Tag Archives: insect

Solving Garden Mysteries

Dateline:  May 30, 2014*

In recent days I heard the hammering of a bird outside the computer room window which faces the front of the property.  I really didn’t think much of it. Red-bellied Woodpeckers bang incessantly around here, with the males often using the gutters of my house to sound bigger and more virile to the local ladies. Nesting season is well underway and I even hear the Pileated Woodpeckers hammering in the distance. They’ve used snags on my property in the past to raise their young.

While out and about on a morning walk around the lot, I heard an odd sound…the call of a bird, unknown to me,  hidden somewhere in the landscape.  I peered under branches of the wax myrtle where the sound seemed to be coming from, but the shrubbery is lush with leaves these days, providing great hiding spots for nests and new fledglings.  I came up empty.

My thought was to try to figure out what bird it was, but I wasn’t really sure where to start.  I’m helpless at trying to translate the “chirps” and “pee-whees” written in my bird field guide and my bird language skills in imitation  is non-existent.  I thought of going to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website to listen to bird after bird after bird, but didn’t seem a very efficient method.  My birder friends who all can bird by sound would know in an instant but aren’t close enough to give a quick emergency “I hear it NOW” type of phone call…all are at least 30 minutes or more away.  I wouldn’t count on the bird hanging out to wait for them.

The bird identification was placed on the back burner, while other interesting critters and flowers jumped higher on the research list.  It is May, after all, one of the busiest times in my garden.

Ut oh, what is THIS??

I was again in the front yard and decided to check the Live Oak tree (Quercus virginiana) to see if anyone had set up a new nest there.  The mockingbirds are nesting just about everywhere and this tree is a favorite for them.  I was a little taken aback when I looked.  At eye level was a whole section of holes in the bark.

Is it YOU?

I imagined all sorts of damaging insects envisioning an attack akin to the Emerald Ash Borer up north.   That night I was taking the dogs out for the final trip before bed and I spotted an unusual insect on the door jam.  I got the dogs in, grabbed my camera and took some photos of what turns out to be a Long-horned Beetle (Eburia distincta).  Now the preferred host for this boring beetle is cypress, but there are also notations that it may use some hardwoods.  Could this be the holey oak culprit?

As I mumbled “holy moley”, I took my photos of the oak and beetle friend and emailed them to Eleanor Foerste who is Emeritus Faculty, UF IFAS Extension. I was a little concerned by her immediate response that started off with “OMG!” and ended with “I will also send to our forester, … for her ideas”.

Cooperative Extension Services is a gold mine of information through a partnership of United States Department of Agriculture with a state land-grant university to “provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.”  In Florida they have a network of local offices at the county-level that teach Master Gardener Courses as well as numerous other educational programs.  Our county even has a daily walk-in plant clinic where you can bring in soil to have pH tested or a leaf or root showing some damage and they will analyze it to try to figure out the problem.

Back to my garden mystery…

Eleanor’s emailed response posed a couple of questions: (1) “How high up on the trunk is this happening?” and (2) “Can you hold a cup to your ear and the tree like a stethoscope (like the old telephone game with cup and string?) and hear any chewing inside?”

Eleanor, who prior to retirement taught the Florida Master Naturalist program, noted that “Yes, longhorn beetles will chew but typically on weak trees.”

It looks like swiss cheese

I quickly replied that it was about eye level (5 ft.) limited to about a foot vertically and only about 1/2 way around. “It looks like a wide hole-y ribbon got tied around.” I mentioned that I didn’t see any damage anywhere else on the tree.  I also said that I would find a cup and give a listen  (with thoughts of what the neighbors would be mumbling about me for THIS activity).

close up

A gloom and doom attitude began to take over, but that was quickly alleviated when Eleanor sent another email just minutes later “Not sapsucker damage???”

Sapsucker?  Our area has sapsuckers?  How the heck have I missed them all these years????  I opened my browser to the Cornell site for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and immediately clicked on the “typical voice” button.

Yes! Sapsuckers make this type of pattern in their quest for food

THAT’S IT!  Well, I’ll be…two mysteries solved at the same time.  The birdie I heard days before matched perfectly with the sound!  Since Florida is listed as winter (non-breeding) on the range map, I suppose my friend was tanking up on sap for the summer trip up north.  Jumping for joy, now I will wait the long months and hope that I get to see it on the return.

