Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Aug 17 2017

Listening To The Temperature

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Male fall field cricket (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male fall field cricket (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

There's a Rule of Thumb that says you can tell the temperature --in Fahrenheit! -- by listening to a cricket's chirp.

Here's how:  Read about the Thermometer


(photo of a fall field cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 14 2017

Boogie-Woogie Aphids

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Beech blight aphids, 9 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beech blight aphids, Butler County, PA, 9 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last week Andy Zadnik and volunteer Tom Koehler from the Western PA Conservancy showed us amazing aphids on a beech tree at Wolf Creek Narrows.

Beech blight aphids (Grylloprociphilus imbricator) are nicknamed "boogie-woogie aphids" because they waggle their bodies when disturbed.  A puff of wind or a jolt to the branch will start them waving to ward off predators.  My photo is out of focus because the aphids would not stand still when I got close!

Like all aphids these suck the juice of their host, the beech tree, but their scary name (blight) is misleading.  Beech blight aphids rarely hurt the tree and are easily knocked off by a stream from a garden hose. Once on the ground the nymphs can't fly up because they have no wings, though their mothers do.

Beech blight aphid colonies are sought by ants, wasps and a fungus for their sweet honey dew.  They're also sought by predators that they mesmerize with their dance or sting with their tiny mouth parts too small to hurt mammals.

This video by the Capital Naturalist shows how they dance.

What's the boogie-woogie all about?

Click on these links to see what really scares these aphids:  Harvester caterpillar eating aphids, Harvester butterfly ventral view (wings closed) and dorsal view (wings open).


(photo by Kate St. John)


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Aug 13 2017

Primrose Moths

Primrose moths on a primrose, Allegheny County,PA, 6 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Primrose moths on a primrose, Allegheny County,PA, 6 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Last Sunday I found a crowd of pink and yellow moths head down in a common evening primrose.  Bob Machesney identified them as primrose moths (Schinia florida).

I should have guessed their name.

Moths are often named for their host plant and so are these. Primrose moth caterpillars eat evening primrose, biennial gaura and other members of the Evening-primrose family (Onagraceae).  In July and August the adult moths fly at night and spend the day resting on their host plants.  That's why there were so many on one flower.

Keep an eye out this month for beautiful pink moths on primrose and biennial gaura.  Here's a common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) without a moth in it.

Common evening primrose (photo by Kate St. John)

Common evening primrose (photo by Kate St. John)

Click here to see biennial gaura whose flowers are actually quite small.

And here's what the primrose moth looks like in a museum, mounted to show all its features.  Amazingly its antennae are pink.

Primrose moth specimen, mounted (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Primrose moth specimen, mounted (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


(primrose photos by Kate St. John. photo of mounted primrose moth from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 09 2017

Deadly Gardens

Dead bee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dead bee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today's important message is late for this year's growing season but we can always take action right now.

I'm sure you've heard about the dangers to honeybees from neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides used heavily in agriculture since 2008.  What you might not realize is that this pesticide may be in your garden whether you put it there or not.  Here's why.

What are neonicotinoids?

Nicotine kills insects but it breaks down too quickly for modern agricultural use. Neonicotinoids ("neonics") are chemicals similar to nicotine specially formulated to last a long time.

Neonics are nervous system disrupters that, depending on dose and exposure, cause confusion, hyperactive behavior, severe tremors or death in insects.  Low doses kill slowly through chronic exposure because the chemical lasts so long (5 months to years).

Neonics are "systemic" poisons because they are water soluble.  Plants suck up neonic-laden water and distribute it into roots, leaves, pollen, nectar, everywhere.  The entire plant is poisonous to a wide range of insects including "bad" insects that suck juices and eat leaves (aphids, stinkbugs and Japanese beetles) and "good" insects that collect pollen and nectar (bees and butterflies).  Bees and butterflies visit poisoned flowers and die elsewhere.

How do neonicotinoids get into your garden?

Neonicotinoids are primarily delivered via soil treatments and seed coatings.  Garden treatments contain doses 40 times higher than agricultural products.  These pathways may surprise you.

  1. Pesticides you bought to kill bad insects, especially soil treatments. Check the label!
  2. Potting soil:  If treated with neonics, the plants grown in the soil are poisonous. Check the label!
  3. Plants or seedlings you bought at the store:  They're already grown, but how? If their seeds were coated with neonics or the soil was treated, the plants you bought are poisonous.

What can you do?

Read the label. Ask questions. Here are the chemical names to look for.
* Acetamiprid
* Clothianidin
* Dinotefuran
* Imidacloprid (fact sheet)
* Nitenpyram
* Thiocloprid
* Thiamethoxam

Practice reading labels:  Many companies have neonic products. This example is from the "Bayer Advanced" product line containing Imidacloprid.  Scroll down below Quick Facts to see Active ingredients.
12-month Tree & Shrub Insect Control
2-in-1 Systemic Rose & Flower Care
2-in-1 Insect Control and Fertilizer

Labels tell you some of the insects the product kills but never all of the insects affected.

Don't panic.

If you've learned something new, don't worry, don't blame yourself. Time is on your side. Start now to change your garden.  Remember this Chinese proverb ...

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.


(photo of dead bee from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


Additional Resources:
A blog for home gardeners: potting soil and nursery plants Skowhegan, Maine, 2013.
News about pesticide-laced potting soil WRAL, Raleigh, NC, 2003.
Backyard Pesticide Use May Fuel Bee Die-offs. WIRED, 2012.
Risk Assessments Are Missing Harmful Effects of Neonics on Honey Bees Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013.
How neonicotinoids affect honey bee queens. Sub-lethal effects. The Journal Nature, 2016.
Bayer sold Bayer Garden and Bayer Advanced product lines to SBM (based in France). October 2016.

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Aug 04 2017

The Better To Fight With, My Dear

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Rick St. John)

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, PA, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Rick St. John)

On an evening walk in our neighborhood my husband and I found a large beetle, more than an inch long.  My husband's closeup (above) and my cautious far-away photo (below) provided enough clues to determine its identify.

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Its size and shape place it in the scarab beetle group.  Its large mandibles mean it's a stag beetle, one of 1,500 species in the world, four in eastern North America.  This one is a reddish-brown stag beetle (Lucanus capreolus) because it has bicolored legs dark at the tips and yellow at the base.

Basically harmless to humans, reddish-brown stag beetles eat rotting wood as larvae and sip sap as adults.  The larvae develop for two years, then emerge as adults during the summer.  Like other scarab beetles they're most active at night and attracted to lights.

Stag beetles were named for their head gear which they use like antlers, not like teeth.  Just like stags (or deer) the males fight each other with their horns!

In the video below, watch male stag beetles in western Europe (Lucanus cervus) fight for dominance. "The goal is to throw down the opponent" !

What big "teeth" you have!

The better to fight with, my dear.


(photos by Rick and Kate St. John. video from YouTube)

p.s. regarding the loud bird sound in the background of the video filmed in Europe.  Is it a Eurasian magpie?

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Jul 25 2017

What’s That Sound? Cicadas

Cicada, western Pennsylvania (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Cicada, western Pennsylvania (photo by Dana Nesiti)

What's that sound?  In July the birds stop singing and the bugs begin.  Some sing during the day, others at night.  We usually don't see what's making the noise but sometimes we can identify the bugs by song.  Here's a group of insects that are fairly easy to figure out.

Cicadas sing during the day and they are loud.  Some songs are so unique that you can identify the bug if you know what to listen for.

Here are audio descriptions for five common species of annual(*) cicadas in southwestern Pennsylvania in order of "most likely to hear/notice," at least in my experience.

As with birds, pay attention to the habitat where you hear a cicada.  Swamp cicadas, for example, are only found in swamps or marshes.

  1. Scissor grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus).  Easiest sound to identify.
  2. Linne's cicada (Neotibicen linnei)
  3. Lyric cicada (Neotibicen lyricen)
  4. Dog Day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis)   This is the sound of a hot day in Maine.
  5. Swamp cicada (Neotibicen tibicen tibicen)
    • Song: burry, rattling, very rapid "wappa wappa wappa wappa" with rich round background sound that rises and falls in pitch from start to end
    • When?  early morning until noon
    • Where? found only in swamps and marshes
    • Click here to hear Swamp cicada at


Identifying cicada songs are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sounds of bugs.  There are an amazing number of vocal bugs including crickets, katydids and grasshoppers.

Have you heard a bug you can't identify?  Click here for the Songs of Insects guide to common insect species and their sounds.   There are 80 species on this page!


