Friday 5: Milkweed Predators

A few weeks ago, I helped a coworker do a training workshop for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.  She’s been doing MLMP for multiple years, so she knows more about it than I do, but I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the project since my arrival in North Carolina.  It was a lot of fun teaching the workshop too!  The attendees seemed really happy to be identifying monarch caterpillars in the classroom, then doing it some more outside.  I think everyone went home feeling a sense of accomplishment, so I considered it a success!

The day following the workshop was a Saturday and, since my coworkers and I have to take turns doing weekend shifts, it was my turn to work the weekend.  When it came time to take a break, I did what I never had a chance to do during the workshop: I took my camera down to the milkweed where the attendees had found so many of their monarch larvae and shot some of them.  It was raining a little, but that didn’t deter me!  And I’m glad it didn’t because I saw a ton of great stuff on that milkweed, including several predatory species that were presumably eating the excessively abundant oleander aphids:

Aphids

Oleander aphids galore!

These predators included…

Ladybug

Ladybug

Ladybug eating an aphid

This is THE classic eater o’ aphids, and here you can indeed see one happily munching on an aphid.  It certainly had a lot to choose from!  It’s fun to remember that although so many people think of ladybugs as cute and adorable little beetles, they’re also predators that mercilessly chow down on other insects.  Nom nom nom!

Hover Fly Larva

There were several of these syrphid larvae on the milkweed:

Syrphid larva with aphids

Hover fly larva with aphids

According to our milkweed insect field guide (because what do I know about terrestrial fly larvae?), these flies are predators of aphids.  Go little fly, go!  Eat those aphids!  The more you eat, the more milkweed there is available for hungry little monarchs.  That fly will, as I understand, metamorphose into one of those great little yellow and black flies that hover a few feet above the ground.  I love everything about this larva, including the fact that you can see its digestive tract right through the exoskeleton.  Super cool!

Lacewing Larva No. 1

Lacewing with aphids

Lacewing larva with aphids

This lacewing wasn’t shy about its role as a predator and went scurrying about the leaves in search of aphids to eat.  I saw it catch and eat one, though I was so fascinated that I forgot to take a photo.  Oops!  Just imagine that lacewing with a nice, fat aphid in its mouth as it sucked down the aphid juice.  They’re fantastic little predators!  If you’re a gardener, these insects should become your best friends.

Lacewing Larva No. 2

Lacewing with aphid husks

Lacewing with aphid husk attire

Unlike the lacewing No. 1, lacewing No. 2 apparently felt the need for a disguise. If you look carefully you’ll notice that all that junk up on its back is discarded aphid exoskeletons, aphid husks!  I wasn’t able to find one of them, but some of these lacewings were positively covered in aphid husks so that you would never even expect an insect to be tucked away in the pile.  I am not sure whether these eat the aphids and then throw the husks on their backs (a sort of less permanent prison tattoo indicating the number of inmates this lacewing has killed) or scoop them up off the leaves and chuck them up there.  Either way, this lacewing was meandering more slowly around the leaf as it sought an aphid to eat than the lacewing above.  It was really fun finding two lacewing species with two totally different personalities!

And finally…

Itsy, Bitsy Spider

Spider

This was one of the smallest spiders I’ve ever seen!  It’s smaller than the aphids, and MUCH smaller than my fingers (which look positively enormous in this shot!), but it seemed to be going after the aphids nonetheless.  I can’t tell you anything more about this spider except that it was darling.  Look how tiny it is!  Adorable.

Milkweed is positively crawling with insects!  Apart from the aphids and their predators, I also saw ants herding aphids, a variety of wasps that seemed to be attempting to parasitize the aphids, some predatory flies, and a bunch of true bugs that were eating the milkweed.  Who knew that milkweed was such a battleground where every insect is in a life and death struggle for survival?  If you have milkweed in your area, I encourage you to visit it.  You’re likely to see some really cool things!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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Bug Shot 2012, Part 1

Unidentified bug

Unidentified bug

When Bug Shot 2012 was announced on Alex Wild’s blog, I was thrilled! I had learned so much and had such a great time last summer that I knew I wanted to go again. I might not benefit from hearing everything a second time, but I knew there were still many things I could learn. So, I signed up the day registration opened, bought a plane ticket to Florida, packed my camera, and traveled to Archbold Research Station last week. I’m so happy I did!

