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Nature Observations August 2021 Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 5 – Spruce Bog: The Reckoning

The temperature was up, the sun was out, and with it the invertebrates were active and visible. I arrived at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail with my macro lens equipped, and I used it quite extensively.

At the beginning and near the end of the trail, I took pictures of Hooded-Owlets (Cuculia), which are not baby owls with their faces obscured, but instead the name for a genus of moths (these moths have some crazy names. One of the species I observed is similar to a moth that goes by the common name “Asteroid Moth”… I have no idea why…). The first was a brightly striped caterpillar of the Brown Hooded-owlet (Cuculia convexipennis).

Brown Hooded-Owlet Caterpillar.

Near the end of the trail I found another Hooded-Owlet, and I’m not so sure on the identification for this one, but it was much less colourful than the first.

Unidentified Hooded-Owlet (Cucullia sp.).

Landing briefly on a flower was a Tachinid Fly in the Genus Phasia. Tachinids are fascinating Flies and incredibly diverse. This is what Stephen Marshall has to say about them in his incredible book about Flies: “The Tachinidae is in many ways the ultimate fly family. With almost 10 000 named species and thousands more awaiting description, this ubiquitous group… exhibits an unparalleled variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The range of life history strategies is equally amazing, at least within the constraint that every known species in the group is a parasitoid that develops inside another insect… or related arthropod.” (from Marshall 2012, p 386). Phasia tachinids are parasitoids of True Bugs in the families Pentatomidae and Pyrrhocoridae (Marshall 2012).

Phasia Tachinid Fly perching on a flower, possibly P. auralans?

Another flower was visited by a wasp of the Ectemnius genus. These wasps are part of a group of wasps called the “Square-headed wasps” (Subfamiily Crabroninae) and I think you can see that characterization borne out here. I certainly noticed its huge head right away while taking the pictures. Members of the genus Ectemnius hunt mostly adult Flies (Diptera) which they store in their nests for their larvae to feed on. Some species of Ectemnius wasps nest in soil, while others nest in rotten wood (O’Neill 2001).

Ectemnius wasp, visiting a flower.

Visiting flowers for nectar is a common activity for many groups of flying insects. This fact has been exploited by predators, and I spotted one of these on a flower nearby: a Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata) lying in wait with raptorial (that is, grasping) front legs at the ready to nab unwary pollinators.

Ambush Bug lying in Ambush. Look at that incredible profile.

I spotted some mating grasshoppers on a leaf, which were otherwise engaged and allowed me to take some decent photos. If you know something about Orthopterans (members of the Order Orthoptera, which includes Katydids, Grasshoppers, and Crickets) you might know that unlike butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera) and many other insect groups which have very distinct larval forms, young stages of grasshoppers appear the same as adults except for the absence of wings. This photo might be confusing then… since these grasshoppers are clearly mating (a strictly adult activity) and they clearly don’t have wings (a characteristic of larvae). The problem is solved when you find out that the species is called the Wingless Mountain Grasshopper (Booneacris glacialis). Although possessing wings as adults is a characteristic of all major insect groups, there are members of all groups which have later (as in evolutionarily later) lost the wings. 

Mating Wingless Mountain Grasshoppers.

Within the sparse woods of the Black Spruce Trees, I found a caterpillar of the Datana genus. These caterpillars stick together in their younger stages, and separate when they are in their final larval stage before adulthood (Marshall 2006).

Datana Caterpillar, likely in its final larval stage because it was alone.

Growing out of the side of the railing on this part of the boardwalk trail was the beautiful branching form of a Beard Lichen (Usnea). Lichens are truly the Corals of the terrestrial realm: they have similar appearances and colours (some are green, brown, orange etc), but they also consist of a partnership* between two very different forms of life. Corals consist of an animal and algae living together and Lichens consist of fungi and algae. 

*this is of course a very simple way of describing the relationship between a lichen fungus and a lichen alga. In fact, there can be many variations on the degree of partnership, with many relationships resembling parasitism rather than traditional ‘symbiosis’.

Usnea Beard Lichen growing out of a bridge railing. If this picture had enough blue tint, you might believe it was a photo of a coral attached to a shipwreck.

Once past the railing I came upon the wildflower meadow, which housed an appropriate medley of visiting Insects. Hymenoptera were present in abundance. A Yellow-Banded Bumble Bee (Bombus terricola) busily moved from flower to flower, thrumming through the air. Bumblebees amaze me, and they almost seem like they shouldn’t be able to fly with their stout fuzzy bodies but they fly quite well enough for their purposes.

Yellow-Banded Bumblebee.

A brief appearance by a member of the Sand Wasps (Bembicidae) was an exciting find (have to continue the Sand Wasp series some time, I’ve only done the Introduction and one tribe!). The Sand Wasp I observed in Algonquin is possibly a member of the genus Gorytes. Species in this genus fill their nests with True Bugs, mostly Hoppers (members of the families Cercopidae, Cidadellidae, and Membracidae) (Evans and O’Neill 2007).

Sand Wasp, possibly a Gorytes.

The Spider Wasp Episyron was a very distinct Hymenopteran. Although it sort of has a squat appearance somewhat reminiscent of Spiders, the name “Spider Wasp” comes from the fact that these wasps (members of the Family Pompilidae) hunt Spiders which they feed to their young. Species in the genus Episyron hunt specifically Orb-weaver Spiders (Araneidae) (O’Neill 2001).

Episyron Spider Wasp.

Flower Flies (Syrphidae) were of course frequently seen visiting the flowers. Frustratingly, a new one to me was elusive enough that I didn’t manage to get a very good picture of it. This was the largest Flower Fly I’ve ever seen (though not large in most terms, probably about honeybee size) a member of the Genus Sphaerophoria.

Sphaerophoria Flower Fly.

Not as common, and certainly not as associated with flowers were a couple of Beetle species I observed visiting the flowers. One was a click beetle (Elateridae), possibly of the genus Dalopius. Apparently click beetles aren’t usually desirable flower visitors as they are often feeding on the flowers and pollen themselves (as opposed to the nectar), and don’t contribute to pollination very often (Willmer 2011). Dalopius feeds on other Insects, so perhaps it’s hunting among the flowers for prey, and/or snacking on pollen in the meantime (Marshall 2006).

Click Beetle (Dalopius sp.?) among the flowers, possibly eating pollen, possibly hunting prey.

By contrast, the other flower-visiting beetle that I observed was part of the Family Cerambycidae (the longhorn beetles), which is a group that includes important and frequent pollinators (Willmer 2011). The Red-shouldered Pine Borer (Stictoleptura canadensis) is part of the aptly named subfamily Lepturinae (the flower longhorns) within Cerambycidae.

Red-shouldered Pine Borer, a Flower Longhorn Beetle.

One wildflower that caught my attention as I was continuing down the trail was a small purple flower with strangely square-shaped petals. The flower was a Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). As you can guess from the common name, this flower was used in the past to cure many different illnesses, particularly of the mouth and throat because of the flower’s resemblance to a yawning mouth (Wernert 1982)… because that’s how things were supposed to work…

Leaving behind the multitude of flowers and insects of the wildflower meadow area, I was arrested by the sight of a peculiar tiny insect: a Barklouse (Order Psocoptera). As Marshall writes in his excellent overview of Insects “One doesn’t hear much about barklice.” (Marshall 2006). Indeed, though this individual is beautifully patterned and distinctive (I believe it’s Metylophorus novaescotiae) I can find little information about this creature. If my identification is correct, I can say that this species lives on shrub and tree branches (Mockford 1993), and presumably feeds on lichen there. Most members of the Order Psocoptera produce silk out of their mouths (specifically, labial glands), and some use this to cover their eggs, while others use the silk to construct shelters for themselves or others (!). There’s a tropical group called the Archipsocidae which can create silken shelters that “enshroud entire trees”, and in which there is some form of sociality (Costa 2006). I would love to learn more about these amazing insects.

Barklouse (possibly Metylophorus novaescotiae).

The final observation of my hike forced me to switch back to my telephoto lens. I actually thought for a second I was seeing a bird zooming back and forth above the path because of the size of the animal, but it was in fact an insect, and more specifically a Variable Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna interrupta). These Dragonflies are among the more acid-tolerant of Ontario Odonates so it makes sense that this individual could have developed as a larva within the acidic waters of the Spruce Bog (Pollard and Berrill, 1992). This amazing dragonfly (possibly about 15 cm long) was my last observation on the Spruce Bog trail and an excellent contrast to the diminutive (less than a cm long) barklouse, demonstrating once again the incredible diversity of the Insects.

Variable Darner Dragonfly at rest, after foraging across the trail.

References:

Costa, James. 2006. The Other Insect Societies.

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

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

Marshall, Stephen. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity.

O’Neill, Kevin. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History.

