Yesterday I found this Isabella Tiger moth caterpillar in Schenley Park. Does she have a prediction for the coming winter?
Legend has it that wide brown stripes on woolly bear caterpillars predict a mild winter; narrow brown stripes mean a harsh one.
In the 1950’s the former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History surveyed a very small sample of woolly bears and found that the caterpillars had an 80% accuracy rate. However, no one’s been able to replicate Dr. C. H. Curran’s findings. Instead a whole host of factors influence the stripes including species, diet and age. Especially age. The older instars are browner.
And frankly, this caterpillar doesn’t care how harsh the winter. It can survive to -90 degrees F, hibernating as a caterpillar (not in a cocoon!) curled up in a ball under a rock or bark. It freezes completely except for the innermost portions of its cells which are protected by naturally produced glycerol. In the spring the caterpillar thaws and resumes eating before making a cocoon and becoming a moth.
Theoretically this particular caterpillar is saying “mild winter” but we know it ain’t so.
Isabella scoffs at winter.
Read more here about the woolly bear legend and amazing winter feats.
The color of indigo buntings and mountain bluebirds, this butterfly is pretending to be something else.
Its name is “Red Spotted Purple” (Limenitis arthemis) — no mention of blue! — and its color mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail. I suppose the orangish red spots on its underside gave it its name.
This one was mud-puddling with other butterflies at Jennings Prairie last weekend, but I ignored them because they weren’t this color.
Last July I took this photo of a butterfly at the Montour Trail near Pittsburgh but even after searching BugGuide.net I could not identify it.
I got close. I guessed it was a crescent, maybe a “northern crescent” but forgot to look up the species’ range. Uh oh! Range is important when identifying birds and even more important with butterflies. Northern crescents are unlikely in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Field marks are important, too, but I didn’t have all of them. My photo shows the upper side but the underside of a butterfly often holds the deciding field mark.
Puzzled, I emailed my butterfly friends Chuck Tague and Monica Miller.
Chuck told me that pearl and northern crescents look a lot alike but the location indicates this is a pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), not a northern. Monica added that “My understanding is you really can only reliably tell them apart upon dissection and the northerns would only be found in places north of us like Buzzard Swamp.”
July is the time when bees have wars. I knew nothing about this until Facebook-friend Chad Steele described a war at his hive on July 21.
Chad wrote, “During a walk yesterday there was a huge cloud of bees all around and over the hive. At first I thought they were swarming. But looking closer, it appeared that there was another swarm trying to get into the hive, especially where I just put on the new boxes.I got even closer and saw bees fighting each other to the death.”
I asked my bee-keeping friend, Joan Guerin, to tell me more. She explained that in July there’s a dearth of nectar because spring flowers have finished and late summer flowers have not ramped up. Hungry bees go scouting for nectar and when they find a colony with weak defenses they try to get in. Successful scouts go back home and recruit more invaders. The war is on!
Chad found this out first-hand. Wearing his bee-keeping gear, “I got into the fray again, inside the older boxes, and pulled out a frame to get some idea what was occurring… And I was surprised to see hundreds of bees uncapping the honey cells, and drinking it!! Occasionally there was one being attacked by another bee… The cloud of bees was huge and after putting the frame back I concluded that this was a takeover.”
The drama began silently a few months before. Chad figured out that the queen had died in late May or June and no queen succeeded her. With no new eggs and bees being born in the colony the worker population dwindled. By July Chad’s hive was a much smaller group, unable to defend their colony.
Ultimately, the invaders stole the honey and the old hives’ workers completely died out. Chad has left two boxes in place in hopes that a honeybee swarm, looking for a new home, will come in and start a new colony. “That is how we got this one, so it could happen again. Especially since there is obviously a strong hive somewhere nearby …Time will tell.”
Watch the video above to see bees attack a few invaders at a hive in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Who knew that honeybees fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat? I learn something new every day.
If you’re afraid of snakes, please pretend this is a big “S” or close your eyes while you read.
I’m inspired to write about eastern hognose snakes today because summer is prime time for reptiles in Pennsylvania and a remark made in the PA-Herps Facebook group has stuck with me since last winter: “The only way to get bitten by a hognose snake is to smell like its prey.”
The eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is native from Minnesota to southern New Hampshire, from Florida to eastern Texas. It is more than two feet long and comes in so many colors and patterns that it defies an easy description.
I imagine that during summer’s heat I might see a hognose snake but the chance is slim. I don’t look for snakes because I can’t identify most of them and some are poisonous. My caution prevents discovery.
When threatened, the neck is flattened and the head is raised off the ground, not unlike a cobra. [Cobra!!] They also hiss and will strike, but they do not attempt to bite. The result can be likened to a high speed head-butt. If this threat display does not work to deter a would-be predator, a hognose snake will often roll onto its back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk from its cloaca and let its tongue hang out of its mouth.
If I managed to get close to a calm hognose I’d see why he has this name — an upturned nose like a hog.
But I’m not eager to get so close. If I scared him, the “cobra act” would frighten me. The “high speed head-butt” would give me a heart attack. Both the snake and I would be lolling on the ground with our tongues hanging out.
S is for Sometimes Scary.
(photo of an eastern hognose snake from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. I have vertically flipped the original image to make an S. Click on the image to see the original at Wikimedia)
p.s. Despite the tone of this article, I am not afraid of snakes.