey rock (found with a hole through it) on a rope and threw it over the limb to shake capsule loose.  I have made a jointed 16 foot pole with a hook and rope now.  Occasionally however we just use hillbilly ingenuity.

The eye of the buck
The spiky capsules split after they dry a while, then open to expose 1 to 3 large and beautiful brown seeds, each with a white circle which is the "eye of the buck."  According to folklore, carrying one in your pocket brings good luck (so they say).  If nothing else, it is less messy than a rabbit's foot and reduces the number of 3-legged rabbits running around in the fields.

Rub the nut along the side of your nose for some natural oils and it polishes up to a beautiful brown sheen. They can also be strung like beads once dried.  The bark and seeds are poisonous, containing tannins and a narcotic glucoside.  Native Americans extracted the tannic acid for tanning leather.  It also has been used in folk medicine as a sedative, for relieving constipation and asthma and for the treatment of hemorrhoids and "female disorders." It is also said to relieve the pain of arthritis and rheumatism.

Because of the toxicity and taste, wildlife such as turkey and deer avoid them.  Squirrels will occasionally eat them and survive, which is no surprise to those of us who have seen them eat the painted siding of our house.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Snail-case Caddisfly

Snorkeling in the clear water of our swimming hole on Bull Creek I saw hundreds of tiny snails clinging on the small gravel downstream. One larger rock I found had a depression on the underside where there were tiny gravel clusters attached. They were 1/10" round and appeared spiraled. They were very firmly attached with one I couldn't even pry off with my fingernail.

I assumed they were caddisfly larvae until under magnification I saw they were the shape of snails with fine sand granules attached. and I wasn't able to extract a caddisfly larva. Could they be freshwater snails that have sand attached to their shells? A dumb question but since Deb Finn* and I had been talking about a snail research project I reached out to her.

The white glistening patches I saw with a magnifier looked like it could be a snail foot but with the macro views I could see they were chert chunks in the glued on sand. After a few minutes one started to crawl slowly on the rock surface as seen in this video. I still couldn't extract a caddisfly larvae as I have in the past. Then I got Deb's response, letting me down gently.
 "Your first thought (caddisflies) was correct. I found a lot of them yesterday too in the creek upstream. They are in a genus called Helicopsyche, which was actually originally described (embarrassingly enough) as a snail. The family Helicopsychidae all make spiral cases in the shape of a snail. And it is extremely difficult to pull the larvae out of their cases."
Adult Helicopsychidae - CC
It helped salve my ego that they are called "snail-case maker caddisflies" and were originally described as snails!  "The case is diagnostic for Helicopsychidae as all Helicopsychidae construct spiral cases and no other caddisflies do."  Caddisflies are famous for their larvae while the Rodney Dangerfield adults get no respect. The image to the right is the only Helicopsyche sp. adult I could find on the Internet.

Helicopsyche sp. are flying under the radar of the web and need a new press agent.  I went through 5 pages of Google before I found anything significant about their life history.  Finally I found a page on where they are described a "scrapers," grinding off algae that is clinging to rocks.  Their head and legs usually protrude from a single opening in the case. Photographs online show a curved larva, the price it pays for living full time in a circular case of glued sand.

The fly -
We examined caddisfly larvae as a group in this blog last year where the cases from further up stream were larger.  They were encrusted with larger gravel flakes which didn't show the spiral pattern.   Dr. David Bowles of MSU identified them for me as Helicopsyche borealis, which trout fishermen call a Speckled PeterThe adult finally gets some respect from fly fishermen who tie a pattern called the Speckled Peter.
* Dr. Debra Finn is a stream ecologist at Missouri State University and her team is studying Bull Creek.
MDC has a good brief overview of caddisflies in general.