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From the Bug of the Week Mailbag: Non-native mantids, the European mantis, Mantis religiosa, and Chinese mantis, Tenodera sinensis, enjoying North American cuisine

 

A small black spot often with a white center, on the inside of each front leg, provides a quick clue used to separate the European mantis from other species found in our region. Image credit: Bjorn Larson

 

While digging through the Bug of the Week mailbag last week, I ran across an interesting photograph sent from Portland, Oregon a few weeks before Christmas. The critter in question was clearly a praying mantis taking a stroll across a driveway. The question, of course, dealt with the identity of this handsome rascal. Fortunately, the image revealed the mantis in full stride with forelegs extended, thereby revealing the characteristic black and white bullseye on the inside of the foreleg near the joint of leg and body. This marking is diagnostic for the imported European praying mantis, Mantis religiosa.

European mantises vary in color with shades of green, brown, and sometimes bluish-green like this very pregnant beauty collected in Massachusetts.

First discovered in the US in 1899 in New York State, Mantis religiosa may have arrived as a stowaway on a shipment of nursery stock from Europe. In addition to its invaded range in North America, Mantis religiosa resides in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. On the east coast, some hoped that this remarkable predator might take a toll on dastardly gypsy moths which arrived in New England in the 1860’s. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case as large hairy gypsy moth caterpillars were not on the menu for this European gourmand. However, hundreds of European mantises were imported and released in British Columbia during 1937 and 1938 to help curb grasshoppers that regularly decimated agricultural crops. In addition to expanding its range in the eastern US and parts of British Columbia, it can be found in Washington, Oregon, and California.  

Mantis religiosa is not the only non-native mantis to join a cadre of more than a dozen members of the mantis family in North America. Perhaps the most well-known non-native mantis here in the US is the Chinese praying mantis, Tenodera sinensis. To learn more about this one, we travel back in time more than a century to October 16, 1897 when Mr. Joseph Hindermyer discovered a large insect “resting on the upper part of his tomato vines” in Mt. Airy, a suburb of Philadelphia. Fortunately, Hindermyer’s neighbor, Philip Laurent, was a member of The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Philip recognized this extraordinary mantis to be different from others found in the area. He later discovered it was an exotic species known from China and Japan. How it arrived in Mt. Airy remains forever shrouded in mystery, but Laurent noted that a large nursery, Meehan and Sons, in nearby Germantown had procured many plants from China and Japan. Could it be that this marvelous predator arrived as a stowaway, perhaps as an embryo in an egg case on a Japanese maple?

This brown egg case, or ootheca, deposited by the lovely blue-green European mantis featured above contains scores of eggs that will survive the winter and hatch next spring.

 Fast forward a century to the mid-1990’s. The brown marmorated stink bug arrives in the US less than 60 miles from Mt. Airy in Allentown, PA. In the mid-Atlantic, we all remember what home invasions by stink bugs were like in the decade that followed. The dramatic decline of stink bugs in many eastern states over the last several years is in part related to the fact that several of our indigenous predators, parasitoids, and pathogens are now using brown marmorated stink bugs as a source of food. Prompted by this notion, I decided that it was time to have a reunion between these two historical acquaintances from the east – the Chinese praying mantis and the Asian brown marmorated stink bug. Like many reunions, meeting old acquaintances can be fraught with joy and despair. In the case of the Chinese mantis, the reunion with the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug was gastronomic joy. She consumed a dozen stink bugs in quick succession before nibbling only half of unlucky stink bug number thirteen. As for the stink bugs, well, let’s just say their reunion was filled with short-lived despair. You see, the hungry Chinese mantis mercifully devoured the stink bug’s head first. The reunion between the Chinese mantis and the Asian stink bug evoke Hannibal Lecter’s famous quote, “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” 

The reunion between two old acquaintances from Asia, the Chinese mantis and the brown marmorated stink bug, was a happy one for the mantis but not so much for the stink bug. My favorite part of this video appears at the end as the fastidious mantis tidies up after her meal. And yes, this is several times life speed.

Stink bugs are not the only Asian delicacy on the menu for our non-native mantises. A recent report from Penn State revealed praying mantises to be among the top predators of the newest landscape invader, the nefarious Spotted lanternfly. In light of the unending influx of invasive pests to the US, we are fortunate that some of our exotic predators will welcome the arrival of their historical dinner guests.  

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks Bjorn Larson for spotting the European mantis and providing the inspiration for this episode. The fascinating articles “Recent range expansion of the Praying Mantis, Mantis religiosa Linnaeus (Mantodea: Mantidae), in British Columbia” by Robert Cannings, and “Chickens, praying mantises appear to be top predators on spotted lanternfly, study says” by Marcus Schneck provided keen insights for this story.

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From the Bug of the Week Mailbag: Daddy-longlegs, the most venomous of all spiders? Opilionids and Pholcid spiders

 

One look at this arthropod and it’s easy to see why they are called daddy-longlegs.

 

A recent message to Bug of the Week described a pleasant adventure of nature enthusiasts with spider-like creatures known as daddy-longlegs. These interesting arthropods are at the heart of the urban legend proclaiming daddy-long legs as the most venomous of all spiders. A corollary of the legend is that although daddy-longlegs are venomous, their fangs are too tiny to pierce human skin. Like many urban legends this one persists, but fortunately it is baseless. Here’s why.

Pholcid spiders, like this cellar spider, are also known as daddy-longlegs.

With remarkably long legs, some crane flies are also called daddy-longlegs.

