Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Life in a Looper

Last month, Barb put some cuttings from her Swedish ivy, Plectranthus australis, in a vase on top of our piano. The plant is in the Lamiaceae or mint family. A few days later we found frass all around the base and spotted this looper caterpillar crawling along the leaves. 

We identified it as a soybean looper, Chrysodeixis includens.  It is found all over the western hemisphere and even the Galapagos.  It is a soybean pest but its diet includes a number of plant families including Lamiaceae above.

A few days later it had wrapped up a leaf in silk and formed a pupa.  We sealed the pupa in a baby food jar with a dampened little piece of paper towel to raise the moth for confirmation. When we returned to town a week later we found the leaf/pupa case seemingly intact and the jar filled with 200-300 little 1.5 mm winged creatures.   
Our best guess is these are parasitoid wasps, probably in the superfamily Chalcidae.

The silk case around the leaf had these wasps on the outside but none inside or on the pupa as seen below. Without a microscope I wasn't able to get any better photographs than this one. I kept the jar of wasps until Barb ruled that the household Statute of Limitations had run out and the dead bodies were committed to the kitchen drain.

There are over 22,500 known species of Chalcid wasps (who keeps track of them?) and most are under 3mm in length, the smallest being 0.14 mm! Most are parasitoids of insect species ranging from lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), flies, bugs and beetles, and even a few spiders. Ours probably emerged from the caterpillar pupa although I can't see the exit holes and none are inside the silk web.

Wasps all outside the silk enclosure

I am holding on to the pupa until spring in the unlikely possibility it wasn't the source of the wasps. Don't tell Barb.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Long-legged Fly

Last May I got this photograph of a long-legged fly from Courtney Reece of the WOLF School.  We now have "research grade" confirmation on INaturalist that it is Condylostylus longicornis, possibly the most wide spread species in its genus, found from the US down to Paraguay and even Polynesia!

Head on - Ken Schneider CC
Long-legged flies range in size from 1 to 9 mm and are usually a shining metallic color ranging from green to blue to bronze. They are generally characterized by their slender bodies and long legs.

They are commonly found in moist woodland areas.  Larvae develop in wet to dry soil and pupate in cocoons made up of soil particles cemented together. The larvae are predators, feeding on soil or bark-dwelling invertebrates.  Adults mate after elaborate and unique behavior, involving the males displaying their legs to the female.  Bugguide

Long-legged flies belong to the family Dolichopodidae (try saying that three times rapidly!) which has thousands of species worldwide.  Typically they have large, prominent eyes and a metallic cast to their appearance.

"Long-legged flies (Figure 1) are small (1-9 mm), but easy to recognize because of their metallic green, blue or gold coloration, slender body shape, and not surprisingly, rather long legs! Often you can find them scurrying about on vegetation in the sunlight during the day. They are excellent fliers, but usually run or fly short distances from leaf to leaf when disturbed, making them a lot of fun to observe in your own backyard!"

They are considered beneficial for pest control, feeding on small arthropods, including other flies, thrips, aphids, mites, springtails, leafhoppers, whiteflies, beetle larvae, and even termites! They will carry their prey around with them in flight as they secrete digestive enzymes into it and ingest the liquefied contents (similar to spiders). Ohioline.osu

Ready to pronounce Dolichopodidae? Here you go! 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Jumping Spider

I saw the little quarter inch cutie in the back of my truck with a pile of firewood.  It moved carefully with a few tiny steps, typical of a jumping spider (JS, family Salticidae) which will reserve its leaps for dinner or defense.  Although it was only a quarter inch long, I could make out the little hairs covering the body and legs. When challenged they may face the danger and back away in short spurts.  

When a JS makes its jump it usually leaves a silk thread to dangle from if needed.  When I bumped it with a stick it jumped and hung from the thread as I nudged it into a bug box.  A few hours chilling in the refrigerator let me get a good facial photograph.

JS can be recognized by their eye pattern. All jumping spiders have four pairs of eyes, with the anterior middle pair being particularly large.  They have binocular vision that allows them to measure the distance to their prey, necessary when they pounce on a victim.  The small pair on the top of their head seen above gives them 360 degree vision to movement with a slight turn of the head.


