Friday, September 23, 2022

Rusty Spider Wasp

Building her nest - BC

Ben Caruthers comes through again with a great set of pictures.  He shot this red wasp and identified it as a rusty spider wasp (RSP), a lot easier to pronounce than its scientific name Tachypompilus ferrugineusThis is a large and impressive wasp that dives into its work head first.


Rusty spider wasp dragging a wolf spider across the ground
Click to enlarge - MDC











Spider wasps belong to the family Pompilidae.  These wasps visit flowers for nectar but their fame comes from killing spiders to feed the family.  The female stings her spider prey into paralysis and then drags the spider backwards to her nest, gripping the incapacitated spider with her mandibles.  The trip can be long and laborious as the spider is frequently much larger than the wasp.  Maybe that is why they call it going into labor?

Spider Wasp and Wolf Spider - Tachypompilus ferrugineus
With a wolf spider prey - Ted Kropiewnicki CC

Once the nest is prepared to her satisfaction, she grabs the spider and rolls it over so it is on top of her while she deposits a single egg before covering it with soil.  I frequently wonder how we know details like these but in this case it was observations by R.W. Strandtman described in this more detailed source.

The RSP specializes in collecting wolf spiders (Lycosidae).  Other species of spider wasps also tend to specialize in their spider prey, some with free living hunting species and others using web spiders.  The young wasp will get all its nutrition from this spider while all adults feed on nectar.

After this considerable effort to deliver and feed a single young, I wonder if she doesn't tell the next male that finds her, "Not tonight, I have a headache!"

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Giant Walkingstick

I found this stick insect in the bed of my truck after emptying a load of cut branches.  This is a giant walkingstick,  Megaphasma denticrus, quite distinctive in coloration.  This is the longest insect in North America, reaching up to seven inches long.

It had a rough day and was missing one leg but that didn't keep it from climbing onto my hand and start heading upward, the only direction most stick insects want to go.  During the day they cling to the tree, sometimes swaying a little like a small branch.  Their defense is to drop to the ground and they are light enough to survive the fall.  Then they immediately start to climb up for food and shelter.  M. dentricrus adult's favorite food is oak and grapevine leaves.

This specimen is a male, defined by a large, single spine on the underside of its mid and hind femora, the first leg segment like our femur.  Another distinctive male feature is the clasper at the end of its body.

Copulation - Marvin Smith CC

Males tend to be smaller and far fewer than females.  The copulation consists of the male using his clasper to hang on to the female's genitalia, fertilizing the eggs as they come out and immediately drop to down to the forest floor.  The male may hang on for several days, eating during this time. 

The female may produce 150 eggs with three eggs per hour.  Her ovipositor has a small flipper which propels them randomly, ensuring that they are scattered and less likely to compete for vegetation.  (See ADW)


Clasping copulation - Marvin Smith cc

The young offspring feed on grass and leaves, particularly oaks and grapevine.  They will go through four to five molts before achieving sexual maturity.  This species is known to regenerate a missing limb but in this case I wasn't able to raise it long enough to make it to the WOLF School alive.  I think it died of a lonely heart, never having reached its biological imperative.

Ben Caruthers sent this incredible macro of its eye.  Now check this Bugguide link for more photographs.


Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Ant that Ain't - Cow Killer

Our unpaid staff photographer Ben Caruthers sent me a set of photographs of a velvet ant that are too good to pass up. I updated this blog from 2013, guesssing that you won't remember it.

Female Velvet Ant
Some years ago I was out with some young naturalists.  All kids are naturalists if given a little freedom and encouragement.  They found this critter running rapidly through the cropped grass and weeds by our swimming hole.  The consensus among my young naturalists was "Wow, look at that ant!" and they were partially correct.  It is a velvet ant, an insect that "ain't really an ant."  I chased this swift creature for several minutes before catching in it a bug box.  Due to its formidable appearance,  I wasn't tempted to pick it up, a wise decision.

