Summer Scenes

The night still twinkles with fireflies but the day’s heat lingers and the air has a dusty August scent, the smell of languid Summer.

~Hal Borland

We are definitely in the Dog Days of Summer, the heat and humidity making me rethink my desire to be out and about in the afternoon. But, it only takes a short walk to find beauty and mystery surviving, no, thriving, in the heat. Below are some scenes from the summer here in the woods.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx (aka Hog Sphinx), Darapsa myron (click photos to enlarge)
I captured, transported, and released this sphinx moth here in the woods after finding it at our bank in Pittsboro, lured under the walkway by the lights at night. Urban (really, any) lights are a common cause for the demise of many a moth.
A formidable-looking Wheel Bug, Arilus cristatus. This is a large member of the group of insects called Assassin Bugs, due to their predatory behavior. They grab prey (other insects) with their raptorial front legs, pierce them with that large rostrum (reddish beak under the head), inject a toxin with digestive enzymes, and then ingest the contents.
Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea.These tiny (~7mm) insects feed on the sap of leaves and can spread a bacterium that causes leaf scorch disease (Pierce’s disease) on some species of plants. They are excellent hoppers, with some believed to jump up to 40x their body length (a 6 ft human of equal ability could jump 240 feet!).
A dark morph female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus. Females of this species can be either black or yellow.
A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Note that females (see picture above) are more colorful than males, having more blue along the hind wings.
A group of Datana sp. caterpillars in their defensive posture (they exude distasteful chemicals from both ends)
Datana sp. larvae typically are gregarious through most of their life stages. I guess if one tastes bad, a whole bunch must be a better deterrent.
Another bad-tasting bunch-o’-bugs – nymphs of Large Milkweed Bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus. I photographed a mating pair of adults on this milkweed plant on July 22 and this photo was taken on August 7. This species feeds on milkweed seeds by injecting saliva into the seed using their long rostrum, which predigests the seed so they can suck the contents back up.
Female Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia. She has grown considerably since I last photographed her on July 22.
And she has acquired a suitor. This male Yellow Garden Spider is in a web right behind that of the much larger female (you can see the tips of her legs on the left side of the photo)
One of our more unusual-looking spiders, the bizarre Spined Micrathena, Micrathena gracilis. Females have a large bulbous abdomen adorned with spines. They are quite common in our woods in late summer.
Another armored spider, the Spiny Orbweaver, Gasteracantha cancriformis. Females have a rotund body that is white to yellow in color. The abdomen is surrounded by six stout spines that can be red or black. Their webs have tufts of silk along some strands, supposedly making them visible to birds which will avoid flying through them (and me, to avoid getting them on my face with all the other spider webs along our trails).

More of the Little Things in Life

If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.

~Emily Dickinson

I’ve been wandering around the yard again, camera in hand, looking for the little things that might be living alongside us. The heat of summer tends to make a lot of the big things (like me) a bit less energetic. But this is the time for the smaller life forms to excel, to achieve their life purpose, before the cold weather returns. There are a lot of familiar neighbors out there, and always something new to see as well, be it a different species, a different life stage, or some interesting behavior. All it takes is a little time and a slow meander through the greenery. Here are a few of the latest little things that make life in the woods so interesting…

