In 1758, Carol Linnaeus first characterized two species of the genus Phalaena. Phalaena ornatrix was used to describe the paler moth specimens, and Utetheisa bella, described the bright pink moth specimens. In 1819, Hübner moved these species to a new genus, Utetheisa. For nearly a century, it was difficult to determine this moth’s evolutionary history as researchers focused on external similarities (color, shape, patterns, size), rather than determining features specific to the species. This led to great confusion when trying to categorize the different subspecies. In 1960, Forbes combined both species, Utetheisa ornatrix and Utetheisa bella,into the species now known as Utetheisa ornatrix. His conclusion was also supported by Pease Jr. who, in 1966, used genetic testing and determined that any phenotypic differences were based on interspecific variation due to geographic differences (rather than intraspecific variation).And here's a beautiful picture of a slightly different color form of this moth from the island of Tobago: For more on this moth, I highly recommend Donald Hall's write-up on Featured Creatures (see References, below); his bibliography is stuffed with more technical references if you're curious. References Century Dictionary online. Eisner, T. 2003. For Love of Insects. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard. Hall, D. 2005. common name: bella moth, rattlebox moth, inornate moth or calico moth scientific name: Utetheisa ornatrix (Linnaeus) (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Arctiinae). From the Featured Creatures website, http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/beneficial/leps/bella_moth.htm The dread Wikipedia. Utetheisa ornatrix. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utetheisa_ornatrix
The more I get to know my little patch of ground, the more exciting it is to find something new in it. In early October this year I found a species of moth called a Bella Moth (or Ornate Bella Moth), Utetheisa ornatrix. It's a pretty little moth, with orange wings that bear white stripes with black dots in them. On its "shoulders" it bears a pretty white "shawl" with black polka dots: I wrote a bit about that book a few years back in discussion of another new backyard insect) if a plant creates a defense, an insect can find a way around it. And that's what these beautiful moths do. Eisner devotes almost an entire chapter (chapter 10, "The Sweet Smell of Success") of his book to the work he and his graduate students did on these moths at the Archibald Biological Station in Venus. Apparently it was a chance observation of this species of moth being freed from a spiderweb by the spider that "changed forever the way we [think] about insect survival" (349). This moth is distasteful to predators, which confers a huge survival advantage on it. Their distastefulness derives from their diet: eating these crotalarias (in the pea family, but toxic enough to kill cows) enables them to absorb their defensive chemicals (in this case, pyrrolizidine alkaloids) and saturate their bodies with them, to the point where most predators, even naive1 ones, will leave them alone. Interestingly, Eisner and colleagues discovered that the uptake of this chemical in the moth caterpillars is variable, and if a growing larva doesn't have enough of it, it will resort to cannibalism to acquire it! Alkaloid-hungry caterpillars will leave alone their brethren who also don't have the chemical, but should they encounter one that has it, they'll do their best to eat it up! The bella moth is a tiger moth, in the large and diverse subfamily Arctiinae. My etymological research has come up empty; the Century Dictionary is my fallback etymological source for insect names, and as you can see from the pictures in the post above, it didn't bother to give an etymology, although it did source the name to Hübner, 1816. Here's Wikipedia's summary of the taxonomy:It looks quite a bit more pink than orange in flight, because, like many moths, its underwings are of a different color than its upper wings. Unfortunately, since I didn't have a dead moth, I was unable to get a shot of them, but here's a screenshot of what they look like, from the UF/IFAS Featured Creatures website, photo by Don Hall (clicking the photo will take you to the UF/IFAS page about this moth; scroll down the page to Figure 6): I was surprised to find this moth in my yard because I don't have the host plant for it, which is any number of species of wildflower in the genus Crotalaria, called rattlebox for the way the seeds rattle in the seed pod. Here's a bad picture from my files of one species I saw back in 2008 at Fern Forest; you can see that it will bear yellow flowers and it has abundant seed pods (making this a rather weedy species): It tends to grow in scrubby sites, and the closest scrub areas that I know about are several miles away. But it's a weedy genus, and there must be some growing nearby that I don't know about. An alternative explanation for the presence of this moth in my yard comes from the Century Dictionary online, which defines this genus and uses U. bella (an older name for this same species) as the prototype: Plants in the genus Myrica include the common Wax Myrtle, which I have in my back yard! So I'll have to inspect my two shrubs for evidence of these larvae. Just for fun, here's the beginning of the definition from the Century Dictionary: Assuming this moth to be a stray, rather than one who grew up on the wax myrtle in my back yard, it probably had a formidable array of chemical defenses to protect itself from predators. It gets these chemicals from its most common host plants, the crotalarias. They have some very poisonous chemicals in their tissues to repel plant-eating critters. But, as Thomas Eisner wrote about in his book For Love of Insects, (
I've been reviewing the photos on my old Mac mini, since supplanted as my workhorse computer by the laptop. But I haven't transferred the nearly 2TB of photos from it, and inevitably I missed a few. Here are a couple from last November that begin with the letter A.As usual, click the photos for a larger image.
