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.

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.

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.

Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.

 

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

National Moth Week Favorites

My last post about National Moth Week!  Can you tell I really love this event?  It gets me outside looking at bugs both at work and at home each year, so it’s a ton of fun. However, this year’s fun was greater than usual thanks to a couple of things, a great insect find and a photo I’m really pleased with.

First, let’s discuss this awesome, amazing critter:

Pleasing lacewing

Pleasing lacewing

I saw it and started yelling, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and jumped around happily.  If my neighbors didn’t already worry about me, that little episode probably convinced them I am nuts.  However, I quickly came to my senses and took a whole bunch of photos of it. I knew it was something unusual, something I definitely haven’t ever seen before. Once I got a ton of photos, I ran inside and started looking through my field guides.  It wasn’t in any of them, but that didn’t surprise me.  It was so weird! I wasn’t even really sure what order it belonged to, but I thought Neuroptera (the net-winged insects) was the most likely.  So, I started randomly clicking through all of the Neuroptera photos on BugGuide to see if I could find it.  Happily I did!

Family Dilaridae, the pleasing lacewings.  Nallachius americanus specifically.  There are two species in the US (one is only found in Arizona) and about 70 species worldwide.

According to BugGuide, this group of insects does come to lights at night, but it’s rarely seen or collected.  The larvae are apparently thought to feed on beetles under bark, but there’s no mention of what the adults feed on.  I kinda felt like I should catch it and add it to my collection since it may be the only one I ever see, but I eventually decided against it.  I don’t have a scientific reason to collect any more, so I just watched it for a while and it eventually flew away.  I’m happy with just having photos of it.

This find totally made my entire National Moth Week!  If the pleasing lacewing had been the only thing I saw the entire week I still would have walked away happy.  Love getting to see/learn about new things, especially things that are entirely new.

A few days later, however, I got my favorite photo of the week:

Rosy maple moth

Rosy maple moth

I love rosy maple moths!  They’re super common in my area, but they’re so fuzzy and gaudily colored that it’s hard not to adore them.  This one had something weird going on on one of its wings (you can see the black markings on the hind wing on the left side of the photo – that’s not normal), but it let me handle it.  That meant I could get a good shot of its face, which I thoroughly enjoy doing. I snapped away and it eventually wiggled around into the position in the photo above, letting me get a dead on shot of its face.  Look at all that fuzz!  All that pink!  Those amazing antennae! This immediately became my favorite photo of NMW.  I spent the last few days of the event attempting to get similar head shots of other moths, but none of them worked out quite as well (i.e., didn’t amuse me as much) as this one.

And with that, I am done posting about National Moth Week!  I have so many other things I want to write about still, so I am hoping I can keep this momentum going a little while longer.  I still have an entire year’s worth of Dragonfly Swarm Project info/data to post too!  Look for more posts soon!

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