Late Season Pollinators 2016

We’ve had a few cool days in Raleigh so far this fall, but it’s been quite warm overall. This means that a lot of insects have been out later than usual, in some cases quite a bit later than usual. A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch at a nearby arboretum, just to get outside in a pretty place for a while, and I came across this field of cosmos:

flower-field

That photo was taken on November 10th, so I was very surprised to come across so many blooming flowers! Several other flowers were also in bloom, so there were quite a few different insect species making use of the nectar. There were, of course, many bees, including honey bees:

honey bee with cucumber beetle

There were also at least three different species of bumble bee, though I’ll admit that I am terrible at figuring out which species is which:

bumble bee

Most of the bumble bees I come across in my area are the common eastern bumble bee, and I suspect this one is as well, but I couldn’t say for sure.

On the same flowers, I came across a few butterflies. I hardly ever see cabbage whites, so I was excited to see this one:

cabbage white

I know they’re a pest species and a lot of people really dislike them. And yes, they did once eat all of the broccoli I planted in my garden. However, they’re really beautiful and they’re just doing what they do when they eat my broccoli, so I like them anyway.  :)

There were tons of these checkered skippers in the field of flowers:

checkered skipper

I don’t know why, but I rarely see these at the museum field station where I work, even though it’s just a mile or so away from the arboretum where I took these photos. There are tons of them at the arboretum though, almost every time I go! I spotted at least two other skippers the same day, but only got a photo of this one:

fiery skipper

I believe this is a fiery skipper, but I’m not 100% sure about my ID. What can I say? Butterflies are not my best group as I just took a real interest in them recently, but I’m working on getting better. Skippers are harder to ID than a lot of other groups, so they’re my weakest group and probably will remain so for a while.

You might have noticed the cucumber beetle in the photo with the honey bee. Once I saw one, I started looking for them and found dozens more, about one per 2-3 flowers:

cucumber beetle

Apparently they really like these flowers. They’re an agricultural crop pest, so it made me wonder if all the holes in the petals I was seeing were caused by the beetles. A lot of the most heavily damaged flowers had the beetles on them, but that could just be coincidence. There were a lot of beetles on a lot of flowers!

I spent a long time watching the insects in this field of flowers, but I saw several more as I walked back to my car. There were more butterflies out, including this common buckeye (one of my favorite butterflies!):

common buckeye

… and this American lady:

American lady

I didn’t manage to get a photo of the swallowtail that was flying around as it wouldn’t sit still long enough, but there was one eastern tiger swallowtail floating around the area. There were also a ton of hover flies, of multiple species. This one:

hover fly

… and this one:

hover fly

… seemed like particularly good bee mimics, about the same size and had rather similar behavioral patterns as honey bees. In fact, a pair of women came up to this planting while I was there and said, “Wow! Look at all those bees!” I, being the annoying person that I am sure I sometimes am, couldn’t let that pass, so I told them that a lot of what they thought were bees were actually flies and pointed out the differences. Not sure they really wanted the entomological lesson right then, but I just can’t help myself sometimes.

Fall has been coming on a lot more slowly in my area than normal this year, so I’ve been surprised more than once by the things that are still visible that are usually gone by now. I found a monarch caterpillar a few days ago and there are still a few milkweed plants alive! A few years ago, I remember seeing a monarch adult on November 2 and thinking it was terribly late, but this year I’m still seeing caterpillars.  Strange, and a little disturbing that it’s so warm so late, but I’m going to enjoy seeing insects out as long as they last – and welcome winter with open arms when it finally arrives.

flower in bloom

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

Dewy (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

I love a foggy, wet fall morning.  If you’re in the right kind of place, the dew will helps you see hundreds and hundreds of these:

Dewey spiderweb

Dewy mornings are a great reminder of just how very many spiders there are out there in the world.  All those webs represent a great – and essential – service that spiders perform: helping keep insect populations in check.  Regardless of whether you like spiders or not, you need them, so thank a spider next time you see a dewy web!

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

Making a Kick Net by Hand

Kick nets are great tools for collecting insects in streams.  They consist of a rectangular sheet of netting that’s supported on either side with poles.  They typically require two people to operate, one person who holds the net upright in the water with the bottom edge of the net laying against the streambed and a second person who “kicks” by stirring up all of the substrate with his/her feet.   The insects that are dislodged drift downstream into the net.  Kick nets of varying quality are available commercially and if you want to use a kick net to do research, you’ll be better off buying a well made one that you can use for a long time.  However, if you are collecting for fun, doing educational programs, or simply want to explore a stream, a handmade kick net will do just fine.

There are several ways to make kick nets, including simply stapling screen to a pair of dowels with a staple gun, but I like one that’s just a little more complicated to make.  I find they come apart less easily and don’t require quite such frequent repairs.  To make it, you’ll need the following:

  • Window screen. The kick nets pictured in this tutorial were made from a roll of 36” x 25 foot screen, which you can purchase at a hardware store and will make several nets.  I recommend the 48” screen if your water is more than a foot deep.
  • Two wooden dowels – I use 1/2″ x 36” dowels. If you are working in deeper water, get 48” dowels instead. Any diameter dowel will work, but I recommend something between about 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch.  Anything smaller is easy to break and anything wider is needlessly heavy.
  • Two thumbtacks (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Sewing machine or needle for hand sewing
  • Thread – I recommend nylon thread for longevity

Kick net supplies

Sewing machin

I have been sewing since I was about 8 years old, so I use a sewing machine to make my nets.  You can do the exact same thing I describe here stitching by hand – it just won’t be as quick to make.

Step 1.  Cut a rectangle of screen.  I cut 2 foot sections from my roll, so my pieces were 36” (the width of the roll) by 24”.  I use the width of the roll of screen as the width of my net, so the length I cut from the roll is the final height of my net.  The nets I make are 34 inches across and 24 inches high when complete.

Screen rectangle

Step 2.  Fold over about 1” along one of the shorter edges (make it closer to 1 1/2  inches if you’ve got a 3/4 inch dowel).  Pin if needed.  Stitch in place about 1/4 inch from the raw edge.  If using a sewing machine, backstitch at both ends.

Stitching a dowel pocket

Step 3.  Stitch across the tube you made about 1/4 inch from one end.  Stitch back and forth a few times for a strong seam.

Stitching along the bottom

Step 4.  Repeat on the other end of the netting, folding over about 1 inch, sewing 1/4 inch from the raw edge, and stitching across the bottom of the tube.  Make sure the “bottom” on both ends of the net are the same!  The final product should look like this:

Stitched rectangle

Step 5.  Insert dowels into the pockets you made.

Inserting dowel

Inserted dowel

Step 6.  If you want to be able to remove the dowels easily when not in use, you’re done.  This makes it easier to fold up and put away.  However, it makes the kick net harder to use as you have to hold the net in place in the stream and also hold the dowels in place in the pockets.  I like to add a couple of thumbtacks to hold the net in place during use.  Press them part way in with your thumb and then hammer them in the rest of the way.

thumbtack in place

The final net should look like this:

Final net

To make your kick net easy to carry, roll the net along one of the dowels and secure in place with a twist tie or other fastener:

rolled net

It takes me about 15 minutes to make one of these nets with a sewing machine and they cost about $4 altogether.  Considering how much the professional kick nets cost, I much prefer making a new one of these when one breaks than laying out the cash for a new pro net.

Good luck and here’s hoping you find many interesting things with your net!

pile of kick nets

You can download a printable version of this tutorial on my Educational Materials page.

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

Question Mark (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

It’s cooled down a lot in North Carolina recently and we’ve had some chilly days.  The number of insects I see out and about has decreased with the decreasing temperatures, but you can still find some great things on warmer days in sunny patches.  This question mark was one of my favorite recent finds:

Question mark

Question mark

I don’t see a lot of these butterflies in general, so I was surprised – and very happy – to see one this late.  So beautiful!

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

Life Stages: Monarch Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most readily recognized and iconic butterfly species on the planet.  While for some insects we might not even know what the immature stage looks like, the monarch has been heavily researched for many years and we know more about how it develops from egg to adult better than most insect species. We have a lot of monarchs at the museum field station where I work, so today I’m going to share the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, every stage for this one.

