If you're like me, you get up in the middle of the night to either go to the kitchen to grab a bite, or hit the bathroom. Now, usually I avoid turning on the light, but sometimes you just have to. It's then that you see the quick silvery flashes of insects moving like those dragons you see at the Chinese New Year, back and forth scuttling quickly for their lives. Those are silverfish (Lepisma saccharina), and in this post we'll explore exactly what silverfish are, why people don't really like them, and a few ideas for helping secure your home from them.
There's magic to fall, and the cycles that ramp up (or down) before the cold. You'll start to see all sorts of animals scurrying around caching nuts, humming birds stocking up on nectar, and general mayhem before the birds depart on their way south. To me, there are three signs that fall is coming:
Black gum tree leaves change their color (they're the first to turn red, along with poison ivy)
Fungus starts popping up everywhere
Spider webs smack you in the face constantly on the trail and you have to dodge spiny spiders.
This leads me to helping you identify those pesky spiders that you're dodging on the trails in fall.
A Story of Prehensile Jaws, Butt Propulsion, and Biting Mouth Bits
Dragonflies are one of those creatures that people love and hate. They show up on Memaw's knitted sweater, baby onesies, wine glasses, and summer napkins, but when it comes to actually seeing them in the wild many people cringe. They're fast moving, multi-winged, and bug-eyed creatures that look like aliens. Two of the most common questions I get asked is "Do dragonflies bite?" and "What do dragonflies eat?" In this blog we'll cover both questions, and the extraordinary world of dragonfly feeding, from prehensile jaws to mandibles.
Starting in spring bees and wasps begin to appear and I can always tell that people are concerned because my posts on "What Bit Me?" gets a lot more traffic. I completely understand fear and phobia of bees, ranging from concerns of severe allergies to those that have watched horror movies. As a former bee keeper though, I truly love and respect bees. One of my most favorite types of bees are the carpenter bees (here in Maryland we have Xylocopa virginica). Yes, they can be destructive; yes, they are big; and yes they can be scary, but when you really study them they're quite interesting. So, on to the question, "Do carpenter bees sting?" And more importantly what should I do around them?
Around this time of year I find a lot of moth cocoons and newly emerging moths at night. I thought it would be a good time to review some of the big moths that you may find in the Eastern US, and what they look like.
I had a reader e-mail me for a 10 year old student who wanted to know exactly how many knees a spider has. If you Google the answer you get a web page that is aimed at kids and has the wrong answer as the first choice. This always infuriates me because they offer an easy, off-the-cuff quick answer that requires absolutely no thought or research. I hate it when people play down to kids and don't do the work required to give an accurate answer. So here's my answer.
Let's face it, there are a lot of ways to eat and be eaten in the animal kingdom. Feeding ranges from the sponge-like mouth parts of flies to the flat molar-like chompers of clam-eating fish like black drum. If an animal or plant exists in the world, then something feeds in or on it. This is true of animals that drink blood, also called sanguivores (sang-wa-vors). Another word for this is hermatophagy (pronounced her- mat-oh-fay-gee). Any time you see the term "--phagy" at the end of a word it means "eating". Herma comes from the Greek word "haima" or "blood" and phagein or "to eat." For today's post I want to share with you the world of sanguivores or blood drinkers. There are more than you think, and even though you may already be squirming in your seat at the though, keep an open mind. Blood is little more than water with easily digestible proteins, lipids (fats), and nutrients. To humans blood is super taboo, and gross, we see blood as "disgusting" because we're taught that it's full of diseases and should only be seen in horror films. However, in nature blood is something not to be wasted or ignored. It's the "water of life" for some animals. Here are 12 of the most interesting.
