Friday, July 31, 2020

Skullcap Skeletonizer

P. inflatella - Wikimedia

Tonya Smith spotted this micro moth about the size of a pencil eraser at Lake Springfield.   Richard C. Locke identified it as Prochoreutis inflatella, the skullcap skeletonizer moth. It's spotted location was close by the blue skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora,
Blue skullcap -Wikimedia
"The larvae feed on Scutellaria species, including Scutellaria lateriflora. They skeletonize the leaves, bending the leaf upwards and the edges together. They feed under slight webbing. The first larvae appear in March, only shortly after the host plant begins growth. Pupation occurs in a fusiform, multi-layered cocoon of white silk." 
Skullcap is the common name for the Scutellaria sp.  It refers to the shape of the flower's calyx which reminds those of us old enough to remember the days of Rome when the soldiers had skullcap helmets.  These are members of the mint family and some species have been used in Chinese and Native American medicine for a wide variety of illness.  Demand for them and the high price they command have threatened some species.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Tiger Bee Fly

This critter followed me in from the back yard and gave me a merry chase to capture it.  After  I photographed it through a magnifying box it returned to nature.  Its markings are distinctive enough to identify it as a tiger bee fly (TBF), Xenox tigrinus.  It is common enough to warrant its own page in the MDC Discover Nature field guide.

Tiger bee fly- ventral view

TBF is a true fly, equipped with a single pair of wings and it can hover like a bee.  It doesn't bite or have a stinger but looks intimidating enough that I didn't consider grabbing in with my hand.  It has a straw-like mouth tube or proboscis which some bee fly species use to collect nectar from flowers.  They likely are an occasional pollinator although they don't get down and wallow in the pollen like a bee does so they aren't very efficient.

Tiger Bee Fly - Chris Barnhart

TBF egg and larva - Mike Ferrro CC
Now the bad pollination news.  Bee flies are named because of their appearance in flight but they have another bee association.  Bee flies lay their eggs on bee larvae and their emerging larvae will then consume the bee's offspring.  TBF specializes in carpenter bees, Xylocopa.   For this reason the adults are frequently seen around wooden privacy fences, wooden roof overhangs, and similar wooden surfaces.

Chris Barnhart says, "It’s a Bald-faced hornet mimic. I watched both the model (hunting insects at the sheet) and the mimic (buzzing around the tailgate of my car). The resemblance is eerily good, posture and flight pattern as well as color and markings.

So, are bee flies good or bad?  The answer as always is "it depends."

More on bee flies is at this USFS site and Bug of the Month.

August 2020 update.
Ben Caruthers caught this Hunched-back Bee Fly in action, nectaring on Rudbeckia, their favorite species.  Just too good a photograph to pass up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Mydas Fly

Mydas Fly - Mark Bower

This Mydas fly, identified by Mark Bower, was a new species for me.  You can see it is large by the way it fills the flower head of the echinacea.  The dark color makes it look all the more dangerous but it is harmless unless you happen to be a beetle larva.  It gets its name from King Midas whose curse was that everything he touched turned to gold.  This sounds like a good curse until you try to eat dinner.

Mydas tibialis gets its name from the golden tibias or legs as seen in the photograph by the late Bob Moul.  During their short lifespan as adults they feed on nectar and pollen, serving as pollinators. The MDC Field Guide says that they are found on rattlesnake master on the prairies.

Mydas pupa - Cotinis CC
Mydas larvae live in rotting wood (such as dead trees lying on the forest floor) or in the soil.  They feed on beetle grubs that  are harmless in our natural habitats but a pest species on law

ns.  Mydas fly grubs have been proposed as biological control agents for use in sod farms.

Mydas sp. are harmless to us but are in the same family as robber flies which can bite defensively.  Unless you know your flies, I wouldn't try of grab one anyway.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Damselflies Mating

This beautiful photograph taken by Nopaddol Paothong along our creek presented me with an identification challenge.  It is a dusky dancer, Argia translata, but initially there were many candidates to chose from, an interesting chase.  Starting with a high resolution, well focused picture helps to see the details.  After cropping the picture above to focus on the female,  I sent it to INaturalist which suggested that it was a Argia sp. called a dancer.  This is a good starting point based on image recognition and consensus but not necessarily with expert input.

