Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Jul 25 2013

Great Golden Digger

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Great golden digger wasp on spreading dogbane (photo by Kate St. John)

I always look for birds when I’m outdoors but they just aren’t as conspicuous as the bugs are in July.

Last weekend on the Montour Trail I found a large black-and-orange wasp feeding on spreading dogbane.  It attracted my attention because it was huge and had bright orange legs and abdomen.

My search at identified it as a great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus).

The name is apt.  They are huge, golden (their foreheads are gold!), and they dig a hole to create their nests.

Great golden diggers are solitary.  To make a nest a female digs a vertical hole with lateral chambers.  For each egg laid, she captures and paralyzes a katydid or grasshopper, then drags it into one of the chambers, lays an egg on it and seals the chamber.  The larva feasts on the paralyzed insect and emerges as a wasp.  Read more of this amazing story here.

I tried to get a good photo showing her orange body.  Below she flaps her wings to perch on an unstable flower.

Great golden digger wasp (photo by Kate St. John)


Was I afraid she’d sting me?  No.  She was too busy feeding.

Later I learned I had nothing to fear.  Though intimidating, this species is not aggressive.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Check the video link at “Art from Hershey, PA”s comment below to see what the digger’s nest looks like from above.

6 responses so far

Jul 23 2013

These Are Not Pine Cones

Bagworm moth caterpillars on cedar tree (photo by Stephen Tirone)

When Steve Tirone learned the identity of these pine cone look-alikes he had his work cut out for him.

Early this month he sent me this photo (below) and asked:  “Any idea what this is? I had a few on my house last year. They are near my cedar tree.”

Bagworm moth caterpillar (photo by Steve Tirone)

I emailed Monica Miller who replied: bagworm moth caterpillar.

Bagworms adorn themselves with disguising vegetation that eventually becomes their pupating bag.  Until then they chow down on their favorite foods.

Steve looked closely at his cedar tree and discovered it was covered in caterpillars that were eating it alive.  No wonder it looked sick!  He also learned that pesticides don’t work on these bag-covered bugs.  The only way save his tree was to pull off each one by hand, as in…

[I picked them off] for 2 hours today, along with chopping out large parts of the tree.  Ugly work, ugly results, and there are still tons left. Every time I go by the tree I say “How did I miss that one, and that one?”  Easy, because they look just like pine cones!

If any remain on the tree, what will happen next?

Monica did not specify the bagworm species — there are over 1,000 of them worldwide — but I’ll tell you the story of the evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis (Haworth)) because it’s a particular pest of cedars (Thuja occidentalis also called arborvitae).

From May to August the caterpillars eat and mature through seven instars.  In August the mature caterpillars prepare to pupate by hanging their bags from host plants by a strong silken thread.  Then they turn around inside the bag to face downward.

Four weeks later, in September and early October, the males emerge.  They’re about an inch long and are easy to overlook because they’re small and black, about an inch long.  They eat nothing.

Bagworm moth (photo by Mark Dreiling, Retired,

The females never emerge.  They’re wingless, legless and have no functioning mouth parts.  They’re just a bag of eggs and pheromones waiting for a male to land on their bag and mate with them.

As soon as the females have mated they shut off their pheromones and lay 500-1,000 eggs inside the pupal sack inside the bag.  They live a couple of weeks, crawl out of the bag to die or become mummified inside.  The males are long gone, having died within a day or two of their emergence.

Over the winter the bag hangs on the tree with 500 to 1,000 potential caterpillars waiting to hatch next spring.

If you pull these bags off your cedars before April you’ll save your trees a lot trouble.

moth_bagworms_in_cedar_1860096_rsz_bugwoodTwo bagworm moths overwintering on a cedar (photo by Lacy L. Hyche, Auburn Univ,

For more information see this fact sheet from Penn State.


(first two photos by Stephen Tirone.  Moth photo (5462023) by Lacy L. Hyche, Auburn University via  Bags photo (UGA1860096) by Mark Dreiling via

4 responses so far

Jul 22 2013

Unexpected Consequences

Black rat snake looking for birds' nests (photo by Jarek Tuszinski via Wikimedia Commons)

The headline read: Snakes devour more mosquito-eating birds as climate change heats forests.

Oh no!

In a recently published study, University of Missouri biologist John Faaborg analyzed 20 years of nesting data in the Missouri Ozarks forest and found a direct correlation between hotter nesting seasons and nest failure.

The reason?  Snakes.

Twenty years ago the Ozark forest was cold enough that bird-eating snakes were less active and hungry but hotter years have changed that.  Among others, acadian flycatchers and indigo buntings have borne the brunt of the snakes’ new-found activity.

Faaborg’s finding is bolstered by a University of Illinois study published last January that predicts increased nighttime snake activity as an outcome of climate change.

University of Illinois researcher Patrick Weatherhead and his students studied black rat snakes in Texas, Illinois and Ontario as a proxy for hot, moderate, and cool climates.   They fitted the snakes with tiny temperature-sensitive radio transmitters which enabled them to know the snakes’ location and the ambient temperature.  Temperature is important because snakes are cold-blooded.  The researchers also placed cameras on hundreds of birds’ nests so they’d know exactly what happened and when.

The results were frightening for birds.  In Texas the days are too hot for black rat snakes so they’re mostly active at night.  Unfortunately this is very bad for nesting birds because they can’t see the snakes coming.  Not only do the snakes eat the eggs and nestlings but they often eat the female parent because she’s caught on the nest unawares.

In Ontario the nights are too cold for snakes so they’re only active during the day.  When snakes approached nests in daylight, the adults left the nests and raised alarms which attracted hawks to come eat the snakes.  Nesting birds had a better chance for success in this cooler climate.

Illinois’ moderate climate showed that black rat snakes are adaptable.  When nighttime temperatures were warm enough the snakes came out to hunt.

So climate change won’t just be hotter, stormier weather.   Its unexpected consequences are not fun at all:  More snake activity and fewer mosquito-eating birds.

Oh no!

(photo of a black rat snake from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 17 2013

Metallic Green On…

Metallic green bee on Spotted knapweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Close looks reveal new wonders.

Until recently I had no idea that metallic green bees existed.  Then I saw one on a chicory flower in Schenley Park and that started the ball rolling.

Soon I found another one, this time on spotted knapweed on the Montour Run bike trail.  She’s a beautiful green color with huge yellow pollen sacks on her legs.  (I don’t know the sex of this bug; just guessing.)

My searches on the web indicate she’s one of 11 species of Agapostemon sweat bees, bugs of the western hemisphere.  If I had known what to look for I could have used this guide at Discover Life to identify her species.

Though sweat bees are sometimes attracted to sweat, the bees I found were only interested in flowers, especially blue and violet flowers like spotted knapweed.

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) has a pretty flower but it’s an invasive species that’s consumed 7 million acres of North America.  It gains a foothold in disturbed soil, then spreads through high seed production, toxins in its roots that inhibit other plants, and an unpalatable taste that prevents deer and other animals from eating it (alas!).

It’s identified by its distinctive thistle-like flower head with black-fringed bracts.

Spotted Knapweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Spotted knapweed is blooming everywhere right now.

Look closely and you might find a native metallic green bee taking a sip.


p.s. Check the comments for a link to a cool close-up by Mike Vosburg!

(photos by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Jul 11 2013

Attack of the Aphid Lions

Since I wrote about red aphids I’ve been back to Schenley Park looking for their predators.

I knew I might find aphid lions (lacewing larvae) but I didn’t notice them on the plants until I saw this amazing video.  That’s because aphid lions wear disguises!

Watch the video and see why they’re incognito.

So much goes on in the tiny world of insects that we never notice.

(video from the Terra Explorer Project on YouTube)

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Jul 07 2013

Seeing Red

Red aphids on sunflower bud (photo by Kate St. John)

As soon as the woodland sunflowers started to bloom in Schenley Park their stems became coated with tiny red bugs. Last weekend I took the camera to the Upper Trail to see what the red was all about.

It didn’t take long to figure out these are red aphids.  Nose down, probiscus inserted, they sucked the sunflower juices.  They only ate from the Helianthus species, never from other plants nearby.

Among the hundreds of aphids I found a few with wings, the dispersal generation that can fly to new hosts.  In the photo above there’s a winged adult hiding behind the flower bud.

Most fascinating was their wide range of sizes.  From incredibly tiny to full grown adults there were many generations on one plant.  I saw no larvae, just fully formed bugs, because of their incredible reproductive strategy.

In the summer all aphids are female!  They reproduce asexually and give birth to live young.  In the photo above, the large aphid is the mother, the tiny ones daughters.  Some species of aphids can telescope generations.  Like Russian nesting dolls, the mother aphid has a daughter inside her who is pregnant with a daughter inside her.  No wonder there are so many of them!

In fall aphids switch to a different reproduction method.  The females give birth to males, mate with them, and lay eggs that overwinter and hatch as females.

Since they’re so small aphids are vulnerable to wind, rain and predators.  I blew on an infested stem and watched them crowd to the leeward side.  You can zap them off your garden plants by spraying them with a hose.  Or you can hire some ladybugs or lacewings to do the job.  (Lacewing larvae are nicknamed “aphid lions.”)

With such a bumper crop of aphids I’m on the lookout now for their predators. In this bug-eat-bug world that’s what will happen next.

(photo by Kate St. John)

5 responses so far

Jun 30 2013

The Value of Species

turtle_woodturtle_rsz2_wikiWood Turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend two pieces of a puzzle came together for me.  I saw an endangered turtle and I read a thoughtful book, The Value of Species, that describes how our values shape his plight.

The wood turtle is approaching extinction because of bulldozers and collectors — habitat loss and the pet trade.  He’s one of many species in this human-induced predicament.  In fact so many species are declining now that scientists say we’re heading into a great extinction, perhaps on the scale of the K/T event that killed the dinosaurs.

Our actions cause decline and extinction yet we continue to do them.  We’ve saved some species like the peregrine falcon with spectacular results but our overall track record is poor.  New problems arise faster than we can stop them.  Why?

In The Value of Species, Edward L. McCord explains that our values get in the way.

  • Human population growth is crowding out other species but we avoid thinking about our role in this problem.
  • We gladly protect an individual animal from harm but find it hard to protect an entire species.
  • We understand the monetary value of species but not their intrinsic value.
  • It’s hard for us to connect the need to save habitat (land) in order to save species.
  • Protections on land owned by the state for the common good can be trumped at the state level.  (The book discusses mineral leases on national land in Mongolia.  Marcellus leases in Pennsylvania’s State Forests is an example close to home.)
  • The common good erodes easily when people don’t trust that others will obey the rules.  When a society lacks trust species are vulnerable.

Chapter Three, The Fate of Life on Earth Hinges on Property Values, is especially apt this week.  On June 25 the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District made it harder for the common good of living things to compete with property values.

The short time span of property ownership is microscopic when weighed against species who’ve been on earth for two million years and could disappear in a matter of decades.  “Still, many people are inclined to give individuals the right to reduce the living heritage of the earth for all future generations no matter how briefly they own a piece of property — even if only for a week.”(1)

McCord describes a new and deeper way to see the intrinsic value of all species. When we do, we can change the trajectory of extinction by “drawing a line in the sand, something we do all the time to protect important values.”(2)

What will be the fate of the wood turtle?  The Florida grasshopper sparrow?  The red-breasted goose?

Ed McCord’s The Value of Species shows us the way to a brighter mutual future.


(photo of a wood turtle from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Quotes from The Value of Species (1)page 51, (2)page xvii
Edward McCord is the Director of Programming and Special Projects at the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College

2 responses so far

Jun 27 2013

Foam on Plants? Spittlebugs

Spittle bugs in Schenley Park, 15 Jun 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Have you seen these foamy spots on plants?  I found some last week in Schenley Park.

These are the hiding places of nymphal froghoppers, also called spittlebugs, tiny insects who suck the juice out of plants and excrete it as sticky foam to protect themselves from temperature extremes, dessication and predators.

With over 3,000 species of spittlebugs worldwide you’re likely to have some nearby.  They’re very small and hard to photograph but Rod Innes of British Columbia was able to video them and show what they’re doing much better than I could.  See below.

What a strange way for a bug to live.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 24 2013

Perhaps The Only One I’ll Ever See

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Wood turtle in the wild, 23 June 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

It was hot on Sunday when I decided to hike in Butler County and I wanted to travel light.  I debated taking the camera because I can only photograph close, stationary objects (plants) and it would be a burden but I carried it anyway.  I’m glad I did.

It was a big day for turtles.  I drove down a dirt road and twice had to swerve around large snapping turtles.  (Have you ever noticed they have tails like stegosauruses?)

During my hike I found this 8-inch turtle eating a leaf.  I didn’t know what it was so I took its picture and emailed Chuck Tague.  His answer:  Wood Turtle.  Good find.

A wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is a very good find.  It’s native from Pennsylvania to Nova Scotia and west to Wisconsin but it’s endangered due to habitat loss (suburban development, agriculture, logging) and collecting for the illegal pet trade.  Wood turtles are omnivorous on land and water, have homing instincts and can live 40 years.  In good habitat they live in colonies where they develop social hierarchies.  Sadly they are scarcer every year.

Since I don’t search for turtles and this species is declining rapidly, it’s likely this is the only wood turtle I’ll ever see.

I’m glad I took his picture.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 23 2013

Widow Skimmer

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Widow skimmer dragonfly (photo by Charlie Hickey)

When I first saw this cool photo of a dragonfly I thought, “I know the name of that bug.”   No.  I did not.

I confess I don’t pay much attention to insects unless they’re big and beautiful.  Dragonflies fall into that category but I don’t know many names.  The strikingly white tail on mature male Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) caught my attention years ago.  They have black and clear wings so I made a connection but…

This is a Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), a different genus but in the same family (Libellulidae).  If I’d paid attention I would have noticed that the Widow Skimmer’s wing pattern is black-white-clear while the male Whitetail’s is clear-black-clear.   Click here for a look at the Whitetail.

Dragonfly season is upon us.  Now I have something new to study in July.


(photo by Charlie Hickey)

p.s. Charlie tamed the wind to get this exceptionally sharp photo.  Click on the image to read how he did it.

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