Monday Miscellany

Green-margined Tiger Beetle, Cicindela limbalis

It’s that time of year again: the time of year where my quantity of photos taken begins to exceed the quantity of photos I can work onto the blog. I take my camera with me virtually everywhere: every time I go out on a walk with Raven down the road, or a hike with Dan out in the park, or out to visit friends or family. I even take my camera when I go grocery shopping in town, just in case I should happen to encounter something along the way (this was prompted by encountering a young snapping turtle in the middle of the road last summer, so I stopped the car to get out to help it across, and I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera). If there’s anything that catches my eye or even slightly piques my interest, I take a picture. Many of these, the odds and ends that I can’t work into a full-length post very easily, languish in my computer’s annals. During the winter the problem isn’t pronounced, but as soon as spring starts to break, my backlog of photos really begins to build, and I just can’t keep up with all the subjects I take photos of.

Last year I tried addressing this through Today at Kingsford. I felt it was mildly successful, but ultimately still left lots unshared. This year I decided a better way to approach it would be to emulate the day-labeled themes such as “Skywatch Friday” or “Wordless Wednesday”, and start a regular series called Monday Miscellany. Although in my head Saturday is the most logical day for a week-end round-up, “Saturday Miscellany” just didn’t have the same sort of appealing alliteration. So Monday it is.

This week’s header image is of a Green-margined Tiger Beetle, Cicindela limbalis. At least, I think that’s who it is; tiger beetles tend to be somewhat similar in their markings and general colours, and I’m certainly no expert, unlike fellow blogger Ted of Beetles in the Bush. It doesn’t help that my primary reference for all things six-legged, the Kaufman guide to Insects, only covers a subset of the more common tigers. So I turned to a book that I haven’t used a whole lot recently, largely due to its tome-like size: Stephen Marshall’s Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. This is a great book, with a much greater breadth of diversity than can be offered in the smaller Kaufman guide (Marshall’s book is hardly a “field” guide, but makes a great coffee-table reference). I rarely fail to find what I’m looking for in there.

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”. They’re out in the spring and then again in the fall. I spotted it moving along our dirt road one warm afternoon last week as I was returning with Raven. She was very good as I asked her to sit-stay while I photographed the critter. The beetle was also very good, though I doubt it paid any attention to my command to sit-stay. Prior to this I had only ever seen Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (C. sexguttata), so I was rather excited to discover this one.

Greater Bee Fly, Bombylius major

Insects figure heavy in this post. I’ve been seeing quite a few about recently, particularly late last week on perhaps the most gorgeous afternoons we’ve had so far this spring. This one is a bee fly, probably Greater Bee Fly, Bombylius major. This is a widespread species that flies in early spring (BugGuide.net says they’re most common in April), usually found near wooded areas, in sunny clearings either sunning themselves or visiting spring wildflowers. Last spring I noted one visiting the forget-me-nots in my parents’ garden. I saw four in various spots that day last week; this one was at the side of the road.

Weevil

Photo number three is an unidentified weevil. I think weevils are cool, with their long snouty appearances. Although weevils are actually a type of beetle, they are generally thought of as separate organisms. Rarely any larger than a quarter of an inch, weevils are small beetles and this guy was as well. I was sitting in the leaves at the edge of a forest clearing, hoping for a bee fly like the guy in #2 (but not actually that individual) to come land near me, and I noticed this guy crawling through the litter and then up a grass stem where he helpfully sat and wiggled his antennae for a few moments while I took a photo.

Giant Water Bugs

On the evening that followed that beautiful day, I set up my moth sheet with great anticipation of what might arrive. I was not disappointed; I had a few hundred moths come in, of upwards of three dozen species. But they weren’t the only things to come to the sheet. There were also small beetles, a couple of ichneumonid wasps, and these guys, Giant Water Bugs, Lethocerus americanus. I encountered them for the first time last spring, at my parents’ place. They are the creepiest bugs, huge, some three inches long, with giant forearms that look fearsome. They are in fact capable of giving a good nip, and I haven’t tried handling them. They’re capable of flying, although they’re a bit lumbering as befits something of their size, and as I was standing out by the sheet it was hard not to get a little anxious with these huge bugs buzzing by me. There must have been at least 20 that arrived, drawn in by the blacklight. The leaf litter was alive with them.

Daffodil with wasp

At the abandoned property that I visit from time to time, some years ago the owner must have planted some spring bulbs, looking forward to a time when they would be moved in to the completed house and would have a full garden. The house was never completed, the owners never moved in, but the bulbs remain. There were crocuses, tulips, and a couple of patches of mini daffodils, all of which have grown over the years into small clumps. Two daffodils were blooming when I was there last, and were being visited by a few little insects, including this small bee (I think).

Coltsfoot

Speaking of yellow flowers, our roadside, or at least portions of it, are awash in yellow Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara. These are one of the earliest spring flowers, and at least for the past few years, have been the first one I see in the spring. They’re such cheerful flowers, bright and sunny, it’s too bad they’re non-native.

Raven with branch

As Raven has gotten older, she’s taken a greater interest in sticks. She never eats them, but she likes to carefully and methodically shred them to bits. No bit of wood is too small for consideration. And few sticks, it seems, are too big.

