Posts tagged insects

Admission of my Quirky Habits

aea34-img_6776I am sure that other people see me with many quirky habits. I imagine the one that people emjoy the most is my love of studying reptiles, amphibians and insects. From the time I was a child, I have had baby turtle in a box, tadpoles in a bowl and container and have loved studying insects.

I had purchased and enjoyed a 35 mm camera along with diopters, filers and lenses and had learned to take beautiful photographs on thee film. Now, in this digital age, I have re-taken very few I on film. The photos never have the quality and clarity when they are retaken. I bought a complicated new digital camera, but just could not conquer it, so I traded it in for a more simple on.

I have taken quite a few on the camera, but haven’t managed to get a lot of them on the computer. I hope to get out my old albums and make the beautiful pictures of fritillary butterflies and monarchs on butterfly weed. I remember the excitement of capturing pictures of snakes, or lizards. My neighbors were always happy to check out my latest photos of the life cycle of the praying mantis.

It is odd how hobbies and quirks come and go in our lives. Sometimes, when we find time and life moving them out of our reach we loose the time or energy to pursue it as we once did.

Still, I treasure the memories of the days when I showed my children a “new” insect or a new life faze of a butterfly and their amazement as they held a newly hatched black swallowtail on their fingertip.

Quirks aren’t always bad, just different, and isn’t being different what makes life interesting?

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MONARCHS, LADY BUGS AND PRAYING MANTISES

Butterfly Monarch Butterflies Facts | Butterfly

I have studied insects for many years. Monarchs and their host plants, the many varieties of the milkweed plant, are  among my favorite.  I notice that the milkweed plants that we have in the Southern Appalachians, (wild and tame) do not look like some of the ones that I have seen in other areas, so there are more varieties than I am accustomed to watching.

There are several varieties of milkweed plants in our area. Some have tiny white flowers and delicate stems and leaves. Other, more common milkweed plants have slender leaves and are more “bushy”. The flowers are dainty and vary from yellow to deep orange. All milkweed plants secrete a milky white substance that makes the insects who feed on them distasteful and therefore, helps reduce predation..

I love to watch the life cycle of the monarch, which begins with the barrel-shaped egg that the female attaches to the bottom of the leaf of the milkweed. I watch as the tiny black caterpillars grown, soon showing their beautiful yellow, white and black stripes, which are visible from the time they have molted only once through several more molts, to adulthood. Fully grown caterpillars, hang upside down in a “comma shape”, suspended by a silky thread secreted from its abdomen. It looks like it is going to “dry up” or shrink, a bit, before it seems to magically turn into a mint green chrysalis with gold spots and a gold spiral.

Even through the Monarch caterpillars devour the plant as it grows, the leaves and stems will grow back on some branches, even those with with pretty severe damage. The milkweed is a perennial and grows back from a deep tap-type root that is not damaged by the monarch caterpillar. Therefore, I don’t have to worry if this season’s monarchs severely damage my plants. Next season, fresh new leave will appear, ready to blossom and then have their leaves and blossoms turn into a monarch feast.

There are several broods of monarchs, spring, mid-summer and late summer. Only the midsummer brood gets to partake of the blossoms, which seem to be the caterpillars’ favorite part of the plant.   When the monarch emerges, it secretes an orange fluid as it pumps up its wings with fluid. this is normal and necessary.  The wings will not take on their normal shape without it. It is very easy to tell a male monarch butterfly from a female because the male has a black spot in the middle of it’s hind-wing which secretes a hormone scent. The last brood of the season flies to Mexico, or Central America and over-winters as an adult, flying back north in spring to lay its eggs on newly sprouting milkweed plants. As with all butterflies and moths, the monarch is a four-cycle metamorphic insect, meaning it has 4 life stages-egg, larva, pupae and adult. Ironically, the Lady Bug,(as well as other beetles and ants) also has 4 phases in its metamorphosis.