You have to love the face of my jumping spider.  Spiders have mouth parts called chelicerae and on JS species they are often metallic blue-green.  These function like fingers, the upper portion fixed and the lower flexible. They can contain glands for the toxic fluid to paralyze prey and manipulate their dinner.

There is a lot more to like about jumping spiders.  For one thing, you can play with them, getting them to chase a laser light as shown in many Youtube videos.  As described in this Atlantic article, their eyes are shaped like little telescopes, a tube with a lens at each end just like Galileo created.  "Only three groups of animals have similar eyes: falcons, chameleons, and jumping spiders."

Bug Lady* describes the advantages of their hirsute body and legs:

"JS’s are relatively short-legged. Each leg ends with many tiny hairs, and each of those tiny hairs is further split into many more hairs, and each of those hairs is equipped with an “end foot.” With all those mini-feet, jumping spiders can boldly go where no spider has gone before—like straight up a pane of glass with the end feet gripping, just like a climbing wall, the “imperfections” in the glass."

There are an estimated 5,000 species of JS and mine doesn't have enough distinctive features to identify it further. The good news is that they can make the identification for mating.  As in many other spider species, sex is dangerous as the female may decide that the first meeting is going to be a "dinner" date.

*Bug Lady's blog has a lot more interesting details of JS at this link.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Pretty Little Gall

Lynette Elliott CC

This little beauty showed up on our hike through Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, spotted in the leaf litter by a sharp-eyed WOLF student.  It is a small oak apple gall, and a quick trip to INaturalist confirmed its original owner as a speckled gall wasp, Cynips mirabilisAn egg is laid on a leaf in a newly opened bud, along with a dose of a plant stimulating chemical which causes the leaf to grow a protective structure around the egg. There a larva will grow, protected and fed by the leaf.

Parasitoid wasp - Lynette Elliott CC

The female wasp is actually an engineer which provides several other services to nature.  In addition to the tiny wasp that may develop, a parasitoid, such as the wasp above, may drill into the gall to lay its own egg.  That larva will feed on the original owner, eventually killing it.  Once either one of these emerge, other insects (called inquilines) such as ants and spiders may take up residence in the empty gall.

Cynipid parasitoid wasp - CC

Oak galls usually create only mild cosmetic damage to the leaves.  Most online information on them is how to get rid of them including insecticides which can destroy tiny ecosystems that we don't even know exist on our oak tree.  If you see them as a wonderful slice of nature, you can learn more at this site.  For more on the wonderful world of parasitoid wasps, check out this Amateur Anthecologist site.  

(I didn't know either.  Anthecology is the study of pollination.)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

WOLFs to Wilson's Creek

A WOLF field trip always produces lots of discoveries I would miss as my young colleagues are sharper eyed and built lower to the ground.  A student found this beauty in the leaf litter, a 3/4" lichen on an oak twig.  INaturalist confirmed it as a golden-eye lichen, Teloschistes chrysophthalmus Lichens in general are sensitive to air pollution so these are good news.

This North American least shrew, Cryptotis parvus, was spotted dead on the trail.  These measure less than 3 inches from nose to tail tip.  The shrew's eyes are small and its ears are completely concealed, stuffed with its short fur.  Although it resembles a mouse, it's in a completely different order.

Shrews and moles are featured in this month's Missouri Conservationist.  They are predators that specialize in insects and invertebrates such as worms.  Their saliva contains a venom that not only paralyzes its prey but also acts as a preservative.  Since they remain active in winter and need to eat over 50% of their body weight daily, keeping a stored supply of food is important.

