This beautiful video shows green dragontail butterflies (Lamproptera meges) in motion.
Native to South and Southeast Asia, they were filmed in Thailand.
(video by unnokazuo on YouTube)
One thing leads to another:
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.
The plant: Cajanas cajan plants are grown for their peas (inside the bean pods) and as the host of a beneficial insect, Kerria lacca.
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.
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.
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.
And back to food: When mixed with edible alcohol, food grade shellac makes the shiny coating on jelly beans and other candies.
One thing leads to another, from parakeets to jelly beans.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
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.
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.
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.
So Leave The Leaves alone. Clear them from the storm drains, sidewalk and driveway, but not off your garden!
(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)
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.
Since witch hazel blooms when few insects are out how are the flowers pollinated?
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)
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!
Last weekend was a busy time for praying mantises, hanging out in Schenley Park.
(photo by Steve Tirone)
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)
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.
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)
A very large bug is hidden on this white snakeroot stem in Schenley Park.
These facts from Wikipedia describe my guess at the species:
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
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:
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
In autumn I often see round vertical spider webs without a spider in them. Perhaps they’re the webs of marbled orb weavers.
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.
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)