Working outside, and in Education, I often get queries and questions about things people find in their yards or sidewalks. This week was no different, one of the researchers where I work messaged me asking about a big red fuzzy ant that has a black stripe on it. This fuzzy visitor is quite common in the Eastern US so it was an easy ID, but I thought it worth doing a post to introduce you to some quick facts about red velvet ants, also called cow killers, and their relatives. Most species of velvet ants are found in the southern and western parts of North America, and there are over 50 species in Florida alone,
Have you ever been out with friends, and you see a big hairy spider and someone yells, "wolf spider!"? Now the thing is, there are lots and lots of big brown spiders out there (and "big" is relative to how much you hate spiders too). Wolf spiders are the ones that have a bad reputation because they're big and brown and easy to see, and they have a fierce sounding name so people remember them. If they were called "floofy brown Betsies" or "hairy teddy bears" then most folks would probably just chalk them up to big brown things that happen to saunter through now and again. But no...a biologist long ago thought that wolf spiders hunted like wolves, in packs, and they named the family "Lycosidae." This comes from the Greek "lycosa" meaning wolf. Any time you see an "a" after a Greek name it means the critter is a predator, it eats meat. In the case of spiders, bugs and other small creatures, this particular family name is misleading because wolf spiders the world around are really solitary and don't like hunting in packs. They do pounce on prey but not quite like a wolf does. So let's get down to some real wolf spider facts and pictures.
Introducing the Butterfly Proboscis (Snoot, Sippy Straw & Sponge)
How Butterflies Get Their Fluids
I think I have a form of nature attention deficit disorder because I get so easily distracted by anything in the natural world. In meetings I'm focusing on the sparrows outside my window and and analyzing their flock structure. At restaurants I'm looking at moths flying around lights and trying to identify them. I can't help it, it's what I do. Thus, while sitting on a dock watching the sunrise I noticed a butterfly probing a fairly fresh pile of scat that the morning's inhabitants had left. It sat there for a long time, probing with its long tongue and "dung sipping" (yes, there is a term called "dung sipping" that scientists use, makes for a great insult to other entomologists). Butterflies also can be found sipping carcasses and dead things too (so much for a butterfly's beauty eh?.."corpse sipper" anyone?). Here's a picture of what I observed:
Most people that I meet think that when a butterfly visits a flower that it's using its tongue to sip nectar. This is what happens, but the butterfly's tongue is more like a combination sponge and sippy straw instead of just a straw. Let's start with the correct sciency terms for you to stash for future garden parties.....
I love random bits of nature trivia. I store them away like nuts in a chipmunk larder, to be taken out and paraded around when the right situation occurs. The term "raptorial claw" is one that most people will sort of know what it means, but not really, so for today's blog post a short introduction to my shiny chipmunk term of the day.
What Does the Woolly Bear Caterpillar do in Winter?
How the Woolly Bear Caterpillar Survives the Cold
Have you ever wandered around a parking lot, sidewalk, or trail in the fall and seen a Wooly Bear caterpillar? They're the familiar fuzzy orange and black caterpillars that everyone dodges stepping on and that kids love to pick up and play with.
These fuzzy wee beasties are technically called the "Banded Woolly Bear" and they are the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The adult moth isn't very striking. It has golden-brown wings. They also have faint darker brown lines on their wings and the females have a pinkish-orange hind wing. The nice thing is that the caterpillar isn't a crop pest and mostly feeds on common deciduous forest trees such as elm, ash, low growing herbs, and other forest plants (they're not very picky and tend to sat away from gardens).
THE WOOLLY BEAR MYTH
Now most people have heard the myth that the woolly bear caterpillar can predict winter's length and intensity based on how much black is on them or how big the orange band is around their middle. This is really an old wives tale because as the caterpillar grows, during each molt (or shedding of its skin) the fuzzy black tips become less and less pronounced and the orange band grows. So, the caterpillar color barometer is really subjective based on which one you found and what molt phase it's in. Not very reliable if you ask me.
So, seeing all those fuzzy cute woolly bear caterpillars got me to thinking and wondering, if they don't predict winter, what exactly do they do to over-winter? Where do they go? How do they survive? Seeing as they can't crawl very far they have to have some strategy to make it through freezing conditions. After all they are found all the way from the Arctic to North America and Mexico.
I'll admit it, I'm a big fan of little spiders, especially little wee hairy ones with big attitudes. That's why I wanted to feature the bold jumping spider Phidippus audax (say it with me, fid-DIP-us Ow-dax) for today's post. The name alone says it all, they're small spiders, about the size of those removable pencil erasers on mechanical pencils (6-13 mm), but they've got attitude enough for a mega-spider.
How many comedies have you watched where someone was stung by a jellyfish and the "hero" very selflessly offers to pee on the sting site? It really is just a comedy line, there is no truth in the myth and it can even make things worse! Yes, research as been done on this, and there's a great article in "Scientific American." If you'd like to read it, click here. For this article I'm going to do two things: 1) Explain what happens when you get stung by a jellyfish and 2) Give you some treatment options.
Lion's Mane Jellyfish: Winter Visitors to the Chesapeake Bay
Lion's Mane or Winter Jellyfish
As a kayaker and rower I tend to stay on the water as long as safely possible, right up until water and air temperatures become unsafe without a dry suit. Winter paddling and being on the water can be great fun, especially when you look for winter visitors that may be here for the season. One such visitor is the lion's mane jellyfish or winter jelly. Here in the Chesapeake Bay it's a common visitor to our waters in cold months. Many of my friends send me pictures asking exactly what they're seeing, and why there are jellyfish moving in the waters in winter, so I thought a post about these unique invertebrates might be in order.
For those of you who are in the woods all the time you're probably pretty familiar with what a tick looks like. But there are plenty of people who aren't really familiar with what they look like, and let's face it, when you have one on you, you rarely take the time to check it out up close and personal, you just want it OFF! This post is dedicated to some basic tick anatomy (what they look like) and pictures of the ticks that are most commonly found in the Eastern US. I've also created a nice quick table that should help you too.
Sea Nettles and Oysters Need Each Other To Survive
How Sea Nettles and Oysters Are Related
Sea nettles are a type of jellyfish, and they are creatures that everyone loves to hate. They gum up nets, sting you when you least expect it, and make water sports difficult. Jellyfish are one of those classic examples or creatures that humans tend to dislike, but they are an important species for ecosystem balance. This is because, despite their occasional annoyance, without sea nettles there might not be any oysters to eat or harvest.
As a kid I remember shrieking and being chased around the playground as little boys ran after the girls and tossed daddy long-legs us. Of course we all just knew they were man-eating spiders and we'd be bitten. Invariably though, the poor "spider" would lose a leg or two, fall quite short, and we'd race off to safety. Since then I've come to quite like daddy long legs and the members of their family, mostly because I think they get a pretty bad rap.
Daddy long legs are arthropods (which means "joint foot"), but they are not spiders. Even though superficially they look like spiders, and move like spiders, they aren't. Their family tree gets moved around a lot, because no one is quite sure where they belong, but most think they're more closely related to mites or scorpions (sans sting or venom). Sometimes they are called granddaddy long-legs, harvest spiders, or harvestmen. Daddy long-legs are found on every continent except Antarctica, and it's thought that there are nearly 6,500 species, 46 families, and 4 suborders world wide! That's a lot of species for a group that is commonly misidentified.
I have a lot of requests to cover topics about biting and stinging things, mostly because these are the critters that make people's experiences outdoors unpleasant. One such creature is the dreaded chigger. Now most of us have heard of them, and many of us have had their bites, but what are they really? What do chigger bites look like? Should you be worried? Let's start with chigger 101:
This time of year is one of my favorites, it's warm enough to sit outside around a campfire, listen to the night sounds, play music, tell stories, or roast marshmallows. I've been asked to suggest some fun but also educational science activities for kids at dusk or night-time.
Night-time summer activities can be fun, and what you can depends on where you are, how safe the environment is to move around at night, and the age of the kids. Here are a few ideas you might consider:
It's been a while since I last did a post about sprickets, so I thought it was time for another, especially because I get so many questions about "spider crickets," also commonly called camel crickets.
These insects are the creepy wee beasties of some people's nightmares. They're actually crickets but with a hunched back. They dwell in dark places and basements, and while it's bad enough that they look like spiders these lookalikes take full advantage of the similarity to hop like a demented spring when startled, scaring the bejeebus out of basement goers.
Don't worry, sprickets are quite harmless, much like the grasshoppers you see in yards and fields. They don't have fangs, they aren't venomous, and they can't bite, but they are omnivores, eating just about anything in sight. This leads us to the question of the blog post:
It's that time of year when colds and flu are prevalent and everyone is hacking and sneezing, bemoaning their stuffed up and runny noses. I thought it would be the perfect time to discuss mucus. Yes, it's gross and one of those things people don't talk about, but everyone deals with it. It is also the lubricant that keeps the natural world from seizing and the animals sliding and gliding.
For Valentine's Day my friends at the Smithsonian featured a cute little spider called the pink toed tarantula. This got me thinking about spider feet. They don't really have toes like you and I do, (though the idea of spider tube socks with toes is funny) but they do have special modifications that help them get about. The feet of spiders can be lumped into two general categories based on how the spiders make their living. There are web building spiders and wandering spiders.
The demands of weaving a web and walking a continual tightrope, are very different from those of a spider that wanders, runs, and leaps on prey ( If you haven't read my post on spider legs you should check it out too).
The First thing to know about spider toes is that all spiders have hairy feet (which is why so many people find them creepy), but it's the arrangement and function of these hairs that varies.
Have you ever heard the words: "You're spineless?" While meant as an insult, it's actually a compliment in biological terms. You probably already know that some animals, like humans, have internal skeletons (endoskeletons), and some have external skeletons (exoskeletons), like insects. But the story doesn't end there, nature is much more complex and diverse. There is an entire class of organisms that has a type of skeleton, called a hydrostatic skeleton. It is just like the name implies, a static skeleton made of fluid (hydro).
Normally I stick to North American species of animals, but I thought the story of giant clams was too good to pass up, especially because of the emphasis on the study of light in the Next Generation Science Standards. Let's start with giant clam 101:
Let's face it, spiders are considered creepy by a large majority of people around the world. Yet when you ask them, most folks can't really name what it is about spiders that freaks them out so much. Usually explanations start with beady eyes, fangs, bites, or wrapping up their prey. Spider movement is also at the top of the list. They scuttle and scurry around at night (especially when you turn on the lights and they scamper off), jump, and generally run in a "creepy" way. But what makes their movement really foreign and creepy to us? The answer lies in two key elements of their anatomy, their skeleton and muscles.
It's that time of year again, when mosquitoes start to hatch and swarm and everyone starts swatting and pulling out the cans of insect repellent. Now I know that butt snorkels doesn't sound like a true biological subject related to mosquitoes, but it really is. And knowing about them can help you control mosquito populations in your area.
Mosquitoes are a type of fly in the Culicidae family, and their name literally means "little fly" in Spanish. Many species are actually harmless, but in some, the females consume the blood of animals. It's the blood-meal eaters that are often problematic, because they are disease carriers or vectors. Their bites cause itchy bumps and are often quite irritating. That's not to say that they don't play an important biological role! They are food for many species of other invertebrates, fish, bats, birds, and more.
Mosquitoes go through complete metamorphosis with a four stage life cycle of egg, larvae, nymph, and adult. Female mosquitoes rely on fresh water to lay their eggs. This can be as deep as a pond, as shallow as a dog bowl left filled and not refreshed, an old tire, or even the inner well of a flower or plant. For those of us in the Eastern US, who are surrounded by fresh water and puddles galore, we constantly fight the standing water battle. I knew of an elderly gentleman who paid kids $.10 per tire, lid, bucket, or container to dump the standing water in them.
Most female mosquitoes lay their eggs on the surface of the water. The eggs can be in singles or in small rafts of up to 200 eggs. Some mosquito females use a technique that is similar to dragonflies, where they tap their abdomen along the surface and drop the eggs into the water. The eggs stage can last from 2 days to many months, depending on the species, season, and weather.
Mosquito life cycle (Photo: Wiki Commons).
