Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

Insects Like It Hot

Zabulon skipper (Lon zabulon) on my thumb, 9 August 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 August 2021

Last week was hot in Pittsburgh in both temperature and humidity. On mornings when it was only 71 degrees the dewpoint was also 71 so it felt oppressive. Under the circumstances birds are scarce but insects are not.

Above, a Zabulon skipper (Lon zabulon) butterfly that was sipping on ironweed flew over to land on my thumb. It was hard to take its picture without scaring it away.

Ironweed florets are shaped like tubes, perfect for the skipper’s probocis.

Skippers visiting ironweed, 9 August 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars are easy to find this month.

And two kinds of insects are attacking the Japanese knotweed — aphids and Japanese beetles.

Aphids on Japanese knotweed, 8 August 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

It is very fitting that an invasive Japanese beetle eats an invasive Japanese plant.

Japanese knotweed: leaves with bug holes, aphid son the stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Insects are busy. They like it hot.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Handsome Bug

Red-headed bush cricket, the handsome trig (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 August 2021

The birds stopped singing weeks ago but the air is filled with the sound of bugs. One of them is the red-headed bush cricket (Phyllopalpus pulchellus) otherwise known as the Handsome Trig.

If you find a handsome trig you can see the beauty that gave him his name. Unfortunately he’s so tiny that we rarely see him.

However, you can hear him. He sings very loudly at 7000 Hertz, often from a Japanese honeysuckle thicket.

I say “You can hear him” because I cannot. I’ve lost my hearing above 6,000 Hertz so I view his voice as a spectrogram on the Spectroid app. The very bright white-orange stripe at 7406 Hertz is the LOUD sound of the handsome trig in the video above. The fainter line at 4,000 hertz is quieter and the only part of his sound that I can hear.

Spectrogram of handsome trig song in video above

Listen for this handsome bug.

Tell me if he’s loud. 🙂

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

Big Snake Plays Possum

Eastern hognose snake playing dead (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 July 2021

Here’s a snake you don’t need to be afraid of because …

  1. The only way to get bitten by an eastern hognose snake is to smell like its prey.”
  2. If you frighten him he will try bizarre defensive moves (which can frighten you) but if they don’t work he plays dead. Very dead.

Learn about his bizarre defensive moves in this vintage article: S is for Snake.

p.s. The trick is knowing that you’re dealing with an eastern hognose snake. I don’t know how.

Eastern hognose snake (illustration from North American Herpetology via Wikimedia Commons)

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

In Tidewater Virginia

Sunrise over the Pagan River, 15 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 July 2021

This week my husband and I have been visiting family in Tidewater Virginia, our first long trip since the COVID-19 shutdown. Everyone’s vaccinated (& some had COVID last winter) so at last we’re making the “Real Hugs Tour.”

It is hot. 92 degrees F near the water, 100 degrees on the roads in the interior. Every morning I take a walk before it gets too unpleasant.

At the ocean I was pleased to see saltwater birds and southern songbird species. Favorite birds on the bay side of First Landing State Park were least, royal and sandwich terns plus a blue grosbeak (eBird checklist here).

View of the bay from First Landing State Park, 14 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I also encountered a lot of bug sounds …

… and a dragonfly that repeatedly perched on a twig in the stiff wind. Its behavior reminded me of a kestrel.

Dragonfly holding onto a twig in a stiff wind, 14 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is beautiful and welcoming until you stand in the sun.

Low tide at Windsor Castle Park, Smithfield, Virginia, 16 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Blackberries ripen in the heat.

Blackberries, Smithfield, 16 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

House finches are prolific breeders in the hanging baskets on my sisters porch. This brood froze as we peeked under the fern in one basket while another house finch couple was building a new nest in the next basket.

House finch nestlings in a hanging basket, 15 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Pittsburgh it is 10-15 degrees cooler but we will miss the sea breeze when we get home tomorrow.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Milkweed and Scissor-Grinders

Swamp milkweed with carpenter bee, yellow jacket, and pearl crescent butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

1 July 2021

July is the month for bugs and field flowers and late nesting birds — for milkweed and scissor-grinder cicadas.

Among the milkweeds my favorite is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) for its vibrant pink color and more delicate leaves. Insects like it, too.

July is also when the first scissor-grinder cicadas (Neotibicen pruinosus) appear (in my neighborhood, first heard on 3 July 2021). Their whirring drone is said to resemble the sound of scissors being ground or sharpened, but who among us has heard that manufacturing sound? Scissor-grinders are more common than the sound they were named for.

Scissor-grinder annual cicada, Pittsburgh PA, (photo by Kate St. John)

Lots more is on tap for the month of July. Check out the list in this vintage article: Milkweed or What to Look for in July.

(photos by Kate St. John)

See This Bug? Say Something

Spotted lanternfly late stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)

29 June 2021

Just a reminder that with Bug Season in full swing you may encounter this dangerously invasive pest, the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) that sucks the sap out of grapes, fruit trees, oaks, black cherries and its favorite the invasive Ailanthus or Tree of heaven.

Ailanthus leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

The spotted lanternfly is so dangerous to our crops and forests that Penn State Extension is tracking its movements in an effort to stop the spread. It arrived in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh in 2020 and in Westmoreland and Cambria Counties just this year.

Look around and you may see one crawling on stems, leaves, vines or trees. Keep in mind that for most of its life this bug cannot fly but it changes appearance as it matures.

In May and June it’s a tiny black bug with white spots, only 1/4 long, as shown here.

Spotted lanternfly early stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)

In July through September the black is overlaid with big blotches of red making it look like a red bug with black and white accents, photo at top.

In July you can find both forms on the same plant.

If you see this bug, say something. Report it online here or call 1-888-422-3359.

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

Not a Tick, I’m a Weevil

Yellow-poplar weevil outside my window, 25 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 June 2021

It’s turning out to be a big year in Pittsburgh for a small black bug with a long snout. Perhaps you’ve seen one on your window or lawn furniture. Perhaps one has landed on you. Don’t worry. It’s not a tick. It’s a yellow-poplar weevil.

Yellow-poplar weevils (Odontopus calceatus) are vegetarians that feed on the leaves of tuliptrees (i.e. yellow-poplars), sassafras and cucumber magnolias.  The adults make small holes in the leaves. The larvae mine the midrib. They are harmless to humans and not even that bad for trees.

While these weevils do harm foliage they shouldn’t affect the overall health and longevity of established trees. They are often more of a nuisance than a serious problem and generally only create aesthetic harm.

Wikipedia: Yellow-poplar weevil

Yellow-poplar weevils usually hang out on plants and are kept in check by predators but in a “big year” there are so many adults that we notice them in late June and early July during their mating flight.

Billbug on black locust, Schenley Park, 8 June 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow-poplar weevil on black locust, Schenley Park, 8 June 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

One landed on me yesterday but I wasn’t worried. It’s not a tick. Ticks don’t fly and they have eight legs (like spiders) not six. More clues are described in this vintage article: Invasion of the Billbugs.

Yellow poplar weevil is not a tick (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow poplar weevil is not a tick (photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE, 28 June: The weevils can fly at night. At 4am I briefly opened a window without a screen and later found a couple of weevils nearby indoors.

UPDATE, 1 July: Today the weevils were flying and landing everywhere at Heinz Chapel steps.

TICK WARNING: 2021 is also a big year for black-legged ticks in the Pittsburgh area, the ticks that transmit Lyme disease.

Lyme disease has been an epidemic here since 2018 but many people don’t realize the dangers. Sometimes a Lyme test comes back negative so the symptoms of fatigue, aches, persistent fever and a body rash are mistreated for weeks until Lyme is finally diagnosed.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Spray your clothes and right after you spend time outdoors be sure to check yourself for ticks especially in your hair, behind your ears, etc. Here’s a very tiny tick Bob Mulvihill found on 18 June. They’re out there!

(photos by Kate St. John, embedded Facebook photo by Robert Mulvihill)

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.

UPDATE on 24 JUNE 2021: As I passed by the bee tree today I could see that most of the hive was still in place. The bees are very deep inside the hollow so the tree is still down.

Bee tree still has bees as of 24 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE on 1 JULY 2021: The end of the bee tree. It is gone except for a very tall stump.

Bee tree is gone, Schenley Park, 1 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(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, Bugwood.org)

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, Bugwood.org)
Spotted lanternfly late stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)

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)