Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Ant and the Caterpillar

In Costa Rica I watched Bullhorn Ants living in close association with their acacia. The ants live in the huge hollow thorns of the tree and in addition to housing the tree offers all kinds of incentives to the ants, who in turn defend the Acacia against 'pests' like caterpillars that would love to chew on those beautiful feathery leaves. If you lean too closely into the tree those ants get ready to attack even a camera or a human hand. Vicious Pseudomyrmex ferruginea.
 I had great photos and lost them all to a computer bug that was even more vicious.

When the Velvet Mesquite is in bloom on the state land in Picture Rocks, Arizona, I spend a lot of time staring at the catkins. They are full of insect life, but most of it is both cryptic and tiny, including our smallest bees with the nice name Perdita, the lost one. To find one check the top of the catkin  in the right half of the picture above.

Pseudomyrmex sp. and Lycaenid caterpillars
 Today I saw an ant that was rather large and obvious by comparison. Its slim build and large eyes let me think of Pseudomyrmex apache that I had beaten off mesquite trees in Madera Canyon before. Drawn in by the ant I discovered two cryptic caterpillars of a Lycaenid Butterfly, probably a Marine Blue. They were sitting just as quietly as these guys usually are. Hard to tell if they were feeding or simply resting. The catkin was past its prime and probably not much of a resource anymore and the caterpillars big enough to pupate soon. The ant was standing above one of them, sometimes bobbing up and down, but mostly just excitedly trilling its antennae at the caterpillar.

Vanduzea laeta and Crematogaster Ants
Ants communicate with each other in this way, but I have also seen them 'talk' to other insects that serve them as honey-dew-cattle. Crematogaster (Acrobat Ants) can often be seen stroking Aphids or Leaf hoppers with their antennae. Those hemipterans suck fluid from the phloem of plants and eliminate the surplus as honey dew. Ants are crazy for sweets and tend and defend their hemipterans facefully.

But caterpillars? Dave Wagner states in his book Caterpillars of Eastern North America: 'It turns out that nearly half the worlds 5500 lycaenid species (blues, coppers, hairstreaks) is tended by ants. In some species the association is so tight that the ants even carry the caterpillars to and from their nests' (where some species turn into brood parasites) and back to the feedings site on the proper host plants. The caterpillars of ant tended species have dorsal nectar glands on the 7th abdominal segment. From those, they periodically release a sugary substance. Most feed on flowers or fruit so they have access to excess sugar. The caterpillars can even call for the ants by vibration, but I got the impression that my ant was also trying to stimulate the caterpillar. If predators attack the caterpillar the ants will probably defend it, but I think in the most primitive form of this symbiosis the caterpillar is simply paying off the ants who otherwise might be the most dangerous predators themselves. The six legged mafia.
I saw the ant leave a couple of times and climb deeper into the tree. Pseudomyrmex are arboreal ants so the nest was probably inside a hole of a tree branch. Even though it was close to sunset and the wind was gusting, again and again there was an ant sitting on the caterpillars. I never saw more than one, perhaps always the same individual.
To me it was a surprise that an ant of the same genus as the tree-garding Bull-horn Ants of Costa Rica would be in a close relationship with caterpillars in Arizona. 

To see a video of the ant with the caterpillars. Please click!

A nearby Catclaw Acacia was still in full bloom and females of Marine Blues were depositing their eggs. I assume that my caterpillars are of the same species.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Who needs Chihuli?

(we all do :)
It's been a while since my last post. With a small business like mine, tax time means a lot of work, and then I had two workshops to prepare and present, one at Butterfly Wonderworld in Scottsdale and one at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Both went over well, I think. I definitely enjoyed both locations for their spectacular beauty and the great groups they had attracted. While both events were a pleasure for me, the preparations too a lot of time. And on Saturday I'm off to a Mexico Expedition!
So here are just a few photos that I took during the Insect Photography Workshop that I taught in Phoenix.

Some of our group at work and a Chihuli glass sculpture. I had geared the class towards beginners with point-and-shoot cameras. Those were quite under-represented. But we did find that there is use for everything, even a smart phone.

Following is a series of highlights from the Gardens by the participants of the workshop and myself. (photos without attribution)

Beefly by Pete Moulton

Difficult Light and tiny Crab Spider

Intimate moment in the live of bees

Green Lacewing Eggs

Convergent Lady Beetle Larva

Ashy Lady Beetle

Reminiscent of expressionist Emil Nolde

The elusive Chrysobothris high up in a tree, but we got to watch some interesting behavior

Who turned the Cottonwood Leaves into lace?

More Chihuli

Oncopeltus sanguineolentus (Blood-colored Milkweed Bug)
This is a bug I really wanted to see: Apparently the host plant is Rush or Desert Milkweed - Asclepias subulata which is restricted to w. AZ, se. CA, and s. NV. in the U.S. In our area the Desert botanical Garden is the only place where this bug occurs. There were many of these and few Large and Small Milkweed Bugs. Were they out-competed?

My students wanted me to crop this more tightly, but  I like the complete version, which is unusual for me.
Disclaimer: The title is of course tongue in cheek. We all loved Chihuli's work and it greatly enhanced our visit. I was also told that it looks even better in the dark when it's illuminated. But I think the natural beauty of the Gardens is just very hard to beat.

Many thanks to the great people in the Garden's Adult Education Program who made this event possible and kept it running smoothly.The computer room in the Archer building is awesome for photography classes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The first Gambel's Quail chicks of the year!

Today we celebrated Randy's birthday with an early morning walk to the Red Tail Hawk nest. Finally, a chick, still white and fluffy, was visible. Of course we had the dogs with us and they discovered some great new toys: Our rodeo-riding neighbor had brought in a fresh herd of cattle.
So luckily everybody was nicely tired out when we returned home.

During our unusually calm entrance I noticed a male quail quietly guarding the corner of our brick patio. It made me curious, because these guys are usually boisterous and noisy. When I saw him slipping into a small raised bed of Barrio Petunias I was fairly sure that I would find a quail nest full of eggs in there.

The Barrio Petunias are among the few plants in our garden that we water regularly and generously. But before flooding whatever was in there, I wanted to carefully check. Well, not careful enough, because mom took off with a shriek. But when she was gone, I kept hearing little voices.

Quail nest some years ago in nearly the same location
 So I bent the plant stems apart. I didn't expect much of an actual nest. Quail really don't bother with a lot of nesting material, they just lay their many eggs in a tightly packed clutch on the ground. In this case, most or all of the eggs were empty shells already. But right next to them, something moved.

All the little hatchlings were still there, fresh out of the eggs but already dry and fluffy. I felt very privileged to witness this short moment that these precocious birds spend at the nest.

Can you see the little egg tooth on top of the beak? It's used to scrape open the eggshell from the inside, and is lost very soon after hatching.
The panicky exit of their mother had send some chicks hiding in the plants around the nest, but soon they all instinctively huddled together again in one tight clump. video click here

Being kids, they quickly forgot their scare and began pecking around, pecking at everything in their surroundings, including their siblings toes. I took some photos, resisting the idea to use the flash to brighten up the very deep shadows. The parents were calling close by, so I let them be. From a distance, I saw the female slip back under the Barrio Petunia. I know the family will not stay around the nest too long, they may be gone tomorrow.

Maybe I'll see them at the feeder or the bird bath, and hopefully in a bigger group than this one from last year.

When Randy checked the next morning, only broken egg shells were left behind. Empty Nest Syndrome!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Backyard Beauties in April

Fairy Duster seedpods with Santa Rita Prickly Pear background

Strawberry Hedgehog, Echinocereus engelmannii

Pencil Cholla, Cylindropuntia ramosissima

Hybrid between Beavertail and Santa Rita PP?

Texas Longthorn, Opuntia macrocentra

Another Hedgehog

Staghorn Cholla

Santa Rita Prickly Pear, Opuntia violaceae santa rita   

Chenille Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia aciculata).

Yellow Bird of Paradise


Catclaw Vine

Hybrid Palo Verde

Teddy Bear Cholla
Orange Bells, Tecoma alata

Barrio Petunia
Cat claw Vine
Texas Longthorn, Opuntia macrocentra

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March 2014 in Sabino Canyon

 I try to join Ned Harris and his naturalists tours in Sabino Canyon at least once a month. It's nice to be in like-minded company, even though I usually don't last very long in the group because I stop too often and too long for insects that are too small for most participants' eyes or camera lenses. 

This time, my first stop (before I met the group) was devoted to the resident Roadrunner.  When I found the nest, very well hidden in a Chain Fruit Cholla, I got a glimpse of some chicks and some as yet unhatched eggs. Roadrunners begin incubating right after the first egg is laid so the chicks are as different in size as organ pipes. Many birds with nestlings that are born blind, featherless and dependent on their parents (altricial) follow this strategy. For the youngest ones, this can be perilous. Their only chance of survival is a year with plenty of food. Under poor conditions the parents can decide to raise only the older, stronger siblings to ensure at least their survival. There seems to be a tuft of fur from a bunny or a rock squirrel tail in the nest. So this pair is bringing in rather big prey. That probably means good chances for all the chicks.

When I checked again on my way back, I was greeted by the angry stare of one of the parents. Altricial chicks are rarely left alone, and that means that in many species both parents share the nest duties.

Two lonely, very young Mallard chicks were dabbling in the small pond by the dam. They were contently feeding on the willow seeds that drifted into the water. Very different from roadrunners, ducks are precocious birds. The female only starts incubating after she has laid the whole clutch. So the chicks all hatch on approximately the same day even though some eggs are up to 2 weeks older than others. The chicks hatch with feathers, open eyes and ready to go. And they have to. The family, which means mother and chicks, the father is not involved, leaves the nest and the dangers of sedentary living and moves out right away. The two in the picture seemed actually to be on their own, no mother in sight. And yet, they still have a chance to grow up.

Rhagoletis sp. (Maggot Fly)
The first interesting insect was a little fruit fly that I had never seen before in the Tucson area. Some of these flies can become invasive destructive pests of agriculture. That's what those controls between CA and AZ are about, to stop the cross border transport of infected fruit. So I sent this photo to a friend who works at USAD. Just in case. We all thought that it looks quite similar to the Apple Maggot Fly, Rhagoletis pomonella (which would not find a lot of suitable food in Sabino, I'd say, not many rosacean plants there). Unlike the apple Maggot Fly, it has no white scutellum. Martin Hauser then pointed out that it could be  Procecidochares atra, in which case it would be a gall producer rather than a fruit maggot fly. As the common host, Golden Rod, doesn't grow at the elevation, I will be looking for similar galls on related plant species.

Dufourea sp. male on  Brittle Bush, Encelia farinosa

Dufourea sp. female
 In the canyon, Brittle Bush was still blooming where it thrives on water run-off from the road. The dominant bees here were Dufourea sp. in the Sweat Bee family Halictidae. 

Red and yellow Trichodes ornatus
 The bees were joined by a great number of Checkered Beetles, Clerids,  who were feeding on pollen and trying to find mates. Both striking color morphs were present, the bright yellow-black and the red-black version. The two forms mate freely and either color-type occurs in both sexes. I have no idea how the genetics work in this case.

Haplorhynchites planifrons
A greenish black Tooth-nosed Snout Weevil occurs every spring on the brittle bush flowers in Sabino, but I have yet to find it anywhere else. 

Acmaeodera sphaeralceae
The Metallic Wood-boring Beetle Acmaeodera sphaeralceae is also a springtime regular of Sabino Canyon, but before I've found it more often on Globe mallows.

Monoxia sordida
 A leaf beetle on Brittle Bush leaves turned out to be a new species for my photo collection. The species is one of a few in this difficult western genus with 16 to 18 species that can be identified from a photo.

Trirhabda sp., probably T. geminata
This other leaf beetle is so common on Brittle Bush that I find it every year, but its wing coloration is very variable, so the identifications on BugGuide have triggered a lot of discussion. Some years ago, I collected some in the larval stage and watched them for a while after the metamorphosis to the adult beetle: The wing pigmentation kept changing for weeks, way beyond the usual teneral stage. T. geminata seems to be the most likely species id. 

Some New Mexico Thistles were covered in Honey Bees, others hosted loads of Blister Beetles in the genus Nemognatha. 

I don't think the beetles would cause a problem for Honey Bees, but the solitary Diasdasia bee above was certainly in danger of picking up a beetle larvae that would then live as a cleptoparasite in her nest and feed on the provisions that she had accumulated for her own brood.

On this beautiful spring day, larvae and nymphs were everywhere. One of my favorites is the young Mexican  Bush Katydid. The adult Katydids are just green and have long wings.

  I also found the first hatched clutches of  Giant Mesquite Bugs, Thasus neocalifornicus, whose mother had left the eggs in a sheltered spot under the bark of a mesquite tree before the winter. These little guys will molt one more time and then, always as tight-nit  a group of siblings, try to reach the freshly thriving mesquite leaves.  I followed the life-cycle of Thasus in an earlier blog.

Lema daturaphila
Lema daturaphila eggs
Leafbeetles on the Datura plants in the shadow of the willows by the creek were starting the next generation.

Dolichodynerus tanynotus
 Just when the wind was kicking up in unpleasant gusts I found a couple of specimens of a rarely photographed Mason Bee. I wished my photos had come out better, but by then everything was too windswept.

Ornate Tree Lizards were trying to warm up on light colored rocks to get ready to pounce on all those bugs.

It was after noon when I was finally back on the tram road approaching the entrance, and I remembered the turn circle for school buses where we usually found Ironcross Blister Beetles at this time of the year. Maybe it's still too early, although the little blue star flowers that attract them were  blooming. 

Walking along with my eyes on the ground I saw something hop that seemed to slender to be a grasshopper nymph. I found that it had to be a fulgorid planthopper, but one that I had never seen before.
Lois O'Brien confirmed it: It's Rhabdocephala brunnea, a species that is not common, even Lois has only 3 specimens in her collection.

So as always, Sabino Canyon was worth the long drive across town.