Last up is this little stinker, identified by Ruby who had one of Mark Bower's  books in her backpack.  It is a common stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus.  The species name impudicus translates as shameless, immoral, impudent, lewd, etc.  It covers its spores in a foul smelling goop called a gleba.  This attracts flies which think they are landing on ripe carrion, only to be disappointed as they fly off with spores to plant at a distant location.  More on this at this Wikipedia link.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Antlered Flutter Fly

This little 4mm fly landed on the arm of my chair on the deck above Bull Creek.  It wandered around slowly, raising and lowering its wings every few seconds as it patiently waited for me to get out my camera.  INaturalist identified it easily as an antlered flutter fly, Toxonevra describes it:

 "Toxonevra superba is is a widely distributed but rare flutter fly. It is sometimes called antlered flutter fly, but not by any authoritative sources. It occurs in the United States from Maine to Minnesota south to Georgia and Nebraska, and in southern Canada from Nova Scotia to Alberta. Adults are found on flowers and on low branches of trees and shrubs. Larvae may feed on plant material, or they may prey on the larvae of bark beetles, or both. "

T. superba is a member of the Pallopteridae fly family, so named because of the way the males extend and vibrate their wings.  This earns them common names of trembling-wing, waving-wing or flutter-wing flies.

With its distinctive antler pattern on the wings there are lots of photographs of them on the web but not much more definitive information on the species.

Over 70 species in about 15 genera are found in the temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres according to Wikipedia.   With one last look at it below you can see why its 1/6" size is its only protection during deer season.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Swift Feather-legged Fly

Hairy legs - Wikipedia
I followed this little guy in our back yard as it darted from flower to flower, skimming the surface like a typical pollinator.  Even without magnification I could see the the large headlight eyes of a fly.  INaturalist identified it as a swift feather-legged fly- Trichopoda pennipes.  This view on the right shows how it earned its "feather-legged" name.

"These medium-sized flies have a velvety black head. The velvety black or brown thorax shows a few yellow stripes. Eyes are large brown with yellow between. The color of the slender abdomen varies from bright orange to completely black."  INaturalist


While they are feeding on nectar of flowers such as Queen Anne's lace, they are also on the search for insects to raise their young. They will deposit a few eggs on squash bugs, stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs.

"When the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow into the bug. If there are several larvae in one host, only one survives. After feeding on the bug's tissues, the cream-coloured larva emerges and falls to the ground where it pupates in a reddish-brown puparium formed from the last larval skin. The bug meanwhile dies. After about two weeks, an adult fly emerges from the pupa. After mating, a female fly may lay several hundred eggs in total. There are up to three generations of the fly each year and the parasitoid overwinters as a second instar larva within the body of the overwintering host,"  INaturalist.    

Egg on green stinkbug head- Wikipeida
Old feather-leg is a gardener's friend, laying eggs on a wide variety of plant pest species.  There are different biotypes across the United States, preying on different hosts in different regions.  On the southern green stink bug, the rate of parasitism can be as high as 93% and up to 80% on the squash bug.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Vulture Migration

After several rainy cold days the sun returned for two glorious fall days.  After several hours cutting firewood, I treated myself to a nap on the newly cut hay field along the edge of the valley.  I was looking up at the blue sky and the orange and red leaves above my head and feet, with an open horizon to the north and south.

I noticed a tiny speck appear in the north.  As it came overhead I could see the typical shape of a soaring turkey vulture, its wings held above in a flat "V" shape.  It was flying higher that I had ever seen and another speck followed, then another, all spaced out but headed in the same direction.  Eventually I counted 25 over 5 minutes, with never more than 5 scattered in the visible sky at a time.

After 15 minutes my dog came over to tell me it was time to get back to work, but as I started to get up another speck came in sight.  I checked the time and start counting again, ending with 53 when the parade ended 10 minutes later.  Again, not a single wing flap the full time, and the vultures were always widely separated.  There were never more than 5 birds visible in the whole open sky at one time.

Thermal updrafts allow turkey vultures much longer flights while soaring with their wings steady.  The vultures migrate in the daytime and avoid rainy or cloudy days which don't have the updrafts that allow them to glide without flapping their wings.  In the full time that I was watching them I never saw a single wing beat, just their steady glide and distinctive teeter from side to side as described in Bird Note.

Research on turkey vulture migration included a bird fitted with a heart-rate logger during 124 hours of flight during 38 contiguous days.  That showed only a small increase in mean heart rate as distance traveled per day increased, which suggests that, unlike flapping, soaring flight does not lead to greatly increased metabolic costs.

