Bug o’the Week – Slices of Spring

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Slices of Spring

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady and her camera have been out scouring the uplands and wetlands for insects that will sit still long enough to have their portrait made.  Many of today’s bugs have starred in their own BOTWs over the years, and you can find them by Googling “UWM Field Station followed by the name of the insect.  Her gut continues to tell her that there simply aren’t as many insects to point her camera at as there were a decade ago.

What did she find in April and May?

WOODLAND LUCY (Lucidota atra), aka the Black firefly (atra means black).  If a lightning bug doesn’t light, is it still a Lightning bug?  Yup.  Most lightning bugs flash their species-specific light signals at females by night, but some, like the Woodland Lucy, are day flyers (the BugLady starts seeing them in swamps in May, but she usually doesn’t see a light show by their nocturnal relatives until the very end of June).  It would be a waste of energy to try to produce a light that competes with the sun, so diurnal lightning bugs communicate via pheromones (perfumes).  But, all fireflies make light at some point in their lives, and always as a larva (and even the adult Woodland Lucy makes a weak light for a brief time after emerging as an adult).   

Who says “lightning bug” and who says “firefly?”  Lightning bug is heard most often in the South and Midwest, and firefly belongs to New England and the West (and Southeastern Wisconsin is close to the border of the two).  Someone did a study and hypothesized that people who live in wildfire country prefer firefly, and people who live in thunderstorm country say lightning beetle.  The BugLady likes the alternate theory – that you call them whatever your Grandmother called them.

DISONYCHA BEETLE – isn’t this a neat beetle!  The BugLady photographed another member of the genus years ago when she was photographing visitors to her pussy willow shrub.  It’s in the (huge) leaf beetle family Chrysomelidae, many of whose members are pretty specific about the host plants for their larvae.  This one is (probably) a member of the confusing Smartweed Disonycha bunch.  

GROUSE LOCUSTS are in the family Tetrigidae (the pygmy grasshoppers), and at a half-inch and less when full grown, pygmy they are!  The BugLady usually sees them in wetlands, and some are actually known to swim.  They feed on tiny diatoms and algae and aquatic vegetation at the water’s edge.

A CENTIPEDE works the boardwalk at Spruce Lake Bog in April.

GROUND BEETLE LARVA – Ground beetles (family Carabidae) are a bunch of mainly nocturnal, sometimes-sizeable, mostly predaceous beetles.  Some of the big ones have no-nonsense names like Fiery Searcher and Caterpillar Hunter, and although they are called Ground beetles, they may climb trees to find their prey.  They’re long-lived, spending a year or two as larvae and then two or three more as adults.  No – the BugLady was not inclined to pick this one up.   

The WHITE-STRIPED BLACK MOTH (Trichodezia albovittata) is a small (1” wingspan) day-flying moth that’s often mistaken for a butterfly.  It’s found in wetlands because its caterpillar’s food is Impatiens/Jewelweed/Touch-me-not.  Like other members of the moth family Geometridae, it has tympanal organs (ears) at the base of its abdomen so that it can hear the echolocation calls of bats.  Since it’s diurnal, its ears are superfluous, but it can hear ultrasound (which suggests to evolutionary biologists that its day-flying habit is a recent one). 

CHALK-FRONTED CORPORALS are one of our earliest dragonflies – the BugLady recalls seeing recently-emerged corporals by the hundreds over a dirt road on warm, spring days.

DADDY LONGLEGS (aka Harvestmen) are not true spiders, though they do have eight legs.  The best description that the BugLady has read is that lacking a sharp division between their two body parts (cephalothorax and abdomen), they look like Rice Krispies with legs.  This one is well-camouflaged on the fertile stalk of a cinnamon fern.

The BugLady may have to have this engraved on her gravestone (oh wait, she’s being scattered) – DADDY LONGLEGS DO NOT BITE PEOPLE!  Also, counter to both urban and rural legend, they are NOT the most venomous animal on earth!!!  The BugLady does not care what your cousin told you, or the person who claims to be allergic to their bite.  They have tiny jaws, and unlike the true spiders, they do not pierce their prey and then pump in chemicals from venom glands (no venom glands) (and they have no stinging apparatus).  They just sit there and chew off tiny (tiny) pieces.  Got it?

The BEAUTIFUL BEE FLY (Bombylius pulchellus) truly is (pulchellos means “little beauty”)!  This small fly (maybe ¼”) was photographed in a wetland in mid-May.  Bee fly larvae are parasitoids of a variety of insect eggs and larvae – this one targets the sweat bees, which are among our earliest pollinators (not to worry – the system is in balance).

CRANE FLY – there are a number of families of crane flies, plus some near-relatives, and they are often collectively called daddy longlegs (though they’re not spiders) and mosquito hawks and skeeter-eaters (though they don’t catch or eat mosquitoes).  What they do, is look like giant mosquitoes when they land on the other side of your window screen at night https://bugguide.net/node/view/2360312/bgimage, but they’re completely harmless.  The “crane” in crane fly reflects their long, long legs – they’re somewhat awkward flyers and even more awkward landers.  Like the Daddy longlegs, they’re reputedly extremely venomous (and now it’s time to introduce the third member of our “daddy longlegs trio,” the cellar spider.  Crane flies are thought to be venomous because they look like cellar spiders (https://bugguide.net/node/view/2170770/bgimage), but, alas, cellar spiders only have very weak venom). 

How do these things get started, anyway?

SOLDIER FLY – it’s always a little startling to come across a lime-green fly! 

This VIRGINIA CTENUCHA MOTH CATERPILLAR was photographed in April, but the BugLady has found them walking around on mild winter days.  The cute caterpillar will morph into a stunning moth https://bugguide.net/node/view/1036503/bgimage that looks butterfly-ish until it lands on a leaf and immediately crawls underneath.  Despite its name, it’s a moth with more northerly affiliations. 

The (great) Minnesota Seasons website lists three defense strategies:

  • Aposematism: The metallic blue color of the thorax and abdomen mimics wasps which may be noxious to predators.
  • Sound production: A specialized (tymbal), corrugated region on the third section of the thorax (metathorax) produces ultrasonic sounds which interfere with (“jam”) the sonar of moth-eating bats.
  • Pyrrolizidine alkaloid sequestration: Caterpillars acquire and retain naturally produced toxic chemicals (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) from the plants they eat.

RED-SPOTTED PURPLE CATERPILLARS are hard to distinguish from those of the very-closely-related Viceroy and White Admiral caterpillars, and their food plants overlap, too.  The caterpillars overwinter in a leaf that’s still attached to the tree, rolled up and fastened with silk. 