Pollard, J. B., and Berrill, M. 1992. The distribution of dragonfly nymphs across a pH gradient in south-central Ontario lakes. Canadian Journal of Zoology https://doi.org/10.1139/z92-125

Wernert, Susan. 1982. Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.

Willmer, Pat. 2011. Pollination and Floral Ecology.

And with that, I have finally completed my five-part journey through my 2021 Algonquin Observations series. What’s next for the Norfolk Naturalist? More nature observations, this time in Norfolk County itself (a fungi-spotting hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists), and a Podcast Review. Also, I attended Tetzoomcon 2021 this past weekend and it was awesome! A detailed post about the event will follow hopefully soon…

For previous Algonquin Observations (2021), see:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
August 2021 Observations July 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 1 – Pog Lake Campground

I love Algonquin Provincial Park. There is a special place in my heart for the vistas of trees, lakes and rock that extend to the horizon. Whenever I stay in the park, I encounter new creatures and make new observations, or if I encounter familiar organisms, I often appreciate them in a new light.

The first observation of my most recent trip (over the July/August Long Weekend) was a familiar bird creating a familiar knocking sound as it chipped away at the outer bark of a pine tree. The bird was a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), and its hammering into the edge of a tree is common in Norfolk County as well as Algonquin Park.

Hairy Woodpecker foraging on a Pine tree.

The other species of Woodpecker I encountered on this trip was not so familiar, and certainly not a species I could encounter in the more southern parts of Ontario. The Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) has a range across the Boreal Forests of North America, and Algonquin Provincial Park is at the southern edge of its range. They are a species tied to the disturbance of fire, as they mainly feed on insects (such as bark beetles and wood-boring beetles) which increase in population in fire-killed stands of trees (Backhouse, 2005). I observed the female and male of this species (likely a mated pair) foraging on the trees surrounding our campsite, and I also observed the male digging into what must have been a stump (the stump was obscured by vegetation, but I could see the yellow spot on the male’s head as he knocked away from ground level). As just mentioned, the male and female can be distinguished based on the presence or absence of a yellow patch on the head (the male has the yellow patch, the female does not). Not only did I see this species foraging but within the campground at Pog Lake there was actually a nest! Like most Woodpeckers (maybe all, but I’ve learned not to make rash generalizations), the Black-backed Woodpecker creates a new nest each year, carving a hole into a tree to house its young. I could hear the young inside the nest cavity, producing almost continuous begging calls for food. I saw the male drop by to drop off food he had collected, and I also got some pictures of the male on nest-guarding duty, sticking his head out of the nest entrance which was not too much higher than eye level. 

Black-backed Woodpecker Male, guarding his nest.

The Hairy Woodpecker I first spotted was not the only familiar bird encountered within Algonquin Park. Robins (Turdus migratorius) are a common sight throughout the campground, and the screams of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) frequently break the solemnity of the sky-stretching Pines. Another vocal bird which is quite common in suburban backyards is the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula). Grackles patrolled through the campground, searching for any scraps of food left out by unwary campers. They may not be everyone’s favourite bird sighting, but I think their metallic blue heads are quite beautiful, and their overall appearance and movements are striking. 

Two birds very much associated with Algonquin Park in my mind (even though I’ve also seen both on the Lynn Valley Trail in Norfolk County) are common ascenders and descenders of trees. The Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) often swirls around a tree trunk as it descends and then begins to work its way up in leaps and bounds, plucking insects and spiders from their secluded hiding places. I wonder if the rapid spiralling descent is some sort of signal to other members of its species (I’ve seen Brown Creepers foraging in pairs, or more than two) or if it’s a way to locate potential prey for their way up.

Brown Creeper… creeping (more like leaping)… up a tree.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) doesn’t move up and down a tree in the same stereotyped way as the Brown Creeper, and it certainly stands out more from the bark with its attractive white-and-black face, blue back and red breast feathers. Nuthatches are renowned for their ability to walk head-first down a tree rather than up like most other bark-foraging birds (including Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Brown Creepers). 

Red-breasted Nuthatch demonstrating its maneuverability at the end of a broken branch.

Possibly the most beautiful bird observation in the Pog Lake campground was this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). These birds are often migratory through more Southern Ontario, arriving in the coniferous forests of Algonquin in mid-to-late April to breed (Tozer, 2012). According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Cadman et. al. 1987), they will breed in coniferous or mixed forests across Ontario (though they are more abundant in the more Boreal regions).

Usually Insects are my focus, and part of the reason for that is their abundance, diversity, and accessibility. Because of the rainy and cool weather for most of my visit, there were not as many Arthropods out and about (at least not as noticeable). A few notables made themselves known however. One striking spider was resting on the side of my car.

Spider, on the side door of my car. Not sure of the species, but I believe it’s an Orbweaver (Family Araneidae).

A Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly (Lethe anthedon) was resting on someone else’s car and I had to snap a picture.

Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly spotted on someone else’s car (the car was parked, obviously).

A very impressive Insect sighting in the Pog Lake Campground came on our last day in Algonquin. I found a massive Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle (Monochamus notatus). The Sawyer was very cooperatively still on the cool damp morning, allowing me to get some really great closeups. It was also silent, despite being moved to a more convenient location for photos. That may seem like a strange observation to make, but apparently Longhorn Beetles (Family Cerambycidae, of which Monochamus notatus is a part) make a “squeak”, not with their mouth but with parts of their thorax rubbing together (Marshall, 2006).

Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle. I hope you can see why members of this Beetle Family (Cerambycidae) are called Longhorn Beetles.

A few points of interest for this particular Sawyer Beetle. As the image above demonstrates, its antennae were almost as long as the rest of the body which marks it as a female. The males are the ones with the really long antennae, often twice the length of the rest of the body. Here’s a male of the same species to show you what I mean. (photo from wikipedia):

Male Monochamus notatus By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11369161

It may be hard to see in my photo above, but these Beetles (including the female I observed) often have invertebrate hitchhikers. From a different angle it’s a bit clearer that my Beetle had a cluster of red Mites on her thorax.

Closeup of the M. notatus I found in Algonquin Park.

These Mites are presumably hitching a ride to dead/dying trees which the Beetle will be seeking (Monochamus beetle larvae feed inside of dead/dying trees). I’m not sure what the Mites will do once there, as Mites are incredibly diverse and have numerous ecologies and life histories and I don’t know what kind of Mites these are. The other interesting thing to note in my closeup picture above is the eye of the Beetle. Notice how it curves around in a crescent shape around the base of the antennae. Just thought that was sort of a strange arrangement for eyes/antennae. One more closeup shot of this Beetle because it was so cooperative:

Closeup portrait of M. notatus.

As I mentioned above, Insects are often what I notice and focus on. During our trip, I couldn’t help but take note of the wonderful beauty and diversity of some of the plant life in Algonquin Park as well. I suffer from “plant blindness” and I have been trying to rid myself of the condition as much as possible (see my book review of Flora of MiddleEarth for more on this subject). So I will end this post with a plant observation (and there will be more to come as I continue to write up my Algonquin observations). Throughout the Pog Lake Campground, there were some beautiful bright red berries amid ground-level green leaves. I found out that these plants are Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).

Bunchberry Berries (and leaves).

Bunchberry has white flowers which spread pollen via the wind and insects in order to reach other flowers and reproduce (ie. form fertile berries). Amazingly, Bunchberry flowers are equipped with a mechanism to launch their pollen on an insect that triggers them, unfolding their petals at incredible speed to fling pollen onto the insect and up into the air (for possible wind-dispersal of pollen). This truly impressive feat is accomplished in 0.5 milliseconds. To put this into perspective, the Mantis Shrimp has the fastest movement of all Animals, and its record-holding strike lasts 2.7 milliseconds… five times as long as the Bunchberry flower petals take to open (Runtz, 2020). If that doesn’t make you want to pay more attention to plants, I don’t know what will.

Stay tuned… more to come from my trip to Algonquin, including more Birds, more Plants, and more Insects!

References:

Backhouse, Frances. Woodpeckers of North America. 2005.

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

Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.

Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.

Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Probably the most commonly observed insect group in my backyard (at least observed with my camera) is the Order Hymenoptera (the Bees, Wasps, Ants, and Sawflies). Partly this is because they are one of my favourite groups, and partly it’s because they make good subjects for photography, what with the bees and wasps having a tendency to land and sit still (momentarily) on colourful flowers. These are some of the pollinator visits I’ve captured this month: 

Unidentified Bee visiting my garden flowers.
Bee in the Genus Andrena.
I’m not sure what kind of Bee this is, but it’s coated in Pollen!
This is a Chrysis cuckoo wasp, which gets its young into other Hymenopterans’ nests, much like the Cuckoo Bird does in other bird nests.

This next backyard visitor looks like another Hymenopteran, but is actually a convincing Bumblebee Mimic, a Robber Fly Laphria thoracica pretending to be a Bumblebee. This mating pair zipped through the garden up into a tree, so I had to use the telephoto lens rather than attempting a macro shot.