I didn't get any pictures as I could never get more that two birds in a frame of my telephoto.  It was just one of those "you had to be there" days.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Imperial Moth

We did some baby sitting with a teen aged Imperial Moth caterpillar this fall, feeding it sweetgum leaves daily until it pupated.  I had intended to get some pictures of the pupation but like a sneaky teenager, it changed overnight.  Ours looked like this one above from UFL Entomology.

They start out life as incredibly cute little "cats" with stripes and a few tufts of non-stinging hairs.  Like many lepidoptera, they may snack on their egg case before finding leaves of oaks, maples, sassafras, or sweetgum.  Later instars, like below, develop a spiky look of the punk generation of teens.

The final instar crawls into the soil and leaf litter to pupate and spend the winter.  It comes equipped with a couple of pointed tail pipes that are said to help it dig its way out in the spring before emerging as the full grow silk moth.  If you have trouble visualizing it wiggling to the surface, just watch this video of a pupa in action.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Rare Mushroom


Underside- Mark Bower

Mark Bower found this rare mushroom on the trail behind our cabin, reported to have been only seen by 10% of mycologists. He said this about it:

"It is Hohenbuehelia mastrucata, the wooly oyster, probably my favorite mushroom. The genus was named after the Austrian mycologist and poet Baron Ludwig Samuel Joseph David Alexander Freiherr von HohenbĂĽhel Heufler zu Rasen und Perdonegg (1817-1885). Thankfully only a part of his name was used. The specific epithet means “wearing sheepskin” and refers to the “wooly” appearance of the cap surface."

It is found during summer and fall, decomposing well-rotted hardwood logs, and has a particular affinity for maples. The cap is gray, with brownish areas, and is adorned with gelatinous spines. Now here is where it gets really interesting.

This genus is nematophagous (nematode/worm-eating). While dead wood is a good source of carbon, it doesn't have enough nitrogen which the fungi need to make proteins. Mark describes it thus:

"It is one of the many carnivorous fungi. It is capable of killing and digesting nematodes, which provide a great nitrogen supplement. Its normal substrate, rotting hardwood, has a very low nitrogen content.

This species has hour glass-shaped “adhesive knobs” on its hyphae. When a nematode comes into contact with a knob, it sticks to it. The fungus then directs other hyphae to enter the nematode’s mouth and anus. It then exudes enzymes which kill and digest the poor worm from within." goes on to say:  "Like several other species in the Pleurotaceae, the woolly oyster is nematophagous. Unsuspecting nematodes squirming around in dead broadleaf trees come in contact with sticky traps made out of fungal conidia. There’s a diverse array of fungal structures that evolved to trap nematodes, including hyphal nets, constricting lassos, and the sticky knobs H. mastrucata creates. Once the nematode is stuck in place, mycelial strands penetrate the organism, and exude enzymes that break down nematode tissue from the inside-out. The nitrogen rich slurry then becomes absorbed by the fungus." 

More details about Hohenbuehelia mastrucata are at this link.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Wavy Mucksucker

I got this beautiful photograph in an email from Ben Caruthers titled "Have you ever seen a Wavy Mucksucker?" As this is a family blog, I won't give you all of the many responses that went through my mind. It turns out that this is a Wavy Mucksucker, Orthonerva nitida. (nitida= "shining")

The "wavy" comes from the lines on their eyes which reminds observers of hieroglyphics or primitive drawings. This pattern is a unique identifying feature. The tiny fly tops out at 1/4" (6 mm).

This is a syrphid or hoverfly, commonly referred to as flower flies. They are all member of the insect family Syrphidae. As you might have guessed, they are often seen hovering or nectaring at flowers; the adults of many species feed mainly on nectar and pollen.  Their larvae eat a wide range of foods, depending on the species.  Some eat aphids, thrips and other plant-sucking insects, helping to defend our gardens.


According to American Insects "This fly with the odd eyes ranges from Ontario and Maine south to Texas and Georgia. It is also found in California and Washington. In the more central part of its range it is most commonly seen May to October."