Common True Katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia (iPhone photo). The raspy calls of these leaf mimics are heard from now until autumn in our treetops. Both males and females stridulate. Females (like this one) will use their sword-like ovipositer to insert eggs into the loose bark of trees where the eggs will overwinter and hatch next spring to start the cycle anew. (click photos to enlarge)
Green Cone-headed Planthopper, Acanalonia conica. I wrote about these tiny leaf mimics a few years ago in another blog post.
This relatively large green guy is always a delight to find – a Green Treefrog, Hyla cinerea. It seems we find one of these in the yard every summer, often clinging onto the stem of a Jewelweed.
A mating pair of Large Milkweed Bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus. They feed on the seeds and sap of milkweed plants in all stages of their life cycle, acquiring the toxins of the plant and making them unpalatable to most predators (hence the bright orange and black warning coloration). Females can lay up to 2000 eggs in their one month life span, so our milkweed plants will soon be covered in the bright orange nymphs.
A ghostly nymph of some sort of planthopper (perhaps after a fresh molt)
A spiky larva of the Banded Tussock Moth, Halysidota tessellaris (iPhone photo). Varying in color from yellow-orange to gray, these caterpillars feed on a variety of trees and shrubs. They are often found on the tops of leaves out in the open, indicating their potential distastefulness to many predators (due to a combination of the stiff hairs and some chemicals acquired from their host plants).
A species of Rose Chafer Beetle, Macrodactylus sp. Whenever I got close with the camera, it raised its long hind legs in what might be some sort of defensive posture.
A Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus) sitting on a green acorn cap. I’m always glad to see these around our wood-siding house as they are parasites on Carpenter Bees, which love to drill into our fascia boards. Adult Tiger Bee Flies feed on nectar and females seek out Carpenter Bee nest cavities and lay eggs in them where her young hatch and feed on the bee larvae.
False Bee-killer, Promachus bastardii (iPhone photo). This large robber fly can be seen (and heard) buzzing around the yard waiting for a chance to pounce on unsuspecting flying insects (often some type of bee) which it then sucks dry.
Underside of a female Arrow-shaped Micrathena, Micrathena sagittata, showing the prominent spines on her abdomen (males are tiny, seldom seen, and, well, spineless).
Juvenile Black-and-yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia, with a planthopper prey.
I think this is a male Bronze Jumping Spider, Eris militaris. It was crawling around on an ironweed next to our kitchen door. It allowed me to get several portrait shots as it scrutinized my big white flash diffuser moving in on it as I tried to focus on those magnificent eyes.

It’s the Small Things

Nothing is more humbling than to look with a strong magnifying glass at an insect so tiny that the naked eye sees only the barest speck and to discover that nevertheless it is sculpted and articulated and striped with the same care and imagination.

~Rudolf Arnheim

A view of the the native plant jungle that is our yard…there really is a walkway to the door, I promise (click photos to enlarge)

I’m blaming it on our month-long trip out West back in May. At least that’s what I will tell anyone that wonders why our yard is so, well, jungle-like. Over the years, I’ve kind of let plants do what they wanted to do, in violation of most standard gardening practices. There are tall Joe-Pye-Weeds in front of shorter plants, a couple of species of ferns have run amok and taken over large portions of beds, and the tree canopy has grown so much that most wildflowers are abnormally tall and leggy and therefore often fall over without adding plant supports. But, it helps keep the invasives, especially Microstegium, at bay (a little). And then there are the rabbits that like to munch on the species I truly prize (like Cardinal Flower and Rosinweed), so the garden definitely has a mind of its own in terms of species make-up and arrangement. But, it provides food and shelter for a pretty amazing array of creatures, big and small, that keep me company when I wander with my camera. The past few days, I have not had much energy for yard chores due to the heat (another reason it looks this way) but I have managed to stroll through the jungle, looking for some of our tiniest of neighbors.

On of the reasons we have so many insect and spider neighbors is the abundance of native plants like this Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a favorite of both day and night-time pollinators.

Below are some of the small things we see on our meanders through the greenery…

One of the most abundant group of insects right now are the planthoppers. I believe this is a nymph of a Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima. The waxy filaments may serve a protective function.
An adult Northern Flatid Planthopper. Most planthoppers (and other members of the Hemipiteran suborder Auchenorrhyncha) have piercing-sucking mouthparts for feeding on plant sap. They also have powerful legs for jumping, making some rather difficult to photograph.
Another common planthopper species in our yard, the Citrus Flatid Planthopper (the adult in lower right of image). The nymph above it may be a Two-striped Planthopper.
The SEEK app identifies this as a Two-striped Planthopper nymph, Acanalonia bivittata. It looks to me like some sort of armored creature from a Star Wars movie.
A very tiny insect that SEEK identifies as a Coppery Leafhopper, Jikradia olitoria. I tried to confirm these ID’s using online resources like Bug Guide and the Hoppers of North Carolina, but if anyone knows what they are for sure, please let me know.
A very persistent mating pair of Versute Sharpshooters, Graphocephala versuta.
A beautiful Broad-headed Sharpshooter, Oncometopia orbona. Sharpshooters filter huge amounts of liquid from plants through their digestive system in order to obtain nutrients. They frequently must forcibly eject the excess water in a fine stream, hence their unusual common name.
One of my favorite insects to photograph, a wandering Red-headed Bush Cricket (aka Handsome Trig) nymph, Phyllopalpus pulchellus.
A tiny nymph of one of the Lesser Meadow Katydids (Conocephalus sp) sprouts an impressive pair of antenna.
One of the bigger challenges for a macro photograph, a species of quick-on-its-feet-and-wings Long-legged Fly. These come in a variety of metallic colors and often jump out of the frame when the flash goes off and then return to the leaf. I discovered this when I kept getting blank photos but they were still on the leaf when I looked after taking the picture.
A common small moth that I frequently scare up when walking through the yard, a Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus.
These little dots of debris are very common right now. They slowly waddle along the vegetation, and cause you to do a double-take when you see that lichen or that tuft of fuzz move..
Beneath all that debris is a voracious predator of small insects, especially aphids and planthoppers, a larval form of one of the species of Green Lacewing. They have spines on their back that they attach material like lichens or the waxy remains of their victims (like planthopper nymphs) to as camouflage. Check out those mandibles on this one!
A tiny Crab Spider (perhaps a White-banded Crab Spider) awaits its next meal on the head of a Purple Coneflower
Another tiny predator is fairly abundant this week, a Spined Assassin Bug, Sinea sp. This aptly named little terror is covered with stout spines and has huge raptorial front legs it uses to grasp prey.
Once it catches an insect (in this case a hapless ant), it pierces it with its needle-like proboscis, injects a toxin and a digestive enzyme, and then sucks out the nutrients. This one also had a Freeloader Fly (tiny winged insect on the ant’s head) along to lap up any spilled juices.

Walking Small

Nature will bear the closest inspection; she inspires us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.

~Henry David Thoreau

The heat of summer is not my friend. It slows me down, saps me of energy, and makes me a little complacent I’m afraid. But, there is one saving grace – the abundance of minute life forms taking advantage of the green world that exists (in abundance I might add) outside our door. And, lucky for me, it doesn’t requite much effort to saunter around the yard, poking through the greenery, perusing the native plants, and looking for our tiny neighbors. I’ll most likely have several posts in the coming weeks that result from such forays into our yard jungle. Here are some recent discoveries…

Fall webworms leaf damage

Skeletonized leaves of a mulberry are the handiwork of Fall Webworms (click photos to enlarge)

Fall webworms on mulberry close up

The craftsmen (larvae of Fall Webworm, Hyphantria cunea) at work on a mulberry leaf

Fall Webworms are a widespread moth caterpillar easily recognized by their often large silken tents covering leaves and the branches of many species of hardwood trees in late summer and Fall. In contrast, the Eastern Tent Caterpillar makes its silken hideaways in the forks of branches (of mainly wild cherry trees around here) in the spring. Females lay clusters of several hundred eggs on a leaf and the young larvae construct silk tents and feed on the leaves underneath, moving to new branches when they skeletonize one food source. When disturbed, they do a group fling and jerk dance to attempt to drive away any predators or parasitoids.

Fall webworm close up 1

Close up of a group of Fall Webworm larvae

Northern Flatid Planthopper

An adult Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima

We often find these distinctive planthoppers along the stems of many of our native wildflowers. This is probably the most common planthopper in our yard and is easily identified by its pale green coloration and the right angle of the rear corner of the wings.

Scudder's Bush Katydid nymph

Scudder’s Bush Katydid nymph, Scudderia sp.

One of my favorite tiny neighbors is the nymph stage of Scudder’s Bush Katydid. They are both gangly and bold in their appearance, with banded antennae to top off their comical look.

Blackened milkweed beetle showing pattern on dorsal surface?

Blackened Milkweed Beetle, Tetraopes melanurus

While checking out the milkweed patch, I spotted one of the many boldly marked insects that feed on this plant. It was a beetle with the bright warning coloration typical of insects that can feed on the toxins in milkweeds. This one had large, heart-shaped dark markings on its elytra (outer wings), identifying it as a Blackened Milkweed Beetle. When I looked up the scientific name, I discovered that the genus name, Tetraopes, means four eyes. This, and other members of the group of longhorn milkweed beetles, have compound eyes that are bisected by the base of their antennae (I could not find any explanation as to the possible benefits of this unusual eye arrangement). Every time I look closely at my little neighbors, I discover something new. Give it a try in your own nature neighborhood.

beetle

Various longhorn milkweed beetles have divided compound eyes

Bugs Galore

Every kid has a bug period…I never grew out of mine.

