Four days early

Graphocephala coccinea, Red-banded Leafhopper

Another beautifully mild day today, with our thermometer peaking at 17 oC (63 oF) in the sun mid-afternoon (actual temperature was somewhat lower, but not by a great deal). We’ve had a string of such nice days now. It looks like after tomorrow a cold front will move in and drop temperatures down for a few days, but by this time next week we’ll be back up again. I’ve been starved for balmy, sunny weather, I’ve been soaking it in these last few days.

So has the wildlife. I’m up to 12 species of moths recorded so far this season already. This seems to me like an extraordinary number for March 17, and I’m not sure how much of that number has to do with the string of warm days (perhaps we didn’t run into that last year?), versus me actually setting up and looking for them (I didn’t try this early last year because I didn’t want to waste my time if nothing was flying, since it was more of an effort when we were in the apartment, but this year since we’re in a house I can put the light out anyway and it’s not a big deal if nothing comes), versus simply being in a great place for moths (and everything else; I love my home).

Last night I got two moths which I took photos of this morning, after holding them chilled in the fridge overnight. Rather than just setting them up on the deck railing or on a sheet of paper or something, I hunted down a dead leaf that was still in good shape as a photo base. Most were starting to fall apart, or if they were still intact, they were curled up. Finally I found one that was whole, and mostly flat. When I picked it up and turned it over, I noticed a small white speck on the underside. It turned out to be a leafhopper. I think it’s a Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea, also sometimes known as a Candy-striped Leafhopper. It’s very pale, and I suspect this may be because it had just recently emerged, and its exoskeleton was still soft (the colours in insects’ exoskeletons often strengthen as the shell hardens).

spring fly

Also something I noticed today that I hadn’t over the weekend was a profusion of flies. They were ubiquitous in open areas where leaf detritus had piled up in the fall, such as the edge of our driveway and lawn, or the clearings along the forest edge. I’m not positive on its ID. I think it might be a Stable Fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, which is a common and cosmopolitan species. I was able to rule out House Fly by the veination on the wings, but that was about as far as I got. Flies are a group I’m content to leave to someone else’s expertise.

Edit: Kirk suggests in the comments that this is a Flesh Fly, family Sarcophagidae. So not even close to Stable Fly. I told you fly ID is better left to the experts.

Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca

I was intrigued by the discovery of the leafhopper, and the presence of all the flies, and thought perhaps during my walk with Raven today I’d take my camera and see what other spring insects I might be able to turn up. I wasn’t expecting much – after all, it’s only March 17 and there’s still snow on the ground in many places. But I might be lucky and find one or two.

I was surprised to discover a total of 13 individuals of 7 species today. Leafhopper and flies were #1 and 2, but species #3 was the above – fire-less fireflies known as the Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca. The genus Ellychnia are all diurnal, and as such lack the light-emitting organs of most other fireflies (not much point, they wouldn’t be seen). They are also most commonly found on tree trunks, and indeed these two (plus one other) were climbing up the ridged bark of a big White Pine. The Winter Firefly, presumably taking its common name from its cool-weather tolerance and early spring appearance, also happens to be the largest firefly of the northeast by almost twice as much – the large one in this photo was probably about 18mm, perhaps 5/8″.

Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma

A couple trees away, sitting on the side of a hop-hornbeam, was this critter – a ladybeetle, but not the generic orange-with-black-and-white-“head” Asian Ladybeetle that we’re so used to seeing around the house and garden. This one is actually native, and discovering native ladybeetles is such a rare occurrence for me I could count the total number I’ve seen on two hands. Surprisingly, there are actually more than 480 species in North America, so I don’t know how much of my not having seen many is simply because they’re secretive compared to the Asian invaders, or because the Asian beetles are outcompeting them. This particular one, seeming the reverse in pattern from the usual black-spots-on-red, is called the Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma. You can see why the species was named such, but it’s a slightly morbid name, particularly when you consider the Lady in ladybeetle was actually a reference to the Virgin Mary.

There has been a general decline in ladybeetles on the continent, and in recognition of this the Lost Ladybug Project was started in an effort to build a database of ladybeetle sightings to try to help with monitoring these species (since it’s really hard for a couple of Cornell scientists to cover the entire continent). If you have any ladybeetle observations be sure to send them in!

Menecles insertus

I just happened to spot this guy sitting still in amongst the leaf litter while I was photographing a fly, not a foot away. It is a true bug with the scientific name Menecles insertus, and was easy enough to pick out in the Kaufman Insect guide by its all-brown colouring and pale stripe down its back. It seems to be a fairly common insect of the east, feeding on a range of deciduous trees. My guess would be that its brown colouring is an adaptation to a late fall and early spring adult stage, since the predominant colour in the landscape at those times of year is the brown of dead leaves. There wasn’t much info available in either resource I checked, though, and I’m simply hypothesizing that it overwinters as an adult since that would make such an early spring appearance easier.

wolf spider?

I found two of these spiders, in two different spots. I think they’re a type of wolf spider, but I don’t have a definitive ID on them yet, either. They were scuttling through the leaf litter, and, aside from the flies, were the main source of eye-catching movement that I encountered. All of the rest of the insects required examining the ground more closely.

metallic beetle

I also don’t know what this beetle is. It was just a wee little thing, less than half a cm (less than 1/4″) long, but a bright iridescent bronze. I had happened to kneel down to inspect a large rock with mica deposits in it, and as I was checking out the mica, a little beetle comes wandering up over the top of the rock in front of me, like he wanted to make sure he was counted.

Edit: In the comments, Ted makes this suggestion: “The beetle is a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) in the genus Graphops (subfamily Eumolpinae). It could be G. curtipennis, a common eastern North American representative, although there are a number of species in the genus that are difficult to sight ID.”

One other species I saw but didn’t post here was a diurnal moth, a small little tan guy, whose identity also remains unknown to me. It’s amazing how much time one can spend trying to identify things if one really wants to.

grasshopper nymph

Finally, species #13, was these grasshopper nymphs (above and below). I found the green one first, and was quite surprised to discover a grasshopper. I didn’t notice until I got home that it was a nymph and not an adult. Part of the presence of grasshoppers so early is explained by this. It turns out they’re both Northern Green-striped Grasshoppers, Chortophaga viridifasciata. The species has two colour morphs, with both sexes occurring in both colours, but with females predominantly green and males mostly brown. Eggs are laid and hatch in the summer and over the course of the fall the baby ‘hoppers go through a few moults. The winter arrives while they’re still nymphs, though they may be anywhere from half-grown to nearly adults. They overwinter as nymphs and emerge early in the spring to finish growing. They’re usually the first species of grasshopper to be encountered as adults in the spring because they’ve got such a huge head start on development over other species that overwinter as eggs.

Total counts to date this season: 12 species of moth, 12 species of other insect. At March 17th! And spring (the official first day) not even here yet, it’s still four days away. I just can’t get over that. It looks like we’ll have to endure a few chilly days as a cold front moves through later this week and into the weekend, but we’ll be back up to these temperatures again next week. I wonder if I should wait till the 21st to declare spring finally arrived?

grasshopper nymph

Sleepover guests

Ladybug1

My parents live in a 100-odd year old farmhouse out in the country west of Toronto. Sharing the building with wildlife was part of growing up, whether it was bugs or vertebrates. We had mice in the walls (occasionally seen scurrying across the kitchen floor), starlings in the eaves, snakes and newts in the unfinished basement, squirrels and bats in the attic. Most of our houseguests were primarily active during the spring and summer months. In the winter, our primary visitors were, and are, ladybugs.

Anyone in an older home is probably familiar with the mid-winter ladybug invasions that seem to coincide with warm spells. Within the space of a few days, the house seems to become overrun with them. They gather in the corners of window frames, congregate around light fixtures, and seem to find their way into or onto just about everything – hair, clothing… food… Just where do all these bugs come from, in the middle of winter when insect life, as a whole, is pretty absent?

Growing up I used to think that the warm spell encouraged a hatch of ladybug eggs that had been laid in the fall before the first frosts. Actually, all of these uninvited guests are adults, that crawled under the siding or into the cracks of the house in the fall to overwinter. In the warm spell, they awaken and start to move around, and the warmer temperatures indoors draw them inside through small cracks in the walls or around the windows. I know that in my parents’ 100-year-old farmhouse, the insulation is not quite up to modern-day standards, and there are ample opportunities for a little beetle to squeeze in to the much more habitable warmth of the indoors.

Ladybug2

The ladybug most people are familiar with is the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle, an extremely variable ladybug that comes in a wide range of colours and spottiness. Above you can see two very different colour variations of the same species. It’s also the primary culprit in winter home invasions. The species was introduced in Louisiana and Mississippi in 1979 and 1980, as a method of controlling aphids and other agricultural and horticultural pests. They’ve spread a long way since then! You can actually buy ladybugs commercially from garden centres or online to release in your garden as a natural pest-control method.

Ladybugs in and of themselves are essentially harmless, although they can be a bit of a nuisance during their winter invasions. Once the temperature drops following the warm spell, ladybugs that have come into your home will congregate in corners where they will resume their hibernation. During the winter they live off stored fat reserves, but the dry air in most homes during the winter can cause dehydration in these little bugs that results in piles of dead bodies. Ladybugs that manage to make it into enclosed light fixtures usually can’t make it out again and collect in the bottom.

Ladybug3

Aside from this, the ladybugs leave little stains that, growing up, I took to be “ladybug poop” in the corners where they congregate. In actuality, these stains are the result of the ladybugs being startled, threatened or stressed. As a defense mechanism, ladybugs have the ability to excrete some of their “blood”, which has a bright yellow colour and rather sharp, and not altogether pleasant, smell, which discourages potential predators. In prepping the windowframes of my parents’ house for repainting this winter I could easily tell where the ladybugs had been.

I was rather surprised that our recent warm spell didn’t cause the sort of mass invasion I tend to expect with higher temperatures, and while I came across little groups of ones or twos in most corners of the house, there weren’t the large groups I associate with mid-winter warming. Something yet to look forward to, I guess!