Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

Butterflies Started in North America

Monarch butterfly (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

22 May 2023

Where did butterflies come from?

The question first intrigued Akito Kawahara when he was eight years old and became his lifelong pursuit. This month he and his team published the answer in Nature: A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins.

Butterflies first evolved from moths when they began feeding on the nectar of new species of flowering plants usually available during the day. That shift allowed these insects to shed their earth tones in favor of the riot of colors they’re known for today, which often act to attract mates or warn predators that they’re poisonous.

WESA-FM: Butterflies originated in North America after splitting from moths, new study suggests

The butterfly-moth connection makes sense but the place where it happened is a surprise. Scientists used to think butterflies originated in Asia, but Kawahara’s study shows they evolved 100 million years ago in western North America or Central America and then dispersed throughout the world.

The maps below show their dispersal and species counts over time (darkest colors are the highest number). Starting 100 million years ago in the Americas, butterflies first jumped to Australia and from there to Asia, Africa, and finally Europe.

Bioregion shading indicates the number of butterfly lineages that were associated with that bioregion during that time period, as determined by BioGeoBEARS ancestral state reconstruction. Each map corresponds to a 15-Ma interval of butterfly evolution. Results are based on data from this study.

Today the greatest biodiversity of butterflies is in Central and South America where this blue morpho is found.

Blue morpho (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Listen to the audio article or read more about the study at WESA-FM: Butterflies originated in North America after splitting from moths, new study suggests.

BONUS: So how do you tell a moth from a butterfly? Check out the answer here:

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman and from Wikimedia Commons, map from Nature: A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins)

How Did I Get Here?

Squirrel outside my 6th floor window, 4 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 May 2023

I live on the 6th floor of a high rise so I was startled to glance out the kitchen window last Thursday and see the back end of a squirrel. I know squirrels can climb but this one had to scale a brick wall, climbing more than 60 feet without the help of anything. No exterior fire escapes. No nearby trees. Nothing but bricks and window ledges.

The wall the squirrel had to climb, 5 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

When I saw him on my windowsill he was looking in the direction of a bird feeder more than 100 feet away on the building next door. City squirrels walk wires to cross the street so maybe he thought he’d find a wire connecting the buildings. No such thing.

He contemplated his exit. “How did I get here? How do I get back?”

Squirrel contemplates getting down from here, 4 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

He must have figured it out. He was gone the next time I looked.

p.s. Thank you to Chris Zurawsky for pointing out my Power of Ten problem. Indeed the squirrel was 60 feet up, not 600 feet as I originally wrote.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Cellophane Bees

Cellophane bee in May (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 May 2023

On a hike at Hays Woods last week with Jared Belsky of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy we saw odd holes on a bare spot of ground, each one surrounded by a dust cone shaped like a tiny volcano. I could tell they where probably made by insects but which ones?

Cellophane bee holes at Hays Woods, 24 April 2023. My foot is in the photo for scale (photo by Kate St. John)

Jared told me these holes were constructed in March by cellophane bees.

Cellophane bees (Colletes inaequalis) are the first bees of spring, sometimes emerging while there’s still snow on the ground. They are members of the group called “plasterer bees” (Colletes sp.) described by Wikipedia below:

The genus Colletes (plasterer bees) is a large group of ground-nesting bees of the family Colletidae that occur primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. They tend to be solitary, but sometimes nest close together in aggregations. Species in the genus build cells in underground nests that are lined with a cellophane-like plastic secretion, a true polyester, earning them the nickname polyester bees.

Wikipedia account: Colletes

Now that it’s May it’s too late to see cellophane bees making holes, but it’s not too late to learn about them and be ready to watch them next March.

(video by Nick Dorian on YouTube)

p.s. Cellophane was invented in 1912 and polyester in 1928 so these common names of plasterer bees are only a century old.

(bee photo from Wikimedia Commons, holes photo by Kate St. John, embedded video by Nick Dorian on YouTube on YouTube)

Seen This Week

Coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park, 1 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 April 2023

This week the temperature stayed above freezing (until this morning) and set a record 85ºF on Wednesday. On a walk in Schenley Park last Saturday 1 April I saw coltsfoot in bloom, Virginia bluebells in bud and flowering Norway maples.

Virginia bluebells about to bloom, Schenley Park, 1 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

By the end of the week the city’s Norway maples had bloomed enough that their profiles looked like green balls instead of stick trees. You’ll can see this on the slope of Mt Washington as viewed from Downtown or the Bluff.

Norway maples flowering, Schenley Park, 1 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

By mid week it was sunny and HOT.

On Wednesday 5 April I visited the Lake Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park to find newly arrived Louisiana waterthrushes (). Near one of the singing birds was a puddle of trilling and mating American toads. I recorded their sound and added a my (lousy) photo of mating toads + a Wikimedia photo of the Louisiana waterthrush when he sings in the recording. You can also hear the wind on the mic.

video by Kate StJohn Birdblog on YouTube

Also at Raccoon: spring beauty () and yellow corydalis (). I wish I could have stayed longer.

Spring beauty, Raccoon Creek State Park, Lake Trail, 5 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow corydalis, Raccoon Creek State Park Lake Trail, 5 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Remember the yellow buckeyes in Schenley Park from last week? Here’s what they looked like yesterday!

Yellow buckeye leafout progress, Schenley Park, 7 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

More Spring to come.

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

Spray Your Clothes, Field Check For Ticks

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

27 March 2023

The worst part of Lyme disease season has just begun so let’s learn how to avoid it.

From spring through early summer the tiny nymphs of black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) quest for blood meals from animals and humans. Only the size of poppy seeds, the nymphs are really hard to see. If an infected tick bites you, it will give you Lyme disease bacteria.

Nymphs are only the size of a poppy seed! (image from Wikimedia Commons)

To prevent the debilitating disease, don’t let ticks get on your skin.

  1. Choose outdoor clothing that prevents ticks from reaching your skin:
    • Light colored clothes: So you can see ticks easily.
    • Long pants.
    • Long sleeved shirt with collar + tuck in your shirt: Collar traps ticks before they walk up your neck.
    • Socks: When you bushwhack or garden, tuck pant bottoms into socks.
  2. Once a year (i.e. now!) Spray your outdoor clothing with Permethrin. I know from personal experience and the experts agree that Permethrin works much better than DEET. Spray protection lasts 4-6 washings. Pre-treated clothes can last 70 washings. READ AND FOLLOW LABEL DIRECTIONS.
  3. Avoid brushing against vegetation. Avoid bushwhacking. Bush honeysuckle and Japanese barberry are tick magnets.
  4. If vegetation brushes you, field check your clothing for ticks when you reach a clearing. The sooner you get ticks off your clothes the better.
  5. Do a daily tick check.  Yes, daily!  You might have missed one yesterday that’s still on you. Check these spots.
How to do a tick check (image from PA Dept of Health &

If you find a tick remove it correctly (here’s how) and save it for testing.  Send it here and they’ll tell you if it carries Lyme disease.

Black-legged ticks are active year round when the temperature is above freezing. If you wear protective clothing — yes, even in hot summer — you’ll save yourself a world of trouble. See more tips here.

p.s. There are lots of ways to outsmart ticks. Did you know zip pants trap ticks under the zip placket?

p.s. Be careful with Permethrin. READ AND FOLLOW LABEL DIRECTIONS. To avoid fumes and protect kids and pets, spray your clothes outdoors on a windless day and wear rubber gloves. Keep Permethrin away from the cat (see label).

p.p.s. As Mary Jo Berman points out in the comments, I should have added this last tip on how to kill ticks on your clothing. After you come indoors, put your outdoor clothes in the dryer on high for 10 minutes BEFORE you wash them. Really. It kills ticks.

