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Category Archives: insects

The Infant

the infant mothThat early little orange and brown flier found last week has been identified. It is a moth. I first thought it was a butterfly for a few reasons, 1. It was out during the day 2. It flew zig-zag like a butterfly 3. It was orange, white and black and moved too fast to get a good look at it. Yesterday after noticing three flying in the forest, one landed on my hand! What luck. It is called “The Infant” species: Archiearis infans, its a geometer moth, AKA an inchworm moth. These little moths overwinter in the chrysalis and emerge late March to early May and fly during the day. So keep an eye out for these little beauties if you are near a stand of birch trees.

 

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Earwigs

earwigsMy 4 year old niece wanted to know why earwigs have to pinch. I told her they have those big ‘pinchers’ so they HAVE to use them. Right? But really evolution gave them those pincers, which are modified cerci, for catching prey and for fighting over females thus the males have bigger pincers. They are also used by the insects to fold their wings back under the elytra. Yes, wings. Earwigs are their own order made up of over 2,000 species, called Dermaptera. Loosely translated that means “skin-wings”. Their wings are not often seen, but are thin and resemble skin thus the name. These thin wings allow them to fly similar to a rove beetle or June bug. They are night fliers, so most people don’t see them flying. I remember when I was younger I saw a male earwig using its cerci to fold its wings under the hard fore-wings, it was a sight to see. Captivated me for the whole 60 minutes, all the tucking and folding, twisting and turning using those forcep-like cerci at the end of its abdomen.

earwig nestWhat makes earwigs one of my favorite insects, though, is how the mother takes care of the young. She makes a nest in a damp spot such as under a log or rock, and rolls and licks the eggs keeping them free from fungus. She also keeps them safe from predation by moving them if a predator is near. After the young are born they stay with the mother through the first 2 instars (first two molts) when she feeds them regurgitated food. It has been recorded that after these two molts, the mother dies or not, either way the offspring eat her*. This is called Matriphagy and is rare in the insect world. All in all, though, Agatha Christi was right, earwigs make good mothers. (If you don’t know what that means, read Agatha Christi’s books until you do. Then finish reading all the rest if you haven’t yet, then read them again in 10 years. I will do your brain good.)

As an added note, earwigs rarely pinch. You have to put your hand down on them or threaten them in a manner that they will retaliate with a small pinch, but overall they won’t go out of their way to pinch you. Nor do they have any venom or poison in that pinch, so the pain won’t last.

 

*Suzuki, S. Kitamura, M. Matsubayashi, K. (2005). “Matriphagy in the hump earwig, Anechura harmandi (Dermaptera: Forficulidae), increases the survival rates of the offspring”. Journal of Ethology 23 (2): 211–213.

 

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Yellow Jackets

yellow jacketYellow Jackets. Just those two words together evoke a visceral reaction to swat the air and sweat.

Around here everyone has had a close encounter of the third kind: actual contact. It is never pleasant.

Yellow Jackets are wasps in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula. They are black and yellow and mean. Okay, that is anthropomorphic, what they are is protective of their hive. I know this first hand. Once I was gardening and was pulling goldenrod when I unfortunately ripped the top off of a nest. A cloud of wasps flew out of the ground and around my head, so thick my vision was blurred. I ran. I swatted. I yelled. This attracted the neighbor’s dog. He was an Irish Wolfhound. He chased me being chased by a swarm of angry wasps. It was like a cartoon.

Once I was out of range I stopped and brushed hundreds of the yellow and black ladies off my body. Amazingly they bit me only 23 times. It felt like 23 matches being touched to my skin. These ladies meant business. The signal was clear–stay away from our hive.

So of course, I crept back around to the nest to see what damage was done. A 4 foot ring 2 feet thick of wasps was circling the nest.Their wing beats could be felt like electricity in the air. Fascinating.

The life cycle of these animals is a little know secret. It goes like this: colony initiation, growth and expansion, production of reproductives, reproductive dispersal, and colony decline.

Everyone seems to know that the “queens” over-winter, but where do the rest of the wasps go here in New England. Its not a nice story if you are wasp. The queens do overwinter. They hide out in the ground, old logs, tree bark, your house. In the spring she starts a new colony since she held the sperm over the winter so she can fertilize her eggs. But she doesn’t have to. Wasps are haplodiploid. That means males develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid (have half a genome), and females develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid (like you and me, they have half a genome from their mother and half from their father). At first though she does fertilize the eggs and gets females. She starts the nest building but then leaves it to the first offspring to finish.

Most all the members of the colony are females. They are all sisters. They all have modified ovipositers (egg layers) that are stingers. They are the builders, hunters, hive protectors (the Yellow Jack venom is only for protection they do not use it to stun their prey). There may be multiple queens in Yellow Jacket colonies. More power! These yellow and black bullet bugs might seem to be a nuisance to us, but on the flip side they are hunters. They hunt caterpillars, flies (house flies being their main prey), they also drive down fly populations by competing for garbage, dead animal wastes and rotten fruit.

Once the colony is established energy goes into producing ‘reproductive’ female and male wasps. These offspring are sent off to find mates from other colonies and start new colonies.

yellow jackets on appleAs the autumn approaches the colony no longer has a purpose. No more offspring are produced, and the ties that bind no longer feel so tight. So the individual wasps are forging for themselves.This is why you see more wasps in the fall. They seem a little more aggressive, because they are looking at that juicy food you are eating and not thinking about bringing it home to mama and the babies. And she has more time to sit on that apple and suck out the juices. Its the twilight of her life let her enjoy it, soon she will slow down and die. All but the queens, those royal ladies will hole up somewhere and start the whole thing again in 6 or 7 months. Such is the life of the Yellow Jacket.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2015 in backyard bugs, backyard science, insects, Science

 

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Horror Story

triungulan“There is a horror show starting in the sunlight of my front yard. It has all the makings of a good scary movie, blood, guts, a hijacking, kidnapping, body morphing, things bursting out from the inside all taking place a dark dirty cell under the ground. It starts with a lovely stand of Daisy Fleabane flowers. Very pretty. But if you look close, a story is unfolding unlike any horror movie you have ever seen.

Triungulins are the villains, they are not aliens from outer space or mutants from some mad science project gone wrong, they are products of millions of years of evolution. And they are only babies, tiny, almost invisible to the human eye (to be anthropomorphic they are evil, blood sucking, viscous babies) born with six strong legs and grasping mouth parts. They roam over the center of the flowers–waiting. Waiting for their prey. They are not hunters, they are waiters. As Halictid wasps, AKA sweat bees, stop by to drink up some nectar, these babies grab hold of their body hairs, mouth parts, what ever is closest in reach, and they don’t let go.

But surprisingly, the bee is not the victim, it is just a form of transportation. The well fed bee goes back to her underground nest, where one of her larva becomes the victim. The triungulan wiggles its way between the abdominal sections of the grub. There it says for a long while sucking the hemolymph, bug blood, from its victim. In time a weird creature, not something you would want to see up close and personal in the middle of the night, emerges, it is the adult rhipiphoridae beetle.

Adult rhipiphoridae beetle

Adult rhipiphoridae beetle

Rhipiphoridae laying eggs in Daisy Fleabane flower bud

Rhipiphoridae laying eggs in Daisy Fleabane flower bud

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2015 in backyard science, insects, Nature Curios

 

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Hot Bugs

Cicada photo by Tom Murray

Cicada photo by Tom Murray

My cousin asked me the other day what real name of the insect that makes the loud buzzing sound in the summer. She told me her husband calls them “hot bugs’ because they make the sound during the hot days. They have to have a real name. They do: Cicadas.

And they are hot bugs, they don’t start buzzing around here until the summer heat hits around 4th of July. They like the hot weather. The buzzing is the sound the males make to attract mates.

There are only 170 species of cicadas in North America and Mexico. And only 10 species in Mass according to current research.*

Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) are true bugs. They spend much of their lives under the ground where they suck sap out of roots of plants. Some live under the ground for 17 years–hence the 17 year cicada. I was going to write about the cyclical cicadas, but its complicated. I thought I’d simplify it, but there is no simplifying it, its a complicated cycle and that’s that. If you want to try and make some sense of it you can find more information and anything you ever wanted to know about cicadas here:
http://www.cicadamania.com/

*Biogeography of the Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) of North America. Allen Sanborn and Holly Philips
Mexico

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2015 in backyard science, insects

 

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Mini Bioblitz with the Berkshire Museum

museum bioblitz 2015This June the Berkshire Museum held a small bioblitz at Onota Lake with Egermont Elementary School students. It was a great day, lots of collecting and sharing. The weather was perfect the kids were well behaved and the teachers were great to work with in the field. Thanks to Joann Batman for inviting Dr. Augie’s to participate.

pond collecting kids collections crawdad collecting pond

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2015 in backyard science, Berkshire BioBlitz, Children's Art & Science Classes, insects, Science, science in the parks

 

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Year of the Daddy Long-Leg

If there was a year dedicated in insects, 2015 would be the year of the Phalangium opilio (Arachnida: Opiliones, Phalangiidae) AKA Harvestman, Daddy long-legs or Harvest Spiders. They are EVERYWHERE this year!

This time of year, July, they are still immature so not as tall and big as they are full grown. But this just means they can find more places to hide, like under the latch of the shed door, in the silverware drawer, between the curtain and the windows and in every inch of the garden (this last place is a good thing).

Contrary to popular belief, they are not deadly poisonous to people, but they do have short fangs. They use these fangs to inject poison into their prey.

daddy long legThey are predators on insects, thus good for the garden and home, good to eat all those dust mites under your couch. Since they have no spinning organs, they don’t spin webs, no cobwebs from these spiders. Also if you look close, they don’t have antennae. But instead use their second set of legs as they would antennae. Do check it out next time you see one, it will feel around with that second set of legs, which is cool to watch and cannot be unseen.

If you find these delicate creatures in your house, scoop them up, yes you can use your hands, they won’t bite humans and release them outside. They are the good ones.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2015 in backyard science, insects, Nature Curios

 

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