One of the best things about Bug Shot take 2 was getting to see friends I made last year. I really liked several people who went to the first Bug Shot and nearly all of them came back for a second round. I also made some new friends. It was an excellent social experience, and I think the group bonded much better than last year. We didn’t all end up sitting at the same tables with the same people the whole time again because there really wasn’t a way to do that. I thought it was great. I roamed around a lot more, ate meals with people I might not have otherwise, talked about bugs with a lot of people. It was simply a fun time!

dragonfly

Hyacinth glider dragonfly in air. I don’t like a lot of things about this photo, but what an odd position for the dragonfly to be in! Made me ponder what it might be doing, because I’m just that sort of person.

I also learned a lot about photography. I went last year with the goal of learning how to use my brand new flashes and felt like I made some excellent headway. I came home all excited about flashes, bought some little commercial flash diffusers and a big on-board flash/flash controller, and set out to take some of the best photos of my life. I found myself increasingly disappointed in the photos taken with the flashes, though, and slowly started drifting back into my old, comfortable habits of taking all of my photos in natural light. Doing what I knew worked was a lot easier than pushing myself. But that didn’t make me happy. I knew I could do better, if only I had a little more time to practice.

Spider with prey

Spider with spittle bug prey

So, I arrived to Bug Shot 2012 with a similar goal to last year’s: to become more proficient at using my flashes, including the new big one. After one day, I realized that my whole problem, why I hated my flashes, was that the terrible little plastic diffusers I had bought last year were barely doing anything to actually diffuse the light and were creating hotspots in my images. Once I switched back to the Mylar-sheet-masking-taped-to-flashes method I learned last year, I started getting the shots I knew I was capable of again. Whew! I wasn’t a completely incompetent photographer after all and had just made a bad diffuser choice.

White box patent leather beetle

Patent leather beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus) in white box, my only successful white box attempt this year.

What I most wanted to learn this year was how to control the intensity of my flashes. Apart from my terrible diffusers, I was having problems with lighting and never seemed to get quite the right amount with my flashes. Sometimes the flashes were too bright, but my white box photos weren’t bright enough. I knew there was a way to adjust the brightness with my big SB-910 flash because I’d seen Alex adjusting his similar Canon flashes last year. Thankfully, several other people had the same Nikon setup I do and were able to give me some simple hints for how to adjust the brightness. Special thanks to Matt Bertone for showing me how to adjust the flash intensity by pressing the flash button and moving the dial on the front of the camera! Like last year, a few tips was all it took to make me feel vastly more comfortable with my camera and I saw a marked improvement in my photos immediately.

Giant water bug

Giant water bug, Lethocerus uhleri. What a gorgeous water bug!

I had a few other issues I wanted to address this year. Most importantly, my camera’s sensor was very dirty. Everything I’ve ever read says you should absolutely not touch the sensor under any circumstances. I had planned to take it in for cleaning before Bug Shot, but I ran out of time and I arrived at Bug Shot with an incredible amount of dust on the sensor. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to spend $1000 to attend a photo workshop only to see dust on all your photos. It turned out this was actually a good thing because it prompted me to ask John Abbott if he could give me some tips on how to clean it. He showed me how to do it myself and it took all of a minute. If there was one thing that I consider the most valuable thing I learned at Bug Shot this year, it’s this: your camera’s sensor is covered by a piece of glass and it is a lot harder to damage it than the camera manufacturers would have you believe. I feel quite confident I can clean my own sensor now, so thank you John!

Finally, I had had problems with “soft” photos, photos that look crisp when they’re viewed at the sorts of magnifications that you see online or in print, but lose their sharpness as you increase the magnification of the image. We had a choice of attending a session on introductory photography or introductory entomology on the second day and though I really wanted to attend both, I ended up in the intro photo session. The vast majority of it was review, but I learned one very important thing there: most camera lenses have a “sweet spot” that balances the depth of field and the sharpness of the final image. I decided to play around with the aperture of my macro lens and learned that if I kept it at f16 or below the photos were much sharper than before. Eureka! I was finally able to get a shot of a dragonfly’s compound eyes that actually showed the facets and I was thrilled:

Crisp eyes

Crisp eyes on a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

I am still having a few problems with my camera that I need to work out, but I came home from Bug Shot 2012 feeling much more confident that I will be able to solve my problems on my own. I can control my flash intensity now, so that should translate into better white box images when I have a chance to practice some more. (I’ve got two GORGEOUS jumping spiders in little containers downstairs to use as models as I write this!) I can keep my camera cleaner now, so that will solve several problems. The rest I’ll figure out through practice. I feel good about what I’ve accomplished so far and look forward to improving even more!

moth

Moth laying eggs

You may have noticed that the title says this is Part 1. I’m going to do one more post about Bug Shot next week that includes some of the general tips and tricks that I learned at the workshop. If you just can’t wait, Crystal Ernst over at The Bug Geek has done a phenomenal job covering the event. I encourage you to check out her excellent blog posts.

And with this post, I’m back on schedule! Friday 5 is coming up next, so look for that tomorrow.

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

Swarm Sunday (2 Days Late) – 8/19/2012 – 8/25/2012

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

Some interesting things happened this week.  But first, let’s review the list of swarm locations.  Swarms occurred in the following areas over the past week:

USA:

Gazelle, CA
Boulder, CO
Fort Collins, CO
Jupiter, FL
Marco Island, FL
Panama City Beach, FL (2 swarms)
Siesta Key, FL
Stuart, FL
Suntree, FL
Venice, FL
Venus, FL (3 swarms)
Osceola, IN
Blairsburg, IA
Burlington, IA
Kelley, IA
Cape Elizabeth, ME
Eddington, ME
Port Tobacco, MD
Allegan, MI
Springfield, MO
Concord, NH
Manchester, NH
Rochester, NH
Peapack, NJ
Seaside Heights, NJ
Garnerville, NY
Narrowsburg, NY
Phoenix, OR
Reading, PA
Garretson, SD
New Braunfels, TX
West Jordan, UT

Canada:

Toronto, ON

Yet another week of mediocre levels of activity, but I did see a few interesting things happen.  Most importantly, there has been very little activity in Florida so far this year, but there was a lovely little surge this past week.  I suspect it was because Hurricane Isaac was approaching.  I can’t say for certain that the hurricane was the cause, but there is some good evidence that it was playing a role in the increase in activity.  I was in Florida myself as Isaac approached, so I was able to make firsthand observations.  I didn’t see swarms until the evening it got windy, cloudy, and the temperature dropped.  Before you started to feel the effects of the storm, you didn’t see any swarms.  After the first arms of the storm reached Archbold, suddenly there was swarming.  I also received three reports of migratory swarms in which thousands of dragonflies were flying the wrong way for this time of year, coming north into Florida from over the water.  The migration is upon us, so it is very strange to see swarms moving north when you expect to see them moving south.  But, when you consider the gigantic swarm headed north from the same direction as the dragonflies, it suggests the dragonflies were responding to the hurricane’s approach.

Considering the similar patterns in swarming that were observed last year when Hurricane Irene hit the east coast, I’m going to tentatively suggest that hurricanes are major forces driving swarming behavior.  I’ll have to see what happens after a few more hurricanes hit land in the US to say this with any sort of certainty, but the evidence suggests that this might be happening.

Also, I already mentioned this in my Friday 5 post from last week, but I got to add a new species to my list of confirmed swarming species last week.  The more of these I add and the more countries where swarms are observed, the more it suggests that this is a rather universal dragonfly behavior and not simply a behavior of the known migratory species.  (Hyacinth gliders could be migratory though – they’re very widespread.)  They formed strange swarms too.  They stayed in the same dense group as other species, but they flew differently within that group.  Rather than doing the little rectangular or figure 8 flight patterns most commonly reported in other species, these were much more jerky in their flight, a lot less regular.  They almost flew in little zigzags.  They did, however, consistently do one thing over and over: they flew slowly straight into the wind, hovering several times as they advanced, then abruptly turned 180 degrees and flew 20 or 30 feet very quickly the opposite direction.  Then they would turn around and do it all again, repeating this same motion for hours at a time.  I haven’t seen anything like it in another species.  It might be something unique to this species, though it might just be something no one has reported yet.

I could go on and on, but in the interest in getting this up on the blog sometime today, I’m going to leave you with a video of the hyacinth gliders swarming at Archbold during Bug Shot.  I watched these swarms for a couple of hours altogether and they were truly magical!

Until next week!

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

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Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

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Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

My Blogging Schedule This Week

Hello!

Clearly Swarm Sunday didn’t happen yesterday, but there was a reason.  I stupidly only brought my iPad to Florida with me rather than a real computer and the hour I had in the airport wasn’t nearly enough to write a blog post on the abysmal iOS WordPress app.  That blog post I posted Friday?  That took 2.5 hours to do!  It took maybe 30 minutes max to write and choose appropriately bad photos to accompany the text.  The other two hours were spent trying to find a place I could get a WiFi signal strong enough to actually connect to the server with the wimpy iPad wireless antenna, figuring out how to upload photos within the WordPress app (the online uploader apparently requires Flash, which iPad doesn’t support), and the rest futzing around with html, trying to remember how to do the most basic things in CSS, and attempting to get captions on the photos.  I finally gave up on the latter when bugs started crawling down the back of my pants and just posted it.  Trust me: if anyone tries to convince you that owning an iPad is just like owning a laptop, don’t believe them!  They’re absolutely nothing alike and those differences threw my whole blogging schedule off for the week.  Grrr…

So, here’s the new schedule!  Swarm Sunday will go up tomorrow as Swarm Tuesday instead.  Wednesday will be the standard Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday post.  Thursday will be what I was going to post today, my post about Bug Shot.  Friday is Friday 5 as usual, and then I’m back on track!

Until tomorrow then!  I leave you with a photo from Bug Shot, just because.  I didn’t even know that this had an insect in it until I looked at it later!  I thought I was just taking a photo of a pretty flower, but between the weevil in the foreground and the pair of antennae peeking out of the flower itself, this flower image ended up being quite buggy.  That’s just the way I like them!

Weevil

Weevil before flower

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

Friday 5: Things I’ve Learned at Bug Shot 2012

I’m writing this from Archbold Field Station in Florida, home of BugShot 2012. Apart from the fact that I was exhausted before I arrived and people here tend to get little sleep, year two of BugShot has been a blast! Like last year, I came with a specific goal in mind, to improve my skills with my flashes, and I feel like I’ve made great progress. Plus, it’s great to see so many people from last year again, including several bug bloggers. There are a lot of new faces to learn too and it’s fun making new friends.

I’ll give a more detailed account after I get home, but today’s Friday and that means it’s list time. I’ve learned a lot while I’ve been here, whether it’s photographic, entomological, cultural, or social. I thought I’d share a few photos (though they won’t necessarily all be good!) and five things I’ve learned since I arrived.

There is FAR more dust on my camera’s
sensor than I thought!

Wolf spider in woodchips

This has nothing to do with sensor dust. :)

I knew my camera’s sensor was dirty before I got here, but I was a little shocked when I uploaded my photos to my iPad today and saw just how dirty it really is. Ugh! Tomorrow’s goal: learn how to safely clean my sensor. (Note: That photo up there DOES has an animal in it.)

Hyacinth gliders participate in dragonfly swarms

hyacinth glider swarm

Hyacinth glider from the swarm

I got to see another dragonfly swarm today! (Thanks to Troy at Nature Closeups for pointing it out and John Abbott for the ID!). It was a fairly small swarm of about 50 individuals spread across three little sub-swarms, but it took place right near sunset and the backlighting added to its magical quality. The swarm definitely included wandering gliders, a few spot winged gliders, and a red colored saddlebags that I never got a good look at, but most of the swarm was hyacinth gliders. They were so beautiful!

Florida has some BIG bugs and spiders!

big longhorned beetle

Really big longhorned beetle

One of the things I miss most about Arizona is the palo verde beetles. There’s just something about an enormous, bitey beetle that I really enjoy, so I’ve been thrilled to see a similar species several times at Archbold. It’s in a different genus and it’s a little smaller than my favorite desert beetles, but it still makes me happy. It’s only one example of the enormous arthropods here too. If you like big spiders, this definitely seems like a good place to be.

Speaking of giant insects…

There are two species of the giant water bugs
in the genus Lethocerus at Archbold

Two species of Lethocerus

Two species of Lethocerus

Lethocerus griseus is pretty darned small, at least as far as Lethocerus species go. Lethocerus uhleri is quite large though! It is so fun being in a place that has more than one species. They’re species I’ve never seen alive – and they’ve been just crawling around on the ground by the lights at night. Fabulous!

I can very easily adjust my flash brightness by pushing a button and turning one little dial on my camera

Poorly lit caddisfly

Poorly lit caddisfly

There are a lot of other Nikon users here this year and we, with the exception of our camera bodies, all have pretty much the exact same equipment. That means I can learn how to do things, like adjust my flash brightness, the easy way: asking other people rather than looking it up in the manual. :) Seriously though, it’s really nice to talk to other photographers that use the equipment that you use because you can share ideas and tips specific to your gear. That’s one of the best parts about being at an event like this!

And with that, I must go, and now. I don’t get WiFi in my room, so I am sitting on the parking lot sidewalk in the dark to get a signal, and couple of unknown insects just crawled down the back of my pants… :)

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Lynx on the Lid

Know what makes a pitcher plant super cool?  A green lynx spider lid accessory!

Green lynx spider on yellow pitcher plant lid

Green lynx spider on yellow pitcher plant lid

I saw a ton of these spiders hanging out on the lids of the yellow pitcher plants I saw last month.  They seem to be the “it” accessory for all the hip young pitcher plants this year.  :)

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