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:    

Butterflies and Bees: out takes

Pollination is serious business--get in line, busy bee!
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: Yup. But I'm not sure I want it now! 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):
Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

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

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: Pollination is serious business--get in line, busy bee!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]. Lasioglossum_20150903 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.  

Butterfly Sage: bees love it, too!

Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globosa flower.
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.)
Cordia globosa. Boca Raton, FL, September 6, 2015.

Cordia globosa. Boca Raton, FL, September 6, 2015.

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):
  • 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)
In addition to the ones listed above, I'm fairly certain that several other butterflies who frequent the yard also enjoy it, to wit:
  • Little Yellow (Pyrisitia lisa)
  • Barred Yellow (Eurema daira)
  • Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole)
  • Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
Heck, even dragonflies love it:
Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

One of the reasons it's such a good butterfly (and bird) plant is that the leaves and branches are stiff enough to support the weight of larger butterflies, but its flower clusters (inflorescences, to be technical) are shallow enough to allow short-tongued species to reach in:
Cassius Blue butterfly with a face full of Cordia globosa flower. Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

Cassius Blue butterfly with a face full of Cordia globosa flower. Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

In fact, the flowers are so small and so inviting that they also attract the tiny 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:
Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globes flower.

Butterfly: Hmm... Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here flower. Wasp: Hmm... Let's see whether I can scare the nectar out of that butterfly!

Yup. But I'm not sure I want it now!

Butterfly: Better unfurl that proboscis and find out! Wasp: Better not!

Better unfurl that proboscis and find out!

Butterfly: Yipe! You can keep your nectar! There's plenty of other flowers on this bush! Wasp: You're darn tootin'!

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:
Cassius Blue pair enjoying the butterfly sage. Boca Raton, FL, August 30, 2015.

Cassius Blue pair enjoying the butterfly sage. Boca Raton, FL, August 30, 2015.

References 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.

Dragonflies gone missing?

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.
I haven't seen nearly as many dragonflies in the back yard this summer as I have in years past; I'm not sure why. But it seems that nowadays I have to travel if I'm to see anything like the diversity or abundance of species I'd enjoyed in my back yard for the four years we've been in the new place. So the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend I went to Yamato Scrub, camera in hand, hoping to score an odonate fix. I managed to find quite a few, as well as some lovely little butterflies. As usual, I saw many more than the few who cooperated for the camera. Here are two, one each from the dragonfly and damselfly groups. First, the lovely red dragonfly Tramea onusta, called the Red Saddlebags (there is a Carolina Saddlebags as well; almost indistinguishable except that the black spots on the tail in Red are only on top, whereas in Carolina, the black goes all the way down the sides):
Carolina Saddlebags (<em>Tramea carolina</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.

Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.

And here's a damselfly. This one's a bluet, I suspect Atlantic (Enallagma doubledayi), but I can't rule out Familiar (E. civile) without having the specimen in hand and an argument with specialists:
Bluet damselfly, probably Atlantic (<em>Enallagma</em> sp.). Boca Raton, FL September 5, 2015.

Bluet damselfly, probably Atlantic (Enallagma sp.). Boca Raton, FL September 5, 2015.

I think the broad bar of blue connecting the "eyespots" (called postocular spots by specialists) on the back of the head argues strongly in favor of Atlantic over Familiar, but it's by no means conclusive. Here's the bit I'm talking about:
<em>Enallagma</em> eyespots with broad blue bar connecting them.

Enallagma postocular eyespots with broad blue bar connecting them.

According to Paulson, who wrote the book on these bad boys, "postocular spots larger in Familiar and without occipital bar, but overlap." Bonus picture: Ceraunus blue butterfly, Hemiargus ceraunus:
Ceraunus blue (<em>Hemiargus ceraunus</em>). Yamato Scrub, September 5, 2015.

Ceraunus blue (Hemiargus ceraunus). Yamato Scrub, September 5, 2015.

I love how the blue in the tailspot lights up so brilliantly in the right light. References Paulson, D. R. 2011. Damselflies and Dragonflies of the East. Princeton: Princeton UP.    

Senna and sulphurs

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.
This spring I overhauled the front part of the front yard, getting rid of some scraggly dune sunflower and replacing it with some more long-lived plants. (Not that dune sunflower is bad or short-lived, but I have it in many other areas of the yard as well, and it needs frequent cutting back to keep it looking nice.) I put in some of the usual suspects with lovely little flowers: beach creeper (Ernodia littoralis), blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and a few actual wildflowers (a wild petunia, among others). I also put in three (count 'em, three!) little plants on which I pinned some rather high hopes: Bahama senna (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii).
Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015

Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

These are also called dwarf senna, so I suppose I shouldn't count on them to grow very large, but the pictures I've seen of them in my plant guides show some tremendously flowering plants, with big yellow flowers dominating the scene. That one lonely bloom in the picture above was supposed to be just the first of many. Hasn't worked out that way; once the blooms that were on the plants when I brought them home from the nursery were gone, there were no more. Rufino Osorio's guide mentions that they flower most profusely in autumn and spring, so perhaps a long period of summer dormancy isn't anything to worry about. But they also never seemed to grow. Whenever I went out to look at them, I saw snapped-off new growth, as if the plants were just too brittle for our breezy locale. I checked for insect damage but could never find a culprit, even though I know that several lovely yellow butterflies use these as their larval host plants (which was one of the reasons I'd brought them into the garden, after all.) Recently, however, as I was out pulling weeds after several months of heat-induced procrastination, I noticed what I'd probably just been overlooking for the past few months: a big, bright green and yellow caterpillar munching contentedly on the leaves, practically denuding the branches it was on:
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

The bright blue outlines around the black spots, combined with the yellow racing stripe on a green body are distinguishing characteristics of the lovely Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, an insect whose devotion to its larval host plant is reflected in its taxonomic name: Phoebis sennae. This caterpillar, despite its bright colors, just blends right into the leaves and stems of the host plant. It's the same kind of camouflage enjoyed by some parakeets. Take a look at them out of their natural setting (on a telephone wire, for example) and you'd wonder just how in the heck they could ever conceal their bright green colors. Why haven't they all been eaten by predators? But then you watch an entire flock of them just completely disappear into the green-leaved canopy of a large tree and it hits you: their camouflage is just perfect for where they evolved. At least, that's what I'm telling myself after months of apparent obliviousness to these quite large caterpillars trimming my bushes so effectively. Here's what this lovely young rascal will eventually turn into:
Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Here's another shot of a different larva, from the top (I just love the symmetry of the spots and the "wings" of the senna leaves):
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana. Top view.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana

And a different adult:
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015.

We have lots of butterflies here in south Florida. And if we plant pretty little plants that they enjoy, we can enjoy even more of them!

Depth of field redux

A couple of years ago as I was just starting out in macro photography I experimented a little bit with depth of field using a beautiful male Citrine Forktail damselfly. Since then I've switched to a new macro lens and taken a lot more photos, but not much has changed. I still love how depth of field can be used to capture different elements of a scene; how it can make for a tack-sharp picture where everything's in focus or highlight just the item of interest and leave the rest blurry (know-it-alls call this this bokeh). Me, I'd like a little less bokeh in my pictures, since I'm usually shooting macro. I dream of a macro lens that might have more than a few millimeters of depth of field. Nonetheless, playing around with it is fun. One weekend morning I was able to sneak up on a couple of different butterflies nectaring on different flowers of the same small plant, Spanish Needles (Bidens alba or B. pilosa depending on which botanist you subscribe to, although the latest edition of Wunderlin and Hansen specify that B. alba is our common weed and B. pilosa is rare). Those of you who aren't on a mobile device should be able to hover your cursor over the image to watch how the narrow depth of field makes the effect of focal point very clear: these two butterflies are only a few inches apart, but they might as well be miles:
Mallow Scub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa) nectaring on Spanish Needles. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015

Mallow Scub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa) nectaring on Spanish Needles. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015. Put your cursor over the image (or click here) to change the focus to the foreground butterfly, Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole).

Those of you who can't hover your cursor will have to click the link in the caption to see the second image, which has the advantage of bringing it up at a larger size, as well. To prove that no butterflies were harmed in the making of this photo experiment, here's a shot of the sulphur departing the scene afterward:
Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) doing a backflip. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) doing a backflip. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

If I'd had a wider depth of field, perhaps the darn thing would even have been in focus! And, just for fun, here's the butterfly staring me down with righteous indignation for this gross violation of his privacy:
Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

Fiddlewood flowers and true garden pests

Gardeners who plan their gardens for wildlife often see that planning rewarded. The thing is, it's sometimes hard to tell whether that reward is, as the computer programmers say, a feature or a bug.  That is, we plant the plants we do because we're interested in more than just the way the garden looks to us; we want it to attract the attention of the native fauna as well. But of course we also try to manage the garden so that there are plenty of beautiful plants and flowers throughout the year. So although we experience at least as many "pest" infestations as gardeners who plant for traditional garden beauty, we handle them differently. For example, we have rather yucky-looking caterpillars attacking our beautiful passionvines to the point of defoliation at times. Sounds like a bug, right? But at the same time, it's a feature: those caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies. The damage to the plants is ephemeral; passionvines not only refoliate rapidly, they're notorious for popping up at many different places in the garden, whether you wanted them there or not. (Again, hard to tell whether that's a feature or a bug!) The caterpillars of passionflower butterflies (the heliconians, Zebra, Gulf Fritillary, and Julia) eat the passionvines for the chemical defenses they provide. These caterpillars aren't pests; they're friends. We manage their infestations by planting enough of the vines in out-of-the-way spots that they can defoliate them, should the population require it, without sacrificing the lovely flowers everywhere. The same is true for many of the "weeds" that grow in our diverse lawns. Cheesytoes , Spanish Needles, Trefoil (Desmodium sp.) , and the like—all of these are attractive to insects, which in turn attract lizards and birds and other wildlife to the garden. It's not the same as a true ecosystem, but it's nice to see some life in our yards, instead of the sterile no-fly zones of monocultured lawns, manicured weekly by gas-guzzling and noise-polluting "landscaping" crews. There are, however, some pests that even the most tolerant of wildlife gardeners would like to control. In the second week of May I started to notice my Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) starting to come into flower, which is very exciting. This is a beautiful and ornamental native plant. The wildlife value of its flowers is limited, because it flowers for such a short time each year, but when it's in flower, my goodness! It sure is pretty:
Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

For more on the name of this plant, check out the post over at Eat the Weeds. I quote just a very few relevant words here (lightly edited):
When Linnaeus was naming plants, the English words “violin” or “fiddle” were not common in his time; plus, he preferred classical names. He knew the wood was used to make musical instruments so he named it  “guitar wood shrub,” Citharexylum fruticosum. That got stretched into Guitar Tree and then Fiddlewood Tree. Now you know. The most common name for the tree in the Caribbean islands is “old woman’s blisters”—read it’s used for a lot of ailments. Boiled twigs and decoctions are used if you’re chilled. When mixed with Strongback and Spoonbush it is used for sores. Boiled with mahogany, lignum vitae, Doctor Club roots, Snowberry and papaya latex, it was used to aid indigestion… or perhaps create it…. Also beware… insects of all sorts love the tree so you will encounter them, in numbers. The fruit pulp is edible but not prized. Do not eat the seeds.
Unfortunately for those who garden for aesthetics in addition to wildlife value, as noted by Green Deane in the above quote, this beautiful small tree serves as the larval host plant of a particularly annoying insect, a communal-feeding caterpillar, Epicorsia oedipodalis (I've written about it before). Since the time of that write-up, the UF/IFAS program has released a paper on them that wasn't available to me until I started researching this post. (About time, guys!) Here's the relevant section of the paper for gardeners and native plant enthusiasts:
This leaf-eating pest does no permanent damage to the plant, the shrub simply puts out a new flush of leaves. From an ecological perspective, the larvae themselves may serve as a valuable food source when baby birds need feeding during the spring dry season in Florida.
While I'm sure it's true that the feeding damage isn't permanent, and that this is indeed a worthy caterpillar, and a worthy moth too, for that matter, it comes in feeding hordes so large that they can completely defoliate young trees (and mine is only a couple of years old). So rather than letting nature take its course, I've been trying to manage the tree by systematically removing the caterpillars whenever I notice the characteristic signs of their presence: long webs running along the flower stalks (you can see it in the above picture if you click through to the full-sized version), skeletonized or discolored, dead, or dying leaves:
Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Maybe once my tree is a bit older, I'll be able to practice the more ecologically sound approach and leave them on the tree. For now, though, I'm in protective mode. If you clicked through to look at the first picture of the fiddlewood flower, you noticed the long webbing running up the flower stalks; there are usually several caterpillars hiding in those protective zones. And since this hideout was running along the longest and nicest flower stalk, I needed help to remove the caterpillars without damaging the flowers. So I turned to my lovely and talented wife, whose up-close vision is far finer than mine, and whose hands are far steadier, for help:
Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

If you look closely at the image above, you can see the little caterpillar in it:
Detail of caterpillar removal.

Detail of caterpillar removal.

And here's a larger one that she'd removed a minute earlier:
Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

And here is a jar full of hundreds of these little guys that I've removed via leaf-pinching and simple snipping over the past several days:
Caterpillars in a jar.

Caterpillars in a jar.

No, I'm not going to try to raise them. I'm just going to keep them in that peanut butter jar until the trashmen come to haul it away with the rest of the garbage next week. These caterpillars also enjoy three other native plants in our region, two of which (Pigeon Plum and Lancewood) I have in my yard. Fortunately, according to the Featured Creature report, "less damage has been noted on these hosts." (The third host, Sea Grape, is a close relative of Pigeon Plum.) And, as usual with the UF/IFAS people, they suggest the nuclear option for homeowners interested in control of these infestations: Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as the way to make sure no insects survive in your yard ever. (They say that "this Lepidoptera-specific material is toxic to caterpillars but relatively non-toxic to beneficial organisms like predatory and parasitoid wasps, predaceous bugs, and vertebrates (birds, lizards, people, etc.)."  Sorry, IFAS, there's no way I'm going to apply that butterfly-killing bomb anywhere in my yard! References Kern, W. 2015. "Featured Creatures: Fiddlewood leafroller." Publication number EENY-617. Available at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/ORN/fiddlewood_leafroller.htm
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