Thursday, February 27, 2014

Red-headed Bush Cricket

When you think of a cricket, a robust blackish or brownish insect probably comes to mind. Maybe you imagine the classic “cricket on the hearth,” cheerfully “chirp-chirp-chirping” from some concealed location indoors or outside. You might be surprised to learn that crickets in the family Gryllidae come in a variety of forms, with a corresponding diversity in song. The Red-headed Bush Cricket, Phyllopalpus pulchellus, is a delicate, diminutive, and colorful creature with a trilling song.


This species is active both day and night, and at first glance may be mistaken for some other kind of insect. Adults are only 7-9 millimeters in body length, and they crawl over foliage well off the ground in contrast to the more lumbering, ground-dwelling field crickets that are more familiar.

Females have unmodified front wings, and a sickle-like ovipositor jutting from the rear of the abdomen. Males have the front wings modified for producing a shockingly loud, high-pitched calling song. His wings are asymmetrical in venation, and the left one with a clear spot in the middle.


He elevates his front wings to a nearly vertical position, and often selects a “stage” where two leaves come close together. This configuration helps amplify and project his song.

Phyllopalpus pulchellus is also known as the Handsome Trig, and indeed it is sharply-dressed. Both genders are easily recognized by their bright red, black, and yellow color pattern. Their mouthparts include palps, like most other insects with chewing mouthparts, but the terminal segment is conspicuously broadened. It gives them the appearance of having “boxing gloves” that are in constant motion as the insect senses the chemical properties of the surfaces they roam across.

This is a common insect that ranges from southern New England to northern Florida and west to the eastern borders of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Look for the adults in July, August, and September in low shrubs and bushes.

I have had success finding the Red-headed Bush Cricket simply by scanning various plants, whether the creature is singing or not. It does helps to know what they sound like, though, so take a listen to the digital recording on the ”Singing Insects of North America” website. In my experience, the song is even more shrill than it comes across in the recording.

Sources: Capinera, John L., Ralph D. Scott, and Thomas J. Walker. 2004. Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates (Cornell University Press). 249 pp.
Elliott, Lang and Wil Hershberger. 2006. The Songs of Insects. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 228 pp.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Striped Pine Scale

Scale insects are abundant true bugs, but they may be the most overlooked of all insects. Quite frankly, they don’t look anything like insects. The females are nearly or entirely sedentary, and usually covered by a waxy shell or coating secreted by the insect. The overall impression is one of an aberration in the growth of the host plant, or perhaps an insect gall, or a snail or other mollusk. Such is the case with the Striped Pine Scale, Toumeyella pini.

I found the immature female specimens shown here on an ornamental pine in my Colorado Springs neighborhood on November 1, 2011. It is these females that overwinter, their shell-like dorsal surface protecting them from the elements. This was actually one of two species of scales attacking the tree. The much smaller, silky white ovals are pine needle scales in the genus Chionaspis (family Diaspididae).

The Striped Pine Scale is one of eighteen known species in the genus Toumeyella. It is native to the U.S. and Canada where it is considered a pest species. The hosts are pines, mostly two- and three-needle species (needles bundled in twos or threes).

Like other scale insects, aphids, and many other sap-sucking bugs, T. pini secretes copious amounts of a liquid waste product called “honeydew.” This sweet, sticky substance is highly attractive to ants, wasps, bees, and flies. In fact, the presence of a scale insect infestation may first be betrayed by large numbers of yellowjackets swarming over an affected pine tree.

Excessive honeydew deposits also breed sooty mold, which can turn needles and branches black, inhibiting photosynthesis and further weakening a tree.

The active stage in the life cycle of the Striped Pine Scale is the youngest nymph stage, known as a “crawler.” Crawlers are very tiny, emerging from the eggs in late May or early June. They may hitchhike to new host trees via insects, birds, mammals, people, or gardening tools and machinery.

Crawlers gravitate toward new growth on a tree, settling in after only a day or two. They molt (shed their exoskeleton), losing their legs and acquiring longer mouthparts. Female crawlers attach to the twigs, while male crawlers settle on the needles. The male scales are much smaller, and more elongate in shape, than the females shown in these images.

