Rough Stink Bug

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With the onset of winter it’s been a little while since Dan brought me any interesting nature discoveries, but a couple of days ago he walked into my study and set something down on my desk. It clicked as it landed lightly on the wooden surface. “Two of these have been flying around my lights all morning,” he said. Bugs seem to like Dan; I rarely have anything flying around my lights. The odd ladybug, perhaps.

In this case the pestering creature was a stink bug. Sometimes also called shield bugs for their medieval-shield shape, they have the distinctive (and memorable) ability to produce foul-smelling secretions when threatened or disturbed. The idea is that the smell will put off potential predators; since most birds have a very poor sense of smell, presumably the secretion also tastes bad. If you catch a stink bug in a bad mood, you’ll soon know it. Fortunately, this one seemed to be pretty calm.

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Using my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects I narrowed the genus of this individual down to Brochymena (rough stink bugs, I think so-called for the toothed edges to the pronotum, the section right behind the head), and then went onto BugGuide to figure out the species. I’m pretty sure this is a Four-humped Stink Bug, B. quadripustulata (“four pustules”?), which is one of the more common and widespread members of this genus. The KGI indicates that adults of some Brochymena species hibernate as adults beneath bark, so I’m wondering if these two came in with the firewood.

I found it interesting how much red the bug had on it, when I looked at the photos. To my naked eye it seemed fairly uniformly brown, with some darker Vs at the shoulders and around the bottom of the scutellum (the bit in the middle of the back that appears as a pale U in the first photo, and which didn’t stand out as pale to my eye). It amazes me how much detail cameras reveal in these smaller subjects, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy photographing moths and other insects so much. (Incidentally, the random little pale dashes, such as the one on his head, are moth scales. I had him in one of my moth jars until I got my camera equipment set up.)

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Although some of the 250 species in family Pentatomidae are hunters of other arthropods, most feed on the sap of plants. Some can be serious crop pests. They stab the plant with their long, thin proboscis and use it like a straw to suck the sap out. This doesn’t usually kill the plant (except in cases of bad infestations) but because a scar will form where the plant was pierced it can create deformities and blemishes – a problem for farmers trying to sell their produce for human consumption since we humans are so picky about the aesthetics of our produce. Sometimes it will destroy seeds, which can be problematic for grain crops or things like corn, where the seed needs to be whole to be useful. When not in use, the proboscis is tucked firmly against their underside. You can see it here as a thin line going from the head down between the legs.

The other interesting thing you can see on its underside is the scent gland that produces the stink. It’s just a small divot in the side of the thorax, dorsal to the middle leg (ordinarily, when the bug is upright, it would be right above the leg, but in this photo it’s right below). A close-up of the gland is below, indicated with an arrow. Not the best quality, but he was squirming a lot, rowing his legs and pushing against the stone to try to flip himself upright. He wasn’t having a lot of success, and as soon as I got the photo I turned him over again. (For a better-quality photo, check out this one on BugGuide.)

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Biothon tiger (beetles)

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I’m a fan of tiger beetles. Pretty much any open dirt or rocky trail in the summer will have at least one or two of these gorgeous metallic-green beetles. I usually notice them first when they’re flushed; they fly up  from the ground with a bright glint of colour that catches the eye. Once they’re landed they can be a bit harder to pick out, but on a bare dirt path, and in the sun, they really stand out.

There are a number of tiger beetle species, found in every state and province, but by far the most common here in the east is the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, Cicindela sexguttata. The only other species I’ve seen before was Green-margined Tiger Beetle, C. limbalis, along the road where we lived by the lake. I saw lots of Six-spotted on the biothon, hunting in sunny spots along open dirt trails. Tiger beetles, as their name implies, are predators. You can’t really see it in this photo, but they have huge, sharply-toothed mandibles that they use for catching their prey. Their large eyes are used for hunting visually, and their long legs make them swift.

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I was absolutely delighted when I turned up this second species of tiger beetle on the second day of biothoning. I didn’t recognize this one at the time, other than to know it wasn’t a Six-spotted; but it happens to be the same species I found along the road by the lake house, a Green-margined Tiger Beetle. This beauty caught my eye as it scurried across some open rock at the crest of a low roll (I’m not sure it was high enough to call it a hill) in a small treed meadow I checked out.

It was remarkably unflighty, which I found interesting, and even more so when I note that in my post from a few years ago, where I shared the lake house individual, I commented that that one was also pretty calm. Six-spotteds are so difficult to photograph because you really have to sneak up on them and even then they may take off before you get really close. But this one sat calmly for me (as did the lake house beetle); I was even able to lift off a twig that it had scuttled under and which was partially obstructing the photo. Species-specific temperaments in beetles?

Strangely, I wrote in that post:

In this case, Marshall notes, “The Green-margined Tiger Beetle lives on clay soils across Canada and the northeastern states.” BugGuide.net, my number one online reference for all things six-legged, adds that the habitat is “usually steep, moist bare clay soil, including… dirt roads”.

