urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_3568_zps1aa47ce1.jpg
Chinese mantid Tenodera sinensis

The praying mantis, with its centaur body plan, head that swivels to look at you, and fierce raptorial forelegs is an immensely charismatic insect. I wonder how many (other) naturalists would list an early encounter with one of these creatures as an influence toward their studies. Even people who don't like insects like mantids (as we nature nerds call them), and today I had two different coworkers show me cellphone pics recording their encounters. One made a gesture indicating a length of 8 to 10 inches for the one she saw, which is of course impossible, but underscores how large these creatures are. In fact the Chinese mantid is the largest mantid found in North America--this individual was about four inches long. When you consider that their closest relatives are cockroaches, and what a likely human reaction would be to a four-inch cockroach, then the size seems to matter.

Alas, as you might have guessed, the Chinese mantid is not native to my yard or the region. Chinese mantids and a related European species are sold as beneficial predators at garden shops. They are more visible, if not more common, than native mantid species, and there is some worry that they are displacing North American mantids. I have mixed feelings about the Chinese mantid, since despite the harm they may be causing, they inspire awe and wonder about nature and insects.

 photo IMG_3569_zps3f586ee2.jpg
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_3547_zps08588869.jpg
Blue wood aster (Heart-leaf aster) Symphyotrichum cordifolium

In late September my deliberate neglect of the yard bears fruit. Tall rangy weeds in the shady corners and other places finally burst forth with bluish daisy-like flowers. This year one plant came up right in front of a frequently used gate--it took all of our collective patience not to pull the darned thing, but now it's made the transformation from weed to wildflower.

 photo IMG_3551_zpse2325671.jpg
The side of the yard under the white pines is especially thick with blue wood asters.

 photo IMG_3626_zps7007d854.jpg
Insects have eaten the foliage so thoroughly that it took me a while to find a heart-shaped leaf that was intact.

This species appeared on this blog as 365 urban species #269: Heart-leaf Aster.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_3340_zps13ae8b2b.jpg

Gloeophyllum sepiarium growing from the picnic table in my yard. I should know better than to proclaim this species, since I misidentified it once already in a previous post. That's why this is number 59, not number 99. In any case, I'm quite confident of the Genus, and if anyone would like to tell me why it's not this species I promise not to scream.

Gloeophyllum is one of at least three polypore mushrooms which has changed its pores to be gill-like in structure, which must be a very effective strategy for packing lots of spores in a small space. It is also a fungus that likes to eat the wood of conifers, like my pine picnic tables, or these park benches at the zoo.

 photo IMG_3342_zps60f20092.jpg
The underside (spore producing) surface of these mushrooms.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2872_zpsdfbfc824.jpg

Grass carrying wasp, Isondontia sp.

A few days ago Alexis called my attention to an insect carrying a long blade of grass through the air. It was a strange sight, since the insect was fairly small (about 15mm long) so it looked like a dry bit of grass was piloting itself upwards and away from us without help from the wind. Then I photographed this medium sized black wasp a couple days later, only to find that it was probably responsible for the flying grass trick.

Some wasps chew up wood and make paper nests of hexagonal cells, some take mud into their mouths and make clay pots or pipes, some lay their eggs in the tissue of living plants and let their grubs live in the weird galls that result. Grass-carrying wasps gather blades and stems of grass and stuff them into a cavity to make an unkempt analog to a typical songbird's nest. Into these nests they lay their eggs and provision them with paralyzed tree crickets. (The most well-known cricket is the snowy tree cricket, whose song can be used to tell the temperature).
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2619_zpsafff9c41.jpg

Tiger bee fly Xenox tigrinus

The bee flies, family Bombyliidae, are mostly flies that are furry and colorful and have come to look somewhat like bees. Recently there's been a spate of cute bee fly pics circulating the internet. The tiger bee fly, although related, is not cute and furry. It is huge and fearsome, resembling a horse fly or perhaps a large hornet, depending on what you are afraid of. It is entirely harmless to humans, so don't be alarmed. Unless you happen to be a carpenter bee, that is. You see, the tiger bee fly shares one important thing with it's cute fuzzy relatives: parasitoid larvae. The fly seeks out a carpenter bee nest and lays eggs on the bee larvae inside. The first instar of the fly larva is an active mobile maggot which burrows its way into the host; once inside, the fly larva metamorphoses into a sessile parasite which feeds on the developing carpenter bee, eventually killing it. Instead of a bee, a bee fly emerges from the nest.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2602_zps1a080685.jpg

Bush katydid Scudderia sp.

This hapless insect was found missing one back leg and somehow adhered by rain-soaked wing to the wet top of one of our cars. I could instantly see it was a katydid--but not a true katydid. True katydids are famous for singing their name, sort of; it actually sounds like someone scratching out "ka-ty-did...ka-ty-didn't..." on the brittle teeth of an old comb.