Hoverflies are considered the second most important pollinators, just behind bees.  My personal favorite it the Yellowjacket Hover Fly, aka. "news bee".  We see them both in town and in the country fields, giving us the news with urgent buzzing while hovering sometime inches in front of our faces.  Once you get to know them you too will welcome their visit. 

For us casual observers it is all in the unique eyes but Ben's photographs above give us a good chance to see the details as described in FFnaturesearch.

"A tiny Syrphid fly is about 1/4 inch (6 mm) in length. The eyes are large and tan with a dark dash line and many squiggly brown lines. The face has scales and is metallic looking. The antennae are black. The thorax is brown with dark brown stripes. The abdomen is brown with metallic overtones. The wings are clear with dark veining. The femurs and tibiae are black and the tarsi are orange with black tips." 

  Oops, a family blog!    Pamela Fisher CC

Monday, October 11, 2021

Fungi Feast


Mark Bower sent this photograph of a caterpillar eating a fungus.  It turns out that this is a moth larva that eats not only its veggies but also some mushrooms on the side!  Zooming in close, it is quite distinctive and INaturalist easily identified as an Agreeable Tiger Moth,  Spilosoma congruaMark said:

"These are my only pictures so far. The first one is how I found them before I disturbed them. The mushrooms are Lycoperdon pyriforme, the Stump Puffball. I have them in a container on the kitchen counter and as the mushrooms decompose they are creating an unpleasant odor. Not sure I want to keep them."

Even my ever-patient editor Barb would draw the line at their kitchen counter resident.

Dustin Welch CC

Common sources say the larvae are general feeders on a variety of herbaceous plants, including dandelion (Taraxacum spp.), plantain (Plantago spp.), and pigweed (Amaranthus spp.)  It took a much deeper dive to come up with this resource which documented the fungivorous habit of this species.  

Unlike a fungivore like myself, they prefer theirs raw.  If the photos that Mark sent tend to turn you off, I would suggest you stick to the picture of the moth.....and avoid his kitchen cabinet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Batty about Spicebush

Find the bat!

Other side of a "leaf"- Click to enlarge
Mark Bower was picking spicebush berries for a natural spice when he came across a very unusual brown dead leaf, thicker than the others. Thinking it might be a gall or a moth pupa, he touched it and felt fur as it wiggled in his hand. As a highly trained naturalist he immediately concluded it wasn't just a leaf.

Moving to the other side he could see it was a bat. After photographing it he identified it as an eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), as later confirmed by Melvin Johnson. According to Wikipedia, "they spend most of their time year-round on tree leaves or in tree leaves on the ground. They tend to generally be loners as well, and tolerate cold temperatures and snow."

Mark checked it the next day and it was still clinging to the same leaf. When he touched it lightly, it spread its wings....still alive! The question that he now faced was is this a healthy bat? The following day it was gone, suggesting that it had just been sleeping in.

We asked Melvin Johnson again. "It looked fat. Likely wasn't all that hungry the other night. They don't always feed every night. It may be back if it really likes that area and/or location. They can also travel large distances."

Side view, upside down. Note the cute ear.

They spend most of their time year-round on tree leaves or in tree leaf litter on the ground. In the Midwest some may migrate south while others will spend the winter here, nestled up in hollow trees and leaf piles. They are not usually cave dwellers.

So why was Mark picking spicebush berries? To make cookies! Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a common understory shrub in the Ozarks. Barb calls it the scratch and sniff plant. All parts of spicebush are very aromatic. In early spring it has small yellow flowers. The female plants produce bright red berries in fall. These berries can be used as a substitute for allspice. They are also eaten by many species of birds. When the leaves are crushed they can be used for making tea.

Spicebush swallowtail - Featured creatures CC

Spicebush is the host plant for both the spicebush swallowtail (SST, aka Papilio troilus) and the eastern tiger swallowtail ((Papilio glaucus). Other species such as the Promethea silkmoth
(Callosamia promethea) feed on the leaves as do deer and other mammals. Our SST is not only a beautiful butterfly but it has one of the cutest caterpillars ever!