Archive for the Butterflies Category

IN SEARCH OF A HOLY GRAIL

Posted in Butterflies, Flies, Insects, Virginia on August 22, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

Last week, on a drizzly Thursday morning, I drove out to Cherry Orchard Bog Natural Area Preserve with my friends and colleagues Anne Wright and Paul Bedell. Straddling a power line right-of-way near the Sussex-Prince George County line, this preserve features a coastal plain acidic seep that supports an amazing assemblage of rare plants, some of which bloom in late summer.  The Virginia Natural Heritage Program staff uses prescribed burns here to prevent trees, shrubs, and woody vines from choking this open wetland, and to restore and maintain this rare plant habitat. However, after yet another extended summer drought here in Virginia, surface water was nowhere in evidence.

My goal was to photograph and collect late summer beetles, while Anne and Paul focused their efforts on odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) and robber flies (Asilidae). Few beetles were out and about, so I strapped on my camera gear and knee-pads and turned my attention to photographing other insects and spiders.

Several tall and luxurious patches of sweet-scented joe pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum, grew smack dab in the middle of the power line right-of-way. These nectar-rich flowers were magnets for all kinds of insects (other than beetles!), including several species of butterflies. A dozen or so each of large showy eastern tiger swallowtails and monarch butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom, occasionally unfurling their probosces to imbibe the flower’s sweet offerings.

I decided to head into the adjacent woods by following a fire line that snaked along the edge of a recent prescribed burn. I scanned the lush wall of vegetation that delimited the surrounding woods from the burn in hopes of finding multi-legged creatures. Nearly half an hour elapsed and all I had to show for my photographic efforts was a young Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) and a black-and-yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia).

I saw a flash of shiny black wings among the foliage. My first thought was that it might be a mourning scorpionfly, but then it became clear that it was a female robber fly (family Asilidae) dining on a small wasp. I am no robber fly expert, but this particular fly reminded me of the genus Laphria, some of which are bee or wasp mimics.

Just as I was about to take a photograph, she was gone. Fortunately, I saw her land on a nearby leaf and she was still very much in possession of her lifeless prey. I leaned in to take the shot and, with the burst of my flash, she took to the air again. I watched intently as the shiny black fly flitted along the wood’s edge and landed on another leaf. Again, I slowly inched my camera toward her and watched her black shiny body fill up the frame of my viewfinder. And again, the flash of my camera caused her to fly away and into the burn area. I tracked her through several more landings on the low growth before she landed on a log. I took my third and last shot and she was gone. During the pursuit, a slightly smaller individual of the same species, possibly a male, also crossed my path.

I slowly walked all the way around the edge of the burn and back to the car, but saw no more robber flies. I told Paul that I had photographed what I thought to be a Laphria, but he said that the dark wings didn’t really fit any Virginia species in that genus. Paul would certainly know since he had recently published the first annotated checklist of the 115 species robber flies known to occur in Virginia (Bedell, 2010). I promised to post my best photo of the fly in question on my Facebook page as soon as I returned home.

Eric Fisher

Once posted, Paul suggested that it might be the very rare Orthogonis stygia, a species not yet known to occur in Virginia. I sent Paul all three of my images and he forwarded them to Eric Fisher for confirmation. Eric, a dipterist and asilid expert (and fellow alumni of Cal State Long Beach) quickly confirmed Paul’s identification and another new state record for Virginia.

Stanley Bromley (1931) first described this pompilid wasp mimic from three specimens collected in June; two of the specimens were from North Carolina and Mississippi, while the origin of the third specimen was unknown to him.  Another specimen was later recorded from Florida (Bromley, 1950).  Since then, specimens of this exceptionally rare species have been found in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas (Taber & Fleenor, 2003; Barnes et al., 2007).

Paul and I returned to the site only two days after I snapped my photos and searched several hours for Orthogonis. Although our efforts were in vain, we have not given up! Stay tuned for further developments

References

Barnes, J. K., N. Lavers, and H. Raney. 2007. Robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae) of Arkansas, U.S.A.: Notes and a checklist. Entomological News 118: 241-258.

Bedell, P. 2010. A preliminary list of the robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae) of Virginia. Banisteria 36: 3-19.

Bromley, S.W. 1931. New asilidae with a revised key to the genus Stenopogon Loew: (Diptera). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 24: 427-435.

Bromley, S.W. 1950. Florida Asilidae (Diptera) with description of one new species. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 43: 227-239.

Taber, S.W., and S.B. Fleenor. 2003. Range extension, habitat, and review of the rare robber fly Orthogonis stygia (Bromley). Southwestern Entomologist 29: 85-87.

For more information on robber flies visit:

Asilidae (Robber Flies) Page. A Page by Roy Beckemeyer <http://www.windsofkansas.com/Basilidae/asilid.html

Family Asilidae – Robber Flies <http://bugguide.net/node/view/151/bgpage>

Giff Beaton’s Robber Flies (Asilidae) of Georgia and the Southeast http://www.giffbeaton.com/Robber%20Flies.htm>

Robber Flies <http://hr-rna.com/RNA/Robber%20main%20page.htm>

Robber Flies (Asilidae) <http://www.geller-grimm.de/asilidae.htm>

The Robber Flies of Crowley’s Ridge, Arkansas. An Illustrated Guide by Norman Lavers http://normanlavers.net/>

Advertisements

ONE SMALL STEP FORTY-TWO YEARS AGO

Posted in Beetles, Butterflies, California, Insects, Moths, Musings on July 20, 2011 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

I grew up on the southwestern fringes of the Mojave Desert in Southern California, just a stone’s throw from the land of The Right Stuff. My summers were punctuated by weeklong family camping trips to the mountains and the coast. Dad preferred the rugged lushness of the Sierra Nevada, especially along the waterways that spilled off its eastern slopes down to the desert environs of the Owens Valley below. Mom loved the beach, so we would spend another week camped out at Morro Bay or Pismo Beach, both located along California’s Central Coast.

In July of 1969, we spent a week in the Oceano Campground at Pismo Beach State Park, which just happens to be a well-known overwintering site for monarch butterflies. I can still smell the heavy canvas of our baby blue and olive-drab tents heated by the sun as it burned through the last bits of morning fog. I spent every possible moment exploring the freshwater lagoon, coastal dunes, and beach in search of insects and other invertebrates. California ctenucha moths, Ctenucha rubroscapus flitted about the flowers and grasses sprouting up on the dunes. Several diurnal and non-bioluminescent fireflies, Ellychnia californicarested on the flowers growing among the stinging nettles that lined the shore of  the lagoon. Red admirals, western tiger swallowtails, and a dizzying array of dragonflies flew hither and yon, all seemingly daring me to capture them. And I did just that with my recently acquired homemade insect net fashioned from a broom handle, a heavy wire coat hanger, and a net bag made of cheesecloth.

In those days I kept my insect collection in sturdy cardboard cigar boxes. King Edward Imperials housed my butterflies and moths, while the dragonflies were stored in a White Owl box. A Roi-Tan Panatelas box protected my true bugs, cicadas, grasshoppers, and katydids. All of my beetles were neatly arranged in a box that once held Swisher Sweets and the Dutch Masters box served as a catchall for everything else. I can still smell that pungent aroma of tobacco mingled with mothballs!

Earlier that week, on the morning of 16 July, Apollo 11 had set off on its historic flight to put men on the moon and return them safely to Earth. The astronaut’s first steps on the lunar surface, interspersed with simulations, would be televised early on the evening of Sunday, 20 July. Fortunately, I would have access to a television by then because that was the day we would return home.

The promise of seeing and collecting still more insects AND watching men on the moon on television was pretty heady stuff for a 12 year-old! The night was shaping up to be hot and uncharacteristically humid and promised an excellent night for insect activity. I turned on the mercury vapor street light mounted on the garage wall. Dad had installed the bright blue light partly to illuminate the front of the house, and partly to attract insects for me. I quickly discovered that it was a beacon for nocturnal insects!

My plan for the evening was to dash from the light to the television and back to watch both spectacles unfold. It wasn’t even dark yet when Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the Lunar Module and slowly descended down the ladder to utter those now-famous words, all captured on fuzzy black and white, yet still quite memorable video. Throughout the evening, between bouts of nighttime bugs, I watched in awe as Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin bounced across the lunar surface to collect samples and conduct experiments. Just a few years later, I had the opportunity to meet Buzz Aldrin and get his autograph after he gave a lecture on his lunar experience at the annual Kern-Antelope Historical Society banquet held in Rosamond, California.

As night descended, thousands of insects of all sorts swarmed to the bright bluish light, zooming around it as if they, too, were satellites orbiting a heavenly body. My eyes, ears, and nose were simultaneously assaulted by the flappings and scratchings of chitinous wings and appendages. Undeterred, I dove into the swarm from time-to-time to scoop up select specimens off the rough stucco wall. Some of the more notable insects that I saw that night included many white-line sphinx moths, several California prionus, and a raft of 10-lined June beetles.

For those who did not experience the Apollo 11 mission as it took place, it is difficult to imagine the nearly global excitement generated by the landing of men on the moon. I was lucky enough see this epic event on television. I still get a little verklempt when I watch the video some 42 years later and will forever remember that warm summer night all those many years ago and its promise and deliverance of new and exciting things here on Earth and beyond.

References on California insects

Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue, 2004. Introduction to California Beetles. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue, 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA.

Powell, J.A. and P.A. Opler, 2009. Moths of Western North America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Powell, J.A. and C.L. Hogue, 1979. California Insects. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

For more information on Apollo 11 and its mission see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11

http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/history/apollo/apollo11/index.html

http://www.lpi.usra.edu/lunar/missions/apollo/apollo_11/

http://history.nasa.gov/ap11ann/kippsphotos/apollo.html

CAN YOU SAY OSMETERIUM?

Posted in Butterflies, Defense, Education with tags , , , , , , , on September 16, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

This summer a cadre of dedicated parents and volunteers joined forces at a nearby elementary school to create an outdoor classroom. The Holton Learning Project Garden includes a vegetable and butterfly garden that will introduce Holton Elementary School students, their families, and the residents of Belleview and beyond to the pleasures and benefits of urban gardening.

Compared to the dreary, sterile plantings of exotic trees, shrubs, and groundcovers found throughout much of the neighborhood, the vegetable and nascent butterfly garden has rapidly become a local hot spot for insects and spiders. As such, it provides an excellent site for macro photgraphy. Since August, I have endeavored to photograph as many of its multi-legged denizens as possible as part of an ongoing effort to document the arthropod diversity of my neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia.

While walking through the garden yesterday afternoon, I noticed several clumps of green spikes rising sadly from the straw-covered beds. I soon confirmed my initial suspicions as to the identity of the culprits that laid these once fat bunches of parsley to waste. At the very base of one of the clumps were two brightly banded larvae of the black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, polishing off the last few leaves.

When I knelt down to photograph the ravenous caterpillars, I accidentally brushed up against their food plant. Both caterpillars reacted immediately by assuming defensive postures. Bent over backwards, they spit up green fluid and produced a pair of long tentacles (osmeterium), that resembled bright orange horns. Soon my nostrils were filled with a strong, disagreeable odor that is best described as “spicy vomit.”

