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Weird happenings on a elm tree in a behind the scenes part of the zoo

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I was called up to see a tree up in a non-public part of the zoo, which (the thought was) might have a hornet's nest in it. A hornet's nest in a tree is pretty obvious--either it's a big gray paper football, or it's hidden in a big dead cavity in the tree. This was a pretty small elm, with no big holes, no big paper nests, but plenty of wasps and hornets on and around it. However, there were other insects involved as well, such as this Calliphorid carrion fly.

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The tiniest dampness

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This summer has been unusually dry--we've had something like 2 inches of rain the entire summer (we average over 3 inches per month). As a mushroom guy, I've found it quite depressing. One day I woke up and the yard was a bit damp. I quickly moved from place to place to try to find live revived by the moisture. This may be Mycena corticola.

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The north facing side of the shingle roof of our shed is thickly decorated with British soldier lichen.

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A nearly hexagonal raft of infinitesimal bubbles on our bird bath.

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Ants in general don't seem to be suffering in the drought, at least it seems many species are doing fine.
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Neither beast nor fowl

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I'm sure I've written about his before, but my first encounter with a hummingbird moth was magical and disorienting. I was a child very much into insects, mostly the crawling kind easy to find under logs and rocks. The scaly-winged order--the moths and butterflies, were sometimes pretty, usually drab, and took to flight before a young naturalist could closely examine them. Then this being appeared--a chimera that flies like a hummingbird, has the face of a moth, and bears the ruddered tail of a swimming crustacean. (The individual pictured here has a worn and damaged tail).

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This is the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)--the wings are clear and without scales like a wasp or a fly. Colorful scales might slow down the buzzing wings, or detract from the wasp-like illusion that gives some predators pause.
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(no subject)

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I stood with another naturalist (actually a bona fide scientist who I admire and feel honored to hang out with sometimes) waiting for a third to arrive, when we noticed this wasp. Neither of us felt threatened, as she was extremely busy digging about in the sand. The sand was left over from the winter road treatment, and so was shallow and not very hard packed--not great for the wasp's purposes. She dug in one area and then another, occasionally picking up a pebble larger than her head with her mandibles and placing it away from her work zone. She was trying to find a place to dig a burrow in which to lay her eggs. Once she found one (she'll have better luck over at the baseball infields across the street) she'd then go find caterpillars and sawfly larvae (which humans often mistake for caterpillars, so I guess, close enough?) sting them to paralyze them, and stuff them down the hole with her eggs.

This genus of moth is Ammophila which means "sand-lover," and the silvery dashes on the thorax indicate that this is probably A. procera.

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Identifying animals from plants

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The plant is a black cherry Prunus serotina, a weedy little tree found throughout the New World. The leaf bears the mushroom-like galls of a tiny arachnid, the mite Eriophyes cerasicrumena. The animals are living inside the protuberance.

The white discoloration patterns on the leaf are feeding marks left by leafhoppers--small (but enormous compared to the mites) insects that puncture the leaf and feed on the fluid within.

Thanks always to Charley Eiseman, who expertly divines animals from the marks they make on plants. He rears galls to identify the adult insects--I think he has discovered new or locally unknown species doing this.
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280 days of Urbpandemonium #228


The last two in the project were flies pretending to be wasps. Hard for this one to pretend to be anything but what it is--the largest wasp in the northeast, or at least the longest. That thread protruding from her abdomen is her ovipositor, and it brings her length to about four inches. This is the giant ichneumon Megarhyssa macrurus. She'll stab that thing into a rotting stump right into the body of a pigeon horntail larva and deposit her egg. Her baby then feeds on the horntail baby and, as they say, the beautiful cycle of life continues.

Despite her warning coloration and her terrifying (to many people) appearance, the giant ichneumon is not at all harmful to humans.
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Common whitetail

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This guy lives up to the name--it's the most frequently seen dragonfly in the yard. This is a male, with his bluish white abdomen; females are the same shape but have brown "tails" marked with light diagonal dashes. (As seen here.) All dragonflies are predators that catch other insects in flight, including biting flies. You should always be happy to have dragonflies around.
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280 days of Urbpandemonium #227

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Looking like a wasp is an adaptation assumed by many different species of flies. Looking like a really huge wasp is more rare, but this Mydas fly Mydas clavatus has it down. It has a wasplike flight and measures a full inch in length, making it one of the largest true flies around. Its larvae feed on beetle grubs in the soil, and adults visit flowers for nectar. It may look scary but its one of the most beneficial insects in the yard.
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280 days of Urbpandemonium #226

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When I saw this animal I wasn't sure if I was seeing a wasp or a fly or some other kind of insect. The illusion is intentional--well, maybe not--the illusion has resulted from evolution. This fly resembles a wasp because it helps it survive. The illusion extends to the fly's front legs, which are marked with white segments, and moved in a way to suggest that they are the wasp's antennae. This is the entirely harmless stilt-legged fly Rainieria antennaepes.
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Tiny life on the nasturtiums

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Until the drought killed them, our nasturtiums were a food source for many. This bejeweled true bug (hemiptera) is unidentifiable, but was probably drinking plant juice.

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Likewise these candy-stripe leafhoppers were using their beak-like mouthparts to jab holes in the plant and sip its fluid.

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And then underneath the leaves these black aphids were also settled in to drink.

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Enter the cavalry: ladybeetle larvae specialize on soft-bodied plant-feeders like aphids.

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Off they go to eat some aphids--ultimately the plant succumbed to the combined stress of drought and bugs, but it was fun to record the events.