New backyard bug: Three-spotted Skipper

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.
Skippers are the little brown jobs of the butterfly world: small, fast, hard to see clearly, and hard to distinguish in the field. Fortunately, a good camera can overcome almost all of those problems, and it came in handy last month when I uncovered a new species visiting the yard: Three-spotted Skipper, Cymaenes tripunctus.
Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

In the photo above, the butterfly is sipping nectar from the Bahama Strongbark (Bourreria succulenta) tree in the front yard. That tree is a favorite of many nectar-drinkers and pollinators, from the common European Honeybee to the more specialized leafcutter bees in the family Megachilidae. Flower flies, also called hover flies, in the family Syrphidae also frequent the blossoms, as do my most common resident butterflies, Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary. Last month I also noticed a huge spike in the population of Monk Skippers (Asbolis capucinus); on a good day I'd see 8 or 9 of them hanging out between the dwarf strongbark (I have a hedge of it out front) and the regular-sized tree. And one day I noticed another lightly marked brown butterfly, about half the size of the hulking Monk, and was able to get a couple of reasonable shots of it. Good enough, at least, to secure the ID. Since that first sighting (September 23), these have been fairly regular visitors to the yard. Here's another shot from a week later:
Three-spotted Skipper (<em>Cymaenes tripunctus</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

Now it's near the middle of October, and I'm still seeing them on a regular basis (and still waiting for the light to be just right, so I can get a pretty, instead of just a decent, shot of one). But I can't wait any longer to post the "New Backyard Bug" post or I'll forget about it, as I've done with poor Pelidnota punctata, the grapevine beetle that I saw back in 2013 and have yet to finish writing up... Like most butterflies in this family (the Grass Skippers), its larval host plant is various species of grasses. Listed in my manuals are bamboo, paragrass, crabgrass, thin paspalum, guineagrass, sugarcane, and eastern gamagrass. While I'd like to have that last species, which is nice and ornamental, I have thin paspalum (Paspalum setacea) instead. It's a bunch grass, but very low growing, not very attractive, and I rip it out whenever it gets too thick. I guess I'll have to start inspecting it for caterpillars before I do!  

September 2015 Inventory

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.
Here's a somewhat complete list of the insects and spiders seen around the yard last month (those that I've noticed, those that I've taken pictures of, and those that I've been able to ID). Some of them are linked to ID pages on bugguide.net. Others aren't. If it was a new species for the yard, I've indicated it as such, along with a link to the write-up on the blog. (Some of which I still haven't even caught up with yet...) Butterflies
  • Swallowtails (Papilionidae)
    • Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
      Giant Swallowtail (<em>Papiliio cresphontes</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 2, 2015.

      Giant Swallowtail (Papiliio cresphontes). Boca Raton, FL, September 2, 2015.

    • Polydamas Swallowtail (Battus polydamas)
  • Whites and Yellows (Pierids)
  • Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks (Lycaenidae)
    • Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)
    • Martial's Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis)
      Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

      Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

    • Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa)
  • Brushfoots (Nymphalidae)
    • Queen (Danaus gillipus)
    • Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
    • Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
    • Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
  • Skippers (Hesperiidae)
    • Fiery Skipper (Hylephila philaeus)
    • Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus) (New yard bug, no write-up yet)
      Three-spotted Skipper (<em>Cymaenes tripunctus</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

      Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

    • White Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus albescent) (New yard bug!):
      Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

      Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

    • Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)
    • Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus); very high numbers this month (8–9 individuals at once)
    • Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)
Moths Odonates
  • Damselflies (Zygoptera)
    • Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata)
    • Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii)
    • Everglades Sprite (Nehalennia integricollis)
  • Dragonflies (Anisoptera)
    • Band-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata)
    • Blue Dasher (Erythrodiplax longipennis)
      Blue Dasher (<em>Pachydiplax longipennis</em>). Boca Raton, FL, October 10, 2015.

      Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, October 10, 2015. (Yes, October, but I saw them in September, too.)

Hymenopterans
  • Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
  • Leafcutter bee (Megachile petulans)
  • Leafcutter bee (Megachile albitarsis) (new to the yard!)
    White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

    White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

  • Sweat Bee (Agapostemon splendens)
  • Sweat Bee (Halictus poeyi)
  • Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum lepidii)
  • Chalcid wasp, Conura sp.
  • Chalcid wasp, Eurytoma sp. ("new" to the yard!)
    Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

    Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

  • Chalcid wasp, Brachymeria sp. ("new" to the yard!)
    Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

    Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

  • Myzinum wasp (Campsomeris dorsata)
Beetles
  • Metallic Blue Ladybeetle (Curinus coeruleus)
  • Asian Multicolored Ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis)
  • Click beetle, perhaps Diplostethus carolinensis
Bugs Flies
  • Condylostylus mundus
    Long-legged fly, probably <em>Condylostylus mundus</em>. Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

    Long-legged fly, probably Condylostylus mundus. Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

  • Palpada vinetorum
  • Plagioneurus univittatus
  • Toxomerus geminatus
  • Sarcophagidae sp.
  • Phytomizinae sp.
Spiders
  • Hentzia palmarum
  • Gasteracantha cancriformis
  • Menemerus bivittatus
  • Argiope trifasciata
  • Leucauge venusta
 

New backyard bug: Ocola Skipper

Ocola Skipper, Panoquina ocola. Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.
That's right: Ocola, not Ocala. No one seems to know the origin of that name. I assume, although I don't know, that the "common" name comes from the species name, Panoquina ocola. (I'm having  trouble writing this post; the autocorrect keeps trying to change it to either "Ocala" or "cool"; apparently "Ocola" isn't a word!) My own personal guess is that it's a corruption of either Ocala or Osceola, both of which are Florida place names that might have flummoxed a young industrialist coal miner from New York. The coal mine owner who gave the species its name was William Henry Edwards, who named it Hesperia ocola in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia back in 1863; the range is given as Florida, Georgia, Texas. (In that same article he also described the "Mandan Skipper," with range given as Lake Winnipeg, just a few miles north of North Dakota, in which state is located the town of Mandan, of Lewis and Clark fame.) He, together with (and separately from) Samuel Scudder, established American lepidoptera studies in the latter half of the nineteenth century. They were the first to go beyond simple cataloging and taxonomy of the North American butterflies, to include their life histories:
every stage, what the insect ate, its courting and mating behavior, its "parenting" practices, how it dealt with the surrounding world, how it kept going in the face of a grisly army of enemies, and what finally killed it. (Leach 7)
For more on Edwards and his stormy relationship with other nineteenth-century American butterfly enthusiasts, read William Leach's recent history of American lepidopterists, Butterfly People. Edwards wrote the first comprehensive illustrated guide to North American butterflies by an American, and he spared no expense on the plates; he considered that "nothing is more discouraging to the beginner than dry, unillustrated descriptions" (Leach 18). With that in mind, I'll wait no longer to bring you a picture of this migrant to my yard, first time seen after over four years here:
Ocola Skipper, <em>Panoquina ocola</em>. Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Ocola Skipper, Panoquina ocola. Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Unlike with most skippers, identification of this one isn't terribly hard, as long as you get a clear view of the distinctive chevron-shaped mark in the wing. Still, I was reluctant to post this until I got the ID confirmed over at bugguide.net. Randy Emmitt has made an excellent identification page at Butterflies of the Carolinas and Virginias. While this is a fairly common butterfly, it's a bit of a local phenomenon. The caterpillars feed on aquatic and semi-aquatic grasses, which I don't have in abundance anywhere near me. Bugguide lists the following species: Rice (Oryza sativa), Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and Trompetilla Grass (Hymenachne amplexicaulis). So I imagine this is a much more common butterfly out in the western parts of Palm Beach County, where more sugarcane is grown than anywhere else in the continental United States, thanks to a byzantine arrangement of USDA and other government subsidies that allow corporate farmers to sell their product at a price that would be unsustainable on any kind of open market. But that's a different story. Me, I'm just writing about a little butterfly that just recently decided to visit my little part of the world. And now I'm done writing about it. [UPDATE: In my reading about this species in Minno and Minno, I discovered that this grass skipper also uses torpedograss (Panicum repens), which is a very weedy grass that I have growing out front near my lantanas and gumbo limbo; I keep ripping it up, but it has an extremely tenacious and energy-filled rhizome that basically means it's ineradicable. So maybe there's a corner of my yard where these Ocola skippers are just enjoying themselves to no end, and I just haven't found it yet!] References Edwards, W. H. 1863. Description of certain species of DIURNAL LEPIDOPTERAN found within the limits of the United States and British America. No. 1. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia, vol. 2, no.1: 14–22. Leach, W. 2013. Butterfly People: An American encounter with the beauty of the world. New York: Pantheon. Minno, M.C. & Minno, M. 1999. Florida Butterfly Gardening. Gainesville: UP of Florida.

New backyard bug: Ornate Bella Moth, Utetheisa ornatrix

Ornate Bella Moth (Utethesia ornatrix). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.
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:
Ornate Bella Moth (<em>Utethesia ornatrix</em>). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Ornate Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

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):
Bella Moth underwings. Photo by Don Hall from the UF/IFAS featured creatures website.

Bella Moth underwings. Photo by Don Hall from the UF/IFAS featured creatures website.

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):
Rattlebox (<em>Crotalaria sp.</em>). Fern Forest, September 16, 2008.

Rattlebox (Crotalaria sp.). Fern Forest, September 16, 2008.

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:
Uthethesia definition in the Century Dictionary online (continued)

Uthetheisa definition in the Century Dictionary online (continued)

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:
The entry <em>Utethesia</em> in the <em>Century Dictionary</em>.

The entry Utetheisa in 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 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:
In 1758, Carol Linnaeus first characterized two species of the genus PhalaenaPhalaena ornatrix was used to describe the paler moth specimens, and Utetheisa bella, described the bright pink moth specimens.[3] In 1819, Hübner moved these species to a new genus, Utetheisa.[4] 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.[4] In 1960, Forbes combined both species, Utetheisa ornatrix and Utetheisa bella,into the species now known as Utetheisa ornatrix.[4] 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).[4]
And here's a beautiful picture of a slightly different color form of this moth from the island of Tobago:

Ornate moth from Tobago. Photo by Don Sharp, from Wikimedia Commons

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

It begins with the letter A…

Sweat bee (Agapostemeon splendens). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014.
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.
Sweat bee (<em>Agapostemeon splendens</em>). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014.

Sweat bee (Agapostemeon splendens). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014.

Green anole (<em>Anolis carolinensis</em>). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014

Green anole (Anolis carolinensis). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014

As usual, click the photos for a larger image.

“New” backyard bug: Milkweed Assassin. Or, chalcid wasps as prey items

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:
Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

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 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:
Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

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:
Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

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.")

Chalcid wasps are small

Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.
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:
Sunrise. Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2015.

Sunrise. Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2015.

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:
<em>Commelina</em> flower with small bee (<em>Lasioglossum lepidii</em>). The flower is about 3/4-inch wide.

Commelina flower with small bee (Lasioglossum lepidii). The entire field of view is probably 6 inches wide.

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):  
Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

Conura species (family Chalcidinae):
Wasp, Conura species. Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2014.

Chalcid wasp, genus Conura. Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2014.

Eurytoma species (family Eurytomidae):
Chalcid wasp, genus Eurytoma. Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2015.

Chalcid wasp, genus Eurytoma. Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2015.

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

New backyard bug: Eurytomid wasp (family Chalcidae)

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.
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:
Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

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.  

New backyard butterfly: Checkered-Skipper, either “common” or “white”

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.
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!
Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015. Best image I could manage of the underwings, which help in identification.

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015. Best image I could manage of the underside of the wings which, when visible, help in identification.

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):
Range map of White checkered-skipper in Glassberg (2012). South Florida is excluded.

Range map of White Checkered-Skipper in Glassberg (2012). South Florida is excluded.

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:
Range of White Checkered-Skipper in Minno's (2005) Florida Butterfly Caterpillars. Looks like they should be in the whole state, right?

Range of White Checkered-Skipper in Minno et al. (2005). Looks like they should be in the whole state, right?

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.

New backyard bugs: Megachile albitarsis and Lasioglossum lepidii

White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.
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:
White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

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:
White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

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 an image of this species in bugguide.net:
Lasioglossum lepidii, a tiny bee in the halictidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 10, 2015.

Lasioglossum lepidii, a tiny bee in the halictidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 10, 2015.

In the guide for the subgenus to which this bee species belongs (Dialictus), the following rather desperate note is offered:
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).
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.
  • 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.
So. There you have it. To my surprise, only three (or perhaps four) "sweat bees" (halictids) and four (or perhaps five) leaf-cutter bees (megachilids), in addition to the ubiquitous honeybee For those who are curious, here's a little gallery of all the bees I've seen:    
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