Let’s start with nomenclature. First of all, daddy-longlegs is a moniker applied to at least three different kinds of arthropods. According to spider expert Dr. Rick Vetter, daddy-longlegs refers to long-legged spiders in the family Pholcidae, an entirely different arachnid called an opilionid (a.k.a. harvestmen), and a primitive fly called a crane fly. We met pholicids rocking out in corners of a room in a previous episode. Crane flies are sometimes misidentified as giant mosquitoes and have appeared in Bug of the Week as well. But let’s talk about harvestmen, opilionids. The business of harvestmen being dangerously venomous is incorrect on two accounts. First and foremost is the fact that they lack venom glands. No venom glands, no venom. Their arachnid relatives, spiders, including pholcid spiders, subdue prey with potent venom delivered via fangs. Harvestmen lack fangs so the business of tiny fangs is also out the window. Harvestmen feed primarily on decaying vegetation or animals, but they may also be opportunistic predators. I have seen them snacking on hapless cicadas that failed to successfully shed their nymphal skin. Harvestmen are often seen in moist woodlands on vegetation, stumps, or leaf-litter where they search for food and mates. Harvestmen are easily distinguished from their spider relatives. Instead of the two easily seen body regions (cephalothorax and abdomen) characteristic of spiders, the distinction between body segments is indistinct and harvestmen appear to have a single pill-shaped body. If you want to get close enough to look them in the eye, harvestmen have at most two eyes whereas spiders may have as many as eight.

Despite their lack of fangs and venom, opilionids possess clever tricks to help them avoid being eaten by ground dwelling predators. Specialized glands along the margin of the harvestmen release noxious quinones that are mixed with fluids regurgitated from the digestive tract on the harvestmen.  The harvestmen smear the stinky concoction along its margins, forming a chemically deterrent barrier around its perimeter. This chemical defense has been shown to deter ants, spiders, and frogs and to make nosy bug geeks wish they hadn’t messed around with an opilionid.      

Watch as an opilionid munches on what appears to be the carcass of a small fly or bee. A pair of appendages called pedipalps are used to manipulate its food. On the surface of a small rock near a riverbank a handsome opilionid dines on the shriveled body of a stonefly, aquatic insect jerky.

To learn more about daddy-long legs and the venom-myth please visit the following UC Riverside website: https://spiders.ucr.edu/daddy-long-legs

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks Larry and his son for sharing their interesting observations of harvestmen and providing the inspiration for this episode. “Chemical defense of an opilionid (Acanthopachylus aculeatus)” by Thomas Eisner, Carmen Rossini, Andrés González, and Maria Eisner, and “Chemical defense in harvestmen (arachnida, opiliones): do benzoquinone secretions deter invertebrate and vertebrate predators?” by Glauco Machado, Patricia C Carrera, Armando M Pomini, and Anita J Marsaioli were used as references for this episode.

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From the Bug of the Week Mailbag: Winter storm, limbs down, power out, blame the cicadas?

 

Can heavy snow and cicada damage from last summer bring down limbs and damage transmission lines?

 

The first week of January 2022, Mother Nature delivered a one-two punch to tens of millions of people in the eastern half of the US as bone-chilling temperatures and heavy snow blanketed the region. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were left powerless, sometimes for days, when trees toppled and branches broke, obliterating power lines and transmission cables below. During the aftermath of the storm, an interesting query cropped up in the media-sphere. Did rampant egg-laying by Brood X periodical cicadas last summer weaken tree branches that resulted in widespread power losses as limbs broke and tumbled onto power lines?

With abdomen pulsing, a female cicada inserts eggs into egg-nests sliced into twigs of a dogwood tree. If these small branches snap off in winter storms, are they heavy enough to bring down power lines? 

Small branches favored by cicadas for egg-laying are the ones that normally break-off and litter the ground beneath trees.

Well, a cabal of cicada experts met last week to review the science behind the situation. In the first comprehensive review of periodical cicada biology, published in 1907, cicada expert C. L. Marlatt noted that “The part of the plant selected for a receptacle for the eggs is almost invariably the twigs of the previous year’s growth.”  A later study by entomologists Fred Miller and Webster Crowley on more than 100 common shade trees reveled that periodical cicadas laid eggs in twigs ranging in size from ~4 mm to 11 mm (~ ⅛ to ½ inch) in diameter. Have a look at some of the images that accompany this narrative and you will see that the branches which turned brown or snapped and fell beneath trees as a result of cicada egg-laying, are small diameter twigs at most a few feet long. Even with a load of heavy snow it is highly unlikely that these small twigs would be heavy enough to break a transmission line.

Did periodical cicadas cause some injury to unprotected trees growing in orchards, shade tree nurseries, and landscapes? Surely cicadas cause some damage, but are they responsible for the widespread power outages associated with last week’s storms? Nah, this one belongs to Mother Nature having a bit of fun with our urban infrastructure.    

These flagging branches on a sweet gum tree are the ones that eventually fell from trees as a result of cicada damage last summer.

 

This branch with cicada damage survived the snowstorm unscathed. Had it broken where the cicada damage was nearest to the trunk, the broken branch would have been about two feet long.

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks utility companies in the DMV for providing the inspiration for this episode. We also thank Dan, Chris, and Paula for weighing in on the potential of cicada damage to down large limbs during snow storms. Two great references, “The Periodical Cicada” by C. L. Marlatt and “Effects of periodical cicada injury on woody plants” by Fredric Miller and Webster Crowley, were used to prepare this episode.

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From the Bug of the Week mailbag, termites or ants? Eastern subterranean termites, Reticulitermes flavipes, or Citronella ants, Lasius sp.

 

Ant or termite? Here’s how to tell. Elbowed antennae, a narrow waist, and forewings and hind wings that differ in size with a few strong veins are the hallmarks of ants, like these citronella ants that swarm each December at my home.

 

Let’s start the New Year with some unfinished business from the old. A few weeks ago, a short video appeared in the Bug of the Week email inbox from a concerned friend assailed by a horde of suspicious looking insects swarming near the front of his home. Dark amber in color, hyaline wings, vast numbers of insects scrambled near the house and took flight. Sights like this strike fear in the hearts of wooden-framed home owners across much of our country. Could this be an infestation of the “invisible destroyers”, eastern subterranean termites? In the natural world, eastern subterranean termites live in underground nests and arise from the earth to forage on fallen trees. Remarkable creatures are these, with the ability to perform a digestive magic trick unparalleled in the human world. They consume wood. To utilize nutrients tied up in a biopolymer hard enough to dull an axe blade, most termites rely on symbiotic bacteria in their gut to digest the rugged plant material called cellulose. Some primitive species of termites enlist unicellular organisms called protozoa to accomplish this feat. Termites have an unusual and rather crude way of passing these vital microbes from one termite to the next. They employ a process known as proctodeal trophallaxis. One termite excretes a droplet of microbe-packed fluid from its anus. This packet of goodies is consumed by another termite waiting at the rear end. Yum! In addition to the transfer of vital symbionts from one termite to the next, trophallaxis is also a way of disseminating chemical messages called pheromones that regulate the development and behavior of termites within the colony. With the advent of domestic structures, termites have discovered a bountiful source of food provided by humankind. Termites colonize and establish residence within a home if conditions of moisture and temperatures suffice. They reach the structural wood of buildings by constructing tunnels of soil, wood, saliva, and excrement from an outdoor colony, which are built up the side of foundation walls until they reach the wood of a sill plate or floor joist. Then they enter the home. The appearance of swarming winged termites near a home may be the harbinger of problems down the road and the presence of swarming termites inside your home is a sure-fire indication of an infestation. Eastern subterranean termites are estimated to cause several billion dollars of loss annually associated with repairs, treatments, and prevention of infestations. Little wonder my friend was concerned.

Whoa, is this holiday visit a swarm of termites? Nope, citronella ants like these make an annual appearance at my home during December here in the DMV. Watch winged adults with narrow waists, forewings and hindwings that differ in size and shape, and elbowed antennae mill around before taking flight. A few wingless orange workers also stroll by. Termites like these infesting steps in my backyard usually swarm in spring. With thorax and abdomen broadly joined, forewings and hindwings similar in size and shape, and antennae resembling a string of beads, they are easy to distinguish from ants.  

Ah, but the holiday season is not the usual time of year eastern subterranean termites swarm throughout most of our land. Here in the DMV my home-grown termites make their flighted appearance in spring, as we saw in a previous episode. But what to my wondering eyes did appear two days before Christmas in this very year? Swarms of citronella ants. The appearance of winged citronella ants emerging from beneath my front sidewalk was a welcome surprise in this somewhat dismal season for observing insects and their kin in the DMV.  Ants often emerge from the earth and swarm to mate and found new colonies in warmer months in temperate regions. However, ants in the genus Lasius have been observed emerging from the earth in Maryland in late autumn and, at my home, in early winter. Lasius ants go by many colorful names including citronella ant, yellow ant, and lemon ant. The lemony scent we know as citronella owes to a compound found in many plants, including lemon, lemon grass, and several species of eucalyptus. Special glands near the jaws of Lasius ants produce aromatic lemon-scented citronellal. When threatened by an intruder, citronella ants send out an alarm by releasing citronellal. This pheromone brings nest mates running to assist in the defense of the colony. In addition to the well-known insect repellency of citronella, citronella ants have one more chemical trick up their sleeve, or should we say, in their rear end. Glands near the tip of the abdomen produce irritating formic acid. Formic acid contacting the eyes or face of an attacking predator serves as a powerful deterrent. This type of chemical warfare is an important strategy used by many species of ants. Fortunately, Lasius ants are not wood destroyers like their cousins the carpenter ants. In addition to hunting soft-bodied prey, Lasius are herders. Yes, that’s right, they actually shepherd root-feeding aphids, moving them from the roots of one plant to another to optimize the production of nutrient rich honeydew excreted by the aphids, upon which the ants feed.

Antennae of termites lack an elbow and look like a string of beads. Their abdomen and thorax are broadly joined, and forewings and hindwings are similar in size and shape, with few veins.

Now returning to the plight of my insect-plagued friend, a quick look at his video soon gave me to know he had nothing to dread. Termites can be readily differentiated from ants by examining these features: shape of the antennae, width of the waist (in bug-speak, where the thorax joins the abdomen), and, for winged adults, the size and shape of the wings. Termites have simple antennae that look like a string of many beads. Ants have jointed antennae with a prominent elbow near the middle. Termites have a broad waist where thorax meets abdomen. Ants have a narrow, a.k.a. wasp-waist, where thorax meets abdomen. Termites have forewings and hindwings similar in size, shape, and texture with many fine small veins. Ants have large forewings, smaller hindwings, both with few prominent veins.

If you see swarms of insects emerging from the earth during this mild winter, fear not as these are likely citronella ants. Later in the year be on the lookout for termite swarms outside or inside the home. Using the information in this episode, we hope you will be able to tell these rascals from each other.

Acknowledgements

Inspiration for this episode came from my friend Mike who shared his video of citronella ants. We also mourn the passing of our friend and colleague E. O. Wilson, whose love of insects and the natural world inspired entomologists, biologists, conservationists, and naturalists around the world for more than six decades. As a youngster, Ed Wilson studied citronella ants in Rock Creek Park here in the DMV. The study of ants became his life-long passion and ants served as a model for our understanding of insect and human societies. We also thank my friend and colleague Dr. Barbara Thorne who studied termites under her life-long mentor and friend E. O. Wilson. Dr. Nancy Breisch, one of Dr. Thorne’s students, assisted in creating this episode.

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What Are These Small Flies in My Home?

Identify Tiny Flying Bugs That are Often Found in Homes

The humidity and rich soil of the Northeast United States is welcoming to a wide range of flora and fauna — or plants and animals — including insects.

Insects such as small flies can easily enter a house or building unnoticed. Once inside, these seemingly harmless bugs can quickly grow into a troublesome infestation if allowed to multiply.

And it’s not just one type of tiny fly that tends to infiltrate the inside of a residence. The household pests that are most commonly found in New England homes include:

  • Fungus Gnats: The tiny, mosquito-like flying bugs are attracted to moist soil. Buildings containing a lot of indoor plants may encounter swarms of fungus gnats.
  • Fruit Flies: As the name implies, fruit flies gravitate towards rotten fruits, food waste, and residues.
  • Drain Flies: Typically found breeding within a floor or sink drain, drain flies resemble miniature moths and thrive off of biosolids — the sludge that can build up on the sides of drain pipes.

While none of the small insects above are directly harmful to humans or animals, each one can transmit bacteria such as E. coli that can cause eye, skin, and diarrheal infections.

Having hordes of these tiny flying bugs swarming throughout a home or office can be a nightmare for any property owner. But as an indoor infestation of the disease-transmitting pests can occur at any time of year, vigilance is key.

For homeowners, learning how to identify the small flying bugs and understanding what attracts them to a house can be helpful in protecting a property from an infestation.

Fungus Gnats

Fungus gnats tend to infest the damp soil of potted plants in order to feed on the underlying roots or fungal growths.

The tiny flying bugs can easily be identified by the vein patterns on the wings and long legs.

Oftentimes, fungus gnats are brought indoors by way of an infected houseplant.

tiny brown fungus gnats stuck to yellow flypaper attached to potted green houseplant

Identifying Fungus Gnats & Its Reproductive Cycle

closeup of a black fungus gnat with transparent wings and long, brown legs

The swarming bugs enjoy warm, moist climates. Spaces with indoor gardens or an abundance of houseplants and use heat lamps to stimulate growth can be paradises for fungus gnats to thrive.

A heat lamp can cause the area it illuminates to reach up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit while overwatered plants offer a bed of wet soil — both create perfect conditions for fungus gnats to repopulate.

Even more troublesome is how the insects congregate in large groups. Although swarming is a mating and survival strategy, it can also be an unsightly habit that makes fungus gnats easily visible.

The lifespan of a fungus gnat is only one month — just long enough to mate, reproduce, and in the case of female fungus gnats, lay eggs. A single female fungus gnat can lay up to 300 eggs in her lifetime.

These eggs are nestled on the surface of damp soil or can be found in the cracks of dry soil. The translucency and miniscule size of the ovular eggs make them difficult to spot until it’s too late.

In a mere three or four weeks, an indoor area can become infested with the tiny flying insects.

Upon reaching adulthood within 30 days, fungus gnats waste no time in forming sizeable swarms around light sources and windows.

Fruit Flies

Because of the farms and orchards scattered throughout the Northeastern region, fruit flies are a prevalent problem, particularly when the tiny flying bugs start invading the kitchen of a residential structure.

Attracted to rotting organic matter such as ripened fruits and fermenting vegetables, fruit fly populations can increase during the late summer and into early fall.

As an indoor household pest however, fruit flies are a year-round issue.

The tiny flies can typically be spotted near bowls of fruit, uncorked wine bottles, disposals, compost piles, and trash cans.

tiny brown fruit flies crawling over yellow banana peel and other food waste

Basically, anywhere there is decaying food or residue is an ideal breeding ground for fruit flies.

Identifying Fruit Flies & Its Breeding Habits

closeup of two, red-eyed fruit flies with brown bodies and black wings

Fruit flies essentially look similar to house flies, albeit much smaller in size. Coloring can range from black and brown to red.

Aside from decomposing organic materials, fruit flies can also survive in sludge-filled drain pipes and sewage lines. And even though fruit flies only live for a few weeks, the numbers of the pest remain high.

This is due to the fact that fruit flies can persist in variable conditions — from temperatures that are as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit to as high as 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The average temperature for most homes is approximately between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit — a livable climate for fruit flies.

These insects are avid reproducers — one female fruit fly can lay up to 500 eggs during her lifespan. So, if homeowners start to see the tiny flies flitting about the home or office, they should be alarmed.

Drain Flies

Flies of any kind are unpleasant. But when the bugs come flying out of a drain, it makes the pests even eerier —a reality that those dealing with a drain fly infestation know all too well.

Also referred to as moth flies for their close resemblance, drain flies favor rooms with drains — kitchens, bathrooms, and basements being most popular.

But appliances that produce condensation such as air conditioners or objects containing stagnant water like pools or water bowls for pets are just as enticing.

Drain flies lay and store eggs in condensed, moist spaces where sludge or gelatinous slime forms. The bacteria, algae, and fungi that grow within these biosolids give drain flies nutrients.

white and gray fuzzy drain fly crawling over clear glass shower pane

Identifying Drain Fly Behavior & Mating Practices

overhead closeup of fuzzy, white and brown drain fly

Drain flies have a distinctive look — unlike fruit flies and gnats, the bugs possess thick, fuzzy bodies and antennae that set them apart from other kinds of flies that are commonly found in a home.

An adult drain fly only lives for an average of two weeks and makes the most of that time by reproducing at a break-neck pace. Full-grown female drain flies can lay anywhere between 30 to 100 eggs while alive.

Remove Household Pests with Catseye

Regardless of the type of household pest plaguing your indoor space, the seasoned professionals at Catseye Pest Control are prepared to design failsafe solutions and prevent reinfestation.

Through Catseye’s Fly Control and Removal program, household pests are targeted at every stage of development — eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult flies or gnats and all breeding sites are destroyed.

Because of the meticulous care put into every removal project, those who choose Catseye can take back control of their property with confidence.

To learn more about how the team at Catseye delivers foolproof pest management services to any property or to schedule a free inspection, contact us today.

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Heliconiids for the holidays: Longwinged butterflies, Heliconiinae

 

In parts of peninsular Florida and southern Texas, pretty Julia Heliconians brighten days year-round.

 

As the often-dreary days winter set in, you may be missing the antics and beauty of insects here in the DMV. Let’s take a quick trip to warmer climes to visit some gorgeous butterflies, longwinged heliconiids. Let’s head to Florida where several heliconiids reside or visit. 

Heliconiids extract nutrients from pollen grains held in their proboscis.

First on the list is the remarkable Zebra Longwinged butterfly, Heliconius charitonia. These beauties live up to six months. Zebras and their kin evolved an interesting strategy to gather nutritious pollen used to sustain their unusual longevity. Zebras fly a well-defined route through the forest visiting trusty plants presenting fresh pollen-laden blossoms each day. This fixed-route behavior is called traplining and is employed by many tropical pollinators including bees, hummingbirds, and bats. After collecting a gob of pollen on its long, coiled proboscis, the butterfly secretes specialized enzymes to release the amino acids and other nutrients in the pollen. Nutrients absorbed through the membranes lining the proboscis are used to produce eggs and maintain the high level of activity required to zoom about the forest. 

Passion vines sport magnificent blossoms and their leaves are food for heliconiid caterpillars.

In addition to visiting flowers laden with pollen, the Zebra also searches for different species of plants in the passion vine genus, Passiflora. These tropical vines bear the magnificent passion flower. Several species of passion vine are used by the immature stages of the zebra and other heliconiid butterflies as a source of food. These larvae are voracious caterpillars and consume great quantities of leafy tissue on a daily basis. As a group, passion fruit plants are protected from most leaf-munching caterpillars and other vegan insects by a veritable witch’s brew of highly toxic chemicals including alkaloids, a family of toxins that includes strychnine and nicotine, and cyanogenic glycosides, chemicals that release cyanide upon entering the digestive tract of a caterpillar or human. 

Common in Central and South America, the Banded Orange Heliconian can sometimes be seen visiting Florida and Texas.

However, members of the heliconiid clan, including the zebra longwing and the gorgeous Gulf Fritillary, turn the tables on passion fruit plants, bypassing the noxious defenses, and feasting with impunity on their leaves. Some longwings sequester cyanogenic glycosides from their food and others manufacture these compounds on their own, presumably for defense. The striking orange and black coloration of the Gulf Fritillary warns vertebrate predators not to mess with this beauty. In addition to any plant derived defenses, the Gulf Fritillary has one more bit of chemical trickery to help keep predators at bay. Glands on the abdomen produce and release a concoction of complex esters when the adult butterfly is disturbed. This stinky defensive fluid dissuades predators such as birds from making a meal of these dazzling butterflies. 

This very hungry caterpillar turns into the beautiful Zebra Longwing, with banded wing patterns resembling those of a zebra. In the Amazon Basin you might see the stunning Sara Longwing with striking white chevrons on its iridescent blue-black wings. In Central America and the southern tier of the United States, brilliant orange, black, and white Gulf Fritillaries sip nectar and collect pollen from a variety of plants.

Do these structures on the leaves of passion vines resemble eggs of longwing butterflies to discourage female longwings from depositing eggs on the leaf?

With so much leaf-munching by the larvae of heliconiids, one wonders how the vines of Passiflora survive. It seems that the mobile and eagle-eyed butterflies locate passion-vine plants by the shape of their leaves. To fool these clever herbivores, tropical passion-vines have evolved leaves that vary dramatically in shape. In this way it is more difficult for butterflies to zero in on any one leaf shape as they search for food for their young. At least one species of Passiflora has taken this game of deception one step further. It has evolved a small structure on the tips of its leaves resembling the egg of a Heliconius butterfly. Larvae of Heliconius are known to be cannibalistic and female butterflies may avoid placing eggs on a leaf if it is already occupied by another caterpillar or by an egg about to hatch. By creating a structure that resembles an egg, the passion-vine hangs a sign that says “no vacancy” to the female butterfly looking for a spot to lay eggs. This remarkable act of mimicry helps the passion vine escape the ravages of very hungry caterpillars. 

Bug of the Week wishes you Happy Holidays and a Joyous and Healthy New Year!

 

 

Acknowledgements

References used in the preparation of this Bug of the Week include “Caterpillars of Eastern North America” by David L. Wagner;  “Coevolution of Animals and Plants” by Lawrence Gilbert and Peter Raven; “Gulf Fritillary Butterfly, Agraulis vanillae (Linnaeus)(Insecta: Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)” by Jaret C. Daniels; and “Novel chemistry of abdominal defensive glands of nymphalid butterfly Agraulis vanilla” by Gary N. Ross,  Henry M. Fales, Helen A. Lloyd, Tappey Jones, Edward A. Sokoloski, Kimberly Marshall-Batty, and Murray S. Blum; “Passiflora (Passifloraceae) defenses against Heliconius cydno (Nymphalidae: Heliconiinae) oviposition” by Kim Khuc and “Heliconius Homepage” https://www.heliconius.org/biology/ecology/

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‘Twas two weeks before Christmas – Giant bark aphids, Longistigma caryae and giant willow aphids, Tuberolachnus salignus

 

Some adult giant bark aphids have wings and others do not. These are the largest aphids in North America.

 

This week we dive into the Bug of the Week mailbag to learn about some fantastic aphids discovered on limbs of a beautiful oak tree near the Chesapeake Bay.

On the branch of a beautiful oak tree, giant bark aphids are tended by ants. This classic mutualism, with ants protecting aphids from predators and parasites and in return receiving honeydew from aphids, is a partnership found in several countries around the world. Image credit: Catherine Carr

‘Twas two weeks before Christmas and what did I see, But some giant bark aphids on a leafless shade tree. 

Aphids are not usually known for their very large size, But these babes on tree limbs win the “big-aphid” prize. 

As steadfast sap-suckers they spent several past weeks Sipping plant-sap from branches through stout hollow beaks. 

Aphid moms slurp sweet phloem by night and by day, And transform it to nymphs – born alive, by the way. 

In this colony of giant willow aphids, the large female on the upper left portion of the branch is giving birth to a daughter.

These strange spawning efforts are quite something to see, Bug-geeks call this birth-trick viviparity.  

As autumn days wane and cold winds start to blow These gals change their game-plan. They just seem to know. 

No more birthing of youngsters on twigs in the cold, They lay eggs on tree branches, many thousand all told. 

Eggs of the giant bark aphid are the overwintering stage. They line small branches by the thousands and change from amber to black as they age.

Tiny black aphid eggs seem the perfect life stage To brave wicked winter when vicious storms rage. 

And if aphids can dream, their fond hope might just be That no hungry egg-eaters find their young on the tree. 

In this season of darkness of cold and of gloom Not far off is a season when trees start to bloom.

Cast off fear giant aphids, be glad and be happy! Next spring eggs will hatch when trees get all sappy. 

Through millions of years your plan has been true What more can be said? Happy holidays to you!

Braving icy winds and freezing temperatures, giant willow aphids try to squeeze in one more generation before Old Man Winter puts an end to their season.

Acknowledgements

 Bug of the Week extends apologies to Clement Clark Moore.  We also thank Dr. Catherine Carr for providing the inspiration and an image for this episode. Like woolly alder aphids, woolly beech aphids (aka beech blight aphids), and others we met in previous episodes, these aphids reproduce parthenogenetically, that is without males. To learn more about magnificent giant aphids on beech and willows, please visit the following websites:  

University of Florida Featured Creatures: giant bark aphid

InfluentialPoints.com: Tuberolachnus salignus, Giant willow aphid

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Holiday spiders help make the season bright: Jumping spiders, Salticidae and orb weavers, Araneidae

 

Several giant eyes help the red-backed jumping spider track its prey. Dazzling green fangs ensure prey don’t escape.

 

Spider egg sacs like these of the Basilica spider on holly sometimes inadvertently enter homes.

December 2021 will be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which is supply chain shortages that plague shoppers this holiday season. In addition to shortages of electronic devices and automobiles, choose-and-cut Christmas trees are somehow in short supply.  Ah, but my favorite trusty tree farm had no shortage of trees and, in what has become a regular event, my holiday tree had no shortage of spiders. This year my Nordmann fir had at least one tiny but very entertaining jumping spider.

Jumping spiders are unlike their cousins, the well-known orb weavers made famous by E. B. White in Charlotte’s Web. As their name implies, jumping spiders are hunters, relentlessly on the prowl for small insects and other spiders which they stalk, grab, subdue, and pulverize with powerful fangs. They are among the most intelligent of all arthropods. Their tiny brains are able to form spatial maps and plan circuitous routes to sneak up on unsuspecting prey. They are highly entertaining to watch as they explore their environment in search of prey. Their eight eyes, two of which are extraordinarily large, allow them to precisely track moving prey. Their mating rituals are spectacularly complex and rival those of vertebrates like Bower Birds. You can watch them hunt and court at this link: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/160121-jumping-spiders-animals-science

After bringing a field-grown Christmas tree into the house, I found this little jumping spider touring my houseplants. Once the stare-down with the camera guy was finished, the spider continued its explorations. Watch how it takes a shortcut from one leaf to another at normal and one third speed, hence the name jumping spider!

When morning dew glistens on silken strands, it’s not hard to imagine why shimmering tinsel conjures thoughts of beautiful spider webs.

Other spiders play important roles in the anthology of holiday trees and their decorations. Each year as we put the finishing touches on our holiday tree, a serious debate arises regarding the quantity of tinsel necessary to complete the task. Some years ago, I explored the murky origins of tinsel. To some, the silvery strands of unknown composition evoke images of glistening icicles or shimmering crystals of frost on evergreen branches. But how did tinsel become part of a holiday tradition in so many households? To aficionados of arachnids, the tradition of festive tinsel has several different origins. One Christian story tells of Mary’s harrowing escape from Roman soldiers as she and Jesus hid in the hills near Bethlehem. With Herod’s legion in hot pursuit, Mary entered a cave seeking refuge. Spiders quickly sealed the entrance with silk and when soldiers arrived and saw the undisturbed webs, they disregarded the cave as a hideaway and continued their search elsewhere. Often maligned spiders saved the day! Since that time, tinsel has been strung on Christmas trees to represent a glistening spider web and to commemorate the spider’s miraculous deed.

Other tinsel legends from Germany and the Ukraine tell of spiders escaping the lethal brooms of housekeepers by hiding in dark corners of the home during preparations for holiday celebrations.  After exiting their redoubts on Christmas Eve, spiders excitedly explored the evergreen trees that had been brought inside and then left behind glorious cloaks of gossamer webs. When Father Christmas arrived that night and saw the gray spider webs, he miraculously changed them into sparkling silver strands, much to the delight of families who viewed the trees on Christmas morning. Since that time, tinsel has been strung as a symbol of the remarkable event.

In the wild, jumping spiders prowl vegetation looking for prey and, apparently, amuse themselves by taking tiny bungee jumps from high places.

Spider egg sacs like these of the Basilica spider on holly sometimes inadvertently enter homes.

Many spiders survive winter’s chill as eggs protected in silken sacs. If the spider’s last haunt was a spruce or fir, then egg sacs may enter homes as stowaways on Christmas trees. In the warmth of holiday homes, eggs hatch and humans may be recipients of dozens of unexpected visitors. If you discover a spider egg sac on your Christmas tree or fresh evergreen boughs, simply pluck off a small piece of infested branch and place it and the egg sac outside on a shrub. This will allow the spiders to hatch just in time to deliver a deferred holiday gift of pest control in your garden. And as for my adorable jumping spider, well prey is scarce during winter months in my home. My spider was released on a hemlock where overwintering woolly adelgids may serve up a holiday treat for this clever hunter.

Acknowledgements

We thank the Maryland Christmas Tree Association for providing the inspiration for this episode. The fascinating article “The execution of planned detours by spider-eating predators” by Fiona R. Cross and Robert R. Jackson was used as a reference for this episode.

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Winter mild or wild? Ask the banded woolly bear, Pyrrharctia isabella

 

How do woolly bear caterpillars predict winter weather and survive winter’s chill?

 

The banded woolly bear turns into the pretty Isabella tiger moth.

By virtue of the intimate relationship between weather and insect activity, folklore abounds about the ability of insects to predict meteorological events – when hornets build their nests high, a cold winter is on the way, when ants construct tall mounds, heavy rains are just around the corner, stuff like that. An annual preoccupation for many naturalists is taking a guess at what Old Man Winter has in store for us in the upcoming months. Fact-packed sources like NOAA predict “above normal” temperatures for the mid-Atlantic region and the tried and true Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a “Season of Shivers” with “positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States”. Entomologists know the consummate soothsayer of upcoming winter weather is the banded woolly bear caterpillar, the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth.

Exactly when and where the prognosticative abilities of woolly bears were discovered remains shrouded in mystery. However, Dr. Charles Howard Curran, an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from 1947 until his retirement in 1960, popularized the forecasting skills of woolly bears. Dr. Curran made annual pilgrimages to nearby Bear Mountain Park each year between 1948 and 1956 to observe woolly bears and gather data on their color patterns. He measured the width of colored hair bands on the body of woolly bear caterpillars to forecast the severity of the upcoming winter. His observations gained notoriety when published in the New York Herald Tribune. He concluded that a wide orange or brown band in the middle of the caterpillar bordered by black bands at head and tail forecast a mild winter. Conversely, wider black segments with a narrow band of brown or orange in between forewarned of a long, severe winter. Several other entomological experts around the country have used various clues garnered from the woolly bears to predict the winter weather. Claims of 70-80% accuracy are not uncommon.

A woolly bear caterpillar bedecked with just a few black segments front and back, and many segments in the middle festooned with orange or brown is thought to be the harbinger of a mild winter. Conversely, a woolly bear with a narrow band of orange or brown sandwiched between large bands of black at head and tail signals a severe winter ahead. Having encountered representatives of both camps recently, perhaps the woolly bears are predicting a relatively mild winter with intermittent periods of severe cold. Clever meteorologists are these woolly bears.

When threatened, the woolly bear caterpillar curls into ball with a phalanx of stout, outward-facing spines which send a strong warning to would-be predators and bug geeks.

I usually think of caterpillars as rather delicate creatures and wonder why woolly bears don’t spend winter in a more durable stage like an egg or pupa, as do many other moths and butterflies. Even in Maryland polar vortices sometimes visit and drop temperatures below zero. A fascinating study by Jack Layne and his colleagues revealed that woolly bear caterpillars survive winter’s cold through a process called supercooling. As temperatures drop in autumn and early winter, woolly bears and many other species of insects produce cryoprotectants, antifreeze-like compounds including glycerol and sorbitol, that prevent the formation of lethal ice crystals in their bodies. This brew of Mother Nature’s antifreeze allows caterpillars to survive even when ambient temperatures dip well below freezing. The ability to shrug off cold enables the partially grown woolly bear caterpillar to overwinter as a larva, and with the return of warm temperatures in spring and arrival of fresh leaves, the caterpillars resume feeding for a while before spinning a cocoon and completing the transformation to an adult moth.

Imagine my delight when on a recent trip to the field, I discovered a banded woolly bear caterpillar with virtually no black bands on its body save for a few dark segments near the head. What with wildly inflating fuel prices and my ancient furnace gulping gallons of fuel oil, the prospect of lower oil bills loomed large. These hopes were thoroughly dashed a week later when I spotted a banded woolly bear with but a few orange colored segments in the middle and wide black bands at head and tail sanctioning the Farmer’s Almanac forecast of severe weather ahead. Has discord so rampant in the world of humans spread to the realm of woolly bears as well? Let’s hope not. Perhaps these seemingly disparate meteorological predictions are reconciled like this: “Woolly bears are predicting a relatively mild winter with intermittent periods of severe cold.” Clever meteorologists are these woolly bears.

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks Sheri, Finn, and Iggy for inspiring this episode and Karin Burghardt for providing images and identifying featured caterpillars. David Wagner’s remarkable book, “Caterpillars of Eastern North America”, was used to prepare this story, as was the interesting article “Cold Hardiness of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella Lepidoptera: Arctiidae)” by Jack R. Layne, Jr., Christine L. Edgar, and Rebecca E. Medwith.

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Why Do Squirrels Dig Up Lawns & Gardens?

Learn About the Damage Squirrels can Cause Each Year to Your Property & How to Prevent It

Squirrels may appear to be cute and harmless while scampering across your lawn — but the critter can actually cause quite a headache.

Residents and business owners in the Northeastern part of the United States may find their property littered with the quarter-sized holes squirrels dig in order to store food for winter.

Squirrel holes can be an eyesore and are generally an early sign that a scurry — or group of squirrels, has taken over the inside of the residence or building.

And even though these holes in the yard or garden might not cause a significant amount of damage, it could be an indication of a larger issue at hand.

In the Northeast, where winters are long and harsh, the region’s most prevalent squirrel species — the Eastern gray squirrel, the Southern flying squirrel, and the red squirrel, seek manmade structures for warmth.

These squirrels can take up residence in an attic or crawl spaces in a home or business, resulting in expensive infrastructural damage to the wiring, roof, siding, and insulation.

Homeowners and business owners should be aware of the affects a squirrel infestation can have on a property in addition to understanding how a nuisance wildlife management specialist can take care of the issue.

So, if you’ve spotted these quarter-sized holes in the landscape surrounding your home or office it’s essential to take action sooner rather than later as it can lead to significant damage for homeowners and business owners alike.