Male Velvet Ant - Ben Caruthers

This is a wasp called an Eastern velvet ant, Dasymutilla occidentalis. Although he looks wicked, he lacks a stinger as do all male wasps.  As a rule of thumb, I assume that all wasps are female until proven otherwise.  In this case however, the females lack wings and don't even look wasp like.

Male side view - BC

Velvet ants are characterized by their dense hair in vivid shades of red, orange or yellow.  The winged males have a different coloration than the wingless females.  Bright colors in insects are frequently warnings of toxicity or the ability to hurt predators like us.  Other harmless insects may also have these bright colors called aposematic that falsely warn of their toxicity.  In this case, the females are the real thing.

"I am not smiling!" - BC

Their other name is "cow-killer" which probably gives you a hint of their defense.  The name derives from the female's stinger.  She has a sting that is rated as a three on a one through four Schmidt sting pain index scale.  Justin Schmidt prompted insects to sting him and then graded the severity of the pain in terms generally reserved for a wine connoisseur.  These ranged from "light, ephemeral, almost fruity" to ""hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue."

Adults feed on nectar and water.  The male flies around looking for females on the ground.  They are parasitoids, rearing their young in nests of other species, eventually killing them.  When they emerge, the males fly off while the females crawl away as a warm and fuzzy "ant" - well maybe not so warm.

"Male mutillids fly in search of females; after mating, the female enters a host insects nest, typically a ground nesting bee or wasp burrow, and deposits one egg near each larva or pupa.  The mutillid larvae then develop as idiobiont ectoparasitoids, eventually killing their immobile larva/pupal hosts within a week or two."  Wikipedia

Surprisingly, the female's toxin isn't all that strong.  The severe pain is due to the extraordinarily long stinger!  Even without a stinger, the wasps have other defenses against predators.  In addition to its coloration and a thickened exoskeleton, when bothered they emit a stinky chemical secretion.  Also both males and females run fast which Ben mentioned makes them hard to photograph, let alone catch.  When threatened, they make warning sounds and clicks by rubbing their body parts together, a trait called stridulation.

Best to remember that their attitude is "just leave me alone!"

 "You wanna pick me up?"  Wayne Boo at  USGS

Monday, August 8, 2022

Frog-biting Midge


 Exciting News - Hang on for a long ride!

This little lady above was collected by our friend and stream researcher Nathan Dorff from Peckout Hollow just beyond our old barn.  After several years collaborating with experts in the field, it is now official.  This is a new species of frog-biting midge, now officially named Corethella kipferi.  These midge larvae spend their entire lives in the hyporheic zone, the water flowing out of sight under gravel bars.  There they happily spend their hours munching on mosquito larvae and other tiny delectables.  Then in a moment of passion they come flying when the female hears the call of a frog and draws out some blood, necessary to produce fertilized eggs for the next generation.

Adult female midges, < 2mm

The female adult specimens above are in my collection.  Preserved in alcohol, they measure just about 2 mm.  Nathan collected them in an insect trap as they were responding to the recorded call of a gray tree frog, Dryophytes versicolor, aka Hyla versicolor.  He had previously collected the larvae from pipe wells he had driven into the hyporheic zone bed of Peckout Hollow running below the dry surface gravel.  You may recall Hyla versicolor from this previous blog.

By now you are probably really confused.  I will try to explain a little more about our new species or you can just read Nathan's whole paper here.

If you are still with me, here we go.  Don't say I didn't warn you!  (Editors note:There will not be a test.)

The frog-biting midges are in the single genus Corethrella.  There were a total of 115 species and counting at last report with "52 of these being new" before Nathan's report.  All known species occur between the 50 North and 50 South parallels and are restricted to areas where frogs can live.

C. kipferi larva - Nathan Dorff
C. kipferi - Nathan Dorff

The larvae of FB midges are not distinctive and cannot be identified down to species level.  That said, I think that think you will agree that they are kinda cute!

FB midge eating mosquito larva - Sturgis McKeever at Bugwood

The larvae are predators on zooplankton in the water, such as mosquito larva above.  They remain anchored and stationary, grabbing dinner as it passes.  There is little known about their dietary specifics although one paper reported a common species that prefers munching on our Asian tiger mosquito larvae.

Of course their fame comes from the female's obligatory diet of frog blood.  They are thought to seek out the frog calls by their specialized Johnston's organ, a collection of sensory cells found on the second antenna segment.  Now that has to be tiny on a 2mm midge!  An article on Eavesdropping Vampires delves deep into how and possibly why they pick out hosts by their calls.

There is even some evidence of some having not only specific host frog species but even preferred biting sites on the frog by different midges such as face sucking or back biting!

Wikipedia CC



Congratulations for hanging on for the whole ride.  This was a lot more than you asked for but I find it fascinating how much we can now learn about a tiny insect that measures 1/16"!

C. kipferi - Nathan Dorff

Finally, I was curious about this face shot and asked Nathan about it. 

"They are photomicrographs….but I’m afraid the techniques are beyond me. Essentially they take a stack of photographs through a microscope from different “depths” at high magnification and combine them to make those spectacular composites with so much detail. Love the compound eyes!!

We are grateful for Nathan's studies, his friendship and sharing his youngest addition to the family with us.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Handful of Wasps


It was yellow wasp day in Springfield.  We started the day with the little one on the right.  Barb had seen them flying into a small construction hole in a rain barrel.  My first thought was yellow jackets but it looked a little small and they almost always nest underground.  I carefully caught one and chilled it in the refrigerator.  Once I could get better photographs I could compare it with yellow jacket specimens.

Yellow jacket - MDC
European paper wasp - Polistes dominula








When you get them side by side the distinction becomes easier.  The yellow jacket has black antennae vs. the orange ones on the European paper wasp.  The yellow jacket abdomen is thicker and shouldered at the front.  Paper wasps dangle their legs in flight which is easy to see.  On the other hand the yellow jacket has its legs up tight to the abdomen which tells you two things; it isn't a paper wasp and you are way too close! 

The Polistes dominula is a docile species and will only sting if you disturb their nests, unlike the yellow jackets we discussed in a previous blog.  They are an invasive species but not a big problem.  They have a lek based mating system where the females in the nest may mate with various males promiscuously so that 35% of the nest are unrelated.  (They are European you know!)

While I was identifying my specimen I heard a buzzing around some of Barb's native plants on the deck and saw a big yellow wasp slowly buzzing around the sunflower heads.  I wasn't able to photograph it on the wing and finally resorted to netting it and then very carefully transferring it in to a bug box for chilling.  

My first guess was right, this was the famous cicada killer, Spheseus speciosus.  You can watch this entertaining dramatic video on them on YouTube that I would recommend for fun.  MDC has a more scientific approach here.  They are scary in flight but relatively harmless, never aggressive unless you grab one or step barefooted on them at their nest opening on the ground.  The males bang into each other in competition for females but their pointed end is all a bluff.  Only the females can sting you.

MDC describes their lifecycle:

"Females emerge and dig nest tunnels; then they hunt, sting, and paralyze cicadas, transport them to the nest, drag them inside, and lay an egg on them. The larvae hatch in a few days and start eating the cicadas. Within a month, they finish growing, form a protective cocoon, and overwinter. In spring they pupate for about a month, then emerge as adults."

Not all wasps are harmful and even the paper wasps just want to be left alone to hunt spiders and other insects for their babies.  Avoid unnecessary insecticides unless they are where you can't avoid them.

Wasps on a quarter - OK, so these did die in the cause of education.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Spragueia Moth


Ben Caruthers sent me this picture which he identified as a Common Spragueia Moth (Spragueia leo).  This is a friend of a farmer or gardener as its favorite food is invasive bindweed that tends to spread where we don't want it.  

Field Bindweed- Wikipedia

Field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, a native of Eurasia, was first documented in California in 1884 and rapidly became the "worst invader in California."  The roots can extend down 14 feet into the soil, making it drought tolerant.  Meanwhile, its roots can spread laterally for 10 feet in a growing season.  Its "bindweed" name comes from its twining growth clinging to other plants.  It thrives in disturbed soil such as agricultural fields and gardens.

S. leo caterpillar - Moth Photographers

Meanwhile back at the moth, there isn't a lot written about this beauty other than it's description.  It measures up to 1/4".  The map on Moth Photographers Group shows it's quite common but only in the southeast US.  It would be tempting to ship it to California where bindweed is a problem but it might then develop a taste for other desirable plants.  It doesn't pay to try outwitting Mother Nature.


There are a few pictures of the caterpillar which strike me as something out of a science fiction movie. Above is one of them.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Thorn-headed Treehopper

I particularly enjoy little insects that generally escape our observation.  This little critter was photographed by Tonya Smith.  It was crawling along a stem although with those feet it looks more like paddling.  This was a totally new species to me, a Two-marked Treehopper,  Enchenopa binotata, aka Thornbug.   Before we get into details, you have got to see it in action on her Youtube video.

I often have a hard time identifying small insects down to species and in this treehopper I have a good excuse.  This is called a species complex rather than a species.  Reading the bottom line in the Wikipedia explanation, it basically means there are variations that can't be identified down to species and are identified by the plant they are feeding on.
These are "true bugs" or Hemiptera equipped with the standard sucking mouth parts.  They are sap feeders including their 5 generations of nymphs, but they don't cause much damage, measuring in at around 8mm (1/4th inch) when full grown.  They rarely hop but do fly between food sources, especially when the males are looking for love.  Females tend to stay on their birth plant.
This little package has a lot of talent vocal talent.  Males croon a love song to catch the ladies attention, the sounds traveling through the plant.  Her response is described as a grunting sound.  She will then lay her fertilized eggs in a slit she makes in the plant with her ovipositor.  Females frequently gather on a stem with egg masses covered with a protective foam called egg froth.
Treehopper eggs -  Tom Murray
There is a lot more fascinating things to learn about these little thorn heads.  I would suggest you start with the INaturalist page, then turn to  Buglady at UWM  for more photographs and details.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Milkweed Life

Red Milkweed Beetle - Tetraopes tetrophthalmus - Ben Caruthers

Everywhere you come across the word milkweed in the press it is tied to Monarchs.  The butterflies’ populations are down from loss of milkweed because of extensive roadside mowing, herbicide use and monoculture farming in rural areas.  This has led to a major effort to grow milkweed in parks, other public spaces and even our yards.  It turns out that this isn’t the first time that Americans have been encouraged to grow milkweed.

There was an earlier program during World War II to plant and harvest milkweed. The seed pods were collected and shipped to central collection stations. Milkweed floss is over 5 times as buoyant as cork and a lightweight life jacket was both effective and easy to store. It was also warmer than wool and 6 times lighter, perfect for aviators flying over the ocean.


Because milkweed is best known for being the obligatory host plant for Monarch caterpillars it is easy to forget about the value of milkweed in nature. There are several species native to Missouri. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) grows in the easter 2/3rd of the United States. To the 450 species of insects that feed on it, it must look like Walmart. 


In our back yard a lot of other insects can be found on the plants. The Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, has orange stripes. This bright aposematic color advertises its accumulation of toxic chemicals from the plants and say “don’t even think about eating me!” As true bugs (Hemiptera) they go through 5 juvenile life stages, all resembling smaller versions of the adult.





 Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars also collect toxins as they chew away on the leaves. You would think that predators would look at all those hairs and say “yuck!” The adult moth also makes ultrasonic clicks to warn bats and others to stay away.