Going back through my photo files; found this shot of the only Mangrove Skipper I've ever seen. Must have been on a field trip for a Florida Master Naturalist coastal module class.Seven years ago to the day; thought it worth posting as a reminder of the cool things you can see and then almost forget about entirely! I've got a better camera now, and a better lens, and I carry a tripod more frequently for those low-light situations. Maybe I ought to revisit that boardwalk...
The wasps in the superfamily Chalcidoidea may be small, but they're not invisible, nor are they invincible. At least not to a hunter as skilled as the milkweed assassin bug, Zelus longipes: in the yard before, waiting around on leaves with their sticky forelegs raised up (always sidling around the plant to be on the opposite side of the leaf or stem from me and the camera), but until today I'd never seen one with a capture! The legs and antennae of this insect are enormously long; presumably the long antennae aid in identifying and sorting prey from non-prey items. The length of these appendages also probably enables them to keep their distance from any dangerous insects they may encounter. Adults have wings, so they do fly, but apparently not so well (video captured by a YouTuber in Broward County a few years ago): As for what the bug from this morning is eating: yes, indeed, it is one of those conurid wasps, family Chalcidoidea, that I've just started paying more attention to: I know some butterfly enthusiasts who worry about the presence of these predatory wasps in their gardens; they've probably witnessed countless episodes of caterpillars being used as hosts for the parasitoid larvae. It's certainly not pretty, but it sure beats industrial pest control! And, as the above picture demonstrates, these "nasty" wasps don't have it all that good, either. Finding this example of a predator becoming prey is a bit ironic because I had spent a good part of the morning trying to find a live one of these wasps so I could get a decent picture of it (they're quite elusive, moving quickly from leaf to leaf as they search for prey items, making it hard for me to get a decent shot at one). I was not expecting to get a helping hand (or piercing-sucking mouthpart) from an assassin bug! Nor was I looking for a shot of the milkweed assassin bug, as I had already added it to my photo archives (although I hadn't written it up anywhere except my Encyclopedia Taxonomica, so perhaps this post can serve for that as well). Of course, it wasn't all that helpful: these assassin bugs are wary creatures as well, and I was never able to maneuver my camera close enough to get a really, really good shot. You can read all about this beneficial garden insect at the UF/IFAS web site. According to that site, these bugs (true bugs, so the name is apt, for once) are "generalist predators feeding on a wide range of soft-bodied prey in garden and fields such as mosquitoes, flies, earthworms, cucumber beetles and caterpillars." And important to remember when dealing with any true bug, they have piercing sucking mouthparts. UF/IFAS reminds us that "While not a threat to humans, if not handled properly, a Z. longipes 'bite' can cause a burning sensation with swelling that may last for several days." In the meantime, here are some more pictures of the wasp; a living specimen would have much brighter yellow eyes: Etymology The taxonomy of Zelus longipes goes all the way back to Linnaeus himself (1767), although the actual genus name now used for it comes from Fabricius (1803). The specific epithet means "long-legged" (strictly speaking, long-footed), a fact which you can probably appreciate from the photos. Zela is an ancient Greek (Thracian, actually) word for wine, but it's more likely that the genus is named for Zelus, one of the attendants of Zeus's throne, who was supposed to have personified "zeal." (This deity was the less famous sibling of Nike, "winged victory.")This photo marks the first time in years of trying that I was able to see one of these guys in the yard with a meal. I've seen them
We relate to the world around us through our senses. We have little choice. There might exist a world of objective reality, the realm of Plato's ideal, but we can't reach it, except perhaps through pure mathematics (and even then, Plato says, we're still looking at shadows on the cave wall rather than the actual objects that cast those shadows). So, stuck in the cave as we are, we tend to judge the world around us as it relates to us. A slightly older contemporary of Plato's, the ancient Greek sophist Protagoras summed up this anthropocentric tendency thousands of years ago in the pithy saying "Man is the measure of all things." This tendency has persisted to the present day, both in common usage and in cosmological theory1 But we don't need to be cosmologists to understand that we relate to the world around us through our human-sized senses. A pretty sunrise, for example, is easy to appreciate; it seems to be sized for our enjoyment: The sun looks about as large as my thumbnail held at arm's length—easy to handle, despite my knowledge of how incredibly large the actual sun is. The point I'm trying to make is that everyday experiences like these center around events, objects, and beings that are, or appear to be, in the human-sized world. Our experience of worlds larger and smaller is less immediate. Both the microscopic world and the realm of the astronomically large are almost always mediated by our equipment: macro lenses,2 to make the tiny objects that inhabit the micro world large enough to see, and telescopes, to magnify and make visible as extended objects the tiny points of light that are, in