Recent Photos

by Carl Strang

Time to bring out a backlog of photos from the first half of August. First, a couple bumble bees from my last day on the job at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

This Bombus auricomus was huge, practically dwarfing the carpenter bees working nearby. She must have been a new queen, stocking up for her long winter wait.

This Bombus auricomus was huge, practically dwarfing the carpenter bees working nearby. She must have been a new queen, stocking up for her long winter wait.

Nearby, this yellow bumble bee Bombus fervidus also worked the wild bergamot.

Nearby, this yellow bumble bee Bombus fervidus also worked the wild bergamot.

The remaining photos are from a few days’ bouncing around in singing insect surveys.

This oblong-winged katydid peeked out through a hole in the vegetation in the late dusk at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

This oblong-winged katydid peeked out through a hole in the vegetation in the late dusk at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

This mottled sand grasshopper at Kankakee Sands was my first for Newton County, Indiana.

This mottled sand grasshopper at Kankakee Sands was my first for Newton County, Indiana.

Female Carolina ground crickets are distinctive with their short ovipositors. This one posed at Subat Forest Preserve, Kendall County.

Female Carolina ground crickets are distinctive with their short ovipositors. This one posed at Subat Forest Preserve, Kendall County.

Fresh Mayslake Insects

by Carl Strang

An alertness to the small things, backed by a bit of knowledge, can add interest and beauty to a walk in the wild places.

The forage looper, like so many moths, has a subtle beauty that rewards scrutiny.

The forage looper, like so many moths, has a subtle beauty that rewards scrutiny.

This tiny geometrid is the red twin-spot, and was an addition to the Mayslake Forest Preserve species list when I found it last week.

This tiny geometrid is the red twin-spot, and was an addition to the Mayslake Forest Preserve species list when I found it last week.

Insect behavior also is worthy of study, especially when it is odd.

This guy was acting for all the world like a Laphria bumble bee mimic robber fly. It perched on the tip of a Liatris stalk, frequently turning to scan its surroundings, occasionally moving to another stalk.

This guy was acting for all the world like a Laphria bumble bee mimic robber fly. It perched on the tip of a Liatris stalk, frequently turning to scan its surroundings, occasionally moving to another stalk.

It was not a fly, however. No beak, a fat rather than flattened abdomen, and once it spread its wings and revealed two on each side. This was in fact a bumble bee. Why the odd behavior?

My, what big eyes you have, Grandpa! This is a drone. Of the species known to occur at Mayslake, it seems most likely to be Bombus fervidus, the yellow bumble bee.

My, what big eyes you have, Grandpa! This is a drone. Of the species known to occur at Mayslake, it seems most likely to be Bombus fervidus, the yellow bumble bee.

The odd behavior implies this was a male on the make. His search was not for prey, but for a passing queen of his kind. His is not a highly abundant species at Mayslake, so he may have to wait a while.

Bioblitz Species Hunt

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I introduced last weekend’s bioblitz at Connor Prairie in Indiana. My focus as a bioblitz participant is on singing insects, of course, but those are few early in June, even as far south as Indianapolis. Not to worry, though. There were teams focusing on many groups of organisms, but others had no specialists to address them, so I enjoyed filling in where I could. Odonata were one such group.

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Powdered dancer

Powdered dancer

After much pondering, I concluded this was a female cobra clubtail. Indiana has a similar species, the handsome clubtail, but certain details ruled it out.

After much pondering, I concluded this was a female cobra clubtail. Indiana has a similar species, the handsome clubtail, but certain details ruled it out.

For instance, the C-shaped line at the top of the side of the thorax is connected, and apparently too thick for a handsome clubtail.

For instance, the C-shaped line at the top of the side of the thorax is connected, and apparently too thick for a handsome clubtail.

I also saw three bumblebee species.

Bombus fervidus was an easy ID.

Bombus fervidus was an easy ID.

There was a butterfly team, but I took advantage of photo ops that presented themselves.

Variegated fritillary

Variegated fritillary

Nevertheless, my main interest was singing insects. I found 4 species, and botany team leader Scott Namestnik added a 5th.

Green-striped grasshoppers were common, as were spring field crickets.

Green-striped grasshoppers were common, as were spring field crickets.

I saw a single sulfur-winged grasshopper. Scott ran across a pocket of Roesel’s katydid nymphs. Connor Prairie is about even with the Crawfordsville area where I found Roesel’s a couple years ago. So far, none have turned up farther south in Indiana.

The final species is worth a blog post all its own (to be continued).

Odd Bee, and Tour de France Catalpas

by Carl Strang

In the late afternoon of July 4 I was looking out the kitchen window at my prairie garden plots. Bumblebees, Bombus bimaculatus, were swarming the Culver’s root

and wild bergamot.

They were not showing very good fidelity, individual bees frequently going between the flower species rather than sticking to one. Then I saw a bee that immediately sent me grabbing for my camera. Like the bimaculatus it was moving between Culver’s root and bergamot.

This bee was almost all yellow.

What was wrong about it was the black abdominal segment in the middle of the yellow. If not for that, I would have passed it off as a Bombus fervidus. But fervidus should have a black strip between the wings, as in this one I photographed last year:

I did a web search, and found a photo of a bee somewhat similar to this one at a University of Illinois website. It was identified as an aberrant male Bombus bimaculatus. The eyes of the one in my yard seemed small, however, for a male.

Also, it seems early in the season for males to appear unless, as I suspect from last year’s observations, bimaculatus is limited to the early part of the year and is replaced by another short-tongued species, B. impatiens, in the latter part of the season. I decided to resolve this problem by creating an account in Beespotter and submitting my photos to the specialists there. I’ll report back with the results later.

P.S. In last night’s TV coverage of the Tour de France, the broadcast announcers’ table was placed in front of some catalpa trees in bloom. The British and American announcers all wondered aloud at one point what the trees were. I’m not sure which catalpa species it was, but clearly these or their ancestors had been transplanted from North America to that location in Spa, Belgium, for their floral display at this time of year.

Progress on Bumblebees

by Carl Strang

Earlier I posted some background on bumblebees . I find that I made an error or two there, I since have found additional species at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and also some added web sites specific to Illinois bumblebees that have helped immensely. The total list for Mayslake at this point includes 5 species, and I showed a photo from Fullersburg Woods of a 6th, Bombus vagans, in that earlier post. There are 9 species total for Illinois, of which 2 are rare. (Here I am not counting the nest-parasite “cuckoo bumblebees,” of which there are 2, but which I have not yet encountered). To this point in the season, the most common species has been Bombus bimaculatus, both at Mayslake and in my garden at home. It has a yellow thorax except for a black dot on top, the first (basal) abdominal segment is yellow, the second segment is yellow in the center front edge but black on the ends and back edge. Otherwise the abdomen is black.

Bombus bimaculatus 2b

The patch of yellow on the second segment often is small and hidden by the wings, so care is needed to distinguish bimaculatus from another common species (though perhaps less common locally than I implied in that earlier post), Bombus impatiens. The main difference from bimaculatus is that the yellow on impatiens’ abdomen is confined to the first segment.

Bombus impatiens queen 2b

One correction I need to make to that earlier post is that the dead bumblebee I featured was not Bombus fervidus after all. That bee had a black basal abdominal segment, where in fervidus the first 4 segments all are yellow. I have found a few live members of the dead bee’s species at Mayslake.

Bombus auricomus 10b

This is Bombus auricomus, which is regarded as “uncommon” in Illinois. Here, the first segment is entirely black, segments 2 and 3 entirely yellow. The sides of the thorax are black, and as the next photo shows, there is a large black area in the center of the dorsal (top) thorax.

Bombus auricomus 2b

At Mayslake I have seen only a few of these, always in the same place, so I believe there is only one colony of them on the preserve. Compared to other bumblebees they are large and very active. Bombus fervidus is at Mayslake, too.

Bombus fervidus 3b

Here you can see that the basal segment also is yellow, as is the entire thorax except for a black band across the back between the wings. In that earlier post I mentioned the ecological significance of differences in tongue lengths among species. Get a load of the tongue length on that fervidus!

Bombus fervidus tongue b

The 5th Mayslake species to date is Bombus griseocollis.

Bombus griseocollis swamp milkweed 3b

In this one the forward edge of the second abdominal segment is orange, but the back edge is black. The color on the second segment extends closer to the edge than it did in bimaculatus.

Bombus vagans, which I have seen at Fullersburg but not yet at Mayslake, has the first two abdominal segments yellow all the way to the back edge.

Bombus vagans 1b

That leaves only one species of bumblebee which is said to be common in Illinois but which I have not yet observed: Bombus pensylvanicus (listed in some references as B. americanorum). That one is most similar to B. auricomus, but typically has the top rear part of the thorax black or orange, and the first abdominal segment has some yellow on its rear edge.

Here are some web references. For a really nice diagrammatic comparison of these color patterns you can download a pdf file called “Bumble Bees of Illinois and Missouri”. A site with additional identification and ecological information is the beespotter site.

Bumblebees

by Carl Strang

Bumblebees are fascinating insects, and I have much to learn about them. So far I slowly am getting a handle on some of the local species. It happens that they are generally easy to distinguish through their different arrangements of yellow and black fur. I call it fur; it certainly holds in heat generated by their flight muscles, allowing them to range through temperate climates into the Arctic. I remember seeing bumblebees on my study area in western Alaska. In our area the most common species may be Bombus impatiens. Here is a queen of that species.

Bombus impatiens queen 2b

Bombus impatiens is marked by the thorax being almost entirely yellow, especially on the sides, and by the black abdomen with only the first segment yellow. The queens are all you see early in the season. Only they survived the winter. By June their much smaller daughters are visiting flowers. I suspect this may be why Solomon’s seal (mentioned yesterday) waits to bloom until now. The tiny faces of bumblebee workers just fit in the suspended flowers of that species. I doubt that a queen could manage it.

Ecological studies of bumblebees emphasize tongue length, with different species subdividing the range of flower sizes accordingly. B. impatiens, being a generalist, has an intermediate tongue length. As I get a handle on the species I will want to learn about this difference and see which bumblebees visit which local flowers. Here is Bombus vagans, which I photographed visiting wingstem at Fullersburg a couple years ago.

Bombus vagans 1b

Note that it has two yellow abdominal segments. It also is larger than impatiens. The next shot illustrates the significance of tongue length.

Bombus vagans 2b

A third species is Bombus fervidus. This one I haven’t caught in action. The photo is of a dead one I found on the trail at Tri-County State Park.

Bombus fervidus 3b

Note the large black area on the thorax and the mostly yellow abdomen. I have seen it at Mayslake, as well. In recent days the picture has become a little clouded as I have found another species at Mayslake that is very close to impatiens, and so needs close study to distinguish it.

Bombus bimaculatus 2b

Bombus bimaculatus has the first abdominal segment yellow plus the central part of the second segment. The feet are yellow, as is a tuft of hairs on the top of the head, barely visible in the next photo.

Bombus bimaculatus 3b

Those last minute features help distinguish it from another species, B. griseocollis, which I have yet to find.

Here is a website with a key to bumblebees of Wisconsin, which I have found helpful in making identifications.

Early Insects

by Carl Strang

Large insects are beginning to appear at Mayslake Forest Preserve. For some weeks I have been seeing mourning cloaks, which overwintered as adults.

Mourning Cloak b

The above photo I took at Fullersburg last year. Another butterfly that overwinters as an adult is the eastern comma. This one at Mayslake apparently had a close call, probably with a bird. Note the missing section from the left hind wing.

Eastern comma b

There have been some orange sulfurs, which overwintered in the pupal stage.

Orange sulfur b

Their close relatives the cabbage whites have been common all over the preserve. Earlier  I celebrated the arrival of the first common green darner dragonflies, migrants from the South. The first locally emerging dragonfly I saw was this male common whitetail at Mayslake last week.

Common whitetail immature male b

He is recognizable to species and gender by his wing pattern, but he has newly emerged and so still has the immature coloration on his abdomen. The first mature Mayslake damselflies were eastern forktails.

Eastern forktail male b

The above photo of a mature male is from a few years ago, I believe at Songbird Slough, but this is our most common and widely distributed damselfly.

I have not had good luck photographing bumblebee queens this spring. Bombus impatiens has been common, and I saw one Bombus fervidus near the friary on May 22, at the same honeysuckle bush that hosted two of these:

Carpenter bee 2b

This is the large carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica.

The first monarch butterfly arrived at Mayslake this week.

Monarch 2009 1b

This individual is too clean to have made the trip all the way to Mexico and back. It is an offspring of those that wintered down there, made part of the journey back north, and laid their eggs on milkweed plants they found in the southwestern U.S. I shake my head in amazement at the instincts that guide these insects, with their pinhead brains, through journeys last made by their great grandparents.

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