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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Summer Azure

The summer azure butterfly, Celestrina neglecta. Click to enlarge. Note the handsome black and white striped antennae. 
Summer azure butterflies are all over Brooklyn's flowers right now. The place is teeming with them. But they are small and often overlooked. Their wingspan is about an inch, so the one pictured above is just half an inch tall. They are white underneath and usually hold their wings closed over their backs. It is easy to mistake them for flower petals when they perch on blossoms. The upper surface of the wings is powdery blue.

Summer azures are in the butterfly family Lycaenidae, famously studied by Vladimir Nabokov and commonly called "blues." Although I stood for an hour with my shutter poised, these little ones were too busy to linger with their wings open so I did not get a single shot of the blue surface.

Like many other members of their butterfly family, summer azures spend their catterpillarhood in the company of helpful ants. The ants protect them by driving off hostile insects. The caterpillars in return produce a sweet substance from a nectary organ (on their backs) that the ants eat. It's rather like humans keeping cows for milk, except it's ants and caterpillars.

Adult summer azures eat flower nectar. In this photo you can see the butterfly's long proboscis probing the flower blossom. 

Here is a poem I like that has a blue butterfly in it. 

Butterfly Laughter, by Katherine Mansfield

In the middle of our porridge plates
There was a blue butterfly painted
And each morning we tried who should reach the 
butterfly first.
Then the Grandmother said: "Do not eat the poor 
That made us laugh.
Always she said it and always it started us laughing.
It seemed such a sweet little joke. 
I was certain that one fine morning 
The butterfly would fly out of our plates, 
Laughing the teeniest laugh in the world, 
And perch on the Grandmother's lap.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

It's Linden Time Again

A branch of linden covered with fragrant flowers. Click to enlarge. 
New York City smells fabulous this week. It's one of those times I pass up urban wildlife to write about a plant -- the lovely linden. Linden trees are blossoming right now. They are covered with little yellow-white flowers like tiny bells, each releasing perfume that smells like limes and honey. It smells so good that it stops me in my tracks. I've been standing under linden trees all week long, just inhaling the aroma. Mmmmmm.

Lindens are sometimes called bee trees because they are so attractive to bees (not just to me). The linden's honey is unique: it's woody and fresh and delicious. It is believed to help aid sleep and many people take it before bed. Combine that with a bath with dried linden blossoms and you are set for the night.

There are about 30 kinds of linden trees that grow across the northern hemisphere in Asia, Europe, and North America. Everywhere lindens grow they have been woven into the cultural mythology. The flowers are used medicinally and even the ancient Greeks praised them. The tree was associated with the Germanic goddess of truth and love, Freya. Some people still think one cannot tell a lie while standing in the shade of a linden. Lovers used to meet below them to swear faithfulness. I hear that a modern Wiccan might make a staff out of linden because of its powers of attraction and creation. All that and it smells fabulous.

Here is a poem by D. H. Lawrence that seems to fit a week that has been dominated by thunder storms and linden trees. The lime-tree he mentions is another name for linden. The last word is the place in Germany where the poem was written.

Trees in the Garden by D. H. Lawrence

Ah in the thunder air
how still the trees are! 

And the lime-tree, lovely and tall, every leaf silent
hardly looses even a last breath of perfume.

And the ghostly, creamy coloured little tree of leaves
white, ivory white among the rambling greens
how evanescent, variegated elder, she hesitates on the green 
as if, in another moment, she would disappear
with all her grace of foam!

And the larch that is only a column, it goes up too tall to see:
and the balsam-pines that are blue with the grey-blue blueness of 
  things from the sea,
and the young copper beech, its leaves red-rosy at the ends
how still they are together, they stand so still
in the thunder air, all strangers to one another
as the green grass glows upwards, strangers in the silent garden


Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Walk in Central Park

Last week I led a nature walk in Central Park for the American Museum of Natural History's Membership Department. Even though I got rained on twice, there was a lot to see. Here are some of the wild creatures that were in the park on Wednesday.

Turtles were basking in The Lake. Red-eared sliders are the most commonly seen.  Click to enlarge.
Scanning the waters there often turns up an eastern spiny softshell turtle like this one. 
This ladybug pupa was in the bushes near the Ladies Pavilion. An adult  Asian multi-colored ladybug will emerge. The light-colored spines at the upper left are diagnostic for the species; I hear they are the remnants of the spiky skin of the last larval stage. 
This raccoon was hanging around the Oak Bridge. 
A pair of Paria beetles was mating on a leaf. 
An ant-mimic spider lurked. 
This Isodontia wasp glittered in the fleeting sunshine. 
A green Agapostemon bee posed on a pink rose. 
And the Shakespeare Garden was full of blossoms. 

You never know what you will find when you  take a walk in the park, but... John Muir once said: "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lost Ladybug

I found a family of rare ladybugs in my neighborhood this week. Rare now, but once common. Here's one of them: the two spotted ladybug, Adalia bipunctata. Click to enlarge.
The two spot is one of three species that the Lost Ladybug Project is hoping to hear about from ladybug spotters like me -- and you. Click here to go to the Lost Ladybug Project's website to read all about it. Basically, the ranges of some native ladybugs are shrinking and the group is trying to find out why. They encourage everyone to take pictures of local ladybugs (all of them, not just rare ones) and upload the pictures to their website for analysis.

I saw my ladybugs when I stopped to look at some unusually curled leaves on a cherry tree in a postage-stamp sized yard in front of a Brooklyn Heights condo. I think the tree has a case of leaf curl disease. Then I spotted a tiny black insect on one of the damaged leaves. Looking closer I saw that it was a ladybug, but half the size of ladybugs I am used to. It was black with two red spots and red "shoulders" -- the dark form of the two spotted ladybug. I took a picture but it was windy and the insect was moving and I had to photograph with one hand, so I got this:

It's not a very good photo, but it is good enough to tell what it is. I sent it to the Lost Ladybug Project. They confirmed its identity and congratulated me. I'm proud. 

There were ladybug larvae and a few pupae (their equivalent of cocoons) on the cherry tree. I took a pupa home. I put it and the leaf it was stuck on into a container, punched holes in the lid, and waited. Four days later, this emerged:

It's a brand new two spotted ladybug, of the more common color scheme of orange with black spots. There is a family of two spots living on a cherry tree in Brooklyn Heights. Yay! 
This one is in my garden now.