Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

Bee Tree Broke In The Storm

17 June 2021

We are usually unaware of wild honeybee hives high in the forest and that was certainly true of this one near the Westinghouse Shelter in Schenley Park. The bee tree broke during last Sunday’s storm and just missed hitting the shelter. At noon on Tuesday I found the tree cordoned off by Public Works as they waited for the bees to be removed.

The massive hive was in a hollow 20+ feet up in a red oak. When a northwest gust hit the tree it broke at its weakest point and split the hive. Most of the hive remained in the upper section with a few empty honeycombs in the dangling piece.

Rather than step closer I zoomed my cellphone camera to show the bees covering the hive (center of photo) and more honeycombs at top right in the hollow.

Wild honeybee hive in a fallen oak, 15 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

When I passed through at 1:30pm, beekeeper and DPW Schenley Park worker Kevin Wilford was carefully moving the hive to a bee transport box. He attached the white box to the tree to encourage the bees to go in it after he moved the hive. However, the hive was so deep that he could not reach it without more tools. The process took longer than I had time to watch but Kevin gave me a taste of it, a small piece of honeycomb laden with honey. Mmmmmm good! and sticky!

Beekeeper & DPW worker Kevin Wilford begins to move the bees, 15 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

By Friday the beehive will be on a scenic hill above Hazelwood, the damaged tree will be gone, and the Westinghouse Shelter will be ready for use.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Report This Bug!

Spotted lanternfly: What To Look For (image from Penn State Extension)

6 May 2021

Now that the trees have leafed out and bug season is firing up in Pennsylvania, it’s time to watch for and report the spotted lanternfly.

Spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) are invasive planthoppers native to China and Vietnam whose favorite food is the invasive Ailanthus, the Tree-of-Heaven. If they ate only Ailanthus it would be OK but their sharp mouth parts pierce the stems and suck the sap of grapevines, hops, apple trees, peaches and hardwoods including oaks and cherries. They’re bad news for agriculture and forests.

Lanternflies are making quick progress across Pennsylvania because they’re aided by human transportation. First discovered in North America in Berks County, PA in 2018 the bug spread through eastern PA for two years. In early 2020 it was found on rail cars at the Norfolk Southern railyard in Conway, Beaver County. Soon after in Allegheny County. Early this year it completed an unbroken path through the lower third of the state by adding Westmoreland and Cambria Counties. What’s on this path? The Norfolk-Southern Railroad.

map from PA Dept of Agriculture via Penn State Extension

The lanternfly travels easily from September to May as flat gray egg masses on rail cars, trucks and automobiles.

  • Adult near egg masses: New = mud in foreground, Exposed = lumpy in background (photo by Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture,

The eggs hatch from spring through summer so now’s the time to watch for black or red spotted nymphs, especially in the unmarked counties above.

Spotted lanternfly early stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,
Spotted lanternfly late stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,

If you see spotted lanternflies in any life stage report them at this easy-to-use Penn State Extension website: Have You Seen a Spotted Lanternfly?

We won’t see adult lanternflies until July to November. And frankly, we really don’t want to.

(photos and map from PA Dept of Agriculture, Penn State Extension and Bugwood; click on the captions to see the originals)

Wrangling Honey Bees

Honeybee swarm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 April 2021

In late spring you may find a swarm of insects gathered in a tight cluster on a structure or tree. No matter what they are, stand back and leave them alone. Safely try to identify them.

If they’re wasps they’re dangerous. If they’re spotted lanternflies you have a problem. If they’re honey bees (Apis mellifera) they’re good news and relatively docile. Here’s what they’re up to.

Swarming is a honey bee colony’s natural means of reproduction. In the process of swarming, a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies.

Swarms settle 20–30 m (65-100 ft) away from the natal nest for a few days and will then depart for a new nest site after getting information from scout bees. Scout bees search for suitable cavities in which to construct the swarm’s home. Successful scouts will then come back and report the location of suitable nesting sites to the other bees.

Wikipedia: Swarming (honey bee)

Honey bees are valuable pollinators and should not be killed. Beekeepers want the bees.

Most beekeepers will remove a honeybee swarm for a small fee or maybe even free if they are nearby.  Bee swarms can almost always be collected alive and relocated by a competent beekeeper or bee removal company. Extermination of a bee swarm is rarely necessary and discouraged if bee removal is possible.

Wikipedia: Swarming (honey bee)

Swarming season keeps beekeepers very busy!

Beekeeper collecting a swarm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They usually suit up and remove the bees without a lot of fanfare as in this video by Donald Porta who removed the bees in 27 seconds (after he got set up).

There are also flamboyant bee wranglers such as Yappy Beeman who don’t wear protective clothing. YappyBeeman, below, competes on YouTube with JPtheBeeman, DirtRooster and Mr. Ed.

p.s. If you have questions about honey bees contact local beekeepers for assistance. See the list of Pennsylvania State Beekeepers. Check Burgh Bees in the Pittsburgh area.

Not sure what bug you’re looking at? Here’s a helpful guide from the Connecticut Beekeepers Association: Honey Bee Hive vs. Wasp Nest: How to Identify the Difference.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

These Busy Bees Aren’t Bumbles

Carpenter bee on redbud (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 April 2021

On sunny April days you may see a big bee hovering in the open, chasing other bees, or patrolling near a wooden structure. It looks like a shiny black bumblebee, but it’s not.

Carpenter bee hovering (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica), like bumblebees, are solitary and docile. They don’t build hives and rarely sting. In April and May carpenter males compete for mates and the females look for wood where each will drill a gallery and lay her eggs.

You can tell the difference by sight. Carpenter bees (left) have black abdomens that shine in sunlight. Bumblebees (right) have fuzzy black or yellow abdomens that don’t reflect light.

Carpenter bee vs bumblebee (photos by Chuck Tague)
Carpenter bee (left) versus bumblebee (right), both in Pennsylvania (photos by Chuck Tague)

Here’s what a female sounds like as she examines a wooden railing. She is so docile that the person can get quite close to film her.

The female is looking for bare or distressed wood — not painted or treated — where she will drill a hole as described in this video. She doesn’t eat the wood. She just drills it.

Carpenter bees put fallen logs to use. Here they are in their natural setting. I have never seen this many bees near a human structure.

So … paint your house and carpenter bees will leave it alone. Meanwhile if you see carpenter bee holes in unpainted wood, this video from Clemson University tells you what to do: Carpenter Bees — Millie Davenport, Clemson University.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague)

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …

Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.

Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Annual Spray Your Clothes Day

It’s Spray Your Clothes Day (photo by Kate St. John)

7 April 2021

We missed a celebration when it snowed on 1 April so I’ve moved a very important annual event to right now. Today is Spray Your Clothes Day.

Pennsylvania is a hot spot for Lyme disease, a debilitating illness caused by a parasite transmitted by black-legged ticks. Many of us are spending more time outdoors than usual because COVID-19 has made indoor gatherings unsafe. If you’ve taken up gardening, hiking, birding, etc., you’ll want to spray your outdoor clothes with permethrin to repel black-legged ticks.

Black-legged ticks lurk in Japanese barberry, leaf litter, bush honeysuckle, weeds and tall grass, especially in moist environments. When you work with leaf litter in the garden, or brush past weeds nodding over the trail, or step off the path to let someone pass, a black-legged tick may latch on for a ride. If it sucks your blood for 24 hours you could get Lyme disease.

To avoid fumes and protect kids and pets, spray your clothes outdoors on a windless day. I sprayed mine last month so I’m good to go. If you haven’t done so yet, consider this your annual reminder. Learn more at Today Is Spray Your Clothes Day.

p.s. Don’t assume you’re safe if you only go to Pittsburgh’s large city parks. A 2015-2016 study found there are black-legged ticks in the city parks and 20-50% of them are carrying Lyme disease. This is typical in Pennsylvania.

(photo by Kate St. John)

These Tadpoles Migrate Every Day

Screenshot of western toad tadpoles from Tadpoles: The Big Little Migration

2 April 2021

Three weeks ago frogs were singing and laying eggs in the vernal ponds of southwestern Pennsylvania. Many of the eggs have hatched by now. What do the tadpoles do next? This video from a remote lake on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada provides a hint.

Maxwel Hohn spent four years filming a tiny migration we never see. Every morning western toad tadpoles (Anaxyrus boreas) swim from their nighttime shelters to feeding areas in the lake, then back again to hide at night. The result is his award-winning 8+ minute video: Tadpoles: The Big Little Migration.

Our eastern American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) are closely related to western toads so I wonder if they do this, too.

Meanwhile, if the video wasn’t amazing enough for you, here are two more amazing things about tadpoles and toads:

  • Don’t worry that our tadpoles won’t survive the freezing temperatures this morning in eastern North America. Even if the ponds freeze, tadpoles are able to overwinter under ice. See photos at What’s Under the Ice? Wow! Winter Tadpoles from Oakland Twp, Michigan.
  • Do you know where North America’s toads came from? South America. And they didn’t walk! “Based on DNA sequence comparisons, Anaxyrus americanus and other North American species of Anaxyrus are thought to be descended from an invasion of toads from South America prior to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama land bridge, presumably by means of rafting. — from the Wikipedia description of the American toad.

No Snakes Day

Brown tree snake on Guam (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2021

Today we celebrate someone who banished snakes from an island.

Legend has it that St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, chased all the snakes into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast.

The island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, is plagued by brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) accidentally introduced after World War II. In 70 years the snake population exploded to 2 million, more than 100 snakes per hectare, or more 110 snakes per football field. It’s the highest concentration of snakes anywhere in the world.

Brown tree snakes have caused the extinction of most of Guam’s native wildlife, thousands of power outages, widespread loss of domestic birds and pets, and considerable emotional trauma to residents and visitors. Guam’s plant life has diminished, too, because the snakes have eaten the pollinators.

People working to eradicate Guam’s brown tree snakes have learned a lot about the animal. For instance, the snake dies when it eats acetaminophen so they’ve air-dropped acetaminophen-laced mice to tempt the snakes.

A study this year showed that fat slippery poles do not protect nest boxes so that method will have to change. The snakes make themselves into lassos to climb up! Click on the picture below or its caption to see a video of the snake in motion.

Screenshot from video of brown tree snake lasso locomotion (video at Current Biology)

Everyone hopes that eradication efforts succeed and that Guam will celebrate No Snakes Day some time in the future. They could certainly use the help of St. Patrick and the luck of the Irish.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons an a screenshot from the lasso video; click on the captions to see the originals)

Sights and Sounds of Early Spring

Sun pillar at sunrise, 6 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 March 2021

Spring is coming! Our native trees are slow to bloom but cultivated flowers and amphibians are already active. There’s a lot to see and hear.

Above, on 6 March we were greeted by a sun pillar caused by ice crystals slowly falling through the air at sunrise.

A shagbark hickory lives up to its name in bright sunlight.

Shagbark hickory, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

American basswood now has bright red buds that are still cautious about opening.

American basswood buds, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cultivated European white willows have bright yellow twigs in March.

Cultivated willows turn yellow in early spring, Homewood Cemetery, 9 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Non-native crocuses are blooming so I hoped to see native snow trillium at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Friday, 12 March 2021. I did not find any, not even leaves. Was I too early or did the deer eat them?

However I was rewarded with the sound of frogs! Spring peepers and a few wood frogs called from the first vernal pool.

Peepers calling at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021

Wood frogs quacked in the second pool joined by a few solo peepers (hear that slow “creeeek” sound). In the video you can see the surface of the water moving with so many wood frogs.

Get outside while the sun’s shining. There’s more spring to come!

(photos audio and video by Kate St. John)

Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears

Butterflies drinking turtle tears (screenshot from Phil Torres YouTube video)

17 February 2021

In 2018 in the Peruvian Amazon Phil Torres of The Jungle Diaries filmed colorful butterflies fluttering around turtles at the edge of the Tambopata River. He explains what the butterflies were doing:

Learn more about this phenomenon in Phil Torres’ video: Butterflies drinking Turtle Tears!?

One commenter wrote: “So if I cry, will butterflies come to me?”

(screenshot from Phil Torres Jungle Diaries video)