Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Aug 31 2015

Bees Can’t See Red

Honey bee at camas (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Honey bee at camas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When I wrote about hummingbirds and orange jewelweed last week, some of you wondered if the birds sipped at pale (yellow) jewelweed, too.  While finding the answer I learned a cool fact:  Bees can’t see red.

Hummingbirds are attracted to shades of red so they see the spots on orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) as a delicious target and rely on this plant during fall migration.

Over time the spur on Impatiens capensis has evolved to maximize pollination by hummingbirds with a tight cone-shaped entrance that guides the birds’ bills.

Spotted jewelweed, Impatiens capensis (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Orange jewelweed, Impatiens capensis (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Hummingbirds don’t care about yellow so they don’t choose the other jewelweed — the “pale” one — but bees do.

Bees see yellow, purple, blue, and a color called bee’s purple, a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet which we humans can’t see.  Bees can’t see red so they aren’t much attracted to orange jewelweed.

However, pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) is designed for bees.  Not only is it yellow but its expandable entrance accommodates both large and small bees, brushing their bodies as they walk in.

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, with a bee inside (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Though the two jewelweeds grow near each other, they send different signals.  Red is for birds.  Yellow is for bees.


(Honey bee photo from Wikimedia Commons. Orange and pale jewelweed photos by Flora Pittsburghensis.  Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s. On the subject of bees (in general) here’s a recent article from The Allegheny Front about breeding stronger honey bees:  Building a Better Honeybee

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Aug 26 2015

Bees Can Monitor Air Pollution

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Honeybee at a flower (photo in the public domain vai Wikimedia Commons)

Honeybee at a flower (photo in the public domain vai Wikimedia Commons)

We all know that pollen sticks to bees but did you know that air pollution particles stick, too?  A recent study shows that honey bees can be excellent monitors of local air quality.

Bees have so much static electricity on their bodies that airborne particles stick to their heads, wings and legs as they fly. This includes airborne pollen, salt spray from the sea, soil dust, and industrial pollution.  If you identify the particles, you can identify the pollution source and that’s important if you need to clean it up.

In the study, scientists from the Natural History Museum in London placed eleven beehives near Iglesias, Sardinia, a location known for its legacy pollution of exposed tailings piles from lead-zinc mines in the 19th century.  There are also industries five miles away at the coast: an aluminum smelter, a lead-zinc smelter, and coal-fired and oil-fired power plants.  At a site like this how can you know where the particules comes from?

Scientists captured 10 honey bees at a control site in rural Italy and 20 bees at the Sardinian site, then analyzed the particulate found on their bodies.  The control bees carried natural particles including dust from the local soil.  The Sardinian bees carried sea salt (good) as well as industrial pollution and dust from the lead-zinc mine tailings (bad).

Thanks to the honey bees, the people of Iglesias know more about their air quality.  Honey bees could monitor our quality, too.

Read more here at The Telegraph or the original paper here at PLOS ONE.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 17 2015

Like A Jewel

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Scarab Beetle (Chrysina beyeri) at Carr Canyon, Arizona, 30 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beyer’s scarab, Carr Canyon, Arizona, 30 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

While in Arizona I went on a night outing to Carr Canyon in hopes of seeing owls.  Though we merely heard owls, we saw some amazing bugs.  The scarab beetles made the trip worthwhile.

The Glorious scarab (Chrysina gloriosa) was stunning with golden stripes on a green body …

Glorious scarab (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glorious scarab (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… but my favorite was Beyer’s scarab (Chrysina beyeri) at top, a bright green beetle with violet legs.  Notice how big he is!

Their beauty helped me understand why people made jewelry with stones carved like beetles (scarab pin below), but I was wrong to assume that beauty motivated the jewelers.

Scarab pin (photo by Kate St. John)

Scarab pin (photo by Kate St. John)

The original scarab amulets were made in Ancient Egypt.  The top of the stone was carved in the shape of the Sacred scarab beetle (Scarabeaus sacer), a symbol of the sun god Ra.  The flat bottom was carved with hieroglyphs and used as an impression seal.  When mounted on a ring, the scarab was held by a swivel so the seal could be rotated up.

Scarab ring bezel, Walters Museum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarab ring bezel (#42151), Walters Art Museum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though an insect was sacred to the Egyptians, the beetle they chose is not a beautiful bug.  It symbolized the sun god because, just as the sun rolls across the sky every day, their scarab rolls balls of dung.  The Sacred scarab is a plain black dung beetle.  Click here to see.

