A Blistery Spring Day

I walked down the road last Tuesday (April 9, 2019) with my husband.  It was late afternoon and although it rained a bit earlier that morning, the sun was peeking out.   The wind wasn’t blowing, but it was soon to be a Blistery Spring day!

If you know any entomologists, you’ll understand rule #1 about going on ANY walk is to take a collection jar and a camera.  Last week, I failed to do this and missed an opportunity to identify and document this very cool bumble bee mimicking fly (genus Laphria ~ a bee-like robber fly).  This time I made certain to take my phone.  Sure enough, at the bottom of the hill, I see a black beetle crawling about on the chip-sealed road.  Fortunately, I refrained from my very bad habit of grabbing things with my bare hands. This is one beetle you do NOT want to pick up!  It was a BLISTER BEETLE.

Lucky me! I came home with some great photos and some video footage instead of a dermatological eruption that would have landed me in the doctor’s office.  I left the beetle in the road to continue whatever it was doing.

Back at home, I used my reference books to compare the photos and video I took of the beetle and narrowed down an ID to the genus Meloe.  I would need more help figure out the species.  I sent some photos off to Merrill Peterson at WSU with the suggestion that it might be a male Meloe niger.  Merrill wrote back that he thought it was M. strigulosus, but hard to confirm with only a photo.  He agreed it was indeed a male.

Meloe niger Black Meloe Blister Beetle

Meloe strigulosus (male)

You might ask how one goes about determining whether a particular beetle is male or female.  Often, as in this case, the male antennal segments are larger or varied in shape from the female.  This beetle’s antennae had a distinctive kinked platform on their fifth segment.  I would learn later that this kinked part enables them to grasp the antennae of the female during mating.

Meloe strigulosus (male)

Meloe strigulosus photo by Cynthia Brast April 9, 2019 Three Corner Lake Road San Juan Island, WA

Antennae

kink in antennal segment of M. strigulosus (male)

Merrill also sent me a link to what I will refer to as the Blister Beetle bible.  Published in 1970, this research was compiled by the legendary systematics entomologist, John D. Pinto, currently professor emeritus at U.C. Riverside with Richard B. Selander.  Hopeful, I sent off my photos in an email to Dr. Pinto and felt really privileged when I got an almost immediate response.

According to Dr. Pinto, the specimen I photographed was indeed a male Meloe strigulosus.  If you’re interested, you can read “The bionomics of blister beetles of the genus Meloe and a classification of the New World species”by linking here https://archive.org/details/bionomicsofblist42pint  Aside from the wealth of information published in this book, I love the artistic rendering of the female beetle on the cover.

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Illustration from Pinto and Selander’s “The bionomics of blister beetles of the genus Meloe and a classification of the New World species.” 

According to Dr. Pinto, there are 22 species of Meloidae in North America.  They are named Blister Beetles because they release a toxic terpenoid blistering agent called cantharadin when they are threatened or handled.  Sometimes people call them “Oil Beetles” because it’s oily. You can find the chemical profile of cantharadin here ~ https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/cantharidin#section=Drug-Indication

Curiously, this toxic secretion has been utilized to treat various medical conditions.  Among these was the topical application of the “oil” to treat rheumatism or to remove warts and lesions of Molluscum contagiosum, a contagious, viral infection of the skin (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/molluscum-contagiosum/symptoms-causes/syc-20375226).  Cantharidin is also famously known for its use as an aphrodisiac (Spanish Fly).   This substance was historically used as a treatment for hydrophobia (rabies).  Male beetles were preserved in honey, mixed with other equally toxic ingredients then administered in an attempt to cure the patient. Maybe dying from cantharadin poisoning was less traumatic than dying of rabies.

Blister beetles are economically important because they contaminate alfalfa hay and they are highly toxic to livestock, especially horses.  There are instances where a horse has died from ingesting just ONE beetle. According to this Colorado State Extension publication (https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/insects/blister-beetles-in-forage-crops-5-524/), just the release of cantharadin oil from the beetle can contaminate the hay.  Although reports of cantharadin poisoning in livestock are rare in the West, here’s one case where someone’s goat became very sick from ingesting hay contaminated with cantharidin ~ https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/news/uc-davis-veterinarians-discover-blister-beetle-toxicity-goat

Another interesting fact about these beetles is that the larvae are phoretic parasites of solitary bees and grasshopper egg pods.  The first instar larvae, called triungulins” crawl onto flowers to await a visiting bee, then hitch a ride back to the nest where they will consume the pollen, nectar, and even the bee larvae.  Check out this link from National Geographic to view some extraordinary images of bees covered with blister beetle larvae ~ https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/09/bees-blister-beetles-evolution-parasites-pheromones-news/

This was the first blister beetle I’ve seen on San Juan Island, but I do know of one other sighting by San Juan County Land Bank steward, Doug. M. from April of 2016.  I sent the photo of Doug’s beetle to Dr. Pinto as well and this was his reply, “Very likely M. niger – tho the photo is a little fuzzy for positive ID.”  Doug’s photo of the “likely” M. niger below.   

Meloe niger 2016-04-07 14.38.37

Meloe niger Mount Ben, San Juan Island, WA, April 2016                                                                     Photo by Doug. M. San Juan County Land Bank

If you’d like to read more about the particular species of blister beetle I found, I’m including the taxonomic key and geographic distribution data from Dr. Pinto’s book below.

                                               Meloe (Meloe) strigulosus Mannerheim


 Direct Key To The New World Subgenera of Meloe

Key to New World Subgenera of Meloe

Key to New World Subgenera of Meloe Pinto and Selander, 1970

Direct Key to the New World Subgenera page 104.

Direct Key to the New World Subgenera of Meloe page 104 Pinto and Selander, 1970

Key to Groups

Key to Groups p. 124

Key to Groups Bionomics of Blister Beetles Pinto and Selander, 1970

Direct Key to Groups page 157

Key to Groups Bionomics of Blister Beetles Pinto and Selander, 1970

 Geographic distribution

Geographic.distribution of M. strigulosus  p. 159

Geographic Distribution of Meloe strigulosus Pinto and Selander, 1970

Larval Key Meloe strigulosus

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Larval key Meloe strigulosus Pinto and Selander, 1970

Larval.key.2

Larval key for M. strigulosus Pinto and Selander 1970

Antennal illustrations for male Meloe strigulosus, Figure 125 a. Dorsal view of segments V-VII, and b. Posterior view of segments V-VII

Male Antennae

Male antennae M. strigulosus Pinto and Selander, 1970

Antennal illustrations for female Meloe strigulosus, Figure 140

Female Antennae

Female Antennae M. strigulosus Pinto and Selander, 1970

References

Bittell, J. 2018.  Sex, Lies, and Grappling Hooks: How Parasitic Beetles Trick Bees. Animals Weird and Wild. National Geographic.  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/09/bees-blister-beetles-evolution-parasites-pheromones-news/

Hafernik, John and Saul-Gershenz, Leslie. 2000. Beetle larvae cooperate to mimic bees. Nature. 405. 35-6. 10.1038/35011129.

Kinney, K.K., F.B. Peairs and A.M. Swinker. 2010.  Blister Beetles in Forage Crops. Colorado State University Extension Publication 5.524. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/insects/blister-beetles-in-forage-crops-5-524/

Mayo Clinic. Mulluscum contagiosum. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/molluscum-contagiosum/symptoms-causes/syc-20375226(accessed on Apr. 16, 2019)

National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Cantharidin, CID=5944, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5944 (accessed on Apr. 16, 2019)

Peterson, M. A. 2018. Pacific Northwest insectshttps://www.amazon.com/Pacific-Northwest-Insects-Merrill-Peterson/dp/0914516183

Pinto, J.D. and R.B. Selander. 1970. The bionomics of blister beetles of the genus Meloe and a classification of the New World species. Illinois Biological Monographs 42: 1-222.  https://archive.org/details/bionomicsofblist42pint

Piuser, J. 2017. UC Davis Veterinarians Discover Blister Beetle Toxicity in Goat. U.C. Davis Veterinary Medicine.  https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/news/uc-davis-veterinarians-discover-blister-beetle-toxicity-goat

Quinn, M. Blister Beetles of Texas. Texas Beetle Resources. http://texasento.net/TXMeloidae.html#Meloe  (accessed on Apr. 16, 2019)

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.

Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature

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.

wintercranefly-img_2164

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!

winte-crane-fly-2-jpeg

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

 

 

 

Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis)

I’ve been stuck in the house all week with the flu…a BAD case of the flu. You don’t want it! Trust me. So, what does the very bored, sniffling, coughing entomologist do to pass the time when she’s sick? Why play with bugs of course!

My honey brought me this from the back deck…(such a thoughtful man!). fullsizeoutput_184b.jpeg

I wonder if he knew that had he not been more careful, our house could have been filled with “le pew de le bug,” a very unpleasant odor! While I probably wouldn’t have suffered (since I’m all stopped up), he certainly would have noticed.

So, what is this bug? Well, it’s not a “bug,” it’s an INSECT. You know….6 legs, chitinous exoskeleton, antennae, three main body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen).  More specifically, THIS INSECT is a Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis).  It is classified in the order Hemiptera, family Coreidae (Leaf-footed Bugs and Squash Bugs).

No….please don’t take that literally.  I’m certain this fella (or femme) would not like to be “squashed!”  I don’t advocate squashing any insect.  They’re ALL interesting…in one way or another.

The Coreidae or Squash Bugs are medium to large in size.  They are usually brownish colored.  This one has what I would describe as the beautiful color, Bronze! Please also note the leaf-like hind tibia, a feature characteristic of some species in this particular family. img_1869-2

What does it eat? It feeds on vegetation.  Check out the very long, piercing Rostrum or Proboscis tucked carefully along the underside of this one’s body.  western-conifer-seed-bug-leptoglossus-occidentalis

The Rostrum is used like a straw to suck the juices from conifers including Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta).  Other species are vegetable pests.  Hence the “Squash Bug” moniker.  It also has the characteristic SCENT GLANDS that will secrete the particularly stinky odor if you poke it too much when you are trying to get it to pose for a picture!  “Le pew de le bug!”