But because they are the most well-known of these insects, all the vertically flattened, well-camouflaged, nocturnal long-horned grasshoppers (more closely related to crickets than other grasshoppers) are called katydids, regardless of their song. Bush katydids have straight wings--other groups have round or angled wings--and can only be distinguished by their songs or by (you guessed it) close examination of their terminal abdominal segments. The most common one in the Northeast is the fork-tailed bush katydid, which also has the most familiar song (to me) of the group.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2563_zps129ad696.jpg
Tomato Lycopersicon esculentum

I am resistant to including garden plants in this project, but this tomato plant insisted. We have tomato plants growing in planters, in a raised garden bed, and in a place in the yard where they must have grown from chicken droppings. The plant in this photo is growing from our compost. There are a series of half inch ventilation holes in the sides of the compost container and this tomato vine emerged from one. At first I was mildly amused: plants frequently sprout in our compost (I guess we don't turn it often enough) but they eventually die and become more compost. We left this to its own devices and soon enough it flowered. I told myself, if it bears fruit it becomes part of the project. Here we are.

Tomatoes are native to South America. They made their way north with human help, then were brought to Europe, where many were under the misapprehension that the fruit was toxic. Easy mistake--many plant in the nightshade family are. Eventually the truth came out that love apples were perfectly edible, and well-suited to be made into sauces. Imagine Italian food before the tomato. The plant is so easily grown in North America that even I can do it, ours are annuals, but in warmer places it can be perennial. I have taken to deliberately feeding the chickens certain fruits (tomatoes and wine berries) in order to draft them into gardening. I'll let you know how that goes.

A wild tomato I encountered behind Brookline Ice and Coal was featured in the 365 Urban Species Project.

 photo IMG_2564_zpsf776cbfd.jpg
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2555_zpsa92e442f.jpg

Squash vine borer Melittia cucurbitae

One of the great joys of my life is seeing a new life form--new to me, that is. Sometimes I can compare it to something I've seen before, extrapolate from its morphology or behavior what its ecological niche is, or what other creatures it's related to. Upon seeing this one there was a dizzying uncertainty, a rush of euphoria quickly followed by anxiety; it was moving too fast to get a good photo, and it was nervous and evasive in general. Its darting waspish flight was a ruse, I suspected.

I managed to get a close look and see its head and mouthparts. Mouthparts are often the route to an insect's identity. It did not have the heavy shearing mandibles of the wasps it resembled. More importantly I could see that its orange color was not the smooth chitinous armor of a moth nor the fuzzy scurf of a bee but rather an accumulation of scales--a giveaway of the lepidoptera order, the moths.*

This particular moth was exploiting the color scheme (and flight behavior) of our native paper wasps to convince would-be molesters that it was venomous. Further research revealed that it was probably in the neighborhood to lay eggs in our pumpkin vines. The squash vine borer spends its larval life as a grub-like caterpillar eating its way through the heart of vines of squash plants, including pumpkin. Since pumpkin is one of the most American of the garden vegetables, that makes the squash vine borer one of the most American of the garden pests. We shall see whether pest or vegetable fairs better in our garden. I like unusual insects enough that I hope there is room for both.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2561_zps47ed9557.jpg

Meadowhawk Sympetrum sp.

Meadowhawks are small dragonflies that often hunt far from water. In many species the males are red. Determining species often can only be accomplished by closely examining the terminal appendages of the male--not yet a hobby of mine. This one was perched on a plantain flower/fruit stalk long enough for Alexis to suggest I go get my insect net and catch it. This is the way to hold a dragonfly (in zookeeper talk: manually restrain) so that you don't hurt it and it doesn't get away.

 photo IMG_2562_zps5c99a1a1.jpg
I've noticed that after some manual restraint many insects are tired, and rest a while in place before flying away.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2275_zps60e0fac6.jpg
Speckled sharpshooter Paraulacizes irrorata

Sharpshooters are a subset of the insects called leafhoppers (distinct from planthoppers and treehoppers). This group is distinguished by a relatively streamlined body shape, a tympanum, and the habit of laying eggs in the tissues of plants. The tympanum is a sound-making organ, famously deafening in cicadas--a cousin of the -hoppers--the songs of leafhoppers are inaudible to humans without amplification. Some sharpshooters are agricultural pests, notably the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Long time readers will remember my friend [livejournal.com profile] rockbalancer; for a time she worked with parasitic wasps which were cultivated to prey on the glassy-wing.