The Southern Milkweed Leaf Beetles, Labidomera clivicollis, are again brightly colored and pick up toxin, but they believe in moderation. They will cut the vein of the leaf to drain out some of the sticky milky sap before chewing the leaf.

Milkweed Aphids, Aphis nerii, feed on the sap and get a little chemical protection.  They can push noxious secretions out their little tailpipes called cornicles.  Scientific studies have shown that when this secretion is applied to a spider's mouth parts, it will retreat and wipe its mouth (and presumably make a terrible face!)  This shows that the secretion is an effective deterrent.  It also suggests that some entomologists have way too much time on their hands.

Looking at the ant above you might think these aphids are toast but they actually have a more interesting relationship.  The aphids suck sugary phloem from the plant and excrete excess sugary secretions which may collect on the plant.  Ants get this nutritious drink from the aphids and it protects them. In return the ants tend the aphids almost like a farmer with dairy cattle.

Meanwhile back to the butterfly.  Monarchs spend the winter in Mexico, then fly north to the southwestern states where they mate, lay their eggs on milkweeds and die. Their caterpillars munch, grow, shed their skin 5 times then form a chrysalis and emerge to fly north. They do this through three generations, each time settling down where milkweeds are in season.   

Then a miracle occurs and the last migratory generation flies back to the Mexican forests which their great-grandparents migrated from last spring!  They will live there for up to 9 months before starting the cycle again.  How they find that wintering spot without a GPS, no one knows.


More on common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is here.

Looking for more milkweed photos.  Check this album.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Leatherwing with Boots

I have been seeing these beetles in our wafer ash patch and then had this beautiful picture by Becky Swearingen jump out at me on Bi-State Bugs.  In the past I had seen similar colored Pennsylvania Leatherwings, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus, but the pattern wasn't right.  This is the margined leatherwing beetle, Chauliognathus marginatusIt appears in late spring and will be gone by mid-summer, about the time that the Pennsylvanians first appear to inhabit their favorite plant, goldenrods.

Mating Pair - REK

Without Becky's camera or talent I had to get the lens too close, causing them to scurry away.  I chased this mating pair, finally giving up and capturing them.  After refrigeration, they slowed down so I could photograph them separately.

Leatherwing female - REK
Leatherwing male - REK

  Pennsylvania leatherwing-Clay Nichols



The coloration is confusing as the most prominent feature, the broad black stripe down the elytra is variable, ranging from prominent and full length to a short spot on my two specimens and sometimes even completely absent.  The margined species have a yellow head with a black "V" while the Pennsylvanians have an all black head.  The black patch of the pronotum (back of the thorax) extends full length rather than being just in the center on Pennsylvanians.

Leatherwings get that title because of their soft flexible elytra wing covers which are hard in most beetles.  The family are also referred to as soldier beetles because of their bright colored "uniforms".  They nectar on flowers as well as feeding on small insects and their eggs. While the Pennsylvania Leatherwing is usually found in the fall, the Margined crawl are out in early summer.  Following mating, they lay their eggs in the soil and ground litter where their larvae will feed until their fall pupation.


Pollinia afoot -  Kareninnature

Pennsylvania leatherwings crawl around nectaring on the milkweed flowers and get yellow globs wedged on their feet.  These are paired sacs of pollen called pollinia.  These wedge tenaciously to the beetles' feet making walking awkward.  Because they are able strong fliers they can carry their load to nearby flowers where they leave them like a kid with muddy feet.  Rather than dusting individual pollen grains, the sacs of pollen are left in an opening on the next plant.

Beetle boots - Charley Eiseman

There is a risk in this strategy.  A variety of milkweed pollinators can get stuck by the leg if the pollinia is too firmly attached.  You can occasionally find a dead insect hanging by its leg, paying the ultimate price for nectar described in this video.

More on the trap at this site.