Red-spotted Purple?  The purple part https://bugguide.net/node/view/1791309/bgimage, and the red-spotted part https://bugguide.net/node/view/1881731/bgimage

HOBOMOK SKIPPERS (once called the Northern Golden Skipper) are an early butterfly, often decorating the wild geraniums that bloom by the bushel in May.  One source says that they are strong flyers that take off quickly when startled.  Amen!  They are a butterfly of woodland, wetland and grassland edges, where males perch in the sun and fly out to chase intruders.

“Hobomok” is a nod to an early Wampanoag chief.    

CRAB SPIDER on White trillium – as we all know, the BugLady has a thing for crab spiders because of their ability to hide in plain sight.  This one was photographed in early May. 

Go outside – Look for Bugs!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Closed for June IV – A Potpourri of Invertebrates

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Closed for June IV A Potpourri of Invertebrates

Howdy, BugFans,

June is waning, and pretty soon the BugLady will have to stop eating chocolates and watching soaps and get up off the couch and start writing.  Actually, with a way warmer and wetter June than normal (more than 7” of rain at the BugLady’s house for the month), the trail hasn’t been as much fun as usual, and the bugs are slow to reappear (not surprisingly, she has gotten some nice dragonfly shots).

So – your reading list for the week includes bumble bees, butterflies, leeches, and spiders.

Jorō Spiders https://bugguide.net/node/view/1463347/bgimage are sandwich plate-sized immigrants from East Asia that are making themselves at home in parts of the eastern part of the country.  Although they are startling (to say the least), they are reportedly benign.  It will be a while before they get here to God’s Country, but here’s one of our larger spiders, a slightly-related Black and Yellow Argiope/Garden spider https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/joro-spiders-spreading-in-the-southeast-can-survive-surprisingly-well-in-cities-180983845/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial&spMailingID=49487887&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2642873766&spReportId=MjY0Mjg3Mzc2NgS2

Bumble bees play soccer https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/bees-can-learn-play-soccer-score-one-insect-intelligence-180962292/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial&spMailingID=48539902&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2503571888&spReportId=MjUwMzU3MTg4OAS2.

And they are specialized pollinators https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/these-cute-fuzzy-bumblebees-precision-engineered-pollinators-180984491/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial&spMailingID=49906517&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2722758537&spReportId=MjcyMjc1ODUzNwS2.

And leeches leap https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/watch-blood-sucking-leeches-leap-from-leaves-and-soar-through-the-air-180984585/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial&spMailingID=49887473&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2722372704&spReportId=MjcyMjM3MjcwNAS2.

And Painted Lady butterflies are big-time travelers, which was determined by an analysis of their pollen https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/these-stunning-butterflies-flew-2600-miles-across-the-atlantic-ocean-without-stopping-180984602/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial&spMailingID=49906517&spUserID=ODg4Mzc3MzY0MTUyS0&spJobID=2722758537&spReportId=MjcyMjc1ODUzNwS2.

Stay cool,

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Burrowing Wolf Spider

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Burrowing Wolf Spider

Greetings, BugFans,

One afternoon in late June as the BugLady was walking along the cordwalk at Kohler-Andrae State Park, she noticed a few half-inch-ish holes in the sand, holes that had more “structure” than the ones she makes with her walking stick, and larger than those made by solitary wasps.  She took a couple of throwaway shots and was very surprised when she put one up on the monitor and noticed eyes and legs!  She photographed more holes on subsequent trips, but their openings were unoccupied.  The cordwalk goes over both dunes with loose sand, and areas with low vegetation and a somewhat more organic soil.  The holes were in the loose sand.

She asked BugFan Mike if it might be a wolf spider called the Burrowing Wolf Spider (Geolycosa missouriensis).  He said that was a possibility and urged her (as always) to be conservative in her spider IDs, especially considering the quality of the picture.  Amen, Mike!

Wolf spiders (family Lycosidae) (lycosa is Greek for “wolf”) are common, hairy, nocturnal, ground-dwelling hunters with very good eyesight.  Most species of wolf spider do not spin trap webs. 

[Quick Detour: nowadays, we use the name “tarantula” to refer to a group of non-Lycosid, palm-sized, hairy, tropical spiders https://bugguide.net/node/view/289856/bgimage.  The BugLady’s 4th grade teacher told a story of being in basic training in California and digging foxholes that bisected tarantula borrows, which she thought was pretty cool (she doesn’t remember much else of 4th grade).  Anyway, the original tarantula is a southern European/Italian wolf spider.  Legend had it that if one bites you, you‘re doomed to dance a dance called the tarantella.  The BugLady assumes that when they saw the big hairy spiders, those settlers from the Old Country applied the name of a scary spider that they already knew about.  And in fact, a number of other groups of large spiders have been called tarantulas, too].

Wolf spiders in the genus Geolycosa are called the Burrowing wolf spiders (geo means “earth”).  They live in vertical burrows, and they are habitat specialists, preferring loose, sandy soil that makes digging easier.  Of the 75 species in the genus worldwide, 18 live in North America north of the Rio Grande.  They have strong legs and (short spider anatomy review, here) two strong chelicerae (jaws) that are used as pincers and that are tipped with fangs.  A pair of palps, which look like a short leg on each side of the chelicerae, are used to manipulate food https://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/mites/ismite/html/a10h_Mouthparts.html

Burrowing wolf spiders are generally Stay-at-Homes – the spiderlings don’t scatter far from the maternal burrow.  They initiate their own lair when they’re very small, enlarging it as they grow, rarely straying more than an inch or so away from it, and retreating into it when alarmed.  Populations remain fairly restricted. 

They are tied to one spot, with fixed pools of prey and of potential mates, but the trade-off is an absence of Flying Monkeys. They can dodge predators and avoid desiccation within a relatively stable, climate-controlled tunnel.  In early fall, though, when a young spider’s fancy turn to love, he abandons that security and sets off in search of romance.  They mate in late summer, but the gravid female doesn’t make an egg sac until the next spring.  She displays maternal care – carrying around first her egg sac, and later her young https://bugguide.net/node/view/114423/bgimage (and not eating them).  Spiderlings hatch in early summer, overwinter as immature spiders in their first year, and become adults in late summer of their second year.

Gratuitous vocabulary word(s) of the day: some Geolycosa species are “turricolous” (they live in areas that have some leaf litter, and they create little turrets or lips made of debris, sand, and silk around the opening of the tunnel https://bugguide.net/node/view/912651/bgimage), and others are “aturricolous” (they don’t). 

Bracing itself within the tunnel with its legs, the spider uses its fangs to loosen the sand, and if the sand is not moist enough on its own, it uses silk to compact the sand into a pellet.  It uses its chelicerae and palps to move the pellet to the opening of the burrow, and it disposes of the pellet by flicking it away (sometimes a foot away) with its forelegs – unless it’s going to use it to build a turret.  Burrowing wolf spiders reinforce the upper section of their lair by covering the walls with a few layers of silk.  Summer burrows are less than a foot long, but winter burrows may be more than five feet deep.  Researchers who studied Geolycosa missouriensis noted that a spider excavating an average burrow removed 918 sand pellets. 

Larry Weber, in Spiders of the North Woods, says that if you stick a grass stem down an occupied Geolycosa missouriensis burrow, the spider will grab it and hang on, and you can dig out the entrance and see the spider.  Seriously, Larry?  All that work – 918 pellets – why would you?

They ambush their prey – lurking in the entryway and darting out to grab nocturnal invertebrates like crickets as they wander by.  They feed within, and the indigestible bits of prey fall to the end of the tunnel.  About the Geolycosa, the publication “The Insects and Arachnids of Canada, Part 17,” notes that when kept in captivity, “They should be individually caged because they are fierce predators, and cannibalism can soon reduce the culture to a single well-fed individual.”

So – who was in that burrow?  Here are a few possibilities.

A BURROWING WOLF SPIDER (Geolycosa missouriensis), aka the Missouri Earth Spider or the Missouri Wolf Spider, is found on sandy loam soils from Texas to Ontario and Saskatchewan https://bugguide.net/node/view/862935/bgimage.  Its leg-spread is around 1 ½”. 

The gravid female uses sand and silk to fashion a door for the tunnel in winter.  She will bring her egg case into the sun at the burrow opening on warm, spring days, and females can be found in their burrows carrying young on their back in early summer.  Sources are ambivalent about whether Geolycosa missouriensis makes turrets.  

GEOLYCOSA WRIGHTII (no common name) https://bugguide.net/node/view/1285635/bgimage.  It’s not as common, and its range is restricted to sand dunes and beaches from Indiana and Illinois north through the Western Great Lakes states and provinces.  Females protect their newly-hatched offspring by sealing themselves into the tunnel with their young for a few days, until they find their feet.  Geolycosa wrightii doesn’t make a turret. 

The BEACH WOLF SPIDER (Arctosa littoralis https://bugguide.net/node/view/771440/bgimage) also makes silk-lined tunnels, but unlike the Geolycosa, it hunts at night by chasing after prey on beaches and wetland banks, and shelters in tunnels or under driftwood in the day.  Entomologist Eric Eaton says that if you’re abroad on the beach at night, wearing a headlamp, “When the beam of the light hits a wolf spider, the animal’s eyes will glint a blueish-green shine…..and a female with young on her back looks like a diamond-studded stone.” 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

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 – Lined Orbweaver Spider

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Lined Orbweaver Spider

Howdy, BugFans,

When the BugLady spotted this small spider on its horizontal web (while she was officially censusing butterflies and dragonflies), she thought it might be one of the sheet-web spiders.  Fortunately, she has a Spider Guy, and he set her straight (thanks as always, BugFan Mike).

Turns out that it’s a small orbweaver called the Lined orbweaver (much has been written in BOTW about some of the larger species in the orbweaver family Araneidae).

Orbweavers, famously, spin circular/orb-shaped trap webs (the silk that makes up the radii isn’t sticky but the silk in the spiral is).  The spiders often hang from the web’s center during the day, or they hide in a nearby retreat.  They monitor the vibrations of the web, and when an insect sticks and struggles, they’re all over it.  Harmless prey is bitten, stunned, and wrapped for later consumption https://bugguide.net/node/view/1565567/bgimage, but prey that bites back or stings is wrapped and immobilized before the coup de grace is delivered.  One source said that the orbweavers are the only spiders that chew their food. 

Many orbweavers (but not this one) spin their webs at night and eat the day-old web, thereby recycling the proteins.  They have eight eyes and poor vision, and they communicate via vibration and chemicals (pheromones).  According to an article entitled “Orb-weaver spider uses web to capture sounds” on a Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences Animal Behavior website, “Orb weaver spiders are known to make large webs, creating a kind of acoustic antennae with a sound-sensitive surface area that is up to 10,000 times greater than the spider itself” (another article said that they “outsource” their hearing).  They both can and will bite (not dangerously) if mishandled, so — don’t.   

There are more than 3,100 species of orbweavers throughout the world.   


Some orbweavers, especially those that are active in the daytime, that spin webs in the open, and that leave the webs up for a few days (like spiders in the genus Argiope), take the time and energy to produce a heavy silk and to weave it into a non-sticky, thickened area in the web called a “stabilimentum” https://bugguide.net/node/view/1125407/bgimage.  Why? Short answer – no one knows for sure, but stabilimenta might serve different purposes for the various species that deploy them.  Nocturnal spiders and those with unobtrusive webs don’t make them.

Originally, scientists believed that these structures strengthened the web (hence the name), but the silk is only loosely attached, and the web fares just fine if the stabilimentum is removed. 

In other hypotheses, the stabilimentum:

  • provides camouflage for a spider that’s sitting in the middle of the web https://bugguide.net/node/view/1585298/bgimage
  • fools potential predators into thinking the spider is bigger than it is https://bugguide.net/node/view/1884530/bgimage;
  • reflects UV light, like flowers do, and therefore attracts insect prey (but – the silk isn’t sticky, and an insect that flies into it won’t get stuck);
  • makes the surrounding web less noticeable by comparison;
  • attracts the male of the species when the female is receptive;
  • is part of the spider’s thermoregulatory strategy;
  • and/or, protects the web by making it more visible to birds that might blunder through it (though some spider predators have learned to search for stabilimenta).

Addenda: In experiments, some researchers have noted that webs with stabilimenta catch 30% fewer insects, presumably because they are more visible, but other equally reputable scientists say that webs with stabilimenta catch up to 41.6% more prey.  Sated spiders seem more likely to make stabilimenta.  Some species change the shape of the stabilimentum as they age.  

The BugLady thinks it’s just grand that these things haven’t been figured out yet.

