The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Country life

Winter beetle

I’m sitting in the living room watching the snow swirl and fall. We already have a fairly thick coating of the white stuff; winter arrived with a blustry vengeance this month.

Like many entomologists, I tend to lament this time of year a wee bit. As much as I adore the crisp, stark beauty of the winter months, the season does not exactly create ideal conditions for my primary passion: finding, collecting and photographing six-leggers. Granted, many of my summer/fall finds are waiting for me in the freezer. I have hours and hours of enjoyable pinning, labeling and cataloging to look forward to; however, these thrills just don’t compare with the joys of discovering insects in their natural habitats.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when a run-of-the-mill winter chore earlier this week resulted in a lovely beetle find AND a photo op!

This frozen face belongs to Upis ceramboides, the Roughened Darkling Beetle (Tenebrionidae).  I was moving firewood from the shed to our alcove (we heat primarily with wood in the winter), when I saw the small black body of this beetle fall to the earth, where it lay in stark contrast to the snow.   Darkling beetles are varied in their diets and habitats, but many can be found under bark or dead wood.  Overwintering Upis adults have been extracted from decomposing spruce, birch and cottonwood[1]; that I should find one amidst my wood pile is no surprise.   This beetle has a fairly extensive northern range, so is well-adapted for cold weather survival.

I was particularly smitten with the beautiful rugose elytra…the intricate folds and depressions add incredible depth of texture, especially juxtaposed against the perfectly smooth head and thorax.

I hope this is a sign of more goodies to come this winter…

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References:

[1] Kaufmann, T. (1969)  Life history of Upis ceramboides at Fairbanks, Alaska.  Ann. Ent. Soc. Amer. 62(4): 922-923.

The Biggest Spider In Ever (Araneus gemmoides)

I was out in the yard playing fetch with the dogs, when suddenly a large, ominous shape…slowly creeping up the beige siding of my house…caught my attention.   Holy jeezum crow: the biggest fracking spider I’d ever seen.

I did what any self-respecting entomologist would do: I wrung my hands and hopped from one foot to the other, doing the Holy-Heebie-Jeebies-Icky-Icky-Spider Dance.

Erm.

I mean, I did what any self-respecting entomologist would do: I scooped it up with the two-foot-long tennis ball-launcher I was holding and walked it, arm’s length, into some sunlight, with half a mind to take some pictures.

Eh.  Heh. 

I mean…oh, I’ll just say it: it creeped me right the heck out.  You guys know I’m not a huge fan of spiders, and this was a DOOZY. 

It was cold and not moving too much, but I coaxed it onto a leaf.  It sat:

Then dangled:

Then it crawled back up, started moving towards the petiole I was holding…and suddenly the leaf was not nearly big enough. Not even REMOTELY big enough.  I scampered over to the garden and deposited it on some autumn-browned flowers:

It sat and looked spider-ey and bristle-ey.

It occurred to me that closeup photographs would probably not capture the true bulk of this impressive creature.  I needed something in the images for scale.  I tried a tennis ball…lens cap…another leaf…nothing looked quite right. 

So I did what any self-respecting entomologist would do: I ALLOWED THE GIANT SPIDER TO CRAWL ONTO MY HAND. 

My fingers are apparently trying to flee from the rest of my hand.

I quaked and thought of those giant chelicerae and swore I would never in a million billion years touch another arachnid so help me god if it bit me.  I wondered if spiders were like dogs…if they could be whipped into a snarling, vicious frenzy if they so much as caught a whiff of fear.

It walked some more.

O Halp.

And then it started thinking about walking up my sweater.

AAAK!!!

*End photo shoot*

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(No spiders were harmed in the making of this post, although the human was visibly trembling by the end.) 

(And, ok, so maybe this isn’t the biggest spider in EVER, but it is pretty darned humongous.  I need to spend a little time IDing it…anyone recognize this ferocious man-eater?)

Pleasantly distracted

I ADORE autumn.   Just love it right to bits and back.  I am completely distracted by, and enjoying, this beautiful, beautiful time of year.

This has always been my favourite season.  Even back when Iwas angrily ranting working for The Man, September always felt like the start of a new year.  I’d get a little giddy.  I’d watch students pile into their yellow buses with a tinge of nostalgia.  Peruse aisles of colourful back-to-school supplies with envy.  Try to come up with a reasonable justification for buying a new backpack instead of a briefcase.  Yes, I’m one of those horrifically geeky types that just really really likes school, and I missed it terribly when I was away.  This is my first back-to-school season since reclaiming my student status, and I. just. LOVE it.   The classes, the papers, the deadlines, the thinking, the reading, the teaching and yes, even the OMG COMMITTEE MEETING PROPOSAL SEMINAR COMPS AUGH!!!!  I love it all.

Then, as if that weren’t all groovy enough, it is a fracking GORGEOUS autumn this year.  I’m sure I say this every October, but I swear, this year it’s just too much.  The trees are aflame; the sun glows softly in blue skies; the temperatures are warm enough to keep some wildflowers in bloom and some bugs busy.   If I could give autumn a big, passionate kiss, I would.  That’s how much I love it this year.

Today was yet another spectacular day.  The dogs and I headed out in the woods for an adventure and some photo-taking.   The sun was warm, the ground was yellow and crispy and the air smelled like the colour brown.   Gorgeous.  The small mugsly one got lost (only for 20 minutes or so, and she got brownie points for NOT coming back with a snout full of porcupine quills like last time), the three-legged one wallowed in every puddle she could find (causing me to question the rationale behind the bath I gave her a few days ago) and the yellow one repeatedly ran back to me to tell me about all the terribly naughty things the other two were up to.    Me…I saw a surprisingly good number of bugs, so thoroughly enjoyed myself anyways.

Bee still busy harvesting pollen

Crab spider

Caligrapha sp. THE Chrysomelid stunner in my area (in my humble opinion)

Brown lacewing

Sweat bee

Ants do the “waggle dance” (or something!)

I was out in the yard with the dogs this afternoon, gazing at the wildflowers (weeds?  no, wildflowers) growing on the periphery of the property, along the fence line.  I spotted the white berries of a small red-twigged osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), but my eye was quickly drawn from the snowy fruit to the movement on the dark green leaves, many of which were oddly gnarled and curled.

Ants!  Lots of them!  Large black ones, but only partly black: the thorax was a deep shade of red.   The ants seemed to be moving over these deformed leaves and their accompanying stems rather randomly, and without purpose.  My first thought, given the numbers, was that they were tending aphid colonies, but no such colonies seemed to exist. 

Neither did they appear to be foraging or actively feeding; their random ramblings simply took them across a leaf, then over then under again.

Their mandibles were, for the most part, open and looking like they would be rather pinchy should they make contact with silly human fingertips (so I kept mine at a safe distance).

Then I noticed this weird (in my experience anyways) behaviour:

(Sorry about all the heavy breathing, but it’s not mine…the small mugsly one was waiting – rather impatiently I might add – for her next frisbee toss).

Anyways.  Did you see it?  Look at the ant on middle of the leaf in the centre of the shot at about 0:15 for a pretty good example…although there are at least a dozen or so examples of the behaviour in the clip.   It immediately brought to mind the “waggle dance” of their hymenopteran cousins, the bees.  I have never seen this before, and I can’t find any good information about it other than a vague reference to a chapter in a book about communication in social insects.  It seems to be a scraping-type of communication, where the tip of the abdomen is scraped on the substrate (in this case, the leaf) to create vibrations that can be picked up by other nearby ants. I have seen this in some caterpillars, but never in ants (if that’s even what it was).

Exactly WHAT these guys were trying to communicate, however, is beyond me.  I’m hoping someone who knows a little about ants and stuff (or anybody else for that matter) might be able to chime in on this one…because it was pretty wicked-cool to watch.

UPDATE: 

So I went out yesterday morning, while it was still cool, to have a closer look at the dogwood plant.  The ants were nowhere to be seen…until I started to handle the gnarled leaves.  Then they emerged from within the protective coils and folds – cold, slow and sleepy – but armed with open mandibles at at the ready.  I tapped one leaf sharply to dislodge the ants, then quickly plucked it from the stem.  There had to be something more to this story…and there was:

Hidden on the underside of the leaf were numerous teeny-tiny aphids.  Ah-ha!  So now I understand the ants’ presence as well as their roamings over the leaves.  I still am unsure how to interpret their communications, however.  A few of my ideas: a “call to arms”, summoning other ants to a protective position in response to my presence and pokings; a friendly  “hey, there’s some decent food over here”; or something being said to the aphids themselves perhaps?  Something to stimulate their feeding and subsequent secretion of delectable honeydew?  The plot thickens….

UPDATE 2:

My fave antologist, Alex Wild, has provided some excellent information on both the identity and behaviour of these ants:

I can’t say I know for sure what the ants are doing. But I can tell you who they are: Camponotus noveboracensis, a carpenter ant species found in north temperate/boreal habitats across the northern tier of our continent.

Carpenter ants can communicate through substrate vibrations. One thing they do is spread an alarm signal by drumming their heads against the ground. They also do a simple vibration-type dance to recruit nestmates to food. You could be seeing either of both of those behaviors here.

Hay field fireflies

I’m not a religious person by any stretch.  I’m not a particularly spiritual person, either.

But there is something about the sight of a hay field dressed in hundreds of dancing, twinkling green lights that stirs my heart and nourishes my soul and makes me love every rock, blade of grass and living creature on earth all at the same time.    It makes me downright mushy, truth be told.  I am blessed with this glorious spectacle of buggy eye-candy every early summer, and I swear I could spend all night completely mesmerized by the sight.  I never tire of it.  

I’m glad I got to see it before I leave…

My only regret is that I can’t capture it with my camera.  The green-lit dance will stay with me in my dreams for weeks to come, though, of that I have no doubt.

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