The osmeterium consists of two soft, finger-like tubes that are everted from inside the body through a slit in the prothorax just behind the head as a result of  increased blood pressure. This defensive gland is found in the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies and is coated with highly noxious chemical compounds (2-methylbutyric acid and isobutyric acid) that deter predators, especially ants.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

A BEVY OF BUCKEYES

Posted in Butterflies, Insects, Virginia with tags , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

For the past month or so, Virginia has been awash with the Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia. The name Junonia is derived from the diminutive form of the Greek Juno, Zeus’ consort, while the specific epithet, coenia, comes from the Greek kionos meaning common. With six distinct eyespots on their wings, these handsome and energetic insects cannot be confused with any other butterfly species in the Commonwealth.

Their rapid, low, and somewhat erratic flight consists of fluttering strokes occasionally interrupted by meandering glides usually of no more than a foot off the ground. When alarmed, Common Buckeyes are capable of taking to the air in a rapid and sustained flight. They sip nectar from a variety of flowers and frequently rest in open, sunny spots in neighborhoods, parks, wetlands, fields, roadsides, and other open habitats with plenty of low-growing vegetation.

The orange-headed and metallic blue-spined caterpillars are highly variable in color and pattern. They feed on plants in several families and are especially fond of those in the snapdragon (Scrophulariaceae) and acanthus (Acanthaceae) families.

Although they occur throughout the United States, Common Buckeyes only persist in the frost-free southern and eastern halves of the country; individuals observed in the Great Lakes States, New England, and southern Canada are migrants. In eastern United States, these butterflies are in evidence throughout the winter in Florida and the coastal regions of southeastern and Gulf States.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

FALCATE ORANGETIPS

Posted in Butterflies, Environment, Insects, Virginia with tags , , , , , , , on April 5, 2010 by Dr. Art Evans

By Arthur V. Evans

After a few false starts spring has finally arrived here in central Virginia, and not a moment too soon. In hopes of seeing some examples of the early spring insect fauna, I recently set out on a warm, sunny day for the James River Park near the 42nd Street entrance.

The orange and slightly hooked wing-tips were the unmistakable field marks of the male falcate orangetip, Anthocharis midea, the only species of orangetip butterfly found in the eastern United States.

The latest floodwaters from spring rains had only just receded, leaving a thin and dusty film of silt and debris high above the river’s usual channel in the park. Just past the flood residue, small plants had raised their tiny blossoms high to lure the season’s first pollen- and nectar-loving insects.

As I wandered upriver toward the Nickle Bridge, a flash of white with a hint of rich orange crossed my path. It slowly yet deliberately flitted about the freshly emerged sprigs of green that populated the edges of the path before finally settling for just a moment or two on a small flower. The orange and slightly hooked wing-tips were the unmistakable field marks of the male falcate orangetip, Anthocharis midea, the only species of orangetip butterfly found in eastern United States.

The females lack the orange patch, but are otherwise similar in appearance to the males. The wings of both sexes are mostly white; the underside of the hind wing bears a finely marbled yellowish-brown pattern. From tip to tip, their wings span no more than one-and-a-half inches across.

Falcate orangetips are among the first butterflies to emerge from their pupae in spring. Widespread in Virginia, they are found in a variety of habitats, including parks, rocky mountain outcrops, open deciduous and mixed pine-oak woodlands, sandhills, and floodplain forests, especially along stream and river courses.

Females lay their greenish-yellow eggs singly on the flowers of various cresses and other members of the mustard family. The eggs soon turn red and hatch into ravenous larvae that devour mostly seed pods, buds, and flowers, and not leaves. Because of the limited number of reproductive structures on each food plant, larger caterpillars will not hesitate to eat their smaller brethren to reduce competition for meager food resources.

Mature caterpillars are green or blue-green and sprinkled with shiny dark plates bearing short bristles. A yellow stripe runs down the length of the back, while a broad white stripe runs from the head and along each side and meet on its backside. The winter is spent, sometimes two, as a narrow chrysalis that is sharply pointed on both ends.

Don’t hesitate to look for these attractive insects in an open woodland or bottomland forest near you. By early June the falcate orangetips will all be gone, and you will have to wait until the following spring for the next generation to once again make their brief and welcome appearance as heralds of spring.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

%d bloggers like this: