Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

Crazy Beetle Names

Festive tiger beetle (photo of museum specimen from Wikimedia Commons)

Festive, blowout, dispirited, punctured, sexguttata. Tiger beetles can have crazy names as I learned when Ted Floyd tweeted his daughter’s photo of a blowout beetle. Who knew!? Here’s what five of these crazy beetles look like.

The festive tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris) is irisdescent and often two-toned as shown above and below. Sometimes they are completely indigo blue which would surely confuse me.

Festive tiger beetle in the wild (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blowout tiger beetles (Cicindela lengi) occur in the West, including Colorado. See Ted Floyd’s tweet.

Punctured tiger beetles (Cicindela punctulata) are found in much of North America including Pennsylvania. Also called sidewalk tiger beetles you’ll probably see one on a hard surface.

Punctured (or sidewalk) tiger beetle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After a blowout when your tire is punctured you might be dispirited or depressed. There’s a tiger beetle for that …

Despite their name dispirited tiger beetles (Cicindela depressula) seemed pretty lively when Ken-ichi Ueda photographed this one at Lassen Volcanic National Park in August 2013. He wrote at, “These little guys were all over the path running southwest from the King’s Creek picnic area.”

Dispirited tiger beetle (photo by Ken-ichi Ueda via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

And finally, a very common tiger beetle whose species name is “sexguttata”. In Latin that means “six drop.” The six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) is found eastward from Minnesota and south to Kentucky. They occur in Pennsylvania.

There are over 850 species of tiger beetles so I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of crazy names. Leave a comment to tell me about another one.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Ken-ichi Ueda on Flickr; click on the captions to see the originals. Tweet embedded from Ted Floyd, ABA)

This is a Cocoon

30 July 2020

Seven years ago I wrote an article that’s rediscovered every summer when people find unusual “pine cones” hanging from their trees.

Though the structures are coated in plant material they aren’t part of the tree. They’re the cocoons of evergreen bagworm moths (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) whose larvae are disguised by vegetation while they eat the tree. Here’s one that’s sticking its head out.

Evergreen Bagworm – Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis, Woodbridge, VA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pesticides don’t work on these bag-covered bugs. Find out what to do in this vintage article: These Are Not Pine Cones!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Ants Know When To Quarantine

Black garden ants (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic is our poor ability to quarantine to stop the spread. This summer’s COVID-19 surge in Pittsburgh was sparked by travelers who returned from vacation (Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Florida, Raleigh, Nashville) but did not quarantine for 14 days.

Perhaps we could learn from ants. An April article in Treehugger described how social species avoid each other to stop the spread of disease. This includes black garden ants.

Ants are very social creatures, always working together to feed and protect the colony. Nurse ants stay inside the nest and tend the larvae; workers forage outside for food. A study of black garden ants found that when workers contract a fungal infection they know to stay outside the nest and avoid contact with other ants. Meanwhile nurse ants move the larvae deeper inside the nest to avoid infection. Ants basically quarantine themselves.

We could learn a lot from ants.

Read more at “How other species handle social distancing when someone is sick.”

p.s. The article also describes other species that practice social distancing including bees, mice, monkeys and bullfrog tadpoles.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Tiny Jumping Beans

Jumping oak galls, Neuroterus saltatorius (photo by Donald Owen, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection via

24 July 2020

There’s a cool thing happening in California right now that we never see in Pennsylvania. In neighborhoods with white oaks there are tiny “jumping beans” in the gutters.

Here’s that they look like, recorded a week ago by Mary K Hanson.

They’re even better in slow motion, recorded by Mark Eagleton in Woodland, California.

Though they resemble the moths called “Mexican jumping beans” (Cydia deshalsiana) these galls are the agamic (asexual) second generation of tiny Neuroterus saltatorius wasps that mature on white oak leaves and fall to the ground.

Neuroterus saltatorius 2nd generation galls on back of oak leaf (photo by Steve Katovich via

The larvae are tightly packed inside the galls so when they move the galls jump up to 3 cm. That’s 30 times the size of the gall!

In the fall the larvae become adult wasps inside the galls and overwinter to emerge next spring.

Neuroterus saltatorius are native to western North America from Texas to Washington state and up to Vancouver Island, Canada. That’s why we don’t see them in Pennsylvania.

Learn more at the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology: Neuroterus saltatorius.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and; click on the captions to see the originals. videos embedded from YouTube)

Just One Cicada Makes A Lot Of Noise

19 July 2020

At dusk in July scissor-grinder cicadas (Neotibicen winnemanna) sing from the trees in Pittsburgh. Like birds the male cicadas sing to attract females. Their pulsating drone rises to a crescendo, then drops to a buzz and falls silent. Are they singing in unison? How many are there?

Male scissor-grinders pulse their abdomens as they sing. At close range a single cicada makes a zipper sound. Click here to see another example.

When I’m able to follow the sound I’m often surprised that it’s coming from just one bug who fooled me into thinking a multitude was singing in unison.

Loudness matters. Female scissor-grinder cicadas apparently choose the loudest males.

A single cicada makes a lot of noise.

p.s. Have you heard a different cicada sound in the Pittsburgh area? This article can help you figure out which one: What’s That Sound? Cicadas.

(photo by Kate St. John, embedded videos from YouTube)

Flowers, Fruit and Frogs

American bellflower, Duck Hollow, 13 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week brought lavender flowers, green fruit and an overabundance of frogs.

I found American bellflower (Campanula americana) blooming along the Duck Hollow trail with some plants reaching six feet tall. My close-up, above, shows how the pistils avoid being fertilized by their own pollen.

American bellflower, Duck Hollow, 13 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) always has a bad hair day. At Schenley Park a long-legged insect stopped by for a sip (top right of flower).

Wild bergamot, Schenley Park, 12 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

In July the unripe fruits of white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) are green. This fall they’ll turn dark blue.

Fringetree fruits, Schenley Park, 12 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

At Panther Hollow Lake, which is actually the size of a pond, pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) is blooming …

Pickerelweed, Schenley Park, 16 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

… and there’s a serious overabundance of bullfrogs. Here are just a few examples.

Young bullfrogs, Schenley Park, Panther Hollow lake, 17 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Young bullfrog with tail, Panther Hollow lake, 17 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Young bullfrog in a wavelet, Panther Hollow lake, 17 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
How many bullfrogs can you count? Panther Hollow Lake, 17 July 2020

Herons don’t nest at Schenley Park but may visit for some easy prey. Where’s a great blue heron when you need one?

(photos by Kate St. John)

Insects Seen and Unseen

Aphids on Helianthus, Schenley Park, 9 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 July 2020

It’s easy to find insects in July.

Aphids in Schenley Park are expanding from plant to plant along the gravel trails, sucking the juice out of Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus).

Yellow hawkweeds (Pilosella caespitosa) are attracting bee-like insects.

Wasp or bee on hawkweed, Schenley Park, 6 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And some insects are unseen but have left evidence behind. Can you see two kinds of insect evidence on this crabapple tree?

Insect evidence on crabapple, Schenley Park, 9 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Tough Little Water Bears

8 July 2020

With COVID-19 raging around the world, we humans feel a little less invincible that we did a few months ago. Despite our own fragility there’s a tiny creature, less than 1mm long, that has survived all five mass extinctions. The tardigrade or water bear is practically indestructible.

Tardigrades have a second nickname — moss piglets — because moss and lichen are their favored habitat. Tardigrades don’t care how cold it is. They live in glacier mice and …

… a lot of harsh locations as shown in the video below.

Tardigrades’ only weakness seems to be prolonged heat, so climate change may be bad for them in some places on Earth. However, they’re so versatile and widespread I think most will survive. They are tough little water bears.

p.s. If you missed the blog post on glacier mice, click here to catch up.

(water bear screenshot from the Dodo video above; glacier mouse by cariberry via Flickr)

This Week in Schenley Park

Spotted joe pye weed, flower buds in leaf axils, Schenley Park, 26 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week I found buds and bugs in Schenley Park.

Spotted joe pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), above, has buds in the leaf axils but when it blooms the showy flowers at the top attract all our attention. This year I’ll have to watch for the side flowers as well.

Enchanters nightshade (Circaea canadensis), below, blooms from the bottom up and has plenty of buds yet to open. The lower buds in the photo are on a different branch.

Enchanters nightshade, Schenley Park 21 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bugs are quite evident now but they are difficult to photograph because they move(!). Below, this silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) appeared to be rubbing its abdomen on the bird dropping. Was it ovipositing?

Silver spotted skipper on a bird dropping, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Aphids are not plentiful this year — yet — but it’s only a matter of time. There’s only one winged adult in this photo but the juveniles will grow up, sprout wings, and fly to other Helianthus plants to reproduce. It won’t be long before I think there are too many.

Aphids on Helianthus stem (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, some bugs are never seen but we know they were there … as this leaf attests.

Insect damage on a leaf. No insect visible (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Spittlebug Season and Coming Attractions

Spittlebug foam, McConnell’s Mill State Park, 12 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

There are white foam patches on plant stems now in western Pennsylvania that indicate it’s spittlebug season.

Spittlebugs are nymphal froghoppers that suck the juice out of plants and excrete it as a sticky foam to protect themselves from temperature extremes, dessication and predators.

I’ve never seen a spittlebug but I haven’t looked closely. Fortunately Rod Innes’ 2011 video shows what these insects are up to. Way cool!

There are also some coming attractions outdoors.

Mulberries are bearing fruit in western Pennsylvania, attracting birds and smashing on the sidewalk. Read more about them in this vintage article: Mulberries Underfoot.

Mulberry tree in fruit, Magee Field, 18 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Mulberries smashed underfoot, Magee Field, 18 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park’s bottlebrush buckeyes are almost ready to bloom as shown below on 11 June. Stop by the park in early July to see the flowers in full glory at two locations: South side of Panther Hollow Lake (left side of lake as seen from Panther Hollow Bridge) and across West Circuit Road from the Westinghouse Fountain.

Bottlebrush buckeye flower buds, Schenley Park, 11 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

When bottlebrush buckeyes bloom they look like this.

Bottlebrush buckeye flower spike, Schenley Park, 6 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bottlebrush buckeye flowers, Schenley Park, 6 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bottlebrush buckeyes, Schenley Park, 9 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)