Wild Ideas: Bugs! Bugs! Bugs!   

With summer now here, the rising temperatures have brought out myriad invertebrates, those that fly filling the air from dawn until after dusk.

As always, I’m conflicted about the rise in invertebrate populations during the summer. I love “bugs” (meaning arthropods — insects and spiders) and spend a lot of my time trying to photograph them this time of year. But I’m also apparently one of those individuals lucky enough to be a magnet for biting insects, mostly flying ones.

But terrestrial arthropods are the easiest for me to find and photograph, so they tend to be the subject of most of my bug photos. It seems this year that I’m running into more interesting ones, especially lepidoptera larvae (caterpillars). The most productive place I’ve found for cat hunting this year is along a forested trail I walk frequently. I’ve spotted three eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillars there this year, and one that had pupated under the crossbar of my wooden clothesline pole. My landlady also found one ETS cat down at the ponds that was on its way to pupating (more about that in an upcoming column).

Among the more spectacular “bugs” Pam Owen observed in June was a promethea silkmoth caterpillar on at the edge of her yard. By Pam Owen

The one downside to hunting bugs in the forest is that the lighting can be tough for photography, even to see what is in focus, let alone to get the whole animal in focus. I had some disappointing results with several species, most notably a well-named “beautiful wood-nymph” moth on a plant that I spotted as the light was dying one evening. Others, such as a spectacular promethea silkmoth cat, showed up in better-lit places — in that case, on a spicebush at the edge of my yard.

On one of my photo expeditions, I found a beige-colored leaf sitting on top of a green leaf of a plant. The beige leaf seemed a bit too uniformly colored and tightly rolled to have occurred there naturally. When I grasped the stem of the plant it was on to try to move it into more sunlight, the beige leaf moved.

In looking more closely, I could see inside something furry inside, so hairy that I thought I might be a spider hiding there. Then I noticed tiny, hairy feet that were distinctly not of a spider sticking out from under the “leaf.” It slowly dawned on me that what I thought might be a leaf holding some small invertebrate was actually the wings of one.

I later identified the bug as a yellow-necked caterpillar moth. It was an undeservingly prosaic name for such an amazing creature, probably named so because the cat was found first, or at least cataloged first. This often happens with moth caterpillars, which are generally seen more often during the day than the adults, which are nocturnal. And some adults are much drabber than the larvae.

Out in the open spaces, all manner of insects fill the air every day. They stand out most clearly against the sun as it rises behind the copse of trees next to my deck, where my dog and I watch the day start after our morning walk. The sun also reveals spider webs — some with insect victims who have blundered into them — strung among the trees and shrubs.

In the yard, with only a few plants blooming this early in the year here, the huge smooth wild hydrangea next to my house is the star of the show. Numerous bees, butterflies and beetles have been coming to it to feed and, in the case of the beetles, mate. I’m happy to see offspring of this native plant now spreading along the trails in the surrounding forest. In the open spaces here, daisy fleabane is flowering everywhere. With blooms that are less than an inch across, it attracts numerous tiny insects, particularly syrphid flies, which mimic bees.

On the arachnid front, the most impressive spider I’ve run into lately is a female dark fishing spider, which has a 3-inch leg span. She’s been hanging around my deck for a while, disappeared, and then reappeared under the eaves, clutching her newly produced egg sac under her with her fangs. The females of the species carry around their egg sacs until the spiderlings inside hatch out, then continue to watch over them before they disperse. She finally left, probably to find vegetation in which to spin her “nursery web,” which will house the spiderlings when they first emerge.

On the last day of June, I heard my first dog-day cicada singing, with more to come as the heat continues. See the sidebar below for some of the arthropods I noted in June, along with a slideshow of those I photographed, at rappnews.com.

© 2019 Pam Owen

June bug sightings

Butterflies: many ETS (adults and cats), great spangled fritillaries and silver-spotted skippers (one pair mating), along with hackberry emperor, zebra swallowtail and black swallowtail (cat, in naturalized garden at Slate Mills)

Moths: cats of saddleback looper, Canadian melanolophia and promethea silkmoth; eight-spotted forester (cat and adult); adult scarlet-winged lichen moth, tulip-tree beauty, large lace-border moth, one-spotted variant, hickory tussock moth, yellow-necked caterpillar moth, beautiful wood-nymph

Flies: golden dung fly, feather-legged fly, toxomerus marginatus (a bee lookalike), several craneflies, many mayflies

Damselflies: variable dancers; ebony jewelwings; lots of tiny skimming bluets, most mating

Dragonflies: common whitetails, slaty skimmers (mating), great blue skimmers, gray petaltail

Beetles: mating margined leatherwing flower beetles and banded flower longhorn beetles; green June beetles

Other insects: large milkweed bug (Slate Mills), nymphs of grasshoppers and other orthopterans, elm sawfly

Arachnids: green crab spider, dark fishing spider (male, and female carrying egg sac)

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 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.”

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