Bug o’the Week – The 12 (or 13) Bugs of Christmas

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week The 12 (or 13) Bugs of Christmas

Greetings of the Season, BugFans,

(13 bugs, because once she’s got her selection down to 13, the BugLady just can’t cut one more!)

A Cheery Thought for the Holidays, the average home contains between 32 and 211 species of arthropods (with the lower numbers at higher Latitudes and higher numbers as you head south past the Mason-Dixon Line).  So, while the BugLady is celebrating The 12 (or 13) Bugs of Christmas, most BugFans could rustle up at least that many under their own roofs.  Whether you see them or not, all kinds of invertebrates coexist with us daily, mostly staying under our radar until we surprise each other with a quick glimpse.

Here are a baker’s dozen of the bugs that the BugLady saw in 2023.

BALTIMORE CHECKERSPOT CATERPILLAR – According to one researcher, caterpillars are “essentially bags of macerated leaves.”  What kind of leaves does a Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillar macerate?  The eggs are laid in the second half of summer on, historically, White turtlehead, a native wildflower, and more recently, Lance-leaved plantain has been added as a host plant.  Both plants contain chemicals that make the caterpillars distasteful to birds, though the turtlehead has higher concentrations of them.  The butterflies have adapted to use an introduced plant, but the caterpillars don’t do as well on it (the BugLady has also seen them on goldenrod).  Half-grown caterpillars overwinter, and when they emerge to finish eating/maturing in spring, the turtlehead isn’t up yet, so they eat the leaves of White ash and a few spring wildflowers.   

LEAFCUTTER BEE ON PITCHER PLANT – Bumble bees and Honey bees are listed as the main pollinators of Purple pitcher plants, along with a flesh fly called the Pitcher plant fly (Fletcherimyia fletcheri), a pitcher plant specialist that contacts the pollen when it shelters in the flowers.  But it looks like this Leafcutter bee is having a go at it. 

SEVEN-SPOTTED LADYBUGS had a moment this year; for a while in early summer, they were the only ladybug/lady beetle that the BugLady saw.  Like the Asian multicolored lady beetle, they were introduced from Eurasia on purpose in the ‘70’s to eat aphids.  But (and the BugLady is getting tired of singing this chorus) they made themselves at home beyond the agricultural fields and set about out-competing our native species. 

An Aside: Lots of people buy sacks of ladybugs to use as pest control in their gardens.  The BugLady did a little poking around to see which species were being sold.  Some sites readily named a native species, but most did not specify.  Several sites warned that unless you are buying lab-grown beetles, your purchase is probably native beetles scooped up during hibernation, thus posing another threat to their numbers

SOLDIER FLY LARVA – The BugLady is familiar with Soldier fly larvae in the form of the flattened, spindle-shaped larvae https://bugguide.net/node/view/1800040/bgimage that float at the surface of still waters, breathing through a “tailpipe” and locomoting with languid undulations.  So she was pretty surprised when she saw this one trucking handily across a rock in a quiet bay along the edge of the Milwaukee River.  It appears to have been crawling through/living in the mud. 

COMMON WOOD NYMPH – And an out-of-focus Common Wood Nymph at that.  The BugLady has a long lens, and her arms weren’t quite long enough to get the butterfly far enough away to focus this shot.  And it’s really hard to change lenses with a butterfly sitting on your finger.

FALSE MILKWEED BUG – Milkweed bugs are seed bugs that live on milkweeds, but if you’ve ever seen a milkweed bug that was not on a milkweed (usually on an ox-eye sunflower), it was probably a False milkweed bug.  They’re so easily mistaken for a Small milkweed bug that one bugguide.net commentator said that all of their pictures of Small milkweed bugs should be reviewed.  Here’s a Small milkweed bug with a single black heart on its back bracketed by an almost-complete orange “X” https://bugguide.net/node/view/2279630/bgimage; and here’s the False milkweed bug, whose markings look (to the BugLady) like an almost complete “X” surrounding two, nesting black hearts https://bugguide.net/node/view/35141.  One thoughtful blogger pointed out that although it looks like a distasteful milkweed feeder, it’s not thought to be toxic.  He wondered if this is a case of mimicry, or if the bug once fed on milkweed, developed protective (aposematic) coloration, and then changed its diet?