Mating Pair of Bumblebee Mimic Robber Flies.

Not all Hymenoptera were zipping through the garden from flower to flower. Some were setting up their homes there. One such home was the thriving Pavement Ant (Tetramorium immigrans) colony under a large rock in the middle of our flowerbed. Whenever the rock is lifted, the exposed larvae are whisked away by frantic workers. The flurry of activity is like a living explosion of insects when the colony is uncovered.

Pavement Ant colony in my backyard garden, larvae and workers exposed under a rock.

The other fascinating Hymenopteran homebuilding was the infiltration of leftover dried stems by Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina). I watched one digging into the middle of the stems and was able to get some decent pictures of the process. Unlike the Ants, these Bees don’t work together in a colony, each female constructs her own nest and provisions it with pollen. Despite this lack of cooperation, there is parental care within the Genus. Ceratina females guard their developing young by waiting at the nest entrance and will even open up sealed nest chambers to check on them (Wilson and Carril, 2016). Looks like I’m going to have to take a second look at those stems…

References:

Wilson, Joseph S. and Carril, Olivia. The Bees In Your Backyard. 2016.

For other June 2021 Observations, see:

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

And for other posts focused on Hymenopterans, see:

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\

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

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

In my backyard, I usually see a lot of Flies of various species, many of which I find difficult to identify. Flies don’t have the obvious characters or colours that other Insect groups have such as Butterflies and Beetles. There are two broad divisions of the Order Diptera (that is, the True Flies) which can be fairly easily distinguished. Nematocera roughly translates as “long-horned”, referring to their relatively long antennae and includes the Midges, Mosquitoes, Fungus Gnats and many others. Brachycera means “short-horned” and includes the House Flies, Carrion Flies, Fruit Flies, and dozens of other massive groups. As I mentioned in my post about observations at my Parents’ house, I’m reading through Flies by Stephen Marshall and it’s only reinforcing the bewildering diversity of Flies and Insects in general.

Incidentally, a Fly that I can’t identify landed on the book Flies as I was reading it in my house. There is a Family of Flies called the Ironic Flies (Family Ironomyiidae), but unfortunately this definitely isn’t one of them. That would have just been too perfect. My best guess for this Fly is a Fungus Gnat or a related Family (Sciaroidea).

A Mystery Fly that landed on Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera by Stephen Marshall while I was reading it.

All that being said, there are some Flies that I can now identify on sight such as this Common Picture-Winged Fly (Delphinia picta):

A Common Picture-Winged Fly in my backyard.

Others easy to identify (to Genus) are the Condylostylus flies which hunt small prey and display on leaves worldwide. 

Bright Metallic Green Condylostylus are easily recognizable Flies worldwide.

Another group of Flies that I’ve become familiar with have one of the most unsettling Family names ever: the Flesh Flies (Sarcophagidae). The three black stripes on the thorax distinguish them from similar-looking Flies (Marshall, 2012). To make them even more unappealing than their name, many of these Flies lay eggs that hatch immediately after they leave the female, or they simply lay larvae that have already hatched. There are about 3000 species in the Family Sarcophagidae, and the ones I see in my backyard are likely in the Genus Sarcophaga. Within the Genus Sarcophaga there are 800 species, so they are very difficult to generalize about, with some of their larvae feeding on or within other insects, consuming dead vertebrates, or specialist parasitoids of spider or grasshopper eggs (Marshall, 2012).

Flesh Fly, possibly of the Genus Sarcophaga.

Another Fly observed within my own house is likely a member of the aptly named Window Fly Family (Scenopinidae), as I photographed it on the interior of my back door window. Although this Family of about 350 species is associated with various habits and habitats, they are named for the handful of species that are predators of human-habitat insects such as Carpet Beetles (Dermestidae), which is likely what my Window Fly was.

Window Fly (Scenopinidae), likely one of the human-associated species in the Genus Scenopinus.

The most eye-opening Fly observation of the month has more to do with the fate of the Flies, rather than the Flies themselves. I found two Flies in my garden in a bizarre position, one at the very end of May and one on the 1st of June. I’m unable to identify either species of Fly beyond the fact that they’re both Brachycerans. Each fly was positioned at the end of a leaf, clutching it with its legs and they were covered with what looked like white dewdrops bursting out of their bodies on tiny filaments. The filaments emerging from the fly bodies (the Flies were also quite dead or at least incredibly still and unresponsive) must have belonged to a type of Fungi.

First Fly I found infected by a fungus at the end of May. All of the whitish flecks across the fly’s abdomen and thorax are fungi.

Many readers may be familiar with the incredible footage in BBC’s Planet Earth of the Cordyceps fungus infecting ant workers and forcing them to climb into the tree canopy in order to release the fungal spores upon death. What might surprise you is that similar insect-infecting fungi are found not only in tropical rainforests but around the globe, even in my own backyard in Simcoe, Ontario. In fact, Cordyceps itself occurs in parts of North America (into the Southern United States), where it infects insects and causes similar scenarios to the one depicted in Planet Earth (Eiseman and Charney, 2010). There is an entire order of fungi, Entomophtorales, in which most species infect insects and other arthropods. If you’re interested in similar observations, there’s a Bugguide page devoted to this sort of thing. I have no idea which species infected these Flies in my backyard, but it’s fascinating to know that these sorts of complex interactions are occurring right where I live.

Another Fungal-infected Fly I found at the start of June. I’m not positive, but the long threads surrounding it could be fungal in nature as well.

For previous June 2021 Observations, see:

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

The Wonders of Wrens

And for another post focused on a species of Diptera, see:

Species Profile: Eastern Band-winged Hover Fly

References:

Eiseman, Charley and Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species. 2010.

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

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Sometimes my reading and my outside explorations overlap wonderfully. This year I’ve been reading through Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera by Stephen Marshall, and it is an incredible book, one I will have to review on here at some point. One particular group of Flies that I came across while reading grabbed my attention: the Thereviidae. They’re known as Stiletto Flies, but what really struck me was the fuzzy white appearance of the adult pictured in the book. I thought to myself, I have never seen such a creature and would love to see one. Well, about a month after reading about that group of flies, I came across one very similar. I’m not sure that it’s the same genus, but it certainly seems to match the general look of the Acrosathe featured in the book.

A Thereviid Fly, possibly Genus Acrosathe.

I attempted to take pictures of the Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) that are at my parents’ place. I never see Bluebirds in Simcoe, so it seems they prefer more open farmland habitat. I was proud of myself, upon seeing the shape/size of the bill and the face that I thought they looked Robin-like. And it turns out that they are part of the Thrush family which includes the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). The Bluebirds kept their distance, so this is the best picture I managed.

Eastern Bluebird. Note the longish blunt bill reminiscent of their relatives, the Robins.

Another bird caught my attention in my parents’ garden by its beautiful song. I should have guessed its identity right then and there, since it turned out to be a Song Sparrow, but I’m very cautious in IDing small sparrows or sparrow-like birds in the field. Recently I’ve come to appreciate the diversity of these types of birds. 

Song Sparrow perched in my parents’ garden.

The most exciting Arthropod find at my parents’ house, besides the fuzzy Acrosathe, was this Giant Mayfly (Hexagenia).

Giant Mayfly (Hexagenia).

When I arrived to take pictures of this individual it was somewhat entangled in a spider web, from which I freed it. The Spider owner of the web that caught a Giant Mayfly was suitably large and intimidating herself. 

Long-Jawed Orbweaver (Tetragnathidae) that had caught the Giant Mayfly pictured above.

Two other notable observations should be mentioned, and both are Butterflies. In the sandy areas of my parents’ farm I encountered several Common Sootywings (Pholisora catullus) fluttering about. 

Common Sootywing

And in the garden I managed to photograph a beautiful Northern Crescent (Phycioides cocyta) drinking nectar from flowers.

For other Nature Observations like this post, see:

The Wonders of Wrens

-A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1 and 2

Nature Observations: Pinery, Winter 2019

And for more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, check out my instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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Species Profile

Introduced Pine Sawfly

Diprion similis

Diprion similis larva at Algonquin Provincial Park, September 2019.

Sawflies are a group of insects that many people haven’t even heard of. Part of the reason is because, in appearance and behaviour, they are like a hybrid between two major groups: their larval stages look like caterpillars (larvae of Butterflies and Moths ie. Lepidoptera), and their adult stages look like bees or wasps (Order Hymenoptera). Despite appearances and lifestyle, it is the latter category that they actually fall under: Hymenoptera which also includes the Bees, Wasps, and Ants. The major features that set sawflies apart from their relatives is that they eat plants, and they don’t have the constricted “wasp waist”. You might find this a little confusing, as Bees certainly don’t have an obviously thin waist, but they actually do have a constriction between their thorax and abdomen, it’s just more difficult to see than in many wasp species.