(photo by Dana Nesiti)

p.s. Annual(*) cicadas have a life cycle of 2-5 years but they seem "annual" because some individuals in each species reach adulthood every year (i.e. the species appears annually).

p.p.s  There aren't many scissor-grinders in my neighborhood this year.  I wonder if they had a bad reproductive year the last time this brood was above ground.  How long do scissor-grinders take to reach adulthood?  If it's 5 years then that'd be 2012, a very hot year.  Hmmm.

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Jul 18 2017

Keep Eating!

Japanese beetle eating Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Japanese beetle eating Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month along the Panhandle Trail I paused to look at a wildflower near some Japanese knotweed when I noticed the knotweed was being eaten by Japanese beetles.  🙂

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) were introduced to North America by accident in the early 1900s and spread across the continent.  The adult beetles eat leaves, the larvae eat roots.  If you have roses, you've been battling Japanese beetles your entire life.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was introduced as a garden plant but is so aggressive that it chokes out native plants and even grows through asphalt.  As one of the world's worst invasive species, it's such a pest in Great Britain that as recently as five years ago you couldn't get a mortgage if there was Japanese knotweed on the property. (That has since changed.)

Of course I was happy to see these two "Japanese" species together.  The beetles felt so at home on the knotweed that they were mating on it.

Japanese beetles mating on Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Japanese beetles mating on Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

My hope is that the female beetles will drop to the ground below the knotweed and lay their eggs.  When the eggs hatch the larvae will burrow underground and eat the roots of nearby plants.

Good.  Eat the knotweed roots.  Eat the leaves.  Go on, Japanese beetles.  Keep eating!


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jun 20 2017

My Heavens! We Have Fish

Panther Hollow Lake at Schenley Park, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

During Phipps Conservatory's Schenley Park BioBlitz on 11 June 2017, scientists tallied as many species of plants and animals as they could find in only a few hours.  One place they looked was in the concrete-edged pond called Panther Hollow Lake.  And they found fish!

I'm excited by this discovery because Panther Hollow Lake has a host of challenges including low stream flow, storm water inundation and deep sediment (13 feet of sediment under 2 feet of water!).  In hot weather mucky algae floats on the surface and the lake stinks.  This will all be corrected as part of the Four Mile Run Watershed Restoration Project but in the meantime, yuk!

Despite these problems, four species of fish were found during the BioBlitz. They are:

* Blue gill (Lepomis macrochirus), a game fish native to eastern North America but introduced around the world.

Bluegill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bluegill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


* Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus), a small fish native to eastern North America.

Pumpkinseed fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pumpkinseed fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


* Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis), a native catfish that tolerates pollution.

Yellow bullhead catfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow bullhead catfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


* Goldfish (Carassius auratus), native to east Asia and commonly kept as a pet.

Goldfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Goldfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Truth be told, participants at my last Schenley Park outing pointed out a goldfish in the pond.  It was orange and white and huge!  I can guess where it came from.  Years ago someone said, "We can't keep this fish at home anymore.  Let's release it in the lake."

Click the link to check out all the species found in Schenley Park during the Phipps 2017 BioBlitz.


(photo of Panther Hollow Lake by Kate St. John.  All fish photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jun 15 2017


Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Adult firefly (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Adult firefly (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Most of the year I forget they exist and then one evening in early June I'm surprised by joy.  The fireflies are back!  It doesn't matter how old I get.  I'm always excited to see them.

I love their yellow-green lights, their hard-to-track flight paths, and the way they raise their wing covers and pause ... just before they fly.


Did you know that their Photuris pensylvanica species is the Pennsylvania State Insect?

Read more in this vintage article from 2011: The Lightning Bugs Are Back


(photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,; Video from Wikimedia Commons)

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May 25 2017

Flying Tigers

Tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Female eastern tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

There are tigers in the park, floating among the trees, gliding in the sunshine, visiting the flowers.

Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) first appeared in Schenley Park in April.  Their caterpillars feed on many kinds of trees including wild cherry, magnolia, tuliptree, cottonwood and willow, so they get started early and can produce two to three broods per year.

You can sex this butterfly by color.  Female tiger swallowtails have iridescent blue on both sides of their hindwings.  The males are black where the females are blue.

While you're looking closely to figure out their sex, notice that their tiny bodies are striped, too.

Eastern tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Eastern tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Striped all over, tiny tigers.


(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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