Just listening in the garden can help you learn more about what is using your habitat than by sight alone.  I’ll add the sapsucker to my Florida bird life list, with an annotation “heard, but not seen”.

So, leave the phone and the radio inside and take in the sounds of Mother Nature…and tell me what you hear in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Update 2017: I’m pleased to report that I finally got to see the sapsuckers in the flesh and much to my delight, they spend a lot of time visiting my trees so I now see them often.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 30, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Mistaken Mosquito

Dateline: January 11, 2013*

I remember when I first moved to Florida I saw what I thought was a HUGE mosquito, thinking that there were mutant bugs down here, big enough to drain a body of blood in one gulp.  They certainly look like mosquitoes, but the poor critters are swatted and squished all due to a case of mistaken identity.  The flying mimics are actually crane flies and they don’t bite.

Some are reflective. You can see how they may be mistaken for a giant mosquito

Crane flies are beneficial in our gardens.   Some species’ larvae are aquatic while others spend their youth in the soil.  Both break down organic matter, returning nutrients to their respective habitats.  As with most of nature, occasionally too much of a good thing can pose a problem.  Some crane fly species can be a pest to agriculture.  That’s why it is so important to have a balanced garden.  Avoid pesticide use as chemicals kill the good bugs as well as the bad, and often kill those bugs that will control others to avoid them becoming pests.

They have extremely long legs as shown by the Colorful Tiger Crane Fly (Nephrotoma spp.)

Both larval and adult crane flies provide an important food source for birds, reptiles, spiders, fish and other insects such as dragonflies, mantids, centipedes and beetles.  Fishermen have been known to use the larval stage of members of the family Tipulidae (Large Crane Flies) as bait. As you can see, there are plenty of predators to keep the population in order.

Some seem acrobatic such as Brachypremna dispellens

Tipulidae is the largest family in the Order Diptera. Given this, identification can be mind-boggling. You can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the anatomy of a crane fly at that identification key link.  Suffice to say I was unable (or unwilling) to crawl around counting wing lines or antenna segments…that and I really don’t wear my reading glasses when I am walking around the property calling on critters for a photo shoot.  Old eyes can’t see tiny nuances.

Brachypremna dispellens have white legs

Crane flies undergo complete metamorphosis.  Some species have an elongated rostrum (think Pinocchio), a straw-like appendage used to draw nectar from flowers.  Thus, we can conclude that they also perform pollination duties.

wake up and smell the Bidens alba

I noticed that most of the time when I see the adults fly it is when it is slightly damp or overcast, so if it is daytime and you see a mutant mosquito, take a good look before you swat.  You may be saving the life of an insect that will help your wildlife garden grow more beautiful.

Limonia subgenus Geranomyia are drawn to flowers

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 11, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Beneficial Insects: Nice Lice?

Dateline:  April 27, 2012

A dragonfly lands on a branch of my Winged Elm

OK, I’m itchy…I’ve been sitting at the computer scrolling through bugguide.net to try and identify a tiny insect that was on my Winged Elm (Ulmus alata). I was actually giving the tree a once over because it is a larval host for Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) and I wanted to see if I had any success thus far by trying to locate larvae. I specifically chose this tree to serve as a butterfly attractant for that species, which I’ve yet to have the pleasure of meeting.

Whatever is this mysterious bug?

I saw something stationed along a limb and I use the term limb loosely as the tree is a mere sapling. The creature was way too small to see without a magnifying glass or at least reading glasses. I took a photo and headed inside to see what I could see via the magic of computer zoom. It looked a little like a fat caddisfly if a caddisfly would have a bee shape abdomen and long thin antenna. Back outside to get a few more photos. Moving the stick of a limb every which way to get a better shot from different angles sent the little creature on a walk up toward the trunk. Satisfied that at least one or two of the numerous photos would provide a clue, I headed back in on my quest for knowledge.

Top of my new insect friend

Well, scrolling through all the caddisflies proved that wasn’t it. It looked a little like it should be a creature with an aquatic start, but I was having no luck. The wing shape seemed a little moth-like and tiger moth came to mind. Tiger and lichen moths are grouped together so I tried lichen in the search box since that was what the bug seemed intent on. Lo and behold, I found a critter that seemed close… stout barklice. EWWWWWWWWWWW! My immediate reaction was to reach for a nit comb and some Rid® shampoo.

It certainly has long antenna

I searched up a rung or two in the taxonomy and began scrolling through various photos of barklice. FINALLY, I found what I believe is my critter. It is in the Insect Order Psocodea that consists of Barklice, Booklice and Parasitic Lice. I was a little disappointed that it is called Common Barklice…with all this effort, there doesn’t seem to be anything common about it. The scientific name is Cerastipsocus venosus and they don’t feed on living plants. They work as a decomposer/recycler so it is a beneficial addition to the landscape. The Galveston County (TX)  Master Gardeners had this to say:

The term lice as part of the common name of these tree dwellers is quite misleading as these insects are neither parasitic nor louse-like in appearance. Upon being informed of the identification of this insect, the typical response of a gardener is a widening of the eyes and other momentary indications of being aghast! Our Galveston County Extension Horticulture Agent advises us to precede the identification with a notation of Congratulations, you have beneficial insects in your landscape!

I like their style! 😉

Up close, Barklice have a face only a mother could love

This particular species of barklice eats lichen so it is one of nature’s cleanup crewmembers. Some barklice build tents along the trunk and limbs of trees. People are often alarmed by this and seek help in what pesticides to use to clear up the culprits. Since the insects are not harmful the recommendation is to hit them with a spray of water if their habits offend your senses. That should send them on their way…at least for a brief time. Personally, I’m glad they are around at my place. I’m likin my lichen, but sometimes it can really put a coat on a tree so anything that keeps things balanced is a keeper to me. Of course, people have that aesthetic fear of nature…you know…so they feel compelled to disburse the BUGS!

Munching away on lichen they prefer trees with smooth bark

In reading I learned that they often travel in packs and are given the common name of bark cattle since apparently disturbing one sends them all on the run. Thank GOODNESS I only found the one rogue specimen…I may have had a heart attack if I’d found a herd of unidentifiable insects. And, with over 3500 species in Psocomorpha the fact that I was even able to FIND the type of creature, let along the seemingly exact species is a miracle…but I think it is more tenacity and luck. Now, I’m off to find my lasso and see if I can’t get in on the roundup to find this fellow’s friends!

Id say my barklouse is doing a good job!

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 27, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Flipping My Earwig

Dateline: August 9, 2013*

Earwigs (Doru taeniatum) are predators of aphids and others

When I think of earwigs I recall my youth and the creepy crawly insects that were hidden in our somewhat damp basement.  Never did I consider that they could be beneficial in any way.

Of course likely those I encountered in the past were exotics. Earwigs,

“can devastate seedling vegetables or annual flowers and often seriously damage maturing soft fruit or corn silks, they also have a beneficial role in the landscape and have been shown to be important predators of aphids.

Another benefit is that earwigs eliminate decaying organic materials from the environment. They eat algae, fungi, mosses, pollen as well as insects, spiders and mites both dead and live.

Two of the younger members of the clan

This week I discovered a family living in the folds of a Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliniana) leaf.  I was thrilled to discover they are a native variety called the Lined Earwig (Doru taeniatum).  With its bright, shiny pallor that glistens in the sunshine it doesn’t seem creepy to me at all.

Enjoying the sunshine while dancing on the Bidens alba

Earwigs are generally nocturnal, although I’ve seen my guys out and about during the day in recent times,  dancing quickly up and down the Bidens alba and grass seedheads.  The genus Doru are important caterpillar predators and have a particular taste for the egg of the velvetbean caterpillar, a pest of pod plants especially soybeans.

Family oriented

Unlike a lot of the insect world, the momma earwigs provide care to their offspring, feeding their nymphs through regurgitation.  They do, however, seem to play favorites.

Still growing up, this one doesnt seem to quite have full wings.

Rumor has it that they fly, but I my bunch didn’t take to the airways.  An earwig’s defense mechanism is to squirt foul smelling liquid or use the pinchers to…well…PINCH! Stand back and keep your fingers away, or just don’t annoy the little buggers.

Tachinid Flies are an enemy of earwigs

Predators include the Tachinid fly, toads, birds, chickens and ducks.  On a good note, natural enemies of the exotics, include arboreal earwigs (Doru taeniatum). So, I’m welcoming my new little friends!

Out and about in the sunshine eating Bahai grass seedhead (YAY!!!)

While large populations may damage grass and be a pest if they get inside your home, they are generally harmless preying on more harmful insects.  Just use common sense to keep home areas free from dampness.

So, while earwigs as a family may be a mixed bag, I’d vote for keeping my friendly native genus around.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 9, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

The Mydas Touch (Part Deux)

Had a visit to the Oakleaf Fleabane by the mydas fly pictured up top so I thought I’d dust off my lost article on the different species in this family that are documented thusfar at my place.

Dateline:  September 29, 2014

A quick look might have you thinking Mydids are robberflies.

This week I got an email from Bugguide giving confirmation of a fly species that graced my place a year ago.  I had pretty much forgotten about the submission, but the confirmation had a timely arrival since I was stumped earlier in the week on what I might write about today.

Oddly, these insects are similar to the Robber Flies (Asilidae) I wrote about in the past. As I reported then, robberflies mimic bees.  This family of flies are also mimics, but they pretend to be wasps and include the largest flies in the order Diptera. They are Mydas flies (Mydidae) and I’ve several different genuses come visit over the years.

After a year I got confirmation on the species of this fly: Mydas maculiventris
M. maculiventris does resemble a wasp.

“Members of this family are commonly referred to as mydids.”  Mydids, like the robberflies are a hefty bunch size-wise and although small in numbers, they are VERY obvious when they are flying around or alit on foliage. They can be distinguished by the elongated clubs on their antenna, which stick straight out from their heads. It sort of resembles a “Y”.

Mydids don’t seem to show a heck of a lot of beneficial qualities as adults.  There really isn’t much written about the habits in this stage of life. They don’t appear to be a predator of anything, either pest or beneficial since they lack mandibles. They also aren’t commonly seen and there are indications that they have a short life span.

Phyllomydas parvulus. I guess I’ll be having more of these around soon. This is the second species in this genus that I’ve encountered.

There is some anecdotal information that adults are visitors to Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) flowers so that would indicate some potential pollination duties.  Since I have lots of saw palmetto around, it could be why I have seen a lot of these rather large, beefy flies.

The P. parvulus pair could have cared less about me and the camera.

Since the 19th century it was believed that adult mydas flies live predatory on other insects in a manner similar to the related Asilidae. However, investigations showed that a fair number of adult males feed on flowers while females seem to rely only on the fatty substances accumulated in their abdomen. Species with vestigial mouthparts do not feed at all.

Their larvae is a whole other story.  Most larvae of some species of Mydas flies are predators that can be found in rotting wood munching away on beetle larvae. Mydids undergo complete metamorphosis.

The larvae of M. maculiventris feeds on GRUBS!

There is one species in particular that may have significant benefits since its larvae are soil inhabiting and prey on plant eating white grubworms and other larvae of beetles.  That one is M. maculiventris, who appears to mimic Paper wasps (Polistes spp.).

Mydas Fly (Mydas clavatus)
Mydas Fly (Mydas clavatus) Jet black with orange markings so I have documented two species in this genus.

The other species that I have found visiting in adult stage are M. clavata, Phyllomydas parvulus and P. quercus.

Phyllomydas quercus resting on a bald cypress tree seems to maybe mimic a spider wasp.

So, keep your eyes open and welcome this family of insects that secretly does good work in your beautiful wildlife garden.

* This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on September 29, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Praying and Pacing

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 25, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

What's that white stuff?
What’s that white stuff?

As is often the case, I am able to notice small, slight color variations on my plants. I might not notice an entire shrub fallen down, but a 1/4 inch bug on the bottom of the leaf?  It attracts me like moths to light.

Such was the case when I passed by my Bastard False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and I saw a small white blob.  That Florida native plant is a favorite of spiders, so I just assumed it was a spider nest.

Imagine my surprise when this big ol’ praying mantid gal was there laying her eggs.  This particular species is the Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), a regular visitor to my place.  In many areas it is unfortunate that the introduced Mantids outnumber the natives.   I’m lucky enough to have only seen native species in my beautiful wildlife garden.

Well I'll be...It's a Carolina Mantis
Well I’ll be…It’s a Carolina Mantis

I watched for a while, but it appears to be a slow process. Mantids lay their eggs and surround them with a gooey substance that hardens into egg mass known as an ootheca.  There are three main stages in the life of a mantid: egg, nymph and adult.

Seems the eggs would come out faster if she wasn’t upside down.
Seems the eggs would come out faster if she wasn’t upside down.

I was surprised to learn that they lay their eggs just prior to winter.  The egg case acts as a protection against the cold…and yes, we in Florida get cold.  Heck, there might even be three full hours of below freezing temperatures in my fair Central Florida location.

Mantid nymphs emerge in the spring and they reach adulthood in the fall, when the process starts all over again.

She looked at me, but didn’t seem concerned that I was close
She looked at me, but didn’t seem concerned that I was close

Mrs. Mantid seemed unfazed by my picture taking.  She just continued about her business.  I left her alone and returned later in the day to see the resultant ootheca.  This is the third I have found this year.  One is back on some dogfennel and another was on a fence.  The cases change from the milky white to a tan-ish color, I assume to blend in with the landscape as it goes dormant brown for the winter.  Mom was nowhere to be found.  Left those future babies on their own.  So much for motherly nurturing.

By the next day the egg case has hardened and changed color
By the next day the egg case has hardened and changed color

So, I guess in spring I will be a grandma to some new mantid babies come April or so.  It’s going to be a long winter…I can’t wait and I’m already starting to pace.

Killer on the Loose

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on September 19, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com.

I am not a bee
I am not a bee

Tis the time of year when huge “bees” are flying all over the yard.  They aren’t actually bees, but bumblebee mimics and they prey on the very insects they resemble.  Meet a Robberfly (Mallophora bomboides), a member of the insect order Diptera.  This particular species is commonly called “Florida Bee Killer” due to their preferred food choice.

“Prey are primarily social bees and wasps, including honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, Polistes and Vespa wasps.”

This doesn’t necessarily make them a favorite of pollinator lovers.

I fly and I AM a fly
I fly and I AM a fly

You can’t just base an arthropod’s benefit in your beautiful wildlife garden merely by what you see in one phase of its existence.  The larval stage of this insect’s lifecycle lives in the soil and are predatory on some pest soil dwellers such has grubs.  Think Japanese Beetles and it give a whole new perspective and makes them a lot easier to appreciate, no?

Adults capture prey on the wing, injecting their toxic saliva to subdue it. The chemical makeup of the saliva in turn starts to liquefy the prey turning it into a digestible liquid meal. I wonder if this is how strawberry shakes mark their beginnings.

Coming in for a landing.
Coming in for a landing.

These odd-looking creatures are quite noticeable in flight due to their large size and also because they buzz when they fly.  They are pretty slow in flight and gracefully land on vegetation where they grab hold of a stem or blade of grass and rest while they scan the landscape for their next meal.

I’ve seen dozens of these guys this week…a true population explosion. While I’m not thrilled with seeing them snag a bumblebee, I won’t complain about them grabbing hold of stinging yellow jackets, which tend to be a bit aggressive at a barbeque.

We can’t pick and choose what predators prey upon
We can’t pick and choose what predators prey upon

I also have to say that I haven’t seen any Japanese Beetles this year, so I will give the robber flies credit for keeping them in check, although the moles and armadillos might take umbrage that they aren’t getting credit.

So, the lesson here is to look beyond one habit that you may find to be unacceptable insect behavior and remember that there may also a bright lining elsewhere in the overall cycle of life.  Enjoy all aspects of the creatures in your beautiful wildlife garden.

Hit Men in the Native Plant Garden

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on November 13, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.

Sycamore Assassin Bug (Pselliopus sp.)
Sycamore Assassin Bug (Pselliopus sp.)

I met a new Assassin Bug in my garden this week.  My place is home to several different subfamilies of assassin bugs which are predators and beneficial in the garden.  Assassin Bugs paralyze their prey by injecting toxins that dissolve tissue and easily sucking the juices through their proboscis.

This fellow (or gal) looks a little like a zebra, fancy stripes and all.  I haven’t gotten confirmation on exact species yet, but it is in the Pselliopus genus, commonly referred to as the “Sycamore Assassin Bug”.  I’m not clear how it got that common name but rest assured, my Sycamore tree is safe.  Assassin bugs don’t kill the plants; they are predatory on other insects.

hunting on Deertongue
hunting on Deertongue

Sycamore Assassin Bugs are known to hibernate as adults under rocks or bark.

I seem to have interrupted his pollinator meal
I seem to have interrupted his pollinator meal

I seemed to have interrupted this fella in the middle of making a meal of a small bee or wasp that was nectaring on Hairy Chaffhead (Carphephorus paniculatus). Also known as Deertongue, this plant is native to the southeast, including here in Florida.

Milkweed Assassin Bug
Milkweed Assassin Bug

The most prevalent assassin in my garden is the Milkweed Assassin Bug (Zelus longipes).  Again, no need to hide the milkweed, they get their common name because they are easily mistaken for the Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) a species generally considered a garden pest.

Zelus nymph with prey
Zelus nymph with prey

Z. longipes are beneficial, generalist predators feeding on a wide range of soft-bodied prey in garden and fields such as mosquitoes, flies, earthworms, cucumber beetles and caterpillars (fall armyworm, rootworm etc.).

Assassin Bugs seem unconcerned with the size of bullies
Assassin Bugs seem unconcerned with the size of bullies

Assassin bugs can be aggressive and do have the capability of biting if disturbed.  They are not afraid to take on bullies many times their size including humans.

Common name of Bee Killer probably indicates it isn’t a favorite of your average gardener
Common name of Bee Killer probably indicates it isn’t a favorite of your average gardener

Another visitor to my place is the Bee Killer Assassin Bug (Apiomerus floridensis).  This species seems to have a preference toward capturing bees as prey so it is not as well loved as other members of the Assassin Bug family (Reduviidae). Keep in mind that it also can be high on the beneficial list because it eats hornworms, beetles and other prey that you might consider pest species.

Spiny Assassins on Fleabane. The cycle continues
Spiny Assassins on Fleabane. The cycle continues

And the last species that has visited recently is the Spiny Assassin Bugs (Sinea sp.). Native Fleabanes (Erigeron spp.) seem to be the favorite hunting ground.

Love those stripes!
Love those stripes!

No need for pesticides when you let the assassin bugs do natural biocontrol in your native plant and wildlife garden.  I’m loving my new addition!

This Cuckoo’s Offspring Depend on a Mud Dauber Wasp

Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis angolensis)
Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis angolensis)

I spotted a pretty little metallic insect on the railing by the door the other day.  I took a few photos, assuming that it was a one of the sweat bees that visit the Wild Poinsettias which are just a few feet away.  I did find it odd that a bee would be crawling along the railing and the side of the house.

When I brought the photos up on the computer I realized that this was not a bee at all, but a wasp…specifically, a cuckoo wasp.  I’ve met a cuckoo wasp or two scurrying along the leaves of the groundsel trees (Baccharis halimifolia) out back.

The bright metallic coloring is eyecatching
The bright metallic coloring is eyecatching

Cuckoo Wasps comprise the Chrysididae Family in the Bee/Ant/Wasp/Sawfly Order (Hymenoptera).

“Chrysidids are parasites of other insects, or more parasitoids, which means that their activity – in most cases – brings death to their hosts; some species are also cleptoparasites, which means that they use the food carried on by the host as resources for their larvas”

I identified my find as a member of the Chrysis genus and ultimately settled on angolensis as the species.  Interestingly enough these cuckoo wasps don’t sting.

“Chrysis angolensis, an introduced species native to the Old World, but now widespread in the eastern states. They are stingless parasites of mud dauber wasps.” Eric R. Eaton, principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America

What is so enticing about those shutters?
What is so enticing about those shutters?

I was curious why this particular one was hanging out on the patio.  I observed his interest in the shutters, occasionally crawling up under the slats.

Hmmm, a Mud Dauber Wasp likes the shutter slats too
Hmmm, a Mud Dauber Wasp likes the shutter slats too

The next day I was out on the patio when I saw a Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) headed up under a slat of a different set of shutters.  A light bulb went off in my head.  That’s why the cuckoo wasp was hanging out on the patio.  She’s looking to take over a nest. That’s also how I settled on which species of cuckoo wasp for my identification.

Must be building a nest
Must be building a nest

The mud dauber was busy as a bee.  Flying back and forth.  The mud nest is up behind the top slat of the shutters so I couldn’t make out if she was still building or if she was carrying spiders to provision her nest.  Needless to say, I watched for a while capturing the encounter with less than stellar photos.  They are fast and the afternoon light under the patio cover doesn’t make for quality photos.

Maybe it was one of the ones I spotted back in the pond bed last May gathering building materials
Maybe it was one of the mud daubers I spotted back in the pond bed last May gathering building materials

I was excited to actually see the cuckoo wasp fly in and slip up under the slat while mom dauber was doing whatever it is she is doing in her hidden enclave.  There seemed to be a slight tussle with dauber legs appearing fighting mad as they came out between the slats. The dauber spent a lot of time fussing about after the meet up with the cuckoo.  I never did see where the cuckoo wasp went.

Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium)
Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium)

Mud Daubers can and do sting, but to me don’t seem particularly aggressive. I’ve been nose to nose with them while they feed at flowers, but truthfully, this is my first nose to nose with their nest.  And yet, she didn’t seem the least bit bothered by my presence.

As you can see, the house needs a good pressure washing, but I hate to upset the critters’ choice of habitat.  The cleaning crew will be coming within the next few weeks so I hope that whoever is nesting completes their lifecycle.  I’m betting that the pressure washer man will hike up his rates if I request that he wash AROUND the mud nests and little pots that dot the siding.   Being a shepherd for the wildlife is tough and timing is everything.




Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America (preview)

Sceliphron caementarium http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio210/s2012/bain_mega/Index.htm, part of Multiorganisms site by University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Students.

Aphids are Good? Wait….WHAT???

The tale of aphids’ beneficial roll in the life of pollinators originally published by Loret T. Setters on November 14, 2014 at (beautifulwildlifegarden.com/).

syrphid fly (Ocyptamus fuscipennis) approaches Water Cowbane
syrphid fly (Ocyptamus fuscipennis) approaches Water Cowbane

Down at my pond recently, I waited patiently for a flower fly to land for a photo op.  I use a point and shoot camera and have yet to find that the sports setting is effective at getting close-up photos of insects so I don’t use it.  I took a random shot or two while the syrphid fly hovered over the Water Cowbane (Tiedemannia filiformis), which is a native larval host for the Black Swallowtail Butterfly.

Sometimes called flower or hover flies
Sometimes called flower or hover flies

Syrphids are also commonly called flower flies and this gal was zooming in and out from the flower buds and on closer inspection of the photos while on the computer, I discovered that she was actually laying eggs.  What was the attraction?  Well, aphids, of course!

On closer inspection, it seems this gal was laying eggs
On closer inspection, it seems this gal was laying eggs

The larvae of various syrphid fly species are predators of aphids.  This syrphid fly is Ocyptamus fuscipennis.

Ahhh, the little bluish color aphids would explain the attraction!
Ahhh, the little bluish color aphids would explain the attraction!

I never did see eggs as they are smaller than a pinhead and even with a zoomed image on the computer screen I didn’t have any luck focusing on them.  A couple of days later I did get one this one photo of larvae munching an aphid although since at this stage it IS the size of a pinhead, it isn’t all that clear.

Aphids are just walking up and down the plant
Aphids are just walking up and down the plant

A week later or so, I spotted the beginnings of a cocoon.  Unfortunately, on return visits I failed to locate it again so my hopes for capturing an emerging fly have been dashed. And yet I feel I have learned another fabulous way that Mother Nature maintains biodiverse balance when you let her.

Look closely….you’ll see fly larva is munching on an aphid.
Look closely….you’ll see fly larva is munching on an aphid.

Use of pesticides or insecticidal soaps on these aphids would have also eliminated the beginnings of the next generation of valuable pollinators.  If you eliminate the food source, you interrupt a life cycle. In this case, no aphids = less pollinators.  It all goes hand in hand.

So, before you head out to “save your plants” from those “pests”, consider your reasoning for determining that one species has a greater benefit than another does.

Aphids feed the next generation of pollinators and we all know that pollinators are in decline.  Is an unintended consequence of trying to keep plants looking “perfect” tossing a stick in the spokes of the progress of life cycles further up the food chain?

syrphidCowbaneHoverOct2014-500x500Plant a more diverse garden, avoiding monocultures so that chewing damage is less apparent.  Let the aphids live so these pollinators have a food source.   Everyone up the food chain will live a little better.