THE LINED ORBWEAVER (Mangora gibberosa) is the most common of the seven members of its genus that occur north of the Rio Grande (gibberosa is from a Latin word “gibber” meaning “hump-backed” and “osa” meaning “full of” or “extremely”).  Another 180 or so genus members live in Central and South America.  Lined orbweavers are found in open areas – gardens, grasslands, roadsides and woodland edges – in the US east of the Rockies and into Canada. 

These are small spiders https://bugguide.net/node/view/712593/bgimage, with females measuring ¼” and less, and males much smaller.  Like other orbweavers, they come in a range of colors, with some with more lines, and some with more spots – https://bugguide.net/node/view/823822/bgimagehttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1059263/bgimage. Good pictures here: https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/view/8531 and here’s a nice “face-to-face” https://bugguide.net/node/view/1423274/bgimage.

The webs they build in sheltered areas in grass or brush may be horizontal or slightly angled and are sizable webs (about 12” across) for such a small spider. They have a “bull’s-eye” stabilimentum that is sometimes open and sometimes more solid https://bugguide.net/node/view/1236100/bgimage and that is often occupied by its resident during the day.  

The “Arachnids of North Carolina” website tells us that in October, it “builds web at dawn orienting its web perpendicular to the rising sun, to warm up in its web quicker.”  And, adds the usaspiders.com website, “Such orientations to sunrise would maximize the surface area of the body exposed to insolation and allow the spiders to warm quickly during the coolest part of the day.  A quick warmup in the morning may be advantageous to prey capture, particularly during the cooler months of the year.” 

Female Lined orbweavers conceal their egg sacs by folding a leaf around them and webbing it shut.  Although the eggs within the sac hatch in fall, the tiny spiderlings stay inside the sac through winter (absorbing yolk material in their abdomen) and emerge in summer. 

The tiny Lined orbweaver, of course, is up against competition from other spiders as it tries to make a living.  In a study published about 15 years ago, Richardson and Hanks looked at the division of potential prey among four species of orb-weaving spiders living in close proximity in a grassland.

As suspected, it was not a zero-sum game – the spiders survived by occupying different niches within their habitat.  The researchers noted the spiders’ sizes, the web size and height, the density of the webs’ “mesh,” and the kind of plant that the web was attached to.  They found that spider size (and therefore the size of prey they were able to subdue) allowed a variety of species to coexist.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Wildflower Watch – Swamp Milkweed

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Wildflower Watch – Swamp Milkweed

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady is already fantasizing about warm, sunny days in a wetland, photographing Swamp milkweed (and dragonflies), because she loves its color, and she loves being in wetlands, and because it’s a very busy plant, indeed!

Also called rose or red milkweed (there are a couple of species of southern milkweeds that are also called red milkweed), white Indian hemp, water nerve-root, and water silkweed, Swamp milkweed prefers damp soils and full sun near the water’s edge.

Indians, and later, the European settlers, used it medicinally (a tea made from the roots was reputed to “drive the worms from a person in one hour’s time”).  It was used with caution – its sap is poisonous – and the cardiac glycosides that protect Monarchs also deter mammals from grazing on all but the very young plants.  The fibers in its stem were twisted into rope and twine and were used in textiles.

Its flowers are typical milkweed flowers – a corona of five parts (hoods) with curved petals below and curved, nectar-secreting horns above.  The flowers are tricky – sticky, golden, saddlebag-shaped pollinia are hidden behind what one author calls a trap door (a stigmatic slit).  Insects walk around on the flower head, and when one of their feet slips through the slit by chance, a pollinium sticks to it.  When the bug encounters a stigmatic slit on the next plant it visits, the pollen is inadvertently delivered.  A quick-and-dirty, pick-up and delivery is what the plant had in mind; but, like the story of the raccoon (or was it a monkey) that reaches into the jar for a candy bar and then can’t pull its fist out of the small opening, sometimes the insect’s foot gets stuck to pollinia inside the trap door.  Insects that can’t free themselves will die dangling from the flower, and insects that escape may be gummed up by the waxy structures.  Look carefully for pollinia in the pictures.

Milkweeds support complex communities of invertebrates – their nectar attracts ants, bugs, beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps, plus predators looking for a meal.  Here are some of the insects that the BugLady sees on Swamp milkweed.

TWO-BANDED PETROPHILA MOTHS (Petrophila bifascialis) are delicate moths that lead a double life.  By day, they sit sedately on streamside vegetation.  By night, the female crawls down the side of a rock into the water – sometimes several feet down – to deposit her eggs on the stream bottom, breathing air that she brings with her, held against her ventral surface (“Petrophila” means “rock-lover”).  Her larvae eventually attach themselves to a rock and spin a net to keep themselves there, feeding on diatoms and algae that they harvest from the rock’s surface with their mandibles. 

MULBERRY WING SKIPPER – A small (one-inch-ish wingspan) butterfly of wetlands with an arrow or airplane-shaped marking on its rich, chestnut-brown underwings (the upper surface of its wings looks completely different https://bugguide.net/node/view/34033/bgimage.  Adults fly slowly through low vegetation, where females lay their eggs on the leaves of sedges. 

FLOWER LONGHORN BEETLE BRACHYLEPTURA CHAMPLAINI (no common name), on a Swamp milkweed leaf.  Other than a “present” checkoff in a variety of natural area insect surveys, there’s just about nothing online about this beetle, and not much more in Evans’ book, Beetles of Eastern North America.  It’s a long-horned beetle in the Flower longhorn subfamily Lepturinae, a group that feeds on pollen in the daytime.  This one has pollinia on its mouthparts.

AMBUSH BUG – The dangling bee in this picture did not fall victim to the sticky pollinia (though it has plenty of them on its legs).  A well-camouflaged ambush bug snagged it as it visited the flower. 

SOLDIER BEETLE – These guys drive the BugLady crazy.  They’re lightning beetle mimics, and they’re pretty good at it, and she always overthinks the ID.  She doesn’t know why they’re imitating the closely-related lightning beetles – alarmed lightning beetles discharge poisonous blood/hemolymph from their leg joints, but alarmed soldier beetles do, too. 

CRAB SPIDER –This Goldenrod crab spider tucked itself down between the milkweed flowers and ambushed an Odontomyia soldier fly https://bugguide.net/node/view/417289/bgimage.

LARGE MILKWEED BUG – What a beauty!  Large milkweed bugs are seed bugs – they feed by poking their beaklike mouthparts through the shell of a milkweed pod and sucking nutrients from the seeds.  They don’t harm the plant (just the seed crop), and they don’t harm monarch caterpillars, either.  Like other milkweed feeders, they sport aposematic (warning) colors to inform predators of their unpalatability.  Large milkweed bugs don’t like northern winters and are migratory – like monarchs, the shortening day lengths, the lowering angle of the sun, and increasingly tough milkweed leaves signal that it’s time to go, and they travel south to find fresher greens.  Their descendants head north in spring.

MONARCH CATERPILLAR – Common milkweed and Swamp milkweed are Monarch butterflies’ top picks for egg laying. 

GREAT-SPANGLED FRITILLARY – The other big, orange butterfly.  Adults enjoy milkweeds and a variety of other wildflowers, and their caterpillars feed on violets – if they’re lucky enough to connect with some.  Females lay eggs in fall, near, but not necessarily on, violets, and the caterpillars emerge soon afterward.  They drink water but they don’t eat; they aestivate through winter in the leaf litter and awake in spring to look for their emerging host plants.

GIANT SWALLOWTAIL – A southern butterfly that seems to be getting a foothold in Wisconsin.  The book says they are annual migrants that produce a generation here in summer and that their caterpillars can’t tolerate Wisconsin winters, but the BugLady has seen very fresh-looking Giant Swallowtails here in May that didn’t look like they had just been on a long flight.  Their caterpillars are called Orange Dogs in the South, because their host plants are in the Rue/Citrus family Rutaceae.  In this neck of the woods, females lay their eggs on Prickly ash, a small shrub that’s the northernmost member of that family. 

CINNAMON CLEARWING MOTH – A nectar-sipper but, since it doesn’t land, not a serious pollinator.

NORTHERN PAPER WASP – Butterflies love Swamp Milkweed, and so do wasps.  The Northern paper wasp is the social wasp that makes a smallish (usually fewer than 200 inhabitants) open-celled, down-facing, stemmed nest https://bugguide.net/node/view/1411890/bgimage.  “Northern” is a misnomer – they’re found from Canada through Texas and from the Atlantic well into the Great Plains.  Her super power is chewing on cellulose material, mixing it with saliva, and creating paper pulp.  She may be on the swamp milkweed to get pollen and nectar for herself or to collect small invertebrates to feed to the colony’s larvae.  Curious about Northern paper wasps?  See https://bugeric.blogspot.com/2010/09/wasp-wednesday-northern-paper-wasp.html.

Also seen were ants, leafcutter bees, sweat bees, Great black wasps, Great golden digger wasps, Red soldier beetles, Fiery and Broad-winged Skipper butterflies, and Thick-headed flies.  

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Bugs at the End of Summer

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Bugs at the End of Summer

Howdy, BugFans,

The Autumnal Equinox is fast upon us, alas, and even though it was a very hot one, the BugLady would like to push that Restart button and go back to the beginning of August.  Failing that, here are some of the bugs that crossed her trail in the second half of summer.

BARK LOUSE – Bark lice (order (Psocidae) are often seen in herds, both as adults and nymphs https://bugguide.net/node/view/1716157/bgimage.  This species, Cerastipsocus venosus, is known collectively as Tree cattle.  Bugguide.net says that they feed on “accumulations of fungi, algae, lichen, dead bark and other materials that occur on tree trunks and large limbs.”  And on the BugLady’s porch rails.  So, they clean up after the BugLady outside, and the silverfish take care of the inside of her cottage. 

YELLOW-HORNED FLOWER LONG-HORNED BEETLE – The YHFLHB (Strangalia luteicornis) is in the Longhorned beetle family Cerambycidae and the subfamily Lepturinae, the flower longhorns.  Flower longhorns are often found on flowers by day, feeding on the protein-rich pollen, and many (but not all) species are wedge-shaped – sometimes dramatically so.  Their larvae feed on dead and dying woody material, and certain fungi that they ingest as part of their meal then aids the grub’s ability to digest cellulose (in some species of flower longhorns, Mom inoculates the eggshell as she lays it with a yeast that becomes part of the grub’s intestinal microflora). 

AMBUSH BUG – What would summer be without the extraordinarily-well-camouflaged (and voracious) ambush bugs – one of the BugLady’s favorites? 

LEAF-FOOTED BUG – Late summer is True bug season (remember – only one insect order, the Hemiptera, can officially be called Bugs).  This particular bug is the almost-grown nymph of a leaf-footed bug called Acanthocephala terminalis (no common name).  Newly-hatched nymphs, with their spiny butts and improbable antennae, are pretty cute https://bugguide.net/node/view/933082/bgimage

SPIDER WEB AND PREY – All wrapped up and nowhere to go.   

BALD-FACED HORNET – The BugLady corresponded this summer with a man who was stung twice in his mouth by a Bald-faced hornet (now called Bald-faced aerial yellowjacket).  These are the gals that build the closed, football-shaped, paper nests that hang in trees, and while they are valiant/dangerous in defense of their homes, they don’t defend the flower tops where they feed.  The BugLady’s correspondent was apparently walking along blamelessly when his open mouth encountered a flying hornet.  Stings on the face, and especially in the mouth, can be dangerous because of swelling, even if you’re not allergic. 

An entomologist named Schmidt went around deliberately getting stung by the ants, hornets, bees, and wasps of the world and writing descriptions of his discomfort that are sometimes reminiscent of a wine-tasting.  He rated the Bald-faced hornet at a 2 out of 4 on his pain scale – “rich, hearty, slightly crunchy.  Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door” https://reliantpest.com/north-american-schmidt-sting-index/.  Not surprisingly, lots of exterminator companies have posted the scale because they want to sell us something.   

COMMON WOOD NYMPH – A medium/large Satyr butterfly of sunny fields, Common Wood Nymphs are not often seen nectaring on flowers, preferring fungi and rotting fruit.  They lay their eggs on grasses in late summer, but when the caterpillars hatch, they go into hibernation immediately, without feeding, to continue their development the following spring. 

CANDY-STRIPED LEAFHOPPER – what glorious things sometimes come in ¼” packages!  And, they have superpowers!  Leafhoppers suck plant juices.  Most plant sap has a sugar concentration of only a few percent, so leafhoppers have to consume a lot of it to get enough calories, and they excrete the excess (honeydew) “under pressure” with a tiny, but sometimes-audible, “pop.”  Because of this, they’re called “sharpshooters.”  And – they vocalize, but too softly for us to hear.

BROWN WASP MANTIDFLY – Yes, those poised, mantis-like front legs are used to grab smaller insects (mantidflies also sip nectar); and yes, this mantidfly does look like a paper wasp at first glance (but – no stinger).  Scroll down to see how this very flexible species has evolved to imitate different species of wasps in different parts of the country (the mantidfly is on the left) https://bugguide.net/node/view/4825

Their stalked eggs are attached to leaves https://bugguide.net/node/view/216544/bgimage, and when the eggs hatch, each larva waits for a passing spider, hitches a ride (feeding on the spider like a tick), and eventually infiltrates the spider’s egg sac, where it spends the rest of its larval life eating spider eggs.

WHITE-FACED MEADOWHAWK – You rarely see this species in tandem flights out over the water or ovipositing into shallow water.  They often “speculate” – bobbing up and down in damp areas by a pond’s edge, with the female lobbing her eggs onto the ground.  The plan is that spring rains will wash the eggs into the water. 

RED-SPOTTED PURPLE – What a classy butterfly!  Three Fun Facts about Red-spotted Purples: 1) the red is on the underside of the wings https://bugguide.net/node/view/557370; 2) though they are “tailless,” they are mimicking Pipe-vine Swallowtails, which are poisonous https://bugguide.net/node/view/2264557/bgimage; and 3) partly-grown caterpillars spend the winter inside a leaf that they’ve rolled into a tube and fastened to a twig, and they emerge and resume eating the following year (scroll down for a picture of a hibernaculum and for a bonus lesson about “frass spars” https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/red-spotted_purple.htm).  Within their leafy tube, they drop about 1/3 of the water weight in their body in order to avoid cell damage from freezing.

CRAB SPIDER – Nothing to see here, folks, just move along.

GREEN STINK BUG – Another common sight in late summer, along with their flashy, almost-grown nymphs https://bugguide.net/node/view/885566.  Some stink bugs are carnivores, and some are herbivores, and some of the herbivores are considered crop pests.  They aren’t chewers, they suck plant juices with mouths like drinking straws, which can deform fruits and seeds, damage twigs, and wither leaves.  Green Stink bugs (Pentatoma hilaris) (hilaris means “lively or cheerful”) feed on a large variety of plants (they’re “polyphagous”).  Newly-hatched green stinkbugs aren’t green https://bugguide.net/node/view/127137/bgimage.

TIGER SWALLOWTAIL CATERPILLAR – No – those aren’t eyes.  They’re pigment spots that are designed to fool you into thinking it’s a snake.  Young Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars start out as bird poop mimics https://bugguide.net/node/view/1883543/bgimage, but midway through their development, they go into snake mode, completing the effect by everting, when they feel threatened, a two-pronged, soft, orange, odorous projection (the osmeterium) that looks like a snake’s forked tongue https://bugguide.net/node/view/2214191/bgimage.  Tiger Swallowtails have two generations per year.  Caterpillars of the butterflies we see in June don’t spend long in the chrysalis, emerging in mid-August and getting to work on the next generation.  This caterpillar will overwinter as a chrysalis.  Don’t tell the other insects, but Tiger Swallowtails are the BugLady’s favorites.

As she visited her usual haunts this summer, the BugLady was dismayed at the lack of insects.  Sure, the goldenrods are full of flies, bees and wasps of various stripes, and the grasshoppers and tree crickets are singing their September songs.  But she saw six Tiger Swallowtails this summer.  Total.  And maybe a dozen meadowhawks.  During one mid-summer Dragonfly count years ago, the BugLady simply stopped counting meadowhawks when she got to 250 because it was distracting her from the other species.  Common Wood Nymphs used to emerge in early July by the score to filter through the grasses.  Even crab spiders and ambush bugs seemed scarce this year. 

What good are insects?  Sometimes it’s hard to drum up sympathy for a group that many people routinely swat, stomp, spray, or zap.  But insects provide food for birds and for other insects; they’re pollinators, and they provide other ecosystem services including pest control and garbage pick-up. 

(And, of course, they’re awesome.)

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Beautiful Jumper

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Beautiful Jumper

Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady was on a pier at Riveredge Nature Center when this spectacular jumping spider climbed out from between the planks.

Like the old joke about bacon being the gateway meat for vegetarians, jumping spiders seem to be the gateway spider for arachnophobes. Many are fuzzy (well, the spiders are – the BugLady can’t vouch for the arachnophobes), and because the front part of their cephalothorax (the combined head and thorax) is flat, four of their eyes face forward, https://bugguide.net/node/view/1940583/bgimage, and they look at you in a very human way. Plus, they are curious and they have attitude. If the BugLady had not already given her heart to crab spiders, these anthropomorphic little beauties would be at the top of her spider list.

The jumping spiders, family Salticidae (the Latin word “saltare” means “to leap, dance or hop”), comprise our largest spider family, with over 6,000 species worldwide and 315 species in North America.  They are a very diverse family, found everywhere except the very far North and the very far South.  Almost all are carnivores, but there are a few that have added nectar to their menus, and one species (with the fabulous scientific name of Bagheera kiplingi) that is primarily vegetarian.  

They don’t make trap webs like orbweavers, but they do spin little shelters from which they peruse their landscapes and in which they shelter during cloudy or rainy weather.  When likely prey comes along, they stalk it, orient their bodies, and then launch themselves at it (after attaching a “dragline” that controls both their jump and their landing and that provides a lifeline if they overshoot their mark). 

And how do jumping spiders jump?  Not with long, muscular legs, like grasshoppers, but via their hydraulic system.  According to Noel Kirkpatrick, writing for the “Treehugger” blog, when they want to jump, “the spiders cause an extreme change in hemolymph pressure (the spider equivalent of blood pressure) by contracting the muscles in the upper region of their bodies. This forces blood to their legs, and causes their legs to extend rapidly. This quick and sudden extension of their legs is what propels them in the direction they’re aiming.”  Some species may travel two or three body lengths, but others may jump 30 times their length. 

Jumping spiders have good hearing (though they “hear” not with ears but with sensory hairs that pick up sound waves and send messages to the spider’s brain), and they have spectacular vision.  Their eye arrangement – four facing front and four facing up – is characteristic only of the jumping spiders.  Those two, big eyes in the center of their face (AMEs – anterior median eyes) have moveable retinas and supply resolution, color, and telephoto vision.   The ALEs (anterior lateral eyes) on each side are not as sharp, but are far enough apart to allow some depth perception, and research suggests that they tell the AMEs where to look. 

The row of four, fixed “posterior” eyes across the top of their head allow the spider to see light, movement, and wide angles.  Their visual range is nearly 360 degrees, compared to our 210 degrees.  According to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, jumping spiders “are able to identify prey, predators, and mates from up to 30 cm (1 ft.) away.”

In addition, aided by their great vision, jumping spiders can recognize landmarks and find their way home, can learn from their hunting experiences and improve their technique as they age, and can distinguish between animate and inanimate objects (which is pretty sophisticated).  Scientists don’t know how they do that.

And through the magic of TikTok, jumping spiders are having a moment. 

The BEAUTIFUL JUMPER (Marpissa formosa) isn’t particularly warm and fuzzy-looking – or very big – but it’s a striking spider.  It’s found, spottily, east of the Great Plains and around the Great Lakes (it’s a species of Special Concern in Minnesota), and it likes wetlands.  It’s one of those species that has stayed under the radar, so not much is known about it, but it’s presumed to follow the general jumping spider game plan.

Where many species of jumping spiders are chunky, Beautiful Jumpers are long and slim.  They are dimorphic – males (https://bugguide.net/node/view/887835/bgimage) and femaleshttps://bugguide.net/node/view/1867778/bgimage are different colors.  Females are about 3/8” long, and males are slightly smaller.  Like all jumping spiders, they move quickly. 

They eat spiders (including other jumping spiders) and small insects, and they may steal trapped insects from spider webs.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says that “Having spotted a potential quarry, a jumping spider will slowly stalk the prey until it is within jumping distance. Then it lifts its front legs and pounces.”  

Like other jumping spiders, male Beautiful Jumpers dance and thrum for their ladies, displaying their color patterns and making species-specific clicks and buzzes and taps that travel through the substrate and are picked up by her sensory hairs.  Females deposit their eggs into a silk “tent” spun by the male, and then guard the eggs until they hatch and for a short time afterward, until the spiderlings make their first molt and disperse.  “Adolescent” spiders overwinter in silk shelters in logs or rock crevices and mature the following year. 

And, yes, you can find jumping spider stuffed toys online, but caveat emptor – the BugLady found one cute, little, felt jumping spider with cute little antennae.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Midsummer Memories by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week Midsummer Memories

Howdy, BugFans,

Last year the BugLady had so many midsummer stories to tell that she wrote one episode about dragonflies, and a second about “other” (because as seasoned BugFans know (well) her camera gravitates to dragons and damsels).  She’s got a heap of pictures to share again this year, but she’ll mix and match the groups in a two-part summer feature.

ROSE CHAFER BEETLE – The BugLady saw a single Rose Chafer last year and wrote about it https://uwm.edu/field-station/rose-chafer-beetle/.  This year, she found bunches of them – orgies of them (she’s not sure what the collective noun for Rose Chafers is, but she’s pretty sure it’s “orgy”).  And she was enthralled by the leggy designs they made on the undersides of milkweed leaves.  

COPPER BUTTERFLY – A highlight of the BugLady’s recent explorations of Kohler-Andrae State Park was finding two species of Copper butterflies – American Copper and Bronze Copper (she rarely finds Coppers).  The Coppers are in the Gossamer-wing butterfly family Lycaenidae, along with the Harvesters, Hairstreaks, Elfins, and Blues.  Their caterpillars feed on plants in the rose and buckwheat families (dock, sorrel, and knotweed).

VIOLET/VARIABLE DANCER – The BugLady was talking to a friend recently about the colors that dragonflies and damselflies come in.  Black, black and yellow, green, blue – even red.  But purple?

FLY ON PITCHER PLANT – This is just the way it’s supposed to work.  Insects with a “sweet tooth” get lured to the lip of the pitcher plant and partake of the (slightly narcotic) nectar there.  Judgment impaired, they mosey around a little, maybe venturing onto the zone of down-pointing teeth below the lip, and then onto the slick, waxy zone below that.  It’s all downhill from there.

GOLDENROD CRAB SPIDER on yarrow (not all Goldenrod crab spiders have red racing stripes).  Incoming insects have trouble seeing her, too.  Out of all the species of crab spiders in the world (about 3,000), only a very few have the ability to change colors, and that ability is limited to the female of the species.  Her color palette includes white, yellow, and pale green.  She sees the background color with her eyes, and because a wardrobe change takes her between three days and three weeks she tends to stay on her chosen flower.  Her base color is white, and switching involves either creating yellow pigment or reabsorbing and then sequestering or excreting it.  

Why?  Good question.  Scientists have tested spiders on matching and non-matching flowers (which they often sit on), and they saw no boost in hunting success when the spiders matched their background (she likes prey that’s bigger than she is, like bumblebees, because she has eggs to make.  She loses weight on a diet of small flies).  When spiders themselves are the prey, they are not picked off more often on non-matching flowers.  Maybe the color change gives her some sort of advantage when she forms her egg case, or maybe it’s a vestigial solution to a long-ago problem.

ORANGE-LEGGED DRONE FLY – This Syrphid/Flower/Hover fly is so serious about its bumble bee disguise that it makes a loud buzz when it’s flying

SEDGE SPRITE TUSSLE – the BugLady was in a bog not long ago when she saw two damselflies tussling on some leaves.  At first, she thought there was some predation going on, but that didn’t make sense because they were both Sedge Sprites.  He had grabbed her and was wrestling with her, and she was having none of it.  He suddenly flipped her around and clasped the back of her head with the tip of his abdomen (SOP for mating dragonflies and damselflies).  Rather than reaching forward and taking his sperm packet, she ultimately gave a couple of good shakes and dislodged him.  One small drama.

PHANTOM CRANE FLY – Flies come in all sizes and shapes, but this magical creature in white spats is the BugLady’s favorite.  It lives in dappled, brushy wetland edges where it flickers through the vegetation like a tiny wraith.

FORKTAIL AND POWDERED DANCER – Eastern Forktails are voracious hunters that go after other damselflies, even those close to their size.  The mature female forktail (in blue) found a teneral (young) Powdered Dancer (in tan) that was probably not a strong flyer yet.

Go outside – look at bugs,

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:

Bug o’the Week – Speed-dating the Spiders – Black Widows
by Kate Redmond

Bug o’the Week

Speed-dating the Spiders – Black Widows

Howdy, BugFans,

For years, BugFan Tom has sent pictures from the Deep South of Black widow spiders that he encounters while conducting research in southern thickets in the dead of night.  Thanks for the pictures, Tom.

The first thing you should know about Black widows is that they need better PR.  Widow spiders are so-named because the female (allegedly) eats the male after mating.  It’s called “sexual cannibalism,” and the protein meal is supposed to boost the chances of successful egg-laying.  But, this is a behavior that was first observed in the lab, where the male had few escape options, and it’s suspected that it happens far less frequently in the wild (similar laboratory observations have given the Praying mantis an equally bad rap).  Courtship is a tricky business for male spiders, and sexual cannibalism is known from other groups of spiders besides the widows.

Widow spiders are in the Cobweb/Tangleweb spider family Theridae and in the genus Latrodectus, the widows/true widows (Latrodectus means “biting in secret”).  There are about 35 species worldwide, with 5 in North America (the Northern, the Southern, and the Western, all called “black widows,” plus the Red widow, and the non-native Brown widow).  As their names suggest, they’re distributed across the continent https://bugguide.net/node/view/1999/data.  Climate change is helping them move north.

They are considered to be fairly common spiders, but they stay out of sight in dark areas under rocks, in woodpiles, in crevices and holes, tree stumps, in outbuildings, animal burrows, unused grills, etc. – usually near the ground.  They are not generally an indoor spider but will come in out of the cold.

Latrodectus spiders are the largest spiders in their family – females are about a half-inch long (an inch and a half, including legs), and males are about half that size https://bugguide.net/node/view/34659/bgimage.  Widow spiders are famous for the red, hourglass-shaped markings on the underside of the female’s abdomen, but the hourglass may be incomplete, split, or even absent.  Males have a variety of spots along the midline, and immatures are pale before they morph into male coloration and then into their adult patterns.  They are also called “comb-footed” spiders because their feet are covered with bristles that they use to handle the silk when they’re wrapping their prey. 

Instead of a tidy, platter-shaped orb-web, widows spin a strong, messy, sticky, three-dimensional web https://bugguide.net/node/view/1130899 with a dense retreat at one side where the spider hides in the daytime.  A hungry spider will build a stickier web, and a satiated spider a web with more internal structure.  Widows eat a variety of invertebrates (size seems to be no object https://bugguide.net/node/view/109318/bgimage), including other spiders; they have a taste for red fire ants, and they may even eat small vertebrates that get stuck in their web.  They inject a venom to subdue their prey (more about that in a sec), and then an enzyme to liquefy it.  

Widows are targeted by several species of solitary wasps that use them to provision their egg chambers, and they’re also eaten by scorpions, centipedes, and mantises.  Their red markings warn birds that taking on a widow would be a bad idea, though their toxins are harmless when ingested.

Males wander the landscape in search of females, and females stick pretty close to their webs.  When he finds a female, he plucks the strands of her web to ascertain that she is the same species and to introduce himself, and he shakes his abdomen to produce vibrations.  He may sever portions of her web to cut off her potential escape routes (alternatively, some researchers think that the portions of her web that he cuts and bundles up are the pheromone-laden bits, so he’s making her web less noticeable to other males).  Even then, he advances with caution, informed by chemicals in the web that tell him whether she is well fed (and therefore approachable) or hungry. 

Females make egg sacs that contain about 250 eggs https://bugguide.net/node/view/2213427/bgimage, and they can produce as many as nine sacs per summer (she has a much longer lifespan than he does).  The eggs within the sac, which is suspended in her web and guarded by Mom, hatch in three to four weeks, but sibling cannibalism is rampant immediately after the spiderlings emerge, and even though they balloon away quickly, only a small fraction survive.

Two species of Black widow, the Southern and the Northern, inhabit the eastern half of the continent, and because of their overlapping ranges and similar habits, a lot of publications lump them together. 

SOUTHERN BLACK WIDOWS or Hourglass spiders (Latrodectus mactans) are found as far north as Illinois and New York State and even southern Canada https://bugguide.net/node/view/26336/data.  Shiny black, with a full hourglass pattern – two joined, red triangles with the rear triangle wider than the front one – they’re considered the “classic” Black widow https://bugguide.net/node/view/2035680/bgimage.  They also have red markings on the top of the abdomen https://bugguide.net/node/view/731853/bgimage.  Males have some spots on their abdomens https://bugguide.net/node/view/710792/bgimage.   

Southern black widows are declining in the South, and the likely suspect is the non-native (from Africa) Brown widow spider (Latrodectus geometricus).  In lab situations, when Brown widows were offered an array of other spiders to eat, their top pick was Southern black widows.  Brown widows also have a higher reproductive rate and more potent venom than native widows, though they inject a smaller amount of it, and they are less likely to bite.  

NORTHERN BLACK WIDOW – Yes, Black widows are native to God’s Country, though they’ve rarely seen.  They’ve been recorded in fewer than 10 counties, mostly near Lake Michigan, with its more moderate climate.  The same species is at home in the South and was photographed there by BugFan Tom.  Northern black widows (Latrodectus variolus) are found over the eastern half of the continent from Texas to Ontario, and they’re more common in the northern parts of their range https://bugguide.net/node/view/26421/data

In this species, the signature hourglass markings are likely to be interrupted, with a gap between the top and bottom trapezoid, or with one side larger or absent, and there’s a row of red spots on the top side of the abdomen.  Males have four pale bands on each side of the abdomen.  The Northern black widow is slightly smaller than its southern cousin, and slightly less venomous. 


Widows seldom bite people (about 2500 reports a year) – they would rather flee or play dead than fight, and most bites occur when people poke their hands into dark places or when a spider gets squished against a person.  While they are not the most toxic spider on earth, the venom of a female widow spider (males and immatures are harmless) is 15 times more toxic than that of a rattlesnake.  They don’t inject very much venom per bite, but even that small amount will get your attention.  Their venom contains a neurotoxin called latrotoxin (named for the genus) that rarely causes death but does cause a syndrome called Latrodectism, whose symptoms include some muscle paralysis, intense pain and abdominal cramping, tachycardia, and other unpleasantness that may last for three to five (or more) days.  It’s recommended that people who get bitten, especially children, the elderly, and the pregnant, call their doctor or hospital – there’s an antivenom.  

Says Wikipedia – “In 1933, a University of Alabama medical faculty, Allan Blair conducted an experiment on himself to document the symptoms of a black widow bite, and to test whether someone can build immunity after being bitten15 -. The effects of the bite were so painful and harsh that Blair failed to complete the experiment and did not follow through with being bitten a second time.”  

[Esoteric Fact of the Day: (because the BugLady’s youngest child once called her an “esoterrorist”) the old (1800’s) terms were venin and antivenin, but in 1981, the World Health Organization standardized venom and antivenom as the preferred terms in the English-speaking world.]

As always, mind where you stick your fingers and toes. 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

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