After about 48 hours, a young mosquito hatches into a larvae. The larvae (and pupa) are the ones with butt snorkels, or breathing tubes called siphons. The tube is an extension of their spiracles (or breathing holes along their sides -- those are used more in later life when they become terrestrial). The larval mosquito's butt snorkel has a fine ring of hairs and a waterproof material that help to break the surface tension of the water molecules. This allows the snorkel to take in air. Butt snorkels aren't all that uncommon in the aquatic insect world, some species of water scorpions and other flies have them too. Some insects like aquatic beetles attach a bubble of air to their butts when they dive, and then breathe through that. Insect butts are fascinating.
The larvae are not blood suckers yet, they are microbial feeders eating plankton, algae, and other micro materials with their brush-like mouth parts. To get away from predators they often flex their body in a jerky movement. This movement can help you identify them when you're looking in ponds or puddles.
After molting their exoskeleton about four times, the larvae then develop into a pupa. The pupa is described as comma shaped because they have a large head, fused with their thorax, to make a cephalothorax. Their abdomen is still long and skinny, and they must still use butt snorkles to come to the surface to breathe. Much like their larval stage, these pupa can use the power of their abdomen to flip around and move, so they're called tumblers. At this stage many do not have mouth parts, and they are simply hanging around with their butt snorkels in the air waiting to change into an adult. Pupation can take anywhere from 2 days to months. Here in the US many of the common species take only two weeks to complete their cycle.
After pupating, the mosquito splits its skin, and then emerges as an adult. Much like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the adult must harden its body and extend its wings to dry and harden, before it can fly.
If you want to control larval mosquitoes and get them before they become adults, then it's good to know about their butt snorkels and their feeding habits. First, if you can, remove all sources of standing water. This includes cleaning gutters, plant pots, refreshing bird baths, turning over tires, emptying cans, etc. Next, for water that you need standing and can't eliminate, try adding a water bubbler. The bubbling causes too much wave action for the mosquitoes to be able to use their butt snorkels and they drown, which is why you don't have many mosquito larvae in fresh running streams or waterways that move a lot.
You can also use a VERY thin layer of vegetable oil on the surface of a standing pond. This layer does not allow the mosquitoes' butt snorkels to penetrate the surface of the water. Be aware, this may affect other insects that come to the surface to breathe, or aquatic plants, so use with caution. If you do use this method, use a spray bottle with water and a few drops of oil. Gently spray the surface of the standing water until you see a thin "slick." This should evaporate in a few days, so you'll have to re-apply.
If it is feasible, one of the best methods of larvae control is using mosquito fish or tadpoles. Remember to use native species if you plan on introducing them into your body of water.
Last, but not least, you can also use bacteria. There are two species, Bacillus thuringiensisisraelensis and Bacillus sphaericius, which can be added to water. These types of bacteria are eaten by the larvae and they then die from the toxins that the bacteria produce. The bacteria are suggested by the EPA and are thought to be safe and effective. You can read more on their website. My main concern with this type of control would be the effects to other native insects, so use with caution and weigh your options!
Here's a great video that you watch about their life cycle
I know that mosquitoes are a pain, but they are also biologically important. The best control you can do is prevention. If you can't prevent them, then knowing about their biology and their butt snorkel physiology can help in treating for them. Besides, now you have a cool nature fact to drag out at those summer picnics!
Stay tuned for more insect abdomen posts. Mosquitoes aren't the only ones with unique posterior appendages and uses. Female crickets have funky ovipositors (egg laying tube) and turtles can absorb oxygen and breathe through their butts! Biology is awesome.
Stink Bugs: Will They Bite and How Can I Get Rid of Them?
Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs
Stink bugs are one of those creatures everyone sees, but no one really understands or likes, and for good reason. The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halyes), also known by BMSB, first showed up in the US around 2001 in Pennsylvania. It's thought to have been brought in with either fruits or fruit trees of some sort. As a native to Eastern Asia it is truly an invasive. Even in its home countries, it's a pest, including in Japan, Korea, and China. In the last decade or so they have invaded over thirty-four states in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US, including Washington DC. They were first seen in Oregon and out west around 2004 and since then they've spread in California and other states.
I'm going to call these guys stink bugs for now because Brown Marmorated Stink Bug sounds good, but it's long to type and BMSB just looks funny. The stink bugs we're talking about are mostly brown or marbled brown and tan on top and whitish grey on bottom. They are usually about 1" long as adults, smaller as nymphs. They belong to the Hemiptera, or "true bug" family, and more specifically, to the suborder called Heteroptera. That's not to say that there are false bugs, but true bugs are "typical insects" with the usual set up of body parts and legs. Hemiptera, also, all have piercing mouth parts (bug sippy straws). Stink bugs and Heteropterns also have a special set of wings (Heteropera means "different wings" in Greek). Their type of wings are calledhemelytra. The wing part nearest their head is leathery while the part near their rear is membranous like the wings of a dragonfly. If you look carefully at the stink bug's back you can see a large X. It's this X that lets you know it's in the hemiptera family. There are two triangles formed by the X, one near the head, and one near the rear. The one near the rear is the set of membranous wings folded up. X marks the spot when you're looking for all true bugs.
To be sure you're looking at a brown marmorated stink bug, and not a native US species, be sure to look for the white bands that are on their antennae. There should be one near the antennae joint, and sometimes a smaller one or two closer to the head.
When talking with friends and "non-bug-folks", some of the first questions they ask are:
1. Do stink bugs bite? Nope, you're safe. If you look closely at these little home (and crop) invaders, you'll see that they have a straw like projection that tucks up under their head. This is a sucking proboscis. It can pierce the flesh of fruit, such as apples, pears, and peaches, so it's not out of the question that it could give you a short poke or stab, but this is rare. They don't sting either.
There are other Hemipterans that can give a much worse poke than the stink bug. Check out this picture of an Assassin bug sucking the life juices from a beetle.
The Gastric Mills of Crayfish and Other Crustaceans
"Chew All Your Food Dear....With Your Stomach!"
It's not often that you can wax poetic about the chewing, grinding, and digesting of invertebrates, but here goes. Many crustaceans are highly specialized for their aquatic lifestyle. Inside their digestive system they have a unique stomach that is called the GASTRIC MILL. The gastric mill is found in crabs, lobsters, crayfish, barnacles, krill, and many others. These invertebrates don't have teeth in their mouth to grind their food, so they process it a bit differently. Their claws rip and tear apart their food (mostly plants and animals), their mandibles (or mouth parts) shred the food down a bit more, and then it is passed on to the digestive tract. The gastric mill functions a bit like a gizzard in a bird, but unlike a gizzard which has rocks and sand for grinding the food, the gastric mill has strong muscles which are folded into ridges that increases surface area for absorption and helps in mechanical breakdown of the food.
Depending on the species of crustacean some have ossicles or calcified plate-like structures in the stomach (much like the flat surfaces of molars) while others have chitenous gastric teeth. Chiten is the same material that the arthropods shells are made out of, and is very strong. In some cases, after going through the gut, food particles may still be too large or hard to break down, then the particles may be ejected back out of the mouth and reprocessed. In many crustaceans, there is a set of glands within the stomach to help with digestive absorption and secretion.
I’ve been asked by quite a few readers to explain why I chose the name “Infinite Spider” for my blog, and what the symbol means. So in this post, I have partnered with Anne Littlewolf to give you a bit of information about this symbol and the name of this blog.
As the Bard so rightly said, “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet”. But roses and spiders seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of human emotion. Roses make us fall in love, spiders send us into a screaming panic (OK, sometimes the two resemble each other) searching for shoes, rolled up paper, fly swatters and other such ammunition. It’s guaranteed to get you lots of adoration if you rescue your partner from the dreaded Arachnidus Superbadus. So why name this blog after a spider? And why do we have such loathing for spiders and their kinfolk? Yes, they are small and hairy, and they have far too many eyes and fangs… but really? Most are less than ¼” in size?