Fireflies on the Prairie (Friday 5)

Tonight was the night of my annual firefly evening program!  It’s been an awesome year for fireflies in my part of North Carolina, and the display over the prairie at work has been even more spectacular than usual.  There are literally thousands of fireflies of several different types and they make the most amazing pattern of flashing lights.  I showed them off last weekend to the 50 people to attended a family campout overnight at our field station, I went out earlier this week to try my hand photographing them again, and I went on the news yesterday with some live fireflies to promote tonight’s program, so I’ve had fireflies on the brain all week.  It seems only fitting that Friday 5 feature fireflies this week!  Let’s kick things off with some photos of some local fireflies I took in my whitebox last night, the ones that went on the news with me.  This one is, I believe, Photinus pyralis, the common eastern firefly:

 

Photinus pyralis

Photinus pyralis?

These are far and away the most common fireflies I see at my home and at work.  They are about 1 cm long and have a lovely pink and black patch on their thorax, plus they make an awesome yellow-green J shaped flash pattern that’s really easy to see.  They don’t feed at all as adults.  I am still ridiculously excited about running around in my yard catching these and do so at every opportunity.  My neighbors probably think I’m crazy, but I don’t mind.

This one was almost half the size of the individual above:

Smaller Photinus

Smaller Photinus

I found it under a leaf on a bigleaf magnolia tree.  It was actually a little hard to find, a tiny firefly on a HUGE leaf!  I never got to see it flash, but given the difference in size and the pattern on the thorax, I am fairly confident this is another species and not just a really runty P. pyralis individual.

This one is from the predatory genus Photuris:

Photurus sp

Photuris sp.

The Photinus-Photuris story is rather legendary among entomologists.  Female Photuris are known to mimic the flash pattern of their Photinus relatives, luring unsuspecting males who are eager to mate in close before they eat them.  I imagine it going down like this:

Photinus male: “Oooh!  Receptive female over there, gonna go check her out…  Hey baby, wanna get freak-…  oh nooooooo!”  :)

I know I shouldn’t make up insect conversations in my head, but really, how can you resist?

Now when I found this individual, I only had one collecting vial with me and it already had a Photinus inside.  I thought that surely I could put the two of them together for a few minutes during the day without them eating each other, right?  Next thing I knew, the Photuris was biting the Photinus!  I wanted to show both off when I went on the news, so I ran back to my office for another vial and pulled them apart.  The Photuris took a big glob of fluid with it when I got them separated and quickly ate it all.  The Photinus seemed just fine though, in spite of having a rather large amount of fluid removed from its body, and they both went on to become media darlings on the news.

This is my yearly attempt at getting a good firefly photo at night, taken a few days ago on a rainy, cool evening:

Fireflies over the prairie

Fireflies over the prairie

This is 14 somewhat long exposures stacked to create a single image.  The flash patterns in this photo are far and away the best I’ve gotten, so I’m encouraged to try again and see if I can improve upon this at my next opportunity.

And finally, I’m going to leave you with a video I took tonight during the program.  There are a lot of kids and their parents talking in it, but you can see the start of the evening’s firefly display.  It was dramatically better just 15 minutes later, but there wasn’t enough light for me to film it, so this is the best I could do:

Are any of the rest of you seeing fireflies?  A cousin of mine in the midwest mentioned last night on Facebook that he’d just seen his first firefly of the year, so I’m hoping there are lots out and about and many of you are getting a good show this year!

And with that, I go to sleep so tomorrow I can teach an unknown amount of people about ladybugs and citizen science at a big event we’re having at work.  Could be 5 people, could be 1000.  Should be fun regardless!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Playing Dead (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

This little snub nosed weevil can play dead with the best of them!

playing dead

Snub nosed beetle playing dead

Seriously, how convincing is that?  I wouldn’t have thought he was alive except that he (or she) was walking around moments before I took this photo and he was wandering around again moments later. Impressive play dead routine, little guy!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Bugs at Sunset (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