After hiking/gardening, dry your outdoor clothes for 10 mins in a hot dryer (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John.  tick chart from the Center for Disease Control via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the chart to see the original)

More Deer, More Ticks, More Lyme

Deer in Schenley Park, Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2023

Black-legged tick season is here again and with it comes the threat of Lyme disease. We now find ticks in neighborhoods where they never used to be and white-tailed deer are the reason why. More abundant deer mean more ticks. More abundant ticks mean more Lyme disease. Though deer themselves don’t spread Lyme disease they have an effect on its abundance. Let’s examine the Deer, Ticks, Lyme connection.

Lyme disease is a debilitating illness caused by a bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) that’s transmitted by the bite of a black-legged tick. 

Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus) have a two year life cycle as egg, larva, nymph and adult. At each stage the tick must drink a blood meal to transition to the next one — from larva to nymph, from nymph to adult, and from adult female to produce eggs. (Note: Ticks eggs do not carry the Lyme bacteria.)

Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Larval ticks are so tiny that their normal blood hosts are small animals and birds including the white-footed mice, chipmunks, short-tailed shrews and masked shrews that are responsible for infecting 80-90% of ticks. Nymphs and adults are large enough that they can also feed on humans and deer.

Black-legged tick life cycle (diagram from CDC enhanced with life form names)

When a tick bites a host and sucks its blood it takes up the host’s blood and transfers some of its own body fluids into the host. If the host is infected with the bacteria, it infects the tick. If the tick is infected, it infects the host.

Deer cannot transmit Lyme to ticks because they’re never infected by it (lucky them!). Deer are not to blame for spreading Lyme. However deer are key to the black-legged ticks’ reproductive success.

Deer are the adult ticks’ preferred host and their long distance transport system. Deer bodies are the place where adult ticks meet and mate in the fall. After mating the male dies but the female lives on. She sips a last blood meal, then drops off to the ground and hides in leaf litter while her body develops eggs over the winter.

Adult ticks meet in the fall during the rut while deer are moving around a lot. Bucks average 3-6 miles per day but may travel as much as 10-20 miles in search of does. Does may travel to meet or evade them.

Deer in western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

Meanwhile ticks are along for the ride. When a pregnant female tick drops off after her last blood meal she may be 3 to 20 miles from where she started and she’s carrying 1,000 to 3,000 eggs that she’ll lay in the spring.

In places with overabundant deer moving into new areas, as is happening in Pennsylvania, we find an abundance of ticks where they’ve never been seen before. Pennsylvania also has the highest number of Lyme disease cases in the U.S.

Deer are not the reservoir for the Lyme disease bacteria but in places with too many deer there are too many ticks. More ticks mean more Lyme disease.

Deer cross the road in Schenley Park, July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more information check out these resources:

p.s. There’s also a flu-like disease, called babesiosis, that’s carried by black-legged ticks and is now gaining momentum. Uh oh!

Honeybee News

Four bees fly near the hives on The Porch restaurant roof, 15 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 March 2023

While Pittsburgh experienced a “Too Early Spring” for plants, 7 Feb to 7 March, it was also a weird time for honeybees. Thirteen days of temperatures above 54ºF(*) with blooming trees and flowers prompted honeybees to begin foraging. I often found them at the cherry blossoms but couldn’t catch one in a photograph.

Flowering cherry, 4 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week the average temperature stayed near freezing for four days in a row so I was surprised to see a few bees emerging from the hive pictured at top when it was only 45ºF. In fact I was surprised to see the hive at all on the roof of The Porch restaurant at Schenley Plaza. It’s probably warmer up there.

The Porch at Schenley Plaza with beehives on the roof, 15 March 2023 (photo by Katr St. John)

Crazy spring weather, hot then sudden cold, can sap honeybee strength and make them susceptible to disease. To make matters worse freezing weather kills the flowers (food supply) so beekeepers provide supplemental feeding to help their bees over the rough spots.

Now there’s happy news about a bee vaccine, provided through supplemental feeding, that can innoculate honeybees from one of the worst diseases: American foulbrood (AFB).

Foulbrood is caused by a spore-forming bacteria, Paenibacillus larvae, that kills honeybee larvae without harming the adults. As the larvae die off, AFB weakens the colony and can quickly lead to its death in only three weeks. The bacteria is so hard to eradicate that infected hives must be burned.

Developed by biotech company Dalan Animal Health,

The vaccine, which contains a dead cell of the virus, is administered to the bees through the queen feed that worker bees consume. The worker bees then transfer the vaccine into the royal jelly and feed it to the queen. As a result, the vaccine gets deposited into her ovaries, giving larvae immunity when they hatch.

CBS News: USDA approves vaccine for honeybees

Read more about the foulbrood vaccine here at CBS News and the press release on Business Wire.

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s.(*) I say 54ºF because, according to the University of Maine Extension, “The minimum temperature for honeybee flight is 54º F.  The optimum temperature for flight activity is 72-77º F.”

Rare Insect Record At The Walmart

Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing, Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 (collected and photographed by Michael Skvarla / Penn State. Creative Commons)

One night in 2012 while he was an entomology grad student at University of Arkansas, Michael Skvarla went to Walmart to buy milk. On his way into the store he saw a large unusual insect clinging to the building so he carefully picked it off the exterior and carried it with him to add to his insect collection.

One of the Walmart Supercenters in Fayetteville, AR (photo from 2018 via Google Maps)

Back then he misidentified the bug as an “antlion” and forgot about it while he finished his PhD and joined the faculty at Penn State.

Then in 2020 the COVID shutdown forced Penn State classes online so Skvarla pulled specimens from his own insect collection to teach Entomology 432 lab on Zoom. As he showed this bug to the class and described its characteristics Skvarla paused because it didn’t match its label. The class analyzed the bug and made a rare discovery.

“We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t dim, the wonder isn’t lost. Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course,” said Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State.

Penn State Research News: Rare insect found at Arkansas Walmart sets historic record, prompts mystery

This bug is quite rare. According to Penn State Research News, giant lacewings (Polystoechotes punctata) have been missing from eastern North America for over 50 years and were never before found in Arkansas. Its discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered.

Where did the giant lacewing come from? Are there more out there? Those answers await more field research.

Meanwhile Skvarla and colleagues performed DNA tests to verify its identity and published in Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.

Read more about the discovery at Penn State Research News: Rare insect found at Arkansas Walmart sets historic record, prompts mystery.

Moral of the Story: Don’t worry if you cautiously misidentify something. Just hang onto that photo or specimen and reevaluate it later. Perhaps you’ll discover a rarity.

(photo credits in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals)

Army Ants Build A Bridge

Army ants (Labidus spininodis) in Mindo, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 February 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 7, birding in Mindo and the NW Andes

Antbirds — antshrikes, antwrens, antvireos, etc. — keep track of army ants who flush tasty insects as they march through the forest. Army ants do the work, the antbirds get an easy insect meal.

Seven years ago when the old Greenfield Bridge was missing over the Parkway East I learned that army ants can build bridges and they seem to be quick about it. It took two years to build the new Greenfield Bridge. The ants would have been faster (but unable to carry traffic).

Find out how ants build bridges. Check out the video at:

p.s. The Anderson Bridge that carries the Boulevard of the Allies into Schenley Park closed this week for at least four months because inspection revealed a “weak member” — i.e. unsafe to drive on! We need those army ants again.

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

Thinking About Dung Beetles?

Southern red-billed hornbill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 November 2022

The southern red-billed hornbill (Tockus rufirostris) eats many things but dung beetles and their larvae are at the top of the menu.

Dung beetle with a ball of dung, Manyoni Private Game Reserve, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Elephant dung is an especially good place to find them.

Southern red-billed hornbill looking for … (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A 2016 study discovered that dung beetles evolved in association with dinosaurs, the ancestors of birds. Beetles were already eating living plants so when flowering plants (angiosperms) sprung up and dinosaurs began eating them, dung beetles evolved to scavenge plant matter found in dung.

However most of the dinosaurs went extinct and their bird ancestors don’t produce dung, so the dung beetles changed their focus to megafauna mammal poop. Elephant dung!

Apparently dung beetles will even fight over it.

So now it’s come full circle. A living dinosaur eats the dung beetles.

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