Meditations from San Juan Island and the story of Jerry the June Beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata)

Sharing this again! Enjoy!

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Last year I had to put together a collection of insects for my graduate course at the University of Florida.  In this photo, I have a Ten-lined June Beetle that I pretty much stole away from a robin that was after it.  The beetle came home with me and I’m sorry to say I put it in the freezer and later added it with the rest of the bugs that eventually got me an “A”.

A few days ago, a friend called me up.  “Would you like another June Beetle?”  he asked.  I drove over to pick it up and afterwards, took a few photos with my new macro lens, fixed up a nice plastic box insect habitat and thought I’d take a few days to decide what to do with it next.

Daily, I peeked into the box.  Not sure what to feed it, I thought a little about…

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Pale Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) on Walkers Low Catmint (Nepeta racemosa)

I love my catmint!  The deer don’t like it, but pollinators absolutely DO!  Every year, I wait in anticipation to see what visits the tiny purple-indigo flowers.  I’ve had everything from hummingbirds to bumblebees, moths, and butterflies.  Today, I took two short clips of the Pale Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) visiting the blooms.  There have been as many as seven or eight fluttering about at a time.


I keep hoping to see my very favorite of the pollinators visiting the catmint, but have to make a point of going around dusk.  It’s been a few years, but the catmint is also a favorite of the elusive hummingbird moth (Hemaris diffinis).  Here is one I photographed in June of 2016.   Also known as the Snowberry Clearwing moth, these fuzzy, large-bodied but nimble fliers are also called Bumblebee or Hawk moths.

Hemaris diffinis on Catmint

Hemaris diffinis on Catmint photo by Cynthia Brast June 1, 2016. San Juan Island, WA

Hemaris diffinis on Catmint

Hummingbird moth (Hemaris diffinis) on Catmint

Carl the Crab Spider (Coriarachne brunneipes)

My mother used to read a book to me when I was a small child called Be Nice To Spiders!  The little boy in the book brings a spider (named Helen) to the zoo in a matchbox because he isn’t allowed to keep her in his apartment.  When the zookeeper opens the box, Helen escapes and sets up residence in the animal cages where she helps all the animals by eating the flies that make them miserable.  IMG_6296

This story was one of many experiences I enjoyed that set me up for a lifetime of observing invertebrates and their behaviors.  Today, I am sharing about a small crab spider I found in our house this week.  It took me all week to identify it, but I persisted and even managed to keep the little guy safe from Millhouse.  Millhouse is the resident cat.  He likes to eat spiders.  That’s another story and a good one, but I’ll save it for next time.

Today, meet “Carl” the Black Crab spider, also known more formally as Coriarachne brunneipes.  Black Crab Spiders are classified taxonomically in the family Thomisidae (Crab Spiders), genus Coriarachne, and species brunneipes.  They are found ranging across the Western U.S. from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast…and in my case, on San Juan Island, WA. 98250!   The Black Crab spider is relatively small in size.  About 1.9 cm or equivalent to the diameter of a penny if you include its leg span (see photo below from Wednesday, April 25, 2018).

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(Coriarachne brunneipes)

You can also see in my photo that Carl is missing a leg!  3 + 4 only equals 7 and spiders have 8 legs!  Maybe Millhouse DID do something to this spider after all!

I left Carl to go about things on Wednesday after taking this photo.  Seems like I remember seeing him scurry towards the crack under the baseboard and safety from the cat.  Thursday, my new “friend” was on the ceiling in the sunroom.  I nearly stepped on Carl on Friday.  He was back on the floor, skittering towards the baseboard along the wall again.

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Coriarachne brunneipes

 

Saturday, Carl was on the table in the sunroom.  I decided to take a few more photos and I also decided that Carl might be getting hungry since I haven’t seen anything suitable for him to eat in the house.  Also after reading about this species of spider, I understood it was possible he came into the house accidentally on some wood and might like it better if he was outside, but it was cold and rainy on Saturday, so I fixed him a nice spider hotel room for the night.  He liked the view from the “balcony.”  Sorry Carl, no room service available!

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Coriarachne brunneipes

On Sunday after it warmed up a little, I took Carl down to our orchard.  It was easy to coax him onto a twig.  I held him up against a low branch on the apple tree and up he went.  There was a veritable feast waiting for him in the apple tree.  Tiny little morsels just the right size for a spider!

 

Some interesting facts about Coriarachne brunneipes, the black crab spider:

  • Their coloring helps camouflage them perfectly on tree bark
  • They don’t build webs, but wait perfectly still to ambush their prey

Interested?  Read more about Crab Spiders here: 

https://bugguide.net/node/view/222302/bgpage

Taxonomy ~ http://www.americanarachnology.org/JoA_free/JoA_v2_n3/JoA_v2_p183.pdf

 

All Wet! April 26, 2018

A water trough and cool morning temperatures equate with a desperate situation if your wings are wet and they aren’t the inflatable kind that keep you afloat.  I rescued two, soon to be drowned, little specimens yesterday morning and can tell you, they were “happy” to  dry off in the sunshine ☀️ .

The first rescue was a delicate, Green Lacewing in the family Chrysopidae.   Lacewings are in the insect order Neuroptera which means nerve-winged insect.  It is named for the intricate, sheer, net-like pattern of its wings.  They are valued because they prey on garden and orchard pests insects like aphids.  The intriguing thing about this specimen (make sure to pay close attention to frames 0.22 and 0.24 in the video) was its reaction to my voice when I stopped Millhouse the cat from interfering with my cinematography.  The Lacewing appears to have a look of surprise when it hears me.

The second rescue from the water trough is the beautiful, iridescent green cuckoo bee you see in the video below.  Cuckoo bees are actually wasps in the insect order Hymenoptera, and family Chrysididae.  While they are pollinators in that adults seek out nectar for food from flowers, they are named, like the cuckoo bird, after their habit of seeking out nests of other wasp and bee species to steal food, or the life of developing larvae as a host for their own young.   Never-mind that part of the life cycle of this bee.  It is truly a gem, glittering in the sunshine…a jewel worn by a new spring blossom in the garden.

 

 

 

Blue Orchard Bee ~ Osmia lignaria

Sighted April 12, 2018, San Juan Island, WA.  Blue Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia lignaria).   These are important early (native)  pollinators.  Adults hibernate overwinter and emerge from March to May.  Blue Orchard Mason Bees are being managed as orchard pollinators as they are excellent at pollinating fruit trees such as pear, cherry, plum, and apple, as well as quince and others, including blueberries.   Blue Orchard Mason Bees and other solitary bees in the genus Megachilidae (like leaf-cutting bees) carry pollen on their bellies instead of special baskets on their hind legs like honey bees.  The Blue Orchard Mason Bee use tubular cavities for nests, partitioning each brood cell with a wall of mud.   Although similar in size, Blue Orchard bees are easy to distinguish from honey bees because they are metallic in coloring, often dark blue or blue-black.

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Family: Megachilidae, Genus: Osmia (Mason bee)Osmia ligaria – Blue Orchard Bee

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Family: Megachilidae, Genus: Osmia (Mason bee)

Osmia spp.  Mason bees

Osmia spp. (Osmia lignaria) mating ~ April 15, 2017

Read more about Blue Orchard Mason Bees (Osmia lignaria) here:  

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/mason_bees.shtml

http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/BEES/blue_orchard_bee.htm

 

Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major)

Thankfully the sun was out for a bit yesterday afternoon.  The gray skies and temperatures hovering in the mid 40’s make for a long springtime in the Pacific Northwest.  Fortunately, the rain brings spring blooms for the pollinators that are emerging and I was thrilled to finally get a (relatively)  clear shot of the Greater Bee Fly as it visited one of the pansies in my hanging basket.   For those who may have never attempted to photograph a bee fly, all I can say is that they are incredibly fast and extremely camera shy!

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Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major)

The bee fly is an early pollinator and it is not a bee, although it really looks like one with all of its fuzzy hair.  The Bee Fly is actually a FLY in the insect order Diptera.  This means it has only one pair of wings (actual bees in the order Hymenoptera have TWO pairs of wings!), stubby antennae, and very large eyes.  This photo I took capturing the back of the bee fly shows how closely their hind legs resemble the legs of other diptera, like mosquitoes and crane flies.  Two other amazing features of the Bee Fly are its incredibly long proboscis or “tongue,” enabling it to reach deep into flowers with tubular shapes (like those on Red-Flowering Currant ~ Ribes sanguinium) and its ability to hover mid-air and zoom away, much like the aerobatic maneuvers of a hummingbird!

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Greater Bee Fly

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Mosquito-like legs of Greater Bee Fly

Bee Fly adults emerge and fly from late March through May.   Their preferred habitat is along the edges of woodlands where they fly about seeking nectar from flowers of herbaceous plants (like my pansies!).   If you take a walk about on a sunny day, you may find them visiting emerging wildflowers… like the ones in this great book ~ https://www.amazon.com/Wildflowers-Pacific-Northwest-Timber-Press/dp/0881927457 .  I have also seen them visiting flowers on shrubs we have in the Pacific Northwest, including Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus).

Although a pollinator, the “dark” side of bee fly livelihoods is their nature of taking advantage of other pollinators.  While bee fly adults are happy to fly around taking sips of nectar, they aren’t very interested in caring for their brood or offspring.  Instead, the bee fly female will seek out ground nests of solitary bees like those in the Genus Andrenidae (mining bees), and also those in Colletidae (plasterer bees) and Halictidae (sweat bees).  The bee fly can hover over the open nest cavities of these bees and drop eggs down into them or nearby.  Bee fly larvae hatch and compete with the bee larvae for the pollen provisioned inside these nests.  As they grow, the bee fly larvae become carnivorous and eat the developing bee larvae.   If you would like to read more about this process, check out this really informative article by Louise Kulzer here ~ https://crawford.tardigrade.net/bugs/BugofMonth19.html

 

Further reading:

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/bee_flies.shtml

http://drawwing.org/insect/bombylius-major-wing-0.  (Wing venation of Bombylius major)

https://bugguide.net/node/view/14997

 

 

 

 

Biston betularia cognataria (Pepper and Salt Moth)

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Last September, I found this little caterpillar on a fruitless cherry tree outside our home.   I may have spent a few hours watching it munch on leaves as I searched through literature and images in order to identify it.  The twig-like larva is in the Geometridae moth family.  Sometimes coming to a conclusion about a species takes a bit longer…and having an adult specimen can help, so I kept my caterpillar fed with an assortment of cherry, willow, maple, and alder leaves, watched it as it grew, then pupated…and waited over the winter months to see what would emerge.

Biston betalaria larva

Bilobed head of Biston betularia larva

I noticed last night when I went to brush my teeth that there was a little moth against the window of my insect habitat, watching me…and probably wanting out.  It’s good to check the critter-keeper (that’s what I call my bug house) daily because otherwise you might leave the poor soul stuck inside and that never ends very well.  In this moth’s case, I took a few pictures and then released him outside to fly away into the night.

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Biston betularia (newly-emerged adult)

Biston betalaria cognataria

Newly-emerged adult (male) Biston betularia cognataria

This is a quick post, since I am always short on time, but please enjoy my photos.  I do love the ones of the caterpillar most.  The little cat ears are quite distinct!

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Little “cat” ears

I’ve enlarged one to show you the spiracles, the little breathing holes that are along the sides of the caterpillar body.

Biston betularia larva

Biston betularia cognataria

 

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Showing spiracles near bi-lobed head

 

Many insecticides work by clogging up these holes with oils or soaps that are sprayed on the tree.  Although the caterpillars do eat leaves, the aren’t really an economic pest at all.  In fact, this species is quite remarkable in that it represents the fascinating study of natural selection and industrial melanism.  Widely distributed across the world, Biston betularia or Pepper and Salt Moths became recognized for their adaptation of darkening pigment, allowing them to become more cryptic on trees in woodlands in Britain polluted by soot around the turn of the century.  Check out my references for more information!

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Newly-emerged adult with pupal case (on left)

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Enlarged view of newly-emerged adult Biston betularia cognataria and pupal case

 

 

For further reading: 

Asami, T. and Grant, B. 1995. Melanism has not evolved in Japanese Biston betularia (Geometridae). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, 49: 88-91. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/41142188#page/94/mode/1up
Furniss, R.L. and Carolin, V.M. 1977. U.S.D.A. Forest Service Misc. Publ. 1339, 1977. 
GRANT, B. and HOWLETT, R. J. (1988), Background selection by the peppered  moth (Biston betularia Linn.): individual differences. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 33: 217-232. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8312.1988.tb00809.x

 

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Sheep Moth Larvae (Hemileuca eglanterina)

These were on the trail at American Camp, San Juan Island National Historical Park. One had unfortunately been stepped on. I recommend looking down at the trail when you’re on a hike as lots of insects seem to travel along it too! These are larvae of the Sheep Moth (Hemileuca eglanterina). Check out this link if you’d like to see what they’ll be as adults! http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/…/hemil…/hemileuca-eglanterina/Photos taken 08-VII-2017.

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Sheep Moth larva (Hemileuca eglanterina)

Sheep Moth Larva (Hemileuca eglanterina)

Sheep moth larva (Hemileuca eglanterina), American Camp, San Juan Island National Historical Park. This one had unfortunately been stepped on. I recommend looking down at the trail when you’re on a hike as lots of insects seem to travel along it too! Check out this link if you’d like to see what they’ll be as adults! http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/…/hemil…/hemileuca-eglanterina/ Photos taken 08-VII-2017. Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature

Xestoleptura crassipes on Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Xestoleptura crassipes

Flower Long-horned Beetle (Xestoleptura crassipes) on Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Winter Crane Fly

It snowed on San Juan Island this week.  We were forecast to have LOTS of rain yesterday, but instead we got more snow.   So much snow that this former Texas gal just had to get out and experience the magic of our wooded, winter wonderland.

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I got my coat, hat, and boots on, grabbed my iPhone and a pair of gloves, wrapped a scarf around my neck and set off to walk down our lonely country road.

Hoping to photograph some of our year-round feathered residents, I had my camera phone in hand.  It was really cold outside and yet I couldn’t use the touchscreen wearing my glove.  Off it came.  I could sacrifice cold fingers if I could get a shot of one of the woodpeckers or maybe a Varied Thrush.

Heading down the driveway, I noted the way the limbs of the cedars and firs bowed down under the weight of the snow.  Beneath them, little birds scurried, scratching about in the damp humus or flitting about on lower branches, enjoying a protected shelter from the cold.   It took only a moment to spy a  Dark-eyed Junco near the house on a leafless limb of our cherry tree and the Varied Thrush perched just above my head…perhaps waiting to see if I brought more seed out for them.

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Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

 

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Varied Thrush

 

A bit further down the driveway, I smiled when I saw our little carved bear.  He’s not long for this world.  The carpenter ants and the damp weather are slowly turning him into sawdust….but he rallied under his snow blanket today even though his little black nose was about all you could see.

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Snow Bear

 

Wait…isn’t this post about a Winter Crane Fly?  Well, I’m getting to that part.   I certainly wasn’t anticipating seeing any invertebrates out on a day like this.  While I’ve heard of snow fleas (not really fleas, but tiny invertebrates known as collembolans or springtails) or snow scorpionflies (Boreus spp.) found in winter in our forested area, I’ve yet to see them.   It’s really a mystery how so many of these tiny creatures survive the extreme temperatures, but that’s also what makes them so interesting.

I came across the first of about ten of these tiny, winged “cranes” before I’d made it far down the road.

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Winter “Crane”

We live in a somewhat densely forested area.  Not many houses or development to interfere with the important ecological processes going on in the natural world.  At first, it appeared to be a mosquito.  Go figure. Somehow they thrive in Alaska, Minnesota, even the Arctic…in spite of frigid temperatures!

Looking closer, I speculated it was in the family Tipulidae, a common, but harmless, mosquito-looking, awkward flying, long-legged fly!  I had to do some research to figure it out.  The Tipulids are a genus in the insect order (Diptera) and commonly called “Crane Flies.”  However, a bit of digging into the literature proved I was close to my ID of this creature, but not quite there.

What I discovered is that this is indeed a Crane Fly, but not a Tipulid.  It’s a WINTER Crane Fly in the genus Trichoceridae.  They are found flying on “warm sunny afternoons in fall, winter, and spring in the contiguous U.S., including Alaska and Canada” (Pratt 2003).  In his study, Pratt (2003) observed specimens “swarming above or on the snow in temperatures between 0℃ and 10℃.”  Maybe “warm” is subjective here!

This tiny Winter Crane Fly is very similar to the Tipulids or True Crane Flies with its long slender legs, but it differs in classification because the Winter Crane Fly has three ocelli (https://www.amentsoc.org/insects/glossary/terms/ocelli)  or simple eyes that act as light sensors and are found on top of the head.  The larvae of Trichocerid flies develop in the moist humus and decay of the forest floor and undoubtedly play some ecological role in this environment i.e. in decomposition or nutrient recycling.  At a minimum, they are a nice protein-rich winter meal supplement for the little birds I’ve seen on my walk today.

While I’m not certain of the exact species, in the article by Pratt (2003), adults of one species, Paracladura trichopera, are found flying even in winter in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.   Perhaps it will suffice to say that I was intrigued at the cold-hardiness of such a tiny creature.  And I DO like the name, Winter Crane Fly!

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Winter Crane Fly Trichocerid spp.

 

References:

1. The winter crane flies of North America north of Mexico (Diptera: Trichoceridae)
Pratt H.D. 2003. Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 105: 901-914.  http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/16212448

 

 

 

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