Monday, March 29, 2010

This is Nephila clavipes, the Golden Silk Spider or Banana Spider. Their silk is actually golden yellow in color at times and their abdomen does look sort of like a small banana. This one has caught a relatively large dragonfly and I have seen one catch an anole, which is a type of lizard. Males are much, much smaller than females, which is common with many insects and spiders as for many species the males are not necessary to protect the young and a bigger body can produce more eggs, as well as protect them. (Yes, males don't matter very much in these species. :) When there is a difference in size or shape between the sexes, it is termed "sexual dimorphism", meaning basically two different shapes. The silk of these spiders is so strong, more so than steel, and stretchable that it was investigated as a material for making bulletproof vests! You are not going to believe this, but goats have been genetically engineered to produce spider silk proteins for something called "biosteel". (see here Spider goat, spider goat, does whatever a spider goat does; spins a web...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

This is the head of a blow fly, green bottle fly or calliphorid fly, depending upon your preference. They are especially attracted to carrion and feces (yes, that's a fancy word for poop). The thing sticking out to the left if its "sponging" mouthparts, used to sop up juices from its favorite foods. Larvae, otherwise known as maggots, have been used in modern times to clean up large wounds on people, as they eat the dead and rotting flesh and leave the healthy tissue alone. Maybe I should have saved this for Halloween, but I just couldn't resist. There are live pictures and more information available here

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This is a "sap beetle", family Nitidulidae, species Thalycra carolina, with no common name that I know of. This was caught in a pitfall trap using fermenting syrup as an attractant. Sap beetles are usually attracted to fermenting sap, decaying fruit, etc and some of them like dung and carrion and such. They have large antennal clubs, which they use to "smell" for their favorite foods. In general, the larger the antennae (the plural of antenna for insects, whereas the plural of antenna when indicating a radio or somesuch is antennas), the more "smelling" an insect does. (I'm putting "smell" and "smelling" in quotes because they do not actually sniff through nostrils like we do.) There is more information about sap beetles here and here

Monday, March 22, 2010


To most people, a "bug" could be anything from a cockroach to a crayfish, but a "true bug" is an insect in the order Heteroptera. This includes assassin bugs, stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, aphids and their relatives. They all have piercing-sucking mouthparts that are sometimes called beaks. In general, beetles, cockroaches and many other orders that might look like a true bug, have chewing mouthparts. True bugs are usually either predatory, such as this wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) or suck out plant juices using their beaks. (More info about the wheel bug, which is big and can bite, here , including their geometric egg-laying pattern and some great images of the babies hatching out.) True bugs also usually have a clear patch (or hemelytrous portion) in their wings towards the end of their abdomen, although there are a few that look a lot like beetles in this respect. True bugs do not undergo a complete metamorphosis (caterpillar/larva to chrysalis/cocoon/pupa to adult) like a butterfly, moth or beetle, but instead start out looking something like a minature adult and getting more and more adult-like each time that they shed their exoskeleton as they grow. This is known as incomplete, or gradual, metamorphosis, and is something like what we do, except that we don't shed our exoskeletons because we don't have them. More information about true bugs in general here Feel free to ask questions if I have not been clear.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"new" darkling beetle species

I'm sure that someone will look at this and think "Well, it's an OK picture, but it looks like every other brownish-black beetle I've ever seen.", but this is actually a "new" species, as in one that has not been formally described, although it is known/thought by at least one expert to be a different species than the species that have been described in its genus. The genus is Helops, with no common name that I know of, and this particular one only lives in FL as far as is known. While the picture itself may not be that interesting, I thought that the idea that new species are still being found might interest some people.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carnivorous bladderwort (Utricularia sp) plant with mosquito larva prey

Bladderworts are aquatic carnivorous plants. The structure that the mosquito larva (baby mosquito, something like a caterpillar is to a butterfly or moth) has been sucked into is the bladder, where the prey is digested. People used to think that bladderworts only preyed upon critters small enough to fit entirely in the bladders, but as you can see in this photo, this is not true. The person who figured that out used little strings of cooked egg whites in some experiments to find out that they will take in larger prey and slowly digest it little by little. Some bladdworts have pretty flowers, as you can see here

if you open up the photo gallery. If you do a search at that site at the top for Utricularia, or change the search to common name and do the search for bladderwort, you can find pictures and maps for other Florida bladderwort species. By the way, the Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants is a very useful website for anyone who lives in the southeastern US, or just about anywhere in the US if you want to see pictures of what some plants look like.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why kill and pin "bugs" if you like them?

My son Lukas is baffled as to why I carefully remove most "bugs" that enter our house and set them free and also tell him to be very gentle with ones that we find while exploring, but that I kill my favorite critters and stick pins into them. He knows that the pat answer is that I kill them to turn them into specimens, but like a lot of people, doesn't really understand why. There are many reasons, but this picture of Coastal Tiger Beetle specimens shows some of them. If you look closely, the patterns look very different from one beetle to another, so you can imagine that even a very good picture of one live insect might not be identifiable to species, as many times this is only possible by examining tiny characteristics through a microscope. Also, these are relatively large beetles, whereas some beetles get down to less than a millimeter, or around 1/50th of an inch, for the entire beetle and others can only be told apart by examining their genitalia, which it is usually not possible to examine on live specimens. Besides this, sometimes what is considered one species today might be split into 2 or more next year (say that all of the ones with less patterning were judged one species and the ones with more patterning were deemed another, or the two new species were told apart with some feature not available in a picture), and so if there were no specimens to reexamine, a record of a certain species would be meaningless then without a specimen to refer to. Another reason is that "voucher specimens" act as a permanent record of observations, so 50 years from now, someone could look at these specimens and they would be able to know from the labels that they were caught on a certain date at an exact location using a certain method in a certain type of habitat, whereas if I did not turn them into specimens, that possibly-important information would probably not be available to anyone. Yet another reason is that once I've identified a certain specimen, it becomes the ultimate reference to compare to when I find another one that may or may not be the same thing. I very much agree with the quote from Jane O'Donnell: "If a picture is worth a thousand words, a specimen is worth a million." There are no field guides that cover most insects, as there are too many of them. For instance, there are over 4,500 beetles in FL and around 12,500 insects. If you ever find a field guide for even the beetles, please let me know. :) Again, sorry to ramble, but I wanted to make it clear that most of the time, "bugs" need to be killed to study them and that there are many good reasons to turn them into specimens.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's what's for dinner

These are some representatives of my favorite beetles... yes, dung beetles, the ones that eat poop! When I was going to school and doing a project for an ecology class, I kept getting funny looks when I mentioned that I was doing something with dung beetles. I assumed that they were because most people don't like to play with poop, but then another student asked me "How are you going to do a project with dung beetles when they only live in Africa?" I was stunned, since we have over 100 dung beetles in Florida and many more in the whole US. To put another myth to rest, not all dung beetles roll balls of dung. The little black one (Aphodius bicolor)burrowing under the poop in the top picture represents a whole bunch of really small dung beetles that are usually found inside the dung or directly under it, and so they are termed "dwellers". Many of these are about the size of a grain of rice. The middle picture with the white background is of a "tunneler", this one being Onthophagus concinnus, and they usually take chunks of their favorite food down in a burrow below the main pile, either to suck the juices out of it or to lay their eggs in so that their larvae (babies) can eat the stuff and grow up. Most of the ones in that genus, Onthophagus, range in size from about the end of a pencil eraser to maybe the size of your pinky nail. The USDA introduced some other species of them from Africa to bury cow patties, as our native dung beetles were not able to do a good job with big blobs of herbivore dung in grassy fields, and when the pies sat on the surface, the cows didn't want to eat the grass near them and rain washed all of the poop into our waterways. The last picture is of a female Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus igneus). They do break off chunks of dung and "roll" them a ways before burying them, but they do not make round balls and push the stuff along in front of them. Sorry to ramble so much, but these are my favorite beetles and I could go on for pages about them. If anyone is interested, I can post a picture of a trap to catch dung beetles so that you can see what lives in your area, but you will have to bait it with their favorite food.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Many people think that beetles can't fly because they look like they have a "shell" like a turtle, but most beetles can fly. They pop open their elytra (pronounced el-i-truh, see here or forewings and underneath they have flying wings, as you can see on this dung beetle. This is an earth-boring dung beetle (genus Geotrupes), so named because it and many of its relatives dig burrows in the ground that almost look like they were made with a drill. One of its relatives digs burrows that average 6 feet deep and sometimes digs up to 10 feet deep, which is a long way for a beetle to dig. I'll try to post a picture of this relative, called a Florida Deep-Digger Scarab Beetle, or Peltotrupes profundus.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fire Ant caught by a carnivorous sundew plant

Earlier I'd posted a little grasshopper that was too big to be caught by sundew plants (genus Drosera). This fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) was not so lucky. Sundews are carnivorous plants that catch their prey with a sticky substance. They live in areas near water in which the sandy soil does not provide much in the way of nutrients, so they have evolved to take advantage of other sources of nutrition. Somewhere I have a picture of another carnivorous plant "eating" a mosquito larva (baby mosquito, sort of like a caterpillar compared to a butterfly or moth, that lives in water) and I'll try to find that and post it also.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I went to Wolf Creek near Cairo Georgia with my wife, sister (no, not the same person:) and Lukas. The place is absolutely amazing because of how many trout lilies there are there. They only started blooming a few weeks ago and appear to be at their peak. The bees in the pictures are honey bees. Many people do not know that honey bees are not native to the US and that they may actually compete with our native bees. I did not see a single native pollinator, which surprised me.