Friday 5: Biodiversity of a Windowsill

Yesterday I had a meeting where we were discussing citizen science ideas.  We brought up the Lost Ladybug Project to the woman we were meeting with and I assured her that even though it might not seem like she couldn’t do the project now, in January, that I had just that morning found a live ladybug outside my office.  A few minutes later, the woman spotted a ladybug crawling on the window behind me.  (If that didn’t reinforce my point, I’m not sure what would!)  I turned to the window to scoop the ladybug up and happened to notice something.  There was a huge, gorgeous, amazing (but dead) beetle in there!  After the woman left, I returned to the windowsill to retrieve the beetle.  It was spectacular!  But it wasn’t the only thing in there.  In fact, there were five different species of insects in there.  You all know what I do with 5 of any insect related things.  Friday 5!  Today, I bring you the dead insect biodiversity of that windowsill.

The Big, Beautiful Beetle That Prompted This Post

Sculptured pine borer

Sculptured pine borer

I have to say that even though it would have been more exciting to find this guy alive, this is one spectacular beetle!  This also had to be about the easiest beetle I’ve ever tried to ID online.  Found it in less than 30 seconds: the sculptured pine borer, Chalcophora virginiensis.  This beetle is about an inch long with a lot of great texture.  I’m going to make a block print of this one!  The texture is wonderful and it would make a fabulous graphic.

The Ladybugs

Multicolored Asian lady beetles

Multicolored Asian lady beetles

There are a lot of multicolored Asian ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis) in North Carolina.  As the name suggests, they come in a shocking array of different colors.  I believe all the ladybugs in this photo are the same species.  They’re pretty, but they’re not native to the US either.

Unknown Fly

Unknown fly

Unknown fly

I really don’t know my flies very well, but I thought this fly was rather elegant.  It was reasonably large, about a half-inch, and skinny.  A hover fly perhaps?  Any of the fly people out there want to help me out?  I’ve got a good, clear shot of the wing veination if you need it!

(Note: Thanks to Morgan Jackson for identifying this fly as a soldier fly in the family Stratiomyidae and the genus Ptecticus.  According to Morgan, it’s typically found around compost or decaying vegetation and leaf litter.  You’re the best Morgan!)

Headless Leafhopper

Headless leafhopper

Headless leafhopper

This was, surprisingly, the only insect that was missing its head before I removed it from the windowsill.  This one was a lovely pale green on the back, and quite a pretty little bug.  I never did find its head though.  Perhaps decapitation was the cause of death?

Stink Bug

Brown marmorated stink bug

Brown marmorated stink bug

Ah, the brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys.  We hadn’t really gotten them in Arizona yet by the time I moved, but there sure are a lot of them here!  They come into buildings during the winter and I’ve seen several live ones over the last month or so.  This one looked like it had languished in the windowsill for some time though – dry and very crispy.  You’ll notice the head is detached in this photo.  That’s my fault – knocked it right off when I was setting it up for the photograph.  Grrr…  I hate it when I do things like that!  

Looking at that windowsill was more exciting than I’d expected it to be!  It prompted me to start looking in some of the other windowsills and the light fixture above my desk to see what I could find.  The latter was a goldmine!  Perhaps I’ll share those finds with you sometime too.  :)

Have a great weekend everyone!


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

Friday 5 Delayed Until…

Saturday!  I ran out of time before I got Friday 5 done today.  However, because I’m posting on Saturday and it works with my alliterative tendencies, I’ll give you Saturday 6 instead.

Until tomorrow, I leave you with a photo of the underside of a mushroom, complete with fungus gnats:

Fungus gnats

Fungus gnats

Happy weekend everyone!


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

Friday 5: From the Pond

Last Friday was incredibly hot in North Carolina, so it wasn’t the best day to be outside.  I spent most of it indoors, but I didn’t get to stay inside the whole day.  Thankfully, the things I had to do outdoors were either brief or fun, and I finally got a chance to spend a few moments rooting around in the pond down the hill from my office.  There was some great stuff in there too!  I scooped a few choice things into a little bucket and brought them back up to the office to look at more closely, then I brought it all home to photograph.  The big things were exciting, including…



Skimmer dragonfly nymph

Shallows ponds like the one where I work are pretty amazing places!  They’ve got a huge variation in habitats, from the mucky bottom to the sides of emergent vegetation (like cattails) to the algae floating on the surface.  If you scoop a sample from the cattails, you’ll get different things than you will from the bottom or at the surface or in the open water.  This lovely dragonfly nymph came from the mucky bottom.  Look at all those hairs on the legs!  Pretty cool nymph.  Sadly, it was eaten by the…