I can't improve on this explanation: "The name 'sharpshooters' refers to their habit of forcing excess water droplets out of the tip of the abdomen with an audible popping noise." - http://bugguide.net/node/view/52731
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2273_zps7009ccd0.jpg

Treehopper Entylia carinata

This species of treehopper is one of about 3500 in the family Membracidae. All of them are little drinkers of plant juice, camouflaged to look like a bump or thorn on vegetation. E. carinata can be light tan to almost black, but the little round cut out notch is a consistent feature. They are frequently tended by ants, who lap up their nutritious waste products. Sometimes they are found surrounded by their wingless nymphs, which are homely, lumpy babies. (picture post of related unidentified species to follow)
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2249_zpsb99746f7.jpg

Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, yellow parasol; flowerpot mushroom; etc.

This glamorous trio of tropical mushrooms appeared in the soil of one of our potted plants on a very tropical feeling evening. The temperature in the upstairs hallway is in the 80s (Fahrenheit) with storm-a-brewing humidity. This mushroom species will fruit outdoors in warm places, in gardens, grass, and mulch, but we temperate folks have to hope its exotic spores have taken root (or rather, extended into hyphae) in the soil of potted plants and the like.

This species has appeared on this blog once before, fruiting in a planter in the anteater exhibit in the tropical forest building at the zoo.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2233_zpsc23d1244.jpg

Deer fly Chrysops sp. Alex discovered this female deer fly feeding on Jim's head.

I've gone on record on this blog as being a fan of flies. They are a diverse, often colorful group, misunderstood and unfairly maligned. The deer fly, for example, is a valuable pollinator as an adult, and a harmless detritus feeder in wet soil as a larva. The adult female, however, has to feed on blood to create her eggs. Bugguide describes the process by which flies in this family feed on blood thus: "The "bite" of tabanids is effected by stabbing with the mouthparts and slicing the skin with scissor-like movements of the finely serrate, knife-like mandibles and smaller maxillae on each side of the proboscis. After capillaries are ruptured, anti-coagulant saliva is pumped out through the hypopharynx, and the blood is lapped up using the labella."

It doesn't feel as pleasant as that description makes it sound. One hatless summer journey to Ponkapoag Pond cured me of any love I might have developed for Chrysops. I also haven't been back to Ponkapoag. Maybe I'll buy some of these and visit again. I've noticed they tend to attack the back of the head--one imagines that it's hard for a quadruped to reach this area.

 photo IMG_2232_zps07ee6c54.jpg
All that being said, if you get to see the animal close up, it is pretty beautiful. "Chrysops" means "gold eye."
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2035_zpsa5de71f3.jpg
Sweat bee, Halictus sp.

Often with insects, an identification to Genus is pretty great. The Genus level represents organisms that are very closely related, that usually are very similar to one another in most ways. The Genus Halictus, on the other hand, includes species that are solitary, those that are true social insects, and those that can be social or solitary depending on environmental conditions. There are also close relative that have parasitic breeding behavior.

What can we really say? This is a small bee (5mm or less) with a mild sting (if female) that it is not likely to use. There are numerous little bees and flies in our garden, most are welcome pollinators. I'm not totally against the use of pesticides, but I don't use them in my yard, mainly to ensure that interesting creatures like this one feel welcome.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2034_zpsf1c04fd0.jpg
Gyponana Rugosana querci leafhopper nymph.

EDITED 7/11/13 on account of some smartypants on Bugguide.net identified it more precisely.

This enterprising young insect hitched a ride in Alexis' car at some point and disembarked in our yard. I wouldn't count a scarlet macaw or an Indian elephant on the list if it made it into the yard that way, but the chances are close to 100% that there are already other leafhoppers on the property. There are about 50 species in the genus Gyponana, all well-camouflaged plant-sucking bugs. Recently the subgenus Rugosana was elevated to its own genus out of Gyponana. This one is wingless because it is sexually immature, but adults jump/fly their way from plant to plant. This one better start crawling to the back corner of the yard to get to the neighbor's oak trees, since that's all they eat and we don't have any.

The last time I posted a leafhopper on this blog a scientist friend was inspired to respond with a much more interesting blog post. The short of it, as I understand it, is that leafhoppers have symbiotic bacteria that help them derive nutrients from their diet of plant juice. Nothing too weird there, all of us animal-type organisms pretty much have the same deal. However in leafhoppers (and one assumes other insects that suck phloem for a living) the symbionts are somehow transmitted from mother to egg, insect and bacterium coevolving for eons into inseparable partners, the bacteria become in essence organs of the insect.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2006_zpsbd424366.jpg

For the last two years this weird thing has been happening in a few patches of the lawn. From eye level it looks like someone spilled a dark gray milkshake on the grass ("grass" ha ha our yard is mostly weeds). Get down to where I like to look at things and you can see the structure of it. Rather than a fungus, which lives in what feeds on, this looks like something just resting on the surface of the leaves. Some of the affected plants look a little weird and dried-out but not like they're being destroyed or fed on. Our best guess is that this is the final stage of a slime mold, but we haven't seen it before we started seeing it in our yard.

