(Lep = Lepidopteran = butterfly or moth. Come on, you knew that, right?)
There is hope for spring yet! In the past week we’ve had more and more migratory birds – sapsuckers, sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers – arriving back on campus, and yesterday afternoon I was out in the woods in just a t-shirt, though admittedly at the time I was slogging through a couple feet of slushy snow in my snowshoes. At this time of year, insects that normally might not catch my eye become cause for celebration. Case in point? This tiny, drab moth.
These little critters, each one about a centimeter long, were fluttering over the surface of the snow in the bog. I haven’t had much luck identifying them – there are many, many species of tiny drab moth, and I posted photos on BugGuide and Twitter but people suggested, like, three different possible families – but finding any moth at all feels like cause for celebration after this endless winter. Hooray!
Shall we take bets on what my first butterfly of the year will be? Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Spring Azure?
Okay, there is really nothing in this photo to give you much of a sense of scale, but this is the Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis), also known as the smallest butterfly in North America, with a wingspan of about half an inch. They seem to be pretty common around here (“here” being the Phoenix area), but since they’re so small it would be easy to overlook them.
The Western Pygmy-Blue is really a great example of why it pays to take a second look at things that are small and inconspicuous. Yes, it’s tiny – but look at the beautiful detailed patterns on its wings. What a lovely creature!
Today I finally made it out on the ski trails. (I’ve reached a point where if I have a relatively flat, groomed trail to ski on and I don’t have to go too fast, I can manage to avoid embarrassing myself too badly.) We got about four fresh inches of now last night and the woods were beautiful. It was also a lot warmer than it was last week, with an air temperature right around the freezing point.
While I was huffing and puffing along I spotted several wingless Chionea snow flies of the same type that I wrote about at length last winter, walking over the surface of the snow.
When I was almost back, though, a different insect caught my eye – another tiny fly in the snow, but with one crucial difference from the Chionea ones.
This one has wings! After doing a little digging, I think this critter is from a different branch of crane flies, family Trichoceridae. I couldn’t find a lot of information about them beyond the fact that they’re a type of crane fly that’s active in cold weather, but I’m still amazed by how many small insects and other arthropods are actually active in the middle of winter here if you keep your eyes open for them.
Did you think that the onset of winter meant you were finally safe from my butterfly obsession? Well, you were wrong! Here in Arizona, where I’m visiting for the holiday, butterflies are still on the wing, and I checked two more species off my list yesterday at the Desert Botanical Garden. Both are fairly common, but since I have yet to do much butterflying out West, they’re new to me. As usual, it was amusing to be chasing after the tiny grayish butterflies most people didn’t even notice while other folks were admiring the big Queens and Cloudless Sulphurs. One woman stopped to ask what I on earth I was photographing!
Reakirt’s Blue – its host plant is mesquites, of which there are many at the botanical garden (and everywhere here, really).
Marine Blue – I like its stripy pattern. This one has a tear in its hindwing, making it almost look like it has an extra dot.
Happy Thanksgiving tomorrow!
This is a meadowhawk – probably, according to the helpful folks at BugGuide, a Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, although all the dragonflies in this genus look the same to my eyes. (Apparently this one has “long pterostigma,” which is a word I had to look up. It’s that colored cell at the front of each wing.) These are everywhere along the edges of the lakes right now, and some of them are hard at work making more meadowhawks.
We’re supposed to get three inches of snow tonight. One of the advantages of keeping a blog is that I know exactly when the first significant snow was last year, because I posted photos of it – it was November 9. Much earlier this year!
Howdy! I’ll be resuming regular posting next week, but the final guest post comes to you from Chris “Dragonfly Woman” Goforth. Having led plenty of stream and pond programs for kids, I know just enough about aquatic insects to know how much I DON’T know about them. Chris, on the other hand, is an expert. Check it out.
North Carolina is a great place to live if you love nature! I am an aquatic entomologist, so I particularly love the variety of aquatic habitats in the state. I work at a field station run by a natural history museum, so I am lucky: a 5 minute walk brings me to a beautiful clear stream or one of two ponds. It’s great!
My favorite aquatic insects are the water scorpions, and they are abundant in the pond near my office:
Water scorpions in the genus Rantra are long, skinny insects with a lot of great features. They’re called water scorpions due to the long tail that extends from the tip of the abdomen. That tail is a respiratory siphon and the water scorpions stick them up out of the water to breathe, using it like a snorkel. Water scorpions are predators and use their strong front legs, called raptorial forelegs, to grab small insects, fish, and tadpoles as they swim by:
Once they’ve captured something, the water scorpion injects chemicals into the prey with its pointy mouthpart to paralyze and dissolve its prey before sucking up the resulting juices through the same mouthpart like a straw. Water scorpions are important predators in the habitats in which they live and help maintain the balance of species in ponds and streams.
Water scorpions are only one of thousands of fascinating aquatic insects! I encourage you all to take a look in your local pond or stream to see what you can find. You won’t be disappointed!
Chris Goforth fell in love with aquatic insects and teaching when she taught her first aquatic entomology lab and tries to combine the two whenever possible. Her research focuses on behaviors of the giant water bugs and dragonflies, but she enjoys working with any insect that lives in water. She is a recent transplant to North Carolina and works at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences connecting the public with scientific research as the manager of citizen science. You can read more about aquatic insects at her blog, The Dragonfly Woman.
A rock, unflipped:
A rock, flipped:
A tiny ant (nests of these, about 2mm long, were the only living things I found under my rocks):
A crappy photo of the beaver that kept slapping its tail until I left:
I get bonus points for the beaver, right?
The full report on 2012 participants can be found here. Be sure to check out my previous years of rock flips – in 2010 I found crabs and brittle stars among the rip rap on a beach in Georgia, and last year I found a blue-spotted salamander here in Wisconsin.
I’m sure you’ve all seen acorns with small holes in them, often right under the cap, like on this one. What causes that? To the best of my knowledge it’s actually an insect called acorn weevil, an insect in the genus Curculio. The female lays her egg in an immature acorn. The larva develops inside the acorn, and then when the nut ripens and falls it bores its way out to live in the soil until it’s ready to mature into an adult. If you want to see what the weevil actually looks like, it’s actually the subject of possibly one of the greatest insect photos of all time. For more information, the Michigan Entomological Society has a great page on acorn insects.
And now, because I’m talking about a species of Curculio, I’m sorry but I cannot resist posting the weevil joke from the naval movie Master and Commander. Again.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Do you see those two weevils, doctor?
Dr. Stephen Maturin: I do.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Which would you choose?
Dr. Stephen Maturin: Neither; there is not a scrap a difference between them. They are the same species of Curculio.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: If you had to choose. If you were forced to make a choice. If there was no other response…
Dr. Stephen Maturin: Well then, if you are going to push me… I would choose the right hand weevil. It has significant advantage in both length and breadth.
[the captain thumps his fist in the table]
Capt. Jack Aubrey: There, I have you! You’re completely dished! Do you not know that in the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils!
Over the weekend a friend and I checked out a stand of trees that burned back in May. It wasn’t a natural forest, rather a plantation of red pines, but forest fires aren’t nearly as common here around the Great Lakes as they are out west and it was interesting to see up-close what woods look like in the aftermath of a fire. Because this particular fire only burned for a few hours, the trees are still standing, but they are mostly dead and dying with blackened trunks.
In some spots a lush carpet of grass and ferns had sprung up, probably in response to the burst of nutrients the fire released.
Wood-boring beetles are slowly working on demolishing the standing dead trees, and we could literally see and hear the process. Sawdust slowly drifted through the air around us and settled at the bases of the trunks.
Most amazing of all, we could literally hear the sound of the beetles chewing and gnawing all around us. Listen!
At the edge of the stand of pines a fire break was created to keep the blaze contained, and the contrast between burned on one side and not-burned on the other was sharp.
Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning!
In a couple weeks I have to give an interpretive talk as part of one of my graduate classes. For my topic I’ve selected cool adaptations of butterflies, and I’ve been working on making big butterflies out of cardboard and colored paper to use as props.
Now that you’ve admired my arts and crafts abilities (I sketched out the outlines of those babies freehand!), I have a two-part quiz for you.
- What two species of butterfly are these?
- Why might I have chosen these particular species for a talk on cool butterfly adaptations?
All of this information has been discussed in posts on this blog within the last six months. Answers will be revealed Monday!