Saturday, June 27, 2015

Milkweed beetle--possibly the cutest bug ever?

In our backyard we have milkweed bugs and milkweed beetles that live on our milkweed plants. Milkweed bugs are cool (click here for photos from a previous post), but Milkweed beetles are cute...and I'm talking puppy dog cute! Look at those long, droopy antenna and the sad, half-mast eyes. If they don't melt your heart, nothing will...

A Red Milkweed Beetle hides in common milkweed buds in our backyard.
Milkweed beetles are in the longhorn beetle family, which accounts for those long droopy "puppy-dog ears." And the half-mast eyes? They are an adaptation where the socket of the antenna actually bisects the compound eye, creating an upper and lower eye. The bug is often called a four-eyed beetle, and both the genus and species of its scientific name (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) means four eyes.

Old four-eyes! If you look above the antenna, you'll see a black spot that is actually the top half of the eye.
...and if all of that doesn't get you, they sing, literally, but it's more like a soft squeak. The first time I heard it was in June of 2011 at Shawnee State Park. Jenny Richards, who is the naturalist there, picked one up for Matty and me and let us listen. Amazing! The little beetle definitely made soft squeaky sounds. I didn't hear the fellow in my backyard singing. He was tucked in the flower and hiding out, so I didn't bother him.

This is the milkweed beetle Jenny picked up and got singing for Matty and me. I took this photo back in June 2011 at Shawnee State Park in the butterfly garden just outside the nature center.
...but just so we don't think this fellow is a little ball of fluff, look at those mouth parts. Milkweed beetles chew through leaves at the tip, cutting the veins "upstream" so not as much of the gluey, white latex gets on them. If the beetle does get latex on its mouthparts, it rubs its face against the leaf right away to remove the gooey mess, otherwise, the latex will glue its mouth shut. Yikes!

Although cute, the milkweed beetle has a nice set of chompers!
In early summer, females lay eggs at the base of the plant's stem, sometimes inserting them in the stem, or even on nearby grass. When the larvae (grubs) hatch out, they crawl down to find the roots, either by burrowing through the soil or through the outer layer of the stem. They live in the soil and feed on the roots through fall and then overwinter in the roots. They pupate in spring in little chambers they dig in the soil. It takes about a month for them to emerge as adults.

The milkweed beetles you see on your plant in early summer lived in the roots of the plant as grubs during the winter.
Milkweed plants are toxic, and since the beetles eat the leaves, buds and flowers, they are toxic as well, which makes them taste bad, so predators leave the very bright and noticeable insects alone (just like the monarch butterfly who also eats the leaves as a caterpillar). No need for camouflage for these critters. The bright orange and red color is a warning to predators to shy away.

...see you later, "Fido!"

For more information on the Red Milkweed Beetle, click here for an article by the Bug Lady at the University of Wisconsin.

For a quick look at insects that live on milkweeds, click here for a post by Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants.

Friday, June 19, 2015

There's magic in the swamp...

This Northern Parula charmed a group of adoring fans along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh during the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding. I was there with two of my birdy friends Kim Smith (Nature is my Therapy) and Janet Kissick Hug (Nature's Feather Music). We were actually looking for an elusive Blackpoll Warbler singing low in a swampy tangle when this spunky little fella flew in and perched right next to us...

A Northern Parula along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh
I think we were all dumb-founded for a moment as the brave little bird studied us. I've never been so close to a Northern Parula. They usually laugh at me from the treetops where they're safely out of camera range, but this birdy bird was different. He seemed to be curious and sat watching us photograph him...

A Northern Parula studies a flock of adoring fans...

...this Northern Parula took his time looking back and forth at a steadily growing group of people marveling at his beautiful colors and proximity.  What can you say? It's the Biggest Week and there's magic in the swamp.

...eventually he tired of us, turned the other way, and flew off to nab an insect.

The Biggest Week = A Giant Love-fest of Birdy Birds and Birdy People
...which is why I love going to the Biggest Week. I see incredible close-up views of birds I don't see very often, and I get to do it surrounded by people who love birds as much as I do. There is something special about waking up and heading out to the boardwalk where you are among hundreds of people who all love birds. It's great. Wherever you turn, you meet a person willing to help you ID a bird, or point one out...or a person just as excited as you to talk about their finds and what they saw further up or down the boardwalk (in other words, you get no blank looks or glassy-eyed stares when you start talking about birds, their nests, migration, ________, etc.). If you're going, let me know. I'll find you on the boardwalk!

Mark your calendars...the dates for the 2016 Biggest Week are set:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Blue eyes winking along the Little Miami River...

...but they're not mine, my eyes are green! These eyes are the tiny flowers of Blue-eyed Grass, a delicate flower in the iris family. The unassuming blossoms of Blue-eyed Grass often go unnoticed where it hides in wet prairies and sunny forest edges. "Sweet" best describes these soft blue blooms that nod on elegant long stems whenever a breeze catches them..

Blue-eyed Grass is a native perennial that hides along the Little Miami River on both sides of the bike trail. 

Even though Blue-eyed Grass is a member of the iris family, it's easy to understand why its common name marks it as grass. The leaves and stems are flat with parallel veining, just like blades of grass.

Although it has grass in its name, and its flat stems and leaves look like blades of grass, Blue-eyed Grass is actually a member of the iris family. 
What makes an iris an iris?
The parts on an iris always come in groups of three, so it's misleading when you first look at this flower. It appears to have six petals, but really it has three petals and three sepals that look just like the petals. (Usually sepals are green. They encase the flower when it's a bud. When petals and sepals look alike, they are called tepals. So our little flower has six tepals.) It also has three stamens, but with Blue-eyed Grass the yellow stamens in the center of the flower are close together and appear as one. (Botany in a Day, p 201, by Thomas J. Expel).

The delicate flower of Blue-eyed Grass nods in the gentle breezes of late spring.

Blue-eyed Grass closes up as the day progresses. I photographed these flowers in the early afternoon, and they were still going strong. In another couple of hours, the blooms would have closed.

Blue-eyed Grass

I love the poem "Blue-eyed Grass," by Mary Austin. It appears in her book, The Road to the Spring (collected poems), but a notation in the book said the poem was also published in St. Nicholas (a children's magazine) in the June 1904 issue, and it was slightly different. I found a bound collection of the 1904 issues of the magazine on Amazon and ordered it so I could see the differences. I always liked the poem in The Road to Spring, but after reading the version in St. Nicholas, I might like it more. You can decided which version you like better:

Blue-Eyed Grass                                              Blue-Eyed Grass 

BLUE-EYED grass in the meadow                           BLUE-EYED grass in the meadow
    And yarrow-blooms on the hill,                                 And yarrow-blooms on the hill,
Cattails that rustle and whisper,                                 Cattails that rustle and whisper,
    And winds that are never still;                                   And winds that are never still;

Blue-eyed grass in the meadow,                                Blue-eyed grass in the meadow,
    A linnet's nest near by,                                               And the laden bee's low hum,
Blackbirds caroling clearly                                        Milkweed that runs to be first in the field
    Somewhere between earth and sky;                          Before the butterflies come;

Blue-eyed grass in the meadow,                                Watersnakes making lacy rings
    And the laden bee's low hum,                                   Round a cardinal-flower's red spear,
Milkweeds all by the roadside,                                 And blue-eyed grass in the meadow
    To tell us summer is come.                                       To mark the noon of the year!

                          by Mary Austin                                                        by Mary Austin

St. Nicholas, June 1904, pg 703                                The Road to the Spring: Collected Poems
(A children's magazine)                                              of Mary Austin, pg 209

Friday, June 5, 2015

The art of spitting...

The other afternoon while walking along the Little Miami River, I saw plant after plant covered in frothy bubbles of spit. From a distance, the globs looked pretty gross, but up close, they just looked pretty...

the spittlebug manufactures bubbles to create its own home using the sap of the plant.
Bubble art is created by a tiny nymph called a spittlebug. The glob of soapy froth functions as the nymph's home while it matures. The froth keeps it hidden from predators and prevents it from drying out in the sun as the nymph feeds on the plant.