My favorite holly tree at work bloomed late last week! This one tree is loaded with insects throughout its bloom and I absolutely love exploring it and looking for insects lurking among the leaves. Once you notice one, you’ll see the most amazing variety of insects roaming about in the tree!  Some things are small and hidden, and others are right out in the open where they’re easy to spot, such as this leaf-footed bug:

Leaf footed bug

I believe this is an eastern leaf-footed bug, Leptoglossus phyllopus

I like the way the setting sun turned this normally somewhat drab insect such beautiful colors.  I’m looking forward to exploring the tree more this year and seeing what other treasures I can find!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz… (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Last fall, I was watching a movie at home after a long day at work and kept hearing a really loud buzzing sound coming from the bookcase next to our couch.  I assumed it was a house fly that had gotten trapped in the lamp (they often do) and tried to ignore it, but it just kept going and going.  It was also LOUD!  I eventually couldn’t stand it anymore and went to see what it was that was making all the racket.  I found this:

Horse fly

Horse fly

That horse fly had gotten trapped upside down somehow and was trying to right itself, but it just kept spinning around in place, over and over and over, buzzing frantically.  Horse flies scare me – how is it even possible for their bites to hurt so much?! – but it’s hard to beat the beauty of their eyes!  I took pity on this big guy and scooped him into a cup and took him outside.  It was a lot quieter afterwards!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Beetles at Blacklights (Friday 5)

Last summer I spent almost an entire month blacklighting in my backyard every night.  I’m going to share my blacklighting setup with you all in the not too distant future so you can see what it involves, but I turned on my lights just before it got dark and then went out multiple times each night to document the things I found.  I focused on moths as I was participating in National Moth Week at first, but I saw a bunch of other really cool things too.  Though I have no interest at all in studying beetles (except maybe how various aquatic beetles breathe), I have always rather enjoyed looking at them.  I got some really great ones coming to my lights too!  Today I’m going to share 5 of my favorite beetles from my blacklighting adventure last summer.

A note about my identifications: I’m not 100% certain about any of the IDs I propose for these beetles!  I bought Art Evans’ wonderful book Beetles of Eastern North America, which anyone who has an interest in insects and lives in the eastern US should own, just before I started my month of blacklighting.  I used it for most of my identifications and though it is a remarkably comprehensive field guide that covers 1406 species, beetles are incredibly diverse and the book certainly doesn’t cover all of the species found in the eastern US.  It’s entirely possible (maybe even likely) I have some of these wrong – I welcome corrections if you see a mistake!

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

Stenolophus lecontei

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

This gorgeous little fellow is found throughout most of the eastern US and is known to come to lights at night.  They’re active from spring into late summer and belong to the ground beetle family Carabidae.  They’re common in fields, gardens, and suburban yards where they feed on live and dead insects and the occasional fruit, seed, or plant.

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

This little pond dwelling predaceous diving beetle is found throughout the southeastern US as well as the Bahamas and Cuba.  It is surprisingly hard to find information about this particular species, but I would suspect that they are predatory like most of their relatives in the family Dytiscidae and feed on other insects in ponds.  You can tell this one is a male because he’s got suction cups on his front feet.

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

I was thrilled when this gorgeous longhorn beetle from the family Cerambycidae showed up at my porch light!  It was pretty high up and I didn’t get a good shot of it before I bumped it and it flew away, but wow!  What a spectacular beetle!  These beetles are common throughout the southeastern US and range into New England and are frequently seen at lights in spring and summer.  They feed on oaks and sumacs as larvae.

Long-necked Ground Beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

 

Cosnania pensylvanica

Long-necked ground beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

This is a very interestingly shaped member of the ground beetle family Carabidae, with its long, extended prothorax separating its head from the rest of its body.  These are found in the southeastern US and into New England and are common in open grassy areas (like my backyard, for example), on plants along the edges of wetlands, or under piles of debris.  They’re most common in the spring and summer and are known to be attracted to lights.  They are thought to be ant mimics and are suspected to feed on aphids.

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

Ataenius spretulus

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

During my month of blacklighting, I learned that these small, black beetles are far and away the most common thing I find at lights at night in my yard.  There were sometimes hundreds of them!  They belong to the scarab beetle family Scarabaeidae and are active most of the year throughout large parts of the US and into Ontario in Canada.  They are definitely attracted to lights!  They are also a turfgrass pest, which made me worry a bit for my yard.  Not that our grass is perfect anyway (it’s more a collection of neatly trimmed weeds than grass), but there were SO many of these that I was surprised I had any grass left at all!

Apart from this tiny handful of beetles that came to my lights, I found awesome click beetles and loads of aquatic beetles.  There were several scarab species, some of which were very numerous, and some wonderful long-horned and wood-boring beetles.  Some of the beetles had crazy antennae and others were comparatively uninteresting.  My very favorite beetle didn’t stick around long for me to photograph it, a click beetle with absolutely wild antennae!  The experience reminded me, as nature so often does, that there are seemingly endless beetle species in the world of countless colors, sizes, and shapes.  Makes me excited to see what I will find when I start blacklighting again this spring!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery Takes a Somewhat Sinister Turn!

After writing about the moths that congregate at the light on the trailer where I work, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried to identify the moths that I was seeing.  I turned to the best moth ID resource I know of (at least if you have photos): Facebook!  The Facebook group “Moths of the eastern United States” includes several expert moth identifiers and I’ve never had to wait for more than a few minutes to get an answer to my moth queries.  So, I posted my moth photo on the group page, and voila!  A few minutes later I had and ID for my moth: male fall cankerworm.  Hmm…  That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I was a little disappointed, at least at first.

If you’re not familiar with fall cankerworms, allow me to enlighten you!  They’re native to the eastern US, but they are considered pests of elms, ashes, and maples (as well as several other trees) and are known to periodically defoliate large stands of trees.  In certain parts of the country, they cause huge problems.  In my own state, North Carolina, the population in the Charlotte area has been particularly problematic and a state approved aerial application of Bt pesticides has been put into effect in the area.  Bt is derived from a biological source, the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and rather specifically targets caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  By using Bt during the early spring when pretty much only the caterpillars of the fall cankerworm are active, cities or forest managers can target the cankerworm caterpillars without harming most of the other species in the area.

So my little moths are a pest species!  I was hoping they were some sort of amazingly well adapted winter moths with a really interesting life history.  And they are!  Fall cankerworms might be pests, but they’re very interesting pests, so they’re still terribly exciting.

The image I posted recently of the moths at the lights was this:

Moth

Male fall cankerworm

That is a male.  How do I know?  Because the females look like this:

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworms are wingless and quite a bit smaller than the males, so they look completely different.  In fact, if you look on BugGuide.net at the images of female fall cankerworms, you’ll see that a lot of people who submitted photos of them had no idea what they were.  The females still have scales, which implies they’re a butterfly or moth, but the lack of wings really throws people.  I’ll admit that when I found the female in the image above when I went into work yesterday, I thought it was a leafhopper for a moment – and I had even read up on cankerworms the day before!  It’s really not obvious they’re moths on first glance.

Both male and female cankerworms are active in the late fall and early winter, which explains why I’ve been seeing so many of them recently.  The females climb way up into the trees to lay their eggs.  Presumably the adults die at some point in the winter, then the eggs hatch in early spring.  The adults are one of the last insect species active in the winter and the caterpillars are one of the first species to show up in the spring, so they apparently specialize on tolerating cooler weather.  The caterpillars are standard inchworm type caterpillars and feed on tree leaves.  They can cause some significant damage to the year’s early leaf crop, though rarely kill the trees they feed on.  They eventually lower themselves down onto the ground via a silken thread (I often see inchworms dangling from silk on trees here in the spring – now I’ll be looking to see if they’re cankerworms!), then pupate for several months in the soil.  The new adults emerge in the fall and the whole process starts over!

What this all means is that my boring looking little gray moths are actually pretty interesting.  You’re most likely to see them (as adults or caterpillars) in the colder months, which is strange for an insect.  Wingless female moths are always cool too!  And the fact that they’re a native pest species means that I probably don’t have to worry too much about them becoming a problem at the field station.  I do wonder if we might have a bit of leaf damage this year given that I’ve seen so many more adults than usual.  It will be interesting to see if we see a change in canopy density compared to last year as we continue to monitor the phenology of our trees for the National Phenology Network’s citizen science project, Nature’s Notebook.  I’ll certainly be on the lookout for those dangling inchworms in the spring as well!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery

It’s winter in North Carolina.  That’s not to say that it’s cold here everyday because that’s certainly not the case.  It was close to 75 degrees yesterday!  But, we have had some very cold days and several nights where the temps have dropped well below freezing.  It’s cold enough that there aren’t many insects out, so I’m always excited when I see one. Recently, however, there’s been one place that I know I can see live insects outdoors everyday, regardless of the weather or the temperature!  My main office is in this lovely trailer at the museum field station where I work:

Back of the office trailer

Back of the office trailer

Classy, eh?  As you can probably tell from looking at it, our little office building is not very weatherproof.  Cold seeps in during the winter, the AC seeps out in the summer, the doors don’t seal well, and the three rooms vary from too warm to too cold with no room in that perfect Goldilocks zone.  The trailer has two lights on the front, one by each door, and they come on at night.  Only one works.  For the last three weeks, a moth has been sitting in the exact same spot on the wall of the trailer when I’ve arrived at work each day, right next to the working light:

Moth

Moth

I wasn’t convinced it was even alive after a week and a half, so I poked it.  It moved a bit (though not much as it was a chilly day), so it has clearly chosen that spot.  It seems like a bad spot, right out there in the open on the white wall, but the moth apparently likes it.

I often leave work after dark, so I look for the moth every night when I leave to see if it’s still there.  I couldn’t say why exactly, but that little moth, hanging tenaciously to the side of the trailer day and night, amuses me.  Over the last few weeks, however, it’s been joined by other moths of the same species, one more every 2-3 nights.  Warm, cold – it doesn’t matter. Recently I counted 8 moths near the light when I left for the evening:

Moths at light

Moths at light – circles highlight the moths and the arrow points to one additional moth right next to the light that you can’t see in this image

Most of the moths are gone by morning; only that one moth I’ve been seeing for weeks in that one spot is left on the wall once it gets light.  I couldn’t say whether the rest have left under their own power or have been eaten by something, but the next night there will be just as many moths back by the light when I leave.  I suspect they’re hiding during the day and coming back to the light at night.

Now we all know moths are attracted to lights, so seeing moths near a porch light isn’t all that exciting.  What fascinates me about these particular moths at this particular time is how cold it sometimes is when they appear.  I don’t really expect to see insects out where they’re exposed to the cold and weather (these get rained on fairly often and got snowed on last week), plainly visible to predators, on days where the temperature barely gets above freezing.  But there they all are!  We had a few mornings with heavy frost last week and that little moth by the light was practically frozen solid, frosted over like everything else.  Yet it moved when I poked it after it had a chance to defrost.  It’s definitely still alive and is presumably capable of hiding during the day if it wanted to.

I’ve never seen moths on the wall of the trailer in the winter before, so this is a new experience – and one that I don’t know how to explain.  I’ve gone down to our outdoor classroom building to see if there are moths near the light on that building, but there never are.  The walls are brown, the light faces the forest instead of the prairie, and the building is largely unheated, so maybe it’s not as good a spot for the moths.  There are also no moths near the much larger lights in the parking lot, nor on the concrete building across the parking lot where the Musuem’s wet collections are stored (whitish, superior climate control).  There’s something about this particular spot on the trailer that these moths like.  My best guess: they like the light and the heat that oozes out of the walls.  The walls are still quite cold on the outside, but perhaps they are just enough warmer than the surrounding area that the moths can warm up a bit?

I might not understand why they’re there or how they are even capable of coming and going in such cold weather, but I enjoy my moths.  It’s nice to know that even on the coldest nights, I can go out and see a half-dozen little chilly insects hanging on the wall.  I might not live in a place that is warm enough to get lots of insects year around anymore, but at least I know those little moths are out there.  That’s good enough.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth