Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

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.

The Better To See You With

Closeup of cicada eyes (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Did you know that cicadas have five eyes?

Dana Nesiti captured a super-closeup of this cicada and described where its eyes are.

The three orange eyes in the center of the forehead are simple (like ours) with only one lens. The big eyes on each side of the head are compound with multiple lenses.

Why do cicadas have all this equipment? 

“The better to see you with, my dear.”

p.s. What species of cicada is this?  I don’t know but it’s probably one of western Pennsylvania’s common annual cicadas. Here’s a list of four common ones with links to the sounds they make:  What’s That Sound? Cicadas

(photo by Dana Nesiti posted on his Facebook page)

Webs In The Trees

Fall webworms (photo by Ronald F. Billings, Texas A&M Forest Service ,

Have you seen big webs in the trees lately?  If you haven’t, you will soon.

These are the communal homes of fall webworm caterpillars, the larvae of the fall webworm moth (Hyphantria cunea).

Each colony hatched from an inconspicuous egg mass, then the caterpillars built a web to protect themselves from predators. As they grow they expand their web.

Because this is the end of the growing season, the webs usually don’t hurt the trees. Meanwhile the caterpillars are tasty treats for migrating songbirds.

See the handsome adult moth and learn more about the caterpillars in this 2011 article: Coming Soon To A Tree Near You

(photo by Ronald F. Billings, Texas A&M Forest Service ,

Tagging Monarchs

Male (left) and female monarch butterflies (photo by Kate St. John)

27 August 2018

Two years ago I saw very few monarch butterflies in the southwestern Pennsylvania. Last year I saw more. This year has been spectacular!

Marcy Cunkelman, of Indiana County, PA, has been raising monarch butterflies indoors for at least a decade.  On August 19, she showed us how she collects monarch eggs in her garden, raises the caterpillars, and releases the butterflies.

To prepare for the event she kept one or two days’ worth of newly emerged butterflies in this enclosure. In such a short time she had two dozen monarchs ready to go — the most I’ve ever seen at once!  (Half are out of view, hanging from the ceiling of the enclosure.)

Monarch butterflies waiting for release at Marcy Cunkelman’s, 19 Aug 2018 (*)

Before releasing the butterflies Marcy showed us the difference between males and females (at top). Males have a black dot on each hindwing. Females do not.

Monarchs migrate to Mexico for the winter so a butterfly from Marcy’s garden may show up anywhere on a 2,400 mile route.  To find out where her monarchs go Marcy applies tags, similar to bird bands, to her butterflies before she releases them.  Monarch Watch lets her know where her butterflies are found.

Since she didn’t want to run out of tags, Marcy tagged just four of the two dozen butterflies. Two are shown below.

Two monarch butterflies with tags

Each of us released a butterfly but that still left a dozen waiting to go, so Marcy collected the rest in her hands and …

A dozen monarchs waiting to go

… released them all at once.  Fly away!  (My camera captured the last one leaving at top right.)

Fly away! One is still in the photo (top right)

If you find a tagged monarch, contact to find out where it came from.  Over the years, some of Marcy’s butterflies have been found at the wintering grounds in Michoacán, Mexico.

Learn more from Marcy about raising monarch butterflies in this 2009 video: Monarchs With Marcy Cunkelman, August 2009

(photos by Kate St. John)

Oak Apple Gall

Oak apple gall, August 2018, Pittsburgh, PA (photo by Dianne Machesney)

I’ve never sliced open an oak apple gall but the North Park walkers did while Dianne Machesney took photographs.

Inside the oak apple gall, August 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

It was red and juicy inside.  Hmmm!

We don’t know which bug made this gall and the bug died in the slicing so …

Can any of you identify this gall and the insect that made it? It was found in North Park, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in mid August.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

Hickory Horned Devil

Hickory horned devil’s “face” (photo by Kate St. John)

This scary looking caterpillar is actually harmless — unless you’re a hickory leaf.  What a face! What horns! Such an enormous size!

Hickory horned devil, held by Marcy Cunkelman (photo by Kate St. John)

Last weekend Marcy Cunkelman showed us this fifth and final instar of the hickory horned devil.

In his earlier instars he was smaller and brown and hid in the trees while feasting on hickory, white walnut, sweetgum, persimmon and sumac leaves.

In this last phase he started off green and ate voraciously.  Now he’s almost ready to pupate so he’s turning turquoise and will stop eating.  Then he’ll expel his gut(!), walk down the host plant, burrow 5-6 inches into the soil, and form a chrysalis.

He’ll emerge next June as a regal (or royal walnut) moth (Citheronia regalis), the largest moth, by mass, in the U.S.

Seven years ago Marcy documented the transformation of a similar hickory horned devil.  On Throw Back Thursday, watch a slideshow of the ‘devil’ turning into a moth in this vintage article:  Metamorphosis

(photos by Kate St. John)