EDITED TO ADD: well I posted this about an hour ago and since then have identified this as the turfgrass slime mold Physarum cinereum. There isn't much information out there, except that its habitat seems to be mowed lawns, and it is very widely distributed. Wikipedia's dumb entry describes it as a "pathogen" while everyone else points out that it doesn't harm the plants upon which it grows. Like all slime molds, the organism crawls across the surface of stuff, consuming bacteria and other little edible morsels.

 photo IMG_2007_zpsba4516a4.jpg
A close-up of the growth on a leaf of narrowleaf plantain.

EDITED TO ADD: This pdf from Texas A&M has more information, including the assertion that the slime mold may cause damage to plants simply by blocking the amount of light that reaches the leaves. That's probably why the plants in these photos look a little stressed or withered.
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_2005_zpsd691f0a5.jpg

Nursery web spider Pisaurina mira

Alexis came into the house to get me, "the biggest spider I've ever seen around here!" I would say that it's about tied for size with the Argiope yellow-and-black garden spiders and Carolina wolf spiders that are both known from our area (but not yet from our yard). I instantly thought of fishing spiders, but of course we aren't near enough to water for that to be right.
more thrilling tales of identification plus terrifying close-up )
urbpan: (dandelion)
 photo IMG_1905_zpsc286a4c8.jpg
Black raspberry Rubus occidentalis

When we first looked at the yard of Contentment Cottage, one of the things we noticed was an abundance of bluish brambles--black raspberry cane! We waited through the season and though the edges of the yard were unpassable with prickers, not a flower nor a fruit appeared. The next time around I put on gloves and yanked as many of the damnable things as possible--like Jesus with the fig tree I was: "Produce fruit or get thee gone!"

There were stragglers and new sprouts--brambles (thorny members of genus Rubus are very weedy plants, spreading by seeds in bird droppings and springing up from their own roots (and rooting where the stem bends to touch the earth). Pull and mow, lop and trim, that's my attitude with this plant. Then quite suddenly this weekend, Biff Bam Pow! We've got actual black raspberries appearing back in a part of the yard relegated to unraked leaved and dog poop. I'd blame the unraked leaves and dog poop, but a little bush that sprung up between stones in the front perennial bed is bearing fruit as well!

Better to blame the weather, I suppose: Snowy winter, dryish spring, and a summer with alternating heavy humid heat with pounding rains. The mosquitoes seem to appreciate the same pattern, alas. In any case I can't take credit, but I can enjoy the rewards!

For informationy information about this species, perhaps you'd like to see it as 365 urban species #178.
urbpan: (dandelion)

Wood roach Parcoblatta sp.

Unless you live in tropical Asia or Africa, the chances are that every cockroach you've seen has been an alien. The dozen or so tropical Old World species that have become "structural pests" are ubiquitous around the world, living wherever the buildings get warm and humid enough. The other 3500 species suffer from the comparison.

As it turns out there are about a dozen species of wood roach in the northeast of North America, which may--as this male did--visit porch lights at night. This was the first native roach I've ever encountered, though I've recently become acquainted with the non-pest Ectobius roaches, and initially mistook them for wood roaches.

Wood roaches are relatively large--this individual is about an inch long--but are entirely harmless. They hang out under the bark of dead logs and such places, but will quickly die of dehydration if accidentally brought indoors. The adults mate in late spring, and the resulting nymphs overwinter.

(Weird photo size due to recovering photo from Bugguide.net)
urbpan: (monarch)

Eastern tailed blue Cupido comyntas

We tend to think of butterflies as fairly large insects, with creatures like monarchs and tiger swallowtails big enough to fill an open palm. The blues are a group of relatively tiny butterflies, each wing only spanning a half an inch or so. Their low flight and small size might make you mistake them for a moth, but the pale metallic blue of the upper wing surface is unmistakeable. Like little fairies of the suburbs they flit along the top surfaces of the yards looking for low growing legumes like white clover. Their caterpillars feed only on legumes including weeds like vetch and black medick. White clover has the added advantage of providing the adults with small shallow flowers that accomodate their short probosces.

I didn't think I had a prayer of identifying this one to species, but I took two photos--one good and one useful. The one not shown here revealed the important field marking: a little projection off back of the wing that gives the species its name. This also happens to be the most common blue in the Northeast, and can be seen in backyards and other habitats from Canada to Costa Rica.

EDITED TO ADD: You know what? I can see the tails in this picture.


urbpan: (Default)

May 2017

1415 1617181920


RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 22nd, 2017 06:13 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios