Wild Ideas: Mild weather leads to bugapalooza?

Did our mild winter this year bring a boom in insect populations, as some experts predicted? I’m seeing lots of some, but are there more overall?

Some insects, particularly small, flying ones, were already out through much of February, which was quite unseasonably warm this year. I noticed a few that were new to me, most in the larval or nymphal stage, but some are tiny adults.

The younger insects are, the harder they can be to identify. They often take on various forms, or “instars,” as they grow and, in the early stages, don’t look much like the adult form. Sometimes even experts I’ve contacted can only get down to the genus, or even the family, level of their taxonomy. Nymphs (older stages) of winged insects are a bit easier, since they look similar to the adult form but without wings. If I really get stuck, I upload photos to BugGuide, which has experts eager to help.

Early in the spring, I had noticed a lot of little bits of fluff floating through the air. At first glance, they resembled seeds, some of which have fluff attached to help them disperse by air. But, having seen this airborne flotsam before, I recognized them as fauna, not flora. That was confirmed when I approached several and they changed direction to avoid me, moving across the air currents.

Finally catching one and doing some research, I determined it’s a species of woolly aphid. The white stuff covering them is not wool but rather a waxy filament that serves as camouflage, while also enabling them to ride the air currents. Woolly aphids, like other aphids, suck the fluids out of plants, and I found a few one plant along a forest trail, a portion of which they had covered with the filament to help hide them. Later in the spring, along the same trail, I found the red young and adults of another aphid species that was without the “wool.”

This woolly aphid is less than one-quarter inch long and well camouflaged by waxy white filaments. By Pam Owen

Down at the ponds below my house, I discovered a bunch of arachnid youngsters hatching out in a web on a sunflower at the pond’s edge. They were only about an eighth inch long, and moving around, so I had a hard time trying to photograph and ID them, but I’m guessing, from the messy web, that they are nursery-web spiders, and, if so, the mom was likely lurking nearby to watch over her young.

Moving up the size scale, I’ve been seeing bees and wasps, and hoverflies that mimic them, enjoying the former vegetable garden next to my house, which my landlords had converted into a small native meadow. With all the rain in spring, most of the plants in it grew tall and are now blooming. A native plant that got there on its own, Philadelphia fleabane, started off. It was soon followed by black-eyed Susan (a Rudbeckia species) and now purple coneflower. A wild hydrangea and a native viburnum previously planted there were abuzz earlier in the spring with bees and other pollinators.

Bugapalooza slideshow  — best viewed in fullscreen

A plant that I have yet to ID has taken over much of this garden on its own. Japanese beetles seem to like to eat, and mate on, it. A largish male earwig had also found a cozy hiding place among the plant’s many leaves, sticking out the pincer-like cerci on its butt to give the impression that it was watching and could snatch predators in its “jaws.” A smaller garden with goldenrod and fall asters, which are not yet blooming, also has butterfly milkweed and Rudbeckia, which has so far mostly been attracting pollinators other than butterflies.

On my deck, I found a fabulous little fly with a silver head, huge black eyes, a yellow-striped butt, and spikes standing up on the border of the stripes. The fly was really rocking the space-punk look. And in my herb garden I almost overlooked a lovely little green nymph in the Orthoptera family (grasshoppers, katydids and crickets).

Larger insects also have been busy here. Scores of coreid bugs have been ganging up to suck the life out of the black-eyed Susans and other Rudbeckia species. Last week, beautiful copper-and-green-colored beetles, commonly called green June beetles, started circling the lawn, looking for a place to lay their eggs in the ground.

Hummingbird clearwing moths, which mimic hummingbirds, have been visiting the wild phlox in my small shade garden, which also has mountain mint, and black-eyed Susans along the bit of the edge that stays sunny most of the day. The moth was drawn to the pink, tubular flowers of the phlox, hovering in front of them to drink their nectar. Butterflies are also usually attracted by the phlox, but I’ve seen few there so far this year.

Common whitetail dragonflies seem to be everywhere, especially on warm, dry surfaces, such as rocks or concrete steps. And down at the pond I found another dragonfly, the widow skimmer.

The few butterflies I’ve seen so far have mostly been small species, such the least skipper, a lovely orange butterfly with a wingspan of just over an inch. I’ve seen these several times, along with sachem and other skippers, down at the lower ponds.

Among the Lepidoptera, moths have been more common, starting with a boomlet of small eight-spotted forester moths, which showed up for a while on the side of my house then disappeared. A friend living 20 miles east also reported seeing them. With their white spots standing out on these otherwise black moths, they’re easy to ID.

While I continue to work on identifying the various species I’ve been photographing, check out my slideshow of some of them above.

© 2017 Pam Owen


Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”