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Tiger of the rails

Tiger Beetle

I had been slowly making my way down the rail tracks for about half an hour before I spotted the first one of these – a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Metallic green and vibrantly flashy in the morning sunshine, I’m surprised I’d missed them to that point, since, even though I was somewhat distracted by the birds in the trees lining the rail bed, I had also been paying some attention to the ground, looking specifically for flowers with insects on them. The tiger beetle wasn’t at the flowers, admittedly, but it would be very hard to miss such a strikingly bright insect.

These are my favourite of the beetles. Appearance-wise, it’s easy to see why they appeal. There are many beetles, though, that are flashy, iridescent, eye-catching. The scarabs are especially known for it, as are the metallic wood borers. Many scarabs also have interesting horns or such, and long-horned beetles have outlandishly long antennae. We have some of all of these around here, but it’s the tiger that remains my favourite.

Tiger Beetle

Part of it is probably just that they’re quite common, a familiar beetle of early summer, and yet I’m always pleased to spot them. They tend to frequent trails and other open areas in or adjacent to deciduous woods. I tend to associate them with successional areas, spots with many young trees and shrubs, although I don’t know if this is because it’s a favoured habitat, or just simply where I happen to be more often. I’ve never seen one down at the bird research station, nor at my parents’, but they’re fairly abundant at the station’s summer banding research site, and were along the rails here, too. They’re not that big, at not much more than 13 mm (1/2″), but still large enough to catch your eye.

The adults of this species give the critters both their common and scientific names (Cicindela sexguttata). On most individuals, they have six yellowish-white spots that rim the outside of the elytra (wing covers). The number of spots on individuals can be variable, ranging from none or two up to six or eight. In the case of this one, it has an extra two spots in the inner area of the elytra, to form eight spots total.

Tiger Beetle

I think part of it is also their personality. Tiger beetles obviously don’t take their name because of any physical resemblance to the mammal of the same name, since I have yet to see a tiger that’s metallic green. Instead, their name reflects their personality, and their hunting behaviour. These beetles are predaceous, preying on other small invertebrates. They especially like ants and spiders, but anything small enough to be consumed can become prey. They move with lightning speed, using this to their advantage to snatch prey before it knows what’s hit it (much like jumping spiders do; obviously camouflage is not an effective tactic with these guys).

Maybe their fangs come in to the name, too. Look at the size of those jagged-toothed mandibles relative to the beetle’s head. These massive jaws are characteristic of the group, and are used in subduing and ingesting prey items. They also have very large eyes, which are important for spotting and tracking prey as it moves. It has excellent vision, and they’re very hard to sneak up on. The one downside to this macro lens is that it’s shortened my focal distance, so now I need to be within 6 inches of the subject to get the true macro 1:1 magnification. You get fabulous photos, but only if you can get close enough to take them. Patience is definitely required; either that, or setting your camera up pointed at a flower and waiting for the bug to come to you. Which won’t work so well for these guys.

Tiger Beetle

While I watched this guy, trying to get close enough to run off a series of good, sharp-focused shots, he pounce on and ate something. It happened so quickly, and I was sufficiently distracted, that I didn’t see what it was he ate. It appeared to maybe be a small spider. Whatever it was, it had many long, thin appendages sticking out of the tiger beetle’s mouth as he chewed on it.

There are 14 species of tiger beetles in Ontario, of which the Six-spotted is probably the most common. Certainly it’s one of the most generalistic, inhabiting a wide range of habitats and ranging across a broader portion of the continent. It’s found from New England, west through southern Canada to North Dakota, and south to central Texas and Florida. Sand dunes, gravel pits and beaches are among the best places to look for some of the other species, but rocky alvars and exposed rock or dirt in meadows or fields are also good spots. Not all of them are such flashy colours; many are dull browns and patterned to blend in with the ground, making them harder to spot (and also more easily overlooked, for someone who’s not actively looking).

Tiger Beetle

This guy seemed to be hungry. With his second pounce, he grabbed what appeared to be a bit of dead leaf. Eventually he dropped it, losing interest, or perhaps distracted by something else. Both adults and larvae are predaceous. Adult females mate in the spring and lay each egg in a short burrow in the ground, where, sometime in late June or July, it hatches into a worm-like grub with fangs. It digs itself a longer, vertical tunnel, which it lives in the rest of the summer. It eats similar prey to the adults, lying in wait within its tunnel for some unsuspecting insect to wander by. It spends its first winter in its tunnel as a larva, awakening in the spring once the ground warms up. Later that second summer, in August or September, it pupates within its tunnel. Although it becomes an adult that fall, it doesn’t actually emerge from its tunnel until the following spring, when it will mate and start the next generation’s 2-year cycle.

I tend to think of these guys as species of high summer, but the websites I referenced seemed to indicate they are more of a mid- to late spring species. None of them gave the lifespan of adults, but the Ontario website indicates a few can be found into fall. Some adult insects lack mouthparts to feed as an adult and die shortly after emerging and mating, but this is obviously not the case for these beetles. I’ll look forward to watching them this spring and summer as I do my surveys there and at the station’s summer site.