The Praying Mantis and the Lady Bug (sometimes known as Lady Bird Beetle)are carnivorous insects.  They are often known as a “good” insects, or insects which eat insect pests that destroy many flowers and cultivated plants. Both insects start out with their favorite foods being aphids and gnats. As they grow, Praying Mantises catch and eat larger insects with their claw-shaped front legs. Lady Bugs stay with the smaller insects, mainly aphids. Praying Mantises are three-cycle metamorphic insects, as are all grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas – meaning they have 3 stages, egg-nymph and adult.

File:Praying mantis india.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Praying mantis molts from its’ exoskeleton four times. By the time they reach their third in-star, you can tell a male from a female because a female is larger and has a wider abdomen. As they grow, so does the size of the prey they feed on. Bees and small butterflies remain favorite foods throughout a Praying mantises life. A third in-star mantis has what might be called ‘proto-wings’ or wing bugs beginning to protrude from the top of its abdomen. A fourth in-star has larger wings which reach further down its abdomen, but are not yet usable. Only a full grown Praying Mantis can use it’s wings to fly.

Males , lighter-weight and looking for mates are more likely to fly. Females that are ready to make egg sacks can do little more than glide from the top of a plant. Therefore, males are more likely to end up prey themselves, likely to bats who use echo-location or a form of radar to detect where the mantis is.

Most of us have seen nature films where the prey, say a gazelle, gets away from a lion. This is true with carnivorous insects as well. I have seen a large butterfly or cicada struggle so hard with a Praying Mantis, that the Praying Mantis lost its claw! Fortunately, a young mantis starts to re-grow its claw, so if a third in-star mantis loses the end of its claw, it may have a usable claw again if it reaches adulthood.

It is also a myth that the female mantis always eats the male after mating. Ordinarily, the Praying Mantis chews off the wings of a flying insect and discards them right away , so that the victim has nothing to fight with, Using craft paint to mark them, I have marked mantises from third in-star on into adulthood with craft paint dots and have seen many male mantises mate more than once. The trick, (like that of a black widow) is to pick a mate that isn’t real hungry and “know” how to dismount. I have actually seen three male Praying Mantises trying to mate with one female at one time! Safety in number? Who knows!

Nature has so many variations of life that it would be impossible to run out of creatures to study. Some, of course, make studying them a bit easier and safer than others. I enjoyed teaching my little ones about insects and flowers and it brings a smile to me as I see them teaching these things to their own children. Observation is the best way to learn about creatures, and often, choosing whichever creature presents its self is the best way to “choose” what to study.

My suggestions: Keep a dated journal of both words and photographs. Include yourself and children in your pictures. Try to make some memorable photographs, keep your journals safe and share them with friends, family, classrooms and neighbors. Most of all, enjoy the world around you, protect and respect it so that the next generation can carry on your tradition!

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Early Autumn in the Southern Appalachians

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A Honeybee on a Wild Black Eyed Susan

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Mushrooms are abundant in deciduous forest-this may be a Hygrophorus Milky mushroom

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A family of black bears frequents my aunts yard

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A male and female praying mantis mate amidst the wild asters

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Annual displays of wild purple asters viewed from her kitchen window

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Family reunions remind us of sweet memories

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Heirlooms are passed down through generations

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Making the Model A “zoom to life again!”

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Golden rods still provide nectar for autumn insects

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The Royal Walnut Caterpillar and Moth-Queen of the Moonlight

The Royal Walnut Caterpillar and Moth-Queen of the Moonlight

 I have studied insects and spiders for many years, yet the first time I came upon this caterpillar had to be one of my most memorable insect encounters. Without a doubt, the fully grown caterpillar of the Royal Walnut Moth is a creature you will never forget. When I was a young adult, my father and I were walking down his road when he reached down and picked up a writhing creature. “Look, he smiled, “ a Hickory Horned Devil!”  I had seen pictures of this caterpillar and seen the adult moth, but had never seen the huge caterpillar in the wild.  It was about 5 inches long, with an aqua body, huge black and reddish brown horns around its head, and smaller prickly horns along its body segments. My father assured me that it didn’t sting, that the “horns” were largely a protection against predators, and warned me that I would be surprised at how heavy it was.  He was right on all counts.

When I picked up the caterpillar, it curled into a ball, but soon began to crawl up my arm.  I did feel a slight prickle on my arm, but easily put it  in a cup I was carrying in order to observe it later at home. The next day, I offered it to the local Nature Center , who gladly accepted the unusual guest.

It was many years before my next encounter. My teenaged daughter found an adult female beneath a street light on a busy street. It was unable to fly, so she put it in a container and brought it to me.  We feared she was dead, but left her in the container inside our house.  The next afternoon when we checked on her, she had surprised us with over 30 yellow eggs about the size on a lower case “o” on a twelve point typeset.

The moth, itself is large and quite beautiful.  The female can have a wingspan of 4-6 inches.  She has an orange body, about an inch and a half (or more) in length. Her wings have yellow markings on a grey background. The wings are lined with orange veins.  Many of the adult females have pinkish tint to areas of their wings. They look like no other moth and because of their size and color are easy to identify,  She is fuzzy and when disturbed, will flap her wings wildly, in order to escape.  Because she is so heavy, she doesn’t fly a long distance and will calm down if confined to a box or container.

We did some research on the moth and found out their adult lifespan is very short.  They   do not feed at all. They are born one evening, mate the next, with the female laying her eggs on the leaves of the host plant the next evening. Exhausted,  both male and female soon die. Resources such as the  Golden Guide and the National Audubon Society Guide list their preferred natal plants as hickory, sweet gum, walnut, ash, sumac and persimmon. Because the female lays her eggs on the leaves of large trees, we don’t often see the caterpillars until they come down to form into cocoons, made of leaves and silk. There they lie, under the cover of leaves until they hatch the next spring. Likewise, with a three day life as an adult, chances of seeing them are small.

As amateur naturalists, my children and I decided to raise the caterpillars and see if we could watch them through their life cycle. We gathered walnut and persimmon leaves and scattered them in a cardboard box covered with screen. In about six days, the eggs began to hatch.  The tiny caterpillars appeared black at first, but after several molts, the looked more like bird droppings, with black and white markings. This was obviously to deter predation.  As they continue to grow, they become more colorful and start to develop the classic “horns” which give them their nick name.  I enjoyed picking them up, observing their weight and features as they grew. The “horns” are, indeed, ominous looking, but they have no sting and do not bite.

 The caterpillars became so large that the box was crowded with the huge hungry creatures.  We decided to release some onto their natal plants in order to have more room and in hopes that a natural environment would be more likely to produce adults the next season. After a few weeks of voracious feeding and amazing growth, the caterpillars stopped eating, appeared to shrunk in size and soon began their transformation into cocoons.

Unfortunately, many of our caterpillars died before they turned into cocoons.  The few that did pupate, we kept in an aquarium in the basement over the winter, trying to add a bit of moisture and light.  Unfortunately, none of the ones we kept survived to hatch the next spring.

It has been over ten years since our first attempt to raise the “Hickory Horned Devil” caterpillars.  Today, my teen son, who was three years old the last time we raised them, found an adult female at a gas station and brought her home.  Whether she has laid her eggs or mated is yet to be seen. She is quite active, living as her predecessor  did, in a cardboard box with a screen covering it.  We enjoy any opportunity to watch the life cycle of any insect we find. Perhaps we will get another chance to observe the life cycle of this  huge, beautiful but rarely seen moth..

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The Black and Yellow Argiope Spider

The Black and Yellow Argiope Spider

Black and Yellow Argiope
Also Known as “Garden Spider”

One day in early August several years ago, I found myself lamenting over how few praying mantises I had been able to observe that season. Then I noticed a beautiful Black and Yellow Argiope spider (Argiope Aurantia) sitting on her web, attached to a bush at the edge of my garden. I went to tell my kids and when we returned, we found another Argiope on her web nearby. Within the next few days, two more of these large colorful spiders appeared in our yard.

I am always looking for opportunities to study new creatures and these four “ladies” were just what the doctor ordered! In Western North Carolina, where I live, the Black and Yellow Argiope is a rather common sight. Since they are often found at the edge of the forest or fields, many people never see them. They are often referred to as “Garden Spiders” or “Writing Spiders”. Some years ago, when I had a larger garden, I often found one or two of these spiders residing near the edge of my garden by late summer. It was then that I started to study them. Once, I saw one that was identical to the Argiope I was familiar with, only it was solid black. I have never seen another one like it.

Many a legend has been formed in these mountains about these spiders, whose large webs contain a bright white zig-zag “writing” down the middle of the web. This, of course is how they obtained their common name of “writing spider”.

My fathers’ favorite legend about these spiders comes from the days when World War II was looming on the horizon. It was said, that at a local church, members began to speak of a “Writing Spider” who had made a web near the grave yard. Several people swore that the spider had written “WAR” in her web. My father and some of his friends went to see the web, but felt the church members were stretching the truth a bit. Still. it was an interesting story and attracted quite a bit of interest.

Scientists believe that the real reason for the “writing” in the center of the web is to warn off birds so they will not tear up the web as well as to attract insects to the dense white color of the design. The want the web to collect a meal for them before it is destroyed. The bright white zig-zag may also attract prey for the spider.

The adult female Black and White Argiope is around 3/4″ to 1″ in body length with her legs stretching out in an “x” like pattern to make her much larger. The males are seen left often and are much smaller. Their bodies are long and thin while the females are wide and heavy. At the end of summer males build small webs near a female in order to approach her and mate with her. As with all male spiders, they must be careful. Female spiders do not set out to kill and eat the male, as is often rumored, but if she is hungry and he is careless, he may end up as a meal. I have seen several anxious males with webs near a huge female.

The female Argiope sits in the middle of her web, near her “writing” as she awaits prey, often butterflies and bees. Her abdomen is marked with yellow and white designs on a black background. Her cephalothorax is light gray. The legs are brown near their connections with the cephalothorax and brown and black on the lower legs.

The spiders that I have observed have had a web that averaged 15″ to 18″ in width. They usually attach them to a strong ,tall weed, bush, or corn stalk. When an insect is caught in her web, she may wait until the prey becomes weakened from struggling before she goes in to inject venom into it and wrap it in her silky web. I have observed the spiders catching, wrapping and “eating” (actually sucking out the juices) from many different insects, among them were bees of all kinds, flies, butterflies and moths and cicadas.

For six weeks that year, my family enjoyed watching these beautiful spiders. Once, early in the season, I had seen another spider sneak up and bite a young argiope. I had heard spiders ate each other, but this episode was my first experience actually seeing it. It saddened me that I would not get to follow this spider through her life cycle.

We numbered the spiders and made a chart, keeping track of their daily activities. Spider Number 4 had her web among the irises. Spiders Number 2 and 3 were only about three or four feet apart and nearly directly behind each other. Spider Number 1 was near the mailbox and attached to a wild flower called a knapweed.

In late September, spiders 1, 2 and 3 disappeared. This is the way it goes. One day after mating, they make a large, brown tear drop-shaped egg case, attach it to the weed or bush their web is attached to, and simply wander off to die.
Often, I would noticed that this event of death and renewal had happened during a hard rain. Spider number 4 was in a more protected location and remained there several more weeks. My daughter had an Argiope remain under her houses’ eve until after the first frost one year!

One day, my father and I were walking in the garden and noticed that number 4 had a large cicada trapped in her web. She had retreated to the leaves of the plant her web was attached to, avoiding the huge insect as it struggled in her silky trap. The next morning, I saw her feeding on it. To hold this giant insect, her web must have been very strong, much like the black widow, known for the strength of her web.

As an amateur photographer, I enjoyed the chance to take many photos of these spiders during the summer and early fall. This was in the days before digital cameras were popular and I took the pictures with a complicated, yet very accurate camera that used film. I was fortunate to see Spider #4 intricately repair her beautiful orb web one sunny day. How such a “simple” creature could construct such a work of art will always amaze me.

Although I did not get to see the spiders make their egg sacks, I did find and collect two of them. I sewed them up in a safe place in a low bush, hoping to see the young spiders the next spring. Though I was not fortunate enough to see them hatch, I did observe a few Argiope spiders around the yard the next year. I have learned to look for different kinds of insects, such as preying mantises, spiders and butterflies to observe during their short lives. Each experience has taught me lessons about nature that I simply could not find in a book!

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