~E.O. Wilson, naturalist and author

The theme for summer camp last week at work was The Secret Lives of Bugs. We spent five days cruising around garden properties looking for bugs and other beasts. The kids had a great time and I managed a few pics of some of our finds along the way. Here are just a few of the wonderful creatures we discovered…

Longhorned beetle

A long-horned beetle brought to us one morning by one of the staff (click photos to enlarge)

Isopod

Campers learned about all sorts of “bugs”, including ones that had more than 6 legs like this isopod

Blue dasher dragonfly

The most common dragonfly at the Garden, the blue dasher

Spicebush swallowtail larva

One of my favorite bugs, a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, still in its bird poop mimic stage

Eight-spotted forester larva

Eight-spotted forester moth larva

Oakworm moth just after emergence

One of the campers spotted this newly emerged oakworm moth (the wings are not yet pumped out to their full adult size)

Assassin bug nymph

Assassin bug nymph

honeybees from CCCG hive

One of the highlights of the week was a visit to a honeybee hive at the Carolina Campus Community Garden

honeybee with mite

A male honeybee with a varroa mite (that brown oval) on its thorax. These introduced mites are a major pest of honeybees.

bumblebee nest in box

We also learned about native bees from an NCSU entomologist. She brought a live bumblebee nest (above) and a drone box, where kids could let male bumblebees (drones) crawl on them (male bees lack stingers).

Mating Tiger Bee Flies

Mating tiger bee flies. These large flies are parasites on the nests of carpenter bees.

Signal fly - Family Platystomatidae

A signal fly earns its name from its behavior of waving its patterned wings back and forth as it walks, as though giving signals

Dragonhunter nymph

Sampling Morgan Creek yielded some nice bugs, including this unusual dragonhunter dragonfly nymph…

Dobsonfly larva

…and several of the somewhat intimidating hellgrammites (dobsonfly larvae)

Margined madtoms

We also managed some non-buggy critters, like these margined madtoms from Morgan Creek…

Spotted salamander close up

This gorgeous spotted salamander was found by another staff person as it cruised between buildings on a very rainy day

 

Summer Details

The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.

~ Natalie Angier

It has been a hectic few weeks at work with summer camp. One good thing is I am out in the Garden daily, and, anytime you are out in a place with that much diversity, there are plenty of things to see. I managed to take the camera out a few days before and after camp, and found some interesting subjects. Here are a few of the recent highlights…

Waved sphinx larva

Waved sphinx moth larva feeding on fringetree (click photos to enlarge)

Walnut sphinx pupa

The mummy-like pupa of a walnut sphinx moth (the antennae of the future moth can be seen outlined in the pupa as they curl down from the top into a point just above my finger)

Snowy Tree Cricket
Snowy tree cricket  (Oecanthus fultoni), male – this is the so-called thermometer cricket. The frequency of the chirps made by this species (made by the males as they rub their wings together) is considered a fairly reliable estimate of the air temperature. In the Eastern U.S., Fahrenheit temperature can be estimated by counting the chirps in 13 sec. and adding 40.

Yellow jackets on caterpillar

Yellow jackets dispatch a pink-striped oakworm to feed to their larvae

Rabbit running in Garden

One of the many bunnies that reside at the Garden (quite happily, I presume)

Black-spotted prominent

Gardener’s friend – a black-spotted prominent larva feeding on lespedeza

Black-spotted prominent rear end

This caterpillar practices deceit with its back end looking like a front end

Sassafras berries

The beautiful and wildlife-friendly berries of a sassafras tree

Handsome Trig 1

A handsome trig (also called a red-headed bush cricket). This one is a male. The handsome part is self-evident; the trig part refers to the family Trigonidiinae, or Winged Bush Crickets.

Handsome Trig nymph

Handsome trig nymph (wings are still developing)

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane leaf beetle, an iridescent beauty

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina

A very pointy-headed planthopper (Rhyncomitra microrhina) that we caught while sweep-netting

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina, top view

Dorsal view of same planthopper

Rear end of tulip tree silk moth cayerpillar

All is well that ends well…the rear end of a tuliptree silk moth caterpillar. Eggs were laid by a female on 5/18/17, hatched on 5/30; caterpillars had all pupated by 6/29; first adult moth of this summer’s second generation emerged on 7/20. This new generation will overwinter as pupae.