Got Mint? (I do, and a video too!)

Mints are known to attract a wide variety of insects, and I’ve spent many hours watching and documenting the beetles, bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and wasps visiting the mint family plants in my garden. I enjoy my wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), but I definitely have a favorite in the mint family, and it’s Monarda punctata, known variously as dotted horsemint, spotted beebalm, or any combination of those four words. When I try to think about how to describe it to someone, I get all tongue-tied because it’s so pretty and the structure is unlike most other plants that I know.

Each stem holds whorls of small yellow tubular flowers dotted with maroon (thus the name), and below each whorl of flowers are large showy bracts (they look like leaves) that can be purple, pink, white or yellow. Sometimes as I’m watching insects crawling all over the various levels of a stem, I imagine it as an insect condominium tower, with everybody going about their own business on a different level.

I have just a small amount of dotted horsemint in my native garden, and most of it has been in a pot for the last three years. I grew some plants from seed, and then I’d bumped the seedlings up to small pots that are meant to biodegrade. The idea is that you can just put them in the ground in the pot, without risking the soil falling away from the roots when you unpot them. So I put several small pots in a larger planter and intended to put them in the ground at some point, but they did so well that I decided to leave well enough alone. And now that I see how well it’s doing in a planter, I may try to get a few more planters of it going so I can have them right beside the patio and keep a closer eye on the insect activity.

I spent some time the other day trying to photograph more of the insects who were feeding (and doing other things) on this wonderful native plant. I saw many of the “regulars” and met a couple new species, much to my delight. So let’s see who’s been to visit.

My happy place, with my camera on the ground beside the dotted horsemint.

The easiest to photograph are the large wasps who are here every day, the great golden digger wasp (1″) and the great black digger wasp (1.4″). They allow me to sit very close while they explore every nook and cranny of these complex blooms.

Great black digger wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus)
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

This was the first time I’ve ever seen the noble scoliid wasp, and I watched a pair of them feeding and mating.

Noble scoliid wasp (Scolia nobilitata), the first one I’ve ever seen!

An ambush bug lay in wait, hoping for a meal to wander close enough. I didn’t see him (her?) catch anybody while I was there.

Pennsylvania ambush bug (Phymata pennsylvanica) – shhh, pretend you can’t see him.

As I started to get bored watching the ambush bug sitting motionless, there was other motion nearby. I’ve seen this little character enough times that all I had to see was something ‘weird’ twitching around and I knew who it was. The camouflage looper caterpillar uses pieces of flowers to disguise itself and protect it from predators. I’m not sharing my first shots with you because the caterpillar was so well dressed that I didn’t think you’d be able to see him through all the fancy stuff. I went back a little while later and he was out in the open, where I was able to get a much better shot. But…I’ve just discovered that I took those pictures without the memory card in the camera — haha, one of the perils of not yet being familiar with your new camera. So here’s a picture of another one from another day.

Camouflaged looper caterpillar, on black-eyed susan on a different day

Isn’t he smart? When this caterpillar grows up, it’ll become the wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata), a lovely little green moth.

I wonder if the ambush bug was wishing he could reach that caterpillar?

And now I give you the pièce de résistance from the “mint extravaganza,” a wonderful beetle that doesn’t even have a common name. Meet Macrosiagon limbata, and tell me this doesn’t remind you of two stag reindeer facing off for battle with their huge racks of antlers. Aren’t they fantastic?!

Until a couple weeks ago, I’d never seen these beetles anywhere, let alone in my own yard. But they’ve become regular visitors to this patch of horsemint now. I’d assumed my earlier sightings had been females, and when I saw these two with their big antennae, I assumed they were males. But it looks like the one on the left is ovipositing (laying eggs), so I’m really not sure what I’ve got here. But a few minutes later I saw a pair of them mating, so there were definitely both sexes present. (Another photo I took without a memory card…sigh, you would have loved it.)

When their larvae hatch, they’ll sneakily hitch a free ride on a bee or wasp, and when they get back to the host’s nest, they’ll disembark and burrow into the larvae in the nest. This practice of babies eating babies is very common in the insect world, as I’m learning.

I hope you enjoyed this focused study of the life that’s happening on a single plant. I’ve written about this a couple times before — the most recent was Thirty Minutes Under an Elm Tree. Last week was my secret staycation, and I spent it with limited contact with other people, focusing instead on my home and garden and quiet study of the insects who live here with me. It did me a world of good, and I feel refreshed and happy. Sitting on the ground in my garden was a perfect way to end the week, with gratitude for the natural world.

I have one more surprise to share with you before I go, but it has nothing to do with dotted horsemint. After I finished my outdoor photo session, I walked in the garage and found this adorable jumping spider (maybe Phidippus putnami) on top of my trash bin. He’d caught a leafhopper for his dinner, but he had to tolerate me holding my phone in his face for a minute before he finally chased me away so he could eat in peace. I almost edited off the last couple seconds of blurry footage, but I thought you’d like to see that I’m apparently afraid of a tiny, cute spider charging me.

Bugs and Not-Bugs

Multiple painted skimmers were chasing each other through the wet prairie

After a painfully-slow start to dragonfly season, suddenly things are off and running (or flying, I should say). In the past two weeks almost 30 species of odes have been observed in Lucas County, my home county here in northwest Ohio. June is the month with the highest species diversity each year, so I’m really looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring. We should see more than 80 species by the end of the summer.

Unknown blue flag iris species, playground of iris weevils

My time has been occupied with our big annual native plant sale for most of the past few weeks, but the other day I finally got caught up enough with other obligations that I was able to take an afternoon all to myself to go look for bugs. (Note: dragonflies aren’t “bugs” but I often use that term as a shorthand, and it’s less confusing than “odes.”) I spent three blissful hours at Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve and photographed close to 30 species of insects. That number surprised me, even for an ecological treasure trove like Irwin Prairie. Only six of those were dragons and damsels, but that was okay with me because I found so many other interesting things. I felt like a kid in a candy store, and more than once found myself standing on the boardwalk grinning from ear to ear. I even told an inquisitive passerby that I was crouched down with my camera beside a bunch of irises because –wait for it– I was anticipating some mating behavior between two iris weevils. (I wasn’t surprised to see the odd look on his face…I’m used to that.) And I did see the mating, but it happened so fast and I wasn’t quick enough to get a sharp photo of it.

Iris weevil (Mononychus vulpeculus) on iris, of course

I remember the day I discovered these weevils on irises and came home to find out that they were actually called iris weevils. Every year since then, I can’t pass a patch of irises without checking for their presence. I love all kinds of weevils because of that dorky snout that protrudes from their little faces…so cute. Weevils aren’t true bugs (Hemiptera) either, but rather are in the beetle family (Coleoptera). The true bugs are distinguished by having sucking mouth parts, whereas beetles and other insects have chewing mouth parts more similar to our own. (Well, vaguely similar to our own, I guess. There are some crazy insect mouth parts out there!)

I found another, much larger, weevil on the same day. This one is harder to identify, but I was thrilled to find him sitting out in the open on the wooden boardwalk. I got down on my stomach to get a face shot.

A rather large and cooperative weevil

In the past couple years I’ve become more interested in beetles, mostly because it seems there are endless kinds of them to find everywhere, and they often have bold color patterns to make identification easier…well, sometimes. Many of them can’t be identified unless you have them under a microscope, so a beetle fan has to be comfortable with some degree of not knowing. And I think that’s okay with me. (Wait, did you see how close I just came to calling myself a Beatles fan? Ha! Different beetles….) In fact, it makes them all the more fascinating when there’s so much mystery about who they are and how they live their lives. It makes the world seem so much bigger and complex and…special, I suppose. (Have I mentioned that a connection to insects has made my life richer? I’m pretty sure I have.)

Northern leopard frog — not a bug

Did you know that 20% of all living organisms on earth are beetles? And that beetles play very important roles in the ecosystem? It’s true. While some of them can cause serious damage to trees (and homes and crops), others are essential nutrient recyclers as they eat decomposing plant and animal matter. And gardeners are familiar with the service provided by ladybug beetles, who are happy to eat aphids by the mouthful.

I was captivated by eyes and faces on this day, and got some nice photos for a little collage that I’ve titled “Three Flies and a Spider.” And of course it made me think of the famous poem by Mary Howitt that begins, “‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the spider to the fly.” In the case of my collage though, the spider is outnumbered and outsized, so these flies are safe from his flattery and manipulations.

This group shows, from the top left and going clockwise:

  1. Broad-banded hornet fly (Spilomyia alcimus) – one of the syrphid flies, a hover fly that can’t sting but looks and acts like a hornet to scare predators.
  2. Dimorphic jumping spider (Maevia inclemens) – jumping spiders are some of the friendliest spiders you’ll ever meet, and so darn cute!
  3. Scorpion fly (Panorpa genus) – This pic doesn’t show it very well, but his abdomen curls up in the back and he must have reminded some scientists of a scorpion. And I just realized that their faces are similar to weevil faces.
  4. Horse fly (Hybomitra genus, maybe) – check out those mesmerizing eyes.

It wasn’t my first time to see any of those insects, but every year I feel like I’m meeting old friends after a long winter in northern Ohio. Here’s a closer look at that syrphid fly — isn’t it fabulous?!

Broad-banded hornet fly, a syrphid fly, not a hornet — totally harmless!

And here’s a damselfly, the lovely emerald spreadwing. They’re named spreadwings because of how they tend to hold their wings spread at a 45-degree angle, which is different from the pond damselflies who hold their wings folded flat alongside the abdomen.

You might notice small dark round things beneath his thorax; those are parasitic water mites. A small number of them probably won’t impact the lifespan of a damselfly, but sometimes they occur in large numbers and can be deadly. They attach to the dragon or damselfly while it’s a nymph living in the water, and when it emerges from the water to become a flying insect, the mites quickly transfer from the shed exoskeleton to the adult insect, and thus are able to ride around and feed off of it. I’ve seen much heavier parasite loads on some dragonflies, like this meadowhawk:

White-faced meadowhawk with a heavy load of water mites

Are you still with me? I realize I may have just gone a bit too far into squeamish territory for some of you, so sorry about that! Let’s end this with a pretty picture then. I give you tiger swallowtails feasting on the native buttonbush that grows in wild abundance at Irwin Prairie. Yep, that oughta do it. Thanks for sticking with me for the reward at the end. 🙂

Yes, We Have Tigers in Ohio

Tiger beetles, that is. (Yes, I used “click bait” to get you excited, and I’m not sorry.)

I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for news of my Big Bug Year, but I’m having some difficulties downloading the data I need from iNaturalist. That will come soon enough, but for today I want to introduce you to one special kind of beetle that’s starting to attract a wider fanbase of human admirers lately.

Six-spotted tiger beetle staring me down (Cicindela sexguttata)

Tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) are a subfamily of the ground beetle family of insects (Carabidae). They’re fast-running beetles with massive, scary jaws. They can run so fast that their vision gets distorted, and they have to stop periodically to reorient themselves as they chase down their prey. This behavior results in their movements being compared to those of shorebirds who run/stop/run/stop. Imagine being an ant and seeing those jaws coming toward you.

The last thing the ant saw was those massive jaws….

Part of the reason there’s more attention on them lately is that my friend Judy Semroc is working on a new book about the tiger beetles of Ohio. I invited Judy to be the speaker at our annual meeting of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association this past week, and our members were enthralled by her talk. She’s one of three co-authors compiling data from around our state for the book, to be published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You’ll remember that Ohio recently finished a three-year survey of our dragonflies, right? (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you definitely read about it multiple times, as I participated quite enthusiastically.)

LeConte’s tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris ssp. lecontei), a subspecies found in the Great Lakes region

The Ohio dragonfly survey was lead by a fantastic team of coordinators in each region of the state, and it’s starting to sound like many of those dragon hunters are going to be on the tiger hunting team next summer too. Bug geeks unite! It’s so nice to have something to look forward to these days; this has really lifted my spirits quite a bit.

Anyway, let’s talk tiger beetles now. Like dragonflies, these insects are quite charismatic, and easily observed with very little training once you know where to look. Ohio has 21 recorded species of tiger beetles, with 18 species recorded on iNaturalist. (I’m not sure about the missing three species, but I’m guessing they’re just too rare to be on iNat yet. I know I’ll get the answer to that question and many more when the new book is published.) By the way, there’s a project set up on iNat where you can contribute your own photographs of tiger beetles to help Judy and her fellow researchers make the new book as complete as possible.

I braved scorching hot sand dunes to find this ghost tiger beetle last summer. (Ellipsoptera lepida)

As you can see from the photos, they’re quite distinctive insects, with their big eyes, long legs, and often metallic backs. The shell-like coverings on their backs are called elytra, and they protect the membranous wings. Tiger beetles hunt primarily on the ground, but when they fly, those elytra lift up so the flight wings can extend. Many of their elytra are brown or black with cream-colored markings that have their own sort of beauty, but the ones that seem to be crowd-pleasers are those that are bright metallic green or blue or purple. This six-spotted tiger beetle is the most common one in Ohio as well as nationwide.

Those long legs help them run fast, as well as to lift them off the hot sand to regulate their body temperature.

Tiger beetles live in a variety of habitats including power line cuts, clay banks, and sunny forest patches. Here in the globally-rare Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio, we’re lucky to have an abundance of sandy places, one of the best places to find these pretty beetles. I’ve found them on the beaches of Lake Erie and on sandy paths in many of our metroparks. But even with all the sand in this area, I’ve only photographed six species of tiger beetles so far. That might be because my attention has been laser focused on dragonflies though. Next summer, while I’ll continue my dragonfly chasing and monitoring activities, I’ll also be making a point of trying to find some more species so I can help fill in our statewide distribution map.

I hope you’ll follow me next summer on my quest to find more of these fascinating beetles and learn more about their lives.

Bronzed tiger beetle (C. repanda), with some lovely cream markings.

Falling in Love…with Beetles

Calligrapha bidenticola - Bicolored Leaf Beetle w sig
Bicolored leaf beetle (Calligrapha bidenticola)

I might be in the early stages of a love affair…with beetles. A sort of beetle-mania, so to speak. I was aware that there are more species of beetles than plants on our planet, but hadn’t paid any special attention to this group other than occasionally admiring a new one I discovered. But after a couple recent encounters, I’m finding myself growing interested in further study of this very cool group of insects. And since dragonfly season is taking forever to get here, I might as well use this time to get better acquainted with the insects that are already active.

Beetles are in the order Coleoptera, which comes from the Greek words koleos which means sheath (or shield), and ptera which means wings. As this name indicates, they have a hardened pair of forewings called elytra that protect the softer hindwings below.

You may have noticed the common beetle flight style while watching ladybugs; the elytra are lifted up to allow the softer wings below to open. It makes them appear to be somehow handicapped, as if they can’t manage to get those cumbersome appendages out of the way.

It seems that wouldn’t be the most efficient way to fly, but they seem to do just fine. (In fact, I read a study that found that the elytra do provide extra lift in flight, but they reduce aerodynamic efficiency.)

A few days ago I met the pigweed flea beetle; actually I met quite a few of them. I was enjoying a leisurely walk on a quiet trail in one of the less-traveled areas of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. A half mile from my spot there were throngs of birders jostling for views of a Connecticut warbler, but I was in blissful peace, crouched on the ground watching beetles go about their business.

Pigweed flea beetle collage w sig
Pigweed flea beetle (Disonycha glabrata)

This particular one taught me something interesting. I watched him (her?) repeatedly open and close the elytra before finally achieving liftoff. I wonder about the purpose of the opening and closing of the elytra so many times; it could be part of a mating display or serve some other function.

Bumble Flower Beetle - Euphoria inda w sig
Bumble flower beetle (Euphoria inda)

Just a few days after being enchanted with the pigweed flea beetle’s display, I’ve met another beetle who taught me more cool stuff. This is the bumble flower beetle (Euphoria inda). Whereas the pigweed flea beetle was about a quarter inch long, this one was much bigger, more than a half inch long. (A quarter inch is significant in the insect world!)

As I was researching this species, I came across an article that claims this one is unique among beetles because he doesn’t raise the elytra when he flies. I haven’t seen reference to this claim to fame anywhere else, but if it’s true, it’s just one more reason to enjoy meeting this magnificent furry creature.

And before you scroll too far, go back and check out those awesome lamellate antennae! Beetles have some of the most interesting antennae I’ve yet come across in my insect studies. I often remember this guy, the big blister beetle I found on my front sidewalk a couple years ago. He’s got those impressive segmented (moniliform) and weirdly-kinked antennae. And his elytra are partially wrapped around his abdomen, in contrast to those of the species above.

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (3) w sig

Beetles come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and I look forward to a summer of meeting many more of them and learning more about their fascinating lives!

(Above, clockwise from left: Spotted cucumber beetle, banded longhorn beetle, dogbane leaf beetle)