After that first molt, the female insects will not move again. Males mature in late summer, sprouting wings and flying to females. They mate with immature females, and those females overwinter in diapauses (not feeding). There can be more than one generation in the southern reaches of their range, up to three generations per year in Georgia.

In the crawler stage, the Striped Pine Scale is preyed upon by lacewing larvae and lady beetles. The adult female scales are eaten by the moth caterpillar Laetilia coccidivora (family Pyralidae), and both male and female scales are parasitized by the tiny chalcid wasp Coccophagus lycimnia (family Aphelinidae), at least on Loblolly Pine in Georgia (Clarke, et al., 1989). House Finches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and other birds also feed on these scale insects.

This species ranges widely east of the Rocky Mountains, and is generally more abundant in the northern tier of states. It has only recently reached a problematic status along the Front Range here in Colorado. Infestations of bark-infesting woolly aphids (Pineus spp.) appear to be associated with Striped Pine Scale infestations, perhaps making trees more susceptible to attack.

Scotch Pine and Lodgepole Pine appear to be the most favored hosts for T. pini, but many other pines are subject to infestation as well. Look for the female scales, highly convex and about 6 millimeters across, on the terminal twigs of the host trees.

Sources: Clarke, Stephen R., Gary L. DeBarr, and C. Wayne Berisford. 1989. “The Life History of Toumeyella pini (King) (Homoptera: Coccidae) in Loblolly Pine Seed Orchards in Georgia,” Can. Entomol. 121(10): 853-860.
Cranshaw, W.S. 2013. “Scale Insects Affecting Conifers,” Colorado State University Extension Fact Sheet No. 5.514.
Cranshaw, Whitney. 2004. Garden Insects of North America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 656 pp.
Williams, M.L. and T. Kondo. 2009. “Status and current composition of the soft scale insect genus Toumeyella (Hemiptera: Coccidae),” Proc. Of the XI International Symposium on Scale Insect Studies. 29-32.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Pollinators of Native Plants

Newly-minted U.S. citizen Heather Holm didn’t wait for official government recognition before delivering a gift to her fellow Americans. Seriously, she became a citizen just last Tuesday. Earlier in the month her self-published book Pollinators of Native Plants rolled off the printer at Hillcrest Media Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The title does not do the book justice, as this is a comprehensive primer on garden ecosystems and how to create them.

Heather’s background in graphic design serves her well in the unique organization and layout of the book. When I hear “self-published” I often expect poor paper and image quality, and an overall substandard product. That is most definitely not the case here. Images are sharp, the paper durable, and the cover is glossy and professional. There is no obvious compromise for cost-savings and the retail price of $29.95 is perfectly reasonable.

Beyond production values, this book is a labor of love for native plants and the insects and other arthropods that thrive in a well-designed and nurtured garden. Heather observed, documented, and photographed her own garden for a decade before fusing her findings with other researched information to yield the book.

Not only is the text accurate, the information is communicated in a user-friendly manner that does not talk down to a novice, or disrespect the experience and knowledge of an entomologist or botanist. This is a fine line to walk and Holm does it beautifully. Scientific terms are defined when they are first introduced, but there is also a glossary in the back. All the organisms imaged, as near as I can tell, are identified accurately, even if that means only to genus, tribe, or family. This is important because not every creature can be identified to species from a photo.

What I find truly unique about this book is that the author recognizes that a garden is an ecosystem. The gardener is a steward who works best when he or she understands how nature is working. So, Holm makes it known that not all pollinators are created equal. Most, in fact, are “flower visitors” in search of nectar. Those insects play other important roles, however, as predators, parasites, and parasitoids of pest and nuisance insects. The inclusion of those “other” bugs makes the book an invaluable resource all by itself.

Taking those complex relationships and making them understandable is a gift, but making them relevant to a gardener and homeowner is even more challenging. Again, the author succeeds. She goes on to furnish concrete action plans that can be used to enhance pollinator conservation, increase the value of the garden to surrounding wild ecosystems, and making the garden blend seamlessly with those natural areas.

The bulk of the book explores native plant and insect interactions for three basic landscapes: prairie, woodland edge, and wetland edge. It should be noted that the regional focus of the book is the upper Midwest (Great Lakes, plus Iowa, Minnesota). A typical two-page spread looks like this:

One page discusses the plant, while the opposite page explores the range of pollinators, flower-visitors, and/or predators and parasites, even herbivores, that one is likely to encounter on the plant. Additional, following pages may also be devoted to those relationships. Most of the insects have their own “pollinator profile” or similar biography in the far-right column on the appropriate page.

References, charts, and a visual index of the insects are located in the back of the book, along with examples of native plant garden diagrams, and the glossary and traditional index.

It is a joy to be able to recommend a book like this that embraces more than just plants and their pollinators; and that empowers the gardener to work with nature rather than in spite of Her.

Please see more about this book at its dedicated website, and make your purchase there, too. Authors are notorious for investing any extra income in their next project, and I certainly hope Heather Holm will continue to produce such valuable literature far into the future. Meanwhile, you will want to follow her blog, Restoring the Landscape With Native Plants.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fork-tailed Bush Katydid

I vividly recall an episode in my childhood that perhaps cemented my fascination with insects. I must have been somewhere between eight and eleven years old. One afternoon in late summer I heard an insect calling at regular intervals from a rhododendron bush outside the front door of our Portland, Oregon home. I finally tracked down the creature and discovered it was a male Fork-tailed Bush Katydid, Scudderia furcata. What happened next I shall relate later in this post.

I did not know at the time what kind of katydid I was observing. Years later I discovered E. O. Essig’s book Insects of Western North America in our public library and found the species there. Indeed, it was virtually the only option for western Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia.

Eight species of bush katydids in the genus Scudderia are now recognized in the United States and southern Canada. The Fork-tailed Bush Katydid is by far the most widespread, being transcontinental in its geographic distribution. Still, in most regions it is next to impossible to separate from other species.

The only reliable way to differentiate Scudderia species is by the shape of the “dorsal process” or “supra-anal plate” in adult male specimens. This horn-like feature juts out of the top of the abdomen at the rear. Another structure, the “sub-genital plate” curves up from below to meet the supra-anal plate. The sub-genital plate may at first be mistaken for an ovipositor, an organ found only in female katydids.

Not surprisingly, the shape of the dorsal process in the Fork-tailed Bush Katydid is, well, fork-like. It looks like a miniature tuning fork, as revealed in the image above. Images of wild, living male bush katydids are usually impossible to identify to species because the folded wings usually conceal the supra-anal plate.

Males also possess the “file and scraper” modifications on the “shoulders” of their front wings. These are the structures they rub together quickly to produce songs. Bush katydids typically rasp a short, intermittent call: s-s-s-s-s-S-S-S-T. This discontinuous song no doubt helps prevent predators from pinpointing the location of the insect.

Back to the opening story. I saw the male katydid produce its song, and in short order a female flew in to join him. Both genders, once close to each other, will talk in soft “ticks,” but I do not recall them having such a conversation. The next thing I knew, the two were in copula, “tail-to-tail.” I watched in horror as I saw a white, gelatinous mass oozing from between the two. When they finally separated, it appeared the female had been torn open and was losing her innards.

I learned much later in my life that the male was the source of this mass. Male katydids and related orthopterans transfer a protein-rich spermatophore in the process of inseminating a female. She consumes this object while the male’s sperm enter her oviduct.

Scudderia sp. female

Fertilized female bush katydids use their curved, knife-like ovipositors to insert eggs between the layers of a leaf, at the leaf’s edge. The result is a kidney bean-shaped bulge in the leaf. A female can lay up to 175 eggs, but deposits a small quantity at each location. The following spring, a tiny katydid emerges from each egg.

Scudderia sp. nymph

Nymphs go through six instars (an instar being the interval between molts), gradually accruing wing pads and both internal and external reproductive organs. They are general feeders on the foliage of shrubs. They are sometimes considered a pest in orchards and citrus groves when populations build to high levels (Bentley, 2002 and Headrick, 2000).

Adult S. furcata are 36-40 millimeters from the head to the tips of the folded wings, so they are not small insects. Still, they are incredibly well camouflaged. Most specimens are wholly green, but late-autumn specimens are correspondingly brownish, reddish, or even pink. They are most active at night, and are sometimes drawn to outdoor lights. Both sexes fly well.

Katydids in general are among my favorite insects, and I can’t help but wonder if that mating pair forever endeared them to me. Keep a listen for katydids in your own yard, garden, or neighborhood park. See if you can tell different species apart by their songs. Search with a flashlight and you will eventually find one of these amazing insects.

Sources: Bentley, Walt. 2002. “Researching Biology and Control of Forktailed Bush Katydid (Scudderia furcata Brenner) and Western Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi Barber) in Stone Fruits,” California Tree Fruit Agreement Research Report 2002 .
Bland, Roger G. 2003. The Orthoptera of Michigan – Biology, Keys, and Descriptions of Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets. East Lansing: Michigan State University Extension, Extension Bulletin E-2815. 220 pp.
Elliott, Lang and Wil Hershberger. 2007. The Songs of Insects. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 228 pp (and a CD).
Headrick, David. 2000. “Fork-tailed Katydid Studies,” Citrus Research Board 2000 Annual Report.
Helfer, Jacques R. 1972. How to Know the Grasshoppers, Cockroaches, and Their Allies (Second Ed.). Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 359 pp.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Bugs in Love

Happy Valentine’s Day! No matter whether you, or any other person, loves insects, there is no question that they love each other. There are few things arthropods are better at than procreating, so on this day of love why not celebrate their courtship and mating?

True bugs like the Eastern Boxelder Bugs above, often mate “tail-to-tail.” It is one way to differentiate them from beetles, which usually mate stacked up, the male on top. Take the two tiger beetles below, for example.

The video below shows a pair of blister beetles (genus Epicauta) that I found here in Colorado Springs. The male is in the rear, rocking back and forth and literally tickling the fancy of the object of his affection with his antennae. You’ll have to add your own sound track, maybe Barry White or Marvin Gaye. Ooooooh....yeah.

Butterflies, like most insects, rely heavily on pheromones to attract the opposite sex. Pheromones are species-specific volatile chemicals produced mostly by the female, but sometimes the male. The picture below depicts a pair of Heliconius hecale in the “Butterfly Magic” exhibit at Tucson Botanical Gardens. The female is perched on the leaf while the male hovers above.

In this case, he is wafting his own pheromones toward her. Unfortunately for him, the posture of the female is the Lepidoptera equivalent of flipping one’s middle finger. Nice try, guy. Better luck next time.

Some male insects have a “hit-and-run” mentality, literally. Male European Woolcarder Bees, Anthidium manicatum, stake out territories around resources used by the females. They will rout any other males, and any other bee species, from a patch of flowers, for example. When a female lands on a flower and tries to go about the business of harvesting pollen….BAM! The male bee forcibly accosts her, mating with her whether she wants to or not. The session ends after only a few seconds.

Among the more gymnastic of mating rituals occurs in the Odonata: the damselflies and dragonflies. It still may not be much fun for a female, as the male grasps her tightly around the neck with the claspers on the end of his abdomen. Some dragonflies even end up puncturing the eyes of their mates with the prongs and spurs on their claspers.

A compliant female will, however, bend her abdomen up to meet the base of her mate’s abdomen, as his sperm duct is located there. A pair of mating damselflies or dragonflies thus forms a “wheel,” often in the shape of a heart. What a fitting image for Valentine’s Day.

Friday, February 7, 2014

King of the Dung Heap

Some of the most beautiful insects in the world are found under the most disgusting of circumstances. Take, for example, the subject of this week’s “Fly Day Friday.” The Golden Dung Fly, Scathophaga stercoraria, is a common species, especially in early spring and autumn. Unfortunately, it is most abundant around cow and horse manure.

The male fly, about 7-9 millimeters in length, is covered in long, bright yellow or golden hair. The insect positively glows when the sunlight strikes its body at just the right angle. Females are often smaller, and rather dull brown or gray. Males are quick to colonize a fresh heap of dung, many individuals descending on the meadow muffin. The flies are predatory on other, smaller flies that try and compete with their monopoly on the dung.

Females covet fresh scat as food for their offspring, but they first have to endure a mob of bachelors attempting to mate with them. Larger males are usually more successful at copulation than smaller individuals, but in the frenzy they sometimes mistake others of the same gender for females. Males repel such unwanted advances by pushing themselves up on their front and hind legs and kicking the would-be suitor off their back with their middle legs.

Even after mating a female is usually accosted by other males trying to “get in the last word,” so to speak. The kicker is that the female has three, sometimes four, spermathecae, internal storage chambers for sperm within her abdomen. So, not only is there external competition between male flies, but competition among their sperm, inside the female. Still, the last male to mate with a given female will fertilize about 80% of her eggs.

He often guards the female while she deposits her eggs. According to one study it takes her an average of forty-five minutes to complete oviposition. Manure that dries out, forming a crust, is nearly impossible for the flies to penetrate when laying their eggs, so there is a premium on freshness.

There is a surprisingly voluminous amount of information about the mating habits of this species, which any Google or Google Scholar search will reveal. There are even some online videos, and not all of them R-rated. The flies are easy to observe in the field, and easy to propagate in the laboratory, so they make good subjects for students and scientists, no doubt.

When not engaged in sexual behavior, or searching for poop, dung flies can be found peacefully sipping nectar from flowers, especially in early spring. I often see them on willow catkins, where they will also prey on smaller flies (see photo above). There are several generations of these insects throughout the warmer months, but they seem to be most conspicuous in spring and fall.

The Golden Dung Fly has a nearly worldwide distribution, and is not surprisingly most abundant in habitats frequented by livestock and large, wild mammals. So, forest edges, meadows, fields, farms, and ranches are good places to find them in great numbers. Not that you would want to go out looking for feces or anything….

Sources: Preston-Mafham, Rod and Ken. 1993. The Encyclopedia of Land Invertebrate Behaviour. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 320 pp.
Ward, Paul I. 2000. “Cryptic Female Choice in the Yellow Dung Fly Scathophaga stercoraria,” Evolution 54(5): 1680-1686.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Double-banded Scoliid wasp

Black and white insects, especially those that are of good size, never fail to attract attention. One of those conspicuous types is the Double-banded Scoliid, Scolia bicincta. These large, hairy wasps are commonly seen on autumn wildflowers like goldenrod (Solidago spp.), thoroughworts (Eupatorium spp.), and milkweed (Asclepias spp.).

Wasps in the family Scoliidae are easily recognized by their relatively large size, robust hairy bodies, and often blue or violet wings with dense horizontal ridges near the tips. Females have short antennae while males have long antennae. Males also have a “pseudostinger,” sometimes three-pronged, on the last abdominal segment. Females have a true stinger, retracted inside the abdomen when not being deployed.

S. bicincta is named for the two broad, white bands across the front half of the abdomen. The insect is otherwise black with bluish reflections on the wings. Size varies from 15-25 millimeters in body length. The species ranges across the eastern U.S. from southern New England to Nebraska and Kansas, south to Florida and Louisiana.

This wasp is not quite as abundant as its cousin the Blue-winged Wasp, but it is by no means rare. No host records exist for the Double-banded Scoliid, as far as I can fathom, but it is assumed to be parasitic on subterranean scarab beetle grubs.

An adult female wasp somehow divines the presence of a beetle larva underground, digs down to it using her exceptionally spiny legs, and stings the grub into paralysis. She either utilizes the grub’s existing burrow as its tomb, or carries it deeper and fashions a crude cell-like crypt. She then lays a single egg on the grub and abandons it.

The wasp larva that hatches from the egg feeds as an external parasite for roughly two weeks. When finished, the larva spins a cocoon and overwinters inside. Come spring it forms a pupa, completing its metamorphosis into an adult wasp shortly thereafter. Adult wasps are on the wing from July through September or October, their flight period depending on geographic latitude to at least some degree.

Look for the male wasps flying close to the ground in a lazy figure-eight pattern. They emerge before females and are eager to find a virgin of the opposite gender, even if she has not yet surfaced from her pupal chamber. Males roost for the night either individually or in loose groups, curling themselves around stems or twigs.

Scoliid wasps should be considered beneficial to your yard, lawn, garden, or farm, where they help to keep those pesky “white grubs” under control. Meanwhile, the adult wasps are fairly effective pollinators considering they are flower visitors out for nectar only. Their hairy bodies can accrue a coat of pollen that they then carry to the next flower.

Source: Grissell, E.E. 2007. “Scoliid Wasps of Florida, Campsomeris, Scolia, and Trielis spp. (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Scoliidae),” Featured Creatures, DPI Entomology Circulars 179 and 185, University of Florida.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Spinybacked Orbweaver

The diversity of shapes in the spider world is amazing. What does the Spinybacked Orbweaver, Gasteracantha cancriformis, remind you of? The genus name translates from the Greek to “belly thorn,” and the species name is Latin for “crab shape.” Indeed, other common names for this species include Crab-like Orbweaver and Crab-like Spiny Orbweaver. It reminds me of one of those medieval mace weapons come to life, or a flesh-and-blood ninja star (shuriken).

This is no soft-bodied arachnid, either. The exoskeleton of the flattened abdomen is thick and hardened, the spikes protruding from it horn-like and stout. A predator would certainly think twice before swallowing something that prickly.

This unique species is unlikely to be confused with any other spider you will encounter, provided you recognize it as a spider and not a piece of windblown debris that happened to be intercepted by a web. They tend to crouch, with their short legs drawn close to their bodies, so no one could fault a person for dismissing the spider as an inanimate object.

The overwhelming majority of specimens you are likely to see are females. The mature spiders are actually wider than they are long, ranging from about 5-9 millimeters in length, but 10-13 millimeters in width. Contrast those dimensions with the tiny males, which are only 2-3 millimeters in body length, and only slightly wider. He is a little rough around the edges but lacks the big spikes of the female.

Male G. cancriformis © Joe Lapp via

There are several color forms of the females. Most are ivory and black on top, but they can be yellow with black spikes, yellow or white with red spikes, or red with black spikes. The underside is black, mottled with yellow or white spots, and rather wrinkled in appearance. The spinnerets arise from a short turret near the middle of the belly.

The first one of these I ever saw was at the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida in June, 1978. It had spun a web high in a tree and had I not been on a balcony at the time I never would have noticed it. The snare has a large, open hub where the spider sits, and the spiral is not as tight as in species of Micrathena (which also have spiny bodies). The body of the web can span 30-60 centimeters.

The web is often decorated with little tufts of silk along some of the radii near the hub. It is suspected that these knots of silk serve as warning beacons to birds so that the snare is not destroyed by an avian flying through it. Could they also be lures for potential prey? One theory as to the function of a stabilimentum, the band of silk in many Argiope orb weaver webs, is that the ribbon imitates a flower, reflecting ultraviolet light that pollinating insects cue in on.

This can be an abundant spider along woodland edges, citrus groves, even gardens, especially in rural townships from the southern United States to Argentina. Look for it as far north as Maryland, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. I have encountered it regularly in Florida and Texas, but it is known as far west as southern California.

G. cancriformis is most common in late fall and early winter, from October through January, at least in Florida. Mated females deposit eggs in sacs that are attached to the underside of leaves. The egg sac is very distinctive, covered in a rather loose net of coarse yellow silk with a line of green silk down the center of the oval structure.

Egg sac © Kara Tyler-Julian via

The Spinybacked Orbweaver will always be a species I look forward to seeing anytime I venture into the subtropical southern U.S. Keep a lookout for them in your own travels.

Sources: Bartlett, Troy, et al. 2012. “Species Gasteracantha cancriformis - Spinybacked Orbweaver,”
Edwards, G.B. 2000. “Spinybacked Orbweaver,” Featured Creatures, EENY-167, DPI Entomology Circular 308, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry.