Category Archives: Nature Curios

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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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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Should we let sleeping flies lie?

sleeping flyDo flies sleep?

The quick answer is yes. The long answer can be found here.

I have dealt with sleeping flies in the the past. Not as an entomologist, but as a pet owner. When I was young my brother had a small rainbow skink. It loved to eat flies. But the flies had to be alive and moving. So I became a fly catcher. My prey: Muscid flies, aka house flies. I figured out how to sneak up on them. Early in the morning they could be found on flowers on the sunny side of the house. I remember waving my hand in front of them and they didn’t move. They just stood there with those big eyes, not seeing me. Asleep. I’d scoop them up in paper cups and release them in the skink tank. Easy.

Recently a cluster fly decided the kitchen was a good place to spend the winter. It found a crack between the sill and the wall. This fly was looking for a sleeping spot for the whole winter. This type of long dormant sleeping in insects is called “diapause”. During this time they don’t move much, they will drink if water is available. They don’t feed, no mating, not much in the way of flying, unless it gets unseasonably warm and they think it is spring.

Not just flies fall into this overwintering stage, squash bugs, lady bugs, bees, wasps and even mosquitoes do it.

I get countless calls during the fall and early winter about bugs in peoples homes. They come in with the wood, or they fly in looking for a dry, warmer than outside spot to curl up for the winter. Not a bad strategy. I kind of wish I could do it too as long as I had a pile of good books.

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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science


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Clematis Seeds

clemantis seed headOne of my favorite flower seed heads is the clematis. They are quite exquisite. You can see the seed pods starting to spin and sprout the feathery seed floats.

clemantis seedThis seed head is ready float its seeds into the cool autumn air.

Soon I will be collecting the ripe seeds and planting them into the ground. These seeds need to get cold, thaw, then get very cold through out the winter in order to germinate in the spring. Which is good because the ground in this area freezes pretty solid in the winter. I will bring some in and pop them in the refrigerator too, as a back up in case it gets unusually cold.

clematis flowersThis is what they look like when they bloom. Gorgeous.

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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in Nature Curios, Science


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Woolly Bear Caterpillars–What do they change into?

baby woolly bear caterpillar

Baby woolly bear caterpillar

I get asked this question often. What happens to the woolly bear caterpillar? We see them all the time in the late summer and throughout the fall. Then we forget about it until next fall. To answer the first question: The adult moth isn’t much to look at. Kind of drab beige to yellow, a few black markings. The scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, common name, Isabella Tiger Moth.

The caterpillar is the interesting part. No you cannot tell if the winter is going to be longer if the stripes are wider, or shorter. That is a myth. But this caterpillar can do something very interesting. It can freeze. It has to freeze. Freeze solid over the winter. And not just one winter, it can go through up to three winters suspended in a state of cryogenic suspended animation. We should send it into space I say!

The reason it is believed they freeze is to bulk up on more food in the spring before pupation. It is in the spring after overwintering as a caterpillar, not something many caterpillars do, that they spin their cocoons. What emerges, the drab moth you see here. It then lays tiny pearl-like eggs in the grass to start the cycle over again.

Photo by Tom Murray

Photo by Tom Murray

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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science


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Bug walk and Nature Concert at Field Farm Williamstown

mantis on flowerThe Trustees of Reservations at Field Farm is hosting a music series this summer to heighten the experience of land, nature and architecture.

At 3:00 today, September 14th, prior to the concert, piano and cello duo Dan Kennedy and Stephen Katz, I will be giving a bug walk. Join us!

Bring lawn chairs, blanket, picnic dinner.

The Trustees of Reservations
Field Farm
554 Sloan Road
Williamstown, MA 01267

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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science, science in the parks


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Japanese Knotweed

japanese knotweedFallopia japonica, common name Japanese knotweed, is a tall, glorious, herbaceous perennial native to Eastern Asia. Here in North America it is very successful growing anywhere there is the least bit of water. It has been classified as an invasive species, and hated by many since it is very hard to remove once it becomes established. It has naturalized here and the question remains, when is it considered non-invasive?

I have to say I love Japanese Knotweed. We have lots of it on our property and it is well managed. We mow and pull it out manually. It is a abundant source of pollen in the late summer for bees, flies and small butterflies when other plants are starting to go to seed. Right now our yard is “buzzing”. Its an amazing sight and sound. One of my favorite parts of the summer.

This plant is incredible. It grows so fast you can hear it. Yes you read that correct. In the spring it pushed up the dead leaves on the ground as it grows and you can hear the shoots moving the leaves aside. One spring I am going to measure the growth daily. I’m guessing 2-3 inches in 48 hours. It grows fast. And its good eating. I prefer it over asparagus. The shoots have a lemony taste.

The leaves are broad and create shade and privacy. Managed right it will create a jungle in your yard that supplies wildlife such as birds, rabbits and mice with a place to forge, hide from predators such as fox and house cats.

And don’t forget the insects. Paper wasps such as┬áPolisties use it for nest making, scraping the fibers off the old canes to make a paste for their nests. Then in the late summer early fall the thick crown of flowers provides pollen for many insects, mostly honey bees. The biodiversity in my yard is 10 fold because of these plants. I love them.

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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios


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