LARGE EMPTY OAK APPLE GALL – That’s really its name, but “empty” refers to the less-than-solid interior of the gall https://bugguide.net/node/view/54459 (which was made by this tiny gall wasp https://bugguide.net/node/view/260612).  Galls are formed (generically) when a chemical introduced by the female bug that lays the egg, by the egg itself, and later by the larva, causes the plant to grow extra, sometimes bizarre, tissue at that spot.  The gall maker lives in/eats the inside of the gall until it emerges as an adult.  Some galls are made by mites – same principle.

SYRPHID FLIES are pretty hardy.  Some species appear on the pussy willows and dandelions of early spring, and others nectar on the last dandelions of late fall.  This one was photographed on November 17, on a sunny and breezy day with temperatures in the low 40’s, 12 feet off the ground, resting on the BugLady’s “go-bag” (the bag of extra clothes she carries up onto the hawk tower to deal with the wind chill).

WASP WITH SPIDER – The BugLady saw a little flurry of activity near an orbweaver web on her porch one day, but she got it backward.  At first she thought that the spider had snagged the wasp (a Common blue mud dauber), but it was the wasp that hopped up onto the railing with its prey, part of the spider collection she will put together for an eventual larva.

SIX-SPOTTED TIGER BEETLES grace these collections perhaps more than any other insect, because – why ever not!

JUST-EMERGED DAMSELFLY – This damselfly was so recently emerged (possibly from the shed skin nearby) that its wings are still longer than its abdomen (basic survival theory says that you put a rush on developing the parts you might need most).  Will a few of the aphids on the pondweed leaves be its first meal?

This is either a GREEN IMMIGRANT LEAF WEEVIL (Polydrosus formorus https://bugguide.net/node/view/1678834/bgimage) or the slightly smaller (and equally alien) PALE GREEN WEEVIL (Polydrosus impressifrons https://bugguide.net/node/view/1813505/bgimage).  Whichever it is, it’s been in North America for a little more than a century.  Bugguide.net calls them “adventive” – introduced but not well established.  Eggs are laid in bark crevices or in the soil, and the larvae feed on roots.  Adults eat young leaves, buds, and flowers of some hardwood, fruit, and landscape trees but are not considered big pests.  Their lime-green color comes from iridescent, green scales.

And a DOT-TAILED WHITEFACE in a pear tree.

Have a Wonder-full New Year,

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Black Zale Moth

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Black Zale Moth

Greetings, BugFans,

Zale moths (thank goodness) are not small and grayish (the moth equivalent of LBJ’s – “little brown jobs” – the birding acronym for the sparrow group), and thus they are not destined to languish unidentified in the BugLady’s “X-files” for too long They’re in the moth family Erebidae (from the Latin “erebus,” meaning “from the darkness”), which contains lots of colorful and familiar groups, like the Underwings, Tiger moths, Tussock and Lichen moths, and Zales. It also includes the BugLady’s personal nemesis moth, the Black Witch https://uwm.edu/field-station/bug-of-the-week/black-witch-moth/, one of which may have flown past her house this summer while the BugLady was inside, spotted by a guest who later asked “what kind of moth is big, dark, and kind of tattered-looking?”

Pronounced “ZAH’ lay,” the genus contains almost 40 species in North America.  Adults have wingspreads between 1 ½” and 2,” with wings that are camouflaged and at the same time are often strikingly patterned and even iridescent https://bugguide.net/node/view/1713943/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/647825/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/2080306/bgimage,

https://bugguide.net/node/view/1731967/bgimage.  And, of course, their wings have those neat little scallops on the edges.  Zale moths are nocturnal, with paired hearing organs on the thorax that allow them to detect the calls of hunting bats.  

Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America calls the Zales “a large and taxonomically challenging genus.”  

Female Zales lay about 200 eggs that hatch in a few weeks, spend a month as caterpillars, and live less than a month as adults.   Bugguide.net describes Zale caterpillars as “exceptionally muscular …. capable of hurling themselves from their perch when alarmed.”  They feed on young leaves by night – some species eat deciduous leaves, and others prefer conifer needles.  Wagner, et al, in Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America, says that caterpillars of some species “are leaf clippers that chew through the petiole, dropping any evidence of feeding activity to the forest floor; the chewed leaves might otherwise be used by birds to locate caterpillars.”  With a few notable exceptions, like the Okefenokee Zale https://bugguide.net/node/view/2108403/bgpage, the caterpillars are pretty drab and twig-like. 

BLACK ZALES (Zale undularis) are found near their host plants – Black locust and Honey locusts.  One source speculated that as Black locust has spread from its original range, the Black Zale has followed it.

Brief Aside: Black locust is a native species that is considered invasive outside its original range, including in Wisconsin.  Wikipedia tells us that “The exact native range is not known…….The native range is thought to be two separate populations, one centered about the Appalachian Mountains, from Pennsylvania to northern Georgia, and a second westward focused around the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.“  Whatever its native range, Black locust has been planted extensively throughout the country.

Although it’s a valuable wildlife plant (hosting, among other things, 67 species of Lepidoptera, while providing cover and seeds for other animals), it has a bad habit of taking over and turning grassland habitats into shady ones (it’s a pioneer – a sun-loving species that produces enough shade for mid-tolerant woody species to establish themselves). The roots of the BugLady’s big locusts are holding the dune together, so she has a moral dilemma. 

Another Brief Aside: The moth was photographed on a layer of wood chips that covers a huge piece of cardboard that covers a nasty, aggressive, persistent ground cover plant called Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria), aka goutweed, snow-on-the-mountain (a version of Bishop’s weed that has variegated leaves), and a bunch of names that have four letters.  The BugLady’s minions have been fighting it for a few years with fire, vinegar, and now cardboard.  If you don’t have bishop’s weed, don’t plant it, no matter what the nursery folks say, and if you’ve successfully gotten rid of it (without nuking it with chemicals), please tell the BugLady how.  

OK – Back to bugs.

Like most of the Zales, Black Zales are eastern(-ish) moths; buggude.net says that they’re found from Manitoba and Minnesota to New Brunswick, south to Florida and Arkansas.  And, like most of the Zales, Black Zales can show a lot of variation in color and pattern https://bugguide.net/node/view/323477/bgimage,

Adults are mainly seen in the first half of summer, though they can be hard to find when they’re sitting on a tree trunk https://bugguide.net/node/view/1204274/bgimage, and caterpillars can be hard to spot at all https://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=8695, especially when they’re feeding on the undersides of leaves.  They overwinter on the ground as pupae, in leaf litter.

Wagner, in Caterpillars of Eastern North America, says that “Zale caterpillars are highly mobile as first instars, often wandering long distances before they begin feeding.  Most prefer young leaf tissue, especially in early instars, then consume older leaves and needles in late instars.

Don’t let the nursery folks sell you Black locusts, either.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Sand-loving Bembidion beetle

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Sand-loving Bembidion beetle

Greetings, BugFans,

The Ground beetle family (Carabidae) contains some large and spectacular species https://bugguide.net/node/view/662415/bgpage, https://bugguide.net/node/view/2138426/bgimage, https://bugguide.net/node/view/2216522/bgimage, (including the Tiger beetles https://bugguide.net/node/view/1124395/bgpage), but today’s beetle is neither large nor flashy. It’s pretty fast, though.

With 2,440 species in North America and around 34,000 species worldwide, Carabidae is one of the largest insect families. Most Carabids are active hunters, both as larvae and adults, and many species (but not the tiger beetles) are nocturnal. Other than that, Carabids come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and habits and habitats. Many are chemically protected, with special glands where they can concoct noxious substances.

Cool fact about Ground beetles: according to bugguide.net, “the front tibia has a prominent notch (antenna cleaner) on the inside near distal end.” 

The BugLady was moseying around on the beach one August day when she spied an impossibly small beetle zipping over the sand.  So (of course) she aimed her camera at it as it ran around her and between her feet.  Bent over, with the 100mm lens about 2 ½ feet above the sand, this was the only shot worth keeping. 

She figured out that it was in the genus Bembidion (though she guessed the species wrong).  Bembidion is the largest genus in the Carabidae, and it’s a complex one.  Evans, in Beetles of Eastern North America, says that “Bembidion is a large genus; species sometimes challenging to identify.”  There are about 1,300 described species that are divided among about 100 subgenera, with more in the pipeline.  About 250 species live in North America, eight of them non-native. 

As a group, they are small (a half-inch or less), slender and somewhat flattened, dark and often metallic, speedy denizens of habitats near the water, especially river banks (though there are some grassland and desert species, too).  Their range is described as (new science words) biantitropical or amphitropical – that is, they live at both southern and (mostly) northern latitudes, away from the tropics.  They tend to appear on the landscape in spring and summer, they prey on tiny invertebrates, and they overwinter as adults. 

The BugLady sent the picture off to BugFan PJ for his thoughts.  He thought he should send it along to a ground beetle specialist, who wrote, “Kate’s culprit is likely Bembidion (subspecies Bracteon) carinula Chaudoir. See https://bugguide.net/node/view/109039. This is an abundant species that runs fast on wet sandy shores of Lake Michigan during warm sunlight in midsummer. They often fly when approached.”  Thanks, Gentlemen – it takes a village.

Most of the few sources of information that she found didn’t list a common name, but the Canadian NWT Species Search website calls it, logically, the Sand-loving Bembidion Beetle.  Its range covers much of Canada and across the northern tier of the US into New England (with some records in Iowa, Kentucky, and New Jersey).  It’s seen on sparsely-vegetated shores, often on dry sand, and though it’s not uncommon, it may be hard to see because it’s only 3/8” in length and it moves along like the Roadrunner.  It’s active during the day, and the adults are good fliers. 

The checkerboard pattern on its elytra is more conspicuous in some individuals https://bugguide.net/node/view/842164/bgimage than in others https://bugguide.net/node/view/51503/bgimage

Other than the fact that it appears on a number of “The Ground Beetles of (Wherever)” surveys and checklists, and it’s a species of Special Concern on Connecticut, there’s not much out there about Sand-loving Bembidion beetles.  As always, several sites offered to tell the BugLady what words rhyme with Bembidion, and yes, you can order a Bembidion beetle Sun catcher and a belt buckle online.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Jumping Bristletail Retread

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Jumping Bristletail Retread

Salutations, BugFans,

The BugLady has been busy – here’s a slightly-spruced-up version of an episode that she posted 10 years ago.  The Jumping bristletail that inspired it remains the only one she’s ever seen.

It was found by accident, as many good things are, clinging to one end of a branch that was lifted from the forest floor to get a better view of the mushrooms growing on it.

It turned out to be one seriously ancient critter.  Insects probably got their beginnings 443 to 417 million years ago (mya) during the Silurian Period (for a long time it was believed that insects descended from the millipede/centipede bunch, but evidence now points to origins within the Crustacea).  The oldest insect fossil (so far) is a “sort-of-silverfish” that dates back 396 million years to the Devonian Period.  There are fossil springtails from that period, too, but springtails are not considered insects any more.  The Carboniferous Period (354 to 290 mya) was marked by dragonflies with three-foot wingspreads and by an abundance of cockroaches.  Tracks of Jumping Bristletails have been found in Permian rock (290 to 248 mya) (the upstart dinosaurs didn’t appear until the Triassic Period, some 50 million years later, plus-or-minus).

Jumping bristletails used to be classified with the silverfish (the blameless Jumping bristletail is still lumped with silverfish on some exterminator’s websites), but now they’re in their own order.  In defining an animal scientifically, the groupings move from the most general umbrella to the most specific umbrella.  Kingdom (Animalia) comes first, the biggest umbrella, then Phylum (Arthropoda), then Class (Insecta), then Order, then Family, Genus, and finally Species. 

Jumping bristletails have two different order names.  The newer name is Microcoryphia (“small head”), and the older appellation is Order Archaeognatha (“ancient jaw”), which refers to the way the mandible connects to the insect.  Whichever order name you pick, Jumping bristletails are alone in it.  That 396 million year old “silverfish” had the new-fangled double-jointed (dicondylic) mandible, but Jumping bristletails have the original equipment, a single (monocondylic), knuckle-like joint/articulation that allows its mouthparts to rotate or twist.  Ancient insect jaws probably resembled those of Jumping bristletails, but most insects developed from a side branch that sprouted from the insect family tree early on.  Some scientists consider the Jumping bristletail to be the least evolutionarily changed of any living insect – a chip off a very old block.

There are two Jumping bristletail families worldwide, the largest of which is Machilidae.  Both families occur in North America, as do about two dozen of the 350 to 450 species of the world’s Jumping bristletails (we even have an introduced species). 

(No – the BugLady is not going to try to name a genus or species for this one, but if she was a betting woman, she’d put a little money on Pedetontus saltator.)

Back in the (Permian) day, there were many wingless insects.  Today, the vast majority of insects have wings, and those that have wings have two pairs of them.  Most of the species that are wingless derive from ancestors that once had them.  Not so the Jumping bristletail and the silverfish, who are primitively/primarily wingless – their ancestors never enjoyed flight. 

As a group Jumping bristletails are drab (though a close look may reveal a variety of color patterns, and the BugLady’s bristletail is downright iridescent), scale-covered, cylindrical, hump-backed (silverfish are flat), and generally less than three-quarters of an-inch long.  At one end they have sensory antennae and both simple and compound eyes (with their simple eyes, silverfish are blind to all but light and dark), and at the other end, three caudal filaments – two sensitive cerci and a central terminal filament.  Fringes of hairs on the rear filaments explain the “bristletail” part.

They have the requisite six legs, but attached to the underside of some abdominal segments are additional pairs of short, moveable appendages called “styli” (plural of stylus) that serve as sensors of their substrate and that may be vestigial legs left over from their ancestors.  Jumping bristletails dehydrate easily and must absorb water from their environment through tiny, paired sacs that are located on several abdominal segments and that work like pockets turned inside out (OK – “membranous, eversible sac-like vesicles”).  Here’s an article with pictures showing their iridescence and a video of bristletails in action https://www.welcomewildlife.com/jumping-bristletails-not-silverfish-not-pests/   

As their name suggests, they jump – six inches and more – which silverfish can’t do.  This they accomplish by pushing up with their legs while contracting the muscles in their abdomen to arch their body downward.  They can run fast, too.  Jumping is their main defense, but like silverfish, a dense covering of scales renders them slippery and helps them escape from the clutches of their predators.

In the “Is There a Video of That?” category (and there undoubtedly is one), consider Stephen P. Yanoviak’s research that looked at Jumping bristletails for clues to the evolution of insect flight.  When a Jumping bristletail leaps from tree to tree, its drop is augmented by “steering,” using the long terminal filament (“directed aerial descent”) (kind of like a flying squirrel).  Yanoviak dusted Jumping bristletails with orange fluorescent powder and dropped them from branches high in rainforest trees.  Results showed that the filament was vital to a successful glide and landing, and Yanoviak suggests that because these wingless, arboreal insects had “flight” under control, winged flight probably originated from terrestrial insects.

Jumping bristletails live in a wide variety of conditions, from Arctic to desert, and they especially like leaf litter, bark, rock crevices, and rocky seashores.  The North Carolina State University Entomology Pages rank Jumping bristletails as “common in grassy or wooded habitats.” They are found in the nooks and crannies of the world, where they shelter during the day and from which they perambulate at night.  They rarely come indoors.  

Herbivores and decomposers/recyclers, they use their mouthparts to feed on algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, and soft, decaying organic material, though a few sources said that they eat tiny invertebrates, too (one source said that they pick at their food rather than chewing it).  They don’t/can’t bite people.  They are eaten by birds, centipedes, spiders, mites, ants, and flies.   

Ancient mouth; ancient winglessness, ancient reproduction, and ancient metamorphosis.  Males court, sometimes with elaborate dances, then leave a sperm packet for her to pick up (indirect sperm transfer).  She may lay as many as 30 eggs, but to lay more, she must dance again.  Some species skip the dance and reproduce by parthenogenesis – females reproduce without input from males.  Young Jumping bristletails have an ametabolous development – they start as miniatures of the adults and simply grow, shedding eight times over the course of about two years before reaching adulthood.  Unlike most other insects, they continue to shed as adults and may live for two additional years.  Each time they molt, they must first cement themselves to the substrate – a stick, rock, etc. – using fecal material as a glue.  Should the glue fail, the insect will not molt, but die. 

Interesting Jumping bristletail facts:

  • Take yourself to a woodland some night and shine a flashlight on a spot in the leaf litter – Jumping bristletails are attracted by light and will appear after about 15 minutes.  Their eyes will glow in the flashlight’s beam.
  • According to a blog called “myrmecos” by entomologist and photographer Alex Wild, “In California these flightless insects are common around harvester ant nests.  I don’t think they have any sort of specialized relationship with ants, except perhaps finding the warm microclimate of the mound surface agreeable.”

Small, yes.  Old, oh yes.   But not uncomplicated.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

PS – Road Trip!!!!   https://metropolismag.com/projects/montreal-insectarium/?utm_campaign=ME_Bi-WeeklyNewsletter&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=283277107&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-80i2GYCnKZBaxBvmnF77oSWJaFMUJkA-1MS5TSJ7lJITS8EIUNOXKzZoyiTckeKKnyDlP3afGn5wfxOGD2idMkiYnURdqXS_PSBdpqxQKel8kD75o&utm_content=283277107&utm_source=hs_email

Bug of the Week archives:

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