A spittlebug is the nymph stage of a tiny insect called a froghopper. Female froghoppers lay eggs in late summer on plants. The eggs are impervious to cold and frost, so they last through the winter. In the Spring, the eggs hatch out, and the nymphs attach themselves and start eating and creating bubbles from the plant's sap. These bubbles provide protection and moisture, and the nymph will hide and live in the glob until it's an adult. Predators can't see the nymph in the foam, and because it has a bad taste, predators tend to leave it alone. The foam also insulates the nymphs from the drastic temperature changes associated with spring, and the moisture keeps them from drying out in the hot sun as summer comes along.

"Welcome to my foam home," said the spittlebug. Common names for the frothy, spit-like mass are frog spit, snake spit, and cuckoo spit. The foamy bubbles are a little sticky and don't break up easily. They are not like "real" spit.

For a more detailed account of spittlebugs, click here for an article written by Roy Lukes titled "The Insect Whose Babies Live in a Bubble."

What is a nymph?
A nymph is the juvenile stage of an insect that undergoes simple metamorphosis. Eggs hatch into nymphs, which resemble adults but have no wings.

Differences between complete and simple metamorphosis...
Butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis. We are all familiar with the lifecycle of a butterfly, which goes from an egg, to a caterpillar (larva), which spins a cocoon (pupa), to an adult butterfly. In complete metamorphosis, the adult looks completely different from the larva.

Spittlebugs undergo simple metamorphosis. Their lifecycle goes from an egg to a nymph, to an adult. In simple metamorphosis, the adult looks similar to the nymph.

What is an instar?
Both nymphs and larvae go through instars. Nymphs and larvae eat and eat until they burst out of their exoskeletons and molt into slightly larger versions of themselves. The stages between molts are called instars. Nymphs (simple metamorphosis) molt into adults from their last instar, but larvae (complete metamorphosis) pupate in a cocoon after their last instar before emerging as completely different adults. Spittlebugs usually go through about five instars before becoming adults (can vary with species)

For an illustration that shows examples of instars in complete and simple metamorphosis, click here.
For an earlier post I did that shows several instars of Large Milkweed Bugs, click here.

How does the nymph manufacture the bubbles?
I didn't know how the nymph created the spit, but a quick look in my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, pg 94 (by Kenn Kaufman and Eric Eaton) clued me in. The nymphs use liquid waste products from the sap they have been feeding on mixed with mucous they secrete. They have tiny fingerlike projections near their hind end at the tip of their abdomen that they use to pull in air that mixes with the liquid to create the bubbles.

For a cool video of nymphs walking in and out of the foam, click here.
For a video of a nymph creating bubbles, click here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Build a pond for the birds...

Matty and I built a little pond with a waterfall last year, but it didn't get a lot of bird action, so I dismantled it this spring and changed it, adding a small 10-gallon retention pool between a tub waterfall and a 50-gallon tub pond. I stacked the retention pool with with rocks, which made it feel like a rocky stream, and the birds already love it. All it took was mimicking nature and thinking like a bird...

A juvenile American Robin studies the water in the rocky "stream bed."

The rocks allow for several depths, from above the water to three or four inches below the water. The water flows from the big waterfall tub on the left, to a small waterfall that flows into the pond on the right. 

We didn't have a lot of room for the pond, so we opted for a 50-gallon tub instead of a liner. In a couple of years I'm going to put a larger pond in the yard where I have more room. We will use a liner and create a small beach for it, which the birds will love, but until then, the 10-gallon bird friendly "stream bed" works great!

It doesn't take a lot of room to add a pond with a waterfall and a little stream. The birds love it, and it sounds great too. (The tall plants are volunteer milkweed plants. The first popped up three or four years ago, and each year a few more join the stand.)

A juvenile robin still holds on to some of its baby down. Soon those little fuzzies will be gone.

He only studied the water for a short while before drinking from the stream.