The jewel-like beetles I saw in Arizona live only in the western hemisphere.  If the Egyptians could have seen the sunlight colors on the Glorious scarab’s legs and wings, perhaps they would have chosen him instead.


p.s. In Arizona I saw two of four Chrysina beetles that occur in the U.S.  The only Arizona Chrysina we missed was LeConte’s (Chrysina lecontei).  Yes, LeConte again.  😉

(two photos by Kate St. John, two from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the Wikimedia photos to see the originals)

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Jul 27 2015

Butterflies Taste With Their Feet

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Gulf Fritillary on passion vine (photo Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary on passion vine (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

We normally see butterflies visiting flowers but they also flit from leaf to leaf.

Adult butterflies are on a mission to reproduce.  Yes, they sip flower nectar along the way, but the males are looking for females and the females are looking for host plants on which to lay their eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae will eat the host leaves and grow into ever-larger caterpillars.

Each species has one or more hosts for their larvae.  Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves.  Red Admirals eat nettle.  Gulf Fritillaries eat passionflower vine.

Butterflies taste with their feet, so when the female is ready to lay an egg she flits from leaf to leaf landing on each one to taste it.  Standing there she asks herself, “Does this taste good?”  If so, she lays an egg.

Sometimes butterflies are fooled. To a West Virginia White butterfly (Pieris virginiensis) the invasive alien garlic mustard tastes like her host plant toothwort so she lays her eggs on garlic mustard and her hatchlings die of starvation.

Tastes can be pretty subtle, too.  Monica Miller (my go-to butterfly expert) told me that if a food plant touches a nearby leaf, that leaf might taste good enough to be mistaken by a butterfly.

Here, a female Gulf Fritillary lands on her host plant (tasting it) and a male comes to court her.

Gulf Fritillary courtship on passion vine (photo Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary courtship on passion vine (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s her goal:  She laid an egg on the passion vine.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg on passion vine leaf (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg on passion vine leaf (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)


Watch butterflies taste with their feet and you may see one lay an egg.


(photos by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons. Click on each image to see its original)

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Jul 22 2015

Mistaken For A Bug

Ruby-throated hummingbird compared to a cicada (photo by Kate St. John)

Ruby-throated hummingbird (left) compared to a cicada (right) — photo by Kate St. John

There’s a moth called the hummingbird clearwing moth that we sometimes mistake for a hummingbird, but did you know that a hummingbird can be mistaken for a bug?

On Saturday at the Cunkelman’s Neighborhood Nestwatch banding I found an annual cicada caught in one of the mist nets.  I brought it back to the banding area and Bob Mulvihill held up a hummingbird next to it for comparison.  The two are amazingly similar when held in this position.

We rarely confuse hummingbirds with bugs but Bob has seen a bug — a cicada killer — mistake a hummingbird caught in a mist net for a cicada.

Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus) are large, solitary wasps that feed on nectar as adults.  Each female digs an underground nest with chambers where she plans to lay her eggs.  Then she patrols the area looking for cicadas to collect as food for her young.  When she finds one she stings it with a venom that paralyzes it, then carries the cicada back to the nest where she places it in a chamber, lays one egg on it, and seals the chamber.  When the egg hatches the larva eats the paralyzed cicada.  (Yes, I’ll say it.  Ewwww!)

Cicada killer with subdued cicada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern cicada killer wasp with subdued cicada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Because cicada killers are solitary, they aren’t aggressive toward humans.  You have to work very hard to make one sting you and when it does the sting is reported to be as harmless as a pinprick.

Bob told us the cicada killer tried to subdue the hummingbird with a sting but the venom did not affect the bird.  Whew!


(comparison photo of hummingbird and cicada by Kate St. John, cicada killer wasp photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 18 2015

Named For LeConte

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

LeConte's Haploa moth (photo by Karyn Delaney)

LeConte’s Haploa moth (photo by Karyn Delaney)

A week ago this moth stood out at Oil Creek State Park with an impressive brown pattern on his white wings.

I sketched the moth in my notebook while Karyn Delaney took its picture (above). When I got home I found a tool to help me identify it: Discover Life’s moth ID Guide for Pennsylvania.

My search of the moth’s basic characteristics produced 62 answers (!) but I clicked through each pop-up until I reached one that was similar but not the same.  The yellow-orange head was a useful clue.

LeConte’s Haploa moth (Haploa lecontei) is known to have a variable pattern.  The photos below compare a plainer version to our own (super-magnified). has this closeup of one that looks like ours.

Haplo lecontei, two patterns (photo on leftfrom Wikimedia Commons, photo on right is magnified from one by Karyn Delaney)

Haplo lecontei, two patterns (photo on leftfrom Wikimedia Commons, photo on right is magnified from one by Karyn Delaney)

I’ve heard of LeConte’s sparrow and LeConte’s thrasher (though I’ve never seen them) and wondered if this moth was named for the same LeConte.  Indeed it is.

John Lawrence LeConte was a famous 19th century entomologist from Boston who traveled the U.S. in search of bugs.  Beetles were his specialty but he identified many other species as well.  According to Wikipedia, he “described approximately half of the insect taxa known in the United States during his lifetime.”  He was greatly admired in the scientific community.

When scientists name a new species they sometimes use a person’s name, either the name of someone they admire or someone connected to the discovery. Audubon admired LeConte and so named the sparrow, LeConte himself discovered the thrasher (someone else probably named it for him), and this moth was named for the same LeConte.

Click here to read more about beetles, LeConte and scientific names in Marcia Bonta’s Beetlemania blog.


(photo with the green leaves Virginia creeper by Karyn Delaney. Photo on brown background from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jul 08 2015

Too Many Ticks? Hire a Possum

Virginia opossum (photo by Drcyrus from Wikimedia Commons)

Pennsylvania won an award again though there’s no reason for applause.  For the third straight year we lead the nation in reported cases of Lyme disease.

One could argue that we won because Pennsylvania is a big state with a large population, but we also have too many black-legged ticks, too many tick hosts that carry Lyme disease (mice), and too many deer carrying ticks long distances to other locations.  Black-legged ticks are now present in every county in the state.

What to do?  In April I wrote about the many effective ways to reduce ticks around your house and protect yourself outdoors.  But here’s an unconventional solution.  Get yourself a ‘possum.

Like all mammals, Virginia opossums pick up ticks in their travels but the good news is that they don’t carry Lyme disease and they groom so meticulously that ticks don’t stay on them for long.  In fact, when a possum finds a tick on its body, it eats it!

Weird as they are, possums have some advantages.  They consume up to 5,000 ticks in one season and are practically immune to rabies and venomous snakes.

So as we do our best to combat Lyme disease — especially in May through July when black-legged ticks are so hard to see in their tiny nymphal stage — remember that having a possum in your yard is a good thing.

Too many ticks? Hire a ‘possum!


(photo by Drcyrus from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 03 2015

Little Eats Big … Slowly

Harvestman with mites on its legs (photo by Kate St. John)

Harvestman with mites on its legs, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

We’re used to top predators eating small prey but the world is far more complicated than Big Eats Little.  Small things can weaken a predator or bring it down.

Harvestmen (Opiliones), also called daddy long-legs, are omnivorous ‘bugs’ distantly related to spiders.  They are harmless to humans but can be dangerous to small insects.  However they can be weakened by even tinier parasites.

See those two red dots on the harvestman’s legs?  They are parasitic mites sucking the harvestmen’s “blood.” identifies them as a species of Leptus (family Erythraeidae) whose larvae parasitize North American harvestmen.

Just two mites are probably not a problem but a large infestation on the body weakens the harvestman.  If seeing bugs-on-bugs doesn’t bother you, click here for an example.

Harvestmen clean their legs by drawing them through their jaws so it’s a wonder the mites remain in place.  Obviously there’s been a long mutual evolution of cleaning and clinging that brought these two species to where they are today.

No matter how small the predator, there’s always something smaller to oppress it.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 27 2015

Red Admiral

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Red admiral butterfly in England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red admiral butterfly photographed in England (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Guess what I found sipping nectar last Sunday …

With my head so full of birds I couldn’t remember this butterfly’s name so I took a lot of bad cellphone photos (below) and looked it up when I got home.

Red admiral on bottlebrush butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

Red admiral on bottlebrush butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

This striking black butterfly is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), native to Central and North America, Europe, Northern Africa and Asia.  That’s why the beautiful photo above is from England.

The species is not winter-hardy so most of North America must be recolonized each spring by southern migrants, says   Monarchs aren’t the only butterflies who make long journeys.  Red Admirals migrate from South Texas and I’ve seen them fly north over Lake Erie to Canada.

The generation that migrates looks brown where this one is black so they don’t stand out as much.  Their underside is not as pretty either but provides camouflage (click here to see).

We don’t often see Red Admirals in flower gardens because they prefer to eat tree sap, fermenting fruit and bird droppings(!).   The females look for nettles where they lay their eggs on the tops of the leaves.  The caterpillars eat nettles to survive.

Take that, you stinging nettles!


(excellent photo of a red admiral butterfly in England by Zorba the Greek via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Poor quality photo of red admiral on bottlebrush buckeye by Kate St. John

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Jun 17 2015

Got Bugs?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Billbug as seen through a window (photo by Kate St. John)

Billbug as seen through a window (photo by Kate St. John)

They’re back!!!

Billbugs are everywhere and they’re freaking people out. Are they dangerous? Are they ticks?

No.  They’re harmless.  They don’t even bite.

Read all about them in last year’s blog post: Invasion of the Billbugs


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Ben Coulter and Monica Miller have identified this weevil as Odontopus calceatus, a.k.a. Yellow Poplar Weevil, not Curculio as I read in the paper last year.   Don’t believe everything you read in the paper!

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