Predaceous diving beetle larva

Predaceous diving beetle larva

This has got to be a Dytiscus species because it was absolutely gigantic, over 2 inches long!  It walked around and around the bucket with those enormous jaws held wide open.  Every now and then it would try to sneak up on the dragonfly and grab it, but the latter kept getting away.  Apparently the beetle eventually succeeded because I woke up a dead dragonfly nymph held fast in the jaws of the beetle.  What an impressive beetle larva!  It did not succeed in grabbing this nymph though…


creeping water bug

Creeping water bug

We had a lot of naucorids in Arizona, so these seem like a perfectly normal thing to find in a pond to me.  What I’m not used to seeing is a pale green bug with crazy red demon eyes!  When the light hit the eyes just right, they even glowed a little, which made them downright creepy.  This insect is, I’m told, also one of the most painful of the aquatic insects you can be bitten by, which adds to the creepy factor of the red eyes.

Another green thing was very abundant in the pond…


duckweed roots

Duckweed roots

I figured I should include at least one thing that wasn’t an insect here because so many other things belong to the pond’s ecosystem.  Duckweed is one productive little plant!  A few tiny little plants is all it takes to start forming a dense mat that can eventually cover the entire surface of a pond. There’s not that much duckweed on the Prairie Ridge pond yet, but it’s going to be interesting to see how much of the surface is eventually covered this summer.  I can’t help but love duckweed though!  It’s one of the smallest flowering plants in the world, just a little cluster of tiny bright green leaves attached to a root system.  The whole plant floats on the surface of the water with the roots dangling below in the water, as you see in the photo above.  It’s an adorable little plant.

The best thing I found in the pond though, was something that I only saw because I caught a tiny motion out of the corner of my eye:


phantom midge

Phantom midge larva

I can only imagine that these are called phantom midges because they are so darned hard to see in the water!  This larva was absolutely transparent except for the big air bubbles you can see inside the larva in the photo and the tiny black marks.  It was nearly impossible to see in the bucket and every time I lost track of it I had to spend several minutes staring into the water to see it again.  Phantom midges are cool looking insects, but they’re also one of the few insects that live out in the open water of ponds and lakes.  Most aquatic insects in ponds are found on the bottom or close to the shoreline (in the littoral zone) , but these are often found swimming about right out in the open water.  They move up and down in the water column by adjusting the air in those little air sacs and avoid predation by hiding near the bottom during the day and coming up to the surface to hunt with their prehensile antennae at night.  If that’s not the coolest aquatic insect, I’m not sure what is!  And this was the very first one I’ve ever seen.  I couldn’t have been happier to find it!

That’s a tiny taste of what’s living in the pond down the hill.  I’ll be down there doing programs throughout the year, so it will be interesting to see how the populations change over time and how shifts in the dominant species occur.  And, it’s only a 3 minute walk!  I had to drive at least 30 minutes to get to any sort of habitable water in Arizona, so having a pond so close is a dream come true.  And someday I’ll get down into the creek too.  I’ll let you know what I find when I do!


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

To Know a Fly

For last week’s Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday, I shared a photo of a fly that a lot of people in my city think is a bee.  I can see why people think it is a bee because it’s got that bee-like coloration, but to me the insect all but screams “I’m a fly!”  Nature can be tricky sometimes, especially among the insects.  Thousands of insects look a lot like other insects, many mimicking stinging, biting, or poisonous insects for protection.  Today I’m going to go through the things you should look for to be sure an insect is actually a fly.  This is a fly:

fly in house

A fly, specifically a cactus fly (Copestylum isabellina)

There are several things to look for to determine whether something is a fly or not.  Let’s first consider the name of the order that the flies belong to: Diptera.  As is so frequently the case in biology, the name tells you a lot about the insects within the order.  The prefix di- means two and -ptera refers to wings.  Thus the order Diptera contains insects with two wings, the defining characteristic of the group.  Most insects (with a few non-fly exceptions, including the bizarre order Strepsiptera and some scale insects) have four wings in the winged stage.  Some insects, like the bees and some butterflies, have special structures that hold the fore and hind wings together so that they can look like they only have two wings at first glance (tricky!), but they have four if you look closely.  The flies don’t have hind wings at all!  Instead, they have these little knobby things:

Crane fly halteres

Crane fly

I talked about these structures, called halteres, in a previous post so I won’t say too much about them here.  Briefly, the halteres are remnants of the hind wings in flies and act as gyroscopic organs to tell flies how they are positioned in the air as they fly.  The halteres are likely the reason flies have such amazing control over their flight.  All flies have halteres, though sometimes they’re hidden under the wings and hard to see.

So, adult flies have two wings and two halteres.  Most other adult insects have four wings or no wings and no halteres.  Easy, right?

Not always!  Sometimes it’s hard to get a good look at the wings so that you can count them.  Luckily, the eyes can often provide a clue to whether an insect is a fly or something else.  Flies tend to have very large eyes that wrap around the front and/or sides of their heads, sometimes even meeting in the middle:

fly eyes

Fly eyes

You’ve tried swatting flies, right?  It’s pretty hard to do!  Not only are flies expert fliers, but they also have those giant eyes.  They can see you coming at them with a fly swatter and move out of the way before you squish them.  Not all flies have giant eyes like the fly in the photo, but most of them do.  Bees and wasps tend to have smaller eyes than flies, which can help you distinguish the two groups.

Flies often have strange antennae too.  These are called aristate antennae:

aristate antennae

Aristate antennae

For the most part, if you see an insect with large eyes and antennae like this (with a large, pouch-like structure with a bristle coming off it), you’re looking at a fly and not a bee or a wasp.  This is a rather typical fly with large eyes and aristate antennae:

fly aristate antennae

A fly with large eyes and aristate antennae

Not all flies have aristate antennae though.  Many of them, such as the crane fly, have longer antennae.  Flies tend to have short antennae compared to other insects, however, and they are often very complex in structure.  Bees and wasps have longer, simpler antennae than flies, making the two groups easy to tell apart.

Finally, flies generally have mouthparts designed for sucking liquid food.  The variation in mouhtparts among the flies warrants its own post though, so I’m not going to go into detail here.  If you’ve ever been bitten by a mosquito or a horse fly or watched a house fly lap up food off a dirty plate, you have an idea of how some of the fly mouthparts work.

I want to end this post with a bit of trivia.  Ever wonder why a crane fly, a flesh fly, or a hover fly is considered a true fly while a mayfly, a dragonfly, or a stonefly is not?  They all fly, but they’re not all flies.  Take a close look at how I spelled those names for a hint!  According to traditional entomological naming practices, a true fly in the order Diptera has the “fly” part of its common name separated from the rest of the name while things that are not true flies have the “fly” part tacked on to the end.  Thus, a crane fly is a true fly while a dragonfly is a flying insect belonging to an order other than Diptera.  This distinction is muddled a bit these days with people changing how the names are spelled here and there, but for the most part this trend still holds.  Next time you see the word “fly” separate from the rest of a name, you can be pretty sure that the author is referring to something belonging to the order Diptera and not some random flying insect with four wings.  Consider my favorite quote from Shrek:

“You mighta seen a house fly, maybe even a superfly, but I bet you ain’t never seen a DONKEY FLY!”

If you follow the traditional entomological naming format, one would have to assume from this quote that Donkey is a true fly, NOT a donkey!  To indicate that Donkey is not a fly and is in fact some other flying creature, he should technically be a Donkeyfly.  :)

For more information about flies, I highly recommend Morgan Jackson’s wonderful blog, Biodiversity in Focus.  He takes much better fly photos than I do and his love for flies oozes out of his writing.  Be sure to check it out!


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Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: This is not a bee.

Seems like every non-entomologist I know in Tucson (including my husband) thinks these flies are bees and totally lose their minds when they end up indoors:

fly in house

Giant bee-mimic fly in my house! That's Copestylum isabellina, according to the fine folks at

I have seen a number of otherwise calm, rational people completely panic and either a) start running around hysterically (sometimes screaming a bit) because one of these flies was “chasing them” or b) curl up into the fetal position, apparently hoping that they will spontaneously achieve telepathy and convince the fly to leave.  Attention all Tucsonans: it’s a harmless fly!  If you don’t know how to tell the difference, check out my Monday post for the things to look for to be sure.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Robber Flies Getting It On

I once went on a great camping trip with several friends and we had a great night sitting around the campfire and blacklighting.  The following morning, we all went for a hike before breaking camp and I found this amorous pair sitting on a tree branch:

robber flies mating

Robber flies mating

The photo’s kinda cruddy (taken from far away with my original point and shoot digital camera several years ago), but I just love the little mustaches on these flies!  So cute.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Friday 5: Insects The Dogs Ate

I’ve got two dogs.  This one was part of the bargain when I started dating the man who is now my husband:



Her name is Cotton and she’s a purebred coton de tulear.  She’s also purebred crazy!  I’m not a little white fluffy dog person at all, but I think Cotton’s pretty awesome as far as LWF dogs go.  She has issues.  Big issues.  I’m pretty sure she was a cat in a former life actually.  She doesn’t like to be touched, unless of course she decides she wants to be touched, in which case you are obligated to immediately drop whatever you are doing and pet her RIGHT NOW!  She won’t eat the same food for more than a few days in a row.  She scratches the hell out of your legs.  And, she is a fierce hunter.  See what I mean?  Cat!

This one is my baby:



Monkey is a mutt (obviously).  I rescued him from the pound, my reward to myself for passing my comprehensive exams.  And what a reward he’s been!  He came down with parvo two weeks after I got him and nearly died.  He came home from intensive care with a stubborn case of kennel cough, which eventually turned into pneumonia because the normal medications didn’t work.  He caught valley fever while he had the pneumonia and underwent treatment for that for about 6 months.  Next came inflammatory bowel disease (that’s right, my dog has a canine gastroenterologist) and most recently luxating patellas (might be getting an orthopedic veterinarian soon) and a skin disorder.  He averages one vet visit every 2 months.  But Monkey is worth every penny and every worry because he’s the sweetest, most loving, wonderful dog I could imagine having.  In spite of all of his illnesses, he’s full of life and personality.  He’s also a total mama’s boy.  I adore him.

My dogs are polar opposites.  Monkey craves (nay, demands!) attention while Cotton wouldn’t dream of demeaning herself with such base behavior.  Monkey is prissy and very clean while Cotton would happily spend the rest of her life rolling in a big ol’ pile of duck poop (the only reason why I’m convinced she’s actually a dog deep down).  Cotton is very nervous and barks at everyone and everything while Monkey would invite Satan himself into the house if it meant he’d be petted for a few minutes.  To hell with guarding the house!  That suspicious person knocking on the door might pat his head or scratch his belly!

They’re also very different in the way they handle bugs.  Monkey isn’t at all sure what to make of insects.  I think they scare him, which puts him firmly into the male camp in our household.  :)  Cotton’s hunting instincts kick in when she encounters an insect (she belongs to the female camp) and she’ll happily eat insects that are bothering her.  She’ll chase flies for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, even launching her whole body into the air trying to catch them (once again, cat characteristic).  Occasionally one of these ends up in her mouth and is quickly dispatched into her stomach:



Both dogs are incredibly jealous when the other one gets something that they don’t though.  It really comes into play in their dealings with insects around the house and jealousy can override their usual instincts.  One night Monkey was playing with a click beetle he found in the bathroom:

click beetle

Click beetle

He kept putting his paw on it and then jerking back when the beetle clicked.  He seemed to be nervously trying to figure it out, but then Cotton noticed he was up to something and ran in and ate the beetle so he couldn’t have it.  He chased her through the house for a while, presumably trying to get it back, but it was down the hatch the instant Cotton got it into her mouth.  Cotton doesn’t mess around.

Another night I was in the back yard taking photos by the porch light and Cotton was toying with a cicada.  Monkey was very upset that she was playing with something that he wasn’t, so he ran over, grabbed the cicada in his mouth, and ran into the house with it.  It was still alive, and considering his nervousness around insects, I can’t imagine it was pleasant for him to carry a screaming, angry cicada in his mouth.  He wasn’t about to swallow it, but he certainly wasn’t going to let Cotton have it either!  10 minutes later, I finally extracted this slimy, dead cicada from his mouth:



You can’t see the teeth marks from this angle, but the deep puncture wounds in its back were likely the source of this poor bug’s demise.

We’ve got a ton of these little ants in the house:


Ants on my kitchen counter.

Both dogs will eat these when they crawl onto their fur.  I’ve seen them stomp a few with their paws too.  I don’t think these ants sting, so I don’t worry about the dogs eating them too much.  The ants annoy the dogs and they respond by licking them up and swallowing them or crushing them.  But there are also a lot of these:



Monkey doesn’t like crickets at all and gives them a very wide berth.  Cotton eats them like candy.  She’s even tracked and eaten them before.  This is great because I hate the noise crickets make.  I’m happy that my little huntress exterminates them for me so I don’t have to do it myself.  Go crazy little Cotton!

Thankfully neither of my dogs have ever eaten any of the stupid things other dogs in Tucson have eaten.  The beagle I grew up with once ate a massive tomato hornworm feeding on a tomato plant and vomited more than it should be possible for a dog to vomit.  Yea for nightshades!  A friend of mine’s LWF dog licked one of the psychedelic toads we get in Tucson and nearly died.  There’s none of that going on at my place.  Neither dog has ever encountered a toad or a rattlesnake or a scorpion.  Monkey’s too chicken to eat most insects and Cotton sleeps 21 hours a day so she misses a lot of what’s going on around her.  Yep, my dogs live a pretty sheltered life.  It’s good to be a dog in the Dragonfly Woman’s home:

Monkey on back

Cotton on back


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011