Category Archives: Insects

Tiny Blue Lights In The Woods

14 November 2023

On my way to somewhere else I found … tiny blue lights in the woods. I have never seen them in person but these photos from Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area in the Chattahoochee National Forest are intriguing. Bioluminescent mushrooms glow green, fireflies glow yellow-green, but these are blue.

Each light is one of two ends of a fungal gnat larvae (Orfelia fultoni). This photo by Alan Cressler, embedded from Flickr, shows what the larva looks like during the day.

Orfelia fultoni, Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area, Chattahoochee National Forest, White County, Georgia 5
Orfelia fultoni, Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area, Chattahoochee National Forest, White County, Georgia 5 (photo embedded from Alan Cressler on Flickr)

Alan Cressler describes them:

Orfelia fultoni, Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area, Chattahoochee National Forest, White County, Georgia:

This is the only bioluminescent fungus gnat larvae in North America. Both whitish ends of the larvae emit a blue light used to lure prey. Although they may be common in proper habits, apparently there are very few places in the southeast where they form extensive colonies. One place is Dismal Canyon in Alabama where they are locally called “dismalites”. I was invited by my friends who work for the Chattahoochee National Forest to view and photograph the extensive colony at Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area. Locally the event is called “fox fire” and there are scheduled night hikes to witness the amazing colony. Other than the guided night hikes, after hours entry into the area is prohibited.

Fungus gnat larvae live within a slime tube and develop a network of sticky filaments that capture prey that are attracted by the blue glow. The sticky filaments can be seen in the photos.

Orfelia fultoni, Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area description, Alan Cresler on Flickr

In the photographs above, the lights don’t look connected but you can see how they move in this video in New Zealand. The bluish glow worms in New Zealand are not the same species but they have a similar appearance and behavior.

video embedded from PBS Deep Look

Back in Georgia the foxfire glows mid-May through June when the gnat’s larval form is alive. Night hikes are offered during those months but pre-registration is required and the hikes fill up fast. Don’t wait until May 2024 to check this website for Foxfire Night Hikes at Anna Ruby Falls:

(Originals and credits of the slideshow photos can be seen by clicking on each photo)

A Wasp, An Oak, and Indelible Ink

Screenshot from Making Manuscripts: Oak Gall Ink (source video below from the British Library on YouTube)

12 November 2023

Nowadays it’s rare to write anything by hand unless it’s the size of a Post-It note. When we really want to say something we use keyboards and touch screens to generate digital text read on screens or, less often, on paper. Our writing equipment becomes obsolete so rapidly that our computers and cellphones are replaced within a decade. (Who among us is still using the same cellphone since 2013? Do we even remember what model it was?)

So consider this: Humans used the same writing tool, the same indelible ink, from the 5th to the 19th century. When applied to parchment, it is readable 1,700 years later. The ink is easy to make by hand from natural ingredients and is still used in calligraphy today. To make iron gall ink, the process starts with a wasp and an oak.

When a cynipid wasp lays an egg in a developing oak leaf bud, the hatched larva secretes a substance that makes the oak surround it with a gall. The wasp (Andricus kollari) and the oak marble gall below are from Europe but similar wasps and oak galls occur in North America(*).

The outer shell of the gall is rich in tannins whose presence protects the wasp from predation.

Oak marble gall on white oak forced by Andricus kollari (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When crushed and soaked in water the galls’ tannins give color to the ink.

Oak marble galls on the twig, forced by Andricus kollari (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Two more ingredients transform the ink for final use: Iron sulfate dissolved in water makes the ink black.

Iron sulfate crystals (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gum arabic dissolved in water makes the ink sticky enough to hold onto parchment or paper.

Gum arabic in lumps and powder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This video from the British Library shows how iron gall ink is made.

(video embedded from the British Library on YouTube)

Eventually we used paper instead of parchment, even for important documents, and iron gall ink fell out of favor because the acid in iron sulfate makes the paper disintegrate. To solve that problem we invented paper-friendly inks and then computers.

Iron gall ink has oxidized the cellulose, causing the paper to disintegrate (from Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval manuscript creation used natural products from animals, plants and minerals. See the process from parchment to ink to binding in this 6-minute video from the Getty Museum.

video embedded from the Getty Museum on YouTube

Read more at Making Ink From Oak Galls: Some History & Science.

(*) p.s. The amount of tannin varies by type of gall and the tree species the gall came from. Galls with the most tannin work best.

(credits are in the captions)

Trying To Get Indoors

Asian lady beetle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 October 2023

Pittsburgh’s spotted lanternfly plague (Lycorma delicatula) is mostly over after recent cold weather knocked out lots of adults. It’s not a bad year for brown marmorated stink bugs, so are the insect plagues over? Not quite. Yesterday I happened into a swarm of Asian ladybeetles.

Asian lady beetles congregate to overwinter in a crack, October 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Asian ladybeetles (Harmonia axyridis) were imported to the U.S. 35 years ago as predators for aphids, adelgids, psyllids and scales. They do a good job and they caused no trouble until they were able to overwinter starting in 1993.

Ladybeetles overwinter as adults that gather in the fall with the goal of “The More The Merrier.” Attracted to sunlight and warmth reflecting off south or southwest-facing light-colored buildings, a few accumulate and attract others by sight and smell. Pretty soon the area is crazy-busy with ladybeetles as in the photo above.

The bugs are looking for cracks in which to spend the winter. If a crack leads to a warm place indoors, that’s even better.

Asian lady beetles preparing to overwinter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Once inside, the warmth can keep them active.

It is not uncommon for tens of thousands of beetles to congregate in attics, ceilings and wall voids, and due to the warmth of the walls, will move around inside these voids and exit into the living areas of the home.

In addition to beetles biting (which they do), they exude a foul-smelling, yellow defensive chemical which will sometimes cause spotting on walls and other surfaces. Most people are only annoyed by the odor of these chemicals. However, some individuals have reported experiencing an allergic reaction to the defensive excretions.

Penn State Extension: Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (Ladybug)

Penn State Extension has helpful advice on how to vacuum them (avoid getting them up into the machine!) at Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (Ladybug).

The good news is: Have you seen a spotted lanternfly lately? Probably not! Winter is a great pest control system.

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

A Closer Look at Sleeping Bumblebees

Two bumblebees sleeping on goldenrod, Duck Hollow, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 September 2023

Last week at Duck Hollow I found two bumblebees asleep on goldenrod. The temperature was a little chilly but the morning was bright and sunny. Were the bees waiting to warm up in the sun?

Bumblebee sleeping on goldenrod, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eight weeks ago I highlighted the reason why male bees sleep on flowers in July and August. Males don’t live in a hive so they sleep outdoors. They are solitary, searching for a mate, and nearing the end of their lives.

Female bumblebees return to the hive at night if they can. In the hot months of July and August females are indoors at night. However bad weather or chilly temperatures may force them to sleep outdoors until they warm up the next morning.

So I wondered are these sleeping bumblebees male or female? I can tell with a closer look at the bees.

Female bumblebees bring food to the hive so they have pollen sacks on their hind legs. If you see a full pollen sack on a bee’s hind leg you can be sure it’s female, as shown on the right in the photo below.

Male and female bumblebees (photo by Kate St. John)

A bee without pollen, like the one on the left, is either a female who delivered her pollen and has just come back for more, or it’s a male without a pollen sack.

I can see two obvious differences between male and female in these photos.

HindlegsHairySmooth convex-shaped structure for holding pollen. (This one contains pollen!)
Stinger at back end (pink arrow)No stingerHas a stinger

There are even more clues than this! Read all the details at How to tell if a Bumblebee is male or female.

And finally, were these two near the end of their lives?

Yes, both will die this autumn. Only fertilized queens make it through winter. Every hive starts with a lone queen in the spring.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Hey, Bees!

Large carpenter bee sips from a passionflower, Phipps, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 September 2023

Last Wednesday I watched an enormous carpenter bee sipping from passionflowers at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden.

The passionflower’s nectar treat is directly below its overhanging anthers and stigmas. On Wednesday the anthers were in position to touch the hairy spot on the bee’s back. The stigmas were too high to touch the bee.

The pollination parts of a passionflower. An anther touches a bee, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Later, the anthers and stigmas will trade positions. The anthers will pull back. The stigmas that collect pollen for the ovary will touch the bee.

This photo embedded from University of Florida, IFAS: The Passion Fruit in Florida shows how it works.

photo embedded from Univ of Florida IFAS Extension: Xylocopa virginica (eastern carpenter bee) with pollen on passion flower (P. incarnata). Credit: Mark Bailey, UF/IFAS

Passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata) have many lures to attract the large insects that pollinate them.

“Hey, bees! ” say the passionflowers, “Come here!”

Read more about passionflowers and their fruit at Univ. of Florida IFAS: The Passion Fruit in Florida

(photo credits in the captions)

Proof! Lanternflies Don’t Hurt PA Trees; Sticky Tape is Pointless, Bad

Sticky tape put on trees by an unknown Frick Park visitor, 19 Sept 2023 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

20 September 2023

Six years ago, when spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) were a new plague in North America, no one knew if they would destroy Pennsylvania’s forests but scientists assumed the worst and warned accordingly. However, they also conducted long term studies of spotted lanternflies’ effect on Pennsylvania trees and agriculture. For PA trees there is happy news: Spotted lanternflies are not a danger to Pennsylvania forests. There’s no need to protect our trees from lanternflies because they are not hurting them.

Penn State subjected four species of trees to four years of spotted lanternfly super-infestation by surrounding the trees with mesh nets that kept hordes of lanternflies inside. Silver maple, weeping willow, and river birch were barely phased by the bugs and did quite well in the third year of the study. The bugs’ host plant, the invasive tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), did not grow during the plague.

A Penn State study had four types of trees in enclosures with spotted lanternflies inside to see how growth would be affected. credit: Kelli Hoover/WPSU (photo embedded from WPSU)

The study’s lead author, Kelli Hoover, concluded:

“If you have a vineyard and you have lanternflies on your grape vines, you should be very worried because they can kill grape vines,” Hoover said. “But if you’re a homeowner and you have large trees on your property and you have lanternflies on them, I don’t think you should worry about it.”

WPSU: Spotted lanternflies not a danger to forests, according to Penn State study

When scientists learn new information, even if it contradicts an earlier statement, they change their advice to match the reality.

Six years ago they thought the trees were in trouble and needed protection. Now they’ve proven that spotted lanternflies don’t hurt our trees.

Six years ago they suggested sticky tape to protect trees but quickly learned it’s a terrible idea because it kills beneficial insects and birds and immediately changed their advice: Do NOT use Sticky Tape; use Circle Traps instead.

Yesterday an unknown visitor to Frick Park put sticky tape on some trees. Here’s what one section killed: 12 spotted lanternflies, 25+ pollinators (yellowjackets), 70 warbler-food insects (tiny flying insects). More beneficial insects died than lanternflies. Needless to say the tape has already been removed. (Click here to see how sticky tape kills birds!)

Sticky tape deaths in Frick Park, 19 Sep 2023 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Sticky tape is bad and pointless. If you put it up, remove it.

Sticky tape on a red oak (photo by Kate St. John)

Learn more about the spotted lanternfly tree study at WPSU: Spotted lanternflies not a danger to forests, according to Penn State study

p.s. Are you still worried because you saw one or two bugs on a tree? Not a problem. In September spotted lanternflies climb any vertical object whether or not they intend to eat it: trees, utility poles, buildings. Here they are on the guy wire of a utility pole. Yes, they are creepy but they are not eating the utility pole.

video embedded from ViralHog on YouTube

(photos by Michelle Kienholz, Kate St. John and embedded from WPSU website)

Honeydew Falls Like Rain

Sooty and white mold grow on honeydew deposited by spotted lanternflies feeding on Ailanthus, Schenley Park, 15 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 September 2023

The onslaught of invasive spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) continues in Pittsburgh until the first truly cold weather gives us a couple of frosts. This month the bugs are congregating on vertical objects, feeding on Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and laying eggs.

On Friday in Schenley Park the sun broke sideways through the trees to a large Ailanthus along the Lower Trail coated in lanternflies, sooty mold, and white mold (highlighted in yellow). The lanternflies were actively sucking on the tree’s sap.

White mold on Ailanthus beneath the spotted lanternfly feeding zone, Schenley Park, 15 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sunlight illuminated small bugs flying horizontally near the tree and something falling that looked like rain.

Spotted lanternfly honeydew drops like rain, Schenley Park, 15 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Uh oh! That rain is watery spotted lanternfly poop called “honeydew.” The honeydew is sugary and the air actually smelled sweet.

So stand back when you see a tree coated in sooty mold and spotted lanternflies. You won’t want to get rained on.

Here’s more about sooty mold.

p.s. Don’t worry about honeydew dropping from buildings and utility poles. The lanternflies aren’t eating there so they aren’t pooping either.

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

Spotted Lanternflies Love Height and Heat

Dead spotted lanternfly at the base of a utility pole, 13 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

13 September 2023

They aren’t very smart but they know what they like: warmth and vertical objects.

If you haven’t been to Downtown or Oakland lately you’re missing an insect phenomenon. Our plague of spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) is quite attracted to tall buildings and utility poles, especially when it’s hot.

Spotted lanternflies love this utility pole when the sun heats it (photo by Kate St. John)

Like moths to a flame, spotted lanternflies are visually drawn toward and seemingly captivated by vertical objects such as utility poles …

[They] turn and land on the poles when they are less than about 10 feet away. They remain on the pole for many minutes, even hours, while crawling up toward the top to try to take flight again.

However, a large proportion of those launching themselves from the pole are drawn back to the pole, which serves as a sort of “visual magnet” from which the insects cannot escape for a while. 

Science Daily: Lanternfly’s attraction to vertical silhouettes could help monitor, trap it, April 2021

On hot days I see thousands above me, puttering toward the buildings, tapping along the structures as they try to find a place to land.

This building is especially attractive to spotted lanternflies, Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The bugs cling and fall off, leaving drifts of lanternfly carcasses on the ground below.

Spotted lanternflies litter the base of the Rand Building, 11 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

There’s a theory that the bugs like vertical objects because they are such weak fliers that they have to climb up and relaunch on their search for their host tree, the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). According to Penn State Extension, they “land on buildings for warmth, height and other unknown reasons.” Other unknown reasons: Who can know the mind of a lanternfly?

Fortunately we can learn from Philadelphia where their spotted lanternfly plague hit in 2020 (during the pandemic). Here’s what happened at a taco shop on the ground floor of a high rise.

video from NBC10, Philadelphia, Sept 2020


Note that Philadelphia had their lanternfly plague in 2020 and now, three years later, they are wondering where all the bugs have gone. I’m sure we can expect 2-3 summers of this nonsense. Certainly by 2026 spotted lanternflies will just be a bad memory in Pittsburgh.

(credits are in the captions)

Dragonflies Are Migrating

  • Common green darner, Virginia (photo from Wikimedia)

10 September 2023

On the evening of Friday 8 September, Marianne Atkinson noticed hundreds of dragonflies patrolling a field near her house in Dubois, PA. Other folks as much as 20 miles away were commenting on the same thing and posting videos online. What were these bugs up to? Marianne sent me her video …

video by Marianne Atkinson

… and this Facebook post from the McKean County Conservation District explaining the phenomenon. Dragonflies are migrating.

The green darner is the most common migratory dragonfly in Pennsylvania but is only one of 16 migratory species in North America. The five main migrants are pictured in the slideshow at top and listed below from Donna L Long’s website.

Green darners have a multi-generational migration. The individuals we see flying south right now will not return but will be the grandparents of those who journey north next spring.

Recent research has indicated that the annual life cycle of green darner (Anax junius) is likely composed of at least three different generations. The first generation emerges in the southern end of its range in early spring and migrates northwards through spring and summer. The second generation emerges in the northern end of its range in summer and migrates southwards in fall. The third generation occurs in the south during the winter and does not migrate. 

Wikipedia: Green Darner

When dragonflies migrate during the day in Pennsylvania they follow the same flight paths and fly on the same prime migration days as the hawks. I often see dragonflies at hawk watches where I’m glad they’re eating mosquitos and flying ants on the wing.

Green darners seem to go far but for real long distance the global skimmer wins the prize, migrating from India to Africa across the Indian Ocean! It also occurs in North America.

(video from RoundGlass Sustain on YouTube)

p.s. There are 7,000 species of dragonflies on Earth. Only 25-50 species migrate, making this a very unusual feat.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video by Marianne Atkinson and an embed from Youtube)

Seen This Week

Turtleheads blooming in Schenley Park, 3 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 September 2023

Seen this week:

Turtleheads and late boneset flowers at Schenley Park. Do you see the honeybee?

Honeybee flies to late boneset, Schenley Park, 4 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

A rainbow with crows over Oakland.

Rainbow over Shadyside on 7 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Fiery sunset on 7 September.

Fiery sunset on 7 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Six deer in Schenley Park — only 5 made it into the photo.

Five of six does in Schenley Park along the Bridle Trail, 4 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

But there’s a photo of deer I wish I’d been able to take: Friday morning 8 September along 5th Ave between the Cathedral of Learning and Clapp Hall I saw 3 deer — 2 does and 1 fawn — standing on the pavement at Clapp Hall. They were close to the curb of 5th Ave at Tennyson as they tried to figure out how to cross 5th Ave during rush hour.

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Right now there are 2 flamingos in PA in Franklin County east of Chambersburg.