Why Do Squirrels Dig Holes in Your Yard?

The Northeast is home to tree-dwelling squirrels as opposed to ground squirrels, which are found on the west coast. This doesn’t mean, however, that a garden or lawn is completely safe from squirrel holes.

The holes that tree-dwelling squirrels dig in gardens or lawns are only an inch deep and typically no bigger than a coin — just large enough to store acorns, seeds, nuts, and other edible items.

Gray squirrels, Southern flying squirrels, and red squirrels create these food storage holes — called caches, in preparation for the lack of available food sources during the winter months.

Caches tend to pop up most frequently in the fall, from October to November.

For anyone that is trying to keep their lawn or garden looking picture-perfect, this can be an annoying trait — but squirrels do refill the caches with dirt. Likely, a lawn that’s been dug up by squirrels will be covered in these dirt-filled caches.

Because squirrel holes are so small and shallow, property owners don’t need to be concerned about irreparable or extensive harm to the outside. Generally, no long-term damage arises from squirrel holes in lawns or gardens.

In fact, the holes can actually help promote plant growth by naturally aerating the soil.

But squirrel holes in a yard or garden can be aesthetically unappealing and may indicate that a greater problem could soon arise — like squirrels infesting the inside of a home or business.

Manmade structures are particularly enticing to squirrels during the winter as the critters look for shelter from the cold.

Squirrels can access a home or building by using their teeth and claws to gnaw holes through drywall and roofing, then build nests in the attic or crawlspaces.

Red squirrel peering out of a hole in a brown-painted wooden roof

It can be quite costly to repair squirrel damage found in a home, business, or other structure. Reinsulating an attic after it has been destroyed by nesting squirrels can cost upwards of $1,500 or more — depending on the size of the attic.

A property that is facing a squirrel infestation can face extensive — not to mention unsightly, damage. This situation can be a true nightmare for any homeowner or business owner.  

To prevent squirrels from digging holes or causing damage to the home or business, it’s important for property owners to understand how to keep them at bay until a professional can come resolve the issue.

Prevent Squirrels from Digging Up a Lawn & Garden

If a property owner suspects squirrels have infested the area, they should immediately contact a licensed pest and nuisance wildlife expert for help.

It’s not only inadvisable but also dangerous for untrained individuals to confront a squirrel infestation. Squirrels can spread diseases such as salmonella and leptospirosis — a disease that can cause liver damage in people or animals.

Although rare, squirrels can also carry rabies. A single bite from an infected squirrel can result in severe or even fatal health complications, including intense muscle spasms and paralysis.

Leaving the removal of a squirrel infestation to the professionals is the best way to ensure the problem is taken care of the first time.

But until a pest and nuisance wildlife technician can arrive, there are some simple measures property owners can take to prevent squirrels from causing further damage to a garden, yard, or landscaping.

The best way to keep squirrels at bay while waiting for a pest and nuisance wildlife expert to come is to eliminate any available food sources found throughout the property.  

This includes securing garbage can lids, barring off compost piles, taking down bird feeders with accessible birdseed, and quickly removing fallen nuts, seeds, or fruits.

Noisemakers like bells or windchimes can also scare squirrels away or deter them from returning to the area. It may also help to seal off any potential points of entry like open attic windows or roof vents.

Spraying essential oils — like peppermint, or mixtures of chili peppers and mint around the property can help to repel squirrels. These temporary solutions can be beneficial as the nuisance wildlife animal tends to dislike smelling or tasting such substances.

To discourage squirrels from digging holes and stealing seedlings, crops, or flower bulbs that are buried underneath the surface, install netting or fencing around the perimeters of flowerbeds and gardens.

While such preventative measures may not completely eliminate a squirrel infestation, it can help to temporarily control the situation.

Keep Squirrels Out with Professional Help

Ensuring squirrels remain outside of your house or business is a worthwhile investment, especially as winter approaches and squirrels are searching for warmth.

But this is not a job for non-professionals. It’s essential for individuals with properties that are struggling with a scurry or infestation to seek a pest and nuisance wildlife expert to safely remove the critters.

Those who lack the proper training risk exposing themselves and others to the harmful bacteria squirrels can carry should they attempt to confront a squirrel infestation alone.

And as untrained individuals don’t possess the education or tools to effectively handle a squirrel infestation, the chance of recurrence increases significantly.

Pest and nuisance wildlife control specialists at Catseye Pest Control can remove the squirrels in addition to creating and installing customized, manmade barriers that can shield a structure from squirrels or other nuisance wildlife.

These barriers, known as Cat-Guard Exclusion Systems, are tailored to fit the needs of a variety of areas and points of entry for nuisance wildlife.

The areas of a structure most vulnerable to squirrels includes eaves, soffits, wire chases, vents, attic windows, and piping.

Cat-Guard employee in blue shirt and cap measuring a white barrier next to a white house, green yard in background

Through professional pest management services like Catseye’s Cat-Guard program, owners can enjoy their property without being concerned about a pest or nuisance wildlife infestation.

Expert Squirrel Control & Removal with Catseye

Sharing a space with a scurry of squirrels is a terrible thought for any homeowner or business owner.

Keep your property protected from squirrels and other nuisance wildlife with the help of Catseye’s comprehensive squirrel control program.

Under this program, our pest and nuisance wildlife control specialists will conduct a thorough inspection of the affected area(s) in order to determine how the squirrels are accessing the property.

From there, tailor-made solutions are designed to get and keep squirrels — and other nuisance wildlife, outside where they belong.

Once the squirrels have been removed, a nuisance wildlife clean-up crew will return the affected area(s) to its former, non-infested state.

Allow the expert pest and nuisance wildlife control technicians at Catseye to help you regain and retain control of your property — whether it’s your home, business, or another structure. Contact us to schedule a free inspection today.

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