Like many insect Orders, the name Hymenoptera refers to a distinct aspect of the members’ wings (‘ptera’ is derived from the Greek for wing). Hymenoptera doesn’t have an easy translation though, like say Diptera for the True Flies (di = two, ptera = wings). The beginning part of the word is either from the word “hymen” which means membranous, or from the word “hymeno” which refers to the Greek God of Marriage. Hymenopteran wings are membranous, but they also have tiny hooks that link their fore- and hind-wings, meaning that they could be said to be “married” wings as well (Grissell, 2010). Whatever the case, the group is one that includes thousands of species of wasps, bees, ants, and of course, sawflies.

The common name “sawfly” is describing the way the female sawfly lays her eggs. Instead of a stinger or stinger-like ovipositor (egg-layer) at the end of her abdomen (like most of the other Hymenopterans), the female sawfly has a saw-like ovipositor, a cutting tool that she uses to open up plant tissue, and then inserts her eggs within.

This is what the Introduced Pine Sawfly (Diprion similis) does to pine needles. D. similis prefers White Pine (Pinus strobus) as its host plant (in North America), but will lay eggs and successfully grow to maturity on several other pine species. The female lays about 10 tiny eggs inside a pine needle (Cranshaw, 2004). After inserting the eggs, the female seals them in with a secretion that hardens for protection (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). The larvae that hatch from the eggs begin to feed on the pine needles. For the first part of their life, they will remain together but begin to disperse as they grow older. These larvae prefer to feed on needles that are at least 1 year old, probably because the younger needles are full of more toxins (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). As they consume needles, they grow, from 2.5 mm long upon first hatching to almost 3 cm before the larva is said to be “mature”. They don’t grow continuously, but rather have to molt and enter a new size class each time they’ve gained enough nutrients. For female larvae, they have six growth stages between molts and the males have five (CABI, 2020).

During this time, you would be forgiven for thinking they were caterpillars, because they look very similar. The way to tell caterpillars from sawflies is to count the number of legs. Their first set of legs will be six, and jointed for both groups, but they will also have a number of legs behind these called “prolegs”. If the larva you’re looking at has more than 5 pairs of prolegs, it’s a sawfly. Another giveaway is the distinct single eyes of sawfly larvae, as opposed to tiny ocelli (miniature eyes in clusters) in caterpillars.

Once they’ve reached their final larval stage, they spin a cocoon around themselves with silk, and transform within. Diprion similis larvae prefer to form their cocoons in the pine trees where they feed, rather than on the ground like many other sawflies.

In Europe and most of North America there are two generations per year, which means that what happens next depends on what time of the year it is. If the larvae have grown enough and created their cocoons in the summer, they will develop within in about 2 weeks into adults, but if they have reached this point near the end of fall, they will enter diapause (essentially insect hibernation) for several weeks before emerging in the spring (CABI, 2020). When they emerge, the adult sawflies are entirely different creatures, just as butterflies and moths are very distinct from their caterpillar young. The adults have wings, and with these they search for mates.

Adult Male D. similis, displaying the feathery antennae used to track down a female (Photo credit: Scott R. Gilmore.)

Males are attracted to females by pheromones (a chemical signal between members of the same species), as one would guess by the male’s elaborate antennae. The males can be attracted to a female across 61 m of open field, which is a great distance for an insect only a matter of centimeters long (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). Once mated, the female lays eggs in pine needles, and we are back at the beginning of their life history.

One note about mating: it isn’t necessary for the female to mate to be able to lay eggs. She shares with the other Hymenoptera a bizarre (to us) chromosome setup known as haplodiploidy. Females have one set of chromosomes (the mother’s) and males have two (mother and father). What this means in practice is that a female sawfly can lay an egg that will develop into a fully functional male offspring without ever going through the trouble of mating. This has implications for the spread of such organisms, as not all members of the population need to pair up to contribute to the next generation.

Which brings me to my final discussion of this species: they are commonly referred to as the Introduced Pine Sawfly because they were accidentally introduced into North America from Europe, likely in plant nursery stock imported in 1914. They have become well established in North America since then. Thankfully, they only very rarely reach a high enough population density to be considered an “outbreak” invasive species, and though they feed on tree leaves (needles), many predators and parasitoids feed on them (Wagner and Raffa, 1993).

The last time we were camping at Algonquin Provincial Park, I encountered quite a few of their larvae likely because they were in the fairly mobile phase before finding a spot to spin a cocoon (it was the end of September, the beginning of October). They may be an introduced species, and they may feed on White Pines, defoliating some of the branches, but as with any organism, they have a story all their own, and I think it’s worth telling.

Diprion similis larva hanging onto the end of a pine needle in Algonquin Provincial Park.

References:

Wagner, Michael R. and Raffa, Kenneth F. Sawfly Life History Adaptations to Woody Plants, 1993.

Cranshaw, Whitney. Garden Insects of North America. 2004.

Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.

Grissell, Eric. Bees, Wasps, and Ants. 2010.

CABI, 2020. Diprion similis. In: Invasive Species Compendium. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. www.cabi.org/isc.

Categories
Species Profile

Eastern Band-winged Hover Fly

Ocyptamus fascipennis

Ocyptamus fascipennis adult, spotted at Algonquin Provincial Park, August 2019

When you’re interested in insects, you’re always going to be running into something new. There is always one more creature that you have never seen before, one more behaviour you haven’t heard of, and that’s because insects are incredibly diverse. Today, I’m going to pick out just one of the many species of insects to zoom in on, and explore it’s story.

The species I’ve chosen is Ocyptamus fascipennis, or the Eastern Band-winged Hover fly. Let’s start from the top: Ocyptamus fascipennis is a “True Fly”, a member of the Order Diptera, which is a division of the Class Insecta. Diptera means “two wings” which gives you the easiest way to identify this group of insects when you encounter them. Almost all insect groups have 4 wings (two pairs) but these pairs of wings have been modified into very different structures in different lineages of insects. For the True Flies, one pair of wings still provides lift and flight, while the other has been reduced into tiny knobs known as halters. These reduced wings act as stabilizers, giving the flies the ability to perform aerobatic feats of agility (as I’m sure we’re all familiar with in House Flies (Musca domestica)). The halters of Diptera are more than just balancing beams, they’re actually sending complicated signals to the fly about its aerial position.

Ocyptamus fascipennis is part of a Family of True Flies called Hover Flies, or Flower Flies (Family Syrphidae). The Syrphids are common insects in gardens where they feed on nectar and pollinate flowers. Because of this habit, many species of Syrphids have taken on the appearance of more conspicuous flower visitors such as bees and wasps, in order to gain some protection from the classic warning colours of black-and-yellow stripes. O. fascipennis in particular seems to mimic solitary wasps or types of parasitoid wasps with its elongated and narrow abdomen.

So far, we’ve been talking about adults of these flies, but all insects go through multiple life stages, some more dramatically varied than others. Diptera undergo holometabolous growth which is a fancy way of saying that they have life stages that look very different from each other and one of those stages is a transformation phase which is mostly immobile. When young hoverflies (larvae) hatch from eggs, they look very different from the adults landing and lifting from flower petals in gardens. Larval O. fascipennis have no wings, and no legs, and are sometimes known by the name that many fly larvae receive: maggots. O. fascipennis larvae don’t consume garbage or dead animals, but instead are active predators, squirming across leaves in search of their prey: aphids.

Stephen Marshall, in his incredible book about Insects describes Syrhpine larvae hunting as this: “at night they move blindly among the aphids, grasping victims using typical maggot mouth hooks, then holding the doomed aphids up off the surface to consume the body contents.” (Marshall, 2006).

A Syrphine larva hunting a herd of aphids (photo credit: Christine Hanrahan)

It seems then that Flower Flies are very beneficial insects to have in the garden. They provide pollination for flowers, and their larvae consume plant-eaters such as aphids and related scale insects.

While I was unable to find very much information pertaining to Ocyptamus fascipennis specifically, one other member of the genus deserves special mention because of its interesting larval habitat: tank plants (Bromeliaceae). The Central American and South American species of Ocyptamus that inhabit these confined aquatic habitats (pools of water within the plant itself) ambush and consume other aquatic insect larvae that live in the plants alongside them. The larvae are even thought to use a paralyzing venom to subdue their prey (Rotheray et al, 2000).

All in all, Ocyptamus fascipennis and its relatives are fascinating flower flies with intriguing habits. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a closer look at them today.

References:

Rotheray, G. E., M. Zumbado, E. G. Hancock and F. C. Thompson. 2000. “Remarkable aquatic predators in the genus Ocyptamus (Diptera, Syrphidae).” Studia Dipterolologica 7: 385-98. (full text available here: https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/17095/ent_FCT_89.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y )

Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.

Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2010.