Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Recap: Midwest Native Plants Conference 2012

This weekend was a complete rush for me. Finally, after an entire year of waiting, it was time to attend the 2012 Midwest Native Plants Conference. This conference brings together gardeners, naturalists, and scientists from all walks of life for three days to learn about the ecology of native plants and their effects on other wildlife, such as birds and insects. It's a magical time, full of interesting people and lots of knowledge jam packed into the Bergamo Center outside of Dayton, Ohio.

This year's speakers included: Cheryl Harner, who spoke about native plants as habitat; Ian Adams, who wowed us with beautiful pictures of dragonflies and damselflies; Marielle Anzelone, who taught us that there's a lot of botany to find in New York City, and the keynote speaker, David Wagner, the man who literally wrote the book on caterpillars. Not one session went by without multiple gasps of excitement from the crowd--these were top notch speakers. This isn't even mentioning the myriad of breakout sessions available, which covered topics from Pollinators by Jim McCormac to Conifers by David Brandenburg. The organizers behind this conference sure do know how to pick some engaging speakers.

Sitting in a room listening to some smart people speak is all well and good, but at some point, you've gotta get out into the field and search for the stuff the smart people are talking about. Thankfully, the conference featured multiple day trips and night hikes to satiate that need. A wonderful collection of insects were found on these trips, as the following photos show.

Jim McCormac talks about the singing insects to a group of 77 people: the biggest group of people ever had on the night hike!

David Wagner shows off a conehead katydid, careful to watch for its mandibles.

How could it be a successful hike without an assassin bug? This spiny assassin bug (Sinea sp.) was hiding on Eupatorium perfoliatum, also known as boneset.

This Delicate Cycnia (Cycnia tenera) was hiding on milkweed.

It's important to remain vigilant if you're an insect checking out Queen Anne's Lace: sometimes an ambush bug (Phymata sp.) will be waiting for you! They're masters of flower camouflage.

What discussion of camouflage would be complete without including the stick insects? These phasmids are a sight to behold, and you may be surprised at their size. This one isn't even fully grown.

I can't stress enough how beautiful it is to watch a cicada molt. This annual cicada (Tibicen sp.) is showing off its lovely wings--they really do have a blue hue to them immediately after molting. 

What's great about being surrounded by experts is that they'll let you know when you come across something rare. So when we came upon a lemon beauty of a caterpillar, Jim stepped up and told us more about it.

On our first nature walk, we came across a patch of wild blue indigo, Baptisia australis, one of the host plants for the Genista broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversalis. One plant was providing habitat for a dozen of these caterpillars, leading us to conclude that its bright yellow color was a warning to birds that it sequesters toxins. This moth is starting to make inroads into Ohio, as it moves northward. It's probable that this range expansion has been caused by climate change. This species is more southern in distribution, but with the warming north, new habitat has opened up for it. For a more in-depth report of this caterpillar, check out Jim's blog post here.

This is a small snippet of what was happening at the conference. Despite all I've talked about here, the conference really was about plants, not insects. It just happens to be my luck that the insects are so intimately linked to the plants. If you haven't made it out to the conference before, start planning to attend: next year is sure to be even better.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What happens when you combine a butterfly and a dragonfly?

You end up with an adult antlion! Antlions are best known by their larvae, which are also called doodlebugs. They're normally noticed by the traps they set for other small insects, which appear as small cones in sandy areas. At the bottom of the cone lies the antlion, waiting for an unlucky ant to venture too close to the rim before falling to its death at the huge jaws of the antlion. There's no alternative: the sides of the cone are too slippery. The helpless ant will continue to slide down closer and closer to the antlion, before it's finally caught and sucked dry.

Since the larvae are often covered in sand,  you could be forgiven for not recognizing adult antlions upon encountering one. Their jaws aren't nearly as prominent, and puberty manifested some other huge changes.

A far cry from its doodlebug roots.

Being a member of the order Neuroptera (the lacewings), they gain beautiful wings as adults, easily as marvelous as any dragonfly. They're cooler even! When was the last time you saw a dragonfly with neat cowprint like this species has?

The veins in the wings also give the antlion a nice nerve-looking pattern.

This species is Glenurus gratus, a name which refers to the pleasing mottled pattern on the ends of the wings. It's an eastern species with a large wingspan, and it makes a presence when flying. I had the luck to find this antlion last night around my porch light, but had I not caught a glimpse of it, I never would have known it was there. It certainly looks huge when flying, but it barely makes any noise at all while flapping its gossamer wings. It's almost like watching plastic floating through the air. .....that's not the most inspiring comparison, but it's beautiful to watch. Definitely more beautiful than actual plastic floating through the air.

I jumped around like a madman trying to catch it, having only a plastic bug cage (I had just released a prionid beetle from the cage) with me, and it almost escaped into the darkness about five times before I had it. This was the first time I had actually seen an adult antlion, and it's now near the top of my list of beautiful insects. The wings might be the only beautiful part about it, but the way it flies is a spectacle in its own right. The novelty helps as well--the only Neuropterans I see with any frequency are the tiny green lacewings, which are bland in comparison.

Helicopter mode, engage!

The larvae of this species live in sawdust and other fine debris in the hollows of trees, and adults can be found in forests. If you admire the grace of butterflies and the fine beauty of dragonfly wings, you'd do well to seek out the adult antlions--you certainly won't be disappointed.

More information:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Science Video Friday - Ohio's Biggest Salamander

Ohio has its fair share of amphibians, but none as unique as the hellbender. This huge salamander is as big as you're going to find in the US, with some individuals reaching lengths of almost 2.5 feet. Usually though, they will grow to a little over a foot long. This species has a beautiful scientific name: Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. The genus name hints at its nifty way of breathing, meaning "hidden gill." While the hellbender has lungs, it can also absorb oxygen through folds in its skin, which look like wrinkles along its body.

Unfortunately, the hellbender is endangered throughout its range, causing concern for the species' survival. Scientists are working to reintroduce the hellbender to streams which it used to live in, and the first reintroduction of hellbenders occurred last month. It's hoped that these efforts will restore the hellbender to some of its former range and be the start of viable populations.

For more information about this release, the ODNR has more information.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Shiny Green Beetles Galore!

Ohio got pounded by the derecho two Fridays ago. I myself lost power, and the heat was terrible. But there was something good that came out of it!

June Beetles. June Beetles EVERYWHERE.

As I learned the next morning, Green June Beetles (Cotinis nitida) apparently like to emerge from the ground after a sustained rain, and boy did they come out! I saw at least a dozen in a small area, flying around a patch of clover and a fallen pine tree branch. 


The females that were around had to deal with many males vying for some action. For the good of the species, of course.

With all these beetles flying around, it was a miniature treasure hunt for me. I caught a few to keep under observation, and one to pin for my collection. It had been a few years since I had found any living June beetles, and they're so pretty, so I was fascinated. These guys are like tiny helicopters whizzing around in the air when they take flight. When I first saw them, I was a few meters away and thought they were bumblebees...until I figured out that those would have to be terrifyingly massive bumblebees. After I saw the first, I saw another, and another, and another! It's always neat to see so many insects together like that; it helps you remember how they outnumber us.

Now it's about a week later. I went out into my yard tonight to check on a pitfall trap I had set, then strolled around with my beating sheet checking trees and shrubs for other insects. I stumbled upon some poop (we have so many furry critters running around the backyard--this is a very common occurrence), crouched down to look for dung beetles, and heard a loud buzz next to me. To my delight, I was staring at another green June beetle!

Isn't that the most beautiful June beetle you've ever seen? It looks like a tiger with all those stripes! Just, wow! I haven't seen this color variation before, super neat. I tried to catch it, but it flew off right after I snapped this photo. My legs are no match for those tiny wings. 

If I'm lucky, it will be back and I'll have another chance. In the meantime, I'll be on the lookout for more June beetles, and hopefully I'll get more variety than the Phyllophaga species that keep flying to my light at night!