actuality, the largest objects in the universe: other planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies. That's one reason I love these bits of optical gear so much. They open up realms of experience that are otherwise inaccessible to me. When I see a tiny little dot in the air with my naked eye, and it resolves itself into a lovely little bee through optical aid, I get a thrill. And when those tiny little dots and patterns in the night sky3 resolve themselves into recognizable patterns (for example, in Messier 42) in the eyepiece of my telescope, I get a thrill.4 Similarly, in our everyday experience of nature, be it in the back yard or at a nearby park (or even in a far-away national park or wildlife refuge), we tend to focus on those large objects that are visible to the naked eye: birds, butterflies, and perhaps the various shrubberies, trees, or flowers in which they appear. When we pay really close attention, we might see something as small as a dayflower, or a common honeybee or an ant, but that's pushing our powers of observation to their limits: To experience the true diversity of the natural world, at least as it manifests itself in the insect world, we need magnification. I use binoculars, a hand lens, or the macro lens on my camera. The camera lens is especially useful as it helps me record details that I'm unable to see in real time. (For example, it enabled an expert to identify that bee in the above picture.) A recent fortuitous encounter through the camera lens drew my attention to the enormous wasp superfamily Chalcidoidea. This group is enormous in terms of diversity, not physical size: most of the over 22,000 described members are less than 3 mm from stem to stern; in fact, this group contains the smallest known insect, Dicopomorpha echmepterygis. And there are thought to be as many as 500,000 species in this group; there are so many of them, and they're so tiny, that relatively little attention has been paid to them compared to the "charismatic megafauna" of the insect world like the beetles or the butterflies. After several years of almost complete ignorance of their presence here in my yard I've recently discovered three tiny little members of this superfamily of wasps. At our current level of taxonomic sophistication, none of them can be identified to the species level, but they can all be assigned to a genus. Here they are, in alpha order: Brachymeria species (family Chalcidinae): Conura species (family Chalcidinae): Eurytoma species (family Eurytomidae): What's astounding to me is how different all of these tiny creatures are from each other, once their images are enlarged enough to be useful. The conurid is eye-catching: bright yellow-orange body, with yellow eyes and black marks in distinctive patterns on the body; the two black wasps have remarkably different eye colors (bright red for the eurytomid, black for the brachymeriid) and antennal structure (the feathery antennae of the eurytomid differ markedly from the "straight" antennae of the two chalcidinids).5 While I know very little about these particular species, it seems plain to me that the conurid wasp is a predator, either a parasitoid or a hyperparasitoid; it's constantly scanning the leaves of my wild lime bush for caterpillars. The other two wasps appear to be phytophagous, eating either the nectar or the pollen of the plants I find it on; they seem to adore my butterfly bush (Cordia globosa), and I frequently see them inside the flowers, rather than scanning, scanning, scanning for prey like the predatory wasps. I've seen dozens of individuals of two of these species (the eurytomid and the conurid), which makes me think that they're either gregarious or social, if not eusocial like the ants and the honeybees; so far I've only seen the one brachymeriid, so either it's a solitary wasp or I've just not been paying enough attention. And part of the reason for this post is to testify that I haven't been paying enough attention, and to try to remedy that situation. But this is as far as I've gotten for now. Hope you enjoyed the trip! References Bug Guide. Available at http://bugguide.net Noyes, J.S. Universal Chalcidoidea Database. Available at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/chalcidoids/ Wikipedia article on chalcids. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcid_wasp
Lately I've been getting photobombed. In several butterfly snaps (see this post here), I've seen these teeny tiny flying insects in the order hymenoptera showing up. Because they're so small and I've never focused on them before, I just assumed that they were all the tiny bees that I recently got a positive ID on (Lasioglossum lepidii). So today, since all the butterflies I saw in the yard were ones I've got hundreds of images of (how jaded we get!) I decided to turn my lens on these guys and try to get a shot of these tiny little critters. And I'm glad I did, because, as with most everything else, paying attention to something new makes you learn something new. It turns out that these little wasps with their black bodies and red eyes are nothing like the little bees with the black bodies and hairy yellow legs that I saw the other day. These guys are not little bees but chalcid wasps, members of an enormous group of tiny, mostly parasitic wasps (some, apparently, are phytophagous (plant eaters) rather than parasites or parasitoids).1 Here are the best images I've managed to get so far; you can be sure I'll get out back with a tripod to try to get some better shots soon: I'm intrigued by the contrast of the dark body and the red eyes, the challenge of getting an image of such a tiny creature, and by the reported diversity of this group of insects.
Parasitoid biology reaches its most elaborate development in the Chalcidoidea. There are solitary and gregarious species; ectoparasitoids2 and endoparasitoids;3 primary, secondary and tertiary parasitoids;4 polyembryonic species;5 and species with planidial6 larvae.Doesn't that sounds like an interesting group of insects? Nevertheless, given how difficult they are to spot and to photograph, I doubt that I'll do more than appreciate them aesthetically while marveling at their diversity and applauding their ability to photobomb my more photogenic critters! References Noyes, J. S. 2003. Universal Chalcidoidea Database. Natural History Museum, London. Available at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/chalcidoids/introduction.html.
I've been documenting my tiny area of the world for so long now (4-1/2 years at the "new" house [built in 1928] and 7 years before that at the "old" one [built in 1968]) that it's always an exciting day when I can record a new species. The other day I posted about two new bees, and just this morning I got a new butterfly! Unfortunately for those who like things tidy and all animals correctly named, I'm not entirely sure which species this is. That's because, at least if you believe the national butterfly guide books, it is part of a pair of species [Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) and White Checkered-Skipper (P. albescens)] that cannot be identified in the field, and neither of them are "supposed to" be this far south in Florida. See for yourself on the range map in the newest (2012) field guide to North American Butterflies (Glassberg's Swift Guide): It's always best, though, to consult local guides whenever possible. According to Minno's 2005 Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants, the range is all of Florida, even if it had "just recently" expanded its range into the state: Of course, I'm sure neither Common nor White bother to read the guidebooks, and furthermore, should such a book-reading butterfly prodigy ever appear, I'm convinced that it wouldn't consent to confine itself to its agreed-on range, should the guidebooks every bother to agree! What's more, both of them are potential visitors south of the lake (that's Lake Okeechobee in case you aren't in the south Florida club), so either one is possible. The one thing I'm sure of about this butterfly is that it's NOT Tropical (P. oileus), the one checkered-skipper that "should" be in the area according to the guide books. That one looks rather different, although if you're new to checkered-skipper ID you might have to take your time to come to that conclusion. References Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Morristown, NJ: Sunstreak. Glassberg, J., Minno, M., and Calhoun, J. 2000. Butterflies Through Binoculars: A Field, Finding, and Gardening Guide to Butterflies in Florida. New York: Oxford UP. Minno, M., Butler, J., and Hall, D. 2005. Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.
Earlier in September I discovered yet another kind of bee on my property: a leaf-cutter bee in the genus Megachile, this one has huge furry white legs and an amazing two-tone eye. Its "common name" is basically just a translation of its taxonomic name: Megachile albitarsis, the white-footed leaf-cutter bee: an image of this species in bugguide.net: In the guide for the subgenus to which this bee species belongs (Dialictus), the following rather desperate note is offered:Like most of the other bees I've found in the area, this one was cruising from flower to flower exploring the Spanish Needles for nectar and pollen: And just recently, I captured an image of a teeny tiny bee that had enough detail in it to enable John Ascher, the bee guru at Bug Guide, to offer an identification: Lasioglossum lepidii, a halictid. I have the signal honor of being the first contributor with
I'm glad my two images were enough for him to give an ID of this guy this time around. (An earlier attempt from last October did not provide enough detail for a positive ID. The new 200-mm macro might have made the difference. Or the fact that I used a tripod this time.) Now that I'm up to 7 or 8 species for the yard, it's time to start listing them all so I can keep track of them; the ubiquitous Apis mellifera, the European Honeybee, is of course a daily visitor as well.Extremely difficult to ID to species, even under the microscope. They are so morphologically monotonous that breaking them into species groups isn't really an option. Many species can only be IDed by the relative density of punctures on the surface of the bee.However: "The limiting factor is resolution of the images. If we could clearly see antennal proportions and scutual sculpturing many species identifications would become possible." (Comment by John Ascher).
- Agapostemon splendens, a halictid bee.
- Coelioxys dolichos, a cuckoo-bee in the megachilinae.
- Halictus poeyi, a halictid.
- Lasioglossum sp., a (very small) unidentified halictid. Presumably L. lepidus (see next list item).
- Lasioglossum lepidii, very small (and first picture in Bug Guide!) halictid.
- Megachile petulans, a megachilid.
- Megachile sp. Subgenus Chelostomoides, one of several hard-to-differentiate species.
- An unidentified megachilid, perhaps "just another" M. petulans.
- Megachile albitarsis.
You find some funny things when you start reviewing your photo files looking for images to delete (file sizes are big these days!). So the other day I posted a photo sequence of a
Lasioglossum bee [UPDATE: chalcid wasp] lying in wait inside a flower to surprise a Cassius Blue butterfly in the act of taking a drink. In case you missed it, here's one of the images:
Another image I took that day was one that I hadn't even considered posting. It was a typical throw-away image of a Martial Scrub-Hairstreak nectaring so deep behind a flower cluster that you couldn't even see its head. It was both underexposed and (at first glance) uninteresting. Here's a crop of the main subject, with a bit of Photoshop processing to try to bring out some detail in the badly exposed image (shooting darkish wings against a brightly sunlit white wall isn't easy):
Normally I discard these underexposed images without even a second thought, but for some reason right before I hit "delete" my eye was drawn to the left of the image. I decided right away to save this one despite its rather poor technical quality because it was such an interesting and serendipitous capture of insect behavior:
There's another (maybe even the same one as in my previous post!) bee waiting in line for this flower!
Here's the full size detail of the bee; just enough to see that it is indeed a bee, and most likely in the genus Lasioglossum[UPDATE:wasp in the family Chalcidoidae].
If I'd been trying, I'd probably have had to spend hours and hours, and I still might not have been able to get even this nice an image of this tiny bee in flight. I'm amazed by the people who can take good images of flying bees insects.
Birds love it. Bees love it. Maybe even educated fleas love it. But butterflies probably love it the most. What is it? Why, butterfly sage, of course. I've written before about the merits of this plant variously known as butterfly sage, blood berry, bonbon rond, guérit-tout, gout tea, Curaçao bush, and more. All these names, and many more, according to Dan Austin, refer to this Florida-native shrub with the shaggy leaves, white flower heads, and red fruits, Cordia globosa. Mockingbirds are so partial to the abundant red berries and its densely branching habit that pairs will stake them out as nesting places and defend them against all comers. (The berries aren't particularly ornamental, though, because they're so small.) Honeybees are on the flowers from dawn till dusk. And even though it's not a larval host plant for any butterfly that I know of, it's one of the best butterfly nectar plants around, particularly for the smaller butterflies like the Fiery Skipper and the smaller blues and hairstreaks. In my yard, the following species have been seen on it (hit the links to recent photos for some species; the other species listed are ones for which I'm confident that I had photos before the hard-drive crash of Thanksgiving 2014):
halictid bees in the genus Lasioglossum chalcid wasps in the family Chalcidae, which seem to enjoy crawling around inside small flowers like Richardia, Lantana, and Cordia. Of course, when butterfly meets wasp, there's sometimes a bit of a standoff.
And that's what I found just the other day in the photo sequence below. In this first shot, the butterfly (a Cassius Blue) has just landed on the flower head and hasn't yet probed it. The wasp appears to be playing a game of hide and seek, or perhaps peekaboo:
The first shot was taken about two seconds before the second and third ones, which were taken at "the same time" according to my camera's info. If you look closely at the sequence of photos, you can see the butterfly backing away between the second and third shot after almost getting a proboscis full of wasp! I didn't get close enough to verify through the lens, but I'm pretty sure the wasp has a self-satisfied smirk on its face.
And, in case you were wondering about the Cole Porter reference that started this post, here's a picture of a pair of Cassius Blues enjoying the convenience of the butterfly sage plant in one of the most fundamental of ways:
Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis.
Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
- Atala Blue (Eumaeus atala)
- Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa)
- Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (S. martialis)
- Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)
- Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus)
- Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)
- Fiery Skipper (Hylephila philaeus)
- Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus)
- Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
- Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
- Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
- Queen (Danaus gallipus)
- Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
- Little Yellow (Pyrisitia lisa)
- Barred Yellow (Eurema daira)
- Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole)
- Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)