Categories
Species Profile Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant

Subject: Underworld Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne) and New York Carpenter Ant Queen (Camponotus novaeboracensis).

Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.

Date: July 2017.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: Every ant colony, each civilization in the soil, has to begin with a single type of individual: an ant queen*. Queens are special individuals, easily separated from the workers by their wings (at this preliminary stage) and their relatively large size. While camping in Algonquin during the summer of 2017, my campsite was in the path of dozens of queen carpenter ants. I watched as several different individuals wandered through the pine needles and discarded their wings. I had also been separately observing a large robber fly that had taken up residence on my camping table, using the surface to survey for potential prey. At some point the robber fly descended upon one of these ant queens and I was lucky enough to spot the unfortunate queen and its fortunate hunter.

*nature never lets me get away with generalizations… I would have liked to say, for the drama, that every colony begins with a single individual, but that isn’t true at all. There are many species of ants that create new colonies with multiple queens as a rule, and many times groups of workers accompany the queen (or queens). One of the most famous of these species is the Southern Fire Ant Solenopsis invicta, but dependent colony founding (that is, colonies that begin with a queen dependent on workers as opposed to independent colony founding) is widespread in ants. As in all things in the natural world, the picture becomes increasingly complicated, the more we know (Peeters and Molet 2010).

The Story Behind the Species:

Part 1: New York Carpenter Ant (Camponotus novaeboracensis):

The ant queens that I saw that day had emerged from a colony in what is termed a mating swarm. Multiple colonies in the area, triggered by the weather conditions must have swarmed at the same time, winged ants filling the air and meeting to mate. The males of these ants die soon after mating, but the queens will live for several years if they can establish a colony. The vast majority of ant queens will also die during this mating flight. Holldobler and Wilson (1990) describe this well: “It follows that the brief interval between leaving the home nest and settling into a newly constructed nest is a period of intense natural selection among queens, a dangerous odyssey that must be precisely timed and executed to succeed.” After mating, the ant queens descend to the earth and never leave it for the air again, removing their wings and absorbing the flight muscles within to provide the nutrients for their first batch of eggs. Camponotus novaeboracensis prefers nesting in dead standing trees or fallen logs or stumps, but they are occasionally found nesting under rocks or cow dung (Ellison et. al. 2012). Contrary to what you may think, carpenter ants (the genus Camponotus) don’t consume wood for food, instead carving into decayed wood in order to create a nesting site. One of their major sources of food is actually honeydew from Homoptera (true bugs such as leafhoppers, treehoppers and aphids), but they also collect sap and hunt insects and will scavenge on dead vertebrates as well (Hansen and Klotz 2005).

Foraging as an ant worker is dangerous, there are many other creatures foraging that would hunt down ant workers, and that’s ok for the colony because each worker is just one small part of a larger whole. Camponotus novaeboracensis colonies can contain almost 9000 workers (Hansen and Klotz 2005), but usually only a single egg-laying queen*. So workers can be lost, and the colony continues, but the queen is important so the colony can begin. If she is lost before she can find a nesting site, as in my observation here, there can be no colony of thousands.

*Akre et. al. 1994 report that C. novaeboracensis colonies rarely have more than one queen, but it does happen.

Part 2: Underworld Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne):

Robber flies are incredible hunters, swooping out from perches on branches or twigs (or in this case, camping tables) to pounce upon insects and stab them with their powerful piercing mouths. There are over 7000 species of Robber Fly (members of the family Asilidae) worldwide (Marshall 2012). Neoitamus orphne has a specific name, orphne, which refers to a spirit of Greek mythology that lived with Hades in the Underworld, and is sometimes referred to by the name “Styx”. I love the idea of this fly being named after a spirit of the Underworld, as this robber fly must send many souls of insects to Hades on a frequent basis. The individual pictured is a female, which will use that long tubular abdomen to lay eggs inside flower heads or leaf sheaths. The larvae then hatch and drop to the ground, where they will hunt down soil-dwelling invertebrates presumably (Marshall 2012). I say “presumably” because I don’t think anyone knows for certain what this species of robber fly eats as larvae but robber fly larvae are predators and this genus has larvae that live on or in the ground so it makes sense.

My photo captures a battle between two mother insects, one which has the potential to generate a social colony of 9000 worker ants, another which lives a solitary life snatching prey out of the air.

References:

Akre, R. D., L. D. Hansen, and E. A. Myhre. 1994. Colony size and polygyny in carpenter ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) J. Kans. Entomol. Soc. 67: 1-9, cited in: Hansen, Laurel and Klotz, John. 2005. Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.

Ellison, Aaron, Gotell, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, and Alpert, Gary. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. 2012. Yale University Press.

Hansen, Laurel and Klotz, John. 2005. Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.

Holldobler, Bert and Wilson, E. O. 1990. The Ants. Harvard University Press.

Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: the Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. Firefly Books.

Peeters, Christian, and Molet, Mathieu. 2010. “Colonial Reproduction and Life Histories” in: Lach, Lori, Parr, Catherine L., and Abbott, Kirsti L.(eds.) 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press.

I hope you enjoyed my foray into the lives of these fascinating insects. My next post in the ongoing series of My Top Nature Photos is going to be about a sneaky little amphibian.

For Previous posts in this series, see:

  1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)
  2. Moose (Alces alces) Family
  3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)
  4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)
Categories
Nature Observations Tumblr Repost

Cryptic Caterpillars

In the interests of my own personal goals to post at least once a month, I’m going to re-publish my very first post on my first iteration of the Norfolk naturalist blog, which was on tumblr. I’m planning to re-post all of my articles that I wrote on my tumblr on this site at some stage (possibly with some slight updates/alterations) since I would like them all in one place, and my own website seems like the best place to have that. So here is my first Norfolk Naturalist post, originally published on my tumblr back in 2018 (over 4 years ago!):

While walking the trail near my house, I spotted a twig in an unlikely spot. Instead of forming the final split of a growing or dead branch, the tiny twiglet (just larger than my fingernail) was jutting out into the air from the railing of the bridge. Something strange was going on. On closer inspection, it turned out not to be a twig at all. Rather, a caterpillar had chosen a poor and rather conspicuous spot to hide.

If this caterpillar had chosen a better location, it surely would have fooled me. Even where it was, it was extremely difficult to spot. The coloration and shape of its back was a perfectly mottled gray-brown, and its posture was that of a twig. It was thin-bodied and elongate, only about a millimeter around.

The caterpillar’s odd shape is provided by it having a large space between what are its true legs (the six legs just behind the head) and its ‘prolegs’ which are fleshy stubs coming off of its abdomen. This large space also causes these caterpillars to move in a unique fashion. They lift the front group of legs and extend it forward, reaching ahead and securing themselves there. Then they lift their rear group of legs and move them forward to reconnect with the front legs. Once together, the rear legs hold their place and the caterpillar once more reaches forward with its front legs. This “inching along” process provides this group of caterpillars with their name: the Inchworms (Family Geometridae).

A caterpillar’s main predators are birds which hunt visually. If the caterpillar appears to be something other than a morsel to a hungry bird, then it has succeeded and survived another moment. This type of behavior has a technical name: “crypsis” or “cryptic behavior”, which just sounds amazing. It strikes this cryptic pose when threatened, and so effectively disappears from a hunting bird’s search. I suppose it must have assumed this position when I walked near, thinking me to be hunting it for food. In reality, I was hunting only for a few pictures.

I hope you enjoyed that “repost” from the older version of norfolk naturalist blogging. I promise I’m still working on My Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series and I also have several other posts about more recent nature sightings in the works. Hopefully April will be a more productive writing month!

Categories
Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)

Subject: Pale-Painted Sand Wasp* (Bembix pallidipicta)

*this species doesn’t have a common name, so I created this common name by using the etymology of its scientific name “pallidipicta” which seems to mean “pale-painted”.

Location: Parents’ Farm, Norfolk County.

Date: July 2013.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: While growing up, my brother and I discussed several times the idea of a project: to list every single species that occurred on our family’s property. While this project never reached fruition, the idea of it has inspired me throughout my adventures with the creatures in my own backyard and elsewhere. One day several years ago I spent a day just wandering around on my parents’ farm taking photos of every interesting creature that caught my eye. I was amazed to find busy little wasps digging burrows in the sand at the edge of the field. Despite their frenzied activity I managed to capture one at the entrance of its burrow.

The Story Behind the Species: Bembix pallidipicta is one of those Sand Wasps (members of the subfamily Bembicinae) I’ve mentioned once or twice on my blog about a year ago now. The following information on this species is summarized from Evans and O’Neill (2007).

Not all Sand Wasps construct burrows in sand, but B. pallidipicta does, usually selecting large areas of loose sand to begin their burrowing. Nest site selection is fine-tuned in that they require a small amount of moisture in the sand to maintain a fine crust when they tunnel beneath it. The sites where the females emerge and the males mate are often suitable for the females to use for their nest construction, so unless the habitat is disturbed the same site can support a population of sand wasps for multiple generations. B. pallidipicta males gather around sites where adult females will soon emerge, and fly in short hops, which gives the appearance of “aggregations of very small toads” (Evans 1957).

Once their burrow is constructed with a chamber up to 56 cm beneath the surface (the depth is partly determined by the dryness of the sand), the females lay a single egg at one end of the chamber (termed the brood cell). This egg will hatch and the wasp larva will wait within its subterranean chamber for its mother to provide food. B. pallidipicta exhibits what is called “progressive provisioning” which means that the mother brings prey in multiple times to the larva while it is growing and feeding. I’ve always loved this aspect of sand wasps because it’s essentially the same setup as songbirds awaiting worms in their nests. For B. pallidipicta, the prey is all true flies (Order Diptera) of several Brachyceran families, including Flower Flies (Syrphidae), Horse Flies (Tabanidae) and House Flies (Muscidae). When bringing fresh prey to her larva, the mother will push the fragments of partially eaten prey off to the side, and block this debris off with sand. This likely helps prevent parasites or diseases from accumulating within the nest, or it’s possible that it’s a way for the mother wasp to judge how much more prey to provide. Because B. pallidipicta nests in large unrelated groups, females will occasionally steal prey from other females nearby to feed their own offspring. After about 4 days of feeding, the larva pupates and the mother moves on to construct a new nest.

Another view of the same individual Sand Wasp entering its burrow.

My top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 are going to be presented in chronological order of when I took the photos, they aren’t arranged in any other sort of hierarchy. Come back next time for a photo of a much larger animal caring for its young…

For previous posts about Hymenoptera, see:

-Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

The Sand Wasps, Part 1: Introduction

-The Sand Wasps, Part 2: The Tribe Alyssontini

The Social Biology of Wasps (Book Review)

Species Profile: Introduced Pine Sawfly

References:

Evans, Howard E. Studies on the Comparative Ethology of Digger Wasps of the Genus Bembix, cited in Evans, Howard E. and O’Neill, Kevin M. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.

Evans, Howard E. and O’Neill, Kevin M. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.

Categories
July 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Port Burwell Observations

I recently spent a weekend camping at Port Burwell Provincial Park and took several photos of interesting creatures I encountered there (as I usually do on camping trips). One of the first creatures I encountered was a beautiful Flower Fly which hovered right in front of my face for a few minutes and even landed on my glasses, as well as several times on my hands. My Flower Fly Friend was an Oblique Streaktail (Allograpta obliqua).

Oblique Streaktail Flower Fly which landed repeatedly on my fingers and even on my glasses.

Flower Flies (Family Syrphidae) are wonderfully diverse and easily observed Insects, as they spend time hovering and landing on Flowers for the nectar they contain. In feeding on nectar, these Flies contribute greatly to Pollination, much like their similarly coloured models, the Bees and Wasps. I observed several other Flower Flies during my Port Burwell visit:

Common Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii).
Mating Pair of Margined Calligrapher Flower Flies (Toxomerus marginatus).

Most people don’t consider Flies beautiful, but that’s because they’re thinking of the House Fly variety, and not the colorful Flower Flies. Another beautiful fly I observed was this Ornate Snipe Fly:

Ornate Snipe Fly (Chrysopilus ornatus). Who says Flies aren’t beautiful?

The Snipe Flies (Rhagionidae) are predators as larvae in the soil where they hunt invertebrates, but as adults don’t seem to feed at all (Marshall, 2012).

Like my Flower Fly Friend, another Insect was quite content to wander over my hands. I’m not sure the exact ID of this Bug (a True Bug, that is a member of the Order Hemiptera) but I’m pretty sure it’s a larval Plant Bug (Family Miridae).

Plant Bug nymph (Family Miridae) on my fingertips.

The little Plant Bug was probably the smallest Insect I took pictures of that weekend. The Largest is much easier to determine, and was clearly this Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa) which was on the outside wall of the restroom, blending in fairly well with the bricks.

Waved Sphinx Moth blending into a wall.

Another Moth I observed couldn’t be more different from the bulky and camouflaged Waved Sphinx. This bizarre Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus) doesn’t even look like a Moth at all because of its oddly shaped wings. 

Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus).

The forewing is the brown and white portion with a large notch carved into it from the outside. The hindwing has been transformed into three “plume” structures which resemble black-and-white wire brushes.

One other Moth drew my attention, but this one didn’t have any wings, because it was still in its Caterpillar stage: the Tussock Moth Orgyia leucostigma. These caterpillars have some of the most extraordinary decorations in our area. It’s possible the row of white tufts along their back resemble Parasitoid wasp cocoons in order to avoid subsequent parasitism, but I have no idea where to start explaining the bright orange head or black spiky tufts around its face.

Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma).

It’s well known that caterpillars turn into Moths and Butterflies, but many people are surprised to find that “baby” Ladybugs look quite different from the roly-poly adults. During the weekend, I spied the intermediate stage, the pupa, of a Ladybug stuck to the top of a leaf. Within, a Ladybug larva was being rearranged into the far more familiar form of its orange shielded adult beetle.

Asian Ladybird Pupa (Harmonia axyridis).

There were a number of smaller orange Butterflies flitting about our campsite which were difficult to photograph. This is the best picture I could manage of the upperside wings:

One of this same species (the Northern Crescent, Phycioides cocyta) was resting inside the Dining Tent, allowing me a good photo of the underside of its wings:

The interior of the Dining tent provided many other Insect observations that weekend. I observed this same phenomenon in my own backyard in May of this year. For whatever reason, many Insects enter the tent and then possibly get trapped inside because they have difficulty relocating the entrance (and are drawn to the light visible through the roof of the tent). In any case, it often presents myself with picture opportunities of insects I might not otherwise observe.

Most of the Dining Tent insects were Flies (and these are the ones I got good pictures of):

Rhagio Snipe Fly.
Horse Fly, I believe of the genus Hybomitra.
Crane Fly (Family Tipulidae).

The majority of my observations were of Insects, and this reflects their abundance and diversity well, but I did have a chance to see a few Birds moving through the campsite. Most commonly spotted was a Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) that seemed to have a particular liking for the berries that grew at the edge of the site. Flitting through the trees occasionally were American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), fabulous black-orange-and white Warblers. Prior to this trip, I thought of the Redstart as a migrant, passing through Southern Ontario in the Spring and Fall. Since seeing it in Port Burwell in July, I have learned that the species breeds across most of Ontario during the summer (Cadman et. al. 1987).

American Redstart.

References:

Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.

Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2012.

For other posts about Nature Observations similar to these, see:

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

And for more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

Common visitors to my backyard (and probably any backyard with any sort of plant life) are leafhoppers (Cercopidae) and I’ve become familiar over the years with a few of my regular visiting genera. This past month I managed to get a really clear picture of Draeculacephala, with its distinctively pointed head.

Draeculacephala Leafhopper.

And this Latalus leafhopper kept flicking its wings around, similar to the Sepsid Flies I’ve seen flashing wings in the sun. Not sure if it was display behaviour of some kind or if it was trying to rid itself of some nuisance. The wing-flicking was very rapid, I’ve never seen a Leafhopper doing this before.

Latalus Leafhopper.

Similar to the Leafhoppers are the aptly named Froghoppers (Cercopoidea). I’m pretty sure this is one of them or at least a related family, based on its very toad-like appearance.

Froghopper/Spittlebug of some sort.

Other common Insect visitors to my backyard are Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths). Skipper Butterflies (Family Hesperiidae) are some of the most common Butterflies around in my experience. They’re skittish and difficult to get close to because they’re seemingly always on the move, but I’ve had some good luck with a few in the past. Last month I was able to catch this Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius) in a moment of rest with my Macro lens.

Peck’s Skipper momentarily at rest in my backyard.

A much stranger Lepidopteran visitor was this bizarre Moth. Its wings look like a rolled up carpet, and its antennae look like tassels of said carpet. I’ve seen this same individual or at least a similar one in several different places around my yard, but always in this head down, wings up position. These Moths are classified as Crambidae (a Family) or Crambinae (a Subfamily) depending on the scheme being followed. There are thousands of species of Snout Moths (which is what these Moths are called), and I’m not sure where to begin on identifying my backyard variety.

Snout Moth in my backyard.

We have a patch of Milkweed growing in our backyard, and I check it on a regular basis for signs of Monarch Butterfly activity. (there should be adults flying up North here during June and beginning to lay eggs). I still haven’t spotted any eggs or caterpillars on the Milkweed plants (when I wrote these observations in June, wait for the July Observations…), but several other creatures have been evident among them. One morning, at the top of each Milkweed plant there were young earwigs. I guess they were just resting there? 

Earwig (I believe the European Earwig (Forficula auricularia)) exposed in its place among the top leaves of Milkweed.

One creature that I have nowhere to begin with is this strange object… I feel like I’ve seen it before and found an ID for it, but I can’t recall what the ID was. I believe it’s some sort of insect (maybe a pupa?), but I don’t know:

Mysterious seed-like object on a Milkweed leaf.

Wandering about on the Milkweed leaves were what I like to call “Reverse Lady Beetles” because the typical Ladybug in my head is one that’s orange/red with black spots, where these Beetles were the opposite. I didn’t get great pictures of them yet (they’re smaller than the more common introduced Asian Lady Beetles (Harmonia axyridis)), but you can see what I mean.

“Reverse” Lady Beetle under the leaf of a Milkweed.

I’m pretty sure these Lady Beetles are in the Genus Brachyacantha. At least one of the species in the Genus feeds on Hemiptera (mealybugs/aphids) in ant nests during its larval stage (presumably species that the ants are protecting for their honeydew secretions!) (Marshall, 2018).

A long-jawed Orbweaver (Tetragnatha) took up residence among the Milkweed as well, with a web that spanned between the leaves.

Long-Jawed Orbweaver Spider on its web.

One final visitor of note was this Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinis). These Beetles develop as larvae inside decaying trees or logs, emerging as the beautiful Beetle seen here hanging beneath a leaf.

Banded Longhorn Beetle hanging beneath a leaf.

References:

Marshall, Stephen 2018. Beetles: The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera.

For other June 2021 Observations, see:

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

The Wonders of Wrens

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

For more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist