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.