Except there really wasn’t any moist bare clay soil, dirt roads or otherwise, in the area where I found this one. It was on an open crown of granite amid quite a lot of grassy meadow. There were other patches of rock here and there, but I’m not sure there was even much open dirt along the trail, which was some distance away anyway. So that’s somewhat odd.

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I actually found this third species on the first day, not the second, so I’m presenting these a bit out of order. But this was the only one whose identity I needed to look up because I didn’t think I’d seen it before. Using this site of Ontario’s tiger beetles (created, interestingly, by a prof at my alma mater, University of Guelph, with whom I did an entomology course to Ecuador), I’ve tentatively ID’d this guy as a Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle, C. duodecimguttata.

I found this one along the short dirt trail that led down to the gravelly beach. It paused to rest on a bit of rock, where I took this photo of it. It was much flightier than the Green-margined, more like the Six-spotted, and after snapping this photo (this is a tight crop from a much farther-away shot) I pressed my luck trying to get closer and it took off, not to be relocated.

On the Ontario page the habitat is given as gravel dams as well as areas with mixtures of moist sand and organic soil, tending to prefer sheltered spots rather than open beaches or dunes (the habitat favoured by most tiger beetles). BugGuide, meanwhile, says it’s found along the edges of streams and ponds. The lake we were camped at was hardly a pond, but it wasn’t huge, either.

When I found all these tiger beetles one of the first thoughts to cross my mind was “I’ll have to share these with Ted!” (Author of the wonderful entomology blog Beetles in the Bush, and an expert on beetles with a particular interest in tigers. He’s already corrected the ID of the fuzzy flower beetle of my last beetle post!) So Ted, hope you don’t mind confirming the identifications I’ve made here!

Moth fly

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Hope everyone had a great holidays! I’m a little late with this week’s post as a result of my own. I’m digging back into the archives again for this one. I spent some time this fall helping my sister and her boyfriend out with a bit of house and yard work. I happened across this little guy while scraping old paint from exterior trim; he was sitting right next to the frame so I wouldn’t miss him.

It’s a moth fly, a member of the family Psychodidae, a group of flies whose hairy bodies and long antennae give them the look of moths. I was absolutely delighted by this find; I’d seen the photos of moth flies in my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects and kept watching for one, unsuccessfully.

Moth flies are pretty small, only a 1/4″ (1/2 cm) long at most (some are only a third that length). They favour wet habitats, and apparently can become nuisance pests in kitchens, where their preference for sink pipes lends them another of their common names, drain flies. The larvae eat algae and bacteria that are growing in the damp environment of the drainpipe (or other more natural situations); adults are nectar-feeders. Because they utilize habitats in human homes, they can be encountered at any time of year.

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There are 113 species in North America, but some 3000 worldwide. A particular subfamily are blood-suckers and can transmit diseases, but the ones found in your home are generally harmless. In fact, the larvae of some moth fly species are actually useful and important in the purification process of sewage treatment plants.

I’m pretty sure this one is Clogmia albipunctata, for which BugGuide gives the common name Filter Fly. BugGuide notes that the species used to be primarily tropical but is now found through much of North America.

Biothon beetles

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Remember back in the summer I did a biothon in support of Frontenac Bird Studies? I wrote one post for it, but I never did get around to returning to the rest. And since I had selected and edited 48 photos from it, that left quite a few photos unused. I thought I’d revisit some of these over the winter.

Here’s the first, and possibly my favourite, of the outstanding photos. Dan brought me this guy back from a hike he and the other participants had gone on; it’d been in one of my moth containers for a little bit, so it got a bit rubbed up. But it was still pretty clear to see that this was a FUZZY YELLOW BEETLE. Yes, it was just that cool that it requires all-caps.

[Edit: I’ve been corrected by the fabulously knowledegable Ted of Beetles in the Bush. The beetle is not, in fact, a bumble bee scarab, but rather another type of scarab in the genus
Trichiotinus, sometimes called hairy flower scarabs or bee-like flower scarabs. Ted suggests that while members of this genus do have a fair bit of “fur”, much of what’s on this beetle is actually debris, with pollen giving it the bright yellow colour. Thanks Ted! The info below still applies to bumble bee scarabs… just not to my beetle.]

As always, my fabulous Kaufman Field Guide to Insects (go buy a copy if you don’t already own one!) provided me with its ID. It’s a bumble bee scarab, family Glaphyridae. There’s only one genus in this family found in North America, Lichnanthe, containing eight species. The common eastern species on BugGuide.net is Lichnanthe vulpina, which goes by the common name Cranberry Root Grub for its larvae’s habit of feeding on – surprise – cranberry roots. BugGuide says it’s primarily in eastern coastal states, but we do have cranberry around here, too, so I don’t know. Adults seem to be bumblebee mimics and visit flowers during the day. I can’t find much other info on it.

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Another beetle! I’ve got at least half a dozen beetles to share, but I’ll stick to these two for this post. This one’s much easier to figure out: it’s a net-winged beetle, family Lycidae, by the interesting pattern of raised veins on the wings; and it’s Calopteron discrepens by the way the vertical black bar joining the upper black band to the thorax widens as it reaches the thorax (another lookalike, C. reticulatum, remains the same width).

There are five species in this genus, all restricted to the north and east. The KGI suggests that some members of this family feed on honeydew from aphids, though I don’t know if it’s true for this species. Other species seem to feed on nectar from flowers.

Another species, C. terminale, lacks the upper black band. There’s a species of moth, the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth, Lycomorpha pholus, that looks nearly identical except that it’s wings are smooth, lacking the raised veins, and its antennae don’t have the saw-teeth. And, y’know, it’s a moth, not a beetle. :) The black and orange patterning of these beetles is probably aposematic (warning predators that they’re distasteful or toxic), in which case the moth would benefit through mimicry.

Not a beetle:

8087 - Lycomorpha pholus - Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

Bald-faced Hornet nest

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While out walking the other day I discovered a huge paper wasp nest attached to the bottom branches of one of the small bur oak saplings in our meadow. I brought my camera today when I went out to get some photos as I did some investigation.

The nest was gigantic, by my sense of wasp standards. I’m used to the little Polistes nests that hang from the ceiling of your garage and such; they rarely get much bigger than a fist, though some particularly enthusiastic colonies might manage to produce one that’s cantaloupe-sized. But this was huge; bigger even than my head. Half the size of Jack. Probably a good 14 inches (35 cm) top to bottom.

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The lower branches and leaves of the sapling had been completely integrated into the structure of the nest. I don’t often see wasp nests in trees, but I’m pretty sure that all the ones I’ve seen previously hung by a peduncle and didn’t incorporate any tree bits.

It seemed funny that I hadn’t noticed this at all during the summer, but the grass gets quite long and it would’ve been well-hidden; I would probably have needed to walk right past the sapling to have seen it before the grass began to die back. Even now, from the main trail it was still hard to detect.

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Feeling fairly comfortable in the knowledge that paper wasps don’t overwinter in their nests, I decided to open it up. I still used a stick to do it – I wasn’t feeling that confident – but my suspicions were confirmed: the nest was empty. At the end of the summer, the entire thriving colony dies with the frost. Only the new queens, which have already gone on mating flights and been fertilized, overwinter. Next spring they’ll emerge and start building a new nest, tending the eggs themselves until the first brood of workers are grown and able to start helping out.

It’s interesting to see all the layers of paper around the exterior of the comb. These provide not only protection against the elements but also thermoregulation; all those narrow pockets of air act as insulation, helping to keep the inside of the nest cool even in the summer heat.

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I pulled the comb out from the center to have a closer look. It turned out to be two layers thick, with the second layer separated by a gap of about a centimetre (1/2 inch) or so. Each cell was about 3/4 inch (almost 2 cm) deep and perhaps 1/3 inch (8 mm) across. I’m looking at those cells and thinking: these were big wasps, whatever they were. The cells in typical Polistes nests aren’t that big.

All of the cells were empty. The paper that made up the walls of the cells was thin and somewhat brittle, but the two combs seemed to have a reinforcing network of stiff paper arches bracing one comb against the other. You can see a couple here, on the left, looking like swirling flat pieces of paper tucked into the middle of the comb. The ones on the top I don’t think served any purpose yet; I think they were built in preparation for another third comb to be added, but the approach of winter cut short construction.

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I love the paper created by paper wasps. It’s so firm, but you can see each layer of pulp that was added to form the wall. The paper is grayish but the tones and hues vary depending on the source of the pulp: some quite pale, some dark, some reddish or yellowish. About 2 mm (1/8 inch) wide and up to an inch (2.5 cm) or more long, each wall is made up of hundreds of trips to scrape wood fibers from dead wood. (This may include your deck or pieces of untreated plywood around your home.)

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In the very bottom of the nest I discovered a single dead individual, the only one left, caught in a fold of the paper. The identity of the nestmakers revealed: they were Bald-faced Hornets, Dolichovespula maculata. Actually a type of yellowjacket, I believe it’s the only native North American wasp with the common name “hornet”. True hornets are members of the genus Vespa, of which there is only one in North America, the introduced European Hornet (Vespa crabro).

Most of the yellowjackets do have a lot of yellow on them, but there’s one species that’s mostly dark and commonly called a Blackjacket. So maybe this would more aptly be called the Bald-faced Blackjacket? The “bald-faced” part, of course, refers to the pale forehead and face (bald being an old english term for this, still often used in describing animals, especially horses).

Check out the stinger at the end of the abdomen. I was very careful while I handled it, just in case. ;)