Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

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)

Who’s Hiding Here?

Hiding on white snakeroot, dead or alive? (photo by Kate St. John)

A very large bug is hidden on this white snakeroot stem in Schenley Park.

These facts from Wikipedia describe my guess at the species:

  • It’s a predatory bug that eats mostly insects but has been known to eat hummingbirds as well.
  • It will eat its own species if one gets too close.
  • It’s native to China, Japan, Korea, Micronesia and Thailand.
  • It was accidentally introduced to the U.S. in 1896 by a nurseryman in Mt. Airy, PA near Philadelphia.  It’s now found throughout the Northeast.
  • This species is a popular pet for insect enthusiasts.
  • It normally looks like this.

I’ve never seen this particular insect perched in this position so I wondered if it was dead. I didn’t want to touch it to find out.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) praying mantis

Long Distance Snails

California horn snail (photo by tiyumq via iNaturalist)

The ancestors of this saltwater snail changed oceans twice.

California horn snails (Cerithideopsis californica) are native to the Pacific Ocean from the California coast to Baja California Sur in Mexico, but a DNA study published in 2011 found they contain traces of a closely related Atlantic snail, Cerithideopsis pliculosa, and vice versa.  The DNA mixing went like this:

  • 3 million years ago North and South America joined at Panama, blocking sea travel between the two oceans.
  • 750,000 years ago, Pacific Ocean snails somehow traveled east to invade the Atlantic.
  • 72,000 years ago, Atlantic Ocean snails came back to invade the Pacific.

How did the snails cross Central America from one ocean to another?  Twice?

On Throw Back Thursday, find out in this vintage article: Flying Snails

Marbled Orb Weaver

Marbled orbweaver (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In autumn I often see round vertical spider webs without a spider in them.  Perhaps they’re the webs of marbled orb weavers.

Orb weaver spider web (photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons)

Araneus marmoreus live around the world in the northern hemisphere, building their orb-shaped webs in wooded areas, especially along stream banks.   When you find the webs they’re usually empty.

If the spider was there, you’d see that it’s only 9-22 mm (.3 to .8 inches) long.  Males are the typical spider shape but the females have large, round, marbled abdomens ranging in color from orange to yellow with purple markings and pale spots. 

“Marbled orb weaver” describes them perfectly.  They’re also called “pumpkin spiders” for obvious reasons.

Marbled orb weaver (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve rarely seen the marbled female and here’s why:  After she spins her web she attaches a signal thread to the center and retreats to a hiding place where she holds the thread while she waits. The signal lets her know when something hits the web and out she comes.

Where does the spider hide?  The Capital Naturalist tells us in this video.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video by the Capital Naturalist)

Watch Out!

Yellow jacket on a soda can (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow jacket wasps are worse than annoying in September. They’re so attracted to sugar that they’ll fly into your soda can.  Watch out!

On Throw Back Thursday, find out why they do this at: Look Before You Drink.

p.s. This video shows how to trap yellow jackets but doesn’t explain what to do when the trap is full of live yellow jackets.  Watch out!

Pale Beauty

Pale beauty moth touching my toe in Schenley Park, 29 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

My toe isn’t beautiful but the moth is.  His name is Pale Beauty (Campaea perlata).

When I tried to take his picture in Schenley Park on August 29, the moth landed on my sandal and touched my toe with his foot. Since butterflies and moths taste with their feet he (or she) must have been tasting my toe.  Oh!

Pale beauty moths are generalists whose larvae feed on a wide variety of trees including ash, (black)cherry, maple, beech and oak.

Schenley Park is full of these trees.  Pale beauty is right at home.