The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

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Hey Geek, what’s this? Mystery critter from northern Ontario

This latest installment of “What’s This?” comes via email from my own aunt Elizabeth, who discovered a new-to-her insect while at her cottage, which is on a small bay north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario. She has been cottaging on the same body of water since she was a child, and knows the wildlife pretty well, but:

Never saw this before. Any ideas?

Photo by Elizabeth, used with permission.

I’ll bet that many of you recognize this charismatic beastie…

It’s the unmistakable American Burying Beetle, Necrophila americana (Silphidae). The only species of the genus in North America, it is incredibly widespread in the eastern and central areas of the continent. As the genus name implies, it is a lover of dead things: a carrion-feeder, that also feeds on maggots and other carrion beetles.

Although their diet may seem distasteful, they perform a critical service as part of nature’s clean-up crew. A few years ago, in my garden, I watched a pair of carrion beetles (a different species than this one) drag a mouse carcass into a patch of loose soil, then, over the course of an hour or so, they buried the entire thing until no trace remained. This seemed to be an amazing feat for two insects a fraction of the size of the rodent! The young of that pair of beetles would have fed on the carcass after they hatched: burying beetles are excellent providers in addition to being marvelous cleaner-uppers…

Hey, Geek, what’s this? A two-bug mystery…

Every now and then I get emails or tweets from people asking me to help them identify an insect they’ve found. I love messages like this! Sometimes I recognize the critter right away, other times I have to do a little sleuthing to narrow down its identity. I don’t promise to get a species-level ID, nor do I promise to be right all the time, but I’m sure willing to give it a good shot! Feel free to submit your questions any time.

Anyways, today I got one of these emails, and it was so much fun I had to share it with you (details removed out of respect for the author’s privacy):

Can you tell me what these bugs are?  I live in Texas.  I walked out of my home this morning and saw these 2 bugs sitting side by side on my fence.

One appears to be a green moth, the other some sort of beetle or roach.  They are both about the same size, approx, 1.5 inches.

They are probably harmless, but you never know and they creep me out.



My first thought was, “How interesting to find two such apparently different insects side-by-side on a fence!” My curiosity was piqued immediately. I finally downloaded the image files, and although the photo was a bit blurry, the mystery cleared up right away:

Mystery bugs: green “moth” on the left and brown “roach” on the right. (Photo by J, cropped by me).

J had snapped a photo of an unmistakable scene – and one I’ve never observed personally: a freshly eclosed cicada (the green “moth”, left) resting next to its old nymphal skin (or “exuvia“, right). Very cool!

A closer image of the adult sealed the deal:

It must feel like a strange and very bright new world for this adult cicada which, up to now, had been living in the soil! (Photo by J, cropped by me)

Definitely a cicada. Possibly a dog-day cicada (Tibicen sp.), but it’s hard to say for sure from these photos. Also, the colour of the insect is likely to darken considerably as it sclerotizes (hardens) – the true color would make the ID a bit easier.

As soon as those brand new adult wings have hardened, the cicada will find a nice perch in a tall tree and begin singing for a mate. I haven’t yet heard the cicadas sing here in Ontario, but their high-pitched drone always signals true summer for me 🙂

Milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis)

A mid-week bit of SHINY, to brighten up what has been a mostly rainy week…

Labidomera clivicollis, a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) that specializes on milkweed, Asclepias sp. (hence the red and black warning coloration). It’s the only member of this genus is North America, and it is gorgeous.

Photo Friday – Whitespotted Sawyer Beetle, Monochamus scutellatus

A few days ago, it seemed as though my yard was teeming with really cool, very photogenic beetles.

Naturally, I stuck them all in vials and made them hang around for a bit while I did some portrait sessions (yeah, I’m mean to bugs like that). I’ll be dishing out the photos over the next few weeks, but here’s the first to kick things off: a male longhorned beetle (Family Cerambycidae), Monochamus scutellatus – the whitespotted sawyer. This is a very widespread and common species that feeds on conifers, but it’s one of the larger longhorns in my region so I’m always a little tickled to find one.

Monochamus scutellatus (male)

Now, longhorned beetles are very good at one thing: chewing wood (i.e., trees). They lay their eggs in wood, the larvae bore into and feed on wood, then the adult bores OUT of the wood after it ecloses from its pupa.

As such, these beetles tend to have very impressive chompers. I was fairly cautiously holding this fellow at the thorax as he made repeated futile attempts to bite me.  Naturally, I was curious as to how much this might hurt should he actually make contact, so I deliberately let him bite my thumb.

Mmmm, foolish Geek digits. Om nom.

“Ha-ha to you, stupid beetle,” I thought. “Doesn’t hurt.” But, since I was drawing that conclusion with a sample size of n=1, I repeated the experiment. At about n=6 I realized that allowing the beetle to bite me anywhere other than the fairly callused tips of my digits was, in fact, very painful.

So I put him down.

Apparently satisfied that he had proved his point, he sat nicely for the next five minutes or so as I snapped a bunch of pictures, even allowing me to adjust one antennae mid-way through the photo shoot (the darn things are so long they kept getting cut off the edges of the image).

One other thing I noticed (you may have spotted them in the first shot) was that this beetle had some little red hitchhikers hanging on to the sides of his pronotum. I knew they were mites (and I’ve seen these on other specimens of M. scutellatus), but did not know that they were Uropodoid mites until a friend (a mite specialist working at the CNC) tagged them on Facebook (I can honestly say I’ve never seen mites subjected to FB tagging before – it was pretty awesome) – thanks Wayne!

Monochamus’ hitchhikers – Uropodoid mites

Photo Friday: Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis

Yesterday, my wife called for me to come upstairs: “Come see!”

This usually can be translated to mean: “There’s a bug up here for you!”, so I hustled up the stairs and found her pointing at a large, leggy shape lumbering across the carpet.

For a second, I was disappointed. What a cruel trick. “Ew. Spider.”

But then I got a little closer and realized it was something not at all icky spidery. It was a Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), readily recognized by its lovely earthy colors and fancy hind feet.

Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis

Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis

These often come indoors to visit us, presumably to avoid bad weather (silly thing, it’s so lovely out right now!).  Weather permitting, we always escort them back outside. I released this guy on a branch of our cherry tree in the back yard. He hung out there for a few minutes before flying off, all gangly legs and buzzing wings, toward the stand of white pine on the other side of the fence.

Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis

Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis

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