Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

King of All He Surveys

Longhorn Beetle “Whitespotted Sawyer,” Sequoia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(Back on the continent. This bug is not from Hawaii.)

This whitespotted sawyer beetle (Monochamus scutellatus) looks fearsome but eats only dead or dying pines and spruces. Native to North America, he’s found north of North Carolina across the U.S. and Canada wherever his food grows.

Because they eat dead or dying trees whitespotted sawyers aren’t a problem to standing timber but they mess up the loggers’ convenience. If workers leave cut logs in the forest during the summer the females lay eggs in them and the wood is damaged when the loggers return. The answer is to cut trees in fall or winter and retrieve them before the adult beetles emerge in the summer.

This photo by Thomas Schoch was taken at Sequoia National Park, California where the beetle was perched to admire the view, king of all he surveys.

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

Still traveling, flying home.

Let Me Be The First To Tell You

17-year cicada, Magicicada septendecim (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This spring the longest lived insect in North America will emerge in southeastern Ohio, West Virginia’s northern panhandle, and southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s been 17 years since we’ve seen Magicicada Brood VIII. 2019 is the year.

Juvenile periodical cicadas (Magicicada sp.) spend most of their lives underground, then in the spring of their 17th year they tunnel upward and wait just below the surface until they’re ready to appear all at once. On a mysterious signal, thousands simultaneously emerge at night and crawl up on trees, plants and walls to shed their exoskeletons and dry their wings.  Until their bodies harden they’re completely vulnerable so they’ve evolved a predator swamping strategy on a prime-number cycle. They survive by sheer numbers. They’re so numerous that they can’t all be eaten, and their predators can’t surge their own populations on a 17-year schedule.

You may remember periodical cicadas in 2016 so why are they back so soon? There are 13 broods, each with its own schedule and geographic region. Brood V emerged three years ago in West Virginia, Ohio and the bottom left corner of Pennsylvania. This year we’ll see Brood VIII in a smaller, different geographic area that includes Raccoon Creek State Park, only half an hour away from Downtown Pittsburgh.

To give you an idea of how amazing this will be, check out my photos, video and tons of information at this 2016 article: Magic Cicadas.

Expect Brood VIII to emerge in May and local news reports in the months ahead. Meanwhile, let me be the first to tell you. 😉

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

Note: There are also 13-year cicadas but they have a more southern range.

See No Weevil

Filbert weevil on the acorn of a live oak tree, Oakland, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Nut weevils are so small that you have to look hard to find them, but even if you search carefully you’ll never see this one in Pennsylvania.

The filbert weevil (Curculio occidentis) lives in western North America from British Columbia to Mexico. Dressed in “fur,” with big black eyes, a long thin snout, and elbowed antennae he’s only 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch wide.

His common name is misleading. Like all weevils he’s a plant specialist who focuses on a single host and that host is not filberts. Curculio occidentis eats oaks (Quercus), specifically acorns. He’d never seen a filbert, the European hazelnut (Corylus avellana), until we imported them. Perhaps he ate one in the last century but no one talks about it anymore. European hazelnuts are grown in Oregon while the filbert weevil is found on oaks, mostly in California. Since acorns aren’t a cash crop this bug engenders few complaints unless you care deeply about acorns.

The filbert weevil begins life in an acorn. His mother chews a deep hole in an immature acorn and lays two to four eggs inside. When the eggs hatch the larvae eat the acorn meat, then eat their way out of the acorn, fall to the ground, burrow into the soil, and pupate one or two years later.

Here’s a video of his mother chewing a hole in an acorn, another female barging in on her to take over the hole, then his father shows up to mate with her.

Their lives are exciting but they’re so small that we see no weevil.

(featured picture of a filbert weevil from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video by mwkozlowski on YouTube)

From Parakeets to Jelly Beans

Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One thing leads to another:

  • News of a parakeet leads to a food named for pigeons
  • The food leads to the plant it grows on
  • The plant is also cultivated to host an insect
  • The insect creates a sticky substance called lac
  • We harvest the lac to make shellac and use it on …
  • … furniture …
  • … and jelly beans.

The parakeet:  When I learned that rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri), above, are a nuisance in India because they devastate the pigeon pea crops I wondered … What are pigeon peas?

The food: Pigeon peas (Cajanas cajan) are a tropical legume first cultivated in India 3,500 years ago. The peas are used like lentils as a staple food in Asia, Africa and South America.  I’m sure I’ve eaten pigeon peas without knowing their English name.

Immature raw pigeon peas (left); Mature & split (right) (images from Wikimedia Commons)

The plantCajanas cajan plants are grown for their peas (inside the bean pods) and as the host of a beneficial insect, Kerria lacca.

Pigeon pea plant with seed pods and a flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The insect:  Scale insects lead sexually dimorphic lives. The males can fly to find females, but they don’t eat. The females are immobile, permanently attached to their host plant, sucking its sap. To protect themselves the females produce a sticky covering called lac. Kerria lacca females, shown below, use several trees as their host plants including pigeon peas.

Lac tubes deposited by Kerria lacca insect (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We harvest the lac to make shellac.  According to Wikipedia, we “infest” the host plants with Kerria lacca females. When the branches are well coated we cut them (sticklac), scrape, sieve and heat to remove impurities (seedlac), then use heat or solvent extraction to create shellac

Alcohol dissolves shellac and makes it spreadable but the liquid form has a 1-year shelf life.  Shellac is stored as flakes and mixed with alcohol at the time of use.

Shellac flakes in various colors (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The furniture:  Shellac is a superior finish, especially for antiques, but it is fussy.  When I was a kid my father refinished furniture in his spare time and at one point tried shellac. We kids quickly learned “Don’t touch that table!”  Damp glasses left water rings (which faded), alcohol marred it, and household cleaners damaged it.  However, shellac is beautiful.

Restorer applying shellac hand polish to a table (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And back to food:  When mixed with edible alcohol, food grade shellac makes the shiny coating on jelly beans and other candies.

Jelly beans (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One thing leads to another, from parakeets to jelly beans.

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

Leave The Leaves

Eastern towhee, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever noticed how many birds turn over fallen leaves to find food?  Towhees and sparrows, robins and wrens pick through the leaf litter to find overwintering insects.  This food bank of edible insects is one reason why not to clear your garden in the fall

Fallen leaves also provide shelter for various live stages of butterflies, moths and bees. The Xerces Society’s Leave The Leaves campaign provides a list.

Did you know…?   The red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) lays its eggs on fallen oak leaves.

Woolly bear caterpillars burrow into leaf cover to survive the winter.

Woolly bear: Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

And the moth version of this brown-headed owlet (Cucullia convexipennis) hides in leaf litter during the day to survive November temperatures.  Moths in this family, Noctuidae, are the ones who pollinate witch hazel.

Brown-headed owlet caterpillar (photo by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org)

So Leave The Leaves alone.  Clear them from the storm drains, sidewalk and driveway, but not off your garden! 

Learn more at the Xerces Society’s Leave The Leaves campaign and at this How to Leave the Leaves blog.

(photo credits: poster from Xerces Society Leave the Leaves, woolly bear caterpillar by Kate St. John, brown-headed owlet caterpillar by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org)

Watch for Witch Hazel

Witch hazel flowers catch the light after the leaves are gone, November (photo by Kate St. John)

When the leaves are gone these lacy flowers stand out in the forest.

American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from late October into December in eastern North America.  Its delicate yellow flowers smell like lemon.

Witch hazel flower, October in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Since witch hazel blooms when few insects are out how are the flowers pollinated?

In 1987 Bernd Heinrich found that owlet moths come out at night to sip the flowers and thereby pollinate them.

The moths survive cold weather by hiding under leaf litter during the day, then shivering to warm up and fly at night. Click here to learn more.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Hanging Out in Schenley Park

Praying mantis in the meadow at Beacon Street (photo by Steve Tirone)

Last Sunday, October 7, it felt like summer when Steve Tirone and I went looking for Armillaria in Schenley Park.  We didn’t find any honey mushrooms but Steve found an amazing insect along the Beacon-Bartlett meadow trail.

This praying mantis (possibly Tenodera sinensis) was not alone. When we paused to take photographs, we saw another mantis perched nearby and a third one flew away from us.  Gigantic flying bug!

Fall is mating time for praying mantises. The adults will die but their egg masses will survive the winter.  Here’s what the egg sac looks like. Don’t take one home until you’ve read these Praying Mantis Egg Sac instructions. They will hatch in your house!

Praying Mantis egg mass (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last weekend was a busy time for praying mantises, hanging out in Schenley Park.

(photo by Steve Tirone)

Stinkbug Predator Shows Up On Its Own

Two invasives in one photo: Brown marmorated stinkbug on honeysuckle (photo by Kate St. John)

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s stinkbug time again.

In the fall brown marmorated stinkbugs (Halyomorpha halys) invade our houses, squeezing into every crack.  They’re annoying to us but devastating to orchards, farms and gardens where they pierce the fruit and cause necrosis.

These Asian invaders were first seen in the U.S. twenty years ago and caused trouble so quickly that USDA started searching for a biological control agent in the stinkbug’s native range.  The most promising predator was the tiny Samurai wasp (Trissolcus japonicus).

The Samurai wasp injects its own eggs into stinkbug eggs; its larvae eat the egg contents.  According to the StopBMSB website “these stingerless warriors search for and destroy 60–90% of BMSB eggs in Asia.”  A video from the Entomological Society of America shows what they do.

Testing began in 2005 but the approval process takes a very long time. Scientists had to identify the right wasp and prove it wouldn’t destroy native species in the U.S. (Cane toads in Australia are a sad example of poor/no testing.)  Testing was still underway in 2014 when a field survey found samurai wasps in Maryland.

The samurai wasp showed up on its own, probably arriving inside stinkbug eggs in plant shipments from Asia.  An alien inside an alien.

By March 2018 the samurai wasp was found in 10 states — and only where stinkbugs are already a problem.  So far so good.

Read more about the samurai-stinkbug connection in this article in Science Magazine.

(photo of stinkbug by Kate St. John; YouTube video of samurai wasps by Chris Hedstrom, published by Entomology Society of America, 2012)

Monarchs On Radar

Male monarch butterfly (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

After several years of low monarch butterfly populations in southwestern Pennsylvania, this year has been spectacular.  With the weather still as warm as summer I see monarchs flying south every day — even in October.

We know that migrating birds can be seen on radar. Did you know that clouds of monarch butterflies are visible too?

Back in September 2014 AOL reported that a dense flight of monarch butterflies was visible on radar in the St. Louis area.  Here’s what the National Weather Service radar looked like at the time.

Radar image from 19 Sep 2014, St. Louis, MO (National Weather Service)

Learn how the butterflies made this impression in a 2014 AOL article: Mysterious clouds spotted in radar explained.

(photo of monarch butterfly by Marcy Cunkelman, 2008; radar image from the National Weather Service St. Louis, Missouri via AOL’s article cited above)