All insects start off as eggs, so let’s take a look at a monarch egg:

monarch egg

The monarch eggshell (called the chorion in insects) is pale and heavily textured with intricate patterns.  However, unless you get a really good, up close look at one, you’re mostly going to see a pale off-white football shaped object stuck to the underside of a milkweed leaf.  They’re small, but still readily visible if you look closely.  The egg eventually hatches, and the first caterpillar stage emerges:

monarch first instar

Immature insect life stages are called instars and an insect will move from, say, first to second instar by molting its exoskeleton so it can grow.  The first instar larva of the monarch is quite small and looks different from the later stages in its development. They have entirely black heads instead of the striped heads they develop later and they’re largely translucent.  Eventually, they eat enough that they outgrow their first instar exoskeleton and molt into a second instar:

monarch second instar

Seconds start to exhibit the stripey heads and the coloration that people associate with monarch caterpillars.  They’re less translucent than the firsts and start to show the white lines that make up a large part of the pattern on the later instars. The tentacles that come off the front and back of the caterpillars begin to show. Second instar monarch caterpillars have longer tentacles in front and only tiny stubs in the back. Both sets of tentacles are much more pronounced in the third instar:

monarch third instar

Third instars have obvious back tentacles, but they’re still fairly short. Both sets of tentacles are much longer in the fourths:

monarch fourth instar

The tentacles on the front of the fourths are quite long, and about twice as long as those in the back.

The fifth instar is the last stage:

monarch fifth instar

The tentacles are very long on the fifths!  The caterpillars are also quite large, about the size of your pinky finger.  They also have the color pattern most people most associate with monarch caterpillars, black, yellow, and white stripes and a striped head.

Once the fifth instar caterpillar has eaten enough and grown to a certain size, it can pupate.  The caterpillars typically leave the milkweeds they feed on as larvae and find another location to pupate:

monarch pupa

Monarch pupae are gorgeous!  Their pale green coloration helps them blend in with vegetation.  They also have a line of metallic gold spots along one side.  As they get closer to emerging as adults, the color changes.  The exoskeleton of the pupa becomes transparent and you can see the black and orange of the monarch and the outline of different body parts tucked inside.

The pupal stage of insects is really pretty amazing, transforming an insect from a worm-like structure to something with wings (usually).  They’re essentially completely rearranging their bodies!  Eventually, however, they finish their adult development, crack open the exoskeleton of the pupa, and pull their adult body out.  They then pump hemolymph (insect blood!) into their legs, mouthparts, and wings to expand them to their fully extended form.  Then the exoskeleton “cures” and hardens.  Once that happens, the insect is as big as it will ever get and has all its body parts in the position they will remain the rest of its life:

monarch adult

The only change an adult undergoes is the loss of body parts.  With butterflies, you can often get a good idea of whether it is young or old by looking at the wings.  Complete wings with brightly colored scales tend to indicate younger adults.  Tattered or missing wings and dull spots where scales have rubbed off generally mean you’re looking at a butterfly nearer the end of its life.

Monarch males have scent glands that help them find their mates. Once they find a female, they will mate:

mating monarchs

The female then lays an egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf.  She will leave it behind to lay more, often on other milkweed plants.  The caterpillars that hatch have to fend for themselves and ultimately only a small percentage will make it to the adult stage.

Monarchs have a very complicated yearly life cycle.  I am not going to go into much detail here, but they have multiple generations a year.  The monarchs that fly north from Mexico typically make it as far as Texas before they lay a bunch of eggs and die. The monarchs that hatch from these eggs spread further north in search of milkweeds and nectar, and then they too lay eggs and die.  This can happen one or two more times before a special generation is produced in late summer or early fall.  This generation lives close to 6 months instead of just a few weeks and they are the ones that will fly to Mexico, overwinter there, and then fly back to the US in the spring.

So there you have it: the complete monarch life cycle – and the first Life Stages post.  Hope you enjoyed this one, and I’ll post another species soon!

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

New Feature: Life Stages

I’ve taken many thousands of photos of a variety of insects in North Carolina since I moved here and I’d like to do a little something more with them.  I am therefore adding a new periodic feature that will make good use of my hoards of photos: Life Stages! These features will briefly cover multiple stages in the life cycle of a species and share some information about it – what it eats, how it develops, etc.  These posts will help me learn about the species I come across in my daily life, but my hope is to pass along what I discover to you all so that you can get to know the multiple forms, colors, and ages of insects a little better too.

I hope you’ll enjoy Life Stages and learn alongside me!  The first post goes up soon, featuring the iconic life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

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

Stereotypical Ladybug Behavior (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

You always hear about ladybugs eating aphids, but I’ll be honest: I’ve watched thousands of ladybugs, and I’ve never actually seen one eat an aphid.  Until, that is, I got this photo of a seven-spotted ladybug eating an oleander aphid on common milkweed recently:

Ladybug eating an aphid

Woo!  A ladybug doing what everyone always talks about them doing!  It was an exciting moment for me for some reason.  :)

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