My Big Bug Year is Finally Taking Off!

So what is it now, something like week five of the “new normal”? Or is it 500? It’s hard to keep track of time these days. And if you’re like me, you’ve perhaps been surprised at how many different emotions you can feel in a single day on this roller coaster. But I think I’m starting to get adjusted to the routine-that’s-not-a-routine of my new daily life. There’s some peace in accepting that, I suppose. There’s no point in fighting it, in any case.

Brown thrasher - blog
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

I’ve been helped enormously by the emergence of insects, so I can really dig into Kim’s Big Bug Year — finally!!! Every year I watch with envy as my friends to the south start posting their photos of insects many weeks before we have any up here along the shore of Lake Erie. But it’s finally our turn to play, and I’m so grateful that I started this project a couple months ago. And as I’ve been out looking for insects lately, I’ve been surprised to find that I’m rediscovering the joy of birding. Today, for instance, I was walking around a small lake surrounded with woods, when I heard the distinctly beautiful song of a Brown Thrasher. And the encounter was made more special because I was there alone with the bird for a couple minutes, so I could enjoy him without distraction. (You can hear their song here.)

Greater bee fly on bloodroot
Greater Bee Fly probing Bloodroot with his long, stiff proboscis

Our native wildflowers are just starting to bloom, and that’s why the insects are suddenly here in larger numbers and easier to find. I spent a half hour observing various pollinators visiting the alabaster blossoms in a bloodroot patch.  One of the insects I see most often on bloodroot is the Greater Bee Fly. Even before I focus my camera on it, I can see the  long, stiff proboscis probing the center of the flower. I always thought a proboscis was used to gather nectar, but I’ve just discovered that bloodroot doesn’t have any nectar; it only offers pollen to its insect visitors. I think I need to investigate this further, because it doesn’t seem possible that pollen could be sucked up by the proboscis, so why is this particular insect so fond of this plant? In times like this I wish I could have a quick conference call with a botanist and an entomologist!

The lovely leaves of bloodroot persist long after the flower is gone, sometimes until mid-summer.

Bloodroot leaf texture - blog
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Also among the insects cruising among the bloodroot were hover flies, mostly a single species in the Helophilus genus. I believe they’re H. fasciatus, the Narrow-headed Marsh Fly. Hover flies (aka flower flies) are some of my favorite insects because of their intricate patterns of brown and yellow. This one was enjoying a lovely pink patch of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Helophilus fasciatus on Spring Beauty - blog

I’ve also discovered a few new-to-me species, like this Unequal Cellophane Bee. I was intrigued by the name, and found that this family of bees are so named because of  a clear substance they use to line their underground nests. I saw lots of them crawling out of their burrows in the sandy soil and flying around low to the ground. Occasionally a pair would “tussle” on the ground, which I assume was mating behavior.

Unequal cellophane bee - Colletes inaequalis - blog
Unequal Cellophane Bee (Colletes inaequalis)

And this Ridged Carrion Beetle was obviously well named, as you can clearly see the ridges on his elytra.

Ridged carrion beetle - blog

Spiders are out in full force now too, but I know lots of people are squeamish about them, so I’ll only post the one I know can’t possibly be scary to anybody. Meet the most adorable Orbus Paradise Spider, one of the jumping spiders. Jumping spiders have a way of looking at you like they’re as curious about you as you are about them. This was the first time I’d ever heard of this group of spiders, and I was so excited I was in my own little paradise as I watched him hopping around in the dead oak leaves for about five minutes. He’s so tiny that each leaf must have been like a mountain to him, but he never faltered, never hesitated, just took a flying leap and kept going. Over and over again.

Orbus paradise spider - jumping spider - Habronattus orbus (1)

Come to think of it, that’s probably a good attitude for all of us as we navigate the coming weeks. We have so little control over what’s happening right now, and that can be scary. But maybe the thing to do is just take a leap of faith that everything will work out. And until things get back to normal, maybe we should also make sure to take a cue from this other little guy, and make some time to nap under the wildflowers.

Gnome napping under bloodroot - blog

 

Dandelion Delight

Yes, you read that right — I said, “Dandelion Delight,” alright. Many people despise these little yellow flowers that pop up in lawns in early spring, and do everything they can to eradicate them.  In fact, there may be no more-hated flower than the hapless dandelion.

Dandelions and violets at Salamander Flats w sig

You may be thinking, “Hey, aren’t you all about native plants now? What gives?”  It’s true, the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) isn’t native to North America, and I sure wouldn’t advise you to plant it on purpose. But it’s here and it’s widespread, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But there’s a silver lining to this dilemma, and it’s the fact that dandelions are sometimes useful to early spring pollinators.

Black-shouldered drone fly on dandelion - blog w sig
Black-shouldered drone fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

For example, right now there are very few native flowers blooming in my part of Ohio. And yet some of the pollinators have already emerged or migrated back. Luckily for these early bird insects, dandelions are a plentiful food source to get them through until more of our native flowers are blooming. The other day I went to a local nature preserve that has a thriving population of dandelions, because I wanted to show you some of the pollinators that were feeding on them.

First was the black-shouldered drone fly shown above. Then I found one of my favorites, a hoverfly. I believe this may be the American hoverfly (and I hope to confirm that when my new field guide arrives very soon!).

American Hoverfly maybe (Eupeodes americanus) on dandelion w sig
Possibly an American hoverfly (Eupeodes americanus)

Butterflies may not be as efficient at pollinating as bees and flies, but they still make a valuable contribution to this essential step in botanical reproduction. Small amounts of pollen can attach to their wings or other body parts as they feed on nectar, thus allowing them to inadvertently carry that pollen to other flowers. On this day I saw many red admirals and American ladies feeding on the pretty yellow dandelion blooms.

Red Admiral butterfly on dandelion cropped w sig
Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

And check out this greater bee fly with his long rigid proboscis. Unlike a butterfly, this fly can’t retract his “tongue.” That seems like it would be cumbersome, but he apparently makes it work.

Greater bee fly on dandelion with long proboscis w sig
Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

His lovely wing pattern at first tricked me into thinking he was a tiger bee fly (which I wrote about last summer), but I quickly realized he was different. In fact, I had only seen my first of this species a couple days before, when I visited Goll Woods to photograph wildflowers.

Greater bee fly on dandelion w sig
Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

I found a nice article about greater bee flies by Eric Eaton, so if you’d like to read more about them, I suggest you go to Eric’s blog, here.

So I hope this will give you pause the next time you’re considering yanking dandelions from your lawn, or even worse, pouring toxic chemicals on them. If we can learn to see them as beneficial to the ecosystem, and even — gasp! — enjoy their beauty, perhaps we can eventually learn to live in harmony with the rest of the life on this amazing planet.

White-crowned Sparrows amongst the dandelions - blog
White-crowned sparrows amongst the dandelions

Nope, That’s Not a Bee

Eastern calligrapher fly - toxomerus geminatus - for blog
Eastern calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

When I first started photographing insects, I noticed — but didn’t really look at — lots of little “bees.” I noted their brown and yellow abdomens and quickly dismissed them as uninteresting. But once I actually photographed one of them and looked at it, I was enchanted by the pretty patterns I saw, and wanted to study them further. As an example, notice the intricate designs on the one in that first photo above.

I learned that they aren’t bees at all; they’re a family of insects known as hover flies or flower flies. Many of them resemble not only bees, but wasps as well. It’s believed that this mimicry aids their survival by making potential predators think twice before attacking them. A simple way to distinguish flies from bees or wasps is the number of wings; flies only have two wings, whereas bees and wasps have four.

My familiarity with taxonomic structures is mostly limited to my high school memories of reciting “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.” I’m doing the best I can to make sure I give accurate information about scientific classifications here, but keep in mind that I’m a real amateur in insect identification. I write these articles to educate myself as much as to entertain and educate my readers. 🙂 And, if you read something here that’s wrong, I’d really appreciate hearing from you so I can correct it.

taxonomic hierarchy graphic

So, within the Insecta class, there are further subdivisions called orders. For example, the order Odonata contains my beloved dragonflies and damselflies. The order Hymenoptera contains bees, ants, and wasps. These hover flies are in the order Diptera. And within that order, they’re in the family Syrphidae (and are thus also known as syrphid flies).

So whether you call them hover flies, flower flies, or syrphid flies, you should know that they are valuable pollinators in the garden.

Prairie gentian with American Hoverfly for blog
Hoverfly on Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta)

And if you have aphid problems, you’ll be happy to find out that the larvae of syrphid flies are little wormlike creatures that are ravenous consumers of aphids. If you see these lovely little flies in your yard, keep your fingers crossed that they like it enough to stick around and lay their eggs there. You can make it easier for them by not removing leaves from your garden in the fall because that’s where they spend the winter.

These flies really seem to love the ubiquitous asters that are blooming in the early fall, and that makes it easier for me to find and photograph them. I just walk up to a group of asters and wait until they show up. This is one of my favorite recent photos of a syrphid fly on asters:

Oblique Stripetail - Allograpta obliqua on aster
Oblique stripetail (Allograpta obliqua) on asters

Interestingly, hover flies share some extraordinary capabilities with dragonflies: they can hover, and fly forward, backward, sideways, up, and down.  Their flight abilities make them fascinating to watch; I can easily lose track of time when I’m focused on watching them zipping around a patch of flowers, feeding on the nutritious nectar and pollen.

Narrow-headed sunfly - Helophilus fasciatus w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)
Chrysotoxum sp of hover fly v2
This one is in the genus Chrysotoxum, but I don’t know which species

I plan to continue my study of these syrphid flies, and will hope to be able to write more about them in a future post.  If you get a chance, pull up a chair beside a group of asters or goldenrod soon and see if you can catch a glimpse of any of these charming flower visitors.

There’s a little bonus for you below, but I just want to share one more photo.  One day I was watching this Chinese mantis as it preyed upon bees from its perch on top of a cushion of goldenrod. In this photo, the mantis is eating a honeybee while a syrphid fly feeds only a couple inches from its head, seemingly unconcerned about the monster lurking beside him. Perhaps he realized the mantis was occupied and was no immediate danger to him.

Syrphid fly watches as Chinese mantis eats honeybee

Bonus Deep Dive Content: Okay, if you’re interested in watching a syrphid fly larva eat an aphid, you can spend 25 minutes watching this amazing video I found on YouTube by someone called “Insect Man.” I confess I fast-forwarded through some of it, but it’s way cool.