Not eating much

Damsel Bug, Nabis sp.

I woke up this morning to a very white, white world. Yesterday we’d gotten a bit of snow overnight, but not a large accumulation, and because of warm mid-day temperatures it had already started to melt. It seems that once things cooled overnight we had some more snow push in. The trees are covered in a thick layer, and it’s still falling, making the forest on the other side of the field slightly hazy. These two days represent the first real accumulation of snow we’ve had since the Christmas storms. That’s two months of nothing but light sprinklings. Meanwhile, our friends south of the border seem to have been hit by storm after storm this winter. Sorry guys. Someone up here must’ve been offered Three Wishes.

Although we hadn’t gotten to the point of seeing bare ground prior to yesterday’s snow, we had experienced a fair bit of melt, exposing some of the more well-traveled or sheltered places. We’d had a number of moderately mild days, with sustained temperatures slightly above freezing. Ducking under one of the spruces by the garden on the return from a hike one day I’d noticed an iris that seemed to have escaped the garden. It was valiantly trying to push its way up through the remains of last year’s plant and the accumulation of dead needles on the ground. It’s funny how irises and lilies seem so gullible.

Wondering if there might be any other plants tricked into sprouting by the warmer weather I did a tour of the bare areas surrounding the house. I didn’t see any other green bits, but I did discover a small plastic bag by one corner of the foundation. In it were a dozen bulbs that I’d planted at the last house and then dug up and brought with me to the new one. They’d been set there when we moved in, and the garden’s vegetation quickly grew over so I’d completely forgot about them. I figured they’d all be dead, having spent the winter above ground out in the freezing cold, but had a peek in the bag anyway. Lo and behold, one was sprouting!

Damsel Bug, Nabis sp.

I brought the bag inside with the intention of planting the one bulb in a pot. I think it’s a scilla, although I’ll have to wait for it to grow a bit bigger to be sure. I put the bag on the counter while I went and rummaged for a pot and soil. When I returned with the necessary implements I opened the bag and started flipping through the other bulbs to check for any other life. The second one I flipped over had this guy hiding underneath! The bag hadn’t been sealed; when I bundled up the bulbs a couple of them had mostly-dead stems still attached that I’d just closed the bag around. It appears this guy snuck in through the small opening and had cozied up there for the winter.

It’s a Hemipteran, a True Bug. My first thought was that it was a leaf-footed bug like we see so many of in the house in the winter, but if it was it would’ve had to have been a nymph because it was too small for an adult. It also lacked leafy leg flanges. My next thought was that it was an assassin bug of some sort, especially given that long, strong proboscis, which assassin bugs use for piercing their prey. So I flipped open my favouritest Insect identification guide, the Kaufman guide to insects, which always has all the answers. Well, almost always. And sometimes only half the answer. But very rarely do I open it and not find something helpful. This time, it had the whole answer, and practically on the first Hemipteran page I flipped to.

This guy’s a Damsel Bug in the genus Nabis. There are nine species in this genus in North America, nearly all found in the northeast. As I had suspected by the strong proboscis, they are predatory, feeding on other soft-bodied insects. They can be told from assassin bugs by their tapered shoulders and thickened forelegs. They appear to favour fields and gardens, and overwinter as adults.


Naturally, when I found the bug I didn’t have my camera. I dashed upstairs, switched out the lenses for the Macro, and hurried down to try to get a photo. When I got back, I couldn’t relocate him immediately. As I searched I discovered a few other critters crawling around in the dirty bulbs. The first one I spotted was this beetle, scurrying quickly out from under his disturbed hiding spot in an effort to find new cover. I haven’t a clue what it is, beyond being a beetle. It was tiny, less than half a centimetre (<1/4"), and a very generic, unmarked brown. I would hazard a guess at a type of leaf beetle, but, being a beetle and therefore among the most diverse group of organisms on the planet, it would be a very hazardous guess. My friend Ted over at Beetles in the Bush would undoubtedly know.

Speaking of Ted and beetles, this would be a great opportunity to mention that the brand-spankin’-new blog carnival dedicated exclusively to beetles, An Inordinate Fondness, just enjoyed its inaugural edition over at the carnival’s home page. Ted put a lot of time, effort and care, and perhaps even some sweat and tears, into bringing the project to fruition, so I highly encourage anyone who loves beetles, or likes them, or is even just the tiniest smidgeon interested in them, to pop over and check it out.


Then I found this arachnid. Clearly an arachnid because it’s got eight legs, it’s also clearly a harvestman because it’s got only one body segment. Harvestmen are related to but not actually spiders in the true sense. We’re mostly familiar with harvestmen as the creepy Daddy-long-legs with their spindly Tim-Burtonesque long legs. There are, however, some with long legs, some with short legs, and some with no legs at all! Okay, so not really on that last bit, but there’s definitely more diversity to harvestmen than you might initially think. There are some 6400+ species worldwide. The unifying feature is the single-segmented body. The actual identity of this individual will probably remain a mystery, though, since I lack the expertise to know what to look for, and there’s a good chance that the ID depends on some bit of microscopic anatomy, as is often the case with invertebrates.

Male spider

Speaking of arachnids, I also spotted this tiny little spider scurrying across the folds of the bag. I think this is probably a dwarf spider, family Erigoninae, a group of fairly common but particularly tiny and therefore usually overlooked spiders. Genus is less certain, but possibly Ceraticelus. This one is a male, as you can tell by the two swollen appendages in front of its head (like big mitts, they’re primarily used in transferring packets of spermatophores to the female’s body, so females don’t have them).

Dipteran? cocoon

And finally, an inanimate addition to the collection. I don’t know cocoons very well, beyond that anything built with silk is probably a moth. The only hard-shelled cocoon like this that I’ve seen and had ID’d before were the sawfly cocoons I found under a pine tree last winter. Could this be a dipteran cocoon, then? Something else?

I put the bag of bulbs, critters and all, down in the basement when I was done. Now that I’d woken them all up and disturbed them, putting them back outside would possibly mean death. Also, I wanted to see if, with sustained warmer temperatures, any of the other bulbs might try to sprout. I wasn’t concerned if any of the little critters happened to escape and disappear into the house. As my dad used to say, when we were kids and pointed out a bug getting a bit too close for comfort, “that’s okay, he won’t eat much.”


Look carefully

Ant on dandelion

On Tuesday I bought myself an early birthday present. I’ve been wanting a good macro lens for a while. In the winter I got a Canon close-up lens, basically the equivalent of a magnifying glass that you screw on to your existing lens like a filter. It worked fairly well, but unfortunately the lens that I had wasn’t top quality, it was the entry-level telephoto lens that came with the camera kit bundle. Sure does me fine for a beginner DSLR-er, and the price was definitely right (next step up is megabucks, relatively speaking), but because it’s low-end the optics are soft and the photos are never crisp. Generally this can be corrected with digital sharpening in Photoshop, but with the addition of the close-up lens, which softens the image a tad more, it was really hard to get good sharp shots without a tripod and ample light.

So I’d been eyeballing a dedicated macro lens. I find macro photography fascinating, because, unlike most wildlife photography, it’s a world that we don’t ordinarily see with our unaided eye. We also tend to overlook a lot of the small stuff, and I wanted to be able to capture these things to share with others. I wanted a lens that wasn’t afraid to get in there, and that would produce good sharp photos while doing so. The answer was the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro (quite a mouthful of a name!). I did a lot of research, and the general consensus was that the Canon 100 was the best bang for the buck at that price level. I couldn’t find a bad review. So I bought it.


I took it out to test-drive it that afternoon, swinging by the Leslie Street Spit, which wasn’t too far out of my way. It was unfortunately quite windy, and a little cool, and I had other errands to run after, so I didn’t stay out too long. I focused on the dandelions that were growing along the edge of the parking lot and nearby path, pretty much the only wildflowers growing yet in these disturbed areas. There didn’t seem to be anything visiting them, no bees, no butterflies, no insects of any sort. Until I looked closely. There, crawling around at the base of the petals, deep within the flower head, was a teeny-tiny ant. It had a slight purple sheen to it, and its antennae were tipped with pollen. I don’t really know what it is (aside from colour and general size, ants are so similar to each other…), but it does resemble the Odorous House Ant in the Kaufman guide to insects. I gather it’s not limited to houses, despite its name, and the “Odorous” comes from its habit of emitting butyric acid, which smells of rotting coconut (presumably someone who lives where coconuts grow, and subsequently rot, would know better what this smells like).

The above fly, although also on a dandelion, was from a couple days later, when I was back at my parents’ place. It was also the only insect I found on the flowers. Like the ant, flies are difficult to identify, but this might be Cheilosia sp., a type of flower fly from the family Syrphidae.

Click beetle

Later that day my mom and I returned to the same pond site where we found the salamanders for another check-up visit on the status of things for a program she’s doing next week. We decided to walk down the trail through the woods a little ways, looking at the wildflowers and seeing what was blooming. We were mostly focused on the flowers, so nearly overlooked this beetle, even though it was sitting out in the open on a leaf.

It’s a click beetle, though species is uncertain. Click beetles are named after a characteristic noise they make. They have a spine on the underside of their thorax that snaps into a groove a short ways further back. It’s the snapping of this spine that produces the distinct clicking noise. The noise is primarily used to distract predators, but the spine can also be useful for flipping the beetle back right-side-up if it gets turned over. The action can be quite violent sometimes, jumping the beetle some distance into the air.

Asclera ruficollis

Further down the trail I stopped to photograph some trilliums and found this brightly-coloured beetle perched on the edge of a flower. I discovered, when I went to look it up in the field guide, that there are quite a number of long, narrow black beetles with red collars. This particular one had the unique characteristic of two bumps on the red thorax that made it easier to distinguish from the others, but I still had to submit the image to to get an ID for it. It’s Asclera ruficollis, a beetle of the northeastern woodlands. Adults are found feeding on the pollen of wildflowers during the spring period, from March to May.

Pseudexentera sepia?

The last bug of this post was a little moth that flitted across the trail as we were walking. I tracked it a short distance off the path, where it came to rest on a dead log. If I hadn’t watched it land, though, I may have been hard-pressed to locate it again. It’s just a small moth, maybe a centimeter (half an inch), and cryptically coloured so it blends in with the wood (it looks fairly obvious here because I’ve isolated it with the camera, but believe me, it wasn’t). I think it’s a species of Pseudexentera, though I don’t really know which one. I could even be wrong on the genus. All those micros can be so tricky to ID! There just aren’t a lot of field marks on their tiny wings to reference.

Going out with my new lens in hand, I was looking for little things to photograph, but I was somewhat focused on the flowers. The lesson here: look carefully and pay attention, there’s lots out there that you can just walk right by without even noticing!

A beetle from summer

Grapevine Beetle

When I returned to my parents’ this week my mom had brought out a beetle she had found while shopping downtown in the local town back in the summer, following a conversation we’d had earlier this week on a subject I can’t recall now. The beetle was dead when she found it, so she picked it up and brought it home with her. It was a warm reddish-tan, with large black spots down each side of the carapace, and one in the middle of the back. It’s obviously a member of the scarab beetles family, and further research revealed it to be a Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata.

Ordinarily a dead beetle on the sidewalk would probably have been passed by unnoticed, but the size of this particular beetle was what caught her eye. Below is an image of the beetle posed with a (live) ladybug for comparison. The scarab family contains 1300 species, some of them the largest beetles in North America. Grapevine Beetles can grow up to an inch long, which is not quite up to the six inches of the southern Hercules Beetle, but is still a pretty impressive beetle for this part of the country.

Grapevine Beetle and ladybug

I’ve never seen this beetle alive myself; in fact, this is the first time I’ve seen it ever, which seems somewhat unusual for what looks like it should be a rather conspicuous bug. It seems fairly common, occuring through most of the east from Ontario south to northern Florida and west to Nebraska. The adults can be found from May to August through much of its range, and will regularly come to lights in the summer.

Grapevine Beetle head

It inhabits deciduous forests. Adults feed on the foliage and fruit of grapevines (hence the species’ common name), but appear to do little serious damage. It lays its eggs in the summer on decaying logs, which the larva feed on during their development. Larva overwinter in the logs, pupating and emerging as adults in the spring. I found one site that offered care information for the species, but aside from a couple comments on the web, couldn’t see any evidence that it was frequently kept in captivity.

Grapevine Beetle head

One of the features of scarabs is their club-like antennae. You can sort of see here that the club is actually many-parted. These plates are called lamellae, and the beetle can fan them out when sensing odours. When it’s not testing the air, it folds them up out of the way. This individual’s a little dusty from sitting on a shelf since the summer, but in this and the previous photo you can also see the mouthparts it uses to cut bits of vegetation. In the previous photo you can get a better view of the upper cutting mandibles, and the lower manipulating ones.

Grapevine Beetle legs

Beetles, like many insects, have hairy legs and bodies, under their smooth carapaces. These hairs are called setae, and are used for sensing the environment. Generally they sense small changes in air pressure.

Take a look at the claws at the end of this guy’s feet. The claws are primarily used to help the beetle secure itself to whatever it’s walking on. However, in scarabs the front claws are modified for digging. You can see how much more curved they are on this individual. Grapevine Beetles aren’t really diggers the way some scarabs are (such as dung beetles), but they retain the characteristics of the group.

In looking up information on beetle feet, I discovered this site that is doing research on the applications of beetle-foot design to modern technology. One of the main things they’ve developed from it is an adhesive that’s twice as sticky as glue-based tapes, and is reusable simply by washing with soap and water. I wasn’t quite clear on the specifics of the technology from their description, but it uses the principle of a beetle’s hairy feet (I gather this is a characteristic of a different family of beetles), which act like a thousand little suction cups on long threads. The suction cups adhere to the surface, while the long threads allow dust motes and other debris to slip between the affixing surfaces, so it can attach to dusty and dirty surfaces as well. The lab’s site has videos of their Mini-Whegs robots scaling vertical glass walls using the adhesive. I’m on dial-up while here at my parents’, so wasn’t able to watch them, but even just the idea is pretty cool.