urbpan: (dandelion)

The last two in the project were flies pretending to be wasps. Hard for this one to pretend to be anything but what it is--the largest wasp in the northeast, or at least the longest. That thread protruding from her abdomen is her ovipositor, and it brings her length to about four inches. This is the giant ichneumon Megarhyssa macrurus. She'll stab that thing into a rotting stump right into the body of a pigeon horntail larva and deposit her egg. Her baby then feeds on the horntail baby and, as they say, the beautiful cycle of life continues.

Despite her warning coloration and her terrifying (to many people) appearance, the giant ichneumon is not at all harmful to humans.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Imagine my surprise, walking down the sidewalk in a small New England town in January, when encounter a large beetle. It was moving in a determined but unhurried manner. I recognized its strange shape--small front segments, big wide abdomen--from looking through beetle pics on bugguide. I guessed "blister beetle," and set upon handling it very carefully.

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Blister beetles are named for their ability to exude a chemical that can cause chemical burns to human skin. This big one here is in the genus Meroe*, a group known as "oil beetles;" presumably the yellow hemolymph they ooze is more memorable for its alarming oily appearance then for blistering naturalists.

These beetles are noteworthy as well for their life cycle: a mobile larva hatches from the egg and makes it way up to a flower where it will hitch a ride on a non-colonial bee. Some oil beetles release a scent that attracts male bees. Then the "triangulin," as this life stage is known, gains entry to the bee's nursery. It metamorphoses into another intermediate stage, less motile and more suited to lazily consuming the fruits of the bee's labor. Eventually it becomes the glorious animal pictured here. As to why it was waltzing down Mountain Road in Suffield in the dead of winter, I blame Climate Change.

(thanks to [profile] ankhanu* Origin obscure, may come from early medical literature (the term melloes appears in the writings of Paracelsus);
urbpan: (dandelion)
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The presence of the jeweler's loupe here is a hint that this is a very small organism. We generally think of ants as small animals, but this species is the smallest I've ever seen. Each worker is just about 1 mm in length.

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Their size and distinctive coloration--dark in the front with light legs and abdomen--identifies them as ghost ants Tapinoma melanocephalum*. Like many inhabitants of the great indoors, their origin is not precisely known. They are from the Old World Tropics for sure, narrowing it down to roughly a third of the surface of the planet.

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A colony could form in a pile of dead leaves, or in between a plant pot and it's protective liner. As long as the place is warm and humid, the ghost ants can live happily, feeding on miniscule amounts of sweet things and dead insects. When a colony is successful, some amount of it departs to become a new colony--"budding" instead of the complex new colony creation that some other eusocial insects endure. Besides all the tropics and heated greenhouses in the world, ghost ants live in Florida and Texas, and appear to be spreading.

* Humble and dark-headed
urbpan: (dandelion)
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I'm currently using a second-hand point and shoot camera with a passable macro feature--and here I've put a hand lens in front of it in an attempt to visualize a very small animal.

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The animal is a globular springtail (Order Symphypleona*), less than a millimeter long. These charismatic relatives of insects walk about grazing on edible particles, but can jump away suddenly with a lighting-quick flex of their springy appendage, the furcula. Because their predators are also very small and necessarily nearsighted animals, this escape method is virtually teleportation.

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This pair of springtails may be eating mold spores growing on the surface of this damp moss. Their surprisingly complex behavior is explored on the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth.

*New Latin symphy- (from Greek symphyēs grown together) + -pleona (from Greek plein to swim
urbpan: (dandelion)
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There are only a handful of cockroach species that are adapted to live indoors with us. This one will only live indoors if the indoors in question contains warm humid air and moist soil with plants in it. Perhaps that explains the common name "greenhouse cockroach" Pycnoscelus surinamensis*. This species also goes by the name "Surinam cockroach," maintaining the long held tradition of naming pest roaches after places that are NOT where they came from.

Surinam roaches surely occur in Suriname (a former Dutch colony on the northeast coast of South America you goon), as they occur everywhere on earth with the conditions described above. They are thought to be native to Asia, down around Malaysia somewhere, and spread around the world with tropical plants. These roaches are burrowers, so it would be very easy for one or more to hide in the rootball of a Ficus or Lychee. And one is all that is needed to establish a colony, because these insects practice parthenogenesis--giving birth without sex. In fact, in North America, no one has yet found a male Surinam roach. A few have been found in Australia, but all female colonies appear to be the norm. The one pictured here is a wingless subadult; adult females grow tan wings over their dark brown abdomen.

*Thick-leg from Surinam
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Among the animals, termites pretty much have wood all to themselves. All that cellulose and lignin is just too difficult for most creatures to digest. Termites have symbiotic organisms in their guts that do the chemistry work for them. If you look closely you can see at least two different castes working their roles in this colony of eastern subterranean termites Reticulotermes flavipes*. Termites are the most primitive of the eusocial animals, having been chewing wood for up to 150 million years before ants or bees came along.

*Yellow-footed netted termite
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Weird growths on plants have always been fascinating to me. I was so happy when I learned that most of them are caused by animals! In this case, a very small fly--a midge called Polystepha pilulae*--laid her eggs in the flesh of this oak leaf. The tiny maggots hatched and began feeding, and the flesh of the leaf hardened around them, protecting them as they ate. Unless they were parasitized by a wasp, they will pupate in their galls and emerge as more tiny long-legged midges.

*Many crowned ball-maker
urbpan: (dandelion)
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This little fly, about the size of a small mosquito, landed on the kitchen table next to my laptop where I write these things. It was surprisingly tolerant of my attempts to photograph it, staying put as I got very close. It turns out this is a winter cranefly Trichocera* sp., a small relative of the creatures that look like giant mosquitoes. Unlike mosquitoes, winter crane flies do not feed on blood, or anything else for that matter. Their larvae feed in the leaf litter and detritus, but adults fly in the late fall to mate and die.

*This means either "hair horn" or "wax hair."
urbpan: (dandelion)
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I described this moth as "trapezoidal," but I should have called its posture "soaring hawk." Many moths in this genus Eupithecia* rest this way, sometimes hiding the second pair of wings entirely behind the first. This is another moth that spent its youth as an inchworm, this one probably grazing on the amble pollen supplied by plants in the aster family. The smart money is on this being a "common Eupithecia," E. miserulata**

*Good ape. No, really.

** hoo boy I can't figure this one
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Another plain brown moth with a story to tell. As a baby inchworm it (I almost said "he," as this is a male moth--but insect larvae have no sex organs) grazed on a variety of weeds like dock and smartweed. These plants are widespread around the world, as are the moths. The caterpillar possibly lived far south of Boston, flying hundreds of miles as a moth. If it doesn't reverse its journey it is surely doomed to freeze, but will be replaced by next years' migrants. This humble insect is even reported to "cross long distances of open sea." Moth-watchers call this creature Orthonama obstipata*, or sometimes "the gem."

*Off-center jointed streams.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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These black midge-like flies were hovering all around the wet woods we were walking in northern Vermont. I swatted one out of the air with my hat--my favorite flying insect catch method, as it usually stuns but does not injure the insect. Getting a better look at the fly showed me that it wasn't a midge, but looked more like a March fly. But it was October.

March flies get that name because they suddenly appear in great numbers in early spring. The males hover in swarms over the places where the females emerge in anticipation of mating. A few species of "March flies" instead emerge in autumn, including the male fly pictured here Bibio slossonae.*

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*Bibio is a Latin word that suggests an insect that is generated by wine--perhaps more fitting for Drosophila. The species name is in honor of entomologist Annie Trumbull Slosson.
urbpan: (Default)
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So nice to see a pretty butterfly this late in the year! This one is an eastern comma, Polygonia comma, named for a comma-shaped mark on it's underside. The larva feeds on nettles and elm, while the adults are piss-poor pollinators--preferring rotten fruit and puddles of urine over flower nectar.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Downtown St Louis turned out to be a fruitful place to find insects. It helped that I spent several hours in the Missouri Botanical Garden where I found this little guy. He's a male meadow katydid Conocephalus fasciatus*, a singer (a dry buzzing song) and an eater of grasses. The females use a sharp ovipositor to put their eggs in the stems of grasses, ensuring that nymphs have easy access to their host plant.

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* Banded conehead
urbpan: (dandelion)
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This lupine bug Megalotomus quinquespinosus* is trying to trick me by sitting on a milkweed plant, instead of any legume. Normally this bug sticks its beaklike mouth into the seeds of lupines, soybeans, and others. Thinking back on it, the only conspicuous legumes around were honey locust trees. Sources also list sumac (a non-legume) as a host plant, and there is plenty of that in the highly-disturbed, partially paved area where I found this bug.

Apparently this plant eating bug benefits from its passing resemblance to the predatory assassin bugs. I presume that the distinctive white band on its antennae signals this misapprehension.

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*Best as I can tell, Megalotomus means "big section" referring to the broad head of this insect; Quinquespinosus means "5 spines."
urbpan: (dandelion)
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A little green fleck of life, this planthopper, Acanalonia conica*, has no common name. It plainly goes about its business, hop-flying from plant to plant. Bugguide says it is "polyphagous," but can't that be said about any of us? This species is found across the eastern United States, and apparently stowed away in someone's luggage on a trip to Italy, as it is now causing some alarm there. As an alien species that is happy to eat everything from elm to grapes and beyond, it may well turn into an agricultural pest.

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*Greek konikos 'conic' (refers to the pointed head)
urbpan: (dandelion)
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At first it looks like an extra large woolly bear, that never developed the reddish brown band. Or maybe it died it's brown setae black as a countercultural fashion statement.

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But then when its picked up, it goes into a defensive curl, revealing bare bands of bright red cuticle. It's another warning, but intended for birds and other predators.

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The giant leopard moth caterpillar Hypercompe scribonia can be handled safely by humans. Please don't squish it, as it will change into a lovely white moth with open black spots, and hidden blue and orange colors on its abdomen. The caterpillar has as broad a taste for plants as the woolly bear, and even includes tropical and subtropical plants like banana and orange. The moth occurs from Texas to Minnesota and everything east of that, including some of the Caribbean islands.

* Very shackled good writer (Scribonia is a Roman given name and an opera character--the name suggests the meaning of good writer: Scribo + bonus; the taxonomist was almost certainly referring to the black markings on the white moth, which resemble writing.)
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Like so many of New England's little soil creatures, the dusky slug Arion subfuscus*, is a European import. Its orange mucus distinguishes it from other terrestrial mollusks we might encounter. These animals eat mushrooms and relatively soft plants, including many garden fruits and vegetable. Its broad palate and the fact that it carries both male and female gametes has allows it to spread a third of the way across the continent from its introduction point in Boston in the 1800s.
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*Somewhat dusky slug (Arion fuscus, literally "dusky slug," is a close relative found further east in its native European range.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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The flesh flies (family Sarcophagidae*) are a fairly distinctive group of true flies associated with dead animals. Many, but not all, place their young on carcasses to eat the decaying flesh--flies in this group are useful for forensics. Other Sarcophagid maggots are parasitic on other invertebrates, and at least one specializes on the nests of turtles. All are placed directly at their food source by a female who has carried her eggs inside her until they hatch. Adults might snack on the juices of the dead, but also like sweet treats like flower nectar and aphid honeydew.
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*Flesh eating family
urbpan: (dandelion)
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It was kind of nice to experience pond sliders (specifically the red-eared slider Trachemys scripta elegans*) in their native home range. True, it was in an artificial body of water in the botanical garden, with animals clearly accustomed to being fed by humans, but it was their native home range. These hardy semi-aquatic turtles are transported around the world as food animals and especially pets. More often than not, any pet sliders that survive the care of their early years outgrow their tiny tanks. The pet owners time and time again take their problem to the nearest pond and dump it. Pond sliders turn out to be survivors, and this practice has meant that these turtles now have among the broadest range of any turtle species in the world. Australia and Europe have banned its importation, but much of the damage is done. I can see a time when the pond slider is the last species of turtle, and once we're gone it will radiate into all the other turtle niches.

*Elegant written rough turtle
urbpan: (monarch)
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One of North America's largest and most beautiful butterflies might be on the ropes. The monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus* has two big challenges: it migrates halfway across the continent, and it relies on an agricultural pest plant to survive. Deforestation of its southern wintering spot and industrial control of its host plant are converging to make life tough for an insect recognized as state insect or state butterfly for seven US states.

This individual and several like it that I saw in the Missouri Botanical Garden was among the very few I've seen this year. Citizen science is catching up with anecdotal evidence to prove that the population of monarch butterflies is plummeting. We should all plant milkweed in our yards, and hope that the orange giant is with us for years to come.

*Danaüs = Greek myth a king of Argos who told his fifty daughters, the Danaides, to kill their bridegrooms on their wedding night
Plexippus = In Greek mythology, Plexippus or Plexippos (Πλήξιππος) is a name that refers to:
A son of Thestius, who, together with his brother Toxeus, participated in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. He was angry that the prize of the boar's hide had been given to a woman (Atalanta) by his nephew Meleager, who then killed him in the ensuing argument.
A son of Phineus and Cleopatra, brother of Pandion. He and his brother were blinded by Phineus at the instigation of their stepmother Idaea.
One of the sons of Aegyptus. He married (and was killed by) Amphicomone, daughter of Danaus.
A son of the Arcadian king Choricus, brother of Enetus and Palaestra.


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