Sunday, July 28, 2019

Copperhead and Cicada

A story in the Springfield News Leader reported on the mid-summer cicada season where they provide a buffet for copperheads.  John Miller of MDC had always referred to them as "copperhead M&Ms" and here is photographic proof.

Charlton McDaniel had been floating on the Mulberry River in Arkansas where he saw several cicada's that were starting to emerge from their pupae.  They emerge from their winter quarters in the ground this time of year.  They typically climb up on to a tree trunk where they begin their struggle to leave the pupae and dry out before find mates.

At this stage they are helpless, their wings not expanded, their bodies not yet hardened.  And the copperheads know this.  McDaniel's fantastic photographs at document what happened next.

It was nearly the same date seven years ago that our friend Sheila called to report an invasion of copperheads in her front yard.  We described her encounter at length in a blog listed below.*  While patrolling her front yard the next evening she found several looking at her from eye level.  They had wiggled straight up on tree trunks to where their treats were hanging on.  And where there is one cicada, there are frequently several, even enough to stage a copperhead banquet.  A similar event occurred at Pine Ridge Church and its "Copperhead Capitol" designation described here.  This is not a unique story.
"Reports of mid-summer clusters or irruptions of copperheads are not just from Bull Creek.  A mid-summer 2005 gathering of 100 copperheads under a cedar tree in Marion County, Arkansas was investigated by an Arkansas State University zoologist with no apparent cause found.   Recent accounts tell of gatherings occurring in Southwest Missouri and Texas.  In summer of 2011 a man in Georgia reported 30 copperheads in his yard."
Don't worry about going for an evening walk....but you might want to take a flashlight.  If you see a copperhead, leave it alone unless it is a direct threat to your friends and family.  Remember, it is part of nature and this is its Halloween search for candy.  Then it has to return to its usual diet of mostly mice.
* The story behind the copperhead clusters is all told in this blog.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mothing on Bull Creek

We held a Master Naturalist Mothing last week.  If you have never been a "moth-er" I will explain the joys and annoyances of a session.  First let's set the scene.  Imagine a white sheet on a frame with a bright mercury vapor lamp casting a strange glow.

Owlfly with mayflies and a leaf hopper
Moths, other insects and hundreds of tiny mayflies are drawn to the light, preferring this wavelength to a normal light bulb.  Why, no one knows, although a lot of theories are discussed at Live Science.  One of my favorite insects was this owlfly above, identified by the large eyes and the knob on the end of its antennae.

The only large silk moth we found was the imperial moth.  This species is also the only silk moth coming to our deck light so far this year.  For us, this was the chance to see a moth up close and personal.  The big feathery antennae identify it as a male (no surprise there!)

Bisected honey locust moth - Sphingicampa bisecta
The honey locust moth above was a new species for Bull Mills.  The first site I looked for it showed no sightings in Missouri although they were seen in surrounding states.  Other maps show it is common here, the food for another blog.  Meanwhile, I put it in a bug box to confirm its identity and an hour later found over 120 eggs.  I can just imagine her saying "Thanks, I really needed that."

Luciana underwing - Catocala luciana
Grape leaf folder moth

Banded tussock moth - Halysidota tessellaris

The mercury vapor lamp casts an eerie glow on everyone.  In addition to the ubiquitous mayflies there were lots of other tiny flying insects on the sheet, our clothes, in our hair, and more intimate locations.  This is only if you get close to the light so there are generally three strategies.  1) Ignore the tiny bugs and mayflies crawling on you and plunge in to find critters.  2)  Hang back and come in just when an interesting find is announced.  3) Flying bugs?  No way!

Two-lined spittlebug

"Mothing is like a box of chocolates." (Jay Barber)

Meanwhile, back at the lamp, we were finding lots of non-moths, ranging from 5/5 inch (70 mm) Eastern Dobsonflies to tiny 4mm leafhoppers, the Two-lined Spittlebug.  We were fortunate to have guest lepidopterist/entomologist Kevin Firth and daughter Lindsey with us to sort them out.  There is a lot more to see in this Flickr album.  We even had enough mayflies that everyone who stayed close to the sheet could take some home on and in their clothes!

Did I mention there were lots of mayflies?

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Two-lined Spittlebug

 Our Master Naturalist Mothing last Friday included lots of non-moths like this Two-lined Spittlebug, Prosapia bicinctaIt is really a beauty as bugs go, spittlebug but it retains the spittlebug name because of its misspent youthful habits.  You probably have seen hundreds in their childhood.

Home sweet home.
Spittlebug are common in grasslands.  As all true bugs in the Order Hemiptera, they have sucking mouth parts to extract juice from grasses.  Most people have seen the signs of them but few have bothered to search out the bug, a somewhat distasteful endeavor, so  I will save you the time and the mess.

"No spit!  I really feel naked."
Spittlebugs that we find are actually the nymphs of froghoppers, in the order Hemiptera, a diverse group that includes shield bugs, planthoppers, leaf hoppers, aphids and cicadas.  Froghoppers leap from plant to plant with amazing agility, with some jumping over 2 feet straight up.  They resemble treehoppers with minor differences that only an entomologist or another froghopper would notice.
Prosapia bicincta Kaldari.jpg
Two-lined spittlebug - Wikimedia- Kaldari
Many adult froghoppers can "bleed" from their tarsi (distal legs), exuding a hemolymph that is distasteful.  It is likely that their bright color as seen above send that warning message to predators considering a snack.  The adults feed on the underside of hollies.

Meanwhile back to the nymphs who are covered with froth like you might find on top of a fine ale.  You don't want to know where it comes from, but here I go anyway.  The nymphs always feed head down, an important skill if you want to cover your body from the end that is up.  They feed on sap which they pump through their intestine and out the anus at a rapid rate.  It is said to have an acrid taste, protecting them from predators.  As far as I know, the scientists who reported this have never tasting it.  To me it was tastless, but then Barb has always said I have no taste.
Feeding head down on the stalk
Now the froth.  It is thought to protect the nymphs from dehydration, heat and cold, and to hide them from predators.  In addition to housing several larvae, a glob of spittle may hold an inquiline species, another species that lives in there without contributing or harming the spittlebugs.
Stenotus binotatus
Stenotus binotatus

Wiping spittle on one blade of grass below, I uncovered several spittlebugs and a common plant bug, Stenotus binotatus.  This is a European invasive species that feeds on grasses and can be a pest on wheat.  There are no reports of it in association with spittlebugs, so it may have just been passing through.

How to explain the bubbles?  Here is one possible explanation from
"The bug feeds standing on its head and excretes excess fluid from its anus. This fluid runs down and coats the spittle bug’s body. Specialized glands mix in mucilaginous compounds that increase the viscosity of the fluid and also stabilize the bubbles.  The nymph sucks air into its abdominal breathing tube and then forces it out to blow bubbles while pumping its abdomen up and down. As bubbles form, it uses its legs to pull the froth over its body. Safe within this foamy bath, the nymph grows and molts a few times, finally emerging as an adult. "
I find it interesting that the larva is sucking up xylem, the fluid coming up from the roots, delivering minerals like nitrogen incorporated in amino acids. The fluid is more dilute and not as nutrient rich as the phloem (memory tip: phloem=food flowing down) that is coming down from the leaves with nutrients to feed the roots. The larva must process lots of fluid to obtain its nutrition, expelling it continually. Some evidence suggests that they preferentially feed on legumes and nitrogen fixing grasses. Certainly it means the nymph has to suck a lot of lymph to get its nutrition. No wonder it is pushing it all out quickly!

The head down feeding is important in getting the foam to cover up the nymph.    I suspect that predators know they are all hiding in there but have heard the reports above of the acrid taste and don't bother trying. 
Research in May 2020 identified 2 bacteria that spittlebugs carry that allows them to get enough nutrition from watery sap alone to survivie.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Spined Assassin Bug

Little things count on a WOLF School field trip.  One of the students pointed out a tiny (3mm) speck crawling on my shirt.   A quick macro photograph let me share his find with the class, a first instar nymph of a spined assassin bug, Sinea diadema.

Assassin nymph on his arm - Kevin Firth
Assassin bugs are in the Reduviidae family along with ambush bugs
and the gear-backed wheel bug.  These are all ambush predators, attacking almost any insect they can find.  They tend to wait patiently on flowers such as goldenrods, then suddenly plunging their proboscis into the victim and injecting digestive juice.  Using external digestion, it then slurps up the liquid innards from its victim with nary a burp.

Spined assassin - note the proboscis tucked under its chin - Lisa I. CC

Stegosaurus armatus - Wikipedia

Adult assassin bugs have a prehistoric look like a downsized dinosaur.  This is especially true of the spined assassin.  It resembled a big headed Stegosaurus with a proboscis.  While the spines on the back may be defense against predators, spikes on the front legs and head may help them hold on to larger prey.
Spined assassin adult - Tom Murray
"This insect hides in plant foliage or on flowers, waiting for an insect to pass by it. The strong front legs grab the prey and a long fang at the mouth repeatedly stabs the insect to death with rapid piercing movements. If handled carelessly, this fang can prick human skin creating a mighty painful wound."
At this point I am going to hand you off the Bug Lady from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station for more details in her usual gifted writing.  Enjoy!

Bug Lady always comes up with interesting facts that otherwise escape me.  I am addicted to her Bug of the Week column and you may be too.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Spittlebug on a Macbook

Red cedar spittlebug - note red spot
I was working on a blog early on a cool morning, listening to the hummingbirds feeding overhead when a small dot began moving across the screen of my Macbook like an oversized period.  After enlarging a series of photographs I identified it with the help of Bugguide as a red cedar spittlebug (RCS), Clastoptera arborinaWe have written a blog on spittlebugs in their larval nymph stage, blowing bubbles out their you-know-what.

Even with my lack of entomological training, I deduced that this species is associated with red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) like the one overhead.  I found more details on the Hoppers of North Carolina web page.  (Who knew that tiny leaf hoppers had a fan club!). has listed only 10 reported locations, but for an insect measuring only an eighth of an inch (3.5mm), that isn't particularly surprising.

It took a deep dive into Google to come up with any information on my tiny visitor.  The only in depth source I found was a 1984 paper by A. G. Wheeler in the Entomological Society of Washington

Spittle on juniper - Forestry Images CC
Eggs overwinter on terminal shoots of juniper.  The embryo lies in a hardened shell within the shoot until the nymph emerges and produces its spittle near the tips of the shoot.  It will pass through 5 instars, leaving small bits of powdery residue from its spittle.  Nymphs  are found from June to July, the adults from July to September.

As I reviewed the photograph above, I was curious about the out of focus red spot on several views.  RCS was patiently waiting on top of my Macbook so I took photographs from different views and BINGO, there it was, a mite! 

Part of my fascination with nature is the differences in scale.  Almost anything we see is capable of hosting another smaller creature to discover under magnification.  Consider again that this RCS was 3.5mm, the size of a small letter "o" on my computer screen.  By comparison, the mite is only 0.5mm!  Augustus De Morgan summarized this in A Budget of Paradoxes.
"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."
All this from a tiny dot moving across a computer screen.  Imagine what else is going on in trees and under our feet unseen every day!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Golden Jumping Spider

Golden jumping spider - Paraphidippus aurantius

The name comes from the Latin aurantium for orange.  A quick look at Bugguide images shows a wide range of colors from orange to black with iridescent green on the abdomen in the right light.  Mine was photographed hanging on the underside of a pawpaw leaf.  Unlike most specimens, this one seemed quite content to hold on for photographs before leaping a foot away into the morning shade.  I got a quick confirmation from Bugguide
Photographs in Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles show the females like ours are lighter in color while the mature males are black with the same pattern of white spots on the dorsal abdomen.  This one is sub-adult both in size and coloration.  You can compare it to the larger adult female above that was jumping around me a few days later.
Two large eyes in the center facing forward.
Wolf and Jumping Spider eyes
The position of a spider's eyes are a key in identifying them to family.  Above you can see the two large eyes positioned like headlights, "the better to pounce on you my dear!"  This arrangement identifies it as a Salticidae family of the jumping spiders.  Their face is flat and facing forward, another distinctive characteristic.

David Edwin Hill
"Salticidae are adapted to detailed, three-dimensional vision for purposes of estimating the range, direction, and nature of potential prey, permitting the spider to direct its attacking leaps with great precision. The anterior lateral eyes, though large, are smaller than the AME and provide a wider forward field of vision. " Wikipedia

Sadly, most of the information on P.
aurantius and its kin are about eliminating them.  These little jumpers don't want to be around us, just like we don't want them in our houses.  They just want to be left alone. has a beautiful set of pictures of the spectrum of colors. 
Update 11-3-2019 
Here is a fascinating article in The Atlantic on the telescopic eyes of jumping spiders and why they will chase a laser pointer.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Lessons from a Hummingbird

Sitting on the deck at 7AM drinking coffee, the hummingbirds are teaching me about nature.  The sun hasn't made it over the hill top and the still air is cool on my bare arms at first until my body warms the unstirred layer of air coating my skin.

There are hummingbird feeders three feet above me on either side.  A hummer hovers a few feet to my right with a mixture of caution and curiosity.  I feel a cool wind on my right arm from the air stirred by its tiny wings.  It leaves and in 10 seconds my blood flow has re-warmed that layer of air.

Now a furious territorial disagreement between two hummers on the feeder to my left brings another wave of cool air as one swoops close to my arm.  Again my body heat warms the air along my skin when that tiny gust of wind passes.

If that little bundle of avian energy, about the weight of a penny, can stir my environment imagine the impact each of us has in our daily activity.  Every step I take through the field can change the life of grass and weeds as well as the aphids sipping from their leaves.  The ants that are collecting honeydew from the aphids to feed their young are frantic, moving their eggs and pupae away from the path of destruction created by my boot.

All of these are occurring constantly, whether by the nose of my curious dog or the plodding step of a bear in the woods, a fact of life on our complex planet.  This destruction is at the far end of the spectrum of daily destruction and rebirth that we call life.

Now I drive by a new house site on the wooded hillside where a bulldozer has cleared the trees to prepare for the laying of 10 acres of sodded lawn.  This will soon be patrolled weekly by a lawn mower, producing the wind of a million hummingbirds.  Its all relative.

I never tire of watching the hummingbirds come and go, for the most part oblivious to my presence.  Occasionally I catch a glimpse of one's tongue extended as it backs off.  My mother would have said it is "licking its chops."  At other times as it hovers away from the feeder I can see a quick stream of urine, embarrassing perhaps but necessary when it is living on a liquid diet.

Now in nesting season I will occasionally see a female clutching a wad of spider silk in her claws as she sips at the feeder.  These strong threads will bind her nest together and anchor it to the foundation.  Soon hummers will be rare at the feeder for a while as they concentrate on catching insects for the high protein diet their young require.  I don't worry as they will return in swarms like in this video by August.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Citizen Science Anyone?

Here is something to be looking for in your summer strolls.  The unknown leaf spot above has been found on chinkapin oaks in the southern half of Missouri since the summer of 2018.  "Striking in appearance, the leaf spot has several concentric rings spreading outward from the center.  This is referred to as a zonate or target leaf spot and resembles a bull's eye."

Cristulariella fungi species have been proposed as a cause and MDC Forest Health Program is working on identifying a pathogen.  If you encounter it , photograph it and report it to  The reward will be a warm feeling you have both from finding it and having a great picture.  See page 6 in this PDF.

I have recently been delving into leaf miners, the incredible story of the tiny insect larvae that live in tunnels between the upper and lower surface of a leaf before emerging from pupae as adults.  More on that soon.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Spotted Pink Lady Beetle

This little "ladybug" stood out in the late afternoon sun because of its distinctive pink background color, highlighting the black spots.  It was, of course, really a beetle (coleoptera), distinguished from true bugs (hemiptera) by the hardened wing covers (elytra) that meet in a straight line on its back.

Red form - Mike Quinn CC

Our pink spotted ladybug, Coleomegilla maculata, has a lot of variation in the background color.  Although Wikipedia states "Over most of its range the species is pink in coloration," a quick survey of the pages of photographs of C. maculata on Bugguide shows over 90% of the images are shades of red to dark orange.  In contrast, most of our Bull Creek specimens are pale pink.  They all share the distinctive markings with 6 black markings on each wing cover and two large triangular black patches on the thorax.

Larva or monster?  - Beatriz Moisset
They begin life as an egg, one of 200 to 1,000 that a female will attach to plants in groups of 8-15.  The larvae look like prehistoric long-legged alligators and they may travel up to 12 meters looking for food.  They are omnivorous, taking in aphids, insect eggs, and mites as well as pollen, nectar, honeydew and occasionally other lady beetle eggs and larvae.

Most of the eggs and larvae won't survive to adulthood, one of many of the underappreciated tiny insects making up the food web.  Those that make it will molt 4 times before attaching to a leaf and forming a pupa.  They will emerge 3-12 days later as an adult and either mate to start the cycle again or crawl under leaf litter and other places to ride out the winter.

These are the farmer's friend, attacking aphids on corn and other agricultural crops.  Planting dandelions between corn rows attracts the beetles which then move over on to the crops to feast on pests.  Planting dandelions!  Go figure.