Sunday, August 30, 2015


"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." Henry Miller
Click on the photos to enlarge. 
There is a well camouflaged praying mantis nymph inside that circle. They rely on camouflage to hunt, sitting unseen until their insect prey come within striking range -- and then seizing them. It's pretty darned good camouflage. I wonder how many of these we pass without seeing them.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Laughing Gull Season is Almost Over

I keep noticing laughing gulls, Leucophaeus atricilla, around New York and thinking about how they will soon be gone for the year. Laughing gulls that breed in the northeast fly south for winter to the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and to Central and South America.  I bet they are beginning to feel the pull. 

We are lucky to have laughing gulls at all; northeastern populations were nearly eliminated in the 19th century by plume hunters.           Click on the photos to enlarge. 
Breeding adult laughing gulls are easy to identify by their black hoods and bright red bills. And they sound like they are laughing when they call from beach or sky in loud descending notes, haa-haa-haa-haa; it's a sound that defines summer on the east coast. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dog Day Cicadas

This empty cicada skin caught my eye. Click on the photos to enlarge. 
A few feet away on the same fence, I found this fresh looking  cicada.  It probably shed that skin a short time ago. It is one of the group of cicadas called dog day or annual cicadas that appear from June to late summer. This one is Neotibicen tibicen, called the morning cicada because the males sing early in the day. 
It is about 2 inches long. Notice the three ocelli or eyespots on its forehead, between the 2 large compound eyes. The famous periodical cicadas, the ones that emerge in 13 or 17 year cycles,  are smaller and have red eyes and emerge earlier in the year.
Here is a periodical cicada from the 2013 emergence, for comparison. Click here to read my eye-witness account of that event. 
Some annual cicadas appear  every year. But the life cycles of individuals take from 2 to 5 years, beginning as eggs laid in slits on tree branches. A nymph hatches, falls to the ground, and burrows down. It lives underground, sucking juices from plant roots, and grows. Eventually it reaches its last nymphal stage and claws its way upward to make an exit tunnel. It climbs onto something and sheds its skin, and emerges as an adult.

The males settle down and sings to attract females to mate. Different species of cicadas sing different songs and at different times of day or night. They sing with an organ called a timbal which is made of ribbed membranes that change shape with a click when pulled on by muscles. The clicks are magnified by various hollow chambers in the insect.

The dog days of summer were named by the ancients for the appearance of the dog star in the sky near dawn in July and August. We are in the dog days now; it's hot and humid, and the nights are loud with the songs of dog day cicadas.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A walk in New Jersey

I took a nice long walk in New Jersey today. I was about an hour's drive from New York City in Hopewell. It looked like this... 
I saw this huge caterpillar, fat, and about 4 inches long. It's a Pandorus Sphinx moth caterpillar, Eumorpha pandorus.  It's one of the caterpillars commonly called a hornworm, because in its younger stages it sports a horn on its rear end (which is on the left in this photo).  Click to enlarge. 
The spot where the horn grows becomes a button on later-stage caterpillars like this one. It's that eye-like black spot-in-a-circle.  One of its foods is Virginia creeper; there was lots of it around. 
And lots of Queen Anne's lace. 
And lots of butterflies. The one on the left in this picture, is a female clouded sulphur. On the right, in flight and blurry, is an orange sulphur male. These two species sometimes hybridize so they may have been up to something. 
And this young fellow peeked out from the trees. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Four-toothed Mason Wasp

The solitary wasp, Monobia quadridens, commonly called the four-toothed mason wasp, it's black and white and about an inch long. Click to enlarge. 
This lovely wasp can be found drinking nectar at flowers throughout the eastern United States right now. It is a good wasp to have around the garden because the females round up leaf-rolling caterpillars -- the kinds that eat your plants -- to provision their nests. When it is time to reproduce, the female wasp builds a small nest, often in a wood bore made previously be a carpenter bee. She paralyzes caterpillars with a sting and flies them to the nest, stuffs one or a few into the deep end of the hole, and lays an egg there. Then she seals up that cell with mud and repeats the process, but famously leaves empty cells between occupied ones, possibly to fool invaders into thinking the nest is empty. The eggs hatch into wasp larvae that feed on the caterpillars.

August is a great month to look for interesting wasps and bees. All you need is a sunny day, flowers, patience, and luck. If you take a camera you might capture a great moment.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Bubbling Bee

A while ago I wrote a blog about the fly pictured above. I'd caught it in the unlikely act of blowing a bubble. Click on it to enlarge. (Click here to read that blog.) Although no one knows why flies blow bubbles, theories range from concentrating liquid food by evaporation, to aerating to reduce some kinds of microbial activity, to fly sickness, cleaning the mouthparts, cooling off by evaporation, and more. I thought I had been pretty lucky to take that photograph at just the right moment. Once in a lifetime, right? 
So imagine my surprise when I enlarged this photo, which I had taken casually and only because I didn't recognize the insect. It turned out to be an invasive species of bee called a punctate masked bee, Hylaeus punctatus. The species has only recently been introduced to the United States. AND IT IS BLOWING A BUBBLE! I normally wouldn't use a picture this blurry in a blog, but a bee blowing a bubble trumps that for blog worthiness. And now, like a strict elementary school teacher with a classroom full of unruly gum-chewing kids, I'll be checking every insect I see for secret bubbles. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Red Milkweed Beetle

The red milkweed beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus
The red milkweed beetle is another nice summer insect. It's a longhorned beetle, in the family Cerambycidae. Check out its extreme antennae.

The red milkweed beetle's genus and species names are derived from Latin and mean four-eyed. Many species in the longhorned beetle family have antennae that originate close to the eyes, some so close that the eyes look indented. In the red milkweed beetle each compound eye is completely separated into two by the placement of the antennae and violà -- four eyes!

Click to enlarge and check out the antenna with an eye on each side. 
Red milkweed beetles are among the few things that can eat the toxin-containing plants of the milkweed genus, Asclepias. They are able to store the toxins and end up unpalatable to potential predators, which they advertise with their showy colors.
Red milkweed beetles are not the only red and black insects you can find on milkweeds. I've written about two others: large and small milkweed bugs. The red X on its back identifies this small milkweed bug, Lygaeus kalmii

The ones with a broad black band across the back are called large milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus. You can read a blog I wrote previously about these bugs by clicking here.  And another blog about both kinds by clicking here. 

Combined with monarch butterflies, that are also milkweed specialists in the caterpillar stage, red milkweed beetles and large and small milkweed bugs make for exciting times in the milkweed patch for insect enthusiasts.