Archive | April, 2011

Just For Fun

29 Apr

Blog author with freaking GIANT wolf spider on her face! AGH!

So it’s that time of year (the really, crazy busy time), and I think we should take a little humor break this week.

So, for your viewing pleasure, here is a list of my favorite search terms that have somehow led people to my blog.  Some of these I like for their sheer baffling irrelevancy, some for their unintended meanings, and some for the stories my mind makes to explain them.

Award winners:

ant ctrl delete  – best pesticide name
small 6 legged winged bugs  – most ambiguous insect description
nanite swarm – best science fiction / insect crossover
plants excrete in the form of vapour – best analogy
pictures of missing sinus – best free association
leaf footed bug toxicity to humans  – best implied back-story
ground beatle eating cricket – best unintended pun

Runners up:

it has many eyes and six legs and love sugar
lubber grasshopper – purpose of front 2 legs
ant with a black bottom
lost his legs in nom
wolf bearing sword
tiny male grasshoppers mating
fun dung
drip dry gloves
cricket we love you
a picture of a pile of beetles
scorpions do have front claws photos
stinky ball

Also, if you haven’t checked it out, you should drop in on Collin’s new blog, Advanced Degrees, for funny pictures of graduate school life.  I think this fills a very important gap in the humor blogosphere, because grad life is, frankly, ridiculous.  Like the time I found the note “Email Ingram about Brains” on my planner and realized I had become a mad scientist.

If you have any good pictures (and I know you do) please take a moment to send them his way!

Life Cycle – Red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle

22 Apr
A red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle (Chrysomela texana).

A red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle (Chrysomela texana).

These  red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetles were all over the park near my home this week, mostly in the vicinity of a large willow tree, the beetles’ food of choice.  Chrysomela texana are close relatives of the cottonwood leaf beetle (Chrysomela scripta).   C. texana can be easily distinguished by it’s red pronotum, head, and underside (most similar species have distinct black markings on these areas).  Every life stage of the beetle was apparent, from the yellow eggs laid in clusters on a leaf, to the lady beetle-like black and brown larvae, skeletonizing the surrounding vegetation in gregarious clusters, the red-brown pupae.

A cluster of yellow red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle eggs on the underside of a leaf.

A cluster of yellow red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle eggs on the underside of a leaf.

(Note: The egg hunt was successful.  Happy Easter!)

Red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle larvae (Chrysomelidae: Chrysomela texana) skeletonize a willow leaf.

A gregarious cluster of red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle larvae skeletonize a willow leaf.

Like swallowtail caterpillars, the larvae have cool, eversible glands which they use to secrete defensive chemicals (as pictured by Mike Quinn on BugGuide).  The pupae of these beetles were particularly abundant.  They seemed to be stuck to every surface I looked at–tucked under bark, into crevices, dangling from leaves and even from small flowers and weeds.  This gave me the chance to snap the pictures below of a beetle struggling out of its pupal case. I even took a few home, but they were sneaky and eclosed on me when I wasn’t looking.

A red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle (Chrysomela texana) ecloses from its pupal case.

A red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle (Chrysomela texana) ecloses from its pupal case.

A red-headed Chrysomela leaf-beetle ecloses from its pupal case (Chrysomelidae: Chrysomela texana).

A red-headed Chrysomela leaf-beetle ecloses from its pupal case.

Cast of pupal case of a red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae: Chrysomela texana).

Cast off pupal case of a red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetle.


Surprise bonus image!  Now the life cycle is complete. 😉

A mating pair of red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae: Chrysomela texana).

A mating pair of red-headed Chrysomela leaf beetles (Chrysomela texana).

Queen Ants – Founding a new colony

15 Apr
Camponotus foundress queen tending eggs.

A foundress carpenter ant queen (Camponotus) tends her clutch of eggs, with her dropped wings visible in the foreground.

Lots of pictures of queen ants today.  While the huge diversity of ant species have developed numerous methods for founding new colonies, a few strategies are fairly widespread in the ant world.  After a nuptial flight, in which winged sexual male and female ants mate,a future queen faces the harrowing challenge of founding a new colony.  With her ovipositor specialized for egg-laying she cannot even sting or spray venom.  She has only her jaws to defend her and she is heavy-bodied and clumsy.  Mortality is high–one reason ant colonies pump out vast flocks of winged alates.  Dropping to the ground the new queen searches diligently for a nest site, shedding or pulling off her now useless wings so that she can burrow or explore small crevices more easily.  The energy from her atrophying wing muscles will be used to help feed her and her developing brood.

A disturbed camponotus queen guards her clutch of eggs.

A foundress carpenter ant queen stands guard over her eggs after being disturbed.

Unless she manages to join an existing nest (some ant species such as fire ants will accept additional queens into established colonies) or co-founds with a small group of other queens (in which case surplus queens may later fight or be executed by workers) she will be alone until she manages to raise her clutch of eggs through the helpless larval and pupal stages and into small adult workers.  In some species queen ants take on the risky task of foraging for food, but in many species queens practice claustral founding, closing themselves away into small nest chambers until the first workers eclose, relying entirely on the resources stored in their bodies to provision them.

Queen fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) burrowed into cotton with her first brood.

A cloistered fire ant foundress (Solenopsis invicta) with her brood.

During this time, queens carefully tend their precious brood, feeding them via  salivary secretions or trophallaxis (regurgitation) and grooming them to prevent mold or fungal growth.  Fire ant queens lay trophic (feeding) eggs, which they eat and then regurgitate to the larvae.

Fire ant queen (Solenopsis invicta) tending brood.

A foundress fire ant queen in a test tube tends her first larvae and pupae.

The first workers pupate prematurely, and eclose as unusually tiny adult ants, called minims or nanites.  The pale, callow workers slowly darken and gain mobility as their exoskeletons harden.  Driven by hunger and instinct, these tiny workers open up the colony and venture carefully forth for the first foraging expeditions of the colony. (Other tactics may also come into play–fire ant minims practice brood raiding, where they steal developing larvae and pupae from nearby colonies to enlarge their own labor force.)  Later workers, tended by the minims and better provisioned with food, will develop normally into typically sized workers of the various castes.

Queen fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) with brood and minims.

A foundress fire ant queen (Solenopsis invicta) tends her brood with the help of newly eclosed minim workers.

As the worker population increases, the queen’s careful attendance of the brood slackens and her primary role in the colony becomes egg-laying and remaining alive. Rather than standing to defend her only clutch of brood queens now have a horde of daughters to defend the nest, and they retreat from any signs of danger or disturbance to the nest.

A crematogaster queen with brood pile, nurses, and newly eclosed workers.

An acrobat ant queen (Crematogaster) in formacarium with brood pile, nurses, and newly eclosed workers.

These pictures are mostly foundresses I’ve captured hunting nest sites and reared out in test tubes.  Ant colonies are fun to keep, and ridiculously easy to found (what other pet can you close away in a tube and ignore for the first month?).  For the purposes of my research I’ve mostly reared fire ant colonies, and these are the main foundresses I encounter in my area of Texas (good for my research, not so good for the ecosystems they’ve invaded).  Obviously not the ideal pet ant colony, but in a secure environment they are fun to observe and they make for sturdy, fast-growing colonies.

Wasp or Beetle? – the Redheaded Ashborer

8 Apr
A wasp-mimicking cerambycid beetle (College Station, Texas).

A wasp-mimicking cerambycid beetle, the redheaded ash borer (Neoclytus acuminatus).

Here’s an interesting long-horned beetle I found poking around in the leaf litter by my front door this week.  With its long hind legs and elongate, red and yellow striped body, this beetle resembles a wasp, and the illusion is particularly effective in motion, whether in flight or moving quickly along the ground.  Beetles like this have fooled me many times, well enough that to make me keep my distance, at least until I can take a closer look at what’s in my net.

Like other long-horned beetles (family Cerambycidae) the larvae of these beetles burrow in dead and dying hardwood trees and logs.  Because they can attack sickly or weakened trees they are a pest in nurseries.

Danger In the Flowers

1 Apr
A stealthy specimen in the flowers (Welder Wildlife Refuge, Texas).

A stealthy specimen in the flowers.

Above, a predator lurks stealthily among the flowers.  Can you ID the rare specimen pictured here?

Many insect predators employ cryptic coloration and a sit-and-wait strategy.  In particular, flowers make a great place to lie in wait for prey, as they are the subjects of frequent visits by hungry herbivores seeking nectar, pollen, and even tasty blossoms.   Well camouflaged predators like spiders, preying mantises, ambush bugs and more sit unmoving until unwary prey venture close enough for a quick kill.

Alligator in the wildflowers....

Alligator in the wildflowers.

(PS.  April Fools!)

We did indeed encounter this little alligator while insect collecting for Entoblitz at the Welder Wildlife Refuge last spring.  He was greatly admired, but not added to anyone’s collection.

If you live in the Texas area check out Entoblitz, sponsored by Texas A&M’s Entomology Graduate Student Organization.  It’s been a lot of fun every year;  we gather a diverse crowd of professional and amateur entomologists and get some pretty cool specimens.  Entoblitz 2011 will be held on April 22-25 (Easter weekend) at the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area in far west Texas.