 

Suit of Armor

Ironclad beetle - Zopheridae

Ironclad beetle Phellopsis porcata

Yesterday’s “Word of the Day” on my new Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/buggingyoufromSJI was “ Thanatosis.”  Thanatosis is a behavior otherwise known as “playing dead!” Here’s an insect I found on the roadside the other evening, doing exactly that. Only about 15mm long, it was amazing to even recognize it as something other than a piece of bark.

What is it? This beetle is in the family of Ironclad beetles known as the Zopheridae. It is a species called Phellopsis porcata, one of only two North American species in the genus Phellopsis. Little is known about this cryptic beetle, a bumpy, and bark-like “armored soldier.” It is camouflaged from view in what remains of our old-growth forests. This beetle does not fly, so as habitat disappears, so will the beetle. We may never know the entire scope of its role in our forest ecosystems unless these areas are protected.

What do we know about P. porcata? Researchers have documented the behavior of thanatois or playing dead to escape predation, and in the Pacific Northwest, this species feeds on fungi and is associated with western hemlock trees (Tsuga heterophylla).

 

Ironclad beetle - Zopheridae

Here’s a great online diagnostic tool that can help with identifying Ironclad beetles. This links to the page I used to help with the genus Phellopsis: http://coleopterasystematics.com/ironcladid/IroncladID-Phellopsis.html .   Look for these cool beetles when you take your next walk in the forest!

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The Fainting Bug! Enoclerus sphegeus

IMG_0997I like beetles. There are interesting ones all over the place…and they do REALLY interesting things. Some can cry like babies. Some like to pat poo into nice little balls and roll them back to their home. Some hang around to take care of their offspring and even “play music” to call them to breakfast…or lunch…or dinner! Some do “bad” things like eat your plants …or your trees…or your house! Some wear really cool suits of shiny armor. They can look like miniature versions of dinosaurs or imaginary space aliens! Some have really cool names…like this one I found the other day…with many friends…hanging out on a dead fir tree. Its name? The FAINTING beetle! That’s exactly what it did when I walked up….fainted right over onto the ground! Stayed that way too…for about 30 seconds with its bright red (aposmatically colored) abdomen warning me it would taste VERY bad if I decided to eat it. No worries there little bug. I was only going to take your photo. Now the scientific name of this fella (or maybe it was a “she”) is Enoclerus sphegeus. It eats the bark beetles that eat fir and pine trees. Check out the photos and next time you see a beetle, take a moment to “admire and inquire” before you automatically stomp it! Not all bugs are bad.

Interested to know more.  Check out some of these references for further reading:

Boone, C., Six, D., and K. Raffa. 2008. The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy: competitors add to predator load of a tree-killing bark beetle. Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 10(4), 411-421.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1461-9563.2008.00402.x/full

Cowan, B., and W.P. Nagel. 1965. Predators of the Douglas Fir Beetle in Western Oregon.  Agricultural Experiment Station, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. Technical Bulletiin 86 http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/8806/?sequence=1

Rasmussen, L. 1976.  Keys to Common Parasites and Predators of the Mountain Pine Beetle. USDA Forest Service Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. Ogden, UT. General Technical Report INT-29

http://www.usu.edu/beetle/documents2/1976Rasmussen_Key%20to%20Common%20Parasites.pdf

Fainting Bug, Enoclerus sphegeus IMG_0990Enoclerus sphegeus, the Fainting Bug IMG_0992Enoclerus sphegeus, the Fainting Bug IMG_0994 IMG_0997 IMG_0999 IMG_1000 IMG_1001

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

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 whether my June Beetle might be hungry.  Yesterday though, when I looked into the box, I found him buried into the grass.  What was most noticeable to me was the fact that his antennae which had been upwards directed, were now pointing down.  He looked depressed – like he’d just accepted the fate that had come his way.  No! I thought to myself….I can’t keep him locked up like this.  So, grabbing my camera, I took my June Beetle (now named Jerry) outside.  I carefully took him out of the box and set him on a branch propped against a rock.  The sun was shining and warm and almost instantly, he perked up.  Those antennae started to rise, then waved around and spread open into intricately designed fans that were getting signals only he could interpret.

I snapped away with my camera, enjoying the experience of watching life come into him.  It wasn’t more than maybe five minutes and “Jerry” June Beetle decided to try his wings.  His first attempt to take-off failed.  So did his second….but he got it right on the third try and I watched amazed as he lifted into the air.  He rose almost directly upward and as he reached about 20 feet, he circled over me twice before heading over to the big Douglas Fir tree in my yard.  Freedom was his!  And me?  Well, I have come full circle.  You can learn so much more from observing a creature in its natural habitat than in captivity.  Thank you “Jerry” June Beetle.  It was nice making your acquaintance.  🙂

See more of Jerry and his transformation below! fullsizeoutput_958fullsizeoutput_955

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Thank you for setting me free! Love, Jerry the Ten-Lined June Beetle

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