Female cropped - note male's abdomen has blue stripes on 9 and 10

Why a dancer?  Bug Lady a favorite of mine, has a lot more to say about them.  
Click to enlarge
"Dancers can be told from other damsels because the spines that adorn their legs are twice as long as the spaces between them (those spines help them to snag small insects on the fly). Their wings have short stalks (petioles) that, according to Paulson in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, make them strong fliers on their aerial hunts."

Male in cropped photo
I initially favored Argia tibialis based on this description in Bugguide.  "Male very dark above, with broad brownish-purple stripes on thorax, abdominal segments 9 and 10 blue (see female above). Female has blue and brown forms, but in both note wide black shoulder stripes, mostly dark abdomen.."  I vacillated between other species and finally sent it into Bugguide for verification and they settled on A. translata.

Damsels can be tough to ID, frequently dependent on tiny details in color. This is why Bugguide is valuable, a place where experts can focus in on their specialty and debate the fine points.  If you look at their photos of a genus, you will see many where they never settle on a species, an honest approach as not every question has an answer.

Fortunately the Argia males seem to have no problem identifying their own species.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Fun with a Jumper

Courtney Reece (of WOLF School fame) found this jumping spider in her kitchen and took a few shots of it before moving it to her front yard flowers.  I tentatively identified it as a a Phidippus sp. before getting an answer from Bugguide.  This is Maevia inclemens commonly called a dimorphic jumper (DMJ).

We discussed the Salticidae family of jumping spiders in this blog a few years ago.  They share the same flat face with two large eyes facing forward, specialized for prey identification and judging distance and are remarkably accurate in landing at up to 50 body lengths away.  Three more small pairs of eyes are on to of the head, able to detect movement and danger.  This National Geographic video demonstrates it in action. 

These spiders are fastidious about their appearance.  The article on DMJ in Wikipedia details their grooming technique.  "They moisten their fangs, draw the legs one at a time through the fangs, and "comb" the legs with the fangs and palps. The first and fourth pairs of legs are then used to groom other parts of the body, and the only place they appear not to reach is the dorsal surface of the carapace."  See this grooming video.

Gray morph
Dark morph

Courtney's spider is a female.  The DMJ get the title of dimorphic jumper from the two forms of males, one a dark morph or color and the other gray as seen above from Wikipedia.  The two morphs even have distinctive mating dances and approaches and mating techniques, each of which pays off with lots of offspring although it occasionally ends poorly for the successful male.

Meanwhile, Courtney's little lady is out in her front yard, looking for love.  She isn't particular about the guy's morph as long as he has the right moves.

Morph photos from Wikipedia, all others by Courtney Reece.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Silvery Checkerspot

Walking our lane I came across a plant so riddled with holes that I almost couldn't identify it as our very common Verbesina virginica.  This is the frostweed that we have written about many times.  The cause of the damage was only obvious when I turned the leaf over and saw this dense collection of caterpillars.

I started my search with Illinois Wildflowers and found that it is a host plant for only one butterfly, the silvery checkerspot, Chlosyne nycteis.  The caterpillar was a perfect match.  In addition to the yellow stripes, it has the branched spines typical of the Nymphalidae family. 

SC adult - Patrick Murray

BAMONA says females lay eggs in clusters of about 100 on the underside of host plant leaves and the young caterpillars move in groups as they skeletonize leaves.  Here our friend Evaly, already an experienced naturalist at 10, is studying a mass of young SC caterpillars.

I decided to try raising them to photograph the chrysalis.  After a period of time they just curled up and stopped eating.  Reading further I discovered that they spend the winter as caterpillars, waiting until spring to form a chrysalis.  I had to settle for using this photograph from Prairie Haven which has a extensive photo gallery demonstrating the silvery checkerspot life cycle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Picture Winged Ant Lion

Picture Winged Antlion - Ben Caruthers

Ben Caruthers sent me this mystery set of wings on the right which he identified by their distinctive coloration as from a  picture winged antlion.  A few days later he photographed the living specimen above and speculated that it might be an adult from antlion pits he had filmed a little earlier, seen in this Youtube video.  That made a lot of sense until we "dug deeper" into the life history of a PWA.

Antlion pit

Antlion adults look like a damselfly on a diet except for the way they hold their wings horizontally on their backs.  The garden variety antlion larva (aka doodlebug) is a ground dweller which creates a slippery sloped pit like this one in Ben's video.  When an unfortunate insect slides down the slope the antlion pounces as seen in my video of an antlion attacking a beetle.  That whole story is in this 2013 blog.

PWA larva -
But now the plot thickens. The MDC Field Guide says that "The doodlebugs of this species, however, live in the debris that accumulates in the hollows of trees, amid sawdust (decaying wood particles), squirrel droppings, and other materials. Termites, ants, and beetle grubs are their prey."  Other sources such as the encyclopedic listing at featured creatures concur so it is likely that his antlion pit is from a separate species.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Squirrels Have Their Gall

Chris Barnhart sent me these pictures with a question.  "When I saw all these twigs down under my neighbors' red oak tree, I thought twig girdlers were at work. But it looks more like squirrels cut them, and that they are chewing up some kind of woody galls."

Gouty oak galls along Bull Creek - REK

The multiple channels in Chris's opened gall are typical of gouty oak galls.  They are discussed at length in this Missouri University link.  They have a complex life cycle beginning when tiny stinger-less Cynipid wasps which lay their eggs on the oak leaf buds in the early spring and form tiny galls.  The adults that emerge from these galls in a few months mate and lay more eggs, this time on newly forming tree shoots.  This time the galls develop over several years, eventually girdling the stem.  These are the galls that Chris is holding.

I came across several sources that describe squirrels attacking these galls.  In addition to the Missouri Botanical Garden, there was a story on St. Louis Public Radio about an outbreak of chewed galls raining down on lawns.  Like the sawflies and other pests, these are primarily a problem in suburban areas where they congregate in a few isolated trees.  I have seen these yearly for 20 years but never in numbers to be anything more than an interesting part of nature.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Strange Larvae

For many plants, it's the season to be eaten.  I have been patrolling the shaded Mail Trace road along our bluffs, looking for what is chewing what. This shrub caught my eye with several large branches whose leaves were completely skeletonized.  There were a few remaining leaves that were healthy, but turning them over revealed masses of larvae packed tightly together on the underside, hiding from the midday sun and predators.  Other branches were unaffected and Barb identified it as gray dogwood, Cornus foemina, a common shrub along the lane.

For me, the chase to identify a species is half the fun.  I sent this photograph to INaturalist and its first choice was Macremphytus testaceus, a sawflyGoogling that mouthful (thank heavens for cut and paste) and Bugguide listed its food source as Cornus sp.  BINGO! 

The first photograph I found of the larva was bright orange with crisp black spots.  It does a Cinderella like costume change from the second instar which is covered in a white waxy covering.  They tend to hide out in the daytime and munch away at night. Here they are in this video when annoyed and escaping.

Last instar - Fyn Kynd CC
Sawfly - Tom Murray CC

Sawflies are actually in the wasp family as we discussed in this blog a few weeks ago. As usual, I checked Bugtracks and as usual Charley Eiseman had a great story which I quote:
"I once tried to raise these larvae, and had them in a Ziploc-type bag by my desk.  One night when sitting at my desk, I noticed some motion across the room out of the corner of my eye.  When I went over to investigate, I discovered that one of the larvae had chewed its way out of the plastic bag and had been trying to bore into the windowsill when it fell into a spider web, from which it was now struggling to free itself.  I later found a small pile of sawdust under a nearby chair, which the larva had evidently tried boring into before heading for the windowsill.  It turns out that Macremphytus species burrow into dead wood to overwinter and pupate."
I am currently raising my specimens in hard plastic containers but checking them regularly.

Linda Bower has filmed an encounter between a last instar M. testaceus larva and a Brown Recluse spider and as you might imagine it doesn't end well for the larva. See her video here.  (Spoiler alert- this could spoil your dinner.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Pretty Pests

Yellowstriped armyworm - Becky Swearingen

Our photographers have been busy collecting specimens, not always species we welcome.  Becky Swearingen started it with the cute cat above.  This is a yellowstriped armyworm (YA).  The name alone doesn't have a warm and fuzzy ring to it and its official name, Spodoptera ornithogalli, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

YA formal portrait - Featured Creatures

The moth is actually beautiful close up.  It is a little less than an inch long and would be easy to miss in nature.  This photograph below by Kevin Firth was taken at a mothing event where it was clinging to a white sheet.

"The term "armyworm" can refer to several species, often describing the large-scale invasive behavior of the species' larval stage. It is regarded as a pest and can damage and destroy a wide variety of crops, which causes large economic damage."  As "army" implies, they tend to occur in large numbers. 

A female can lay up to 3,000 eggs with as many as 500 eggs in one mass which is covered with scales from the moth's body.  Early instars may feed in masses before spreading out on their own to munch tender leaves.  Many of our preferred crops are tender and juicy.  In southern climes there may be three to four generations.

YA is native to the Western Hemisphere including the Caribbean but is only considered a pest in the southeastern US.  UFL Featured Creatures lists over 20 "crop" plants that it consumes in addition to various "weed" species.  While these categories mean a lot to us, old YA could care less.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Redbud Leaffolder Moth

Tonya's convict caterpillar

Tonya Smith has been out with her camera again, this time finding an interesting moth, the redbud leaffolder moth, Fascista cercerisella. The 12 mm caterpillar looks like it escaped from a chain gang in a silent movie, and like the convict, this one is hiding out.

Skeletonized leaf

These small caterpillars feed only on redbud, Cercis canadensis.  They first lay down strands of silk which tighten as they dry, creating a shelter where they hide as they munch the upper epithelium of the leaf, leaving a skeleton of veins and dry brittle tissue.  They produce primarily cosmetic damage, a "problem" in a suburban neighborhood if you have a redbud in your yard. 

Ohio State University

Jon Rapp, Columbia MO
Left alone they will pupate in their shelter and in Missouri they will have a second generation in the summer.  In the fall, the leaves drop and they survive winter as a pupa.  The adult is hard to find,  a 1/4 inch long black or very dark brown moth with white spots.  It first emerges in late April or early May. They lay their eggs near the veins. 

So is this a pest or a native food for predators?  It depends on where you live and the role of your redbud tree.  There are chemical industry answers, several topical or systemic insecticides, for people that think this is a problem in their yard. These include neonictinoids and other pesticides that harm a much larger number of creatures.  This is the equivalent of killing a fly with a hand grenade.

For me, the leaffolder is just another fascinating lifestyle from nature.  Thanks, Tonya!

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Striped Lynx Spider

Tonya Smith has been entertaining her granddaughter with nature.  "She was not thrilled about a spider. After I described it to be a glitzy spider with a pretty and shiny abdomen I was able to get her attention."  Aversion to spiders is most likely a cultural learned trait, spanning the spectrum from a bug in the house to full blown arachnophobia.  Like most things in life, knowledge and repeated exposure can bring understanding.

She found this spider skittering around on her golden alexander and identified it as a Striped Lynx spider, "one of the most abundant beneficial spider species in gardens, yards, and agricultural fields throughout North America. ". The eye arrangement is typical of the  the Lynx Spider family.  The stripes on the thorax are faint, suggesting that it may have just recently molted.  The iridescent dorsal coloration and the facial marking nails her diagnosis when compared with the photographs on
by Tonya Smith

The large pedipalps hanging below the face are the "key" in identifying this as a male.  They end in palpal bulbs that are uniquely shaped by the species.  The male reaches back to pick up his sperm, then fitting it into the female pore as described in Wikipedia as the "lock-and-key" theory.

Lynx spiders, Family Oxyopidae, are active hunters, eschewing web building and instead grabbing their prey in hand to hand combat (actually chelicera to insect).  They tend to hang out on flowers,wit awaiting various pollinators that are bitesize.  They have have "large spiny bristles on their legs and in many species the bristles form almost a basket-like structure that may assist in confining the prey that they grasp, and protect the spider from its struggles."

If everyone could learn just a little about spiders, children could grow up with an understanding of them if not actual affection.  Tonya's granddaughter is off to a good start.